The Greatest Song

a sermon preached on the Song of Songs 2:8-13



or our reading from the Hebrew scriptures this evening, we’ve just heard a passage from the Song of Solomon, the Song of Songs.  If you weren’t expecting it, it is an odd thing to heard read aloud in worship, this little bit of an exchange of love songs between a man and a woman.  It is the one time in the three year cycle of Sunday readings that we read from the Song of Songs, and we heard read a fairly tame bit from what can otherwise be a fairly steamy book.

If you’ve not ever read it through, you should.  What you will discover is basically eight chapters of poetic material; largely the back and forth between the lover and the beloved during the opening phase of their romance.  And it does heat up…

Their descriptions of each other can sound a bit odd when taken outside of their own cultural context.  She is described as having hair like a flock of goats, teeth like a flock of sheep, belly like a heap of wheat, and breasts like clusters of dates.  It makes for quite a visual, doesn’t it?  But then again, think of all of the silly things we say – the pet names we give to each other – during the opening days of our own romances, and maybe we can be a bit more patient with the oddness of the chosen images.

So what is this set of erotic love poems doing in our bible?  It is a question the rabbis asked when the Hebrew bible was taking shape, and it was asked again by the ancient church when it was settling the question of which books were to be included in the canon of scripture.  The rabbis tended to see it as an allegory for the love between the soul and God, while the ancient church often read it as an image for the love between Christ and the church.  Those allegorical readings are fine – and in fact there is a rich body of material exploring these themes – but at a more foundational I believe this book is in the bible on account of the inspiration of the Spirit of God.  In a faith tradition which has often been anxious about the things of the body – of sexuality and of passion – here is a biblical book which celebrates it as a great and powerful good.

And the Song of Songs is not afraid of letting the couple be a bit silly and giddy; of being vulnerable.  For that is all a part of the risk of being in love, of being in relationship.

But why are we reading from this book tonight?  Why does it come up at this point in the cycle of readings?  Well, that is because over the summer we’ve been working our way through the stories of King David, and over the past two weeks have begun to consider the figure of his son, Solomon.  The opening verse of this book identifies it as “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s,” and so it is the book’s association with Solomon that lands it here.  For the next few Sundays we’ll read from the Proverbs, which is also identified with the figure of Solomon.

Here, though, is where the designers of the lectionary have run aground a bit.  When we read about David, we got a full picture: hero, warrior, king, but also troubled, morally compromised, fallen.  When we come to Solomon, we get his rise to the throne, his prayer dedicating the great temple he has had built, and then lovely readings of love poems and wise proverbs.  It is the nice side of King Solomon, but it is not the only side.

He’s got his troubles too.  He gets more than a bit obsessed with power and fame and riches and women.  The bible tells of his gift for wisdom, but it also tells us that Solomon built for himself a royal home even bigger than the temple.  It speaks of how, in order to drive his royal and military machine, he enslaved the local gentiles.  It also tells us that he fashioned for himself a harem of 700 wives and 300 mistresses.  Not only that, but because many of the women in his harem were from other cultures, he built for their use  shrines to other gods.  Not so wise.

In other words, Solomon began to believe his own press, and to make his own determinations as to what was good or right or justifiable as a king.

Yet what does this have to do with the reading tonight?  It actually has a great deal to do with it.  The philosopher Calvin Seerveld, who preached here a couple of years back (you can find his sermon, “Limping to Glory”, in the little ‘Podcast’ box on the left), is convinced that the Song of Songs is actually in part a critique of that kind of royal power.

Seerveld hears three main voices in the text: the young woman, the shepherd with whom she is in love, and the king, who is smitten with her and wants her for his harem.

“King Solomon has sixty queens, eighty concubines, and a hoard of young girls,” says the shepherd in chapter 6.  “But his one alone is mine, this innocent dove – my beautiful one!” (from the translation by Calvin Seerveld)

Listen to what Seerveld hears in the tension created amongst the three voices:

The Greatest song reveals what happened when the vowed young love shared by an Israelite maid and her shepherd lover was put to the test, tempted by the glittering blandishments of Solomonic doings.  By God’s grace it stood firm. (Seerveld, The Greatest Song, p. 69)

What the Greatest Song tells happened… belongs to Solomon’s history that his institutionalized corruption was ruining God’s people, and the Lord hated it so much that he raised up in Israel such as woman as the Shulammite with her country lover… who put the king to shame. (The Greatest Song, p. 70)

In other words, even Solomon in all of his glory – with all of his riches, power, fame and military might – has nothing on the gift of love shared by this giddy and vulnerable young couple.

It is a remarkable reading of the text, and one which I think has nailed what is going on here.  But you know, even if Cal is only half right, it is impossible to disagree with this much: there is in that romance something more real and more true and more live-giving and God-reflecting than you could ever find in palaces or royal stables full of horses or harems filled with mistresses.  In the lovers’ willingness to risk and to be vulnerable with that one person who is truly the beloved there is revealed something of beauty, grace, passion and riches beyond compare.  As the book makes it way to its end, it all comes together in the sentiment that,

If one offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
it would be utterly scorned. (8:8b, NRSV)

Simply put, no one – not even King Solomon – can snap his fingers and get this thing that this young couple embodies in their passion.  It doesn’t matter how much wealth he has, or even how much of it he is prepared to expend on trying to get this woman, in the face of real love it will be turned away.

This is a truth not just for kings, but for us too.  In our various relationships and romances and marriages, we must be recalled to what it is that we have been entrusted with.  Yes, the fiery and wondrous passion of early romance will shift, and sometimes a relationship is just plain hard work.  Any of us who are married know that there are times when it is a matter of choice to keep seeing the other as our beloved, and that each of us can easily strain things to the breaking point.  And for those who are single – by choice or by circumstance – you mustn’t see yourself as somehow less graced or less able to embody the love of God.

Yet there is something revealed to us in this picture of lovers who have taken the risk to love and to be loved; to be known, vulnerably, as someone’s beloved.  It speaks of what and who is truly rich, and offers a hint of the passion with which we have been named the beloved of God.

May we find small rumours of such a passionate love in our own lives.  Amen.

Jamie Howison

You can find all of Calvin Seerveld’s books, including The Greatest Song, on the website of Toronto Tuppence Press.

Now, a bit of a p0stscript:

As I was moving the text of this sermon from my almost unreadable hand-writing and onto this post, a great song from  ’90’s kept running through my head.  It was by a band is called The Lost Dogs, which was made up of four rule-breakers from the Christian music scene.  One of those four was a guy named Terry Taylor (of Daniel Amos fame), who penned this wonderful little tune called “No Ship Coming In.”  The song basically celebrates the fact that in spite of the fact that he and his wife will never have anything like the wealth of a King Solomon, what they do have is beyond price.  You can take a look at the full song text online, but the lines that kept echoing in my head as I did the work on this post were:

No money to spend
(hard times are comin’ again)
No ship comin’ in
(We’re here through the thick and the thin)
But we’re gonna see it through together

And even more poignantly:

By grace we remain
With hands in the flame
But I will love you forever

I think what these few lines express so well is the potential potency – and grace-filled character – of shared life beyond the opening exchange of pet names and passionate yearning.  It is the seasoning and maturing of the romance, and for all that it can be hard work, it still puts to shame that side of Solomon that was about the building of palaces, armies and harems.

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