Rabbi Akiva said: “Had the Torah not been given, the Song of Songs would have sufficed to guide the world” (quoted in Gillian Rose, Paradiso, 15).
The Song of Songs to guide the world, to guide us in this world. No need for the Torah; no need for the Law—the loves songs of Solomon would have sufficed, they are enough, Rabbi Akiva said, Scripture enough for a lifetime, enough of God for you and me.
That’s not how I usually think of it—the Song of Songs, Solomon’s love poetry. That’s not how I’ve thought of these love songs. Once, as a kid, at my charismatic church, when I got bored with everyone getting slain in the spirit, bored with the holy laughter and speaking in tongues—I remember sitting in my pew, flipping through my Bible, and stopping on these lush pages, my eye catching on the pomegranates and grape blossoms, the heaps of wheat and clusters of the vine, the flocks of goats and fawns and gazelles. I quickly closed the book and made sure no one noticed what I was reading. I thought there must have been a mistake, that these pages were glued into my Bible as a test—a test by my youth leader, perhaps, who was probably looking over my shoulder, to monitor my faithfulness.
And Rabbi Akiva said: “Had the Torah not been given, the Song of Songs would have sufficed to guide the world.”
Akiva ben Joseph, “the head of the sages,” they called him, the great Rabbi of the second-century, tortured and killed by the Roman authorities. For him, the Song of Songs was enough; Solomon’s songs would have been enough Bible for us. Those pages are full of love, love stories, love poems, lovers calling out to one another.
I take it that, for Rabbi Akiva, the Song of Songs are enough because God is the love that happens in those chapters, the love that happens between the verses, between the lines, unwritten, unspoken, yet holding all of it together. Here, in these passages, there is enough of God, though God is hidden, hidden in the love.
There is enough of God here, in these pages, because there is no separation of loves—a heaven of love pierces through our earthly loves.
The Song of Songs reminds us that all we have to go on, when we think about God’s love, when we think about our love for God and God’s love for us—all we have are divine likenesses in the flesh, human metaphors, words we learn with one another: how to say them, how to feel them, how to believe in them. And as we say these words to one another, we learn how to say them to God, we learn how they reveal to us something about God.
This life is a fleeting education in how to love—a brief time with one another, moments that reveal to us how to draw close to an invisible God, how to draw close enough to say, “I love you,” how to whisper to the One hidden in the darkness, and to learn how to wait for a response, learning patience with the silence, undergoing the long-suffering of love.
“My beloved had turned and was gone,” the lover says in the Song of Songs. “I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer… The sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me… If you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love” (5:6-8).
I am faint with love.
There’s a seventeenth-century sculpture of Teresa of Avila, a statue of her fainting with love, her heart shot through with an arrow of God’s love. It’s called “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa,” and it’s based on an experience she wrote about in her autobiography. I think of her when I read some of these passages from the Song of Songs. God pierced my heart, she wrote, and seemed “to leave me all on fire with a great love. The pain was excessive, yet so surpassing was the sweetness that I could not wish to be rid of it.”
Teresa is faint with love. She is undone by the sweetness of God, and awaits the return of the divine. All she can do is be patient, to grow into the longsuffering of waiting for God’s return.
I can hear Teresa say the lover’s words of the Song of Songs: “I called him, but he gave no answer… I sought him, but found him not” (3:1-2). The lover sits up at night, calling into the darkness, into the silence, waiting for something, anything, reassurances that she is loved in return—a whisper in the silence.
Not only do I hear Teresa of Avila saying these verses, but I also hear Job—beaten and wounded, alone in the silence, alone in the darkness, waiting for reassurances that God is there, that God will return. Longsuffering Job, waiting and longing.
Here’s Job: “Oh, that I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling” (23:3). Job sounds like the lover in the Song of Songs, searching for the beloved. “If only he would regard me,” “if only he would turn to me” (23:6). Job longs to be seen, to be heard. He longs for something in the silence, for something in the darkness to reassure him—for God to reach out from the desolation all around and to behold him, to hold him.
In the Song of Songs the lover says: “I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer” (5:6). In the book of Job, he says: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot find him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but cannot see him” (23:9). And then Job says a line straight out of Song of Songs: “God has made my heart faint” (23:26). Job is faint with love. He is Teresa of Avila, undone by the memory of God’s love, and now has no choice but to wait for God’s return, no choice but to suffer the absence of divine love, suffering the distance, the separation, from God. “If only I could vanish in the darkness,” Job says. “If only the thick darkness would cover my face” (23:17).
Those two words say it all. “If only I could vanish in the darkness,” Job says. “If only darkness would cover my face.” This is different than despair because Job can’t give up hope. He can’t help but hope. If only he could, he would, but he can’t—he can’t help but stare into the darkness, night after night, waiting to see God’s return; he can’t help but listen to the silence, week after week, trying to hear even a faint echo of God’s voice.
“If only I knew where to find him,” Job says. “If only he would regard me.”
He’ll wait forever, because he can’t help himself. He can’t help but wait, to suffer the absence of God, because he can’t forget what he has known of God’s love, and he won’t let go of the hope of having it again, so Job loves from a distance, his love reaching into the dark, into the silence, always waiting, always hoping, always trusting.
“God has made my heart faint,” Job says.
“If you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love” (Song of Songs).
I wrote a book once. I wrote it with a friend. It’s not a real book, but more of a collection of sermons. Whatever it is, the title is important to me. It’s called “Presence.” It’s all about how God is present to us, here and now, in our lives, in the lives of the people around us. I realize I say that to you a lot, in sermon after sermon. God is with us—Emmanuel, God with us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, as Augustine would say.
Presence is important to me. Yet, here in the Song of Songs, here in Job, there’s a distance between lovers—God seems to have pulled away, to have withdrawn into silence, into darkness. “My beloved had turned and was gone.” “He is not there… I cannot find him… I cannot behold him.” And the distance is devastating for Job, and it’s devastating for the lover in the Song of Songs. They are undone by the pain of separation. Their hearts faint.
How close does God have to be for God to be present to us? Can we love God from a distance? How far away can God be and still be with us? How far can God’s love reach—through how much silence, through what kind of darkness—and still hold us?
Life can be devastating, like it is for Job, like maybe it is for you. Job has undergone a disaster, one after another.
The other day I read that the word “disaster” has to do with imagining a world without stars, the darkness of night without heavenly lights. Disaster: “Dis” means to remove; “Aster” means star: “disaster means the tearing out of the stars” (Rose, Paradiso, 26).
“If only I could vanish in the darkness,” Job says. “If only think darkness would cover my face.” Thick darkness. Layers of darkness. No light. A disastrous life, with stars being torn out of the night sky.
If only this would happen, this suffocating darkness—that would put an end to his waiting, his longsuffering. But he can’t give up on his life, he can’t give up on his hope, he can’t stop waiting, because he can’t forget God, he can’t stop thinking about the one who loved him (and perhaps still loves him). He can’t help but remember how he’s been affected by that love, by her life. He knows that he has been shot through by that same arrow that pierced Teresa of Avila: “The pain was excessive,” she said, “yet so surpassing was the sweetness that I could not wish to be rid of it.” “All on fire with a great love.”
Maybe there’s a disaster between you and God, a distance from the presence of God’s love. That’s where Job is—at the edge of a disaster, yet still listening and looking, waiting to hear that familiar voice.
Faith is this: To love from a distance, to stare into the darkness and whisper into the silence, and to look and listen for God.