October 20, 2020

Don’t Even Think about Preaching on That

song-of-songs-ii-1957-Chagall

Song of Songs II, Chagall

I’m speechless, in awe—words fail me.
    I should never have opened my mouth!
I’ve talked too much, way too much.
    I’m ready to shut up and listen.

– Job 40:3-5, MSG

* * *

The other day I drove by a church with which I’m familiar and noticed that they were doing a sermon series on the biblical wisdom book, the Song of Solomon.

I thought, “Really? Why?”

This particular congregation is not renowned for its in-depth, exegetical Bible teaching. It falls more within the holiness tradition. They emphasize spiritual enthusiasm and emotive worship, and have a history of being legalistic with regard to personal behavior codes. I have an idea the church believes in entire sanctification and I know they are somewhat Pentecostal, with a strong belief in experienced manifestations of the Holy Spirit — though I am not sure what particular evidences they look for.

I would feel confident betting that they are not preaching the Song of Solomon for what it is: a series of erotic love poems. I’m pretty sure the pastor won’t be explaining its sensual metaphors and talking in detail about the steamy longings and fantasies of its characters. Nor, would I imagine, will he spend much time explaining the long history of interpretation of this difficult book within Jewish and Christian traditions. Most have concluded that the book is not simply about sexual desire and fulfillment, but also reflects something concerning divine love and wisdom as well. As one scholar put it, “The Song of Songs has served for centuries as a focus for the religious imagination, connecting bodily passions with the most powerful of spiritual aspirations.”

What will this particular pastor and congregation do with the Song of Solomon? I found their description of the series, and here is an edited version of the direction the six-week sermon series will take:

In this study of the Song of Solomon, we will focus on developing proper, godly relationships rooted in loving God first. If your relationships work, your overall life will improve…. The order of developing relationships is of utmost importance for lasting relationships and honoring God.

Sorry folks. The Song of Solomon doesn’t teach that. I may not be 100% sure what it does teach, but I know without a doubt that’s not it. Unfortunately, there’s a congregation of Christians here in the Midwest that will be led to believe this sublime meditation on erotic and sacred themes is a practical handbook for developing one’s relationships in the right way. Some of the world’s most intimate and delightful love poetry will be turned into bullet points on a moral checklist.

Why did the pastor choose to use Song of Solomon this way? I don’t know his reasons. But I, your venerable chaplain, once presumed to preach a series on Song of Solomon when I was a young preacher, and I know why I did it — because it is in the Bible. If it’s in the Bible, it must be truth. If it’s in the Bible, it must be God’s Word to God’s people. If it’s in the Bible, it must be applicable to our lives today. If it’s in the Bible, God must intend for a preacher like me to understand it and turn it into a series of sermons that will help my church. After all, does not Paul write, All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable…”?

By the way, my sermon series was awful. If I remember correctly, I was heavily influenced by Watchman Nee’s spiritual and allegorical interpretation of the book at that time, and I’m pretty sure I turned Solomon’s most excellent song into an incomprehensible mystical mess.

Such thoughts lead me to make this point today:

I don’t think most ministers should preach on parts of the Bible like the Song of Solomon.

There are texts in the Bible that are too hard for many of us to understand, at least not without years of study and consideration. Then, even if we begin to grasp them, converting our insights into sermons that shine forth the Gospel with Jesus clearly in the center is an immensely difficult task.

Pastor, you don’t have to preach, nor is it wise to try and preach, everything that’s in the Bible.

Please hear what I am not saying.

  • I am not saying a book like Song of Solomon is not sacred Scripture. It is.
  • Nor am I saying that it should be completely avoided. Song of Solomon and difficult texts like it have long histories of interpretation and various uses within communities of faith. Perhaps there are better settings and better ways to consider portions of Scripture like this within our churches.

The fact that some of us would think that a mysterious book like Song of Solomon should be taken up as if were as plain and direct and simple as Psalm 23 or John 3:16 and preached in the regular course of weekly services strikes me as presumptuous and woefully ignorant of (1) the nature of the Bible and texts like these, and (2) the task of preaching.

