There’s a lot to complain about in contemporary worship songs – the kind accompanied by guitars and drums. My children call it 7-11 music: 7 words repeated 11 times. The lyrics are often repetitive, trite and sentimental. The music is equally forgettable and wanders all over the place.
My two biggest complaints, however, don’t have anything to do with artistic merit. First, it often sounds like you are love-struck teenager singing to your boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s almost sexual in tone. Is this the way we approach the King of Glory enthroned above? Where is the weight of majesty? Second, the lyrics often lack any connection to the language and themes of the Biblical text. Modern praise music often worships a disembodied Christ, a spiritual presence detached from his story in the scriptures.
And then I read the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem with nothing to say about God’s covenants with Abraham, Moses or David. Nothing about God’s victories over his enemies. Nothing about the law, the temple, the priesthood or the history of Israel. Nothing of the prophet’s call to justice. Nothing about wisdom beginning with the fear of the Lord. It’s just a sexy love song – or possibly a collection of love songs- and a really cheesy love song at that.
The question of what to do with the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) often has to do with why it was written. I assume it was written to be exactly what it appears to be, a poem about human sexual love. My best guess – and it’s only a guess – is that it was written as court poetry in Judah’s royal period. That would place it in the same social world as the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. They were royally sponsored musings for the rich and powerful.
When I was in college and seminary, the “sex-positive” aspects of the Song are what really captured people’s attention. It was a gold-mine for those seeking to overthrow the church’s sexual mores on the left and for those offering Biblical marriage counseling on the right.
For me, however, the interesting question is not why the Song of Songs was written, but why it was received as Holy Scripture. What motivated Jews and Christians to say, “This poetry belongs in the Bible”? It’s not likely that they simply wanted to celebrate sex. On the contrary, the earliest Jewish and Christian commentaries on the Song of Songs see it as an expression of the love that exists between God had his people.
In the Old Testament, the prophets compared Israel’s unfaithfulness under God’s covenants with adultery, a crime against marriage. That’s a pretty harsh analogy built on a pretty astonishing premise: Israel is the Lord’s spouse. Receiving the Song of Songs as sacred scripture recognizes the positive side of that comparison. Living in love with God can be an amazingly powerful experience.
The New Testament also envisions the relationship between God and his people as analogous to marriage. The apostle Paul makes that connection in Ephesians 5:25-32. The Book of Revelation calls the church the bride of Christ, and Jesus’ own figures of speech point in that direction as well. Consequently, in its traditional wedding liturgy, the church celebrates that marital love which “signifies unto us the mystical union that exists between Christ and his church.”
Thousands of years ago, long after the perfumed courts of Solomon’s palace lay in ruins, Jews and Christians adopted the Song of Songs as emblematic of their own relationship to God. The love God has for his people – and the love they have for him – is joyous, passionate, direct, intimate and overwhelming.
In its canonical setting, the Song of Songs is a praise song, an expression of divine-human love. Maybe, then, I should take it easy on contemporary worship songs that sound so similar in tone. But, please, can we also have some majestic hymns that reflect the scriptural story of salvation? Those are love songs to me.