Thoughts

The Song of Songs

‘Man is a musical composition, a wonderfully written hymn to powerful creative activity.’

St. Gregory of Nyssa

Born in Jerusalem over 3000 years ago, Solomon, who was anointed King at the ripe age of 12, is considered one of the wisest men who ever graced our planet. He was the second-born child of King David and his wife Bathsheba. His maternal great-grandfather is believed to have been a man called Ahitophel, a one-time counsellor of King David, and a man greatly renowned for his wisdom. Indeed, according to Jewish tradition, Ahitophel’s wisdom bordered on that of the angels. King David, Solomon’s father, although he made some monumental mistakes – was also generally considered a man of wisdom – so Solomon came from a heritage of wise men. The book of Kings in the Old Testament tells us this of Solomon –

‘His fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations, people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.’

So then, as today, with such a wealth of wisdom to offer a good book was in order! I suspect Solomon was a relatively young man when he decided to put reed pen to papyrus with the intention of helping others become wise. Of course, being a wise man himself, Solomon did not restrict the source of his knowledge and wisdom only to his own thoughts or observations – but drew from the wisdom of others including, he acknowledges, his own father. Also referenced for their wisdom included in his book was a  somewhat mysterious Arabian King called ‘Lemuel of Massa’, another Massa man called ‘Agur son of Jakeh’, thought to be a wise Sage of Arab descent, as well as other unidentified wise men.

So we have to be careful – wisdom is certainly not restricted to our religious tribe. Let me state the obvious here – neither King Solomon, King Lemuel, Agur the Arab Sage nor any of the other wise men who contributed to this collection of proverbs were Christian. Christianity still lay a long time in the future, as did the written scriptures we have today. So, once again, we cannot restrict wisdom to Christianity or Judaism.

I imagine that Solomon considered a few names for this outstanding collection of wisdom literature. His first choice was ‘The Purpose Driven Proverb’ – but one of his friends was writing a book with a similar name – so he opted simply for – ‘Proverbs’!

When it was first released ‘Proverbs’ became an instant bestseller. It went on to become the go-to book for how to ‘do life well’, and that still stands true today – thousands of years after it first hit the scroll shops of the Middle East. No surprise then that some years later, when rumours started circulating that Solomon was writing a follow-up – there was great anticipation and publishing companies were falling over themself for the distribution rights. The name of the new book did raise a few eyebrows – but then, this was Solomon, whose fame was now legendary, it must be a teaser – ‘Koheleth’. If the name had any meaning, which no doubt it had,  it is now lost to us. However, when people opened the first page of ‘Koheleth‘ they must have thought they had bought the wrong book and immediately checked the cover for, instead of some great pearl of wisdom, this is what they read –

‘Everything is meaningless, completely meaningless! What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea. Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content.’

As readers started skimming through the book it just got worse –

‘People leave this world no better off than when they came. All their hard work is for nothing—like working for the wind. Throughout their lives, they live under a cloud – frustrated, discouraged, and angry.’

‘Are wise people really better off than fools? Do poor people gain anything by being wise and knowing how to act in front of others?’

‘This is my conclusion, I discovered this after looking at the matter from every possible angle. Though I have searched repeatedly, I have not found what I was looking for.’

This was a truly a dismal, brutal assessment of life – the polar opposite of the dynamic, hope-filled and positive message of Proverbs. Admittedly there were a few nuggets of truth and wisdom in Koheleth, the book we now know as ‘Ecclesiastes’,  but overall – well, it certainly lacked the positivity of his last book that’s for sure.

You know what happened of course! Sales dried up very quickly – Solomon’s invitations to speak at conferences and seminars went from a flood to a trickle and then his mobile phone stopped ringing all together – apart from angry scroll shop owners demanding their money back. And that might have been the end of it – a sad and final ultra-pessimistic view of life from a man who surely knew what he was talking about. But what on earth had gone wrong to cause this turnaround from such positivity to a stark and jaded view of life? We will come back to that question later – but  Solomon was not finished! Not by a long way. There was something else – something beyond despair – something beyond pessimism and that something can only be described as a song.

Despite Solomon’s chariot crash with reality – deep down in his spirit he still detected a melody – a duet indeed between his spirit and The Spirit – and now he would turn his heart exclusively to that song. Not to analyse it, nor this time to provide positive practical steps for life or a systematic theology of it all – but to the inner spiritual song he had found in the place of the heart. It was to be here and nowhere else that the deepest meaning and purpose of life had revealed itself to the man who once thought he already had it all together –  the place of falling in love with the Love of the universe.

We have already quoted in our sub-title for this Post the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa –

‘Man is a musical composition, a wonderfully written hymn to powerful creative activity.’

