“Most of us do not experience the God of the exodus in our daily lives. The God of the exodus is visible and vocal, and appears through fire and smoke. But the God of our lives is mostly silent, and many times we may feel as if he is unresponsive to our calls. Although there is no reference to the name of God in the book of Esther, many readers cannot help but think of him as present. In the same vein, in the absence of the beloved, the woman in the Song of Songs desires even more intensely than in his presence to be with him. She so longs to be with him that she is sick with longing. From the beginning to the ending of the Song, she continues to yearn for him. She oscillates between her lover’s presence and absence. She repetitively yearns for him, but this results in ‘I sought him but I did not find him’ (Song 3:1; 5:6,8). Still, she continues her seeking.”
This is an excerpt from Chloe T. Sun’s book, Conspicuous in His Absence: Studies in the Song of Songs and Esther. I am enjoying the read. But here I have to pause and ask, does she find him?
How many Christians are asking this question? Where is God? They are praying to him. They want him to show himself. How many are trying to make it through the days in the pain of abandonment from a spouse? The hurt, the longing to go back and make it work before it got like this, the loneliness in trying to process it all…wondering where God is when they cry out for help… How many are unwell, questioning whether they will be alive next year? Will they be there for their loved ones, will they live a “full life?” Where is God in their pain? Will he at least let them know how much of a future they have? How many are striving to make ends meet? They just want the basics of comfort, but they don’t have the social capital to even give wind to their giftedness. How can they serve others and contribute to society when they are in such need? How many don’t have terminal illness but are afflicted with a thorn in their side for the rest of their days? How many are caring for loved ones, trying to uphold their dignity while they are losing their very sense of self? How many Christians are in bad marriages, lonelier than a single person, unloved by the very person who vowed it to them? How many are struggling with the same sinful desires, over and over? Or, what of those who have been praying continuously for God to answer them and are left with silence? “I sought him but I did not find him.”
Is he not there?
Or—maybe even a worse thought to consider—is he not there for me?
Where is God in these situations?
How does God treat his people—the people he loves?
Esther and the woman in the Song handle these questions in different ways. God isn’t explicitly present in either of these books. He isn’t named. In Esther, the fate of his people is in danger. You don’t see God swooping in like on Exodus. You don’t see his people even explicitly crying out to him. And it is on Esther to take action. God’s providence is implicitly highlighted with typology, the temple imagery, the narrator’s references to time, Mordecai’s question to Esther as to whether she was put into her royal position for “such a time as this,” the major coincidences in the story, and Esther’s leadership in calling the Jews to fast for three days leading up to her courageous confrontation with the king. Some may say that she takes matters into her own hands. But the story itself shows divine providence fueling human responsibility. What a beautiful collaboration.
But in the Song, oh, the woman is lovesick. She wears her longings on her sleeve. Where Esther may be portrayed as dignified in her struggles and approach, the Shulammite is immodest in her requests. Interestingly, both are requesting entrance into the inner courtyard (Esther 4:11) and inner chambers (Song 1:4) of the king. In Esther, we learn that such boldness in the royal court can lead to death. In the Song, we learn that our Bridegroom wants us to speak like this. Let it be known. Maybe that’s why Esther got in. The king extended his scepter.
And there it is. We make it in—into where it matters, the inner chambers, the holy of holies. That’s what the ancient rabbis and early church fathers called the Song of Songs—the holy of holies. We get in, behind the veil, to the most intimate presence with our Lord. In a book in the canon where God is explicitly absent, we get his most direct, intimate communication to us.
But not without struggle. The longing in his absence is expressed. Where is God? Where is the One whom her soul loves? The Shulammite’s guts are churning when he is not seemingly there (Song 5:4). Seemingly, I say. Because as creatures, we experience time. As Sun says, “God and human beings are on two different timelines. It follows that our felt experience of divine absence happens only in the human understanding of time” (123).
Where to Find Him
I want to share with you what the bride learns—he is always here. “He feeds among the lilies” (Song 2:16; 6:3). We see her franticly searching. She abandons safety and propriety even, and is abused by the guardians of the walls, stripped of her clothing (5:6-7)—a serious shaming in this historical context. The question brought to her—antagonistically even—is, where is this man whom you love?!!! Look at you—all laying here in the city streets, naked. How is he better than any other man? (See 5:9).
