The Song of Songs is probably the hardest to understand in its place in the canon of Sacred Scripture, even more so than Ecclesiastes. It seems to be a series of love letters thrown back and forth between various couples, with no obvious point. Could it be taken as words between the human soul and the God Who pursues it and draws it continually to Himself? Could it represent the Blessed Virgin herself who, as the spouse of the Holy Ghost, is mystically the Sulamite girl who is the focus of much of this set of poems? Let’s have a look. This book is attributed generally to the Israelite king Solomon, so I’ll stick his picture to the end of this post:
“A kiss from those lips!” Thus it begins, and already it would have the youngsters giggling in secondary school. It is well known that King Solomon had a harem of thousands of women. Being one of the most glamorous of the monarchs of the Levant in his time, he would certainly have had. And the women in the harem would probably vie among themselves for the attentions of the king.
“Dark of skin, and yet I have beauty, daughters of Jerusalem. Black are the tents they have in Cedar; black are Solomon’s own curtains; then why not I? Take no note of this Ethiop colour; it was the sun tanned me, when my own brothers, that had a grudge against me, set me a-watching in the vineyards. I have a vineyard of my own that I have watched but ill.”Song of Songs, 1: 4-5
There’s nothing wrong with having a semi-permanent tan, even if I do say so myself. And the king himself doesn’t seem to mind it, whether this is an actual woman of the royal harem or if some young lady is dreaming the whole thing.
“Still bewildered, fairest of womankind? Nay, if thou wilt, wander abroad, and follow with the shepherds’ flocks; feed, if thou wilt, those goats of thine beside the shepherds’ encampment. My heart’s love, prized above all my horsemen, with Pharao’s wealth of chariots behind them! Soft as doves are thy cheeks, thy neck smooth as coral. Chains of gold that neck must have, inlaid with silver.”Song of Songs, 1: 7-10
A little later, his affection for this one lady is given with the line:
“A lily, matched with these other maidens, a lily among the brambles, she whom I love!”Song of Songs, 2: 2
I have seen some of these lines used of the Blessed Virgin, the Virgin most fair, in such devotions as the Holy Rosary, in the meditations for the final mysteries of the Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin. So, arise, arise, she must be raised to heaven:
“I can hear my true love calling to me: ‘Rise up, rise up quickly, dear heart, so gentle, so beautiful, rise up and come with me. Winter is over now, the rain has passed by. At home, the flowers have begun to blossom; pruning-time has come; we can hear the turtle-dove cooing already, there at home. There is green fruit on the fig-trees; the vines in flower are all fragrance. Rouse thee, and come, so beautiful, so well beloved, still hiding thyself as a dove hides in cleft rock or crannied wall. Shew me but thy face, let me but hear thy voice, that voice sweet as thy face is fair.'”Song of Songs, 2: 10-14
In some of the poetry of the Catholic mystics, such as the great Saint John of the Cross and his Dark Night of the Soul, we hear strong echoes of the pining of the human soul for the God that completes her, and often finding Him elusive, even as in these lines from chapter three.
“In the night watches, as I lay abed, I searched for my heart’s love, and searched in vain. Now to stir abroad, and traverse the city, searching every alley-way and street for him I love so tenderly! But for all my search I could not find him. I met the watchmen who go the city rounds, and asked them whether they had seen my love; then, when I had scarce left them, I found him, so tenderly loved; and now that he is mine I will never leave him, never let him go, till I have brought him into my own mother’s house, into the room that saw my birth.”Song of Songs, 3: 1-4
Blush we past the intimacy of chapter four and some of chapter five to find that the gentleman lover has departed once more. In Catholic spiritual theology, we find the Saints often talking about sequences of consolations and desolations. This is a strong theme in the teachings of Saint Ignatius Loyola of the Jesuits and also among the works of the great Carmelites of the sixteenth century. The very real sentiment of the presence of God in the soul is often followed swiftly by a strong intimation of his having departed. This is what we mean when we talk about the dark night of the soul. The dark night of desolation, when God has apparently left is experienced for different amounts of time, and for such as Saint Teresa of Calcutta (aka. Mother Teresa) it has lasted decades. After the high intoxication of the presence of God, this period of apparent draught can be extremely painful:
“I rose up to let him in; but my hands dripped ever with myrrh; still with the choicest myrrh my fingers were slippery, as I caught the latch. When I opened, my true love was gone; he had passed me by. How my heart had melted at the sound of his voice! And now I searched for him in vain; there was no answer when I called out to him. As they went the city rounds, the watchmen fell in with me, that guard the walls; beat me, and left me wounded, and took away my cloak. I charge you, maidens of Jerusalem, fall you in with the man I long for, give him this news of me, that I pine away with love.”Song of Songs, 5: 5-8
The rest of chapter five is a wistful memory of what is lost. The next chapter is the quiet appreciation of the hidden gentleman lover for this one lady, fairest of all, who is searching him out. If we consider that, especially in the several prophecies, God is always given as a husband to the nation of Israel, which is his bride, we may understand why this little book of poetry has been retained in the canon of Sacred Scripture. And this has been carried over by Apostles such as Saint Paul to the Christian Church. And there is another aspect at which I have hinted earlier: Catholic theology calls every human soul female, in that she is betrothed to her Saviour.
“Who is this, whose coming shews like the dawn of day? No moon so fair, no sun so majestic, no embattled array so awes men’s hearts. But when I betook me to the fruit garden, to find apples in the hollows, to see if vine had flowered there, and pomegranate had budded, all unawares, my heart misgave me… beside the chariots of Aminadab. Come back, maid of Sulam, come back; let us feast our eyes on thee. Maid of Sulam, come back, come back!“Song of Songs, 6: 9-12
And I shall end with this end of the book. What is more precious than this relationship of love between husband and wife, between God and people, which is sung about throughout the Bible? Ask a Saint of the Church what they would want the most of all. The great Dominican sage, Saint Thomas of Aquino, had this answer: ‘Non nisi Te, Domine.’ None other than Thyself, Lord. [link]
“Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-Hamon; and when he gave the care of it to vine-dressers, each of these must pay a thousand silver pieces for the revenue of it. A vineyard I have of my own, here at my side; keep thy thousand pieces, Solomon, and let each vine-dresser have his two hundred; not mine to grudge them. Where is thy love of retired garden walks? All the countryside is listening to thee. Give me but the word to come away, thy bridegroom, with thee; hasten away like gazelle or fawn that spurns the scented hill-side underfoot.”Song of Songs, 8: 11-14