Close your eyes, remember when you were first in love, and listen:
The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Song of Songs 2:8-13
Years ago I was a member of a small African American church in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. One of the founding couples, Mr. and Mrs. Reuben, decided to organize a dinner to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They asked me if I would say a few words after the meal.
I was, to say the least, hesitant. Not only were the Reubens many years my senior, I was all too aware I had not unlocked any secrets about marital longevity. I had no idea what to say to this saintly couple whose love and devotion set standards most members of the congregation would never match.
But their very specialness meant I couldn’t turn down the Reubens’ invitation to address the occasion. In those antediluvian days before Google, before any topic could be instantly and exhaustively searched by typing a few characters into the search bar, I pulled my old English literature texts from a moldy box and scanned the indexes for words of love.
I found Dante’s passionate tributes to his beloved Beatrice:
Already a third of the hours were almost past
of the time when all the stars were shining,
when Love suddenly appeared to me
whose memory fills me with terror.
Joyfully Love seemed to me to hold
my heart in his hand, and held in his arms
my lady wrapped in a cloth sleeping.
I found Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s immortal question:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love tee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I sought the Bard’s eternal cadences and bottomless insights into human nature and emotion:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate,
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Even the cynical Langston Hughes found value in love, saying,
When people care for you and cry for you, they can straighten out your soul.
And Maya Angelou cast the deepest truth in the fewest words:
If we lose love and self respect for each other, this is how we finally die.
In my search for the right words, I leafed through the concordance of my Revised Standard Version Bible and found what may be the greatest, deepest, most beautiful, and most erotic love poems in all literature: the Song of Songs.
The poem presents a bride so in love with her betrothed that the very sight of him excites her:
O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!
For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant,
Your name is oil poured out;
Therefore the maidens love you.
Draw me after you, let us make haste.
The king has brought me into his chambers.
We will exult and rejoice in you;
We will extol and rejoice in you;
We will extol your love more than wine;
Rightly do they love you. (1:2-4)
The lovesick groom is no less enamored:
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
You have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,
With one jewel of your necklace.
How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
How much better is your love than wine,
And the fragrance of your oils than any spice! (4:9-10)
The poetry is exquisite and charms anyone who has ever been in love. But the Song of Songs, attributed to King Solomon himself, is the expression of young love, physical love, the unfathomable infatuation of two beautiful children thrashing about in their own newly discovered hormonal pools.
The poem is instructive reading for young persons who think they invented love. But it’s easy enough for young lovers to believe that love is a torch their parents long ago passed to a new generation and I wondered if there were any flickers remaining for Mr. and Mrs. Reuben.
In church they sat apart. Mr. Reuben was an ordained deacon who sat with his peers in the front pew while Mrs. Reuben sat with lady friends across the aisle. After worship they would smile and mingle with other congregants, reaching out to touch shoulders, to ask if people were well, to inquire if they needed anything. They were loving and caring people. But I rarely saw Mr. and Mrs. Reuben talking with one another, even when they put on their coats and walked out together. Their interpersonal communication, I speculated, must have been subliminal.
So as I aroused myself re-reading the love lines of the Song of Songs, I began to worry if the words were entirely appropriate for an old couple married half a century.
As some bible commentaries point out, the title of the poem is “Solomon’s Song of Songs,” but no one knows if this means it was written by Solomon or for him, or –perhaps – about him. Solomon is mentioned seven times in the song, and even non-scholars can tell the poem was written in a single voice, by a single author. Whether that author was indeed the king is an ancient mystery. Solomon reigned in the 10th century B.C., and many scholars date the origins of the poem to his lifetime.
When the New Revised Standard Version of the bible was being developed in the 1980s, I was a communicator for American Baptist Churches USA. I was assigned the task of keeping American Baptists informed about this modern translation, which sought to make the ancient biblical language easier to understand by 20th and 21st century readers.
During this period I worked frequently with Dr. J. Randall Bailey, who at the time was one of the few African American Old Testament scholars in the world.
Randy, who was dually aligned with the American Baptists and the Progressive National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., was a member of the NRSV translation committee and he regularly supplied me with reams of corrected NRSV galleys to keep me up to date on developments. He also asked me to bring the galleys with me when we traveled to churches, relieving his luggage of 10 to 20 pounds of additional weight.
As a layman, I was impressed by the sheer volume of errata produced by the translators. I concluded that while the NRSV would be widely regarded as the most accurate English bible translation on the market, no one could claim it was inerrant.
On one of our bible promotion journeys, Randy told me about a special contribution he had made to broaden the cultural horizons of the new bible.
In the earlier Revised Standard Version, in the Song of Songs, a translator betrayed his or her assumption that dark skin was not necessarily synonymous with beauty.
“I am very dark, but comely,” the bride says, with emphasis on the “but.”
“Do not gaze at me because I am swarthy, because the sun has scorched me.” (1:5a-6)
Randy was convinced a centuries-old European cultural and ethnic bias had distorted the translation. He offered an improved phrase for the NRSV:
“I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon. Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me.” (1:5-6a)
I think Randy also improved the poetry of the song, and in the end I decided to go ahead and read an excerpt of Song of Songs to Mr. And Mrs. Reuben on their golden anniversary.
The couple sat beside one another at the banquet table and smiled. They didn’t take their eyes off me while I read.
“How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden! You are as stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.” (7:6-9)
“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.” (8:6-7)
I stopped reading and looked at Mr. and Mrs. Reuben. Their eyes were dry and they were still smiling. But as I closed my bible and put it aside, Mr. Reuben turned to look at Mrs. Reuben. He caught her eye and she grinned, blushing imperceptibly. He gently took her hand, held it for a second or two, and put it down. They both looked up at me, still smiling.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
It wasn’t a potent demonstration of passion but, then again, it didn’t need to be. Over fifty long years, they had learned to express their love with secret glances and touches, and long moments would pass without words and gestures. No longer did their love require speeches, recitations or explanations.
A half century after they said their vows, Mr. and Mrs. Reuben had become the soul mates every lover seeks. They lived in the same space, slept in the same bed, thought the same thoughts, had the same reactions when they witnessed happiness and tragedy, and were no longer capable of conceiving a life without the other. Whatever passionate thoughts and gestures they shared were theirs alone.
The love poetry of the Song of Songs is passionate, arousing, erotic.
Why is it in the bible?
Because the Song of Songs reminds us that God’s love for us is equally passionate; and the passion lovers feel for one another is God’s gift to be relished and ecstatically enjoyed without guilt.
In that sense, sex is the ultimate sermon: When young lovers make love, God feels their bliss and allows them a special insight into the joys of eternity.
But so, too, the sedate but intimate surety of old lovers becomes a perfect sermon about God’s love for each of us.
Whether God expresses love for us through orgasmic passion or by blessing us with a quiet haven of intimacy, it is all the same. God’s love is the air we breathe throughout our lives.
And as Solomon’s wisdom continually assures us,
“love is as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.” (8:6-7)