Song of Songs is not a book we read a lot. It is hard to interpret given its romantic nature. At times, the book is even sensual. Thus, we tend to shy away from it, except for a few select passages. Despite our modern wariness, however, there is a long history of interpretation within the church. From Origen in the 200s to Spurgeon in the 1800s, Song of Songs has been seen as being understood to describe the union between the spirit of God and the human heart.
Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, wrote 86 sermons on this book. If Jewish commentators saw this romantic poem as an expression of God’s desire for his people, and the church continued this interpretation throughout the centuries, does this not mean we would do well to follow suit? In this vein, there are three important lessons that we can learn from reading The Song of Songs.
1. God Takes the Initiative
God comes to us. One of the classic passages of the book reads, “Arise, my Darling, my beautiful one, and come away with me” (2:13). The book describes a passionate determination that the lover has to make his way to his beloved. The lover refuses to be deterred.
While this is a lovely image when attributed to human lovers, it is utterly transformative when understood as describing God’s desire for us. God is determined to make his way to you. In that determination, all obstacles and deterrents are removed; nothing stands in God’s way. This is God’s disposition towards you, and nothing will change that. God leaps over mountains and bounds over the hills.
Furthermore, God does not wait until we have achieved some spiritual status. The Lord takes the initiative. The Lord, the lover of our souls, the one who is to be our light and our life, perpetually draws close. God does not remain hidden but makes himself known to us.
In the Song of Songs, the beloved recognizes the sound of her soul’s delight as he comes closer. “Listen there he is. Look here he comes,” the beloved cries (2:8). These declarations are emphatic — they are eruptions of delight and praise.
When we quiet ourselves enough and turn the attention of our hearts toward God in unrestrained love, we may begin to recognize the places where God draws closer. We can begin to say, “Listen — there God is, or Look the Lord is close.”
2. We Are the Beloved of God
The reason why the Lord comes to us, and why the Lord is recognizable to us, is because we are the ones God desires. God desires to be united to us. God is not just the lover of our souls — we are the lover of God’s.
The lover calls out, “How delightful is your love, my sister, my Bride, how much more pleasing is your love than wine” (4:10). The book is filled with beautiful affirmations of who we are to the Lord. For example, can you believe that God calls you “my darling?” Do you believe God sees you as beautiful?
Too often, we theologize God’s love so much that we inadvertently rip away any association with passion or feeling. Love becomes a theological principle, which we describe, but do not interact with or feel.
We may read exultant passages such as “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), or “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3) but see them as describing some principle, which God adopts toward us.
Song of Songs uncovers the passionate heart of God. God does not love due to some theological criteria; God loves us because God is inflamed with passion for us. Undoubtedly, this is hard to describe. Our romantic and sensual imageries will always fail to capture the full depth of God’s great desire for us.
Henri Nouwen once wrote a book called “Life of the Beloved” wherein he attempted to describe the dynamic of God’s love for us. In this book, Nouwen writes that the greatest problem of our spiritual lives is self-rejection; we deny who we are.
Self-rejection can cause us to believe that there is some part of us that makes us unlovable. Of course, we all err along the way, and we may have things in our life that God wishes to change, but the Song of Songs reminds us that, fundamentally, God longs for us. We are the beloved of God.
3. The Call of Everlasting Life
God loves us more deeply than any experience or expression in this life. God’s love is ravishing, encompassing, and transformative. Because of that love, God leaps over anything that may obstruct our acceptance of that love. God comes to us.
But God also calls. Over and over the book declares the Lover calling out to his beloved. The lover longs to be received, to be taken into the life of the beloved. Furthermore, the union of love and beloved brings life.
Throughout the book, we come across many images of spring; the winter is past, and the rains are gone; flowers appear on the earth and the season of singing has come. We read about the cooing of doves and the fig tree is bearing fruit. All these images describe the bursting forth of life.
God’s love for us is life to our bodies and our souls. In our unification with God, we experience the life that only God is able to provide for us. In the movement of the poem itself, the divine lover calls his beloved into a new place of life and love.
This is the truth we are asked to recognize in our lives as well. There is no day in our lives where God does not come to us, calling us His beloved, and inviting us to experience life in full abundance (John 10:10). This is the promise articulated in the poem, and this is the promise revealed in Jesus.
What Does This Mean?
There is always a certain amount of risk in letting ourselves be loved. Even in this romantic poem, the beloved must choose the lover. The beloved must willfully turn and say, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine” (6:3). In fact, as much as the Song of Songs describes the Lord’s endless call to us, it also prompts us to call to the Lord.
The final passage of the book shows the beloved echoing the very words of the divine lover: “Come away my beloved,” (8:14). The call of love is always reciprocal. We are asked to match the Lord’s call of love with our own.
The Song of Songs depicts the type of passion that God has for a connection with his people. It describes the love that Christ has for his church (Ephesians 5:32). In this way, this profound biblical book urges us to use our agency to choose the Lord, to call out to every one in whom our soul’s delight.
We must step away from a life lived behind the walls and lattices of our own kingdoms and take the Lord’s hand. It is only then that Christ will lead us into a life that is more vibrant, abundant, and blissful than anything without him.
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.