July 29, 2017

What’s A Conservative Reading of Song of Solomon?

I have too many religious channels on my Dish tv. Any time of the day or night, I can get at least 6 preachers.

Some of these television preachers are Word-Faith, prosperity gospel charlatans and phonies. They should be arrested, locked up and the key thrown away.

But several of these preachers are actually trying to teach something. They talk about the Bible, prophecy, revelations, hidden meanings, lots of numerology, angels, voices, visions, trances and the anointing. Always the anointing.

I don’t know exactly what to call these people. Most of them seem to be totally unaware of the Gospel. They rarely talk about Jesus. Their message usually amounts to “It’s the last generation outpouring” or “You’re on the verge of a breakthrough” or “We need to elect a Republican.”

They take the Bible and make it say things it doesn’t say. They take a verse, rip it out of context and turn it into a reason for you to send $50 to their ministry so that you can get a special one time only outpouring.

Paula White, for instance, can take a passage and get a vast amount of information from the verse numbers. It usually gets into what amount of seed money you need to send to get in on this one time breakthrough miracle anointing.

Or Perry Stone. Perry knows a lot about the Bible, history and Judaism. He comes across to his audience as quite bright. But what he does with scripture is just painful to listen to. He invents, distorts, selects, twists and come out with things no one has ever heard of.

Sometimes two or three of these Bible teachers will get together on one program and play tag-team heresy. They start one distortion then hand it to the next person to add to, and then on to the next person….and so on. Everyone nods, and when they are done, you feel like you’ve had one of those micro-strokes where you hear the words but nothing makes any sense.

Liberal? Well, they are pretty conservative on the political-social-culture war agenda. But with the Bible, liberal isn’t the right word. They just find what isn’t there, and make things up to suit whatever their agenda happens to be.

Why bring this up? You see, it all has to do with the Song of Solomon. What is a conservative reading of the Song of Solomon?

In my job as a high school Bible teacher, I get to go through the Song of Solomon a couple of days every year. We read it all, and I try to relate the book to the rest of the Bible. So I’ve read a lot of commentaries and introductions to Song of Solomon. I’m fairly up to speed on the scholarly discussion. I know about allegorical interpretation. I know the 2 and 3 person dramatic theory. I know Pope’s theory that it’s a drama involving Ba’al and a consort. I know the pros and cons of what we can learn from parallels in other texts. I know the literary and theological discussions. I’ve even been to see an operatic presentation of the whole book, written by Calvin Seerveld.

I don’t have the book memorized, but I know my way around it pretty well after 15 seasons in the classroom. I have my own ideas of what’s going on and why it’s in the canon.

So it’s interesting to me how many young, reformed, Baptist and/or “Purpose Driven” preachers have done preaching/teaching series on Song of Solomon. And it’s distressing to see what they do with the book. Paula and Perry would be nodding.

Of course, Song of Solomon is a pretty hot read, even in English. In Hebrew it’s scandalous. There’s enough euphemisms in the Song to get you tossed out of several Christian colleges. It wasn’t for no reason that the 5th Council of Constantinople mandated that the book always be taught and preached allegorically. That meant that if you actually let it mean what it said, you were in conflict with Mother Church. Well, some mothers are a bit prudish.

And that’s the reason it’s a hot sermon and teaching book among evangelicals, especially in the current climate of reaching the emerging generation. Reading the sexy stuff in Song of Solomon is definitely not what they were doing at Hall Street Baptist Church when I grew up. Nosirree….that book was an allegory about Christ and his church, and those two breasts actually meant grace and faith.

I actually own John Gill’s two volumes on Song of Solomon, an incredible accomplishment of completely avoiding the meaning of the text and using the rest of scripture to force Song of Solomon to become something no one who produced or originally read or heard it would have remotely understood.

So I’m listening to a well-known young evangelical preacher last night as he goes through the Song of Solomon in the second sermon of a verse by verse series. The series is focused on marriage and sexual intimacy in marriage.

It’s a more honest reading of the text than the allegorists, and it does recognize that this is love poetry.

