Song of Songs 8

The blaze in every soul.

This is the chapter I return to the most.

I was moved, I always am, by the culminating praise of love itself:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of one’s house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.

Followed by the wonderful ownership of her person and her sexuality by the girl: “my own vineyard is mine to give”. I love that passage, it’s one of my favorites in the whole Bible. It says it all about who and what God created us to be. About the nature of his love for us.

It’s one of two books of the Bible that never mentions God’s name. There’s so many things it barely mentions.

It only incidentally refers to marriage, but it is all about monogamy. Passion is jealous, and the giving to each other is absolute, it has no place for casual sex.

It’s not prudish, no sir-ee… but it’s prudent. It acknowledges what unique greatness is unleashed, and what is at stake, when one loves deeply and completely.

And it has more in common in some ways with God’s love than earthly relationships. How often is he described as a jealous God? We’re told to “love him with all your heart, mind and soul”.

This book is all about young love: the blaze of romantic obsession, the power of attraction, delight in the newness and overpowering nature of it all; the yearning.

It doesn’t talk about the different beauty of long marriages: that survive hardship and changes, that bring up children and learn to adapt as life throws u-turns, that forgive failure and weakness, and face getting old, undesirable and sick together.

It made me sad and conflicted. I had to force myself to read it. I’ve loved it, but I had to take it slow, in doses. It’s made me feel inadequate, second best. I haven’t been in the mood, so to speak.

What does it mean for my relationship, which is at a very different phase? It’s a bit like the crummy feeling other people’s perfect lives on Instagram can give you.

I’ve had lot of valuable thoughts about God’s love, but maybe just as valuable is remembering and rekindling some of the intensity of that first love with my life partner. It’s certainly made me think about that. Complex feelings at the intersection of spirituality and physicality.

The open ended invitation at the very end, to come away and be like a gazelle and a young stag on the spice laden mountains… Maybe the whole thing has been a remembrance? Maybe that invitation is for us who need reminding of what it is to be young.

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Song of Songs 7

The third long description of the girl’s beauty. It was described in 4 and 6, though this flows on from 6, so it probably counts as one super long description.

Indeed in the last verse of 6 she started dancing and she continues into 7. The praise is still not so much visual as multi-sensory and emotionally evocative…

He calls her tummy a mound of wheat and her navel a glass of wine because she’s satisfying like fine food and drink to him.

Her nose gives her a strong, regal bearing, but I’m guessing isn’t literally shaped like the tower of Lebanon, looking towards Damascus.

But compared to last chapter it gets decidedly physical. This is all about the delights of her body the sight, the feeling, the scents, the joy of being with her.

Today’s musical comparison is Ravel’s Bolero… The book is reaching its climax, so to speak, a slow build at least over these two chapters to the place where he leaps into the dance with a declaration that he’s going to climb the palm tree of her body and grab those coconuts, those bunches of grapes, her breasts, and she responds with a “yes drink deep of my wine”.

They talk of spending the night in countryside budding with spring: vineyards, pomegranates, Mandrakes and delicacy. … Her vineyard became a garden became countryside, villages, bursting with spring life.

Reminds me of that great John Donne poem about his love and he in bed as the sun rises. Other than their love ‘nothing else is’. He first tells the rising Sun to go away and bother someone else, but when it hits their room full on:

“Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.”

Love is the centre of the universe.

Song of Songs 5

Classic rom com material here. When telling a story of love there has to be incident. Misunderstandings, mis-timings, love thwarted, gratification delayed.

Her beloved comes to her door as she lies in bed “asleep but with heart awake” and she has pause… Must she get up, put on robe and walk around getting dirty feet?

Something about him thrusting his fingers through the hole of the door latch however, makes her heart pound for him. We’re a few centuries before Freud, but even the usually reticent commentators observe that the original language has quite obvious double entendres at that point.

She gets up, but too late he’s gone. Queue yearning for love lost. She searches for him, and this time is assaulted, she beaten to the ground and her robe taken. Is it just me or echoes of Christ?

