Scripture Passage: Song of Songs 1-2
Last week on Twitter, an old tweet posted by the Atheist Forum began to gain traction among Christians. Given that twitter is a cesspool of petty arguments and hot-takes, I’m sure that this is not the first time that Christians have engaged with atheists on the platform.
But this tweet was different. Because, maybe for the first time in twitter history, Christians liked what the Atheist Forum had to say.
Here’s the tweet that they posted:
“CHRISTIANITY: Belief that one God created a universe 13.79 billion yrs old, 93 billion light yrs in diameter (1 light yr = approx. 6 trillion miles), consisting of over 200 billion galaxies, each containing ave. of 200 billion stars, only to have a personal relationship with you.”
WHOA! My immediate reaction was wonder and delight. I read it aloud to my husband whose only reply to me was also, “WHOA!”
I mean, it’s a beautiful thing to imagine! A God that big who desires to know us.
But, you probably see what the Atheist Forum was going for. They were trying to reveal the absurdity of such a belief. After all, why would a God who created the universe be invested in us?
In a way, the idea that the Creator of the Universe loves us is fundamentally unfathomable. And in Christianity’s specific version of this story, the idea that this Creator walked among us on earth in the form of Jesus, stretches the imagination even further.
In fact, in Psalm 8, the Psalmist asks a similar set of questions:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?”
As unfathomable as it is that the Creator of the universe would care about us – that this God would even LOVE us – this is what our faith claims.
Our scriptures are brimming over with God’s love. And there’s one in particular that narrates this love in such honest and intimate terms that it can actually make us uncomfortable. It’s in the Hebrew Bible, or what we often call the Old Testament. And it’s called Song of Songs.
On its face, Song of Songs is straightforward love poetry. It is written as a dialogue between two lovers who are pledged to be married to one another. We follow them through the valleys, hills, and city streets of their home in the ancient near-east, as they engage in an earnest and vocal account of their love for one another.
I should mention that Song of Songs is undeniably erotic, even to our modern ears.
It is filled with ancient euphemisms that can seem a little silly, but can still feel inappropriate to discuss at church…
“Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.”
“Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.”
“Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon, overlooking Damascus.”
Even in its strangeness, or maybe because of its strangeness, I can’t help but delight in such creative compliments. It beats the repetitive clichés of most modern love songs for sure.
There is something to be said for the simple delight of reading Song of Songs, but it’s less clear how this text made it into the Bible.
After all, the poem makes no obvious mention of God.
So, how did Song of Songs even get here?
The answer to that is actually pretty straightforward if you put it in the context of its time and culture…
The poem is in the same genre as other ancient love songs of the time. This genre had two uses:
- In the ancient, near-eastern world, depictions of love between a couple were popular forms of entertainment. Love songs describing a couple were often performed at weddings.
- But not all love songs in this genre were intended to describe only the love that exists between a human pair. In many cases, they were written as divine love songs, between a god and their people.
With that in mind, we begin to see the picture more clearly…
For Jewish people, Song of Songs was and continues to be understood as a dialog between God and the people of Israel.
In early Christian thought, the concept continued, with some theological changes. Now it was understood as the love between Christ and the church.
And a first-century rabbinic commentary on Song of Songs, called a targum, places the poem within the broadest possible scope.
In this case, the rabbis considered Song of Songs in the context of other ancient songs found in the scriptures, like in the Psalms.
Looking at them as a unit, they suggested that the Bible’s divine poetry revealed the love of God within the fullness of creation. In other words, this divine poetry includes all people.
The Bible’s divine love poetry tells us in the most intimate language that the God who created the universe loves us. WHOA!
But even knowing that, when I look at Song of Songs, I am still really challenged by the depth of intimacy, maybe especially if this is a poem about God’s love for humankind. I don’t often hear people talk about God with the familiarity of a partner, lover, or friend. What can it mean for God to delight in us so earnestly? What can it mean for God to compliment us, over and over again?
To share a bit of my own perspective, I think I know that God loves me, but I am uncomfortable with the idea that God might be paying so much attention to me. I am uncomfortable with this pleading, joyful, ecstatic God who absolutely delights in my existence. If a person was talking to me this way, I think I’d tell them to shut up! I can take a compliment, but not two-dozen compliments at once!
I suspect I’m not the only one who has trouble with this. Even though kind words are supposed to affirm who we are, they can often make us more self-conscious. Whether we are giving or receiving them, they open us up to vulnerability. They can feel transactional, or embarrassing. And in some cases, an unwelcome or inappropriate compliment can be a form of harassment.
I wonder if that’s why it can be so hard for partners or friends to openly delight in one another. We may want to tell and show people how much we love and appreciate them, but actually doing it carries a lot of baggage in a world where love is often manipulated and where people can be cruel.
But the compliments in Song of Songs aren’t coming from just anyone. They’re coming from God. Here, God reveals God’s love for humankind without hesitation, fear, or shame. Here, God tells us that we are a delight – that our lumpy bodies, crow’s feet, terrible habits, regrets, griefs, and even our ignorance can’t keep us from being loved by the very Creator of love.
Song of Songs also models how we can respond to this love. When God voices such great love, the human believes it. She brims over with gratitude, delight, and wonder. In experiencing God’s love, she understands what it means to love.
The human becomes a partner in sharing divine love. And in this ongoing dialog between God and humankind, love is exponentially multiplied. It is shouted from the hillsides and rooftops as a gift to the whole community.
As strange and uncomfortable as it may seem, it is worthwhile to consider the idea that God loves us, not just as a matter of God’s character but as a matter of God’s particular relationship with us. We are known by God.
Song of Songs shows us that being known and authentically loved has the power to affirm us in ways that we have never been affirmed before.
And from the comfort of that affirmation, new possibilities emerge. We may find ourselves more quick to delight in the love of our friends and family. It might open us up to giving and receiving care without awkwardness or second-guessing. It could transform our will to be seen as self-sufficient into a desire to know and be known by one another.
In the center of this holy love, we would be able to offer our pain, resentment, and grief to God and one another, making a way for new things to flourish. In the reassurances of God’s love and our own belovedness, we would be freed up to act with kindness, justice, and humility without worrying about where we stand.
This isn’t merely speculation: Yale psychologist Laurie Santos says that “the people who self-report the highest positive emotions, they’re the ones who are taking action.”
Imagine what would happen in our families, congregations, neighborhoods, and country if we all understood ourselves to be secure in God’s love, and acted out of a spirit of overflowing abundance instead of fear?
As we go about our lives this week, I want us to think about what it means to delight in God, and for God to delight in us. What this means for you may not be what it means for me. God loves us as the unique people that we are. In return, we can work to discover what it means to offer that love back to God and our neighbors.
More than anything, God’s delight encourages us to understand ourselves in a web of mutual care. We don’t need to be afraid to ask for what we need or reach out in care for others. When we do this, we join the Creator of the universe in co-creation. We join God in building a new earth.
The God who created the universe loves us! We can step forward in wonder and delight, knowing that such an unfathomable thing is undeniably true.