A Silly Love Song
One of the things that we pass down without realizing it, is our cultural sensibilities. Our children have a better than average chance of picking up our preferences in politics, theology, and other things that define us. One of the things that my children picked up from their mother and I is a love for music and wide variety musical tastes. I have heard my children listen to Vince Guaraldi, Radiohead, The Rolling Stones, and many others. One of my son’s favorites, his “go to” music if you will, is Paul McCartney and Wings. Donovan has hundreds of songs on his iPhone but only two CDs, both by Paul McCartney and Wings. Among his favorite songs is one I find interesting for its backstory, “Silly Love Songs”.
The story behind the song goes back to a comment attributed to John Lennon after the Beatles broke up. Lennon was widely quoted as saying that all Paul McCartney ever wrote were “silly love songs”, so rather than argue with his old band mate, McCartney agreed rather emphatically. McCartney said in an interview with Billboard Magazine,
…over the years people have said, “Aw, he sings love songs, he writes love songs, he’s so soppy at times.” I thought, Well, I know what they mean, but, people have been doing love songs forever. I like ’em, other people like ’em, and there’s a lot of people I love — I’m lucky enough to have that in my life. So, the idea was that “you” may call them silly, but what’s wrong with that?
The song was, in a way, to answer people who just accuse me of being soppy. The nice payoff now is that a lot of the people I meet who are at the age where they’ve just got a couple of kids and have grown up a bit, settling down, they’ll say to me, “I thought you were really soppy for years, but I get it now! I see what you were doing!”…[i]
And people have gotten silly love songs for centuries now. As far back as we have recorded history and language, we have expressions of music, prose, and poetry that speak of the love of one person for another, sometimes requited, sometimes not so much. The Bible is no exception to this. As a text written by real people, living a real life, in a real place and time, the various texts that make up the Bible speak of many of the important aspects of life and love is no exception to that.
So, what do we make of the Psalmist’s perspective on love in this particular passage? What can we see in this passage that might relate to our understanding of faith and life?
A celebration of love
Psalm XLV is a celebration of love…sort of.
In the Common English Bible, the title of Psalm XLV says that it is “For the music leader. According to “The Lilies”. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A Love Song.”[ii] When you start readin, however, you find that the love song is a very specific song for a very specific purpose. The writer, most likely an “expert scribe”, would have been an important official of the royal court whose expertise would have been literature, traditions, and practices of the people.[iii] While a court official may not sound like the kind of person to write ‘a love song’, as the introduction to the Psalm says, James L. Mays writes, “The scribe served in the royal court and temple to make appropriate language available for all kinds of needs.”[iv]
In the case of Psalm XLV, the expert writer was called on to write a psalm for a royal wedding. The scribe starts by talking about the greatness of the king (v. ii-ix), followed by the charge for the bride to recognize the future groom as both her husband and her king (v. x-xii). The bride is then led to the palace to be presented to the king where the marriage will be consummated (v. xiv-xv) and the king is then promised that his rule will be extended through generations to come by virtue of the children his bride will bear for him (v. xvi-xvii).[v]
While this seems rather misogynistic to the modern reader, it was the collective understanding of the time for those who lived in that day and age. Women served certain societal functions that were born of an understanding about how God/the gods saw women. For the Jew, this was found in the Adam and Eve story where we find Adam alone and God making him someone to be his ‘helpmeet’, a word that has connotations of subservience to some and equality to others depending on how you want to translate it. According to Marilyn Yalom, a scholar from Stanford University, “The Talmud, (the code of Jewish religious and civil law) sees the ‘ezer (helpmeet) as providing a moral check on her husband: “When he is good, she supports him. When he is bad, she rises up against him.”[vi] While the Talmud may have been philosophically egalitarian, the reality was much different for women.
The woman in practice was placed, by law and custom, under the authority of her husband as we see in the psalm, “Let the king desire your beauty. Because he is your master, bow down to him now. (v. xi).” This concept of authority existed in most marriage ceremonies and liturgies until well into the twentieth century and continues among some religious interpretations to this day. Most important of these duties was the need to produce a male heir for the husband. All property – and the wife was property – belonged to the husband and had to be passed down to a male since women could not by law own anything. If the couple did not have a male heir, the woman could be given a writ of divorce in the presence of two people and she was considered dismissed by her husband. Thus, the wish of the psalmist that “Your sons, great king, will succeed your fathers; you will appoint them as princes throughout the land (v. xvi)” is both a prayer for the continuation of the royal line and the bride’s continued marriage to her husband.
What do we do with that?
A long time ago I heard someone say that everything in the Bible is God speaking to us directly and personally, as if the Bible was a personal letter to us, here today. I have since refined my understanding to see the Bible as the collective understanding we have about God, those experiences that were written down and passed on by those who worshiped God before us. The question here for us is how do we take a psalm about a royal wedding as something that speaks to us about God? Or back to our original questions, what do we make of the Psalmist’s perspective on love, marriage, and family in this particular passage? What can we see in this passage that might relate to our understanding of faith and life?
