What do we make of a book that starts with “kiss me” and introduces meaning with the words “Eat, friends; Drink and imbibe deeply, O lovers.” It is an obvious and passionate appeal for intimacy. The Song of Songs connects us to a part of ourselves that is not ritual or tradition. It protects us from getting caught in monotony. It tunes us in to another reality and explores relationship and intimacy. The speaker desperately desires to be connected to another. The Song of Songs recognizes that we (and all of creation) are relational.
The Song says what it says through speakers. Nearly everything comes from either a country maiden from Shulem or a rustic shepherd or occasional background voices. It is erotic and provocative. It is a collection of romantic love lyrics. It is a liturgy of wedding songs and love poems. Perhaps it even includes fragments from a fertility cult. Sexuality is all over it and it gets explicit. Yet, it is part of scripture. Ecstasy and struggle are part of relationship whether between man and woman or human and God. The Song, for whatever reason, weaves sex and religion together.
The Song covers a variety of dimensions of human love. The joy of presence and the pain of absence and even erotic desire all can be understood as reflective of God’s love. The Song is a celebration of the power of love.
Roland Murphy is reluctant to classify the Song as wisdom literature, yet acknowledges that its echoes reach beyond human sexual love to remind the reader of the love of Lady Wisdom – A “flame of Yah.” Eugene Peterson suggests that sexuality is heightened in the Song because of the desire for intimacy that is shared by all of us. Both Murphy and Peterson comment on the fact that the Song was historically read as part of the Passover celebration. Peterson suggests that this helps us to connect the saving activity of God with our personal everyday lives.
Everyone who preaches or is preached to is involved in both the desire for and the struggle of intimacy. We do not wish to ignore this, but to acknowledge it. We do not want to rid ourselves of this desire, but honor it. We want to grant significance to the desire in this Song. We are not professionals trying to discover what is going on here, we are participants.
Perhaps the Song is meant to slow us down and prompt us to reflect. This is contrary to preaching that tells listeners what to do and how to do it. Reflection is contrary to the way that we receive most of our present day information. We prefer the immediate and pragmatic. The Song challenges that method and demands that we slow down and appreciate beauty.
This becomes a challenge for the preacher. The Song expects to be retold creatively and not just as information. How can we preach the Song in a way that brings listeners closer to the Singer? We may wish for a phrase or statement that helps people connect with one another. Instead, God sends us a Song that takes us into king’s chambers and out into vineyards. We find ourselves in the tents of shepherds, riding in Pharaoh’s chariots, among the trees of the forest, leaping across mountains, gazing into windows, browsing among lilies, and walking the streets and squares. In these places we find perfume, wine, jewels, raisins, apples, singing, cooing, blossoming, incense, and spices. Oh for a quicker way to connect with one another. But, we have no choice but to sit with the Song and contemplate meaning.
There are many who have attempted to preach the Song of Songs. Probably more who have avoided it. We tend to preach sermons to tell people how to live. We tend to preach for practical purpose. Instead of reading in hopes to preach “what is it for?” Perhaps we should read it and ask “what does it do?” After all, this is song. This is poetry. We do not read other poets or listen to other songs in order to find out how to do anything, but we do know what they do to us.
I am not suggesting that we all begin working on a series on the Song. I am suggesting that preachers ought to be reading it as we prepare for whatever we are preaching. The Song will inform our view of God and spirituality and relationship. Perhaps we should ask that the Song revolutionize our thinking before we are able to preach what it teaches.