“What’s so special about this guy?” A chorus of friends asks. I visualise the “tell me more, tell me more…” refrain from Grease.

She responds with “hopelessly devoted to you”. A long section where she compares him with every wonderful thing on the planet. A phrase in that section “altogether lovely” got thrown into the middle of a classic Hillsong song “here I am to worship”.

It’s a cliche to mock overly romantic “Jesus is my boyfriend” Christian songs. I recently stumbled across a quiz where you had to guess whether phrases came from contemporary Christian songs or Fifty Shades of Grey. It was remarkably difficult.

The connection between romance, marriage, sex, and the love of God goes deep however, because I suppose God’s love is so great that every kind of love we experience is a glimpse, an aspect of it.

The description of marriage, two become one flesh, from Genesis is employed as an insight into the profound mystery of how Christ loved the church by St Paul. He plays with ideas of the separation of flesh and spirit within parts of Greek philosophy, but this older text, proudly taking it’s place in the canon of scripture begs to differ.

The desires of the flesh can enslave us, for sure, we see it everywhere. But God’s abundant blessing overflows to the pleasures of this life, and they are part of our experience of his love.

The yearning, the pounding hearts, the extravagant appreciation of another, the intensity of passion. It is all of, and from, God, and it’s wonderful. And I’ve lost quite a bit of it.

May I be mindful, may I be joyful, and appreciate the wonderful women I have to share my life with – couldn’t imagine someone better for me, that’s for real. We’re both surviving ATM. She’s under more pressure than me. The stoic times can chip away the joy. But when it ends, let it end, not become the normal.

50 Shades of Grey or Contemporary Christian Music Lyrics? A Quiz

Song of Songs 1

A supercut of us.

I’ve had a week off. Haven’t quite been able to face this book, though in abstract I’ve been looking forward to it.

I’m feeling somewhat burdened, old and unromantic, so the celebration of passionate young love is a poignant contrast to my mood. A little intimidating, to be honest.

I gather the book has no discernable structure. But neither does love, in the moment. I like Lorde’s song “supercut” for that, “in my mind, I see a supercut of us”. The highlights of love are recalled as a montage of flashing glory. If you edit out narratives of pain, boredom.

Chapter one sets the tone of focusing on the moments of delight, yearning and passion. It’s wild and uninhibited.

It has dialogue like a play: he, she and friends, but there is not debate, all are goading each other headlong towards an affair. The banter is rhetorical: why would you waste a passion such as this on timidity?

It seems like first love, but the girl is not a glashouse flower. She’s been a responsible family workhorse, tanned from the sun from tending the vineyards. It’s set up as a metaphor, now is time to tend her own vineyard, her time to harvest her own pleasure. A bit of ‘me’ time.

She is the pursuer, getting advice from the chorus of friends where to find her love. And she’s successful, if I understand the phrase “our bed is verdant” correctly.

Though could also be literal vegetation as well and the bed a metaphor, since it ends with the cedars and fir trees being their room.

God, apparently, will barely get a look in, by name. But the context, the Bible, forces it to be about the spirituality of passion and attraction.

God gave us all this. I’ve been reading my sister in law’s memoir of growing up and escaping her rule bound, relentlessly negative evangelical faith. This book wasn’t in her Bible, surely?

Has mine lost it too? What gave me pause?

Father, help me find passion and joy around me

Ecclesiastes 6

“The few and meaningless days we pass through like a shadow”

This chapter doubles down on the themes of wealth and destiny. Wealth being pointless if you can’t enjoy it.

He contemplates a world where a rich person can die unloved and unnoticed, and says bitterly that even a stillborn baby would be better off, because, essentially, at least they never knew disappointment.

Seriously bleak stuff.

And on destiny he gets Job-like, thinking about the inequality of God and man. We can’t change our destiny, we can’t argue the case with God. He’s bigger than us. We’ve nowhere to turn.