The sermon contains a lot of good information on marriage and sexual intimacy. I don’t agree with all of the perspective of the preacher on this topic, but the information and advice he’s giving is good. I wish my students would listen to the talk because there’s some exceptionally frank discussion of sex and marriage that will save them a lot of difficulty.

But I’m just not convinced that what I’m hearing is the message of the Song of Solomon. I’m not convinced that what I’m hearing from the preacher can be found authoritatively in the text. I don’t believe that study and exegesis is going to bring these points to the forefront.

Don’t get me wrong. Many of those who are preaching and teaching the Song of Solomon are handling the text of the book more carefully and conservatively than those who avoided the meaning altogether. But that doesn’t mean the advice and teaching on marriage and sex they are giving comes out of this text. It may be generally true for Christians, and we may be able to derive it from scripture as a whole or even from sanctified common sense.

The Song of Solomon simply isn’t a detailed instruction manual for marriage and sex. It’s ancient middle eastern love poetry. It’s sensual and it speaks to the gift of sexuality in God’s good creation. In the language of the text, there are things to be noted about sex, love and romance, but it simply isn’t a narrative or an exposition of the topic. In some ways, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense and I’m suspicious of anyone who handles the book with flippant confidence.

It’s misleading to tell new believers that Song of Solomon is something it’s not. It’s wrong to portray Solomon as someone he wasn’t! It’s confusing to plainly hear scripture use Solomon’s accumulation of a harem as an example of pride, lust and a sinful use of power, and then hear that Solomon is the great teacher on marriage.

It’s not right to ignore the difficulties and various interpretations of the text and say that the book is an instruction manual for sex and marriage based on Solomon’s marriage to his one true love.

For example, the preacher went right from some of the more sensual language of the book to specific kinds of popular contemporary sexual acts, and then moved well past that to much more on to the larger subject of sex in marriage and many applications there. Whether his advice was true or not, it wasn’t based on the plain, purposeful reading of the text. He was hanging his own talk on the text, not bringing the message out of the text.

This kind of handling of the Song of Solomon shows that “conservative,” inerrancy loving evangelicals who claim to be doing verse by verse exegesis are often just hanging their own thoughts and advice onto a shallow reading of the text.

In simply dealing with the plain meaning of the text, some of our “liberal” mainline friends are far more “conservative” than many well known conservative evangelicals. Some of what comes out of contemporary teaching from Song of Solomon is an agenda regarding marriage, family and gender that cannot be found in Song of Solomon. It’s fabrication to say it can.

The truth? A sexy reading of Song of Solomon attracts hearers. It attracts men. It attracts couples. It has evangelistic potential. Many people would much prefer to hear about marriage, dating, sex, relationships and gender than to hear about the Gospel or the teaching of the Bible in which Song of Solomon does have a canonical place.

When I hear “conservative” evangelicals making a speech about their loyalty to the Bible, I’m becoming more and more skeptical.

Comments

  1. The reason I asked my earlier question is this: I believe that Song’s place in the canon and its position within the book of Writings may provide some keys for understanding how the Jewish people understood this book as GOD’S Word to them, and thus how we may interpret and apply this book today.

    Song follows Proverbs in the Heb OT and is one of the Five Scrolls read at Jewish festivals. Proverbs is organized by the metaphor of one’s relationship to a woman—either the woman of wisdom (Prov 31) or the woman of folly (Prov 5-7). The “young man” to whom Proverbs is addressed is portrayed as one looking for a satisfying love relationship that will order his life. Which woman will he choose?

    Each of the Five Scrolls that follow Proverbs has a title that is FEMININE in form, and all except Ecclesiastes have WOMEN as primary characters (in Lamentations, it is the mother city of Jerusalem).

    These observations suggest that the canonical understanding of Song has something to do with the pleasures of wisdom. Genesis 2:24-25 is the high point of the creation story, when man and woman become one in marital intimacy and reflect the love and oneness of the God who made them. Song may be an extended meditation on that truth, suggesting that this gift remains good, even in a fallen world, and that the pleasure it gives represents experiencing God’s goodness through his gift of Wisdom.

  2. Mike, so if I’m understanding you right, you think Song isn’t written about sexuality, but about wisdom, and that it’s the character of wisdom that’s feminine, as per the poetic narrative?

