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Song Of Songs

By Iain Clements, 25 Apr 2017

I'm taking the unusual step of posting the full text of Sunday evenings sermon, not because I think it's brilliant or original, but because I want to be able to refer people back to it and we've got some issues with our audio recording at the moment. 

If I say anything helpful I've got it from somewhere else! The newer commentaries I've been helped by include James M. Hamilton Jr (published by Christian Focus), Douglas Sean O'Donnell (published by Crossway), and the essay in "Five festal Garments" (published by IVP) written by Barry G. Webb. I've been helped greatly by talks by Andrew Evans (given at the Solent Gospel Partnership - available on their website), and a sermon series by David Gibson - available on the Trinity Church, Aberdeen website. 

Earlier this year the Bible Society published the results of a survey they had carried out on people’s Bible reading habits. And one of the questions they asked was “What is your least favourite book in the Bible”. The top 5 least favourite were - Leviticus, Numbers, Revelation, Lamentations and…..Song Of Songs. I don’t know if that surprises you?

I don’t think it really surprised me. I think that kind of survey is a bit like the Classic FM Top 500 they do every easter. They list the pieces of music that people have voted for as their favourite. And then for the rest of the year they spend a lot of the day playing the top pieces.  So then it’s no surprise that the top of the chart doesn’t seem to change. Even if “The Lark Ascending” is the most overrated piece of music ever composed!

I think that’s what going on when people answered the question about their least favourite Bible books. Think about it - how often do we hear Leviticus, Numbers, Revelation, Lamentations and Song Of Songs preached? And so what happens is, we don’t really know what to do with them when we read them.

I read that kind of list and take it as a challenge! And I’m convinced that every book of the Bible is given to us for a reason and must never become a closed book. And there is something about the time and culture that we live in that makes it vital that we become familiar with the Song of Songs.

I think Song of Songs was on that list of least favourite Bible books for a slightly different reason to the others. We may struggle reading Numbers and Leviticus. But Song of Songs probably just feels a bit odd. Even embarrassing to read.

It hasn’t always been people’s least favourite Bible book. So listen to what a character says in one of Dorothy L Sayers short stories. Lord Peter Wimsey says this -

“In my youth they used to make me read the Bible. Trouble was, the only books I took to naturally were the ones they weren’t over and above keen on. But I got to know the Song of Songs pretty well by heart.”

Perhaps you relate to that? I wont ask you to own up! And then, if you read older books on theology or collections of sermons, the Song of Songs was very popular. The Puritans are always quoting from it and preaching on it. Over the years something has changed!

We’re going to spend the next few weeks hearing what God has to say to us in this book. I haven’t yet decided how long the series will be - I might take a chapter a week, I may well take longer chunks and get more of an overview. But this week I just want to do something a bit different and introduce the book to us. I’m doing this because I’m guessing it’s not the most familiar book to us. I want to whet our appetite for what’s to come.

I also want to explain a bit about why we should want to hear God speak to us in it. I want to take a little bit of time to show my approach to it. I know that’s an unusual thing to do - but I think it’ll help us to listen and relax a bit if you know that up front, rather than perhaps being a bit nervous (“what’s he going to say?”) and want to come at me with questions from the start. So it’s a bit of an unusual sermon tonight.

I should also say that I’m just beginning to study this book. So a bit like last year when we looked at Job I haven’t got it all figured out. I’m very dependent on others - so if I say anything helpful it’s probably come from someone else. And if you want to know what I’ve found useful come and talk to me and I’ll tell you.

I’m going to root what I’m saying tonight in our introduction to the book in the very first verse of the book.

“The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s”.

And I’ve got three points we need to get clear as we begin to listen to God in the Song of Songs. Now, when I tell you what they are you are going to wonder what I’ve spent all week doing! I’m sure you could have come up with them.

(1) IT’S A SONG. (2) IT’S THE SONG OF SONGS. (3) IT’S IN THE BIBLE.

IT’S A SONG

Ok, that's stating the obvious. It's the first thing we are told in verse 1. But it’s important to bear that in mind as we read on. Because it should affect our expectations of what we are reading. I guess we are pretty familiar with stories, narratives (the gospels, Genesis). We are used to arguments (like in the letters of the New Testament). Wisdom like Proverbs is less familiar but we get what’s going on.  Psalms  - we like and understand poetry. A song - well, that’s a bit different. Yes, like poetry but even more so.

So - what is important about a song? Just think what do the words of a song do? Yes, they do lots of things. Some do tell stories - but that’s a minority and I struggle a bit with story songs. If you’ve heard them once that’s it I find! I know the boy in “A Boy named Sue” meets his dad at the end and beats him up and finds out why he was given a girls name. I don’t need to hear it again!

No, in many songs, think of pop songs - words don’t argue a point, or tell a story. The evoke an emotion. They use picture language. There’s a chorus, a refrain that goes round and round. And you don’t pick apart a song do you - you may think about it. But you sing it. You feel it. You don’t explain it. It’s a bit like explaining a joke - it loses something in that.

But what do you do with songs? You sing them! You hear them with music. You respond to the feeling. It is thought by many that this was sung at wedding feasts in the Old Testament world.

So just glance down at chapter 1. The verses are full of images, use of senses and delight. The entire Song of Songs is full of that. We need to get tuned into it.

Then there is a chorus that comes round again and again - 2:7 - “that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases”. And another refrain - 2:16 - “My beloved is mine and I am his”. Those are the choruses, we need to take those seriously as a big point of the song.

I make that point just so that we bear it in mind as we go along. This book is different, and so our approach must be a bit different. I don’t think it’s telling a story from start to finish or making an argument from logical point A to point Z. We can’t expect everything to be explained”. But we should expect to feel something as we read it. That might be a surprise to us British evangelical types. We need to enjoy the poetry.

But what is this song about? That’s my second point - 

IT’S THE SONG OF SONGS

That doesn’t help, you’re thinking! Ah - but it does. Why? I’m no expert in Hebrew, and you may not be either but most of us do know a bit about about how the language works. So if I said to you “Holy of Holies” what would you think of? That most holy place at the heart of the temple. The Holy of Holies - a place holier than all the other places. How Hebrew expresses greatness, superlatives.

And thats the language used in verse 1. “The Song Of Songs”. In a way - it’s the greatest song! The best song? Now - why? Did this top the Israelite classic FM top 500? I don’t think so. It’s because of the subject matter.

So what is this best song all about? Just cast your eyes down. Perhaps flick through the couple of pages the book is on. What’s it about? Love. Marriage. Sex.

Now - that shouldn’t surprise us. After all - isn’t that what we have been singing about for generations? I looked up the Top 40 online this weekend. Made me feel very old - I was really into pop music and I know nothing now! But even without knowing how the tracks go it’s obvious that just as it was in 1967, 77, and 87 most of the songs are about love. Galway girl. Stay. Be the one. I have heard the number 1 - Ed Sheeran “Shape Of You”. “I’m in love with the shape of you.”

That’s not miles away from Song Of Songs. A love song between a servant girl and her beloved - a man who is sometimes described as a shepherd, sometimes as a king. They are in love, and looking forward to being married - with all that involves. There is a delight in each others bodies - so look at how the bride adores her beloved, and the groom his bride (4:1-5). It’s as if he says “I am in love with the shape of you”. There are also friends looking on, celebrating their love. Look at 1:2.

But unlike songs in the Top 40, the Song of Songs celebrates love and sex in it’s proper place. It is a celebration of marriage. Looking forward to marriage. Enjoying love and sex in marriage.

And one of the main messages of the book comes through in that refrain - “do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases”. Not just about a feeling, or beautiful bodies. About a marriage relationship.

It’s important not to shy away from the fact that this is a love song and a celebration of sex in it’s proper place. Because God wants us to! We are physical beings - we saw that when we looked at 1 Corinthians 15.

In our culture it’s important we do this and get this right. Because our culture worships sex. And says everything goes when it comes to sex. Our culture’s love songs are graphic and are not celebrating marriage. Ed Sheeran’s song is about meeting someone in a club and going on a first date - I looked the words up!

So as Christians we need to sing a better song about love and marriage and sex and pass those songs on. Our problem is we have often reduced what the Bible says about these things to “don’t do anything until you get married, and then we don’t speak about these things.”

We are silent, embarrassed, and if we speak what we say is negative. And we need to say those negative things. Love and sex outside their God given place destroy everything. Like water - great under control, when it gets in where it shouldn’t be it destroys everything. Think of the devastation flooding causes. 

