I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.
As a lily among brambles, so is my love among the young women.
As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me!
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.
The voice of my beloved!
Behold, he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Behold, there he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.
Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.”
My beloved is mine, and I am his; he grazes among the lilies. Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on cleft mountains.
It starts with a simple announcement of identity. Knowing not just who you are, but what you are soul-deep is the beginning of belovedness. It is not something you can learn to be; it is something you were from the beginning. But it is something that you can learn that you are.
At the most basic level, a person must know that they are attractive in order to be attractive. Fundamentally, all of Hollywood’s makeover movies, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Princess Diaries have it wrong. The ugly duckling may not merely need a makeover. What she may need is to be beloved. Notice that this has nothing to do with being beautiful. The standard of what various people perceive as beauty varies so widely across one culture and from culture to culture that it is impossible for us to say with any certainty what is beautiful. Again, TV and the movies have it wrong.
In the African nation of Mauritania, for example, it is said that Mauritanian men like their women to be fat. Overweight women are sexy and erotic (so the thinking goes), and the fatter the woman, the more beautiful and appealing she is to them. This preference for bigger women dates back to the ancient Moors (nomadic Muslims of the Arabic and Berber stock) who desired fatter wives, as it was a symbol of a man’s wealth. A fat wife meant that the man could afford to hire maids and servants to do the heavy housework, which left his wife plenty of time to lounge around and eat to her heart’s desire. The result is that over the course of literally centuries, the perception, for the people of Mauritania, both men and women, is that fat women are the most physically beautiful.
This, of course, sounds absolutely ridiculous to our 21st century Western ears. To look at our top models and movie stars, you would think that in order to be considered beautiful, a woman needs to look like Scarlett Johansson. Men don’t have it any easier. Back in the 70s there a brief time when Telly Sevalis convinced a lot of men that Bald is Beautiful, and Don Rickles was quoted as saying, “I’m not bald, it’s a solar panel for a love machine.” But if that’s true, why is hair replacement a billion dollar a year business?
Fortunately, our purpose this morning is not to define beautiful. Rather, we want to look deeply at what it means to be beloved. I don’t think you’ll find the word we’re going to work with in Webster’s Dictionary, but it is a good word. Belovedness.
Belovedness starts, as I said, with a simple announcement of identity. The thing that most marks the beloved one is that she knows she is beloved. She is still who she was, Mary, or Susan, or Jennifer. But she has come to know, to the core of her being, that she is beloved. And so she says, as a sort of matter-of-fact, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.” This is true of her not because her lover called her this. It is true of her, and that is what attracted him to her.
We don’t have a clue what she looks like. And it really doesn’t matter. My preference may be for jonquils, and I would pass a rose of Sharon by, giving it no second thought. But his desire was for a lily of the valley. And there she was. And there was something deeply and dramatically desirable about the fact that she knew that she was a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. By comparison, all the other flowers, even the most delicate orchids, were nothing but brambles to him. This was his beloved, and she knew it, and the fact that she knew it made her all the more desirable to him.
The dance of desire here is a pas de deux. The desire of belovedness runs both ways. To her he is like an apple tree. And surely, if you set a single apple tree in full fruit against the backdrop of a dense pine forest such as we have here in New Hampshire, you would see what she sees. He stands out utterly, not because he is taller or stronger than the rest of the trees. Anyone with an eye can see that an oak or even an Easter White Pine is stronger than an apple tree. But the brilliance of the fruit of this one tree makes the rest of the color pallet black and white and shades of grey.
There is a feature of this desire we must not miss. It is so easy to talk about belovedness in poetic, rather impressionistic terms. But the reality of these verse is that she is quite bold in telling us the content of belovedness. She does not merely want to be near him. She wants to eat his fruit, and sit in his shade, yes, but the Hebrew language has a word here that our modern translators have taken all the life out of. The text says, “his banner over me is love.”
That sounds so religious and sterile. It is the sort of thing you’d expect to see at an old fashioned camp meeting. The tent is filled with worshippers all singing late 19th century hymns, and above the head of the song leader is a large white sheet stretched with the motto on it “Love.”
