My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
(Song of Solomon 2:8-13)
The Song of Solomon is odd scripture because it is long on erotic imagery and short on references to God.
Actually, God’s spirit of love resonates in every verse. But not in ways that make us entirely comfortable.
We are usually encouraged to think of God’s love as agape love – a Greek term meaning the unconditional love of God and Jesus for human kind.
But agape love is difficult for us to fathom.
Erotic love, which pulsates through this poem, is much easier to understand. We’ve experienced it. When we were young, psychologists tell us, thoughts of sex jumped into our minds every seven minutes. We understand the aching, throbbing love of one human for another. And the basic message of the Song of Solomon is that God loves us with the intensity of a smitten suitor.
That’s scary, actually. Agape love seems safer, more distant, less intense. We don’t quite understand what agape means so it doesn’t bother us so much. But a God who pursues us like a lover is a God who breathes a little too hotly in our ears.
Some time ago, a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary decided to renew their vows and they asked me to read a passage of scripture at the service. I chose another passage from the Song of Solomon: (4:1-10)
How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved. Your lips are like a crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies. Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense. You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.
As I read this provocative passage aloud, I noticed the mature couple exchange glances, smiling or smirking silently, as if to say their private memories of love would remain a secret to their children, their family, and their friends. Their love, it was clear, was the power that had sustained them all their married life.
What is love? There has never been a time in human history when poets and artists have not tried to define it.
You have to study portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to be sure you’re looking at the 19th century poet and not the 17th century King Charles II of England. But her passion far transcended her daunting countenance, and she wrote one of the greatest love poems of all time:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
There are also more down-to-earth ways of looking at love. Tevye, the milkman in Sholem Aleichem’s Fiddler on the Roof, is shocked when his daughter tells him she wishes to marry the man she loves, not the man her father chooses.
In his efforts to understand this radical departure from tradition, Tevye, startles Golda, his wife of 25 years, by asking the unheard-of question: do you love me.
Do I love you? (she asks, aghast).
For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your houseGiven you children, milked the cow.
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?
Tevye shrugs “I know...” But do you love me?
Do I love him? (his wife asks herself). For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, Fought him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his. If that's not love, what is?
Then you love me? (Tevye asks hopefully)
I suppose I do, she responds.
And I suppose I love you too, Tevye admits.
Together they sing:
It change a thing. But even so. After twenty-five years It's nice to know.
The lovers in Song of Solomon burn for one another, as does the lover uttering Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words. Tevye and Golda were strangers when they were married, but slowly over two and a half decades, they learned to love each other
And there are many other kinds of love:
Possessive love, jealous love, puppy love, selfish love, distant love, lustful love, helicopter parent love, smotherly love.
There’s even mercenary love. If you go to Kohl’s this week, you’ll see pictures of a gaunt woman wearing a Crofts&Barrow sweater she evidently adores beyond reason because she bought it at a sizable discount. The poster declares: SAVE. LOVE. REPEAT.
The kind of love that is celebrated in Song of Solomon is both intense and pure. They lovers care for each other, they want the best for each other. They want to share each other’s joy. There is nothing self-centered or self-seeking in their feelings for each other. To immerse oneself in this poem is to get a clearer understanding of how God feels about us, how God wants us to feel about each other, and how God wants us to feel about God.
The Apostle Paul is not known for his erotic nature, but he did understand the nature of love:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 1but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Finally, returning to the Song of Solomon:
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, For love is strong as death, jealousy is as cruel as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, It would be utterly scorned. (8:6-7)
It all comes down to this, actually.
God is love.
And love is God.