Carl W. Ernst’s excellent introduction to the Song of Solomon points out the complex task of reading, understanding, and using a text like this. Here is his opening paragraph:

song-of-songs-iv-1958-Chagall

Song of Songs IV, Chagall

One of the most sensuous and beautiful love poems ever written in Western Literature appears in the Old Testament of the Bible. Hidden between the pronouncements of Ecclesiastes and the visions of  Isaiah, the Song of Songs tells us in powerfully seductive images of the passionate longing of young lovers:  “You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; you have ravished my heart with one of your glances, with one chain of your necklace. How fair is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the smell of your ointment than all spices!” In first-century Palestine the Song of Songs was sung in taverns. Yet in the Middle Ages, the love poetry of the text held a deep fascination for monks and nuns. This erotic masterpiece has always carried with it something more than merely a sensual attraction. Christian mystics used its language to express their longing for God. Monks in the Middle Ages made it the most copied book of the Bible. In fact, even to think of Jewish spirituality without the Song of Songs is not possible. It is deeply embedded in our Judeo-Christian literary tradition. The Song of Songs has inspired more common quotations in English for its length than any other book of the Bible. Today in wedding ceremonies it is often quoted. The character of this short text, however, has been much debated for at least two thousand years. Is it simply an erotic love poem that somehow found its way into the text of the Old Testament? Is it an allegory, to be interpreted by one of various theological approaches? How has this text been visualized?  To understand the richness of the Song of Songs, it is necessary to consider the controversies over the relation between physical and spiritual love, the role of eroticism in the Bible, and the way in which the Song of Songs has been depicted artistically.

That dense paragraph is just the beginning! Ernst’s essay notes the remarkable complexity of this wisdom book, as well as the way it has been read quite differently in various times and places and settings. It’s an incredibly difficult book, and I wouldn’t even begin to consider preaching on the Song of Solomon today like I did when I was a foolish young pastor too full of myself to imagine anything in the Bible could get past me.

Preachers and teachers do this constantly, however. For example, why are there so many sermon series on the book of Revelation? Because it’s in the Bible, of course, and the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation, is as relevant and practical as your daily newspaper, right? In the same way, we turn Joshua into a story that tells us how to be spiritual victors, transform Nehemiah into a book about leadership principles, portray Ruth and Esther as virtuous, conservative evangelical women who saved the day by submitting properly, present the prophets as people who gave messages about Jesus  as clear as the nose on your face hundreds of years before he was born, and imagine Paul as an academic theologian who promoted a clear system of doctrine for people to sign on to.

We assume the Bible is an accessible book, that we should be able to go right to it and find answers to the questions and problems we face in our lives today. The pressure on ministers to use the Bible to speak to these matters leads us to imagine that the Bible is something other than what it is and that we can use it without constraint.

Unfortunately, the one part of the Bible many preachers seem to have trouble proclaiming is the Gospels, unless it’s to tell us something like we can’t walk on water unless we get out of the boat. Maybe that’s the real message here. We think we know what to do with the Bible. We don’t have much of a clue about what to do with Jesus and the Gospel.

I would encourage my pastor friends out there to put down the Song of Solomon and disregard Revelation for awhile. Tell us good news about Jesus and the Kingdom he brings by grace, creating living faith in those who welcome him. There is plenty of that in perfectly clear Biblical texts to last for years and years of pulpit ministry.

And that is what we’re all really, really hungry to hear.

* * *

Recommended Reading:

Interpreting the Song of Songs: The Paradox of Spiritual and Sensual Love, by Carl W. Ernst

 

Comments

  1. I agree about the Song of Solomon.

    The Book of Revelation can be helpful. If for no other reason to say, “yes…bad things are coming…but Christ will conquer.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Unfortunately, that’s not the way you hear the Book of Revelation preached.

      Instead it’s Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Antichrist, It’s All Gonna Burn, Escape Fantasy followed by Revenge Fantasy like a cosmic Atlas Shrugged.

      And as for Song of Solomon, I have only three words: Bee Jay Driscoll.

