(Reading List Theme 1.2)

(Pre-note: to rightly understand the Song, we must keep in mind that this is poetry. While poetry contains truth, it is not meant to be taken extremely literally, and the poem leaves room for layers of application in different settings. The emotional impact of a poem is very important, as is the overall story. Repetition and imagery are key to interpretation. This is true of all poetry, not just biblical poetry.)

The first thing that captivates me in reading this selection, is the beautiful imagery in this poem. The impression left by the Song is of life, intimacy, love, expectancy, escape together, belonging, and strength. “For the winter is past and the rain is over and gone. The flowers are springing up…!” (2:11-12). There is new life! Energy! There is also the impression that though the relationship spoken of is exciting and life-giving and vital, it is also fragile and deserves protection (2:7, 15).

Could this Song of love, intimacy, and escape really be speaking of a relationship that is possible with God?

The Song of Songs is quite unique in the Bible, and because of its uniqueness, Jews and Christians have long debated exactly how we ought to interpret it. For several hundred years the primary interpretation followed the Biblical metaphor of God as a husband to his people Israel (Isaiah 54:5, Jeremiah 3:16-20, 31:32; Ezekiel 16; Hosea 2). Jesus called himself the Bridegroom (Matthew 9:15, 25:1-13; John 3:27-29), and Revelation shows the church as the Bride for whom Jesus will return (Revelation 19:7, chapter 21, 22:17. See also 1 Cor. 11:2). So the people of God saw this song as a depiction of what the faith community, and the individual believer, could experience with God, if there were given to that relationship the time and trust that is required to develop true intimacy. The theology developed in the New Testament as the relationship culminating in a great wedding feast, when we will finally be in God’s presence and fully experience his great love.

Then, for quite a number of years the church decided, no, this was just speaking of the perfection possible in the marriage relationship with pure sexual intimacy. Indeed, if you read on in the rest of the Song (which I do recommend – it is only 8 short chapters), there is a great deal of talk about the perfect hair, teeth, neck, breasts, and other features of the young woman, and the strength and gallantry of the young man. The imagery may seem comical to the modern reader, but the metaphors fit the time and place in which they were written, to describe perfection, beauty, and strength.

With evidence for either interpretation, what are we to do? It is one or the other? Or perhaps both?

Both is what I prefer, which author and theologian Ellen F. Davis describes very well in her book, “Getting Involved With God”

If the song has nothing to do with God and Israel after all, then there is nowhere to hear one partner say “I love you” and the other answer right back, “Yes, yes: I love you, too.” For this is the one place in the Bible where there is a dialogue of love… the Song captures the ecstatic aspect of the love that is the main subject of the whole Bible… [However,] if the Song of Songs is about the love between God and Israel and has nothing to do with sexual love, then that interpretation, too, leaves a gaping hole in the canon. For the Bible then lacks any strong statement about love between man and woman enjoyed in full mutuality and equality of status. …the Song is talking about happiness in both respects, in divine love and in sexual love, and talking about more besides.” (pages 67-68)

INTIMACY WITH GOD

(Song of Songs 2:1-3) As we come to God, we must know that he sees us as beautiful. Songs 1:5 says we are “dark but lovely” – meaning that even though we know (and God knows) that we sin, he still sees us as lovely and desires relationship with us. When we come to HIm, we should come with adoring words, and when we listen, we will hear him speak adoring words back. If we hear something that is not love as we pray, then it is not God that we hear. Satan’s view may be that we are not performing well, that we are failures, that our shame could never be overcome and that we ought to hide our sin, but that is not God’s view. Sometimes the Lord may speak challenge and correction, but God will never speak condemnation or alienation.

(2:4-6) God is proud of you! He is proud you are his. Imagine that God keeps a photo of you on his iPhone, so he can show you off every chance he gets. He thinks you are wonderful – not just because He created you and chose you, but also because you chose him. God embraces you. You can know that you are safe in his hands, and you don’t have to worry that he will strike at you in anger.