  3. Thank you for this. I attend this church but have recently stopped going because the preaching seems to be more about what the pastor thinks than whats the bible tells us.

  4. I think Song is written about sexuality, but that its placement in the canon in the Wisdom Lit among the Five Scrolls after Proverbs encourages the reader to view its portrayal of the pleasures of sexual intimacy as a picture of the joys that are found in embracing Wisdom, which is Proverbs is pictured as the desirable woman. As marital intimacy is the highest gift in creation (Gen 2.24-25), so wisdom is such a wonderful gift from God, that its joys and delights can only be compared with life’s most pleasurable experience.

  5. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    Kat, ditto here

  6. Wow, it was so good to read a different perspective on SofS than I’m used to! I also have listened to a marriage series using SofS, presumably by the same preacher you discuss in your post. I was also confused by his “exegesis”. I kept thinking, why would I want to know how Solomon conducted his marriage(s) when I’m pretty sure I’d be miserable as his wife or concubine? Thanks for addressing the issue head-on. So many bible teachers just side-step the issue. A lot of what you said was simply intuitive. I’ve read the book a number of times, always looking for the “meaning,” and came out with a vague sense of what you describe here. I’ll do some more looking into this. As usual, thanks for a very thought-provoking post. I always enjoy reading!

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Charis — That link you included had an interesting turn of phrase that leaped out at me: “The Chorus of Harem Women”.

    COULD SONG OF SONGS ORIGINALLY HAVE BEEN SOMETHING AKIN TO AN OPERA? WITH ARIAS BY THE TWO OR THREE MAIN CHARACTERS SUPPORTED BY “THE CHORUS OF HAREM WOMEN”?

  8. Solomon is the very last person I would want to trust for relationship advice. That the book is used that way in the modern era does not surprise me since closet porn use is pandemic among Christians.

    Despite his horrendous record in the marriage relationship department, Solomon had a spiritual gift of WISDOM from God, and I wonder if SoS is a “download” from God along the lines of the Book of Revelation in the NT “downloaded” to John??? I have a mature and deep mentor who thinks that Solomon was speaking of Adam and Eve in the Garden, and “Solomon” in the story is Satan. I can’t connect all the dots on this view, but it it is very intriguing to consider. see Song of Solomon- a story of love, seduction, betrayal, paying the price, pain, choices

    Reading along the lines my friend proposed- with three characters one of whom represents Satan- I wonder if the book is an everywoman account, portraying the struggle of everywoman. (I can’t speak for everyman. I’ll have to leave that for you, IM) The last verse of the book reads to me like a “supply your own ending”. EVE(everywoman) speaks: 14. “Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices.” Which one is she speaking to? her beloved shepherd, or King S? This is left open-ended… an everyman/everywoman story “supply your own ending”. Which will YOU choose???

  9. I wrote a contemporary musical, two acts based on the Song of Solomon. I intended to use it for a fund raiser for the Rescue Mission my husband and I founded. After the board of directors, including two pastors, read parts of the script they pretty much banned it. Too late, I was deep in rehearsal , had the theater rented, music and dance money paid out, on and on. So, we put the show on and because of the bad publicity from the board, we lost money. Actually, my husband and I bankrolled the production and did donate some of the ticket money to the mission.

    One woman left the theater when, in the first act the word “VIRGIN” was used. I guess she hadn’t read her Bible recently.

    I am so disturbed by the social gospel teachers who are leading their flocks astray with teachings that are many times man made traditions that have nothing to do with Christ or what the Word really tells us. A beautiful love story has become something it was never meant to be . . . God help us.

  10. Are you really a monk? I think Marianology is heresy; how is it that people can twist Scriptures so horribly? I agree with you on the word-faith prosperity charlatans; they are hurting the flock imo There ought to be a Holy Spirit-led uprising against this injustice, proclaiming the truth in power. God’s word is the seed; it enters into our hearts and we do what He says because we love Him. To throw in a bunch of formulas destroys every reason we have to ever obey Jesus Christ – love.

  11. Garret’s WBC commentary is even better than his NAC contribution, IMHO.

  12. For an interesting series of sermons, by a true monk, may I suggest “Talks on the Song of Songs” These are sermons by Bernard of Clarivaux, but edited and modernized by Bernard Bangley.