Then the closing verses have the line I quoted at the top: we slip through life like a shadow. The last chapter wrapped up with a bit of a neat formula for living that would provide a degree of comfort. This chapter won’t give you an inch.

The authorship question is interesting here I think.

If it’s Solomon, talking like Job, it’s a poor-rich-guy narrative. So sad to live in luxury, and have everything you want!

But if it’s the later period, post exile, it is written by and for a broken people after a period of hideous persecution and cruelty towards the Jews. That would make this a work of post traumatic despair, like Dadaist art after world war One, or the cynical film noir of Hollywood in the late 1940s, or the lost-soul-of-Europe existentialism of Jean-Paul Satre, Camus and Kafka.

If it’s Solomon himself, I suppose it’s a rare journey, since as we are perhaps experiencing now, long periods of peaceful prosperity tend to numb people to spiritual matters.

I thought that as I watched a news item puff piece reporting on Easter. Lots of montages of kids looking for chocolate eggs. We appropriate the innocent delight of kids to feel good about life, but if we’re telling them Easter means no more than extra serves of chocolate, are we doing them a favour? The complications of life are hurtling towards those sweet, open little faces.

Do we have a theory of a meaningful existence to give them to replace the ones – and I include lots of religions in this – we are perversely overlooking? If you’re gonna dump religion, what else have you got? Long weekends? Chocolate?

Either way life works out: reaping a windfall from, or being buried by, the random injustice of this world, both undermine your peace and give you no lasting sense of security.

But actually, fear not! Love and justice triumphed.

At Easter, Jesus conquered death.

Proverbs 22

Oh my goodness, break in pattern! Ch.22 starts following the same pattern of two line proverbs we’ve had for 10 chapters or so.

But after verse 16 we start “the sayings of the wise” which are 30 choice sayings, with a little introduction and a slightly longer form, averaging 4 lines.

Why introduce the change in pattern mid chapter? Who thinks of these chapter divisions anyway?

Google say they date from the 1500’s when the bible was first printed. Apparently these sayings are a bit of a wrap-up of what has gone before, a greatest hits or summation. I still would have started a new chapter.

And the first 16 verses of proverbs are pretty much gold, too. Including, after my complaints about the pro-bribery verses, a condemnation of bribery/trying to buy influence:

One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth
and one who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty.

I suppose the observational nature of much of this wisdom is a defense against the unrealistic optimism and neatness of some of the formulas. Like its saying, yeah, short term, bribes might do the trick. But long term, ill gotten gain will ruin you. If not in this world, from an eternal perspective…

Rich and poor have this in common:
The Lord is the Maker of them all.

Its one of the few places in the bible where you get specific childrearing advice:

Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it.

As for the sayings of the wise, we get the first 6 of thirty.

They are clearly targeted at the elite. I tend to read them as applying to me, but I am from the a middle class which wasn’t such a thing in the ancient world. It was rulers, priests and working class.

So the advice on not moving ancient boundary stones sounds excellent, but I’m unlikely to be in a position to take it.

I’m not in a position to crush the needy in court even if I felt like it, so I don’t have to be told not to. However, with adjustments, I can relate deeply to the endorsement of a meritocracy and mercy for the poor. Clearly however, the poor weren’t the audience, rather those in power who get to decide how the poor will be treated. Actually having been at the mercy of the courts and debt collectors a few times in my life, I’m grateful that this is the standard.

It’s really important to look below the specifics reading this book. Love, compassion and humility motivate most of it. And in execution, a large dose of pragmatism.

Proverbs 10

Oh that’s right, we’re in proverbs. Random two line gems of wisdom. I’d forgotten after the nine chapter introduction.

They are so random yet similar, the format is so repetitive, that I panic a bit at how to make sense of them. They seem wasted, they don’t sink in.

Just read and let the spirit lead.

This chapter doesn’t contain the saying ‘pray as if you never planned and plan as if you never prayed’ but it is a good description. Sayings of diligence and blessing are side by side.

