By the Rt. Rev. Robert L. Fitzpatrick
The evocative and even erotic language of the Song of Songs was likely originally written as a love song celebrating the romance of nobles. It was appropriated by the rabbinic traditions of Judaism to celebrate the relationship of Israel to God and by early Christians to describe the relationship of Christ to the Church.
The words are inmate. The writers exclaims, “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song 2:13) and “My beloved is mine and I am his” (Song 2:16). The images are physical and earthy with descriptions of love and passion drawn from nature.
Though the familiar language of the divine shepherd in Psalm 23 is not romantic, it is earthy and personal. God is intimate giving food and drink, comfort and protection. The image of God is immediate and practical.
A portion of the second chapter of the Song of Solomon is often read at weddings and Psalm 23 is often read at funerals. The most personal times (celebrations of relationships and of end of life) are interrupted by the Church through scriptural images that are real and physical. The Song of Songs offers insight into mutual and sexual love between two persons. It has therefore offered hints for many through the centuries into the depth of our human longing for the holy and for genuine connection with God. We seek God to be as close as a lover and a friend. The picture of the shepherd in Psalm 23 provides comfort in the midst of our limited and anxious human condition. We are fed when hungry, we are protected when in danger, and we are comforted when stressed.
These lessons ensure that we encounter God in human life through the Bible. Here the Holy One is known in our lives through images of sexual and romantic love, in the pastures of a shepherd, and in the anxiety of ordinary cares.
Have you ever considered the divine-human relationship in the very human, romantic/sexual poetry of the Song of Songs? How does such imagery impact your understanding of God?
As you reread the well-known words of Psalm 23, did they seem more personal today? What does it mean to have “mercy and goodness” follow you all the days of your life?
Gracious and loving God, grant that I might experience you this day as close as lover and as near as a friend in the time of trouble. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Robert L. Fitzpatrick is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Hawai’I and the Episcopal Church of Micronesia