      • Cedric Klein says

        Actually, I prefer to think of Atlas Shrugged as a secular/libertarian Book of Revelation.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Last year I had an epiphany that Atlas Shrugged and Left Behind were the same story, just pitched to different audiences with different Fanservice.

          1) Initial situation: Persecution of the Righteous (i.e. Those Just Like You, Dear Reader). The Righteous (TJLY, DR) are the ones really making the world go round, but are outnumbered and oppressed by the inferior Other (Heathen or Moochers/Takers).

          2) Great Escape Fantasy: A Messiah figure (Jesus or John Galt) spirits away The Righteous (TJLY, DR) to a hidden place of refuge (Fluffy Cloud Heaven or Galt’s Gulch) where they can wait out the coming Armageddon in comfort.

          3) Revenge Fantasy: Without the leaven of The Righteous (TJLY, DR), the world melts down into Armageddon (whether by Direct Divine Plagues or What do Parasites do when there are No More Hosts?). Either way, the destruction of the Unrighteous is total, clearing the Old World to make way for the New.

          4) Endgame: Now that the Unrighteous are struck down never to rise again, the Messiah figure leads The Righteous (TJLY, DR) from the place of refuge to take possession of what should have been theirs all along. OUR World Without End, Amen.

          Add blatant Fanservice for the Dear Readers and break-the-fourth-wall asides for Altar Call or Objectivist Rant, and it becomes more obvious that Atlas Shrugged is Left Behind for Objectivists and Brights, while Left Behind is Atlas Shrugged for Born-Agains. No wonder you’re seeing the syncretism where Ayn Rand is the latest Fourth Person of the Trinity…
          “Just like Atlas Shrugged, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

    • There’s actually a lot more that can be done with Revelation than your thumbnail summary. There is a lot of rich, gospel-saturated depth to be mined from that book. The problem is we first have to stop reading it through “roadmap-to-the-future” glasses and rediscover the true nature of prophecy: Pointing to Christ and calling the faithful back to faithfulness.

  2. Richard McNeeley says

    In my first New Testament class the prof admitted that he didn’t like the book of Revelation because he didn’t understand it. Here it is 40 years later and I must admit that there is much in the Bible, including Song of Solomon and Revelation, that I don’t understand nor will I pretend to.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Problem is, like Job’s Counselors, there’s a lot of Christians (in pulpits and street corners and on TBN) who DO think they Understand it All.

      • Vega Magnus says

        It’s not just that they think they understand it all. They think they HAVE to understand it all. Because the Bible clearly states X, Y, and Z! Clearly! All the time!

      • I had a revelation from God as to the exact meaning of John Revelation. I will mail a transcript to the first 10 people to transfer $100 each into my checking account…

    • I think the book of Revelation is pretty confusing.

      There are a few parts that, IMO, are rather clear, yes, but a lot of it, no. When I admitted to this view on a Christian forum I used to visit daily (this was a long time ago), I was promptly told by guys on all sides of the prophecy debate that no, Revelation was easy and simple to understand!

      A few of those guys took it upon themselves to explain it to me – of course, all their explanations disagreed with each other’s and all took 20 pages to explain. (If it was that simple, would it take 20 pages to explain?)

      But as to the view that it’s easy to understand – Are you kidding me? With all the symbolism and stuff, you must be joking.

      As someone who used to be very interested in prophecy stuff (I used to watch a lot of Grant Jeffries (he died a couple years ago, btw), Hal Lindsey show and books, I read a lot of books on the topic, etc), and during this, I have seen guys on Christian TV post these very complex charts about the events described in Revelation.

      They will draw out this long time line, with a cross (or sometimes a throne) at one point, which signifies the Rapture, then somewhere down the line, another cross, showing Jesus’ return, etc, and lots of other little markers and symbols along the way, like with scroll symbols and trumpet icons drawn all over with lines point to this, that, and the other.

      These Revelation illustrated time lines are commonly jumbled, busy, with tons of information packed in every where. That to me denotes anything BUT simplicity and ‘easy to understand.’

