“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come . . . . Rise up my love, and come away” (Song of Songs 2:10b-12a, 13b, KJV)
I learned these words from Song of Songs by singing them in choirs, but I’ve never heard them read or sung in church. Over the many years of wider church conversations about human sexuality and studying the Bible to seek God’s will, I don’t recall Song of Songs ever being used.
As I was preparing my sermon, I was also reading The Rosie Project, in which the main character, Don, is a likable and brilliant genetics professor who has Asperger’s Syndrome. At the urging of his friends to find a wife, Don starts with the approach he knows best: a research project he calls “The Wife Project.” He develops a five-page questionnaire for potential candidates to fill out and tracks the results of his research on a spreadsheet.
Don gets into some awkward predicaments in the process of looking for candidates to fill out his questionnaire, and it soon becomes evident that things aren’t going so well. So his friend Gene introduces Don to Rosie who, it turns out, doesn’t fit any of Don’s top five qualifications for “the perfect wife.” But emotions become involved, his own and hers. Don knows how to deal with facts, but not emotions!
We in the Mennonite church are a little like Don. We stick with what feels familiar and safe: beliefs, official statements, “do’s and don’ts.” We gravitate to Paul’s writings, but we keep a safe distance from the emotions and sensual language and images of Song of Songs. Such erotic poetry is way outside our comfort zone.
We write safe church policies to protect children and the adults who care for them from confusing and abusive relationships, and we teach our youth to say no to their passions, but we spend very little time teaching people how to say yes to their bodies.
I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon or Sunday school discussion on Song of Songs. Nor are there hymns based on Song of Songs listed in the scripture index of Hymnal: A Worship Book. Was it always like this?
According to Derek Suderman, Old Testament professor at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., “In the early centuries of the church you were more likely to hear a sermon from Song of Songs than from one of the gospels or [Paul’s letters].” Back then, these love poems were read as an allegory for the love between Christ and the church. The closest equivalent I can think of is the familiar hymn, “I Come to the Garden Alone,” which depicts walking and talking in the garden with Jesus as with a lover.
Do we ever think of God as a lover with feelings of desire? More likely we were taught or shamed into believing that desire is wrong. Yet desire is woven throughout Song of Songs. The wisdom literature of the Bible views desire as good, as a vital and life-giving aspect of the way we were created. The Psalms are full of longing and desire for God. To be sure, the Bible condemns misguided desire such as envy or lust, especially when acted on. But without desire, our lives would be impoverished.
Desire is a vital aspect of our spiritual and our sexual longings. Can you imagine yourself in a time of loneliness praying for God to hold you like the lovers in Song of Songs? “O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me” (2:6) Or imagine God feeling disappointed when you leave or push away: “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone. My soul failed me” (5:6).
If we read these love songs in our worship and prayers, would we develop a new and deeper awareness of God’s desire for us and our desire for God? How might our attitudes toward our bodies and sexual feelings be different? Might we be more affirming of our bodies and see our sexual and spiritual desires as a beautiful part of how we are created?
Would that affect how we teach our children about their bodies and sexual feelings? What if the church would include portions of Song of Songs in our children’s curriculum to teach them how God created us?
The love poems in Song of Songs help us, in that they celebrate embodied human love as good. They affirm that God created us as sexual beings with desires, attractions and feelings that enrich our lives and relationships immensely. These feelings are God’s way of bringing us close to one another. They lift us out of the mundane into ecstasy: “Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag” (2:8-9a), or: “As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens” (2:2).
Philip Sheldrake, a prominent theologian and former Jesuit, challenges us to own our attractions and desires in his provocative statement: “Passion, for all its dangers, needs uncaging if we are to move toward completeness as human beings and if our walking with Christ in faith is to pass beyond the cerebral and emotionally anaemic.” He acknowledges that there are dangers associated with passion, as does Song of Songs: “Love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame” (8:6b).