The answer is so glorious. Christ’s bride keeps her eyes on him! The real deal. She describes him in a wasf poem that we see echoes from in John’s description of Christ in the beginning of Revelation (Song 5:10-16; Rev. 1:12–16). He is worth the cost, people. He told us to count it. It’s nothing compared to his treasure. And she says, “He feeds among the lilies” (Song 6:13). This is it. The answer. He is with his people all along. She knows it now. Esther knew it too. And Mordecai.
As Havilah Dharamraj notes, Israel self-identified “as a ‘lily’ and a ‘dove,’ both familiar images in the Song.” She references 4 Ezra 5:23-26, “dated to the end of the first century CE,” as the first documentation of this. Much earlier, we see the bride in the Song identifies herself as “a lily of the valleys” (Song 2:1) and the Groom mirrors her, saying, “Like a lily among thorns, so is my darling among young women” (Song 2:2).
Echoes of the Searching Bride
Later, Mary Magdelene fills out the picture of the seeking bride even more (Song 3:1; 5:6). She is also looking for the one whom her soul loves. And there are echoes from the Song in the garden scene on resurrection morning. Here is the darkest of situations. It seems that “the Messiah, the Son of God, who comes into the world” is dead (John 11:27). No longer do we see the searching woman in a dark city night scene. She is in a garden at daybreak. And we know that she is a lily to her Groom, the risen Christ. She should have known that “he feeds among the lilies” (Song 2:16). He was with her all along.
The Lord is with his people. That’s where she will find him. Or rather, he finds her. “My love has gone down to his garden, to beds of spice, to feed in the gardens and gather lilies. I am my lover’s and my lover is mine; he feeds among the lilies” (Song 6:2-3). He is with her. The Bridegroom is there. Jesus asks Mary why she is crying and whom she is seeking. She mistakes him for the gardener (John 20:14-15). This is fitting! He is the Groom—the second Adam—standing in his garden. What a picture for us! We see hints of Eden and proleptic, or anticipatory, notions to the true city/garden/temple, the typology of which the bride herself points (Revelation 21). It’s like the future breaking into the present. And what a reminder for us now that he feeds among the lilies! Christ is with his church.
Christ is with his people. And this is where I want to exhort you—yes, pray fervently. Fast even, like Esther. Pray for God’s presence. But look for him among his people. He shows up like Mordecai, like Esther, like your friend that is listening to your suffering and staying in the room, like the stranger who offers a small act of care when you need it. I’ve written a bit about seeking beauty in the Christian life. A huge reservoir of beauty is found in friendship—a place where you inhabit and participate in the creation of beauty from whatever is thrown at you. Man, does God show up there. We are his body—do we believe this? The totus Christus. We are his arms, his hands, his feet, his skin. There is no Christ without his church, no church without Christ.
Yes, we are still struggling as we wait to really get behind the veil, when the glory realm that the visible heavens represent will come down and join with, marry, the new earth. We don’t have the intimacy now with God that we will have then. But don’t limit him to our finite understanding. Or to what we think his showing up looks like. It’s so much more grand, so much more magnificent! We see the work of his Spirit in repentance, in forgiveness, in kindness, patience, and restraint (Rom. 2:4).
Esther and the Shulammite give us the countertext to our own limited understanding. The struggle is real, but we will behold him. Be so immodest to ask to get into the inner chambers. Hear his words to his people, “You are absolutely beautiful, my darling; there is no imperfection in you” (4:7). Speak the words of the bride, who holds fast to the covenant promise, “I am my love’s and his desire is for me” (7:10).
If you are looking for answers to those questions from above about where God is in your suffering—he is busy creating beauty within that very context. All you have to do is look. The Psalmist prays, “Listen to my words, LORD; consider my sighing. Pay attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for I pray to you” (Ps. 5:1-2). Augustine comments that “This may also be what it means for God to hear. He does so not with the ear of the body but by the presence of his majesty.” Yes! In her pain, beaten and stripped by the guardians of the walls, the Shulammite fixes her eyes on the majesty of Christ, as we see in her description of him (Song 5:10-16). The next line in the Psalm is, “In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you and watch expectantly” (Ps. 5:3). Why in the morning? Isn’t he listening now? Augustine explains, “the Church realizes that it does not see what it longs for, and yet does not give up hoping. For the hope which is seen is not hope. However, the Church understands why it does not see, because the night is not yet over.” We can’t see well in our darkness. God sees. God hears.”
These women above make visible the invisible. Not only is God there providentially and salvifically, as we see displayed in Esther, he is there for what we really want—erotic, intimate communion. We are known, seen, loved, and adored by him. Keep your eyes on the One who is “notable among ten thousand,” “until the day breaks and the shadows flee” (Song 5:10; 2:17; 4:6).