Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of one’s house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.
We’ve been working through examples of Biblical wisdom literature this summer. We had the story of Job, who suffered and argued and loved anyhow, and the prayerful wisdom of the authors of the Psalms. We had two wise teachers in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes: one offering tried and tested life advice, and the other showing the whole of human experience in an eternal perspective.
Having exhausted all my other options, this means that it’s time to turn to the Song of Songs. I’ve never preached out of this book, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone do so. If you’ve also never heard anyone preach from this book, then I’m excited to tell you that this will be the best sermon on the Song of Songs that you’ve ever heard.
So. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this book, it’s a collection of love poetry. The name, Song of Songs, is a Hebrew idiom that expresses a superlative- so it means the best song, or the greatest song.
The Song is a celebration of faithful, passionate love shared between two people who have eyes only for each other. As part of the wisdom tradition, it’s associated with the wise King Solomon and sometimes called the Song of Solomon. Solomon was reported to have 700 wives and 300 concubines, though, so he doesn’t sound like a likely candidate for actual authorship. Fidelity wasn’t Solomon’s style.
The main narrative voice is actually that of a woman, but we also hear from her lover, from a chorus of women, and from the man’s friends. There’s no solid plot, really, but rather layers of dense imagery in which the two lovers seek one another out and celebrate one another’s beauty.
Throughout most of the Judeo-Christian tradition, this book has been read as an extended metaphor about God’s love for the people of God, or more personally about a loving God and a beloved soul. This approach offers several advantages, the chief one being that it’s not as embarrassing to talk about. Deciding to interpret the whole book allegorically removes it from the messy world of human bodies and affections.
Embarrassment aside, though, the Song of Songs offers us a model of love that’s completely consensual and egalitarian. Many of the attempts in the Bible to compare the human/divine relationship to some aspect of a household don’t live up to that standard. They picture God as an authoritative patriarch, as a man governing a household.
The couple pictured in the Song of Songs has no time for such nonsense: they simply love each other. For those who tend to see God as a frustrated parent or a distant judge, presenting God as a welcoming lover can be fruitful for devotional reflection. That’s one clear thing that we gain by approaching the Song of Songs as an allegory.
The problem with this approach is that it’s nowhere suggested in the book itself. Alyce McKenzie refers to this as the attempt to “apply the antiseptic of allegory” to the book’s scandalous topic. While it has been the occasion for many beautiful reflections on the love of God and the belovedness of humanity, the Song itself only claims to be a collection of poems with a loose narrative that veers between suggestive and smutty.
Other parts of the Bible will remind you about matters like fasting and abstaining from sin and so forth, but the Song has little time for that. This is a set of poems about being twitterpated, as the owl from the Bambi movie would have it. It happens to nearly everyone in the springtime, you know.
It’s about frilly blossoms and inescapable magnetism and the kind of love that makes you fling praise songs at the universe while forgetting to mention God at all, because maybe you’re a wee bit distracted.
You can see why people rush to make this over-the-top celebration of sensuality into something else. The whole concept seems not quite decent, not cleaned up enough for church. I mean, seriously, the book doesn’t even mention God at all. What’s this even doing in the Bible?
Okay, so I’m not going to answer that question for you. I’m also, frankly, not planning to read very much of this book aloud. The Queries of our Yearly Meeting ask Friends whether or not we regularly read the Bible and other devotional materials, and it’s in that light that I’ll recommend that you pursue this lovely book on your own.
Instead, I want to zero in on one phrase from today’s reading: Love is as strong as death.
The teacher from Ecclesiastes said that there’s nothing better for people to do than to enjoy their food and their work and their lot, because time and death are coming for us all. Don’t worry about trying to make the moment last, because it won’t- just enjoy it for what it is.
Song of Songs offers us a picture of what it looks like to take that wisdom to heart. Eventually, one assumes, this couple is going to have to find housing and go grocery shopping and all the other mundane things that people do.
For this moment, though, they’re just enjoying love. And it’s out of that enjoyment that the woman makes this theological claim: love is as strong as death.
Love is as strong as death. Many waters cannot quench love, and rivers cannot wash it away. Do we believe that?
Look, Friends: make this book be about whatever kind of love you want it to be about. Make it about God, or your partner, or your calling, or whatever it is that you’re passionate about.
Just let me ask you this: how strong do you think that love is? Could you walk out on it, like a bridge? Would it bear your weight?
Ben Franklin said that only two things in life were certain: death and taxes. The author of the Song of Songs asks us to add love to that list, to think of love as being as solid and as unquestionable as the empirical truths that we’re all going to die and that the government is going to make us pay up in the meantime.
How do we live, if love is as strong as death, as inescapable as taxes? How fearless would be be?
When people give themselves over to the person or the practice or the calling that they love, we’re often tempted to question the wisdom of that choice. Have you really thought this through? Are you sure this is wise?
The Song offers us an answer, from our wisdom tradition: yes. Yes, when you’ve found love, abandon yourself to it. In the end, it’s the only wise way to live.
Love is our calling card. We’re known as the people of God, not by how much work we do for God, not by how many religious books are on our shelves, not by any outward sign or symbol, but by the way we approach God and each other and the world around us with a love that’s as strong as death itself.
That kind of love is seductive, to be frank. It’s the best kind of evangelism there is.
Song of Songs works as an allegorical understanding of God’s love, even though it’s clearly a collection of erotic poetry, because we recognize this kind of seductive love in the world that surrounds us and in the stories that we tell about Jesus.
Speaking of whom, what happens if love is as strong as death? In the Christian tradition, the word for it is resurrection.
I mentioned earlier that the main speaker in the Song of Songs is a woman. That matters because in so much of ancient literature, women are presented as passive characters. That’s true of contemporary storytelling too, if we’re being honest.
The Song puts a woman front and center, though, and lets her tell her own story about a love that reflects mutuality and tenderness. It’s an undoing of the curse from the Garden of Eden, in which the relationship between Adam and Eve was shattered by sin.
The Song is packed full of garden imagery, with fruits and flowers and trees and no thorns in sight, in part because it’s imagining what love can look like in Eden. It’s a restoration of the intended beauty of creation, free from the brokenness that besets all of our attempts to love.
So, let me tell you about a different garden, one where Christianity started. The women in this story weren’t thinking about it as a garden at the time, of course- they were headed to a tomb, to anoint Jesus’ body.
They were headed to a tomb because death had won out against faith, because their savior was buried in that garden alongside their hope for a new kingdom of love.
You know what happens. The women get to the tomb and find that love has, in fact, been victorious. The stone is rolled away, and God is again on the loose.
We wouldn’t know that story, you know, if the women hadn’t decided to tell it. But more than that, though, we have this story because passion is just as fierce as the grave.
We have this story of resurrection because love is the strongest force in the universe, because love can overcome even death itself.
Love brings things to life. Perfect love casts out all fear, when the waters sweep everything else away.
Friends, may we love with abandon and with great hope. May we speak with courage about the best that love can be. May we believe, wholeheartedly, in the foolishness and the wisdom of love.