Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 32. Songs of Songs
Songs 5:6 I opened for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure. I looked for him but did not find him.
Oh my goodness, it gets worse! If there was an increase in difficulty in choosing ‘highlight verses’ as we progressed through Psalms, Proverbs and then Ecclesiastes, it gets even worse when we arrive at the Song of Songs. This is a controversial book, controversial in that it doesn’t mention God, and controversial in that is has very explicit love language in it that has caused past commentators to become nervous wrecks trying to make it an allegory, while more modern writers tend to say it’s just what it is, a love song to be enjoyed as that, a celebration of God’s fundamental gifts of sexuality and love. In order to try to make sense of it, a number of years ago I took the text and put it in the form of a stage production. If you read it straight from a Bible, you need one that inserts ‘Beloved’ (the girl, us) and ‘Lover’ (the man, possibly Solomon, Jesus) throughout to make clear who is speaking.
I confess I struggle with the ideas of analogies in this book. There are some obvious ones that have blessed me over the years. The girl’s early description of herself, I find poignant: “Dark am I, yet lovely.” (1:5) She goes on to explain that she is beautiful yet she is dark as a result of working in the open under the sun. She is a humble worker. But then I think of that as a description of the Christian. I am dark. My background is dark, my character and personality is dark – without Christ. I am a sinner. And yet now I am a redeemed sinner, a child of God with all of Christ’s character and personality available to me via his indwelling Holy Spirit. Are you able to hold this balance when you think of yourself? ‘Dark’ maintains a humility in me. ‘Beautiful’ releases praise and worship in me.
I like the man’s “Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the maidens.” (2:2) Dare we hear Jesus saying to us, “You stand out in this world and I love looking at you”? Or there is her response: “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my lover among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste.” (2:3) Is that how we see Jesus? Does he stand out from all the names in the world as one who brings fruit to my life, and shade, a place of serenity free from the blasts of the sun, the ways of the world?
Yes, there are individual verses like that which have blessed me over the years, but this particular passage that concludes with our verse above has always seemed particularly poignant. See the whole picture:
“2I slept but my heart was awake. Listen! My lover is knocking: “Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one. My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.” 3I have taken off my robe– must I put it on again? I have washed my feet– must I soil them again? 4My lover thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him. 5I arose to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with flowing myrrh, on the handles of the lock. 6I opened for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure. I looked for him but did not find him. I called him but he did not answer.” (5:2-6)
It is night. She is at home. She is awakened by the sounds of gentle knocking and his whisper for her to let him in (v.2). But she had got undressed. Has she got to get up and get dressed again? She had washed her feet and so if she gets up she may dirty them again. Oh, this is all most inconvenient! (v.3) But he makes sounds of lifting the latch and coming in. That stirs her heart. (v.4) She quickly gets up, but not without quickly putting on perfume to smell nice for him, to overcome the scent of night-time sweat in a hot climate. She eventually goes to the door (v.5) But it is too late; he has gone. (v.6)
What a picture. Put in general terms, Jesus comes to us, he calls to us, his Spirit stirs within us, calling us to respond. But it seems an inconvenient moment, we have other things on our mind, or we have other responsibilities to attend to. We feel inconvenienced and so we ponder on it, we hesitate and only then we respond, but it seems he is no longer there. Nothing happens.
In the Gospels, Jesus teaches us about the error of making excuses. There was the farmer, building bigger and bigger barns but never getting his life right with God. Just one more barn, and then it was too late (Lk 12:16-20). There were those who put off following Jesus because of family responsibilities (Mt 8:21,22) or because of opposition (Mt 13:21) or personal worries (Mt 13:22). In each case there is a hesitation which develops into a drawing back. Each of these people, just like the girl in the song, put personal concerns first and in so doing they failed to realise the wonder of the one they were holding back from.
Again Jesus told two parables about this. The first was a man finding treasure in a field (Mt 13:44) – so he sold all he had and bought the field – and the second a man finding a pearl of great value so he too sells all he had and buys it (Mt 13:45,46). The lesson is clear: Jesus looks for whole-hearted commitment, not a self-concern shown by this girl in the Song.
But was that incident the end of the story? No, but it was the cause of pain, anguish and concern and delay. The good news is that God’s grace is bigger than our hesitations but that doesn’t mean we will enter into all we could without that hesitation. Let’s take the simple lesson as it stands: when Jesus calls (by whatever means) let’s not hesitate, especially when our hesitation is founded in self-concern. There is a treasure to be taken, a pearl to be admired and relished and our hesitation may mean with miss out in some measure. Let’s not presume on His grace, hoping for second chances, let’s go when he calls – straight away!