      Pet peeve of mine – I’m tired of it all. Every earthquake, every threat by Iran against Israel, is always heralded by the TV ministers as being it, the End, like that guy on the TV sit com, Fred G. Sanford of “Sanford and Son,” who always grabbed his chest and said, “This is it, Elizabeth, this is the big one!,” but it never was a heart attack.

      And the prophecy guys can’t agree on stuff, like the mark of the beast. For a long while, they said the Mark of the Beast was a computer chip under the skin. Then it became a popular view on a show or two that it was the scan code thing on products you buy at the grocery store. (Yes, the UPS code thing that the check out person scans on the scanner.)

      We went from hearing the ten nation thing / false prophet was a ten nation EU confederation to a Muslim, and some theories say a fallen Jewish person. Roman Catholic Church is sometimes popular in some of these configurations.

      The New Testament says people in the last days will mock the idea of Christ’s return, saying, “Where is it.” You know, I’m about there. How many years and times can you hear and read stuff like, “The world is ending! the world is ending!” and stuff and nothing changes and you do start to wonder if any of it’s true.

      • Or is that “UPC” code? Whatever. You know what I mean. 🙂 The bar code thing that’s on your bread packaging in the store.

      • It is flat out mind-blowing that Evangelical teachers so pervasively treat prophecy as Nostradamus style future predicting. It’s like they’ve never read the Old Testament. Once you understand what prophecy is for, Revelation suddenly begins to make a ton more sense.

        The OT prophets did two things: 1. Point forward to Christ (the bulk of their future predictions). 2. Call the people of Israel back to covenant faithfulness (their covenant being the Law). The book of Revelation, as CHRISTian prophecy, points back to Christ’s incarnation and forward to his return, while calling the Christian church back to faithfulness to the Gospel. And for those who can receive this, it also points to Christ’s continual coming to believers who receive Him in the bread and wine.

      • Yeah… Problem with Revelation is that it’s written in a genre that in some ways is dead, and it uses symbolism that really you need to study both the apocalyptic literature as well as how symbols were used in that time.

        • I don’t think the genre is dead. It’s called “fantasy”.

          • I don’t say this to everyone, but I’ve learned to read the Bible a lot better by embracing my taste for the best of the fantasy genre. Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion have been endlessly instructive for me in understanding how to read the Bible.

    • DENNIS FITZPATRICK says

      At. Least you admit lack of understanding as many of us
      Pastors do. We still must preach/teach the whole council of God.
      This poem is best connected to Adam and Eve and christ and his bride the church.
      Liberal-moderates fear anti homosexual agenda when facing this work, as they should.
      So don’t preach it, you’ll get in their collective way.

  3. Seneca Griggs says

    Even if your preaching of the Song of Solomon doesn’t meet the arbitrary standards of the theological elite, it does guarantee your congregation will at least be reading it for themselves doesn’t it?

  4. “I would encourage my pastor friends out there to put down the Song of Solomon and disregard Revelation for awhile. Tell us good news about Jesus and the Kingdom he brings by grace, creating living faith in those who welcome him. There is plenty of that in perfectly clear Biblical texts to last for years and years of pulpit ministry.”

    Excellent advice, Chaplain Mike! I find that Son of Songs is best suited for reading in solitude and together with one’s spouse. Similarly, Revelation is mostly incomprehensible to me although there is much useful information in the first three chapters and much encouragement to be found in chapters 21 & 22. Currently I’m teaching through Mark with emphasis, as you stated, on the gospel, grace and faith.

  5. Richard Hershberger says

    I uncharacteristically find myself in near total disagreement with Chaplain Mike:

    Is the Song of Solomon a peculiarly difficult book to understand? This is not obvious to me. (This is not to suggest that it is easy, but that it is not notably more difficult than some other books.) Perhaps the difficulty is that talking about it honestly demands that we talk about sex: not merely good old-fashioned American man on top, get it over with quick sex; but the kind where both participants enjoy it, and maybe go for another round again without waiting a decent interval. I have a hard time imagining this in a sermon, even in my leftie, gay-accepting, liturgical church. In a Bible study is just barely possible, I suppose. It is a difficult book to talk about because sex is difficult to talk about.

