I first preached Song of Songs by accident. A few years ago I was asked to speak on Oak Hall’s Alpine Bible School. The print deadline for their brochure was coming up so I had about twenty minutes to work out what I wanted to do 16 sessions on. I had recently done Job and Proverbs here at church so I rashly offered to do something on wisdom literature. About ten minutes later it dawned on me that, not only did I have to get my head round Ecclesiastes, I also had to grapple with Song of Songs. And then teach it to a group of mostly single people!
Putting the material together involved the hardest work on anything I have ever preached. It is the only time I can recall sitting for a few hours working on a text and thinking that I just can’t do this- it is all too complex. However, the Lord got me through it and the end result was these two talks which, in addition to the Bible School, I preached at Woody Road. Since then I have tried to find opportunities to teach the book again. I include it in the list of suggestions that I give couples when they ask me to preach at their wedding (though sadly only one couple has taken me up on the offer!) and it was nice to be able to re-visit it as part of our vision series recently.
There are various reasons why I am keen that it is both preached and read. For a start, it is odd when one generation of the church ends up doing something massively different from its predecessors. In previous centuries there were more books written on Song of Songs than any other book in the Bible and yet it has mostly disappeared today. For many great figures of church history, Song of Songs was deeply influential. Here is the great theologian Jonathan Edwards speaking of a time of deep personal renewal: “The whole book of Canticles (SofS) used to be pleasant to me, and I used to be much in reading it, about that time; and found, from time to time, an inward sweetness, that would carry me away, in my contemplations.”
In addition, the book gives us material that feels fresh to us today and is different from anything else in Scripture. Its great theme is love- love that is as strong as death and burns like a mighty flame (8:6). Here is deep passion and fiery emotion. You don’t have to spend too long in the list of the most popular songs over the last twenty years to note that the book touches on an issue of contemporary importance. Furthermore you don’t have to spend long reflecting on human experience to know that you are dealing with an issue of pastoral significance, perhaps especially amongst young people.
So the Song gives us material that has fired previous generations greatly and has great potential for a contemporary audience. Yet we tend to give it a wide berth because, frankly, it is difficult to read and interpret. So what I want to do in the remainder of this post is provide three pointers that have helped me to teach the song before I talk through some lessons from the song in a second post next week.
“What is going on?” The Question of Plot
This was my initial difficulty in teaching the book. My assumption was that there was a chronological plot- Solomon getting to know a woman, getting married in the middle and then settling down in the end (before getting married became something of a regular occurrence for him.) The problem is that it just doesn’t work like that. 3:6-5:1, which form the centre piece of the book, does seem to revolve around Solomon’s wedding but there is a fair amount of intimacy beforehand (1:16) and quite a lot of hesitancy afterwards (8:1). It doesn’t always seem particularly clear that the characters are the same throughout. There are swift changes of scene. In 2:6 the lovers are embracing whilst in 2:8 the man is coming from afar across the mountains. Trying to put that together left me banging my head against the proverbial brick wall.
The book makes far more sense if you stop trying to put together a plot and simply read it as reflections on the love between a man and woman lived out in the context of a community of friends. Indeed it may well even be an anthology of songs around a central theme rather than an account of one couple.
“What does that mean?” The Challenge of Poetry
In some ways it is ironic that I am arguing for the preaching of Song of Songs because I am definitely a prose man. Various friends tell me about the poems they are writing and I am somewhat baffled as to why anybody would say in verse and imagery what can be said in clear sentences and propositions. Again, this meant that I found it hard work initially to grapple with the text. Who on earth are the gazelles and the does and why do they matter? (2:7) Truth be told, I still don’t know.
However, I found it more helpful when I enjoyed the forest without worrying about the shape of each individual tree. What is the overall impression being given? Once you pay attention to the overall mood then a richly textured song becomes apparent mixing together celebration and fruitful life alongside some notes in a minor key picking up some of the harsh realities of love in this world. In other words, don’t let the fact that you can’t understand it all stop you enjoying the feel of the book.
“Who are they supposed to be?” The Issue of Interpretation
Here we get to the major controversy. Previous generations saw the song as primarily about the love between God and His people, fulfilled in Christ and the church. By contrast, around the time that I was first working on the book many Christians were getting excited (and an equal number exasperated) by a series being preached at an American megachurch that ridiculed this interpretation and taught it solely as a manual for human marriage. So which is it?
I want to argue for it being both human marriage and divine marriage. It is possible to read SoS as a celebration of Genesis 2:24- God’s instigation of marriage between man and woman being a good thing. The song invites us to celebrate that and encourages couples to persevere through times that are dark. It seems to me that there are ethical injunctions (8:9) that emphasise the benefits of chastity over promiscuity. Could a couple helpfully reflect on and celebrate their marriage using Song of Songs? Absolutely.
And yet it seems to me that there is much within the song and the Scriptures more generally that mean we cannot read it simply as a story of human love. The male character in the story is described variously as a shepherd and king- both of which are Old Testament descriptions of God, subsequently fulfilled in Christ. The backdrop to the song is a vineyard- the picture of Old Testament Israel. There are no direct quotations of SoS in the New Testament but there is an intriguing parallel between SoS 5:2 and Revelation 3:20 with a bridegroom knocking on the door of his bride. Perhaps most interestingly the wedding Psalm (Psalm 45) which is the closest equivalent of Song of Songs is cited in Hebrews 1 as very definitely being fulfilled in Christ. More than that, the whole Bible insists that human marriage always points forward to the climactic marriage between Christ and the church (see how Paul points this out in Ephesians 5:32) and it would be very odd indeed if that were not true of Song of Songs.
In the end that is why I really want Song of Songs to be preached for it is the most beautiful picture of being united with Christ forever. It tells us that love is stronger than death. It shows us the love between a Shepherd/King and a bride that he comes for from afar (2:8). It tells us that His love for us arises from a deep desire to be with us and it encourages us to sing from a position of deep security- “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”