A guest post by Chris Green
Anytime I preach from Song of Songs I’m reminded of a “gift” my mother gave Julie and me not long after we announced our engagement: a 12-part sermon series from Song of Songs on love-making and the art of marriage. We were, as you’d expect, traumatized by such a graphically “literal” reading; but rest easy—what I’m offering today is a typological reading.
More seriously, I’m struck by the resonance of a theme—or chorus of themes—I’ve heard spoken in our chapel services this year (for example, in sermons by Jonathan Martin, Dr. Gause, Dr. Martin, Chris Brewer, Michael Pogue, and Dr. Cheryl Johns): the invitation into the holy, transfiguring Presence of Christ—holy because he alone transfigures; transfiguring because he alone can share with us his holiness. We have been invited again and again to tryst with him in the garden of agony, to know him in the fellowship of his sufferings, to be melded into him, as a branch is one with the Candlestick. I trust whatever I say today will be heard as a voice in that choir.
Reading Song of Songs is a bewildering, at times impossible, venture. On a close reading, the text turns out to be an impenetrable tangle of characters, exchanges, and metaphors/images—a “thick darkness.” At times, the text slides into apparent meaninglessness, or at least becomes unreadable. As Paul Griffiths says, “Almost everything … is puzzling and disconcerting. The Song’s reader must look for help, first elsewhere in the Song and then elsewhere in Scripture.”
Why would God give us such a text? Perhaps precisely because God means for us to acknowledge our helplessness, allowing ourselves to be forced into the desperation necessary to see all things new. Perhaps because it is only in our shared struggle to make gospel sense of the written Word of Scripture that we are ourselves being made apt for transfiguration into the image and likeness of the living Word, Jesus Christ. Seeing that, we know this “thick darkness” of meaning as in fact a form of the radiant darkness enthroned on the Ark—it’s not without reason that ancient Jewish and Christian readers described the Song as the Holy of Holies of Scripture—, a darkness that makes us aware of our blindness and just so begins to open our eyes, ever so gradually, to the rising light.
When they’re read side-by-side, a pattern emerges from these two scenes. The lover, abed at night, is consumed with longing for her beloved, whom she names “The-One-Whom-My-Heart-Loves.” She dives out into the night to find him. She encounters the watchmen, who prove of no use. Her desire is ultimately unmet, and in the end the chorus is invoked to act. Of course there are variations: for example, in the first scene, her longing is awakened by her own fantasies; in the second, they are stirred by the beloved’s attempts to break into her rooms; in the second scene, she does not find her beloved at all; in the first scene she does in fact find him—only to fall asleep before they can consummate their love. But there’s something about this pattern of frustration that demands our attention. Why the seeking? Why the not-finding? Why the finding-and-losing? Why the failings of desire? Because Jesus is not only the one whom we desire; he is also the one who must educate, master, our desires. We desire the wrong things. So he has to teach us to desire the right things. We desire the right things wrongly. So he has to teach us to desire the right things the right way. As our lives are more perfectly aligned with Christ’s, we find ourselves desiring more than our nature can in fact receive. So we must be transfigured into his likeness, sharing in his divine nature, so we can be made capable of truly enjoying the infinity of God’s love.
As these scenes illustrate, Christ both draws near to us, awakening our desire, and withdraws from us, hiding himself, frustrating that newly-awakened desire. But make no mistake: he does it all for our good. As Song 2.14 makes clear, he longs to see our face even more than we can desire to see his—but we do not yet have faces to face him; our eyes cannot yet behold his glory.
We belong to Jesus and he belongs to us. But we cannot “hold” him, cannot keep him in our “mother’s house,” in whatever reality we’ve know as “home.” If we would be strange with his saving strangeness, we cannot domesticate him, drawing him down to the size of our lives. Instead, we must be ever increasingly enlarged until we are conformed finally to the full measure of his stature, filled to overflowing with the fullness of his life. To that end, he says to us, as he said to Mary Magdalene, “Do not cling to me!” He does not want to be as we remember him, or as we wish or imagine him to be. He insists, for our good, on being all the Father knows him to be for us. Until the End, therefore, we must ever be pursuing him in the Spirit, always reaching out to apprehend that for which we have been apprehended; never grasping, always being held.
The watchmen—or “sentinels,” as one translation has it—play a major role in these scenes. In the first scene, they ignore the woman’s cry. In the second scene, they abuse her for her forwardness. Some readers have taken them as types of the prophets, whom God uses to chastise God’s people. But I see them as religious figures who regard themselves as gatekeepers entrusted with the preservation of a certain “order.” Concerned with keeping the status quo—and confusing it with the Kingdom—they, like Eli did with Hannah, fail to discern the difference between the disordered passions of those dominated by the “flesh” and the Spirit-inflamed longings of the God-intoxicated. Like the Pharisees, they fail at the most basic level to understand that this God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Mt. 9.10-13).
The text says that while the lover was seeking her beloved, the sentinels “found” her. Clearly, then, they are no longer searching for the beloved. They have reduced themselves to watching out for rule-breakers, for those they identify as bandits or outlaws. In truth, they have abandoned their “first love” (Rev. 2.4). Now, they love their “city” and its “order” far more than they love the one who dwells always outside the city gates (Heb. 13.12-14), the one who befriends sinners and dies with thieves.
“Watchmen,” of whatever kind, trade in perverse notions of holiness. As Jonathan Martin put it, they are more concerned with standing up for Jesus than with standing with him. We, however, should be those who recognize that Jerusalem shall be inhabited as a city without walls (Zech. 2.1ff)—and so has no need of sentinels, at least not of this kind.
We need to be like the daughters of Jerusalem. Unlike choruses in classical Greek drama, this chorus of “young women” is engaged with the characters and not only the audience/readers. Again and again, they ask questions of the lover and her beloved. In 5.9, they ask her the question: “What is your beloved more than another beloved?” And, hearing her ecstatic response, make the decisive offer (6.1): “Where has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?”
They can ask such a question and make such a promise because they see her differently than the watchmen see her. They see her as “fairest among women.” In fact, they see her exactly as her beloved sees her. In this, they show us the true nature of Christian being: to know one another rightly is to see one another as Christ sees us. As St. Paul says, we know no one “after the flesh” any more (2 Cor. 5.16). Let this, then, be our prayer: in our seeking may we find not only The-One-Whom-Our-Heart-Loves, but also one another. For, in finding one another, we begin to become the people who can know as we are known.
[Chris’ recent book, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom, was reviewed here]