    Then there is the advice to give it a pass. The thing is, there are huge swaths of the Bible that preachers tend to give a discreet pass. Almost anything on economic justice–and there is a *lot* on economic justice in the Bible–is considered unsuitable in large segments of American Protestantism. This is so firmly embedded in the culture that the claim that the Bible even mentions economic justice is, mirabile dictu!, “controversial.” The world would be a better place if we confronted those Bible texts. I feel the same way about the Song of Solomon: dealing with a Bible text that regards sex as a good and joyful thing, not dirty and shameful, would be all to the good. Yes, sex is difficult to talk about honestly. That doesn’t mean it ought not be done.

    • I think I agree with Richard here; there are great chunks of the Bible that are very rarely referred to, which must be a bad thing in terms of growing a well balanced, deep rooted faith.

      In the Brethren assembly where I grew up, some extracts of the Song of Solomon (e.g. ch. 5, v. 9 – 16) were read out fairly regularly in the Sunday morning meetings, being assumed to refer metaphorically to the Lord Jesus Christ as the heavenly bridegroom (the church being His bride, of course), but I’m quite sure those devout men would never have quoted other passages such as chapter 7 in the same meeting.

      I must admit I began to find this book more interesting after I got married, particularly after I read (I’m sure it was C S Lewis, but I can’t find the quote), that “navel” in ch. 7, v. 2 could equally mean something else, which seemed to make a lot more sense!

      I can see why this would not be easy to preach on…

      • Highwayman, your last comment is my point. At the most basic levels, SoS is a difficult book. It is hard most of the time to know who is speaking, what the story is behind the poems or whether there is a story at all. God is rarely mentioned, and the various poems on love are just there, with no context or explanation. Preaching on poetry is notoriously difficult anyway since it doesn’t lend itself to any didactic approach. How much more difficult trying to preach on poems describing intimate encounters between lovers? What is their point? Do they have a “lesson” for us?

        My point was not that we should ignore this book, but find different and better ways to approach it in our churches.

        • Yep, from a literary standpoint, it is difficult – one of the Jewish translators whose work I like (she is a poet herself and translated the SofS back in the 90s) believes that it’s likely an *anthology* of loosely linked pieces, which makes all kinds of sense to me. (Especially compared to the many xtian attempts to try to make it into a poem with a continuous narrative.)

          Am blanking on the translator’s name, though…

      • Cedric Klein says

        I’ve read the “navel” interpretation, and I do like it a lot, but I never saw it, nor do I expect to, in CSL’s writings!

        • There’s a lot of terminology in this book that is probably lost ancient innuendo, best left to the imagination. However, unless it’s a Christian Kama Sutra, those details are somewhat superfluous and tangential to the actual points being made.

          • Miguel, I think one of the difficulties of preaching this book is that it is entirely unclear what “actual points are being made.” Yes, it’s lovely erotic poetry, but there is little agreement about whether it reflects a coherent narrative and if so, what that narrative is. One of my concerns about preachers trying to handle Song of Songs is that preaching any kind of poetry is notoriously difficult and not conducive to making “points” or teaching “lessons.” Perhaps a book like this is for people like you — musicians, or artists. Perhaps we just need to listen to its words and let them lead us into contemplation (though I’m not sure we would want our 13 year old sons doing that!). I can hardly imagine how a preacher could do justice to its artistry and sublime metaphorical content.

          • It is poetry and there’s much allusive language in it. Beyond that, I wish people out there would stop trying to make it into a literal sex manual and just appreciate the text for what it is.

    • Richard, first of all, I didn’t say “give it a pass,” I said perhaps there are better ways to deal with texts like this in our congregations. Second, texts on economic justice tend to be fairly straightforward, no? Why would you suggest I have a problem saying we should preach on those? The fact that preachers ignore some passages that should be preached is the mirror image of this post, and perhaps will be written another day.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Economic justice passages are not JUICY JUICY JUICY like Sexual Sin du Jour passages, and have the side effect of afflicting the comfortable who Tithe Tithe Tithe.

        • Patrick Kyle says

          Neither are all the NT passages urging wives to submit to their husbands…..

