Title: Egads! a sermon on the Song of Solomon
Date: July 3, 2011
Author: Thomas Lehman
Texts: Zechariah 9:9-12, Song of Songs 2:8-13, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
My title is a plagiarism. On the 31st of August, 2003, Jennifer Graber preached on the same passage from Song of Solomon. After long deliberation I have borrowed her title. However, nothing else is borrowed. Graber opened with a story about reading Song of Solomon for the first time as a fifth-grader at church camp. She was an inspired preacher with a good supply of stories.
Recent sermons have also been based on stories. Isaac talked about his early experience of Pentecostalism. David told of learning about God from his esteemed Ukrainian elder, Uncle Mischa, Nate described the experiences of monks in North Africa, and a woman he learned to appreciate in east Africa, and last week Isaac told of collecting not baseball cards, but weapons of war cards. Stories are memorable ways to convey truth.
Having heard CHMF sermons for nearly a decade, I have had to accept a dearth of stories in my own sermons. I don’t easily think of my own life in narrative terms, and surely not in stories that would interest anyone else. Instead, I try to understand things analytically. I would far rather ask a good question, or lead you to think a new thought, than tell a good story.
When this congregation receives new members, we ask them this question: “Will you use the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective as your guide for Biblical faith and Christian discipleship?” In response, they are to roar their full consent. It follows that it is also good practice for preachers to consult the Confession when preparing sermons.
I did so, and found only a passing mention of one verse in the Matthew text. Of 39 books in the OT, 23 are cited at least once in the Confession, but Song of Solomon, poor Song of Solomon, is never mentioned. Perhaps the Mennonite sages who wrote and revised the Confession with great care over several years never found the courage to risk examination of it. However, my most exciting college professor liked to say that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” and thus I cannot resist talking about our passage from chapter 2.
presents what appears to be excellent material on Song of Solomon, also called Song of Songs, including this quote: “The Song of Songs is easily the most enigmatic book in the Scriptures.”
Before we get into the book, any of you who, like me, have forgotten much of your high school literature course need to be reminded that an allegory is a story or poem from which a hidden meaning can be inferred. I say “inferred” rather than “extracted” because one can argue whether the hidden meaning is really there. Allegorical interpretation of scripture has been accepted as a legitimate option alongside literal interpretation since the third century of the Christian era.
Some people think Song of Solomon got into the OT because early Jewish scholars saw in it a hidden meaning – an allegory: the young lovers must be God and Israel. Later New Testament scholars bent this into an allegory representing the love of Christ for the church. However, to allegorize the Song of Solomon is quite a stretch. It is easier to suspect that later scholars were embarrassed by its inclusion, and yet they respected the work of the church fathers who decided what belongs in the Bible. The prevailing interpretation today is the obvious one – it is erotic literature. You can decide if it is racy.
If Hollywood ever makes a movie based on Song of Solomon, it should get the rare NC-17 rating, i.e., no one age 17 or younger will be admitted. If you think I am exaggerating, read more of the book.
When today’s passage in the Song of Solomon says:
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
11 for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
The talk about springtime, new life, and fruit on the fig tree clearly hints at procreation. Reading it as sexual love is the most obvious interpretation, and it is difficult to force this passage into a purely spiritual mold.
To shut out any possibility of scandal, Christian commentators on this text assume that the love-stricken couple are married. But the book does not even state this with clarity. Chs. 4 and 5 refer to the woman as a bride, but this may be pure poetry, as in 4:10 –
“How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!”
To assume they are married is foolish, wishful thinking. If they are married, why are they not living together?
I don’t know why this book made it into the Bible. However, I can offer one excellent lesson we can draw from it. Consider
Psalm 51:5 – “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” That verse causes me far more discomfort than Song of Solomon, which is clearly an antidote to it, and a reason to give thanks that this generally perplexing book is in the Bible. We need not accept the burdensome notion that sex and sin are inseparable.
Rather than trying to reconcile these opposing statements, I let them stand. It is folly to aim for perfect harmony among all the passages in the Bible. A Christian philosopher has written:
“A phenomenal amount of learned squirming has been expended in the effort to bring plain contradictions into harmony.” (Paraphrase of Trueblood, The Humor of Christ p 101.)
To get from Song of Solomon’s acceptance of erotic love to the USA on this patriotic weekend all we need to do is to note the excessive role of sex in American culture. So we have one book out of 66 in the Bible that talks openly about erotic love. Big deal? But today eroticism is a major theme of our culture, especially commercial culture, where sex is assumed to be able to sell almost anything – motion pictures, cars, wrist watches, diets, etc. The photos we frequently see of Muslim women with veiled faces illustrate one extreme, and our culture endlessly illustrates the other extreme.
Tomorrow this nation celebrates the 235th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Many good things can be said about our country, such as freedom of speech and worship, ease of travel, safe drinking water almost everywhere, excellent medical care in some places, etc. However, all of today’s lectionary passages offer strong advice to our nation.
The Zechariah text sets forth a clear challenge. In ch. 9, verse 10 the prophet declares that the king “shall command peace to the nations.” It is a difficult lesson; our country is far better at starting wars than at ending them. We expect war, and plan for it. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (sipri.org) reports that in 2010 the United States spent 43% of the world’s total military expenditures. Our self-appointed role as global policeman is costing us dearly, as the current budget negotiations make plain.
The Preamble to the United States Constitution, in consecutive phrases says that We the People are to “provide for the common defence, (and) promote the general Welfare.” We now do the former at the expense of the latter. Even the states, which do not carry the financial burden of defense, are cutting back on the common welfare.
When detailed histories of the present era are written it will surely be noted that President Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in part by seeming much less bellicose than his predecessor, has the nation pouring money into three, or perhaps only 2.5 wars. The Nobel Committee must wonder if it acted in haste. We do well to remember that “In war, truth is the first casualty.” (Aeschylus, Greek tragic dramatist, five centuries before Christ.)
Last week we sang Hymn 374, O young and fearless Prophet. Verse 3 reads:
O help us stand unswerving against War’s bloody way,
Where hate and lust and falsehood hold back your holy sway.
Forbid false love of country, that blinds us to your call
Who lifts above the nations the unity of all.
(S. Ralph Harlow)
In the Romans passage St. Paul shows a clear sense of irony. He confesses that
“ 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”… and he repeats “19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Paul laments the gap between words and deeds, between principle and action.
The same can be said of the USA. As a nation we tend to do what we do not want, in deficit budgets, over-involvement in war, or in mean-spirited politics. A commentator recently said that today in this country our political parties see every issue not as a common problem to be solved, but as an ideological battle to be won. It’s politics as pathology.
On this weekend when military veterans will be parading in the streets, we should remember that President Reagan’s mighty invasion of Granada in 1983 is the only clear American victory in war since World War II.
Matthew also calls our nation to judgment. Ch. 11:19 declares: “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Another translation has it “God’s wisdom… is shown to be true by its results. “ (GNSB) Today our own nation surely fails the test of deeds. We are turning our backs on the most needy people among us, and are increasingly suspicious of immigrants, even in extreme cases making them scapegoats. It was not always so…
Tomorrow’s fireworks program in New York City will also pay tribute to the Statue of Liberty on its 125th birthday. However, one feature of the famous statue is sure to be ignored. oweexxxxxxxxxxEmma Lazarus was an American Jewish poet, born in New York City in 1849. These lines from her most memorable poem appear on the pedestal under the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Today when there is so much hostility toward immigrants it is hard to believe that our high school chorus in the 1950s sang those words, and listeners could still believe that the poem correctly portrayed an American welcome to the world’s poor. It seems like ancient history. And it is ancient history; immigration policy was already debated in the OT.
This nation has a Secure Communities program that makes it easier to deport illegal immigrants who have committed crimes. That is defensible for serious crimes, but it is also sometimes applied to very minor offenders. Overall, the USA is deporting more people than it is admitting as permanent residents.
Tomorrow’s parades will feature flag-bearing veterans of American military adventures, supported perhaps by sweating high school bands in uniform. Is it to these that we owe our loudest public acclamation? I would rather cheer a parade of elementary school teachers, hospital staffs, social workers and other unheralded people who from day to day, and often in adversity, do their best to make this a great nation.
When a sermon ends it is always right to ask how you should conduct your life differently because you heard it. In the present case the response can perhaps be best embraced by the parents of young children, who can resolve to instill in them the importance of Christian values and the courage to live by these values even when it puts them at odds with their peers. This in turn is not only the duty of parents, but a task in which all of us have a part as members of this congregation and followers of Jesus our Lord. Our lives should show that
A good Christian ethic is vastly superior to uncritical patriotism.
Love of country must always be subject to love of all humanity, and love of creation.
The Sermon on the Mount must always trump the pledge of allegiance.
Jesus’ concern for the poor is mocked by America’s worship of the almighty dollar.
Karl Barth, towering Swiss theologian of the 20th century, was once told that it must be very difficult to be a Christian behind the Iron Curtain. I do not have the exact quote, but the essence of his rejoinder was that he thought it was even harder to be a Christian in the west.
The challenge is ever before us.