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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament

Jim Moyers

Two Contrasting Poetic Books: Lamentations & Song of Songs


I don’t recall hearing much about Lamentations in church or church school.  Probably because it is harder to apply its texts to anything other than their original focus which was grief over the destruction of Jerusalem.  The five poems that make up the book are cries of anguish for the city and the temple apparently deserted by God in anger over the sins of his chosen people.  The city that was expected to last forever and the sacred house of God lay in ruins.

Jeremiah was traditionally believed to have written Lamentations.  But the language and style differ from that of the book of Jeremiah, and most commentators believe the prophet wasn’t the author.  Four of Lamentations’ poems are acrostics based on successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Chapter 5, while not an acrostic, has the same number of verses as the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  The acrostics of course are not apparent in English translation.  But the poetic quality, equal to that of laments found in Psalms, is still evident in English.  The editors of the Oxford Annotated Bible describe Lamentations as “a small psalter of communal laments.”

Jerusalem is described as feminine, as a mourning widow, “the daughter of my people,” “the daughter of Zion” who has been made empty and desolate.  There is no mention of the Babylonians.  God himself has brought about the disaster:  “The Lord determined to lay in ruins the wall of the daughter of Zion; he marked it off by the line; He restrained not his hand from destroying; he caused rampart and wall to lament, to languish together” (2:8).  Jerusalem has been made to suffer for her transgressions with her nakedness exposed to all the world.  God seems to have completely abandoned her: “Why dost thou forget us forever? . . . Hast thou utterly rejected us?” (5:20, 22).

Chapter 3 is a personal lament:  “I am the man who seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long” (3:1-3).  Still there is hope, for “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. . . . ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, therefore I will hope in him. . . . For the Lord will not cast off for ever, but though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (3:22, 24, 31-32).

Unlike the prophets, Lamentations doesn’t detail the transgressions that have brought down God’s wrath.  Perhaps by the time it was written the waywardness of the Lord’s chosen people in breaking their covenant with him no longer needed to be reviewed again.  Jerusalem and the temple, along with the favor of God were gone, seemingly never to return.  All that was left was anguished grief:  “The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning.  The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned! For this our heart has become sick, for these things our eyes have grown dim, for Mount Zion which lies desolate; jackals prowl over it” (5:15-18).

Song of Songs

An entirely different kind of poetry is to be found in the Song of Songs, a joyous, passionate, even erotic celebration of love.  It is one of the least religious books in the Bible with no mention of God.  Over the many centuries since its inclusion in the biblical canon, Song of Songs has been a scandal for many who equate religion with prudishness.    There seems to have been debate as to whether it, along with Ecclesiastes, should be included in the Tanak.  But there is also a record of the very influential Rabbi Akiba (second century CE) declaring, “All Scripture is holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Sandmel, p 318).  At the other extreme some nineteenth century scholars considered the book to be immoral.  

Over the centuries people uncomfortable with its eroticism have tried, not all that convincingly, to make Song of Songs into something other than what it is.   Judaism tends to be more accepting of sexuality than is Christianity which was strongly influenced by Hellenistic dualism.  But even so there is a traditional Jewish interpretation of the book as an expression of God’s love for Israel.  Along the same lines, there is a long Christian tradition of the Song of Songs as an allegory of the love of Christ for his bride, the church.  One interpretation tried to separate it completely from sexual love by claiming that it is a symbolic description of the history of Israel from the Exodus to the time of the Messiah.   All of which represent attempts to deny the obvious fact that the Song of Songs is really about erotic love.  

Song of Songs is a bit bewildering.  It is not a single poem but jumps from one poem to another without clear transition or explanation.  There is disagreement on just how many separate poems are in it.  Lines are spoken by male and female voices along with what seems to be a chorus.  But the text lacks notations to designate the speakers.  Samuel Sandmel likens it to reading a play in which there are no indications of who is speaking when.  Translation is challenging given the poetic structure and the fact that, as with Job, there are many words with unclear or unknown meanings.

It may be that the Song of Songs is a collection of songs that were performed at weddings with the primary speakers/singers being a bride and groom with a chorus, perhaps the bridal attendants, joining in at intervals.  Several lines are repeated as one might expect with a song.  There has been speculation that the poems originated in ancient fertility rites in which the male lover was the deity with a cult prostitute representing the deity’s consort.  However convincing proof for that theory is lacking.  The groom in some places is identified with Solomon and the bride is described as dark, leading to speculation that at least some of the poems were for the wedding of Solomon and one of his foreign brides.  But those references may be more poetical than literal.  

Interestingly over half of the lines are spoken by the woman; few other books of the Bible have so much feminine presence.  Repeatedly a warning is sounded, perhaps by a female chorus, against overly hasty love:  “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you stir not up nor awaken love, until it please” (2:7; 3:5; 8:4).

The erotic nature of the Song of Songs is apparent from the beginning longing plea, “O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth” (1:2).  The lovers’ voices alternate in expressing their desire for one another.  There are two passages (3:1-5; 5:2-8) in which the woman, “upon my bed by night” longs for her lover and, perhaps dreaming, goes in search of him.  The lovers meet in garden settings amid sensual surroundings.  Some of the imagery is a bit strange to modern ears:  “Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle” (4:5; 7:3); “Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon, overlooking Damascus” (7:4).  But there is nothing dated about the passion and compelling nature of love expressed throughout the Song of Songs.

     Set me as a seal upon your heart,

     as a seal upon your arm;

     For love is as strong as death,

     jealousy is as cruel as the grave.

     Its flashes are flashes of fire,

     a most vehement flame.

     Many waters cannot quench love,

     neither can floods drown it.

     If a man offered for love

     all the wealth of his house,

     it would be utterly scorned.


© 2021 James Moyers