But we have a better song to sing. We need to hear the positive messages as well, which the Song of Songs gives us. The better picture of what marriage is, and how sex in marriage is meant to be - and rather than being repressed Victorians (as our culture loves to picture Christians), it is because we know how valuable and beautiful marriage and sex and love is, we are so careful about how it’s used. We need to hear this and believe it - because we struggle with these issues too. And It’s vital we pass that on to our children too.

The Song of Songs talks about sex, but never in a vulgar way. It’s not embarrassed about the topics it covers - but it’s not explicit either. And we’ll see that as we hear the poetry. There’s a reason the love is described in poetic terms. It’s not so we are meant to pick away at it trying to work out exactly what’s going on (I wont be doing that). It’s to carefully draw a veil over something valuable and beautiful.

It’s the opposite of the way sex is depicited on Tv and in films and especially in pornography - porn shows what should be hidden. This poetry hides what should be celebrated. So don’t worry - these wont be 18 certificate sermons! We need to be as careful as the Bible is when we talk about these things without being embaressed. Song of Songs has lots to teach us about modesty, but also courage in talking about love, marriage and sex.

The other thing to note is that although it’s a love song, it’s not a drippy idealised Mills and Boon romance where everything is perfect. Yes - the lovers delight in each other. So much so that their relationship is described in ways that remind us of the Garden of Eden. But there are problems. They aren’t in Eden anymore. Other people get in the way. There’s the threat of violence and the abuse of sex. It’s romantic yes, but also realistic. 

So it’s a Song, and it’s the Song Of Songs. Then thirdly:

IT’S IN THE BIBLE

By which I mean - we wont be hearing Song Of Songs properly unless we hear it in it’s context, which is the whole of God’s word. But it’s this issue that we probably have the most questions about. Why is it in the Bible? If Jesus on the road to Emmaus took his disciples through the whole of Scripture and showed them how everything pointed to him - what did he say about this book?

You may know something about the way this book has been interpreted through history. There is what I will call “the old style” of interpretation. That’s far too simplistic, but I’ll use that description to make my point. And that approach sees Song of Songs as an allegory. Basically people have said - “yes, I know it seems like Song of Songs is about love sex and marriage, but it’s really not. Don’t be distracted. It’s all about Jesus and the church. Or God and Israel.”

And to show that they take some of the poetry and use their imagination to prove the point. So breasts become the Old and New covenant for example. Not really about love, really about God’s love for us.

In reaction to that more recently some people have said - that’s rubbish. Obviously it’s a love poem. It’s about marriage. It’s about sex. And that’s ALL it is about. Any attempt to say it’s got anything to do with God’s love - well, they may say that just proves you're repressed and got a problem talking about sex. That’s my paraphrase, but it’s not far off.

So to give you an illustration of this. Two solidly evangelical publishers published books on the Song in the last 20 years. Evangelical Press - can’t get more solid and reformed that that - in their book the author says “it is not IN ANY SENSE to be interpreted literally”. The IVP, The Bible Speaks today series, again a very evangelical publisher - and a helpful commentary I’m using -  the author talks about his approach “the main emphasis is on the natural interpretation of the Song as a warm, positive celebration of human love and sexuality in the context of marriage.” Human love - that’s it.

Both those approaches fail. I’m not following either - to the letter, but in a sense I’m going to try and follow the spirit of both. Seeing the Song as an allegory is a big problem. Because how do you know what the poetry refers to? In a million years an ordinary Bible reader would never come up with some of the interpretations some people have given some verses. Even with using other Scriptures and knowing theology. It’s just putting your ideas into the text. And we rightly reject that as a way to interpret the Bible. And as well as that - just think. What does it say about God if he writes to us about one thing by using this kind of language that he just wants us to ignore? He’s misleading us. Even perhaps - tempting us? No. It is about love.

But we mustn’t react too far. The people who want to see Jesus here are right, even if they do it wrongly. Because the Song Of Songs is in the Bible. And we are going to see themes and images that come up again and again in Scriptures. Garden. City. Shepherd. King. And obviously love and marriage.

Whenever someone has a hit record there’s always someone who try to take the band to court claiming that they wrote it and that the tune has been nicked off them. Desperate to get their hands on the royalties. Even last year Led Zeppelin were in court over 40 years on defending themselves against someone who said they wrote “Stairway to heaven”. Most of the time, any similarity is ruled as accidental. There’s only so many melodies in the world!