We don’t have to look far to find confirmation of how compelling, powerful and potentially harmful sexual feelings can be. A recent letter to “Dear Ellie” began this way: “I’ve fallen in love with my husband’s best friend. Neither he nor I could stop it because our feelings are so powerful.”
Because our passions are intoxicating and powerful, they need to be tested. Discernment is critical as we choose what we will do with those feelings. The lovers in the letter to “Dear Ellie” made one choice, claiming they could not “stop it,” regardless of the harm they caused to others. The lovers in Song of Songs make a different choice, choosing instead loyalty and faithfulness, two qualities often associated with God.
Furthermore, the lovers in Song of Songs exercise a respectful mutuality. Neither lover forces or takes advantage of the other. In several places in the text one of the lovers withdraws or seems to hold off. Three times we hear the caution “not to stir up or awaken love until it is ready!” The lovers in Song of Songs, like God, never force themselves on the beloved who is not ready or who wants space. God always gives us a choice to say yes or no. God waits for our consent.
As Christians, we can be grateful that the sages of Israel preserved and passed on these songs as a compelling expression of incarnation, of embodied human love.
An all-too-common distortion of our culture—and often the church—is placing all the emphasis on sex and genital relations, so that people who are single or choose celibacy are often seen as incomplete human beings. Song of Songs challenges that narrow understanding of sexuality.
Like the lovers in Song of Songs, all of us experience our sexuality in a variety of ways. For Mennonites, congregational singing is an embodied and often ecstatic expression of our sexuality, as male and female voices listen to each other, breathing and blending their voices together, becoming one body: the body of Christ.
Another lie that deceives us is that youth and couples are the measuring stick for everyone’s sexuality. We are sexual beings, whether we are “bounding over the hills like a gazelle” (2:9), or walking with a cane.
What a beautiful thing it is to watch older people live out their love as friendship. Despite all the frustrations, disappointments and ambiguities of human love, they have learned to enjoy touching, holding and simply being together as ways of expressing their love with partners or friends.
They show God’s love and grace in the way they love and forgive each other for past failures and are companions in the midst of sorrow, suffering and pain. They have learned what it means to say yes to God’s gift of love in all seasons. These people make friendship more sacred for the rest of us. They show us that, in the words of Song of Songs, “many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (8:7a).
Muriel Bechtel is a former area church minister for Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, and a former pastor of Warden Woods Mennonite Church, Toronto. She holds degrees from Emmanuel College and the Toronto School of Theology, and from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont. This reflection was adapted from a sermon she preached at Wilmot Mennonite Church, New Hamburg, Ont., on July 6, 2014.
- Christina Bucher, Song of Songs (Believers Church Bible Commentary series, Herald Press).
- Jim Cotter, Pleasure, Pain & Passion: Some Perspectives on Sexuality and Spirituality. Cairns Publications, 1988.
- Kathleen Fischer, Winter Grace: Spirituality and Aging. Upper Room Books, 1998.
- Roland E. Murphy, “Canticle of Canticles,” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Geoffrey Chapman, 1990.
- James B. Nelson, Between Two Gardens: Reflections on Sexuality and Religious Experience. The Pilgrim Press, 1983.
- Renita J. Weems, “Song of Songs,” The Women’s Bible Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.
1. Can you think of examples of older couples who hold hands after many years of marriage? What does this say about their relationship? How important is touch in expressing love? When is it important to lay hands on someone the congregation is praying for?
2. Do you agree with Muriel Bechtel that the church has tended to emphasize beliefs and official statements, but has tried to keep a safe distance from emotions and passion? Where do we express passion for God in worship? Are there other ways we might express passionate love for God?
3. Philip Sheldrake says that passion needs to be part of our lives, “if our walking with Christ in faith is to pass beyond the cerebral and emotionally anaemic.” Do you agree? What happens if we try to keep our passions locked up?
4. Bechtel equates sexuality with sensuality or physicality, arguing that it is much more than genital relations. Do you agree? When is it important to keep passion under control? Would our churches be healthier with more expressions of emotion?
—By Barb Draper