But that’s not the word Song of Solomon uses here. The Hebrew says, “His banner over me is ahava.” Literally, his banner over me is desire. And when ahava is used to speak of the love between a man and a woman, it is always sexual desire it is talking about. They want each other. They each want to unite with the other in a deep, passionate way that nothing short of sexual consummation will satisfy.
This is deeply erotic writing. Listen to how she exposes her desire for him and puts it right out there: “With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was ahava. Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with ahava. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me!” She wants him. And the best part is that this is not merely a lusting after some unattainable god-like figure. This is the best of eros. She wants him and she has him. And she knows his ahava and he knows hers.
Now, none of the versions of the Bible I have consulted picks up on this, but I feel quite sure that the next words in the text are an interruption by the voice of a Narrator, who says, “Now hang on for a moment. You need to put your ahava away because this is neither the time nor the place for it.” Verse 7 says, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.”
Why the break? Because, if belovedness begins with the knowledge of identity, belovedness is confirmed by delay. We say it this way today, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” And when ahava is present, the absence will drive them on to gain quickly what they are being denied. Look, says the narrator, “don’t stir up all this passion until you are able to be together. There is work to be done.
And she responds urgently, “AH! The voice of my beloved.” He is not even there yet, but she hears his voice, perhaps just inside her. But no sound on earth is as sweet because it heralds their union is near. He has been out working somewhere, and when he arrives, he does not merely run into the house and take her. He begins again the dance of desire.
When you’ve been married a long time, you don’t cavort the way you once did. One of our dear friends who has been married over 30 years now once explained the way passion had become almost second-nature in their relationship over time. She said, “Just leave the money on the night stand when you’re done, put the cat out, and lock up.”
But the beloved is constantly renewing the passion in their relationship. When he returns from work he stands behind the wall to her garden again, just the way he did before their desire ever found its fulfillment. And he peers at her beauty from a distance and that again ignites the flame in his heart.
As their dialog continues he imagines her as a dove who has soared high up to a cliff overlooking the garden. She has hid herself in the cleft of a rock up there where no one could ever reach her. Unless, of course, it was a stag. And how fortunate! For he is as sure-footed as any stag, and he will come to this height and meet her in the cleft of the rock where they will again embrace and pull away from tending the garden and make love once more as if for the first time.
THAT is belovedness. Yes, human sexual desire rises and falls as the days go by because, quite simply, damaged as we are by sin we are unable to sustain any emotion for very long. An entire culture has risen up around us screaming to us that sexual fulfillment is the goal of life. You can’t buy groceries without seeing what amounts to pornographic displays just on the covers of the magazines. Imagine what they’ve written on the inside of the latest edition of Vogue. But that is not belovedness. That isn’t even ahava. That is just sex.
God is nuts about you. To him, the marriage is not an old one. To him the union never ceases to be a dance of desire. I came to Christ over thirty years ago, and the things my Lord does today to show me in fresh ways my belovedness never cease to amaze me. I freely admit that I am often like my friend, aging casually in the relationship to the point where when I think of God I often say, “Just leave the money on the nightstand,” loving him more for what he can do for me than for the desire of his presence.
But he still stands behind our wall and peers in through the window at me in ways that make me quiver, nearly embarrassed by the depth of his desire for me. And even after thirty years he still challenges me to fly to the highest cliff and see if he will not meet me there in the cleft of the rock.
Beloved, he has brought you to his banqueting house this morning. Don’t just take communion and tell him to be sure to put the cat out and lock up as he leaves. His banner over you is ahava. Be assured of that. There is no place he would rather be, there is no thing he would rather do, than to be with you right now.
Songwriter and balladeer Michael Kelly Blanchard once challenged an audience to imagine that they were each invited to come to a certain location and one by one they would be taken into a room where they would have a private audience with Jesus. Wouldn’t that be wonderful, he mused.
After the concert a woman walked up to him and said, “When you were talking about having a private audience with Jesus, I didn’t think it would be so wonderful. That’s what I’m always afraid will happen some day. I figure I’ll go into the room and he’ll be there and he’ll say, “You again? What do you want this time?”
Blanchard looked at the woman and said, “Nothing could be further from the truth. God isn’t bored by you in the least. When you walk into that room to have time alone with God, Jesus will shut the door behind you and rush over to you, and he’ll say, “OH. I’ve finally got you alone.”