OUT OF THE WHOLE OF PLATO'S REPUBLIC THAT A college professor tried thanklessly to drum into our heads, I recall only the opening exchange between Socrates and the aging Cephalus on the subject of youth. To the philosopher's query as to whether life is harder toward the end, his geriatric friend replied that though some may say so, for his part he was relieved to have escaped the "mad and furious master" of the more youthful pleasures. This resonated with a 17-year-old who could already see that love was a problem-a force associated with anguish, bondage, obsession.
And yet, to be done with the season of love and to be glad of it? O Cephalus! My soul didst recoil at the thought.
Now I am widowed and sobered and closer to Cephalus's portion of the journey than ere I was, and more wont to look for answers in the Scriptures than among the ancient Greeks. I thought it befitting to come to God's Word and look again to the locus of wisdom on Eros.
What do you do with Scripture's Song of Solomon? It is the uncle in your living room that nobody talks about. He's part of the family so you have to let him in, but he's just so weird-and vaguely threatening. I have yet to hear preaching that goes anywhere near it, except to offer some obligatory concession that sex is a beautiful gift of God. May we hazard the presumption, on the basis of "inerrancy," that we can learn something from this encrypted poem, something "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16)?
Our betters tried for centuries, to be sure, and history is littered with their attempts. The old Greek translation, as well as Josephus and Philo, does not allegorize away such sensuality as "hair like a flock of goats," and "browsing among the lilies." Hippolytus and Origen are another matter. These early Christian interpreters, with body-despising hangovers from Platonic dualism, can divine only the divine, seeing nothing under any spreading tree but metaphors of Christ and the Church-and doubtless there exists no small grounding for this in Hosea, Ezekiel 16, and Revelation 19.
I myself am not sharp with poetry more sophisticated than Robert Frost, but I know a literary device when I see one, and I have wondered for years about the cryptic refrain in verses 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4: "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, ... that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases."
Modern interpreters, eager to establish their enlightened credentials, see in Song only unalloyed tributes to the joy of sex, and the "do not arouse" mantra as a call to let love be spontaneous. Heaven forbid this is the message for our times. Spontaneity is the one commodity of which I should have thought we had enough.
I am grateful for a book by Professor George Schwab of Erskine Seminary, The Song of Songs' Cautionary Message Concerning Human Love, for hearing in Song the minor chords as well as the major, the whisper of caution in the valley of God's delights.
It is fun, I suppose, to feel faint like the "Beloved" who sighs in the quicksand of her emotions, "I am sick with love" (2:1-7). There is some kind of pleasure, I suppose, in a frantic search through village streets in wee hours for one's lover (3:1-5; 5:2-8). But it begins to seem, too, that love has its drawbacks.
Falling in love can be debilitating, enfeebling, and
all-consuming. You forget to eat. You cannot work. You certainly wouldn't want to live this way over a prolonged period, as the "songs" of this world would have you do, encouraging serial lapses. I once in widowhood was smitten with romance's inappropriate onset and had to fight, tooth and nail, with prayer, to recover equanimity.
"'My lover is mine and I am his'-covenant language. He is one sweet tree in a forest. She is a flower, all others are brambles. Exclusivity is the hallmark of love when pleased to be aroused" (Schwab).
But love is a sleeping tiger, and Song a solemn warning of its bottled-up danger, a force which if approached unwisely will consume a man and all he has (8:6-7; Proverbs 5; James 1:14-15; Jude 8; Revelation 18:3). Are you ready for these feelings?
I have been young and now I am old, and I adjure you, O children of Jerusalem that you "not awaken love until it pleases." Heed the caution, that you also may enjoy the garden in season. The wise man will take care for his affections and keep them in the bounds of God's design, while the foolhardy will tickle the slumbering Leviathan before its time.