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Singing the Song of Songs | Blaise Armnijon, S.J. | The Introduction to The Cantata of Love

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The Cantata of Love: A Verse by Verse Reading of The Song of Songs
by Blaise Arminjon, S.J.

What book of the Old or New Testament has generated the most commentaries in the history of the Church? Not John’s Gospel, not Paul’s letter to the Romans, not the prophet Isaiah, no, it is the Song of Songs. It is a book that is unknown to many Catholics, and shocking to those who discover it for the first time because of its descriptions of a lover and his beloved—God is only mentioned once and that is at the very end.

And yet the greatest of the Fathers have commented on it. Origen’s is the classic and St. Jerome says of it: “Origen, having surpassed all of the interpreters of all the books of Scripture, surpassed himself in this interpretation of the Canticle.” St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis de Sales, St. John of the Cross, all have added to the great tradition of interpreting this book for they see it as God’s love for Israel and the Church, Christ’s love for Mary, for the Church, and for each of us. The author draws on all these classics of Catholic tradition to give us a verse by verse reading of the Song of Songs which will deepen the spiritual lives of all of us—a deepening rooted in God’s word and the most profound Catholic tradition.

“A marvelous book of inspiration. It will touch many a heart with the message of God’s love that the Canticle brings. Reading it was a revelation to me. It will do an enormous amount of good.” — Bishop Patrick V. Ahern, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of New York

“This work offers us whole treatise on the spiritual life. It was slowly brought to maturity, lovingly polished and solidly built. The dramatic realism will be a great help to all who might be tempted to give up somewhere along the way.” — Henri Cardinal de Lubac, S.J.

Title and Date of the Poem

The Song of Songs – Shir HaShirim in Hebrew – is the poem of poems, the song above all other songs, as one says "wonder of wonders", "king of kings", or – to describe the feast of Easter–the "solemnity of solemnities", as Israel used to call "Holy of Holies" what was actually the holiest part of the Temple in Jerusalem. Moreover, Origen himself, who, together with Hippolytus, was the first among the Fathers of the Church to comment on the Song, stresses the comparison with the Holy of Holies: "Happy", he writes, "is he who enters the Holy of Holies.... Likewise, happy is he who understands the songs [of the Bible] and sings them .... but happier yet is he who sings the Song of Songs."

When was the Poem written? The style and vocabulary would suggest the fifth or fourth century B.C. It is possible to suggest with some likelihood the date – which remains, of course, indicative only but easy to memorize – of 444, i.e., the time of Nehemiah, who, together with Ezra, rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple after the exile. The Song would thus have been written shortly after the Book of Job, almost at the same time as the final writing of the Book of Proverbs and of many psalms. It would therefore belong to the great poetic epoch of the Bible. Sophocles was composing Antigone and Oedipus Rex in Greece at about the same time.

In spite of its title – The Song of Songs, Which Is Solomon's – the book could obviously not have been written by the son of David, who lived during the tenth century, i.e., at least five centuries earlier. Naming Solomon as the author, a practice that was common until the nineteenth century, can be explained by the fact that nothing could have been more fitting than to credit the wisest and most glorious among the kings of Israel, a poet himself (1 K 5:12), with the authorship of a poem seen as the most beautiful of the whole Bible.

Moreover, it is not beyond imagination that, at a certain stage of its composition or in one or another of its parts, the Song of Songs might have originated with Solomon or even before his time. One could think that before it even reached the polished and perfect form in which we know it, the poem had started to evolve slowly and to mature in the hidden heart of Israel. Such a hypothesis is, of course, beyond proof; but don't we already have, for instance, a foreshadowing of the Song in the first verses of Isaiah's famous eighth-century song of the vineyard?

"Let me sing to my friend
he song of his love for his vineyard.
My friend had a vineyard . . . " (Is 5:1).

Interpretations of the Song

However, the date of the Song is far from provoking as many discussions as do its interpretations. This very short text, one of the shortest in the Bible (117 verses, 1,251 words, 5,148 letters), probably has been not only the most commented on of all Holy Scripture but also the most passionately disputed. The exegetes follow three main schools:

The Lay and Naturalistic Interpretation

Some of the so-called naturalistic school see the Song as a mere poem, or better yet as a collection of poems, not inspired by religion at all but purely secular if not indeed erotic. "The free sheaf of songs celebrates only one thing: the splendid, radiant and terrifying glory of eros between man and woman.... Eros itself vibrates without any other purpose than natural love.... Eros is sufficient unto itself. The eros of the Song is not the agape of God." [1] Especially in the celebration of the betrothal and wedding, these verses sing the love between man and woman in terms that though veiled by poetry are nonetheless extremely realistic and quite frequently even very graphic. This thesis of a purely secular Song, held almost only by Theodore of Mopsuestia in all of Christian antiquity, was condemned by the Fifth Council of Constantinople in 553.

