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Valentine’s Day Treat: Love, from Odes of Solomon

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Bleeding Hearts

Every year around this time, people start re-imagining the meaning of love and finding ways of expressing it. This year, I propose a new source for your Valentine’s Day love.

Take a look at the early Christian writings known as “The Odes of Solomon,” and consider this idea from Ode #3:

“I am putting on the love of the Lord…Who is able to distinguish love, except him who is loved?”

Throughout these odes, the writer praises the God who loves him, because this is the source of love that wells up and overflows into love for everything and everyone.

I’m sure the politics of the first or second century, when these odes were composed, were just as nasty as we’re witnessing today. It certainly would have been as easy for the followers of Jesus to hold anger or resentment against the ruthless Roman rulers of the time as it is for ordinary people today to resent voices from the other side of the political divide.

But this ode reverses the order of things. It does not say, for example, “I am putting on the defensive weapons that will confront my enemies,” but rather “I am putting on the love of the Lord.” Scholars generally concur that these odes were written during a time when Roman authority saw itself as the all-powerful conqueror – enslaving, raping, and crucifying by the thousands.

In the safety of my elementary school community long ago, I learned some life lessons about love that have matured with tougher life experiences. A girl in my class sat in the front row and used a huge magnifying glass to read the things in our books. Pat never talked to me, and I thought she was strange, so I never talked to her either. She didn’t come back the next year, and I never found out what happened to her. But later that next year, when I began to realize my life was a lot easier than hers must have been, it slowly dawned on me that I missed a huge opportunity to love someone. Even now, the more deeply I feel the love God has bestowed on me, the more remorse I feel for ignoring a girl who must have felt very alone, and the more urgently I look for a chance to make up for it elsewhere.

Everybody knows it’s easy to love a beautiful landscape, an innocent child’s smile, or a frolicking puppy. But the message from this Ode 13 turns it around. We notice the sunrise, smiling kid, and adorable puppy, because we’ve already been loved – not because they happen to be in front of us. Knowing that we’re loved is a proactive agent, giving people courage to help those who are battered, to stop bullies who abuse, and to find solutions to political oppression.  It’s neither naïve nor weak. It is empowering to the one who “distinguishes love,” because he or she becomes aligned with the divine power – which is greater than the actions of people or circumstances.

It doesn’t surprise me that those who are familiar with the Odes of Solomon consider them the most beautiful of the apocryphal writings. Many of them talk about loving God and being loved by God. This Book of Odes, or Odes to Solomon, is sometimes described as the ‘would-be book of the New Testament psalms.’

Originally composed in the first century CE, they were studied in areas around Antioch and Edessa (Syria). Perhaps a century later, the Odes were combined with the Hebrew Scripture, The Song of Solomon, because of their compatible styles and message of love for God. But unfortunately over time, they became confused in the minds of the users who thought of them as one work. And finally, when someone did recognize the distinction, they were actually rejected on the basis of their being wrongly associated with Solomon. Thus they were mostly lost, with the exception of a few monasteries who maintained them.

It seems appropriate now in the 21st century, nearing another Valentine’s Day that we revisit the wisdom and love pouring forth from this beautiful song (ode), because we need it now as much as it might have been needed when it was written. At the simplest level, the one who “puts on the love of the Lord” is protected from the self-made misery of reacting, losing control, and possibly saying and doing things that worsen the situation. But the even greater power in this Ode is in learning that God’s love empowers us to love the souls we might otherwise overlook.