Jan 26 2009
The song of songs, which is Solomon’s.
– Song of Solomon 1:1
/ Photo by big-ashb /
We won’t get very far in discussing the sacred language of lover and beloved within the Western traditions without referencing the biblical Song of Solomon, so let’s start there.
Virtually every Christian and Jewish love poem, sacred and secular, in some way hearkens back to the Song of Solomon.
Just read this poem by St. Clare of Assisi:
Draw me after You!
We will run in the fragrance of Your perfumes,
O heavenly Spouse!
I will run and not tire,
until You bring me into the wine-cellar,
until Your left hand is under my head
and Your right hand will embrace me happily
and You will kiss me with the happiest kiss of Your mouth.
– Clare of Assisi ( 1193? – 1254, Italy)
English version by Regis J. Armstrong, OFM CAP & Ignatius C. Brady, OFM
|Francis and Clare: The Complete Works: The Classics of Western Spirituality
Translated by Regis J. Armstrong, OFM CAP / Translated by Ignatius C. Brady, OFM
Now compare that with these opening lines from the Song of Solomon
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth:
for thy love is better than wine.
Because of the savour of thy good ointments
thy name is as ointment poured forth,
therefore do the virgins love thee.
we will run after thee…
– Song of Solomon 1:2-4 (KJV)
/ Photo by lepiaf.geo /
The Song of Solomon has also had some influence on Muslim and Sufi love poetry, though not to the same extent. In another section we’ll look at other important sources of inspiration for the great Sufi writings.
Getting to Know the Song
The Song of Solomon is a passionate, lyrical love poem. Two lovers carry out their romance amidst the beauties of nature in springtime.
/ Photo by Hamed Masoumi /
My beloved spake, and said unto me,
Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
The fig tree putteth forth her green figs,
and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away…
– Song of Solomon 2:10-13 (KJV)
The voice of the poem shifts between the man – the king, the bridegroom – and the woman – the maiden, the bride. It is as if reading the lyrics of a song composed as a duet. Here the man speaks, followed immediately by the woman’s response:
As the lily among thorns,
so is my love among daughters.
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood,
so is my beloved among the sons.
– Song of Solomon 2:2-3 (KJV)
The Song’s Eroticism
/ Photo by Hamed Masoumi /
Don’t think that the Song of Solomon is just a pretty, but bland love ballad. The eroticism of the poem is enough to bring a flush of heat to your cheeks, even in this highly sexualized 21st century.
My beloved put his hand to the latch,
and my heart was thrilled within me.
I arose to open to my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
My fingers with liquid myrrh,
upon the handles of the bolt.
I opened to my beloved…
– Song of Solomon 5:4-6 (RSV)
And we also have:
How fair and pleasant you are,
O loved one, delectable maiden!
You are stately as a palm tree,
and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree
and lay hold of its branches.
Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
and the scent of your breath like apples,
and your kisses like the best wine
that goes down smoothly,
sliding over lips and teeth.
– The Song of Solomon 7:6-9 (RSV)
Uh, what was I saying? Oh yes…
I remember hearing a joke on Garrison Keillor’s radio show A Prairie Home Companion about a Lutheran pastor who lingered just a little too long in his reading of the Song of Solomon. I’ll bet many a monk and priest have done so over the centuries.
King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
The Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon (Detail from the Doors of Paradise)
/ Photo by Yellow.Cat /
But ancient tradition says these lovers aren’t just any man and woman. They are King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. As king, Solomon had many wives, but his great love affair was with the Queen of Sheba, usually thought to have come from Africa. And, in fact, the woman of poem describes herself has being dark skinned:
I am black, but comely,
O ye daughters of Jerusalem…
– Song of Solomon 1:5 (KJV)
(As an aside, special notice is given to the fact that she is black and he is white. We’ll explore the esoteric meaning for this in a future chapter. For now, it is simply worth noting.)
The journeying Queen of Sheba coming to King Solomon is read by some as a metaphor for the questing soul approaching God.
The Queen of Sheba
Came to Solomon;
That was in order to gain wisdom.
When she had found him, indeed,
His wonders streamed upon her so suddenly
That she melted in contemplation.
She gave him all,
And the gift robbed her
Of everything she had within —
In both heart and mind,
Everything was engulfed in love.
– Hadewijch ( 1210? – 1297, Belgium )
English version by Mother Columba Hart
|Hadewijch: The Complete Works (Classics of Western Spirituality) by Mother Columba Hart|
A Spiritual Reading of the Song of Solomon
So just what is this sexually charged love poem doing in the Bible? Even though it’s a breathtaking poem of two young lovers, at first reading it doesn’t seem especially “spiritual.” Well, that’s often the case with sacred love poetry. The inner meaning is often intentionally hidden beneath a surface reading that grabs our attention on a more visceral level. Sure, some sacred love poems may have originally been written as purely what they appear to be, simple human love poems, and subsequent generations have re-interpreted them as spiritual allegories. Many others, however, have definitely been written with an intentional layering of meaning that eventually leads the seeker to God, as the Divine Beloved.
Recall that King Solomon, the reputed subject and author of this poem, was known above all else for his great wisdom. And, by wisdom, we don’t mean simply that he was smart or cunning, qualities he also possessed. Solomon’s wisdom was the wisdom of secret knowledge. Solomon is traditionally said to have possessed knowledge of the inner truths of God. He was both king and initiate.
For this reason, mystics pay special attention to the Song of Solomon and read it as a spiritual allegory that works on many levels. A Jewish reading of the poem often understands it as an expression of the profound longing of the people for the awaited Messiah. For Christians, it is a poem of love for Christ and the rapturously anticipated Second Coming. But, more broadly, when we step back from the theologies of specific groups, we can read the Song of Solomon as a song of the passionate love affair carried out between the soul (the maiden) and the personal form of the Divine (the king).
/ Photo by notsogoodphotography /
Does that seem like too much of a stretch to you, especially given some of the poem’s more erotic passages? Good. Hold onto that skepticism as we explore more deeply in future sections. But keep an open mind. Remember that mystics have deeply contemplated this work for centuries, discovering in its words and images deep truths about the soul’s spiritual journey.
/ Photo by alison e dunn /
I’m not going to have us go through the Song of Songs passage-by-passage and attempt to explain the inner meaning of each element. Instead, over the coming weeks, let’s explore the important themes and symbols in poetry of the Beloved from all over the world. We’ll carefully unpack the hidden meanings found in sacred love poems, using examples from Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu traditions. By the end of the series, you’ll be able to unlock these songs of sacred love and devotion for yourself…