Return, return, O Shulammite! Return, return, that we may look upon you. Why should you look upon the Shulammite, as upon a dance before two armies?
How graceful are your feet in sandals, O queenly maiden! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand.
Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies.
Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.
Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your eyes are pools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim. Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon, overlooking Damascus.
Your head crowns you like Carmel, and your flowing locks are like purple; a king is held captive in the tresses.
How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden!
You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. O may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.
I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.
Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages; let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give you my love.
The mandrakes give forth fragrance, and over our doors are all choice fruits, new as well as old, which I have laid up for you, O my beloved.
So many competing voices at the beginning of this passage – but who is speaking? Perhaps the Shulamite is recalling her lover’s words for the crowd of women, or they are writing a song about her. Could this even be a love song between women?
There are numerous queer readings of the Song of Songs. In places the Song shows women gazing at women, and how a writer of one gender can inhabit the voice of another. Even the most conservative reading of the song must notice that the lovers seem not to be married to one another.
Chapter 4’s love song started at the woman’s face and headed downwards. This one starts at the feet and looks upwards – not the direction such love songs usually explore. We dwell upon the belly, rounded and heaped and adored. From there the gaze moves gradually to her face, and long flowing hair that has captured a king. Like Rapunzel’s suitor, the singer imagines climbing up to claim a kiss. This is not a successful erotic image, the lover is earnest and ungentle in his request to climb the woman as though a tree. It is entirely understandable that some readers think this is a parody love song.
A confession: sometimes the praise songs we sing sound foolish too. A metaphor falls flat, an image jars in the mind, the words sound inadequate to the response we need to make to God. And still the same song, flawed as it is, can move us to genuine praise. But to fully respond in worship, we need songs from more voices, from more nations, all genders, drawing on the breadth of human experience of divine revelation to tell the wondrous story of what the Lord has done for us. If most of the songs you have used recently come from one music tradition or nation or gender of writer, try to seek out some others to round out your worship of God.
As you prepare to pray, reflect on this lyric*:
Winter has passed, the rain is over, Earth is a-bloom, songs fill the air. Linger no more, why must you wait? Rise up my love, come follow me.
Amazing God, Before any word forms on my lips you know it fully. And still – may words of praise tumble from my mouth – uncontrolled and free-associating words that speak of your invitation to me and my ‘yes’ in return. Amen.