As I read I think I really must catch up last year’s tax, big refund would be a help. And I’ve got to be more diligent and organised at work. It’s not weak to be patient and loving.

The most memorable I found was ‘hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.

So I’ll just let the wisdom flow, directly and simply into my life. Maybe this book is like the parable of the sower, throwing out handfuls of seed and seeing what takes root.

Proverbs 7

Something wrong with your heart.

A vivid story of a seduction. The woman is one who is in a relationship but goes out to pick-up joints, essentially, when her husband isn’t around. The guy is young and unattached, but hanging around places where he knows people go to find casual sex, so neither are innocent.

The point is that is a transaction, just about sex. Neither are looking for more than a one night stand.

The attractions of the arrangement are vividly portrayed, her descriptions of her scented, decorated bed, house full of food, husband away on a long trip, the invitation to ‘drink of love til dawn’ (one commentator said the original wording was ‘too gross to be literally translated’).

Surely the young men it was targeted at would have found it all quite triggering… I imagine them saying ‘so these dodgy streets in town I should avoid… Which ones were they again?’

But he’s saying it’s not that simple. He has a lot of slaughter metaphors… The house is a stairway to hell.

The warnings of death in this passage seem pretty dramatic. I feel a bit more psalms-y about it. ‘why do the people who ignore God have great lives?’

Though it reminds me of a teen discussion at Christian summer camp with my friend Peter Pattison, who said he found all the stuff about God attractive, but he planned to have lots of sex, so he couldn’t accept it. I was floored by his honesty, couldn’t in the moment come up with a counter argument.

By chance I shared an office with his wife years later. She even mentioned how he had a box of sexy magazines in the shed where he’d go occasionally – to her it was cute.

So was that what his bargain boiled down to? What if that discussion was the closest he ever got to connecting with the God of love, the author of life. Did he really say ‘no I don’t want that’, turn off the holy spirit and wind up – in the end – with a box of magazines to jerk off to? He coulda had both! I hope he revisits that wisdom he was on the edge of. It’s certainly a dumb dumb dumb deal.

The passage identifies it as a problem that starts in our hearts: ‘Do not let your heart turn to her ways or stray into her paths. Many are the victims she has brought down’.

Apologies – another anecdote.  The example of Andrew Broad, the conservative ‘pro marriage’ politician bought down last year for spending public money on dates he got through a ‘sugar daddy’ website – every time he went on overseas trips. The first time he did it, he was this guy.

You think: what’s wrong with you? How on earth was that worth it the risk? How do you get to that place?

His glands asked permission to override his heart, and he said yes. He killed something in his heart.

We live in a permissive sex saturated society. It’s confusing because this picture of guilt-free casual sex has been incorporated into the process of finding a life partner for many people.

The ideals of: sex when and with whom I want; and the dream of sex being an expression of a grand romance with an ideal partner who fulfills you, exist simultaneously. But they just can’t. Not in real life.

It’s complicated, and you eventually have to work on fixing up, and opening up, your hard and broken heart. I do believe most people naturally get to a place that is close to Christian morality, and those who don’t really do have something wrong with them, some missing thing in their heart.

Putting aside arguments about homosexuality and the Bible for the moment, it’s beautiful and significant I think that public declarations of monogamy became so important to the LGBT community. ‘Love is love’ says love is recognised as an ideal that sexual freedom is worth surrendering for.

I love the message of Song of Songs, about not stirring up the beast until you are ready, I think that’s a very deep truth that could be preached a lot more, and gets to a really honest place about the power of sexuality.

Because many of the biggest defenders of free love will still, surely, be able to point to pain, bad experiences, regrets and scar tissue they bring to relationships that could have been so easily avoided if they had just listened to and trusted their heart more.

A heart for God will steer me better, he really does want good things for me and those I love.

Proverbs 6

Some scenarios of foolishness: some included because they are plain dumb, others because they are just immoral and God hates them.

