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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

Marc Chagall, Song of Songs IV, 1958

Song of Songs and Psalm 45

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced to you the Wisdom texts of the Bible: Jb, Ec, Wis of Sol, the apocryphal Sir and Bar, and some Ps; as well as Prov, from which we read then, and today’s Song of Sg (aka Song of Sol or Canticle of Canticles). The Prov text presented us with “the Lady Wisdom’s Banquet”, which takes place at her temple of seven pillars (cf the number of days of creation), at her table laid with bread, wine, and meat (cf the Eucharist and sacrificial nature of these offerings), and by the invitation she broadcasts from all crossroads, rooftops, and city gates, as a prophet of God. The metaphor of a feast is found throughout the scriptures, and interestingly, many biblical feasts also happen to be wedding celebrations. The heavenly banquet of Rev 21 readily comes to mind, as does the wedding at Cana as the site of Jesus’ first miracle, and today’s Ps 45, which is actually a wedding song.

Indeed, human love and marriage is widely employed in the scriptures to refer to the love of God for the humanity, whether it is on a level of Israel, Church, or individual. As such, all such texts have an eschatological layer of meaning (i.e. relating to the transition of this world as we know it to its eternal state, in which the fullness of God’s presence would be fully revealed). So, I like to think of the Lady Wisdom’s dinner as the start of the human-divine relationship, and the wedding feasts of other scripttures - as its eternal celebration. But, how do you get from the first date to marriage? Why, through a love story, of course! Through everything in between: through meeting and losing, searching for and finally finding your true love. And to me, in all the world’s literature, not many works tells a better love story than the biblical Song of Sg - our OT text for today. So let’s take a closer look at these brilliant examples of ancient Middle Easter poetry - ps 45 and the Song of Sg.

The Song of Sg is a short work of 177 v., much loved by Christians and Jews alike. We rarely read it in church, but it is read annually at Passover. Its opening verse atributes its authorship to King Solomon, likely posthumously, linking it to other wisdom literature, some of which is traditionally attributed to him (e.g., Prov, Wis of Sol). A scripture like none other, it is composed of bits of dialogue (in which it is not always clear who is talking), and fragments of ancient, possibly even Egyptian, wedding songs. It contains wonderful albeit odd to us similes (e.g., the beauty of a neck like “a tower made of ivory” or nose like a “tower of lebanon” 7:4 is somewhat debatable!), and some bizarre situations encountered as part of the quest for the Beloved. According to the tradition, the male lover in the story is also Solomon himself, which links this unique text also, interestingly, to today’s Ps 45, which is presumed to have been written on occasion of his marriage. In it, the psalmist, whose “tongue is the pen of a skillful writer” (v.1), praises the beauty, wealth, pedigree, gifts, and character of both the groom and bride, devoting a half of the psalm to each. The groom, as befits King Solomon, is described as a warrior-sage, and the bride is said to have come from afar to the “inner chamber” of her marital home, which is a reference to the Holy of Holies of the OT Temple of God, to which Israel was welcomed from exile -- much like our wondering hearts are always welcome to the renewed awareness of God’s presence. Their children are prophecied to become the princess upholding God’s rule over the world, indicating to generations of believers our own spiritual inheritance. The two haves of the psalm are joined by a central verse, in which the bride and groom are said to stand beside each other -- the eschatological image of Adam and Eve, God and Israel, Christ and the Church. The heavenly banquet of Rev similarly celebrates their coming together to be reconciled and united for all eternity, and contributes a shade of meaning to our Eucharist.

The wedding of Solomon celebrated by Ps 45 is also mentioned in the Song of Sg 3, as the one in which he is “crowned by his mother”. Do you remember who she was? We read the story of Bathsheba and David earlier this summer: tragic, yet witthout which Solomon would neither be born, nor become the next king of Israel (and a far ancestor of Jesus Christ himself!). Bathsheba, who was instrumental to his rise to power, thus figuratively crowned him with both the royal and wedding crown. Might this serve as a symbol of redemption -- a reminder to us of the potential for hope that may be found even in tragedy? To an exent, yes; but, just like the Song of Sg recounts many twists and turns in the story before the lovers finally find each other, so is human life full of departures from our God-given trajectory of love, hope, and faith. As such, Solomon was fully worthy of his royal crown, but not of the wedding one. His gift of wisdom shone through his work as a writer (Wis of Sol and Prov, according to the tradition), judge (remember the story of two women’s dispute over a baby?), and ruler under whose reign the kingdom achieved its all-time height. But, it did not serve him well in his personal life, as he became renowned not only for wisdom and poetry, but also, just like David, for the size of his harem. Clearly, while our capacity to love is a reflection of having been made in God’s Image, humans beings simply fall in (and often, out of!) love, but God IS love, so all of or analogies of God are quite limited.

Maybe, this is also a good place to note that in this limited analogy, God is not necessarily symbolized by a male. In the intimate relationships of Lady Wisdom in Prov, it is in the man that we see ourselves, and in the wife -- the presence of God. In the Song of Sg, the title Shulammite may simply be the feminine form of Solomon, both meaning “peaceful”, and indicting that there is not distinction between the genders in our participation in both human and divine life, love, and eternal peace. In our today’s context, socially quite different from the time from which these texts originated, instead of focusing on who has which role in the relationship, let’s look instead at another key aspect of any relationship -- the invitation: “Beloved knocks on the door”; “he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, showing himself through the lattice”.

How veiled is God’s activity in our lives sometimes, how difficult to notice and discern; but, his invitation is clear, and the call is persistent. How beautiful is the garden that he gives us as the backdrop for the unfolding of our love story with Him/Her - that is, our world, in which he makes himself known in every perfect gift in this world comes from above, from the Father lights (James 1:17), in every season of the year and of human life. Like the garden of Eden and the Shulamite’s vineyard, our world is filled with flowers: the instances of God’s self-revelation to us that we enjoy and cherish not only for their own beauty, but also as the promises of the fruit of the Spirit that is yet to come (including the capacity to love and be slow to anger). So, "Let us rise early and go to the vineyards; let us see whether the vine has budded, and its blossoms have opened, and whether the pomegranates have bloomed.” Amen.

Song of Songs, Gustav Moreau