Fr. Stephen Freeman notes of Gregory in this regard –

‘In St. Gregory’s thought,  man is not only a singer but a song. We are not only song but the song of God. Indeed within one theme of the fathers, all of creation is the song of God, spoken (or sung) into existence. “Let there be light,” is more than the voice of command: it is the uttering of a phrase that sets the universe as fugue. God sings. All of creation sings. The song of praise that arises from creation is offered to God, the Author of all things. It is also the sound of the creation itself, a revelation of the truth of its being. Music is not entertainment: rightly sung, it is the very heart of creation.’

And it is to this song that Solomon now turns his full attention. The Song is not the song of one occasion as if only for some special event – but in essence a life song which continually bubbles up from the very depth of the well of the spiritual life itself.

Just as in the natural world, all matter vibrates – so too in the spiritual world, everything is set in motion with the vibration of divine energy. This is not some strange new-age theology but thoroughly biblical. It is interesting to notice Genesis 1 as it is translated in  ‘Young’s Literal Translation’ of the Bible. It reads-

In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth – the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness [is] on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters ..’

The Hebrew word translated here as ‘Fluttering’ is ‘Rachaph’, which in its primitive root means also to ‘brood’ and ‘flutter, move or shake’.

The vibrating ‘fluttering’ of Spirit is seen here as primal creative power, and, as we have said, it is a matter of scientific fact that this vibration continues throughout all matter today.

And it is as we sing that the vocal cords vibrate resonating through the whole body. This is true both at a physical and spiritual level. All of us, I am sure,  have experienced physical and emotional sensations when listening to a specific song, piece of music or instrument. Why so? Simply because, as St. Gregory of Nyssa says – we are intrinsically ‘musical compositions’ attuned to the spiritual vibrations expressed by music. And Solomon had discovered ‘The Song’ – the love song that emanates from the heart of God as he sings over us – a song which touches and moves us at the very depth of our spirit. And we are invited to respond, to join in, to be caught up in the love song that heals the world and will echo on through the eternal day.

Again, I think Solomon thought long and hard about a name for this great song/poem. His first choice was ‘All you need is Love’ – but something told him as he watched a Beetle climb a wall that that title was for another day! So he simply opted for ‘The Song of Songs’ – the song that rises above all other songs – and, whatever you think of it, it is a song of mystical, unfathomable love.

But to return to the question we left hanging earlier. Why does the wisest of wise men start out in Proverbs with such a positive outlook of the impact of the wisdom he shares – but by the time he pens Ecclesiastes seems to have become so jaded and negative? And how could he rise again from his pessimism to write the greatest of all love songs – a song which has captivated the hearts of millions ever since?

The early church father Origen (185-254 AD), who is considered to be the first systematic theologian and philosopher of the Christian church, had a very interesting take on this question – and one I would tend to subscribe to (although Origen had some very strange views!) because I believe it rings true to the experience of so many including myself.

He sees the progression of the spiritual life in three stages reflected in these three book. Origen writes – ‘Solomon issued three books, arranged in their proper order’ to correspond to the three stages of knowledge.

In the book of Proverbs then we have short snappy wisdom statements designed to furnish us with the basic building blocks for a balanced life and direct us towards good and blessing. It is in many ways the book of foundational wisdom – practical wisdom for starting out on the spiritual journey. However, as life progresses, it is also true, that no matter how well we follow the wisdom principles we find in this book and in other places, life keeps throwing curve balls which sometimes cause us to doubt the very foundation of the things we believe. Over time, we discover that good behaviour is not always rewarded and bad behaviour is not always punished. The world appears to be unfair and unjust,  no matter how hard we try to apply our heart and life to the wise principles we discover in the book of Proverbs.

The Song of Songs on the other hand takes us beyond foundational wisdom or, should we find ourselves in the book of Ecclesiastes with its bleak outlook of pessimism and despair, to the very heart and ultimate purpose of it all – loving union with the God of the universe.

And it is because, I suspect, this relationship cannot be quantified or fully described by words of human wisdom that Solomon now becomes (as was Jesus) a master of mystical metaphor – for it is only at such a level that people of flesh can in any way join in the song of divine love. It is here, as Stephen Freeman suggested earlier, that we become, ‘not only a singer, but a song’ – swept up with our Beloved in the song of Divine Love.

 

My life flows on in endless song,

above earth’s lamentation.

I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn

that hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife,

I hear that music ringing.

It finds an echo in my soul.

How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die,

I know my Savior liveth.

What though the darkness gather round?

Songs in the night he giveth.

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,

a fountain ever springing!

All things are mine since I am his!

How can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm

while to that Rock I’m clinging.

Since Love is lord of heav’n and earth,

how can I keep from singing?

(Author Unknown)

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