Song of Solomon Our theme for Epiphany has been, “Where shall wisdom for our day be found?” We have turned to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament—we already have looked into Ecclesiastes, Job, Esther, Ruth and Proverbs.
Today on this last Sunday in Epiphany, we open the Book called Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon who was for a long time thought to be the author because he is cast as having a role in the drama described. At most, he is the sponsor of the Book because its source may go back to his court. But that, of course, would have been a long time before it was actually set on paper in the 2nd or 3rd centuries BCE. Over that period, the various poems gathered here accumulated, possibly from Egyptian sources or Persian anthologies of wedding poetry or paeans to a goddess of love.
Why is it in the Bible at all? Many rabbis said no to its inclusion in their canon, as did early Christian commentators. The great Rabbi Akiba of the 2-3rd century CE said yes, justifying it partly as a parable about God and Israel, or, as Christian theologians did, about God and the church. Yet, although the utterly and explicitly erotic nature of the book could not be gainsaid, here we have it.
What exactly have we here, then? First, it is in verse, it is poetry. By (my) definition, poetry tries to say what can’t be said (because words are insufficient) or, more importantly, what shouldn’t be said (because it is antithetical to the proprieties of proper society). The poem asks an unanswerable question: what is beauty that we should desire it so; what is desire that it should drive us so?
Taken all together, these poems make us wonder whether we are reading a fantasy, a daydream, or for that matter a night-dream, or a ritual of courtly love or just the exaggerations of romantic frenzy. The exterior form of the book is a dramatic dialogue between a bride, a bridegroom, and a chorus of companions. The two are young lovers, perhaps a boy and girl (just post-adolescent), the girl a young woman of color and very beautiful, as she describes herself, the boy possibly being a king-to-be or at least king in the girl’s eyes. The chorus is comprised of “the daughters of Jerusalem,” her companions and peers.
The content of the dialogue is, in fact, very like the whole Bible—close to the ground, graphic, real, existential, not at all different than its candor about war, murder, deception, and—love. It has the taste of actual human life as lived. With its romantic and sexual subject and no reference to God anywhere, is the Song of Solomon setting up a dichotomy between romantic love and divine love? Is it opposing the sacred and the profane, the demonic and the angelic? It all puts me in mind of Mae West’s quip—or was it Better Middler’s—“Ain’t love divine?—which is to banish the dichotomy. Read in its biblical context, the book says that physical and spiritual love are one. To experience either is to experience both. The physical rapture contains a spiritual revelation that leads to a mystical rapture. It has always been my personal opinion that sex is nature’s way of leading us to God, and I got that from the Bible.
How can this be, since the Bible is wholly concerned with our actions, the ethics of our decisions, as evident in the ten commandments, the book of Proverbs, and Jesus’ sermon on the Mount? It is, because the Bible is equally and simultaneously concerned not only with ethics but with metaphysics (please excuse the technical philosophical term). That is, what scripture reveals is life’s most basic makeup at the granular level. It proposes that beneath, around and beyond the ethic of loving your neighbor and loving your enemy is the simple fact that love is a property of the universe. At the same time that the universe is expanding, it is simultaneously tending towards unification, this paradox being the source of the tension we feel in living human lives. Our “nature” is to be in love with God, with life, with the world as it is—if only someone would tip us off, which would help us make better decisions. In the Bible, metaphysics is prior to ethics.
Without the metaphysic, the ethics would surely seem unrealistic. Reinhold Niebuhr famously wrote that love is an impossible ethic, which indeed any Christian ethic is without the metaphysics. Think about how we feel today, following January 6th and the acquittal of the former President. How do we think we will cope ethically, with this political 9/11 of white supremacy facing us? White supremacy is not a political ideology, which you could argue with, it is something much more challenging, it is a state of mind. White supremacy has no political platform or program over which to debate possible benefits to society—white supremacy is a deep illness of the soul exacerbated by fear and a seemingly unquenchable resentment. If we are to be adequately empowered for our time, we must acknowledge the Bible’s metaphysics as the pre-condition for its ethics.
So, back to sexual love for a moment, because of Biblical metaphysics, sex is more than what it appears. Yes, it presents itself to us like all other human loves, as an inescapable blend of happiness and pain, a concoction of loss and consummation and more loss. Love not only can end (with somebody’s death), it can be ended by someone when it goes wrong. Yet love we will. Martin Buber wanted us to understand love not as a feeling but as a cosmic force, like a magnetic field. Whosoever realizes they stand in and within that force, will always behold any other person not to be an Other but as a Thou, an individual complete in their integrity, the opposite of an It that can be used or abused. The Bible shows us what it really means to be human.
Thus, it is believable when Jesus tells us that we, as planetary creatures, have a glorious destiny. He was not misleading us. To love and be loved is our unavoidable, glorious destiny, and to miss it is not to have lived at all. What the disciples saw on that mountainside, when Jesus’ face and clothing were transfigured in radiant light, was a signal formerly hidden in plain sight of life’s transcendence. In Jesus’ presence, they experienced the metaphysics which precedes ethics. In their midst, Wisdom was standing who revealed the key to their lives’ puzzle. They called Jesus the Son of God because he personified the divinity of humanity, mixed as we inescapably are with earth. That was the ultimate epiphany and the reason we conclude this church season of Epiphany with Transfiguration Sunday today. Rev. Richard Chrisman, 2/14/2021