This post is a return to a series of blog posts answering the question, “How should we study the Old Testament?” As our church is beginning a sermon series in Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes for 2014, this post will serve as a primer for studying Wisdom literature in general, and Song of Songs specifically. It is intended to aid anyone wishing to follow along in their study either individually or in our church-wide small groups.
With the crazy weather that’s been hitting California this week, I’ve found myself slightly confused each morning, wondering which jacket I should wear. Living in San Francisco, I know to always carry a jacket with me – but the question these days has been, “How warm a jacket will I need?” As I was looking through my assortment of hoodies, wool coats, and North Face jackets, I came across a jacket I haven’t worn in years: my San Francisco Giants windbreaker.
It’s not that I don’t like this jacket; it’s actually one of my favorites. Early on in my relationship with my fiancee, when she was purging my closet of abhorrent clothes, she tried to get me to throw it away, to which I responded, “Never!” But now I rarely wear it. Maybe it’s because I don’t quite know when to wear it. Maybe because it’s too special to wear just any day. Or maybe because I just forget it’s there.
If we could equate books of the Bible with articles of clothing, there would be books like Romans, or the Gospels, or Philippians, that emerge as the favorites – the go-to books like that versatile North Face jacket we wear almost every day. There would be others that we go to just for a rainy day, like Job or Lamentations – similar to a rain coat. We might seek out books like Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy, or Joshua when we need guidance in leadership and church ministry – like a nice blazer or wool peacoat we put on for a business meeting.
And then there’s books like Song of Songs, that strange book that we don’t quite know what to do with, how to apply its truths, or when to go to it – like my San Francisco windbreaker. And like my windbreaker, it often gets set in the back of the “closet” of the canon of Scripture, unused, unworn, and forgotten.
As we begin preaching on Song of Songs this week, how can we study it well and be responsible in our handling of Scripture? How can we also see its relevancy for us in life – especially for those of us who may not be married? Here are three simple ways we can approach the book of Songs carefully and responsibly, that will hopefully allow us to take this neglected coat out of the closet, admire its beauty, and even “wear” its truths for our lives.
1) Read Song of Songs in its entirety
Reading whole books of the Bible in one sitting is an often neglected practice of reading the Bible. It might be due to our Western way of thinking, as we like to take things apart and analyze them in depth; or it might be due to just plain intimidation or laziness. Regardless of the reason, reading a whole book of the Bible in one sitting – and not just once, but multiple times – is more beneficial than you might think.
Reading Song of Songs in its entirety takes our eyes off the details we tend to get lost in, and allows us to appreciate it as a piece of literature. The more you read it through, the more the major themes will come to the surface. Read not necessarily for 100% understanding, but to notice repetition, patterns, and the structure of the whole book. In my preparation for preaching Song of Songs, I’ve read through the book 4-5 times, and I plan to do it many more in the coming weeks.
2) Appreciate its genre
Song of Songs is a book with a long history of various interpretations. Is it a story involving two people in a monogamous marriage? Is it a love triangle between the Shulammite, the shepherd boy, and Solomon, like a modern day Korean drama? Is it a bunch of disjointed sayings on love, like an erotic book of Love Proverbs? Though there is much debate over how to read the Songs, one thing we know for certain is that they are just that: songs. And we should read them as such – as songs to be appreciated for all their imagery, metaphor, and poetic structure.
We may never fully know if there is a plot or not, if they were songs sung at a wedding ceremony (See Douglas O’Donnell, “Four Guideposts to Reading and Teaching the Song of Songs,”), or if they were a compilation of disconnected love songs. We may not fully know what it means to be a “cluster of henna blossoms” (1:14), why “teeth [like] a flock of shorn ewes” is attractive (4:2), why a man should be flattered that his “cheeks are like beds of spices” (5:13), or why a woman might want her lover to be “like a brother to me, who nursed at my mother’s breasts” (8:1).
But we do know that as is the case with songs, we don’t always need to understand everything, and we aren’t always supposed to. That’s the beauty of song and poetry. We can read, study, interpret, and even preach with confidence, because we can understand the celebration of love without knowing the exact meaning of the details. The details may not be completely understandable to us as a far-removed audience, but we can appreciate them for their beauty and intent.
3) Read with one eye on the text and one eye on Heaven
The repeated address to the daughters of Jerusalem, “I adjure you, O daughters…” (Song 1:5,2:7,3:5,3:10,5:8,5:16,8:4) reminds us that this was Wisdom literature intended to guide the bride’s unmarried female companions in the area of love and sex. Reading it in this light, Song of Songs can give us great hope for redeemed sexuality, intimacy, and marriage.
For those of us who have experienced broken sexuality, the Songs reminds us that healthy sexual relationships are still possible this side of Heaven. For those of us longing for intimacy, we are given a picture of the powerful relationship shared between a husband and wife in marriage.
As a single guy, engaged to be married, with a sexually broken past, I’ve been asking myself some questions that I think are helpful in “putting on” this “jacket” so that I might be taught, rebuked, corrected, and trained, so that I may be “complete, equipped for every good work” (2Tim 3:16-17).
“What areas of sexual brokenness need correcting in my life? How can I learn about redeemed and healthy sexuality through this book? Where do I need to grow in my understanding of intimacy in preparation for marriage? How can I be encouraged and even eager to “not awaken love” until the proper time?” Asking myself these very real and tough questions have given me a lot to chew on while studying through Songs.
However, the Songs are not just about the earthly relationship of marriage and sex. As we read the Songs with a picture of a redeemed and healthy marriage in mind – both sexual and intimate – we must not forget the final marriage relationship Scripture constantly points us to. Though not to be read allegorically, the Songs reminds us of the greatest marriage and intimacy known in Creation: that between Christ and His Church.
We cannot look at the physical picture of the wedding banquet in Songs without also being reminded of the heavenly, eternal wedding banquet awaiting the Church in heaven (Rev. 19:6-8). We cannot rejoice in the redeemed view of sexuality between husband and wife without rejoicing in the redeemed view of intimacy between Christ and the believers (Eph. 5:25,32). And we cannot expect marriage and sexual intimacy to satisfy apart from its intended context within one’s upmost devotion to God (1Cor. 7:28-29,35).
Read Song of Songs, and read it with eagerness and joy as we discover how God desires to use this book to equip our church for every good work. But learn the themes of love and sex within the proper place of the Christian’s love and devotion to Christ.
“Just as the Song finds its proper interpretation only in the context of the canon as a whole, so our sexual life finds its place only in the broader context of our devotion toward God. Love and sex are not the final answer to life’s troubles or meaning. Indeed, our human relationships are always in the process of becoming or growing.” (Tremper Longman, “Song of Songs”, 61)