With Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon we are further exploring the Wisdom literature of the Bible. We are also encountering the ends to which the Wisdom approach can take us. Its a valuable exercise to seek to understand life and the world from within the midst of them, and see what they tell us of God. But Ecclesiastes also confronts us with the limits of that approach, and with the questions it leave hanging, unanswered, until Jesus and the Cross display the depths of the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1). “How can you know….?” is a recurrent refrain from Ecclesiastes. At the end of all his striving to know, and all his years, Solomon comes back to “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (12: 13-14).” And thus a boundary is set to Solomon’s agnosticism, just as he has also marked out the boundaries of what we can know. Wisdom, then is as much about we cannot know, as about what we can.
Some of The Preacher’s stronger, more troublesome statements may be due to his jaded, royal perspective. When he says, “I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all (7:27),” we should not take that as God’s perspective on the sexes. It doesn’t match with either the Bible nor experience. I know lots of righteous women, beginning with my wife. But placed into Solomon’s experience, in which he had a thousand wives and concubines, his statement tells us what such immoral privilege and entitlement does to one’s outlook. Try that perspective on the rest of his wry observations.
SONG OF SOLOMON is also ascribed to David’s son. Or it could be about him. Is he the male lover’s voice, or just one of two male voices? This book has a long and convoluted history of interpretation. Is it only about love between a man and a woman? Is it about God and Israel? Or Jesus and the church? Or all of the above? Devotional writers like St. Bernard of Clairvaux have long sought to expound it as an allegory of the soul’s relationship with Christ, and Christ’s love for us. Others say it simply celebrates the love between a man and a woman, and thereby explores love, courtship, sex and marriage as part of the wider Old Testament exploration of wisdom. That in itself is a valuable exercise.
An intriguing theory says that there are four voices in something of a drama. In addition to the Shulamite woman and the “Daughters of Jerusalem”, there seem to be two male voices, that of a wealthy, urban, royal man (Solomon) with a harem, and a simple shepherd and vine dresser from the north. Are these different descriptions of the same person, or are they two who vie for the Shulamite woman? If so, the simple shepherd and vine keeper wins, while the king with his harem, loses. And, as Wisdom literature, this book would then be challenging the immorality and excess of privilege that made a mockery of Solomon’s “wisdom,” so-called.
Whatever the case, either interpretation still underscores the supreme value of love, sex and marriage, and encourages us, if we are called to marriage, to give them the devotion, energy, attention, effort and artistry that we all too often reserve only for work and entertainment.
PSALM 45 is a fitting psalm to read in conjunction with Song of Solomon, for it too celebrates marriage and royalty, making it a Royal Psalm. Here the case is all the stronger for reading it as an allegory of Christ and the church. In this Holy Week, we have alluded to verse 4, and the words, “In your majesty ride forth victoriously, in the cause of truth, humility and justice” when we sang, “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” and “Ride On, Ride On In Majesty.”
In the words, “Listen, daughter, and pay careful attention: Forget your people and your father’s house (v. 10),” we hear hints of Christ’s all-inclusive call to discipleship. John’s Revelation will develop the theme of us as the bride of the king even further.
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