Your Love is Better than Chocolate. Reflections on Song of Songs

small__7864852790Through the ages many have wondered just how to deal with the book of the Bible known as Song of Songs, its sensuality and sexuality surprising many and causing many a good Christian to skip ahead to a much more modestly behaved Isaiah. However, celebrating fifteen years of marriage this week I found the words of Song of Solomon quite fitting: “For your love is better than chocolate” (1:2 mostly NRSV, except that I prefer chocolate to wine!). The Bible itself teaches that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 NRSV). So we might ask, just how does Song of Songs help us with righteousness?

To answer that we first need to ask what the book is about. In it we find a love triangle with powerful Solomon who never speaks, a male shepherd who does, and a female who is brought into Solomon’s harem, but who is in love with the shepherd. With many just seeing it as a love poem between Solomon and his bride, why do we see a love triangle instead? Consider:

  • With regards to Solomon we know that “Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kings 11:3 NRSV), So . . . “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3 NRSV) could hardly make sense for a bride of Solomon who must instead say “I am one of my beloved’s many, and my beloved is shared between us.” Also, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me” (7:10) again does not fit for a man with so many women. If the woman is speaking about Solomon it would be “I am one of my beloved’s, and his desire is to build up his own ego by conquering women.”
  • In 6:1-3 when the female looks for her lover, she does not look for a king in a palace, but a shepherd in a garden.
  • The male voice says in 6:8,9 “There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens without number. My dove, my perfect one, is the only one” (NRSV). I am hardly romantic, but even I know that it would be horrible love poetry for Solomon to tell the female how many women he already has at home. This makes far better sense on the lips of an exclusive partner, the shepherd.
  • In 8:11-12 the male voice points to the wealth and power of Solomon. “My vineyard, my very own, is for myself; you, O Solomon, may have the thousand [pieces of silver]” (NRSV). In other words, “you can keep your wealth, I will enjoy being in love with this woman which is a far better life.”
  • In 3:6-11 we read about Solomon arriving to marry the woman. But in contrast to all the garden imagery she uses to speak of the shepherd, she points out Solomon’s power: “sixty might men of Israel, all equipped with swords and expert in war” (3:7,8 NRSV). How could she say no that?

Given this love triangle, Song of Songs has much to teach about righteousness.

First, Song of Songs was a corrective to the faulty wisdom of Solomon in matters of love, sex, and marriage. True love is not found in the multiple wives of Solomon, or even Abraham, or any of the males of the Old Testament for that matter. God’s intention is found in the Garden of Eden with one man and one woman exclusively and mutually in love. The shepherd has it right, not Solomon. The exclusive relationship is more romantic by far! And notice how much the female speaks in the poem. That too is far more romantic than the domineering male scenario which Solomon represents. So this poem shows a better way ahead for love, sexuality, and marriage, a more righteous way for Solomon and men like him.

Second, Song of Songs is a corrective to the faulty wisdom of the Christian Church in matters of love, sex, and marriage. So often throughout the history of the Christian Church Song of Songs was interpreted in an allegorical way which would soften the “obscene” bits. It was seen as a description of love between God and His people. However, this often seems a bit forced and the explanations become very arbitrary. Better to see it for what it is, a celebration of love, sex, and marriage. Given the ‘bad press’ that parts of the Church have often given to the physical aspects of love, this poem does help us recover the goodness of sexuality. God invented it, is not surprised by it, and it existed back when God looked at His creation and called it good. That the Church has often downplayed the goodness of sex has more to do with being swayed by Greek and gnostic thinking than with sticking to solid Biblical theology. When we affirm the goodness of a mutually expressed sexuality within marriage we find a way towards greater righteousness.

Finally, Song of Songs is a corrective to the faulty wisdom of society today in matters of love, sex, and marriage. If the Church has at times needed the lesson that sexuality is good, then society needs to learn that sexuality is a big deal. That is why it has traditionally been linked to the lifelong commitment and covenant of marriage. It is too sacred, too holy, too important, too powerful, too harmful, too exploitable to be without boundaries. In God’s design, the covenant of marriage is that boundary.

While people will tell the Church to “get with the times” and that the sex-within-marriage is old fashioned, we do well to notice the teaching of the apostles in the New Testament to people coming to Christ from the Roman culture. They do not often talk about keeping the Sabbath, or tithing, or some of the other things you might expect former pagans to know when drawing close to Israel’s God. But they do warn again and again against sexual immorality. In the ancient Roman society sexuality was “no big deal.” The Christian Church did not “get with the times” then and it should not now. It has always been a counter-cultural revolution.

