Texts: Song of Solomon 2:8-17; Matt. 11:28-30
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes, leaping over the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Whenever I hear lines from the Song of Solomon I remember how a woman at a church I once attended would read them. She would pretend to swoon and would fan her face. I always believed she meant it as a joke. Texts like these read in church can make us shifty. But I also thought her little bit of acting did a good job highlighting how this part of scripture cuts through our moldy piety.
The Song of Solomon is a collection of ancient love poems with an erotic edge. Solomon’s name shows up in a few places within these poems, but it’s unlikely that he actually penned them. The poems present a young couple totally captivated by each other. The perspective of the poems shifts back and forth between the two of them. King Solomon had hundreds of “wives” so it’s hard to imagine him in the sort of mutual, loving relationship these poems depict. The connection to Solomon is probably meant to indicate that whomever wrote these verses wanted to add to the shelf of Solomon-type writing.
But what is the Song of Solomon about? One of the poems near the end of the book seems intended to offer us a take-away. Here are a few lines:
Love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.
It’s flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
Throughout history humans have used fire to cook, to keep themselves warm, and to make the landscape more fertile. They’ve also used it to kill and destroy. Love and passion are similar to fire. Important, powerful, and a bit dangerous. Love can cause one to try leaping over mountains and bounding over hills.
For a long time both Jewish and Christian readers of the Song of Solomon said that the deepest way to read this book is to see it as an analogy of the love shared between God and the beloved people. I sometimes wonder if that reading is a way for old men stuck in libraries to downplay what they might be missing. But even that high-minded, bookish reading of these poems hints at something profound. It hints at the idea that when we experience the good stuff of life we experience God’s love.
The good things in our lives might be the affection of someone else as it was for the lovers whose voices ring through these poems. The good things in life could also be something even more common. If you read this entire book of the Bible you’ll notice that it is awash in natural, sensual images: young foxes, vineyards in bloom, figs, doves, flocks of sheep, pomegranate, myrrh, saffron, aloe, flowing streams, the wind in a garden, wine, cedars, ivory, palm trees, clusters of grapes, roses and the tents of shepherds.
Sometimes it can feel as though the Bible encourages us to look away from nature, with all the talk of the “kingdom heaven” and spiritual realities. One can easily get the idea that the faith it calls us to is an indoor sort of thing, cut off from the smells, sounds and sights of nature. This might affirm our instinct to be skeptical of recreation and rest. This might affirm our instinct to think that the most valuable part of our lives is what we call our “work.” This might affirm our instinct to think that finding enjoyment in the natural world is separate from spirituality.
There have been some Christians skeptical of joy and games and recreation. You may have heard of the old preacher who said, “The devil never takes a day off, so neither do I.” Or you may have encountered the secular equivalent, the manager who says, “The market never takes a day off, so neither do I.”
This kind of thinking does not know what to do with the Song of Solomon. This kind of thinking hardly knows what to do with summer. For many of us these brief warm months are a time to rest and reconnect with nature. We eat outside. We visit parks. We garden. We walk. We swim. We hike. We paddle. We camp.
This is probably not news to many of you, but the word recreation is just the word re-creation pronounced differently. I wonder if that subtle shift isn’t one of the things that lets us forget the deep value, the deep spiritual quality of taking joy in the world. Maybe that lets us think of recreation as time “off,” time with little value, time that is frivolous.
Here is what the Song of Solomon can do for us: simply look at the bare fact that this collection of poems, rich in references to creation, has a place within the covers of the Bible. If poems like these stand solidly within the biblical canon, than maybe rest and recreation and enjoyment of the summer’s sun are an expression of faith too.
In Matthew 11 Jesus tells everyone who is tired of carrying life’s heavy load to come and find rest. This lightening of the load is a part of the gospel! Part of what makes it so is surely the fact that when we trust God, as Jesus does, we cease to expend so much energy worrying or fretting over what our neighbours think. Part of the lightening of the load is surely the rejection of pharisaical posturing and virtue signaling.
But let’s not forget that Jesus practiced Sabbath. Sabbath is planned rest and enjoyment. Sabbath is a way of starting life resting in God’s love. And don’t forget that, like the infatuated poets, Jesus was no stranger to the earth. His, was outdoor faith, shaped by wind and storm and rain and trees and animals. God cares for the birds and the flowers, in their beauty we see a small version of God’s care for us.
Love and passion are like fire—true enough. Yet the sublime fire evoked by rivers, gardens, lakes and forests is surely the fire of God’s own life, intended to set our hearts ablaze. In the sliced strawberry, the glint of sunlight through drop of water, God invites us to a re-creation that radiates joy and gratitude. A burden carried easily by love.
P.S. If we leave behind the biblical poets for a moment, what I’m saying is just this: Have fun soaking up the beauty of God’s world this summer. The most spiritual, God-loving thing you can do is enjoy it!