Sermon: 14th Sunday after Pentecost 30th August 2015, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping,30th August 2015

“THE SONG OF SONGS: BIBLICAL EROTICA?”

(Song of Songs 2:8-13; Psalm 45; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23)

There are a number of books in the Bible of which people have said: “What is that book doing in the Bible?” Jewish people have accused John’s Gospel of promoting anti-Semitism. Many people have said that the lurid images of the Book of Revelation have no rightful place in scripture. Virtually everything in the Letter of Jude is repeated in the Second Letter of Peter: surely we don’t need both of them! Martin Luther would have got rid of the Letter of James, which he thought missed the point of the Gospel: I think Luther might have missed the point of James! And there is far too much violence in the Old Testament: surely we could get rid of some of that nasty judgemental material. And do we really need the cynicism which seems to dominate the Book of Ecclesiastes? And then there’s the Book of Esther, which doesn’t even mention God: what is it doing in God’s book? Those questions should give you some ideas for interesting reading!

And then there’s the book which provided today’s Old Testament reading.

I hope that you listened carefully to this morning’s reading from the Song of Songs: the next time we are scheduled to hear a reading from the Song of Songs at our Sunday Eucharist is in three years, when this reading will turn up again!

Actually we might hear another short passage from the book if the Feast of Mary Magdalene turns up on a Sunday. I suspect that the choice of that passage has something to do with the tradition that Mary was a reformed prostitute: a tradition you won’t find in the Bible at all!

So here we have a passage from “the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s”, as the book begins. The Song of Songs is a way of saying that this is the greatest song, the most beautiful song.

But in what sense is it Solomon’s? Some people believe that it was written by Solomon, who had a reputation as a writer: it’s not impossible, but I don’t think it’s very likely. Some people think that it is about Solomon, and there are indications of this as we go through. Others think that it is written in honour of Solomon, in tribute to him, almost dedicated to him. Perhaps there is truth in both of these ideas.

But regardless of this, one has to admit that it is not the sort of book you would expect to find in the Holy Bible. For if you pick up a printed copy of this sermon, or look it up on the Parish website, you will find that the title I have given this sermon describes the Song of Songs as “Biblical Erotica”! And that is an oxymoron if I ever heard one!

Some experts see it as a drama. One might imagine that Solomon has seen a young girl and had her brought into his harem, thinking that she might be one of his favourite concubines. However, she is in love with a young shepherd boy, and has no interest in Solomon at all, and she hopes that he will give up on her and let her return to her beloved. And possibly at the end she does! Others simplify that story and see it as a series of dialogues between Solomon and his beloved.

That’s one possible approach to the book, but regardless of that, we must at least see it as a collection of love poetry. The language is often graphic and sensual, although I have to say that if I wanted to read love poetry to Sarah, I would be very selective in choosing a passage from the book: much of its romantic imagery would not really work in today’s world!

But the question remains: what is a book like this doing in the Bible? And I must say that only with difficulty was it included in the Jewish canon of scripture, not to mention kept in the church’s canon of scripture.

Many have believed that, taken as it stands, the book has no place in scripture. However, when the ancient leaders of Israel and of the church interpreted it allegorically, they found a spiritual message in the book. They decided that it really referred not to human love, but to God’s love for his people Israel, or Christ’s love for the church, and thus they came to the conclusion that it did have spiritual value.

Indeed this allegorical figurative understanding of the book is probably what got it accepted as scripture, both by Jews and by Christians. Surely a book in holy scripture could not be just about human sensual sexual love! Surely we are not to believe that romantic and even erotic love poetry has any place in scripture. And to make things worse: God is not even mentioned in the book!

But if we’re honest, this book is basically an exploration of human romantic sensual sexual love. The book expresses delight in it. Yes, some of the images expressed in the book would not work between lovers nowadays, but the point need not be lost.

Furthermore, Solomon with his harem of 1000 women presumably knew a good deal about sexual love: one wonders what he knew of devoted faithful love, even if the book pays tribute to him.

What then is the point of this book? In chapter 8, just before the last few verses of the book, we find a very powerful statement:

          “Set me as a seal on your heart,

          as a seal upon your arm:

          for love is strong as death,

          passion fierce as the grave.”

          “Many waters cannot quench love,

          neither can floods drown it.

          If one offered for love all the wealth of his house,

          it would be utterly scorned.”

Perhaps this is the climax of the book, the heart of its message. Genuine love is committed: that is the point of a seal. Genuine love is enduring: it is as strong as death, unquenchable. Genuine love is truly precious: there is no amount of earthly wealth that can take its place.

Sadly of course, sexual or sensual love is often not like that at all. Even romantic love too often is not like that. It is too often superficial or fleeting. And far too often it is self-centred, self-serving, rather than truly self-giving.

And therefore we might suggest that the book points beyond itself to a deeper kind of love, the love spoken of in the New Testament, the love which truly gives of itself for the good of the one who is loved, the love which does not use the other but serves the other, the love which does not simply remain while things are good but continues when things get tough. In fact, it is the love which in the traditional words of the Marriage Service is “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part”. And it is ultimately the love shown by Christ in giving his life for our sakes.

What then is this book doing in Holy Scripture? If we believe that in a real sense the Bible has been provided for us in the providence of God, why is it there? And what is its message?

I think it has a very important message and a very practical one. Human love, sensual love, sexual love, is a good and beautiful part of God’s creation, a gift of God to us who are made in his image.

It is part of the way he has made us, and our sexuality is not to be regarded as evil or even as some sort of second-best for those who find celibacy too hard. The church for many centuries of course did just that, thinking that to be truly holy you had to be celibate. Not at all, says this part of the scriptures, not to mention many other parts of the Old and New Testament.

Nor is it to say that the celibate person is less than complete in any sense, or that there is something wrong with us if we are not sexually active. In fact, what other parts of the scriptures do is to show how this beautiful gift is to be expressed in a way which pleases God, a way which is truly human, and which recognizes the limits God has placed on its expression for our good.

Sex like so many beautiful things can be cheapened and distorted and misused, and in our day and age, people so often miss its beauty and its point as a gift of God. At its heart is the way it expresses the uniqueness of the marriage relationship, and celebrates what faithful married love is meant to be. The central character of the Song of Songs was certainly not known for his marital fidelity, and perhaps the book acknowledges that there may be beauty in sexual love outside the marriage relationship. But scripture remains strong in its message that sexual love and marriage belong uniquely together.

But even though the Song of Songs provides scriptural testimony to the beauty of human love as a wonderful gift of God, it also points beyond itself. For God the giver of all good gifts is the ultimate source of all love: in fact, as John tells us, God is Love.

Beyond human love is the love of God for us all, and above all, the love of God in Christ Jesus. And beyond the reality of human marriage is the faithful eternal relationship between God and his people, the relationship between Christ and his bride the church.

So then, let us rejoice in human love, in whatever form it finds its way into our lives: whether it is through our marriage partner, our family, our friends, our church family, or wherever it finds us. But let us also receive the gracious faithful forgiving and welcoming love of God in Christ, and spread that love by loving one another, and by loving our neighbour as ourselves. Amen.

Paul Weaver