(2:8-14) God wants you to experience FREEDOM and JOY with him! Once you are His, you can leave behind the dreariness and darkness of sin as if you were leaving behind winter and harsh rains. Sometimes you may feel like you ought to hide from God, but he will always seek you out, and he loves to hear your voice speaking to him.

(2:15) “Catch the little foxes” means let us quickly take care of anything that may sneak into the relationship to distract us and cause trouble.

(2:16-17) As you spend time with God, you must know that you are secure in that relationship, and that God is leading it. You may not always know where he is leading, and it may sometimes seem he is off on a mountain while you are in the valley, but no matter what, you can confidently come to him and know he is yours, and you are his.

LEARNING TO LOVE

In my early twenties I belonged to a church that had a great emphasis on teaching the Word, worship, and on prayer and personal intimacy with God. It seems all churches should have this emphasis, but I don’t think that is true. Some focus on one more than the others, or are more about social service and impact on the community. Some just want to help people feel good. Some are focused on traditions, or on performance – as if the things we might do for God are more important than who we ARE before God. It is hard to find the right balance. Probably impossible, actually. But despite other areas where there mayn’t have been quite enough emphasis, the focus on intimacy with God through prayer and worship and rightly understanding the Word did wonderful things for my personal spiritual growth. Before I ever learned intimacy with a man, I learned intimacy with God. I learned how to be completely open to him, how to cry or dance or sing in his presence regardless of who else might be there. I learned how to serve out of love for God instead of duty to God. I learned to love people because God loves them. I learned to love myself because God loves me, and because I belong to him, as Ephesians 1 and 2 talk about. Is it possible to have intimacy with God as this Song depicts? Quite certainly I can say, “yes,” because I have experienced it.

During college I went on a mission trip to Thailand and Malaysia. Somewhere in the middle of our six-week trip to minister in different cities, we had a few days’ break to rest and slow down (and snorkel on a gorgeous white sandy beach and beautifully clear waters teeming with amazing fish, turtles, octopuses, sharks, rays… oh it was agony let me tell you… suffering for Jesus on the mission field).

One day while I was reading the Bible and journaling at the beach, I asked God to let me FEEL his presence. I don’t remember what exactly prompted this request, but God granted it. I can perfectly remember laying with my eyes closed, propped up on some pillows, and having this amazing sensation of God coming and just giving me a hug. I have had other times of feeling kind of a beautiful heaviness of God’s presence, but this was unlike any other time, like God was laying with me and I could really feel him as if he were physically present. It was only for a brief moment, then it was gone, and I opened by eyes to see only the coconuts on the tree above me. But it was a moment that has lingered in my mind. This is what I imagine Mary may have felt when “the Spirit of the Most High overshadowed her” (Luke 1:35) before the birth of Christ. Nothing weird or sexual at all, but a moment of intimacy with God.  A moment of sure awareness of his presence and love. This is what I picture, with God and me, in verse Songs 2:6, “His left hand is under my head and his right hand embraces me.”

A few years later when I fell in love with the man I am now married to, I remember beginning to love him in a way that I had only ever allowed myself to love God. I remember opening up my heart to him in vulnerability and complete acceptance of myself before him and himself before me, and of the wonder of marital intimacy and the perfection of that when it is only ever shared between one man and one woman. When I first began to fall in love, I almost felt guilty; am I really allowed to love another person this deeply? But yes, this is God’s plan. When Adam and Eve were in the garden together, when it was only they and God who were friends and intimates, the people were naked and unashamed with each other and with God. This is the ideal. This is the perfection we were created to experience. Intimacy with God, intimacy with a faithful spouse.

Sadly, we see how quickly sin shattered the idyllic existence in the garden. Humans hid from God, and blamed both God and each other for their downfall. Intimacy was broken and trust dissolved as the shame of sin arrived. As sin now permeates our lives and our culture, as our days are drenched in noise and busyness, we seldom have the chance to develop intimacy with either God or a spouse. The sexual experience is often shared with multiple partners instead of only one lifelong partner, and even when it is completely experienced with only one, it is partially experienced far too often via movies, novels, pornography… Even magazine articles, billboards, commercials and store displays have a ridiculously unhealthy saturation of inauthentic sexual portrayals. We are robbed of innocence before we even have a chance to understand its fragility. The impact of casual sexuality on lifelong fulfillment and faithfulness is tragic. “Do not awaken love until the time is right” the Song urges (2:7)… but we can hardly help having desire awakened too soon.