  13. Veto Roley says:

    Let me correct this…

    I am a Biblical literalist. But, the problem with Biblical literalism comes when some people try to make the Bible literal in places where it is not intended to be literal. Because of its very nature, poetry is not intended to be purely literal. Sometimes poetry is literal. Many times, though, it expresses Truth in symbolic ways that are not literally true.

    With the Song of Solomon we have a lovely love story that embarrasses Puritanical sexual mores, but was probably tame to the writer’s original readers. IOW, the book is pornographic only because our mores do not encourage such frank discussion of sexuality, but that was probably not the case when it was first written. It is a love poem. Not only is it a love poem, but it is a love poem from a different culture and time than ours. Therefore, any specific information that we could glisten from the text about relationships and sexual technique are probably great reaches or generalizations such as learn to praise the good attributes of your lover (so his/her belly might reach out a little/lot more than you desire, find something about their body that you like and turns you on and praise them for that).

    I really believe that the book is there to legitimize sexual relationships, specifically between a husband and his wife. God is saying that it is ok to feel sexually attracted to the one whom you sexual rights to (and I phrase it that way to take into account the context that Solomon had a harem of 1,000 women to whom he had sexual rights to and while he may not have loved all of his maidens, it is difficult for me to believe that he did not love any of his maidens and perhaps longed for one or more of them). I can’t discuss SofS without going into some of the imagery, but it is ok, I think God is saying, to look at your wife’s breasts and say, “Those are beautiful things and I want to see them for they fill me with desire.” It is ok, SofS seems to indicate, to be turned on by your spouse’s body and tell him/her in detail why you like what you see and feel.

    Now, insomuch as marriage is a shadow of the relationship between God and His people (see the book of Hosea and Ephesians 5, for example), the Song of Solomon is allegorical of the love that God has for His people. But, other than saying that God desires His people, I don’t think there is too much you can say beyond that.

    Veto

  14. I don’t think Song is “allegorical,” at least in the traditional sense of that term. It would more rightly be called “metaphorical.” If we apply normal interpretive rules and try to discern the author’s intention, we can see clearly that it was not his design to write love poems that represent spiritual realities. These are love poems!

    However, in my view, part of the interpretive process also includes understanding how God’s people received a book like this and how it was understood in relationship to the entire canon. Its placement among the Wisdom Books in the Five Scrolls suggests that it has something to say to us about our relationship to Divine Wisdom, using the metaphor of the husband and wife relationship.

  15. In Sunday School we sang the song “His Banner Over Me Is Love.” He brought me to his banqueting table…I am my beloved’s and he is mine…etc.

    Then in college when I took OT Survey and actually read SoS, I had to laugh when I realized that’s where they took the passages from. Scandalous!! 🙂

  16. Andrea, do you have any video of this musical of yours? That’s fascinating.

    Veto, one thing I can’t wrap my mind around is how a Christian person could reasonably teach that having a sexual relationship with one’s spouse could ever be “illegitimate”, without the help of some dualist interpretive scheme to connect the dots for them. Self-disgust could make a person question the fitfulness of sexuality, coldness towards the spouse could help questions about ‘righteousness’ relating to sex bubble up, maybe – you know, all kinds of shames and secret wills that people have that make our particular private prudishness or prurience seem more palatable, or at least less inverse – but it’s such an odd idea to me that anybody would ever feel like God, out of everyone, might look sternly on you having sex with your spouse (or, gasp! wanting to) any way you want to.

    I’m not singling you out at all, but it’s something that you encounter in every denomination: people who don’t view sex as a good and desirable thing and invite us to discover how we should yoke our sex drives to God in the most humiliating, un-Scriptural way they could come up with. When we allow ourselves to generate and teach these lurid little theories about how God may or may not find our sexuality revolting but for this Book we have that says otherwise, we can make the physical world seem strange and full of terrifying spiritual dangers to the people who listen to us.