We have been hearing more often about “rape culture” on university campuses which has been met with a “no means no” campaign. But suppose a young man points a water pistol at a young woman and she says “no.” Is he not likely to pull the trigger anyway and say “What? Where is your sense of fun? A little water is no big deal!” Far too many men and women are playing with loaded guns while thinking they are playing with water pistols. And people are getting hurt. Song of Songs, in teaching that love, sexuality, and marriage is a big deal provides a corrective to the wisdom of our society and points the way to righteousness.

While it is difficult for me to select passages for the scripture reading as some parts are too saucy, and others are, for us today, comically weird, this is the Word of God. And the Word of God tells us that sex is good, exclusive marriage is great, and the two belong together.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned
(Song of Songs 8:6-7 NRSV)

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When Prayers Are Not Pretty – Reflections on “Boot to the Head” Psalms

fightingWhat happens when as a spiritual exercise you commit to praying though the Psalms and very early on you get to a verse like Psalm 3, verse 7?

Rise up, O Lord!
Deliver me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
Psalm 3:7 NRSV

This verse is calling out for what I would call a “boot to the head” of the enemy. Whatever happened to turning the other cheek?

In visiting the elderly or the sick I often like to read Psalm 139 with all its comforting thoughts but sometimes I forget to stop at verse 18 and read:

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
Psalm 139:19-22 NRSV

Note how the one praying is not just filled with hatred, but “perfect hatred.” How nice! Or how about the time that I opened worship using Psalm 149 as a call to worship but forgot to end at verse 5:

6 Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
7 to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
8 to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
9 to execute on them the judgement decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the Lord!
Psalm 149:6-9 NRSV

As a Christian I have to ask how can this fit with the words of Jesus when he says “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” in Luke 6:28 (NRSV). Or as Paul commends the teaching of Jesus to the Christians in Rome: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14 NRSV). Reading the not-so-pretty parts of the Psalms makes me feel less like a Jesus follower and more like an extremist jihadist. How can I love the enemy as Jesus taught while praying for their destruction as the Psalmists do?

Here are four thoughts to help us:

First, recognize the circumstances of the writer. Psalm 3, for example,  was written by David when his son Absalom took the throne from him and was seeking to end his life, chasing after him with an army no less. You can read about this in 2 Samuel chapters 15-18. We each go through troubles, but how many of us as comfy Canadians have ever faced a situation quite like that? Put yourself in the Psalmist’s shoes for a moment, and rather than expressing hatred along with the Psalmist you just might find yourself expressing gratitude for having it so good.

Second, recognize that the Psalms are sometimes not as personal as we might tend to read them. When we read of the Psalmist’s desire for a “boot to the head” of the enemy, our minds may go straight to thinking of individuals that have offended us in some way. The Psalmist, on the other hand, may rather be asking God for a military victory against a vicious army. Indeed when you read the background story to Psalm 3, David does not want his enemy, his son, Absalom to die. When he hears of his son’s death, far from celebrating an answered prayer, he mourns.

Third, we can think of the enemies all around us that are threatening to crush and/or kill us. As Canadians we may not be able to think of anyone out to kill us, but can we think of anything? Cancer? Boot to the head Lord! Addictions? Boot to the head Lord! Gossip? Boot to the head of gossip Lord! Lies? Boot to the head of lies! Satan himself? Dear God, boot to the head!

Fourth, when the name or a face of someone who has wounded you cannot help but come to mind, then go ahead and let God’s Word help you express your pain and anger. “This is how I really feel, Lord” is a valid and valuable prayer, “I wish you would give a boot to the head of my enemy. That is how I feel.” This fourth point deserves a little more attention . . .

It is interesting at how we might feel that we sin by being angry, but scripture does not condemn anger as sin by itself: “Be angry but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26 NRSV). We sin, not by being angry, but by what we do with our anger. Far better to express our anger to God in prayer, than to another person with our fists, words, or manipulations.

This is where we can see that prayer is a conversation that moves, and moves us over time. We may think that we cannot pray until we have a well thought out and tidied up prayer, a “finished product” worthy of an “A” from an English teacher. Forget that, just pray. Pray when you are too upset to get your words together. Pray when your prayers are too ugly for the church prayer meeting or even your best friend. Pray an honest prayer like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane:

33 He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34 And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ 35 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; Mark 14:33-36a NRSV

This was not a pretty well thought out prayer. But Jesus’ prayer moved into: “yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36b NRSV). Basically Jesus went from “Dad, this sucks” to “You are love and grace, and I will join with you as you pour out your love and grace.” And not only did the prayer of Jesus change, but also his expression; from distressed and agitated in the garden, to calm, cool, and collected before the High Priest, before Herod, and before Pilate. Prayer does stuff like that.

