Arise My Love – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15B (Song of Solomon)

Arise My Love – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15B (Song of Solomon)

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
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.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
11 for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
13 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.



            The Pentecost journey through the Hebrew Bible, at least the pathway I’ve chosen, leads us to this selection from the Song of Solomon. The prior week’s reading invited us to consider Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple. Solomon was renowned for his wisdom, at least that is the word we hear from Scripture. Therefore, with the story of Solomon’s wisdom providing the background, we turn to readings attributed to Solomon. He might not have written the Song of Solomon or the Book of Proverbs (the lectionary takes us to the book of Proverbs over the next few weeks). These readings come from the section of the Hebrew Bible that we call “The Writings,” and contain much of the Wisdom literature of the Bible.
The Song of Solomon, also known as Song of Songs and Canticles, has a distinctly erotic element, that is often softened in Christian readings by way of allegory. Perhaps it is due to Solomon’s reputation as one who had hundreds of wives and concubines, so that he would understand the power of erotic love, that this song is attributed to him. Due to his own experience, he could write authoritatively about human relationships and human sexuality. When one reads from the Song of Songs, with its powerful erotic imagery, it is understandable, that early Christians sought to allegorize it. Thus, while on the surface this is a song sung by two lovers, it is often read allegorically to describe the relationship of Christ and Church.
While it is doubtful that the original author of this song envisioned it being applied to Christ and Church, allegory and midrash are interpretative schemes that are not determined by the original intent but are meant to speak to the current situation. As to the gender of the author, while it is attributed to Solomon, a man, Renita Weems suggests the possibility that the author is a woman, due to “the preponderance of female speakers and experiences in the book.” Based on the language used in the song, she suggests that “it is not farfetched to imagine that the lyrics were inspired by someone (a woman) from an elite class who, at least modestly educated, was familiar with the Hebrew lyrical heritage and aware of prevailing assumptions about the role of women and the prohibitions against marriages crossing class and ethnic lines” [“Song of Songs,” NIB, 5:365].
            In my book Marriage in Interesting Times, I have a chapter that looks at chapters 7-8 of the Song of Solomon, exploring the Bible’s witness to the importance of sexual intimacy in relationship to marriage. In that chapter I note that while the allegorical reading is possible, we should not miss the witness of the song to the “beauty of embodied human love” (Marriage in Interesting Times, p. 47).  Read straight this is a portion of a love song sung by the one who awaits her lover, who is bounding across the mountains toward her. The invitation that goes out is simple: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
            The voice of the one who sings this song about the beloved would appear to be a woman, awaiting her beloved to come and get her. Her lover “is like a gazelle or a young stag.” He bounds over hills to come to her and call her to him. The winter is past. The rains have come and gone. The flowers have broken forth across the land. The fig trees are beginning to bear fruit. It is spring time in the land, and therefore it’s time to go on a journey. It’s possible that this is a forbidden union, which requires her beloved to come to her with stealth. This a song of passionate love that overcomes, it would seem, barriers being erected to keep the two lovers apart (Romeo and Juliet without the tragic ending?).  
            What should we, the modern Christian reader, take from this passage? Why does it appear in the lectionary? What does it say about intimacy—with God? Within a relationship of love? We often speak of the relationship of God and humanity using the Greek word agape. It is the central term used in the New Testament to describe the relationship between God and humanity. But what role, spiritually, might eros play in our relationship with God? How might God be, as Augustine and others suggested, be the beloved suitor? Renita Weems writes that “the poet uses the language and imagery of a rustic, semi-pastoral culture to evoke passion and desire” [Weems, NIB, 5:395].
            While the word eros doesn’t appear in the New Testament, with Paul preferring agape, Tom Oord suggests that Paul “uses language that has eros meanings.” By that he means that Paul speaks of striving for that which is good and beautiful, just and honorable. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 14:1, Paul speaks of pursuing love, which Tom believes is an expression of eros without using the word [Nature of Love, pp. 49-50]. The value of a text like Song of Solomon is that it allows us to broaden our vision of life in the presence of God. For one thing, it celebrates romantic love, an idea I have explored in my biblical study of marriage. Such love is warranted by God. It is a good and perfect gift of God to humanity, not only for perpetuation of the species, but to build relationships between two people, sometimes, as it seems here, crossing those societal walls. It also invites us to consider the possibility of the pursuit of God. Sometimes we are led to believe that only God pursues, that we are passive in the relationship with God. But such is not the vision expressed here. It is a mutual pursuit. 
The word that appears twice in this passage is the invitation to “arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” As we ponder this passage and its meaning for us, might we see this, admittedly allegorically, as an invitation on the part of God to join with God in the journey of faith? Winter is in the past and spring is at hand. This could be seen as an invitation to enjoy God’s grace that transforms. Susan Henry-Crowe interprets the interplay between the two persons in terms of playfulness. Transformation is the product of “playful grace.” Thus, she writes: “Whether the Song is read as a love story between two people or as an allegory about God’s love for all creation, its beauty is that it invites all humankind to play as if life and love depended upon it (as they do)” [Feasting on the Word, p. 6]. Let us, therefore, arise and go away with the one who calls our names, and enjoy the blessings of God’s grace (and human intimacy as well!).
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.           



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