If the human marital relationship is supposed to reflect the possibility of intimacy with God, and his faithfulness and unconditional love – do we even have a chance to understand what that is meant to be like? This must be one of the devil’s greatest schemes and triumphs in our day. People are lonely and isolated from one another out of fear and lust, and out of too many voices and experiences that urge caution instead of abandon, even when it comes to marital intimacy and communication. We cannot trust one another.

We think we also cannot trust God.

Even in marriage as I fully trust myself to my husband, I know he will let me down. He is human. We will disagree, we will be angry and argue and we will struggle against our individual failures and weaknesses. We will hurt each other. We will disappoint each other. But we also choose to be humble, and forgive, and remain faithful to our marriage vows, and help each other avoid temptation, and talk and talk and talk through our issues. We are determined to work things out, because we truly, deeply, completely are in love – more now than the day we married. In love not merely out of lust or emotion, but out of choice, and out of the bond of the life God has helped us to build, as we include him in our days and decisions, and seek him together.

As much as I trust and cling to my husband, I know that he will not always be there. There could be an accident, a disease, or an act of malevolence that could tear him from me. But God? No, God will never be torn away from me, and he will never choose to leave, and we cannot be separated by death – only brought together more completely (Romans 8:38-39). God will always love, always seek my best, always be faithful, and I can always, ALWAYS trust him.

Intimacy is something that must be built, day by day, choice by choice. It cannot happen in a room full of other people, full of noise and distraction. Intimacy requires dedication, time, energy, and calm. Sometimes I don’t want to be intimate. I have too much on my mind, too much I need to do, too many distractions. But when I seek intimacy, and experience intimacy, I am always glad I dedicated the time and energy.

My husband is in the third week of a four-week work project that requires him to be gone Monday morning through Friday afternoon. We have three nights and two days together. I treasure that time. I appreciate him more, and miss him like crazy. Sometimes I think I take God’s presence for granted. He’s always there, right? I’ll spend time with him soon… While I do have a daily awareness of his presence and try to include him in my day as much as possible, sometimes it is days or weeks between “encounters.” Church is great, but the primary focus of a Sunday church service is not intimacy.

Devotion is “An ardent, and often selfless affection and dedication; a commitment to someone or some purpose.” Devotion is where intimacy grows. Personal devotional time, where God is allowed to lead and direct me where he will – to reading, writing, prayer or song, laughter and dancing or weeping and longing… I choose devotion. I crave devotion. I may not seem to find the space for it as often as I’d like, but I need intimacy, or my life will be a hollow shell of what it could be. Intimacy with God can make up for the lack of sex, but sex can never make up for the lack of intimacy with God.

Human relationships are never without challenge, and neither will the relationship with God be easy and perfect – this is shown in the rest of Song of Songs. But the best part of it is, no matter where or when we start, no matter how tainted our view or experiences of intimacy may be, no matter how many little foxes have ruined the vineyard, God can make it right, and make it beautiful, for he sees our dark and tainted souls as lovely (Song 1:5). He longs for us to run away with Him and experience life and joy forever.

So my prayer is, Thank you, Lord, for seeking me out tonight, for calling me into your presence and showering me with love. Thank you for seeing me as lovely, even when I see only the darkness that I wish were eradicated. Thank you for holding me tonight, while there is no one to share my bed. Thank you for your faithfulness. I love you. I choose to devote myself to you, beyond the emotions or sense of duty that may lead me to your Word – I choose devotion out of love and thankfulness, because I am safe with you. I am treasured by you. In you I find love. In you I am loved. In you I am fulfilled. In you I am… Because you are I AM. Because you loved me unreservedly, holding back nothing – not even your own life – because you wanted me with you forever. I am overwhelmed, I am loved. I am at peace. Amen

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