Song of Songs and Grow Up

There has been some flap lately about preaching the Song of Songs. Some younger pastors, it has been said, have treated the book almost pornographically. Older preachers are calling for restraint and dignity when handling this inspired poem. Well, I don’t know about that. I haven’t listened to those sermons so I’ll just let the parties duke it out in their blogs or not. Either way, I’ve spent some time recently in the Song of Songs and so I do have some reflections on it. I doubt that my comments will a) be read by either side of the debate or b) help settle the discussion in the minds of my readers. But, I present them in hopes that they may aid in reading this beautiful poem to the glory of Jesus.

The first thing that I want to say about this is “grow up.” You cannot miss the sexual language in Song of Songs any way other than simply not reading the book. The question isn’t whether it is there or not, it is what you do with it. Our society tends to be very immature when it comes to sex. We kind of do a collective school boy snicker when it comes up in conversation. The way it is discussed at large reminds me of how we joked about it and drew “dirty” pictures when I was in elementary school. So the first bit of advice on interpreting Song of Songs is to just grow up about our attitude towards human sexuality. If your view of human sexuality was chiefly formed by MTV, you’re going to have a problem here. This is one reason I don’t immediately dismiss the criticisms of the older preachers; younger folks need to be more mature about this subject.

The next thing that needs to be said is that the poem is not an allegory of Christ and the Church. I don’t know of anyone who still interprets the book that way but I fear the tendency may still be there. The only recent approach like this I can remember reading was one by the Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton back in the 1960s. I mean, you can see why a monk might want to approach it like that right? But for those of us not given to a vow of lifelong celibacy, we want to handle the book in light of how and why the author wrote it and how people at the time would have read it. That said, we might still be tempted to “tame” the poem by reading it first in light of Jesus love and care for the Church and then as a poem about human love. I think those elements must be considered but I’m concerned about establishing a Biblical approach to how we layer these meanings on the book.

With those two lengths of “Police Line Do Not Cross” tape in place as borders, let me offer some reflection on how to read the Song of Songs. This is something I’d already taught in Sunday school but this morning during devotional reading I came across the text that formed my thinking on it. Ephesians 5:28-33:

In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Let me do some theological layering here to help this make sense. First, Jesus loved the Church before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). So his love predates the creation of humanity as male and female. Further, Jesus will love the Church in eternity (Ps 118) when marriage is no longer (Matt 22:30). So Jesus love for the Church predates human marital love and it will outlast it. Give the fact that humanity was created in the image of God, I would have to say that human marital love is a picture of Christ and the Church, not the other way around. What Paul is saying the quote above is “I want your relationships to be good and happy. Your marriages should be the way they were created to be, therefore, look to the model marriage was built on: Jesus and the Church.” From the way he’s speaking, I don’t think what he did was try to find something that looks like what marriage is supposed to be, pick up Jesus and the Church and say “be like that.”

So the allegorical approach to Song of Songs is wrong, because it is trying to apply a creaturely condition to an eternal state. That’s why some parts of Song of Songs just don’t fit as a picture God’s love for his people. God’s love in Jesus is like marriage in some ways, but in other ways it is very different. In the New Testament, Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom and the Church as the bride, but he also refers to himself as the Good Shepherd and the true vine. Yes, marriage is a very helpful picture of the relationship, but it doesn’t exhaust the meanings and implications of it. In a similar manner, human marriage has aspects that are rooted in our created-ness that don’t connect with God’s relationship with his people.

No, the allegorical approach is not the way to go. Instead, Song of Songs should be applied to human relationships. It is and inspired view of what human love should be like. So let Song of Songs be part of what Biblically informs and corrects our approach to human love and then let a Biblical version of human love help us to understand, in part, Jesus love for his Church. Song is not all the Bible has to say, but it is an important part that shouldn’t be dismissed. Consider the repeated refrain “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” (2:7, 3:5, 8:4) doesn’t advocate reckless love; there is a proper time and place for it. Chapter 3 has a wedding procession. That is the proper context for human love and sexuality: marriage.

In the ancient Near East sex and religion went together quite closely. Asherah poles were prolific fertility symbols in Israel during the time of the kings. Temple prostitutes were common in pagan temples; the sexual act was intended to arouse the gods so they might grant fertility. These views of human sexuality do not fit in Biblical religion; the Song of Solomon shows that human sexuality is part of creation. There is no appeal to the arousal of the gods in Song of Songs, only an appeal to Eden and human pleasure and joy. Sex is a creaturely thing that is neither to be worshipped nor is it a form of worship. It is a gift from God and should not be denied as an evil either. We are meant to love and be loved and Song of Songs shows the appropriate use and expression of that desire.

What about singles? There are those who are called to live single, celibate lives. Does Song of Songs not have anything to say to them? Of course it does, as I’ve said it warns that love is not to be aroused before its proper time. A person called to an unmarried life may look for love and partnership but should not awaken love before its time, even if that time does not come. A single person needs to know about Jesus’ relationship to his Church as much as a marriage person does. As a matter of fact, Paul was most likely single (1 Co 7:8) and he is the one wrote about God and his people this way.

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