Sunday, December 11, 2022

Sermon: “When Words Aren’t Enough: A Biblical Song of Love”, Selections from Song of Solomon (December 11, 2022)


We couldn’t have a sermon series about biblical songs without an excerpt from the Song of Solomon, and what better week to explore it than the week of Advent that we focus on love? This book (also known as “Song of Songs”) describes a love so powerful that prose can’t adequately express its sentiments – music is required. It’s best known for its detailed, borderline scandalous, depictions of physical love between humans. It doesn’t shy away from specifics (which is part of the reason we’re reading “selections” in worship today). But that’s kind of the point: polite, chivalrous love isn’t an especially accurate representation of love’s true potential and power, is it? You couldn’t convincingly make the assertion that “love is as strong as death” at the conclusion of a poem written in the style of an Arthurian legend or a Jane Austin novel. So, instead of trying to censor or avoid this book (as many have done throughout its history), it’s better for us to accept it for what it is and try to discover what we can learn from it.

Of course, this task is complicated by the fact that there’s no obvious “right” way to interpret Song of Solomon. It contains absolutely no clues as to when, where, or why it was written. Although the first verse seems to identify King Solomon as its author (which is where the book’s name comes from), there’s no evidence or reason to believe that this is actually true. There’s no clear narrative or explicit teachings in the book, as one finds in most of the rest of scripture. So we can’t even lean on context clues to help us understand the author’s intentions.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Song of Solomon contains no overt theology whatsoever - aside from Esther, it’s the only book in the biblical canon that never mentions God, and its tenuous connection to Judaism is limited to a small number of off-hand references to cities in Israel. Indeed, skeptics throughout history have wondered why it’s included as scripture at all. Many theologians have resorted to an allegorical understanding of Song of Solomon; depending on their faith background, they may variously interpret the book as a reflection of the relationship between God and the Israelites, between Christ and the Church, or between the divine and the human soul.

But in my opinion, it doesn’t really matter whether you read it literally or figuratively. Love in any form is necessarily a reflection of divine love, since “we love [at all] because God first loved us.”[1] God is the genesis and source of ALL love. Therefore, Song of Solomon’s greatest value doesn’t lie in any clear instruction that we can take from it, but in what it can tell us about real love – not Hallmark’s version of love, not socially acceptable love, not what we imagine love to be, but the actual, unadulterated experience of loving as felt by those directly involved. And even through the lens of love between humans, it can help us to better understand divine love.

So, in no particular order, here are the things that I’ve learned about real love from Song of Solomon:

Real love isn’t quiet. Not only does the couple in this song eulogize about nothing but their love for eight full chapters, they get other people involved in the conversation by including a “Greek Chorus” of women in their rhapsody. They simply can’t keep their love to themselves. We may generally consider love between two people to be a private matter, but we really should know better. Real love may not boast or brag, but it’s never subtle. Song of Solomon demonstrates that real love isn’t something to be politely constrained but something to be exuberantly shared in song while inviting others to take part in the joy that it brings. After all, God is not quiet about God’s love for us, so why should WE try to keep love under wraps?

I also learned that real love isn’t conditional. There’s no contract – covenantal, marriage, or otherwise – between these lovers. They don’t love each other because they’ve promised to or because they’re expected to, they love each other for love’s own sake. This may not SOUND especially extraordinary, but the act of loving another person with no strings attached is more radical than we might realize. Our culture prefers its love with a side of formal obligation, whether because of fear, a need for reassurance, or even simple practicality. As a society, we tend to view marriage as the pinnacle of human love. As people of faith, we tend to understand the ideas of love and covenant to be bound almost indistinguishably together. But while conditions and contracts can be important tools of accountability in any relationship, they’re independent from the experience of LOVE itself. Real love exists on its own terms.