This is the method of proverbs, there are lots of little self-help books of wise advice, but this one has a gloss over it of insight into God’s character and implications of that for how we should live.

The first scenario is: offering security for friends’ projects… Make it your relentless business to ensure the friend delivers. I love the image of a gazelle freeing itself from a trap. This is pure common sense advice.

Then:

Don’t be lazy (go to the ant thou sluggard… My dad used to quote!).

Don’t be a lying trouble-maker.

These scenarios have a fair bit of morality, God given insight, in them as well.

God’s law of love suffuses the common sense advice. There is a list of six things God hates… They are all to do with how we treat others, not offences directly to God.

You don’t get to blame the seductress for your sexual temptation – you ruined your own life by responding.

Then a return to adultery, because… you can’t say it often enough!

Here the morality and the common sense blend. It’s a dumb and dumber argument.

All lust based sex is a waste of time and money. You are dumb to waste good money on prostitutes, but super dumb to have an affair with a friend’s wife that blows up your whole social network and leaves your life in tatters.

If this bit was some of Solomon’s wisdom, as Bathsheba’s son he may have grown up with some of the consequences.

It’s such a loving book because it’s all persuasive. The language is guiding, cajoling, arguing, pleading… not just laying out cold rules. Brings to mind those images of Christ being the good Shepherd.

Guide me oh thou great Jehovah, as I walk in circles in the desert, inching towards the promised land!

Job 39

Parade of small mysteries.

Last chapter God went meta and mega: the stars, the start of time, the gates of death, the lowest depths, pouring out the sea and causing dawn to happen.

These mysteries were added to the mystery of Job’s own suffering.

Today God talks on the human scale, about things Job could conceivably understand. Man has dominion over the animals, right?

But even these things are outside Job’s comprehension or control.

Man can tame lions but not wild donkeys. Why? What sort of cosmic joke are the flightless wings of an ostrich, why did God do that? The reference to the ‘wild ox’ – now extinct – is a humorous image, like saying ‘why can’t you plough your fields with a hippopotamus?’ And so it goes.

It’s not the massive rebuke Job’s friends predicted God would have for him, nor does it directly address Job’s sense of injustice, as he craved.

These are gentle, delightful absurd teachings. The commentator suggested they represent the only humour in Job. Bringing a smile to his suffering face.

Even just that perspective is an implicit message… its not all about me.

While not answering directly Job’s questions, the oblique answer is that Job’s sense of injustice has misunderstood the rules by which the world works.

God isn’t angry or condemnatory about that, he expects it. He simply points it out in the gentlest sweetest way possible, and asks job to continue trusting him.

It goes right back to God and Satan’s disagreement over Job in the prologue. God says he’s an example of true wisdom, he fears God and shuns evil. The Devil says he is purely transactional, his ‘fear of God’ is only as deep as his love of the good things God has given him.

God’s teaching is bolstering his side of the case.

The lesson from the animals is two fold. Appreciate the limits of your own understanding. But also appreciate the God-like insight you have in being able to attain wisdom that animals never can.

They are indeed transactional, as the devil said man is. But we are made in God’s image. Job felt forgotten, but he’s cherished. In chapter 1 and 2, God actually brags about Job’s wisdom to Satan.

Man’s ability to attain wisdom means his conception of God is bigger than the source of his next meal. Job’s very tortured, complex heart is demonstration of that.

Job has gone further than most in understanding how little our own understanding can overcome evil, or reveal God. And God here leads him further again on that.

That Tim Minchin song I linked previously won’t stop rolling around in my head, showing how much I have in common with an atheist…

Family sharing white wine in the sun, the people who make you feel safe, his picture of heaven.

His jet-lagged baby daughter passed around ‘like a puppy at a primary school’ (makes me cry every time) …his picture of the infinite value of humanity.

We could both argue these values confirm the truth of our views, pushing us further apart when instead we share more than we think.

But God’s gentle refusal to buy into the paradigm of human logic and sense in this passage? There’s the rub!