The Literal Interpretation

Other authors have a quite different bent: for them the Song has no other purpose at the beginning but love between man and woman, without however its being a secular love. The Song does indeed celebrate human love as the most beautiful gift of the Creator to the heart of man. As the New Jerusalem Bible puts it, in its introduction to the Song of Songs: "[It] is a collection of songs celebrating the loyal and mutual love that leads to marriage. [It] proclaims the lawfulness and exalts the value of human love; and the subject is not only profane, since God has blessed marriage." Extrapolating from the second chapter of Genesis, the Song exalts human love such as God has willed it to be since the beginning, a state of fervor and innocence at the same time, which a couple who is faithful to God should strive to achieve. Thus this book is quite appropriately part of the Bible, and its divine origin is not disputed. There is no difficulty either then in extending to the love of God and man, as many mystical authors did, what can be applied literally only to human love. "The many ecclesial commentators on the Song are at last right again when they interpret [it] in terms of Christ and his bride 'without wrinkle or stain'. " [2]

We have a rather spirited expression of the literal interpretation in Canon Osty's Bible: "The Song", he writes, "celebrates love, human love, and only human love.... The tons of comments poured over this booklet did not succeed in hiding the truth which is so clear to the eyes of the unprepared reader: in its literal, first and direct meaning, the Song deals with human love uniting man and woman in marriage." [3]

It must be admitted that such a stance, quite common today among the exegetes, does not seem at first sight to lack impressive arguments. Here is a book that has a feature unique in the entire Bible: God never intervenes in it. There is not even the slightest reference to him. God is not even named except once in passing and in a quite ambiguous way.

Moreover, properly speaking, there is not a single expression of religious feeling in the whole Song. There is apparently no concern for theology, apologetics, teaching or morality, contrary to all the other books of the Bible and especially the Wisdom books, among which it is ordinarily included. Moreover, the tone of the Song is so passionate, even so daring here and there, and it makes such an appeal to the senses (to all the senses), that it is difficult to see how it could be suitable to the expression of God's love. The love of the Bridegroom and his Bride is that of beings made of flesh and blood.

Lastly, is it not strange that there is not a single quotation from the Song, not even a reference to one verse or another, in all of the New Testament? Neither Jesus nor Paul seems to know it. As to the parallels that people thought might be drawn with passages in the Old Testament, they can also be found in the same ingenious way in the universal literature of love. Interesting studies have been made for a long time that show, in particular, strong similarities between the Song and poems of that era from the Near and Middle East, especially from Egypt.

The Allegorical Interpretation

However, the arguments that have just been presented in favor of a purely literal interpretation are quite far from being generally accepted. Traditional Judaism and the Christian churches were quasi-unanimous almost until the nineteenth century in giving a very different fundamental explanation of the Song. Rather than making a celebration of human love, which would then be permitted to extend to the love of God, the first and literal meaning, this third school of interpretation on the contrary sees the love of God as the first and direct object of the sacred author of the Song, making it then legitimately applicable to love between man and woman because, as Paul explains to the Ephesians, marriage's vocation is to signify the union between Christ and the Church. [4]

We are naturally always more inclined to think that human love comes first. "Therefore, when one reproaches mysticism", writes Bergson in an admirable passage of Deux sources, "for expressing itself in the manner of a loving passion, one forgets that it was love that plagiarized mysticism and borrowed from it all its fervor, drive and ecstasy." [5]

In any event, it is striking that even though love expresses itself in the freest way, nothing ever made Israel change her view of the Song as the holiest of her books. "If all the Scriptures are indeed holy," the celebrated Rabbi Aqiba said in the second century, "the Song, for its part, is very holy to the extent that the whole world is not worth the day when the Song was given to Israel." Would Rabbi Aqiba have spoken in such a way had he not had the conviction, shared by all the pious men of Israel, that the Poem of Poems celebrated not human love – no matter how wonderful and holy it may be – but the very love of God for his people and for mankind; if he had not recognized, in the Song, the same language of tenderness already spoken by God to his bride, Israel: "Your time had come, the time for love.... I bound myself by oath, I made a covenant with you – it is the Lord Yahweh who speaks – and you became mine" (Ezk 16:8)?

A son of the chosen people, André Chouraqui, says that today he reads the Song like Rabbi Aqiba and all the long line of his ancestors as well as like his own contemporaries: "I was born in a Jewish family faithful to the traditions of Israel. Since early childhood, I heard the Song of Songs chanted on the ancient rhythms that inspired the Gregorian. While I was a child, I was imbued, every Friday night, with the fervor that filled our beautiful synagogue of Ain-Temounchent during the evening office as it started with the recitation of the Poem introducing the liturgies of the Sabbath. Men, women, children were singing this text or listening to it as if in ecstasy. It was indeed a sacred text, a transcendent song. Nobody ever imagined that there could be in it anything obscene, trivial or even carnal.... All sang lovingly this Poem of love, and it never occurred to anybody to censure or expurgate it.... In all my life, I have never heard from the mouth of those who live in the intimacy of the Poem a single complaisant innuendo about its content. Being transparent, it was welcomed in the transparency of pure hearts. It was understood in reference to the Bible, to the love of Adonai for creation, for his people, for each one of his creatures. We were too carried away by the great and powerful current of Hebrew thought to see in the poem anything but the song of absolute love, on the heights of the loftiest revelations. Strange as it is, it remains true that for over two thousand years, the Jews never saw in the Shulamite anything but a symbol, that of Israel; in the King, anything but a reference to God; in the love uniting them, anything but the revelation of the mystery of divine love." [6]

Read Part Two of Introduction to the Song of Songs


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