A Seal upon the Heart: Quaker Readings in the Song of Songs
Reviewed by Brad Sheeks
By Michael Birkel. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 438), 2016. 34 pages. $7/pamphlet.Buy from QuakerBooks
“Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”—some of us can remember that old song from the 1950s by the Weavers. One would guess that it came from the opening line of the Song of Solomon: “Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine.”
Michael Birkel has written a very useful pamphlet on how Friends have found inspiration and encouragement from the Song of Songs, also titled Song of Solomon, one of the wisdom books in our Old Testament. Birkel introduces us to the poetry of the Song of Songs and then goes on to show how early Friends referenced the biblical passages as they developed their sense of themselves as a faith community.
Traditionally, the male voice was believed to be that of a young King Solomon and the female voice that of his Shulamite bride.
In Judaism it has been read as an allegory of the love between the Israelite people and God. In Christian tradition it has been read as an allegory of the love between Christ and the Church. Both Jewish and Christian mystics have found it expressed their experience of loving God and being loved by God.
It is a story, set in short poetic pieces, of two young lovers who call out to each other with praise and yearning in celebration of their sexual intimacy. The setting is pastoral; the season is spring. Their language is both metaphoric and explicit. She invites him to come to his garden, then reminds him that his garden is a real woman with lovely breasts. The story line is a celebration of the joy and exuberance of a new young love. She sings to the daughters of Jerusalem and looks to them for guidance and support. She asks the guards at the gates for help in finding her lover. They beat her, thinking she is a whore.
Birkel notes that the conventional seventeenth-century Christian understanding of the Song of Solomon was that it was an allegory of Christ and the Church, particularly among the non-mystical Puritans in England.
Taking a more mystical tack, a daughter of Margaret Fell (Isabel Fell Yeamans) “urged her readers to welcome the inward Christ. For her the Song of Songs provided language to describe the experience of early Friends that the long wait is over and that God was available directly. The soul’s beloved has come again, in an inward, spiritual manifestation.”
Early Friends identified strongly with the young woman’s experience of being beaten by guards since they were persecuted by the church authorities. Friends left the church and found the Spirit of Christ within their own faith community.
As early Friends were developing the peace testimony, William Smith referenced Song 2:4 where the young man has invited her to the banquet hall: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.”
For early Friends, the garden was a metaphor of their gathering in worship. Dorothy White wrote, “They shall be a well-watered garden, who feel the heavenly, bedewing and showers, the former and the latter rain, the showers of his mercy which are renewed morning by morning.”
More recently, this ancient love song inspired the title for Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon, a story of how love enables an African American family to survive the damages of white racism. Morrison uses biblical names and references to add layers of deeper meaning to the novel’s story. In addition to the novel’s Solomon, we also meet Hagar.
Birkel invites us to take another look at the Song of Songs. Yes, at one level it is about the passion of young love, and as such invites us to reflect on our own similar (or not) experiences. But on another level the Song gives voice to life experiences common to many of us, including yearning for things not seen, feeling the pain of betrayal by others, leaving the familiar for the unknown, and ultimately the joy of finding community and meaning in life.
So, yes, this is a wonderful addition to your library shelf. It doesn’t take up much space, but it invites you to explore an ancient love song and how Friends have looked to it for inspiration. The pamphlet could keep friendly company with other works by Birkel that include an exploration of early Quaker meditations on selected biblical passages.