By Heath Dewrell – Assistant Professor – Department of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin
This is the seventh in a series of eight posts that spotlights paintings from our Artist in Residence program in dialogue with Christian scripture to offer spiritual windows for reflection and prayer. These reflections are based on Princeton Seminary’s Summer 2022 Chapel series. You can view the service from which this post is based HERE
SCRIPTURE READING: Song of Solomon 2:1-17
I’d hazard to guess that the Song of Solomon is one of the least preached on books of the Bible. It is one of the two books of the Bible that doesn’t mention God (the other being Esther). While many faithful interpreters have read the book allegorically, on its surface the Song centers on romantic love between two apparently unmarried young people—and the Church has often been suspicious of romantic love between unmarried young people.
We don’t have a lot of information about how the early Church decided which books were included in the canon of Scripture and which ones weren’t, but we do have accounts of the early Jewish discussions of whether the Song of Solomon should be included in their canon, with some rabbis in favor of its inclusion and some opposed. The book probably only made it into the canon because it was believed to have been written by King Solomon (but almost no biblical scholars today believe that it was) and because it was interpreted as being about God’s love for Israel, rather than about romantic love (almost no scholars think that this was how the original audience would have understood it).
So, in sum, the Song of Solomon seems to have sneaked its way into our Bibles, and ever since many Christians seem to be somewhat embarrassed that it made its way in. We mostly ignore it, or maybe trot it out as one of the readings at weddings. The Revised Common Lectionary only contains readings from the Song of Solomon only twice every three years, and even then the lectionary gives us the option to read something less scandalous from “respectable” books, like Genesis or Deuteronomy, instead.
Likewise, many people would probably be surprised to hear that today’s painting, entitled “Song of Solomon,” is firmly grounded in Scripture. It doesn’t look like the sort of thing that would find its way into a stained-glass window in most churches. It’s far too racy for many traditional Christian sensibilities.
But, despite all of this, Song of Solomon is part of the canon of Scripture and He Qi’s painting is Christian art. And I believe that both of these facts are important for two reasons. First, Song of Solomon reveals how all-encompassing God’s love is. God is love, and not just the staid, chaste, “virtuous” Platonic love that has been traditionally associated with the Church. Wherever there is love—even the wild, breathtaking, overwhelming love between lovers—God is there.
Second, the fact that the Song of Solomon made its way into Scripture, despite the fact that it ran so counter to so many faithful people’s sensibilities, demonstrates that God will ultimately do what God wants to do, regardless of what we’d like God to do. The wild eroticism of the Song may make, and has made, many people uncomfortable, but God affirms and celebrates the passionate love described in it anyway, despite some people’s discomfort. I believe that the Song is in our Scripture because God wanted it there, and I believe that God wanted it there because God knew that we would need a reminder of how expansive and all-encompassing God’s love really is.
The Song of Solomon is thus both a divine affirmation of romantic love and a warning to us against trying to make God fit our predetermined frameworks. God, and God’s love, is far bigger than we can ever comprehend in our neat and tidy categories. Like the beloved in the Song, despite our best efforts to confine God, God will come “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills” and overturn our preconceptions about just how expansive God’s love really is.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen