Easter Sunday, April 20
The Song of Solomon 1: The reason why the Synagogue lectionary appoints this book to be read at Passover is suggested in 2:10-12: "My beloved spoke and said to me: ÔRise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For lo, 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 her green figs, and the vines with the tender grapes give a good smell. Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away!Ő"
The damp winter weather has departed, and the spring of deliverance has arrived, says the voice of God, who now speaks tenderly to Israel, taking His espoused people by the hand to leave the bondage of Egypt: "Rise up, and come away!" Truly, "the time of singing has come." In its deepest meaning, this is a book about the divine espousals of the Exodus, in which God says of His bride: "Therefore, behold, I will allure her, will bring her into the wilderness and speak comfort to her. I will give her her vineyards from there, and the Valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt" (Hosea 2:14-15). Here are the grapes, the song, and the intimacy of divine love.
When God led His people forth from bondage, He did so in a cloud, and the cloud of the Exodus is spoken of in this book (3:6). Israel the bride is portrayed as walking majestically in the wilderness (6:10; 8:5). The Song of Solomon is proclaimed at Passover because it celebrates the Exodus nuptials of God with Israel. Accordingly, we will follow our reading of The Song of Solomon by reading the Book of Exodus.
The Song of Solomon is appropriately proclaimed by Christians during Paschal season, because this season celebrates ChristŐs espousal of the Church to Himself. This is the marriage season of the Lamb and His bride, proclaimed in the closing chapters of Revelation. We read the Song of Solomon at this season because it is a book about marriage, and marriage, by its very nature and structure, is an image and type of the union of Christ and His Church. This is not a level of meaning artificially imposed upon the Sacred Text. It is based on the doctrinal meaning of marriage itself (Ephesians 5:22-33). The Church is the New Eve drawn from the pierced side of the New Adam as He hung in sleep upon the Cross.
Monday, April 21
The Song of Solomon 2: The assertion that this book, in its deepest level, refers to the union of God with His people does not in any way invalidate the bookŐs more obvious sense, celebrating the sexual love between husband and wife. Indeed, this more obvious meaning is presupposed, very much as the erotic intimacy between husband and wife is also presupposed in the assertion that marriage is an image of Christ and His Church. To declare that marriage is the mystic type of a higher spiritual reality is not to denigrate marriage itself.
And in this book the erotic intimacies of marriage are very much affirmed, even celebrated. The rapturous dialogue in the book describes in greater detail the truth expressed in the line, "Now Adam knew Eve his wife" (Genesis 3:1). What Adam knew in knowing Eve is here spelled out in great erotic particulars. Truly, Holy Scripture goes to some lengths to assert the God-willed goodness of these particulars, which constitute the immense pleasure and joy that God intends for husband and wife to find in sexual intimacy. Indeed, the wise man is exhorted to cherish these erotic aspects of his wifeŐs body (cf. Proverbs 5:19, compared with verses 9 and 17 of todayŐs chapter). Those who believe that the BibleŐs attitude toward sex is mainly negative demonstrate a lamentable unfamiliarity with certain parts of the Sacred Text.
The bibleŐs attitude toward sex is always positive, even when it seems to be negative. Take, for instance, the BibleŐs prohibitions against sexual activities outside of marriage. This prohibition is really just an affirmation of the dignity of marital intimacy, a declaration that there is no substitute for it. Similarly, the BibleŐs prohibition against polygamy (cf. Mark 10:2-9). In this respect G. K. Chesterton remarked that the biblical prohibition against having more than one wife is a very small price to pay for the privilege of even seeing one woman. A close reading of The Song of Solomon demonstrates that a sexual commitment to one person is the proper context and imperative condition for the sexual intimacy narrated in it. The Song of Solomon may described as the grammar of a lifelong sexual covenant. This is called marriage.
Tuesday, April 22
The Song of Solomon 3: If the imagery of this book seems too erotic to have a spiritual meaning, it would be good to remind ourselves that there are other instances where the imagery is just as erotic and the spiritual meaning is even more explicit. For example, here is how Ezekiel describes the Exodus: "ÔI made you thrive like a plant in the field; and you grew, matured, and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed, your hair grew, but you were naked and bare. When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine,Ő says the Lord God" (16:7-8).
TodayŐs mention of "King Solomon with the crown with which his other crowned him on the day of his wedding, the day of the gladness of his heart" (verse 11) has long been read by Christians as a reference to JesusŐ crowning with thorns by His mother, the synagogue that condemned Him on the day that He took the Church to Himself as His Bride forever. Indeed, among the Christians of the East the standard icon of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns, which is very much used during the liturgical services of Holy Week, is still known simply as Ho Nymphios, "The Bridegroom."
Wednesday, April 23
The Song of Solomon 4: It should not surprise us that the ancient rabbis and the Church Fathers sometimes employed considerable poetic imagination to interpret this book. The book itself is highly poetic and imaginative. Even in their most literal sense, the individual verses of The Song of Solomon describe the details of sexual intimacy in the most exalted and extravagant poetic terms.
