Song of Songs
The Song is a poem. Do not at first try to understand: let the text take hold and it will open up a universe to us.
The Song awakens our own experience, going straight to our heart since it is about the Lover and the Beloved. It is a poem about a love encounter. The author let this encounter happen as in a dream in order to unveil its mystery; the call of love comes from elsewhere. Search, meeting, flight are enchanting and are true inasmuch as they reveal a mystery: Someone else draws us. This explains the title of the book: The Song of Songs. In Hebrew, it is one of the forms of the superlative: The Song par excellence or The Sublime Song.
The Song is both the intuition and the experience of the search for the unique beyond every veil. He too is likewise fascinated searching for him or her whom he has chosen – one who is all for him and irreplaceable, this discovery of Yahweh, the fierce God as the spouse, is not entirely new in the Bible. The prophets relied on their conjugal experience to speak about the covenant of God with his people (Hos 1:2
). Rather, they used the words of human love to express their special relationship with God. One day, this relationship was to be offered to all Israel.
While he lets the dream of love to unfold, the author of the Song relives the hope of the chosen people. God’s beloved is Israel with its land. Just like the most fervent minority in Israel, the author-poet waits for the coming of the Beloved as Messiah-King and Spouse of the chosen community. This background of the Song explains the use of comparisons which would seem strange in the case of ordinary engaged couples, but which are in fact allusions to the past in Israel, to its Temple and its land.
We must admit that, in seeing the connections between the Song and the love songs of the Middle East, today many biblicists think that the Song was at first one of them and that an image of God’s love for his people was only seen there at a later time. This hypothesis may sound reasonable, but it just seems that way. Unfortunately, it leaves nothing but platitudes or incoherence, precisely where we suspect that the clues of the poem are to be found.
Therefore, we have to go back to what tradition has always discerned: in the Song, just as in the great prophets, although with different words, the experience of God-Love is what inspired the entire dream and what invited human images. The Song is not a song about human love which was put in the bible after having received a religious interpretation: Jewish tradition considered it to be the song of divine love from the beginning. The fact that God is not mentioned is intentional: he is present from beginning to end, but this One Alone at the same time Love and Lover is far different from the “God” of human religions.
The Author of the Song
The Song is presented as being the work of Solomon: it is only a borrowed name as is the case with other books in the Bible. The author was a “spiritual” and a sage of the third century before Christ, one of those who wrote the “Wisdom Books” of the Bible.
In Israel as in many countries, the marriage ritual included “the bridegroom’s song” and “the bride’s song” (Jer 7:34
; 16:9; Rev 18:22
). We know, for example, the Egyptian love poetry; but in Israel nothing remains of the popular songs of love. In fact, our author has done what the great musicians do in using popular melodies for the composition of their great works of art. The Song used expressions and even settings from traditional love songs in order to say what these did not say. Yet in speaking about Love the words used shed light on human love.
The Song in Christian Countries
In Christian countries, the monks took possession of the Song. They who had given up human love passed over the mystery of the love encounter in ordinary life. They saw the song as an allegory, a picture of spiritual experience. The expressions of carnal love in no way embarrassed them: it helped them to understand how strong the love relationship with the One Alone can be, how heady and devouring.
In fact they were to give back to Christianity a treasure they had found. In the twelfth century in Europe there appeared the first signs of a recognition of human love which had been ignored during the barbaric centuries. It was then that the spiritual experience of a few great monks and hermits was decisive. The Song reread and commented by them gave rise to an awareness of the mystery of love. The love songs and stories, fairly crude in the beginning, were gradually replaced by the literature of “courtly love.” From then on, century after century, the primacy of married love would be affirmed.
At times, it is said rather cynically that love ends in marriage and that is what movies and televison never cease to repeat whenever a decadent culture only acknowledges love when it promises what it will not fulfill. The song put at the center of longings the aspiration to true love: this always irradiates from God and, like himself, is faithful until death and beyond.
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