Sometimes though bands writes songs which deliberately use bits they’ve borrowed from other tracks. And they get permission and the original writers get some credit and royalties. Coldplay wrote a song deliberately using the melody from a track by Kraftwerk and were very upfront about it. They were saying - there is a connection between these two pieces of music! Like composers who write “variations on a theme of…..” and say that.

When we hear things in the Song of Songs that make us prick our ears up, that make us think “I’ve heard this before somewhere”, we are meant to think that. It’s not just an accident, like hearing a song and just thinking “it reminds me of…”. 

The Song Of Songs is in the Bible. Ultimately it’s by the same author who wrote Genesis to Revelation. And it fits into that big picture, that grand storyline. And it has that one same aim - to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ. The newer commentators who say it’s only about human love and marriage have a big problem. Which is - if that was true, it would make Song of Songs the only book in the Bible you can’t and mustn’t preach Christ from!

And when we think about it, we don’t have to say the Song of Songs is not about love and marriage because it’s about Jesus,  any more than we have to say it’s only about love and marriage and not about Jesus. Because we need to ask the bigger question. What are love and marriage and sex about? Why did God give us those gifts? Why is our drive and desire so strong for these things?

Because love and marriage and sex is about Jesus.

So Ephesians 5 tell us this doesn’t it. As Paul speaks about the relationship about husbands and wives he says we live together like Christ and the church. Not that he’s just come up with a great illustration. But that God has given us marriage to show us what the real marriage between Christ and his church looks like. And so it’s no surprise that the image of marriage and faithfulness and imagery like prostitution is used throughout scripture to teach us about our relationship with him.

So when we hear from the Song of Songs we need to hear what it says to us about human marriage AND Jesus' relationship with us. Not in a forced way. But asking “what is this Song pointing to?”. Because our desires so are so strong and deep seated they are there for a reason. Not that our relationship with Jesus will ever be sexual - but that they show us our need of him.

This is the better story we all need to hear. You need to hear this if you are single. Perhaps you want to be married. Perhaps it’s a painful subject. But Song Of Songs shows you what you know to be true. That is - marriage is good. And yes, in a sense, those who are single are missing out. Most know that. I did. I was single until I was 33. Saying that isn’t pitying you - it’s showing you the God honouring sacrifice that singleness is. Even if it doesn’t feel like that at the time! You are to honoured for the decision not to just do what culture does - shack up with anyone, or sleep around. But Song Of Songs also teaches you that as good as marriage is it is not not ultimate. There is better to come.

And if we’re married we need to hear this. Because seeing the “both and” of what the book is about should stop us from turning marriage into an idol. If we’ve got a happy marriage, great - but it’s not heaven on earth. It’s pointing beyond itself to the greater marriage. And if perhaps your marriage is disappointing, it stops our marriage from being an idol that has failed. The Song is realistic about problems. We are not in Eden anymore. This is love in a fallen world. Too often, because we don’t talk biblically about sex and marriage we give the impression that we look forward to marriage then God owes us paradise. But that may not happen! For all kinds of reasons. The song points us beyond human marriage - and will help us prevent becoming bitter or disappointed. 

And as we close, we can say all that because of verse 1. “The Song Of Songs, which is Solomons.” Now, I’m undecided about Solomon’s precise role in the poem. Is he the groom? Or is the groom an ordinary Israelite the girl sees as being like Solomon,  because she is so in love with him?

But it is important he is mentioned at the start. We need to remember who Solomon is. Like David - he’s not just an ordinary Israelite. He is Gods’ anointed King. The King of peace - the early part of his reign was Israel at its best. Now, yes, it fell apart, and Solomons lust was to blame for that. But just as we look at David and can’t help but look forward to Christ, we should do the same with Solomon.

And there’s a hint there that this Song Of Songs - the greatest song to be sung on earth, isn’t the last song. Solomon failed - precisely here, in his love, in his marriages. But there is a greater Solomon who is faithful. Who sings a greater song over his bride. Who is a shepherd who is also a King.

And if we go through Song Of Songs and fail to grow in our love for him then we’ve failed. Not that we get silly and press details that aren’t there. But in it’s big message and themes - we see Jesus and feel his love. And long for him with a greater longing than our sexual desires or desires to be loved by a man or woman.