The Bible does not usually describe sex. Normally it just states the sexual act as a fact, such as "Elkanah knew Hannah his wife" (1 Samuel 1:19). There is no elaboration on these matters in the narrative parts of the Bible. It is very significant, therefore, that the Bible, when it does speak more in detail about sex, does not do so in graphic or explicit terms. When it is treated in detail, sex is treated by the Bible in terms of enthusiastic romance.
Poetry prevails. Kisses are likened to the taste of wine, breasts are described as clusters of grapes. Eyes are like pools (7:4). Constant are the references to fruits and flowers and exotic aromas. There are frequent allusions to birds, flocks and frolicking animals. Lips are likened to scarlet lace, and cheeks and temples to pomegranates and apples. There is lots of honey in this book, often mixed with milk and wine. Myrrh is everywhere (1:13; 3:6; 4:6,14; 5:1,5,13). This exotic imagery represents GodŐs attitude toward the sexual intimacy of husband and wife. It is not something crudely physical or merely biological. It is the heady stuff of romance and poetry. Were this not the case, the union between husband and wife could hardly serve as the symbol of a higher and more spiritual mystery.
Thursday, April 24
The Song of Solomon 5: Arguably the best commentary on the Song of Solomon comes to us from the pen of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk of the twelfth century. Although he preached eighty-six sermons on this book to his monks before he died, he barely made it into Chapter Two! Writing in the older tradition of the Alexandrian Fathers, going back to the third century, BernardŐs approach to the Song of Solomon was very sober and spiritual. There is nothing in Bernard of the morbid spiritual eroticism of later ages.
For example, in interpreting the "bundle of myrrh" that the bride places between her breasts (1:13), Bernard recalls that myrrh was used for the anointing of the dead. The myrrh of the Song of Solomon, then, refers to the death of Christ, by which He purchased the Church as His Bride. What would it mean, in these terms, for the Bride to bear the bundle of myrrh between her breasts? This description, answers Bernard, refers to the constant memory of the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ, cherished in love in the Christian heart. He reminds his monks, in his sermon on this verse, that the sufferings and death of Jesus were seldom absent from his lips, and never absent from his heart. Bernard interprets this verse, in other words, in the spirit of St. Paul who, speaking of the sufferings and death of Jesus, wrote of "the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).
Friday, April 25
The Song of Solomon 6: It is important that the erotic imagery of The Song of Solomon is not separated from its covenant context. The bride in this book is not just any pretty girl. She is the unique beloved, his one and only, and she is constantly referred to in those terms. She is his sealed fountain (4:12; cf. Proverbs 5:15-19). This is a book about covenant fidelity, even beyond the grave (cf. 8:6-7).
At the same time, and like all love poetry, it stresses the theme of losing and finding one another, because in so many instances husbands and wives do this their whole life long. Great attention is given to presence and absence (4:8; 6:1), and therefore searching (3:1-5; 5:2-8).
Very important to this book is the imagery of the garden, for which the Song of Solomon uses the Persian word paradeisos, the very place where Jesus said He would meet the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43). This garden evokes, of course, the original garden, the garden of manŐs innocence, where he lived in intimacy with God. It was in that garden, too, that man and woman enjoyed the intimacy of their married love, in the days before clothing was deemed necessary. The joys of sexual intimacy between husband and wife, as they are described in this book, attempt to approximate manŐs original state in that original garden. This joy that husband and wife find in one another is one of the basic human blessings that was not entirely lost by manŐs fall.
Saturday, April 26
The Song of Solomon 7: St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in the series of sermons already mentioned, treats the Song of Solomon entirely in terms of Christology. Solomon, simply put, means "the Peaceful One" (Pacificus in Latin), Bernard relying on an ancient word of biblical etymologies that related Hebrew form of Solomon, Shlomo, to the Hebrew word for "peace," shalom. But who is Solomon, really? According to St. Paul, after all, Christ "is our peace" (Ephesians 2:14). Everything said about Solomon in this book, therefore, Bernard sees as referential to Christ.
An excellent illustration of his approach can be found in his sermon on 1:3, "Your name is as oil poured out." To interpret this verse, Bernard appeals to The Acts of the Apostles, where Peter and John invoke the name of Jesus to heal the man crippled from birth (3:6). Such is the power of the name which "is as oil poured out." The pouring out of JesusŐ name upon the earth, says Bernard, is the entire economy of salvation, because it is the only name under heaven by which we must be saved. It is GodŐs oil poured out on the man Jesus Christ, GodŐs eternal Son and the one Mediator between God and man. Bernard then goes on to deliver a three-point sermon on the three-fold properties of oil: nourishment, healing, and illumination. In all these three things, says Bernard, we are dealing with the name of Jesus, which we invoke in the prayer of faith. By that holy name we are nourished, we are healed, we are illumined. Faith in the name of Jesus, which is the major theme of the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles (and which we are also reading during this season), becomes BernardŐs interpretive key to The Song of Solomon.