But this doesn’t mean that real love exists in isolation. I’ve also learned that love is mutual and reciprocal, and it longs for union with its beloved. The couple in Song of Solomon aren’t singing to themselves; they’re in dialogue with one another, constantly seeking every opportunity to be together. They aren’t just reflecting on how they feel; they’re TELLING and EMBODYING it to and for each other, through presence, through touch, through actions, and through proclamation. Love is more than just a feeling experienced by one person; it’s a connection between two souls that, at its best, flows in both directions and binds them together indelibly. The fullest expression of love, and the one that humankind was created for, is one that is freely and enthusiastically returned.

So, real love is vocal; real love is unconditional; real love is relational. This is what God promises, what God shares with the world, what God feels and desires for YOU. This is the good news in Song of Solomon. You are loved and beloved just as you are, for exactly who you are. God rejoices when you hear this truth, believe it, and choose to take part in it for its own sake. Because only when God’s love is returned, freely and unconditionally, can it reach its full potential. Only then can it transform the world.

But while this is the Edenic existence that we were created for, in practice, it’s frustratingly difficult for us to get on board. Not because we don’t want to – goodness knows that real love sounds like a wonderful thing to be a part of – but because there’s so much standing in the way. A system of values that prioritizes “important” things like work or achievement over “frivolous” things like love. A culture that insists that EVERYTHING must have a cost. A society that demands complete independence and pure self-reliance. It almost seems like the whole universe is conspiring against this sort of real love as expressed in Song of Solomon.

But most often, the biggest thing standing in the way of our accepting and taking part in real love is ourselves. Too many of us have internalized the message that we don’t deserve unconditional love. No matter how strongly we may believe in it, no matter how loudly we may preach it to others, no matter how desperately we may WANT to experience it, we just don’t believe that it’s meant for us. We readily accept the world’s criticisms, but we struggle to accept God’s love.

This is not a question of knowledge or understanding. I study God’s Word for a living, and yet I, too, struggle to receive the real love that God intends for me. I have a difficult time hearing the divine voice that insists I’m “one of a kind…beautiful as the full moon, radiant as the sun, formidable as those lofty sights,” even though I easily hear God saying it about everyone else. So, last week, I decided to take this scripture at its word: I had a verse from Song of Solomon tattooed on my left forearm, literally setting God’s love “as a seal upon my arm”.

Now, I know that it kinda sounds like preacher overkill, an absurdly extreme commitment to a single sermon illustration, but I assure you that this was not an impulsive decision (I wouldn’t have been able to get an appointment for a tattoo with a good artist that quickly, anyway). I’ve been planning this tattoo for at least four years (probably longer). Like many of us, I truly have struggled to accept God’s love for me for a long time, so I decided that I needed a permanent, readily available reminder. Of course, I was nervous about whether it would actually help, but you know what? It’s perfect. It’s like a little love note from God that I can peek at anytime I feel “less than”, and it’s been more helpful than I ever expected. It assures me in a tangible way that I am, indeed, beloved to God for the person that I am, not what I do.

Now obviously, getting a tattoo of scripture isn’t the right thing for everyone to do, but even if you don’t set a literal seal on your arm like I did, take whatever measures you need to in order to make sure that you receive this message from Song of Solomon every single day. Put it on a post-it on your bathroom mirror. Set aside time to meditate on your favorite passage of scripture about God’s love for you. Covenant with a friend to remind one another of your belovedness. Make sure this message is sealed permanently on your heart, so that no self-doubt, no shame, no anxiety, can contradict the assurance of God’s extravagant love. Because friend, you ARE loved – truly, madly, deeply. So much so that God can’t help but sing about it: through prophets, through scripture, and indeed, through all of creation.

So let us embrace this truth and sing our own songs of love to the one who took on humanity just to be with us, whose love is, in fact, STRONGER than death. Let us celebrate our own belovedness and sing loudly enough that others may come to know theirs. As we await the coming of our savior, let us anticipate it as the expression of real love that it is: a bold testimony that God has declared you worthy of God’s unconditional, fierce love– a testimony that none of us should ever, ever forget. Amen.


[1] 1 John 4:19.

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