    We have this history in the church of a kind of sleight-of-hand, a mistake that I think is fundamental to moral psychology in a way: some of us, in trying to more “purely” love the souls of others, twist ourselves into hating our bodies, having convinced ourselves that the effort to sterilize our thoughts is Biblically warranted and good at any cost. All kinds of ascetic-sounding verses are quoted in support of this, but the end result is self-flagellation and every wet and natural impulse that we have leeches into this subsumed lake of fret and frustration within instead of coming to the surface. It’s like we balance our guilty failure to find it natural to care about spiritual things with a philosophy that goes to war on the body. That can’t be right.

  17. The Song of Solomon is a book I’ve read a few times now and am still not certain what it’s all about. While I don’t know any Hebrew, if I needed an incentive to learn it then I think the Song of Solomon (as well as the OT songs and poetry more generally) would be one good reason 🙂 From what I’ve heard, much of the force of the language and the imagery in the Song of Solomon is lost in translation. (And I’m not just talking English translations; I’ve even tried reading it in a few other modern languages as well as in Latin.)

    I lead what you may call a double Christian life. Or to put it differently you could say I move in two very different Christian circles (although within the one denomination!). As an evangelical Anglican I attend an evangelical parish church where the music is fairly standard — and bland — evangelical fare. But I’m also a chorister (in the Church of England cathedral/ Oxbridge college tradition). The majority of the music I sing as a chorister is (unsurprisingly) based on biblical texts. And I always find it fascinating when we sing music in a liturgical setting with words from the Song of Solomon. I’m sure that most of the congregation (let alone the choir) has no idea what to make of it when we sing (for instance) “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (SS 2:3)!

    Anyway that’s from a 20th Century work in English, but most of the settings to texts from the Song of Solomon are Renaissance works in Latin (by papist composers). Obviously at that time the works were composed allegorical interpretations (with which I incidentally don’t agree) prevailed and so the composer most probably had that in mind when setting the text to music. Actually there is quite a heavy Marian emphasis in a lot of these Renaissance settings of texts from the Song of Solomon. So for example “Ego flos campi et lilium convallium …” (SS 2:1 ff — I am the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys …) is generally given a Marian interpretation.

    When it comes to singing texts from the Song of Solomon in church I do not really know what to make of it. I certainly don’t buy the allegorical interpretation (although I don’t totally discount the fact that the Song of Solomon may have something to teach us about Christ and the church) and as a good Protestant I certainly don’t buy the Marian interpretations :-). But despite that I really like singing the Song of Solomon in church. After all it’s the Word of God and, what’s more, it’s a SONG. Maybe we’d all do better as understanding it if we actually started singing it in church. Like the Psalms, it’s there to be sung before being being exegeted and preached on (although don’t get me wrong — I’m all for exegesis and exegetical preaching). So I say whatever we think it means: sing it baby!

    Of course I am not aware of any settings of texts from the Song of Songs which would be appropriate for congregational singing, not least in an evangelical church setting. The stuff I sing in choirs is way too highbrow for your average evangelical and definitely for a choir rather than a congregation to sing. So there’s a challenge for all the budding composers out there to set parts of the Song of Songs to music appropriate for congregational singing.

    Anyway to turn to my last point: Although I’ve never bought the allegorical interpretations, neither do I think it was ever intended as a kind of manual for married couples. As you point out that seems to completely ignore the context of the book and the characters in the story. So your reference to “a well-known young evangelical preacher[‘s]”recent sermon series piqued my curiosity. It wasn’t too hard to work out who you were talking about so I found the sermons and listened to them with interest. My initial response was that that was a lesson in how NOT to do exegesis :-). The preacher said some things which may be good advice but almost nothing of what he said was (in my view) based on an exegesis of the text.

    I’ve also heard him preach topically on sex and marriage and my reaction was fairly similar — some useful advice plus a few valuable insights but then some dubious handling of Scripture as well. The problem this time, of course, was that the sermon was supposed to be exegetical rather than topical which made his exegetical shortcomings more prominent.

    Part of me doesn’t want to be too critical of the man because (a) I don’t know him and I’ve only heard him preach a few times by way of internet download, (b) from what I can gather he’s orthodox and doing a lot of good work for the kingdom, and (c) much of what I have heard him say on sex and marriage seems to be good advice (well as far as I can tell — I’ve never been married). However, regardless of the truth of anything a preacher says, the preacher is a model to his flock of how to handle the word. And unfortunately from what I’ve heard of this sermon series the preacher is not really doing his flock (nor the myriads who listen online) any favours.

