Fathom Mag

Not the Whole Song

Longing in the Song of Solomon

Published on:
February 15, 2018
Read time:
3 min.
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Song of Solomon makes me sad. I know that’s an unpopular sentiment that will earn me scowls. Perhaps I’m a killjoy, but please don’t misunderstand me; I recognize it as God-breathed, I love how it frankly extols obedient sex, and I can appreciate its poetic composition.

Song of Solomon is lauded as a stand-alone, unblushing, sexual celebration. Any “spiritualized” readings of this book earn ire in theological circles these days. “It’s not a metaphor for a spiritual reality!” pastors gleefully claim. “Don’t be a prude! It’s just about two real-life humans having good, God-honoring sex.”

I agree with the current tide of theological assertions, though I can sympathize with the out-of-favor Puritan thinkers who concluded that Song of Solomon was primarily an allegory for the way Christ feels about his church and how she feels about him. It’s certainly a view that tries to make neat sense out of sexual desire and human inconstancy. But maybe both views are too neat.

The Mess That Solomon Left

For me, reading the Song of Solomon is a lot like beholding the smiling, faded wedding photograph of a couple I know was eventually crushed under the offense of adultery. When I read it, Solomon’s sexual exploits cannot be erased from the overarching plotline.

If the Song’s lone purpose is to illustrate the healthiest model of a human marital union, a picture of healthy love and marital sex, then it’s like the building exposition of a horror film—images pristine and beautiful serve to make the subsequent squandering of innocence all the more grotesque to the audience. It’s like an image of Tolkien’s lush and homey Shire, a sacred place to which the hobbits return and find razed to the ground.

We know who Solomon is, and we know that he failed the Shulamite woman. He failed hard (1 Kings 11:1–4). He portrays how obedience to God’s design in the Song gives real joy, but we know in his own life that his obedience didn’t last long. He turned from that obedience to his master’s wisdom and received in himself the empty sorrow underneath which he penned Ecclesiastes.

Some scholars argue that, judging by the passion of the language, this poetical song must have been for Solomon’s first wife. That may be true, but even a worldly mind would sneer at Solomon’s promiscuous excess of the eventual seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Most would consider a man with that many “notches” numb, dysfunctional, and sexually diseased. A Christian would tend to agree; even if he were the most emotionally detached of males, a man who’s bedded hundreds of women must naturally be stooped over with heavy sexual baggage.

The Lover: a youth inflamed with the newness of his first bride who would fade so far past precious to him that he would invite in another wife and then a thousand more or an already jaded man whipping up emotional passion for a novel woman that he must have known wouldn’t be his last? Whether a virgin himself or simply moving on to the next virgin, Solomon was either soon to be disillusioned or simply deluded regarding his convictions about rightly pursuing marital love.

It’s the Song, not the promise, of Solomon.

I wonder how the Shulamite felt when Solomon, maybe even only after a few months or weeks, moved on to other honeymoons. And did Solomon, even as he penned his effusive love poem, lament his own inability to maintain the ecstasy he valued enough to extol?

Song of Solomon makes me sad as a maiden, and I imagine that sadness could deepen if God eventually permits me to marry. Perhaps one day I’ll look into the cheerful eyes of a flesh-and-blood man—by no means required to have the wisdom of Solomon—and know that even if he enjoys me with every drop of the fervency the Song belies, he could still potentially leave me nameless and lonely in his dust.

It scares me to know I can fail like they did. The most passionate human love story does not preclude the filthiest of betrayals; infidelity is normal for we the naturally depraved, and faithfulness is nothing short of a supernatural work (Hebrews 13:20–21)—knowing what to long for.

In a world where faithfulness and infidelity find their way into the same love story, the Song of Solomon turns my head to look back and long for the short-lived garden days of Adam and Eve. Back to the day when marriage was simple, back when God permitted Adam to boldly name his wife, back when the only love poetry that existed was the concise and guileless acknowledgement of “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23)—back when there was no doubt she was the only one.

Solomon’s love song extols spiritual truth and is very, very real. It’s an SOS that calls out for a lasting passion. But it’s a reminder to me: no matter how good we think we are, our best intentions can inevitably implode if we turn away from God. It reminds me that every good thing comes from him, and him alone (James 1:17). And it reminds me that our world is yet to be filled with every possible good thing. Every marriage is a beautiful, broken depiction that turns my head to look toward the coming kingdom.

The Song of Solomon makes me sad, but I love the Song of Solomon—it points me to the one true lasting love and enduring hope.

R. M. Cotonethal
R. M. Cotonethal is an ecclesiastical history enthusiast and a servant for the W.I.S.E. Women’s Network Bible studies in Northern California. You can follower her on Twitter @rmcotonethal.

Cover image by Marcus Cramer.