When there is someone in your life you find yourself truly loathing, let the Psalms lead you into prayer. But then let the Holy Spirit move you through prayer so that you can move from “Boot to the head of that person Lord, and that is how I feel about it” to “You Lord, are love and grace and I will join you as you pour out your love and grace. Yes, even on that person.”

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Biblical Message to World Rulers: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid. Reflections on Psalm 2

HitlerThere is no shortage of rulers, now, and in recent memory, who have plunged or kept the people under their care into darkness. We think of Bin Laden and the recruitment of people into lives of terror. We think of the Taliban and remember the dismal treatment of women. We think of Boko Haram and the atrocities committed of late. We think of those associated with the new “Islamic State” and the reports of beheadings, kidnappings, forced conversions, and executions. Already the rulers of these organisations are responsible for thousands dead and thousands more living in terror this year. But we can also look back to other atrocities within living memory. There is Hitler responsible for 10 million deaths, 6 million of which were Jews, and we are not even counting those who died in battle from the war he started. Stalin is said to be responsible for 7-13 million dead, some say much more. Mao is said to be responsible for 40-50 million dead. How many more lived, but lived in terror? These rulers and all like them have something in common beyond being responsible for plunging people into darkness: they are mentioned in the Bible. Consider:

1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:1-3 NRSV)

These verses originally speak to the rulers surrounding Israel in Old Testament times, and the “anointed” referred to the earthly king of Israel. But they also point to Jesus Christ as true King, and to rulers throughout all of history and even today who operate in ways that are far from the Kingdom ways of the Lord. No thought is given by all such rulers to the possibility that Jesus Christ is “King of kings, and Lord of lords” (Rev 19:16) and that they are subject to His rule. They are expected to follow Christ as they lead others.

Since Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords, He has the right, in fact the obligation, to execute justice with regards to those who rule:

4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
(Psalm 2:4-9 NRSV emphasis mine)

Revelation makes the connection between Psalm 2 and Jesus quite clear:

15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Revelation 19:15-16 NRSV emphasis mine)

Keep reading in Revelation and you will learn what happens next to “the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty” (v18). It is not pretty.

Can you imagine that day, when the each ruler of the earth will stand before the judgement seat of Christ to give an account for how they ruled? Can you imagine the questions that will be posed to them?

  • Why did you not follow Me? Why did you not follow the example I set of servant leadership? I am the Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for the sheep. Why did you not do likewise?
  • Why did you not lead people to Me? Is it not your duty as a leader, as a shepherd, to lead your people to greener pastures? Why did you instead plunge them into darkness?
  • Why are you making excuses? Did you not notice the greener pastures? Did you not see the positive impact My people have had in the world, wherever they have been truly following Me?
  • Why are you making excuses? Did you not notice how people have been following Me for many, many, many generations. Did you seriously think Christianity was just a passing fad? Did it never cross your mind that maybe your rule and your cause was the passing fad?
  • Did you stop to consider the positive impact upon your people had you drawn close to Me? The potential was too profound to ignore the possibilities.
  • Did you stop to consider the eternal implications for you in your relationship with Me? The potential was too profound to ignore the possibility.
  • Did you put any effort at all into exploring the evidence for My claim to being your Lord? Did you ponder the evidence for the truth of Christianity? As a leader, ought you not to have taken a lead in the most important questions ever asked?

Can you imagine it? And can you imagine what would happen if rulers everywhere would seriously explore the Christian faith? Can you imagine what kind of world we would live in if rulers everywhere would repent from their sins and turn to the Lord following the example of the Good Shepherd who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NRSV)?

Final questions: Are you aware that you have people in your realm of influence? Are you aware that you may be considered a ruler of this earth? Are you aware that those same questions could be posed to you?

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
with trembling 12 kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Happy are all who take refuge in him.
(Psalm 2:10-12 NRSV)

Let us pray for those who are living in darkness. Let us pray for the rulers who plunge or keep their people in darkness. Let us be encouraged that this world’s story is far from over and that darkness will give way to light. Let us pray that we will serve well, whenever and wherever we reign, and that in doing so we will reflect light into the lives of our families, friends, and enemies.

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