    Blessings,
    apodeictic

  18. I think Mark Driscoll is doing a great job. The job of the preacher is always to 1. bridge the cultural gap and 2. connect the text to the wider context of the bible. So it really does relate to marriage etc.

  19. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I am a Biblical literalist. But, the problem with Biblical literalism comes when some people try to make the Bible literal in places where it is not intended to be literal. Because of its very nature, poetry is not intended to be purely literal. — Veto Roley

    Then somebody tell the YEC’s that Genesis 1 (with its “And the Evening and the Morning…” refrain) also follows the structure of Classical Hebrew Poetry.

  20. I’m glad someone finally knows for sure what SoS is. Please let us know when your commentary comes out.

  21. The SofS is the best biblical, poetic commentary on Genesis 2:25–“The man and his wife were both naked and felt no shame.”

  22. I do not understand why you seem to think that the meaning that the original author intended Song of Songs to have is the meaning of the text.

    [Moderator edited: Cut out the personal comments or I won’t post you again]

    If scripture is God’s word, and if God can say things in scripture that the original author didn’t know about, why shouldn’t we seek varying levels of spiritual meaning (allegorical, tropological, and anagogical), which is to say, why shouldn’t we think that we can move deeper into the literal sense in order to hear God’s voice speaking at multiple levels? Further, if we need to read for the original intentions of the author, how would we ever know the true meaning of the text seeing that the author and the circumstances of the composition of almost all the biblical books are unknown to us? Spinoza’s chapter on biblical interpretation in his Theological Political Treatise shows where this view of reading is headed. I recommend Yale theologian Denys Turner’s “Eros and Allegory” and David Dawson’s “Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity” as well as a nice collection by Richard Norris on the Song of Songs. Also, Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior is a good read about matters pertaining to interpretation.

  23. Thank you so much for saying so well what has bothered me about how we treat the SoS. I have always found it as a rich, poetic, sexy and wholesome treatment of human love and sexuality.

    I don’t know why we have so much trouble taking it at face value. Of all the people in the world to talk about human love and sexuality without perversion and in God-glorfiying ways, it ought to be Christians.

    The beauty of the SoS and its poetry and sensuality is simply astounding. It’s canonization is pure genius. We don’t have to explain it away or use it as a backdrop for our own ideas or a christianized Kama Sutra. It is such a testimony about how God has made us and His joy and pleasure at our capacity for love and enjoyment of that love at it’s most intimate level.

    Thanks Mike. Carry on the good work.

  24. For those that have expressed concern about the Solomon-as-a-role-mdoel issue, I would encourage you to listen to the most recent sermon in this series (Sunday, Oct 12). The preacher specifically addresses this issue… He asks, How can we learn from Solomon’s sins and not repeat his mistakes?

    iMonk,

    Thanks for this. I don’t think I would be as strong in my critique of the preacher, but I appreciated your post. It provides some helpful counterperspective.

  25. “truth…it attracts men … it attracts couples.”

    That is waay to simple, and truthful of speak for 99% of folks. To suggest that SoS is bible porn CANNOT be tolerated! Of all creatures on the planet, only humans need to see and hear images of sex between others. We, the Godly – need to be taught and shown … grab this, slap that, put those in the air and oh oh oh – Mmmm. Yeah. And if God says … “Go and be stimulated” then we can do it all day long! We, the hypersexually stimulated rightous! Woohoo! Do I wish they had canonized a poem on Gods desire for us to gorge ourself with chocolate. Oh yeah. The thick milky richness of Gods ‘gift’ to mankind as it slides down your throat. Dont you know what that “really” means? Oh … the flesh .. I mean the spirit!! Oh man. I think I could be the prophet!

  26. Check out The Song of Songs:
    A New Translation With an Introduction and Commentary
    by Ariel and Chana Bloch
    http://www.song-of-songs.net/new_trans.html
    This is a good and thought provoking work on SoS and is an example of actually letting the text speak.

    I am challenged by it, and I have been in the Bible for over 40 years.