Prescriptive expressions and cultural expressions
A careful reading of the Bible will reveal that the Bible explains God through stories and these stories explain how the authors understood God. Sometimes, the stories give us what is called a prescriptive expression of understanding. These stories have in them certain things that the people reading or hearing the story were expected to live into. Some of these include things like the Ten Commandments and the Levitical Law in the Old Testament or the Sermon on the Mount, Greatest Commandment, and the letters of Paul, Peter, and John in the New Testament. These are things that are believed to draw us closer together in worship, community, and relationship with one another and with God.
Cultural expressions are those things that are told to us as stories, as examples of how some people have lived these ideas in their time and place. The collection of stories we know as the Bible is filled with them like the story of David and the other kings in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles or the stories of Esther, Ruth, and in the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles. These stories give us a way of seeing how the people in the time and place the Bible stories were written viewed the prescriptive expressions and practiced them. The Psalm today is a cultural expression, showing how the people viewed marriage, the king, women, familiar authority, and divine authority among other things. It gives us a glimpse into the understanding of who God was for them and how they came to understand that.
Some people may be uncomfortable with the ideas as I have explained them. I knew a man once that would have been rather hostile to my explanation of prescriptive and cultural expressions. One of the arguments he might make is “If God doesn’t change, why would we change the way we read the Bible?” My answer as a Christian and an existentialist would be, “God hasn’t changed. We’ve just come to understand him and the Bible in a newer, fresher way. We have come to see these writings about God, known as the Bible, in a way that speaks to our time and place just as the people who wrote the words, to begin with.”
Developing interpretations through time
And that leads me to a second idea about how we interpret or understand passages like Psalm 45, the idea of tradition. Over time, men and women have looked at, written about, thought about, and argued about Biblical writings interpreting and reinterpreting them over successive generations for the past three millennia. The earliest of these writings and teachings were called the Mishnah and the Talmud, two Jewish commentaries that have continued to be used and expounded on since the centuries before Jesus was born. You might also consider the New Testament itself to be an interpretation of Jesus teachings by those that lived in the six or seven decades after his death. And throughout the last two thousand years, there have been countless things written, burned, forgotten, found again, reinterpreted, and rewritten in an effort to make sense of the message in the Bible for the day and age it was being studied.
The truth is, we see the world through the lens of the present situation and circumstance. For instance, we are in rural, northeastern Wyoming, in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Just being in this place and time colors our understanding of who God is and how we think he should be worshiped according to our perspective. This perspective also includes our history, our politics, our denominational ties, our education, and our own personal feelings about all these things. When it comes down to it, the God American Christians know, understand, and worship is quite often the God they have created from their own cultural biases and beliefs.
Knowing these things about how the Biblical story came to be and about how our circumstances in this time and place affect us, what do we do to seek God as God is rather than as we want God to be?
Our goal should be to seek God in real, personal way born of the relationship we have/are developing with God through our understanding of Jesus. Again, I come back to the Sermon on the Mount, but also to the parables of Jesus, the example of ministry, and his life story as a whole. Look at how Jesus shows his humanity in stories like the Wedding at Cana where he helps the wine steward by creating wine when it ran out or of the woman at the well, where Jesus speaks to a woman despised by Jews for being a Samaritan and by her own people for her past. In seeing how Jesus reached out and connected to people, we have an example of what living godliness looks like on the outside. And in The Sermon on the Mount, we gain insight into how our hearts should be changed in order to live out this external godliness by having an internal godliness to draw from.
Finally, I would like to pose a question that goes back to the beginning of the sermon. Paul McCartney wrote,
You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that
I’d like to know[vii]
In essence, our story of Jesus is a love song, one from God to his creation. And what’s wrong with that?
Just keep singing it.
Cheung, Simon Chi-Chung. “‘Forget Your People and Your Father’s House’: The Core Theological Message of Psalm 45 and Its Canonical Position in the Hebrew Psalter.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 26, no. 3 (2016): 325-340.
Common English Bible: a fresh translation to touch the heart and mind. Nashville, TN: Common English Bible, 2011.
Gaster, Theodor Herzl. “Psalm 45.” Journal of Biblical Literature 74, no. 4 (Dec. 1955).
Hunter, David G. “The Virgin, the Bride, and the Church: Reading Psalm 45 in Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine.” Church History 69, no. 2 (2000): 281-303.
Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Paul McCartney On His Not-So-Silly Love Songs. March 16, 2001. http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/80344/paul-mccartney-on-his-not-so-silly-love-songs (accessed August 9, 2017).
Schroeder, Christoph. “‘A Love Song’: Psalm 45 in the Light of Ancient Near Eastern Marriage Texts.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterl 58, no. 3 (Jul 1996): 417-432.
Wings. “Silly Love Songs.” Wings at the Speed of Sound. Comps. Paul McCartney, & Linda McCartney. 1976.
Yalom, Marilyn. A History of the Wife. New York: Perennial/Harper Collins Publishing, 2001.
[i] (Paul McCartney On His Not-So-Silly Love Songs 2001)
[ii] (Common English Bible: a fresh translation to touch the heart and mind 2011), 542
[iii] (Mays 1994), 181
[vi] (Yalom 2001), 3
[vii] (Wings 1976)