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Was that comment Pro- or Anti-“Woman, Submit!”?

            Several other watchblogs have been going around how those passages of St Paul were a restatement, redefinition, and subversion of the Greco-Roman Household Codes of the time.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        If the argument is that Song of Solomon is better suited to an adult Bible study than to a sermon series, I am fine with that. Indeed, I find the concept of the “sermon series” strange and foreign. At best it seems to be a lecture series on some topic, which often would be better dealt with in a format allowing some give and take: the difference between a college lecture in a hall with six hundred students, and a seminar with six.

        I didn’t mean to suggest that you would avoid the economic justice bits, but rather that is an example of a Biblical theme which in some traditions is routinely and systematically ignored. I just don’t think that the Song of Solomon should be given this treatment.

        As for sermons, I come from the tradition expecting the sermon to be based on the lectionary. This has the benefit of forcing the preacher to confront a cycle of Biblical texts not of his own choosing, and possibly including “hard” texts outside his comfort zone. Even if he preaches on one of the other two texts that week, this hard text has just been read aloud, and anyone paying attention knows that the preacher just ducked the hard one. Today’s Gospel reading was from Matthew 5. I am pleased to report that my pastor addressed it head on.

    • I think I was about 10 the first time I saw some older boys hunkered together and had to go see what was so enthralling. Turned out to be a Playboy mag. SofS isn’t that hard to understand. However, the romantic and spiritual depths may take a life time to appreciate.

  6. Say what!! I thought SofS is meant to be a handbook for Biblical Christian Marriage ™.

  7. As bad a series as it maybe, I’m sure it won’t rival the train wreck that was my former churches year long look through Revelation. Millennial views aside, the preacher simply had no clue what to say every week because each chapter does not come with a handy 3 point application built in. It was sad.

  8. I suspect that the pastor of that church will be using selected passages to reinforce a particular church doctrine/viewpoint/teaching. Coming from a Pentecostal background I can safely say that the passage of the day will be just a platform off of which the preacher will launch his message. I have listened to many such sermons and later wondered why the preacher even USED that passage. Pentecostals are not known for exegetical preaching, by and large.

    And as to “economic justice’, that term is usually a catch phrase for “You’re not giving enough”, or “We have to tax the rich some more” rather than a call for PERSONAL generosity and CHURCH benevolence. It kind of makes me laugh because those same people use the Old Testament to prop up “tithing” rather than Paul’s admonition to give “what seems appropriate to you” in order to take care of the needy in your midst. But this is a subject for another time

    • Marcus Johnson says

      I suspect that the pastor of that church will be using selected passages to reinforce a particular church doctrine/viewpoint/teaching. Coming from a Pentecostal background I can safely say that the passage of the day will be just a platform off of which the preacher will launch his message. Pentecostals are not known for exegetical preaching, by and large.

      I totally agree with you, and it’s not just Pentecostal preachers, either. In my opinion, it is often a strategy to try to justify a position on social issues merely by saying, “There’s a Bible verse for that.” So, gay marriage? There’s a Bible verse for that. Struggling with depression? There’s a Bible verse for that. And so the Bible becomes a reinforcer of dominant cultural values, instead of a tool to reveal who God is.

      I have listened to many such sermons and later wondered why the preacher even USED that passage.

      So have I. More importantly, though, I have asked, “If the pastor did not throw in this Bible verse, would this be a sermon, or just a really overbearing speech?”

  9. I’m a virgin in my 40s because I was a good Christian girl waiting for the “Mr Christian Right” who Christians said would be mine if I waited on God and prayed – Mr Right never showed up.

    (I’m sorry for those of you already familiar with my story, you must get tired of me repeating these tid bits about myself, but I just know there’s going to be some new visitor to this blog doesn’t know my background.)

    The last thing I, as a single celibate adult who wants to be married and having sex myself, want to hear is yet another marriage sermon and certainly not a sexed up sexified Song of Songs sermon about how great sex between married people is. Anyone who is dying for a kinkified take on Song of Songs can check out Mark Driscoll blogs and videos.

    • Who says that the main characters in SofS were MARRIED??

      Actually, I have a strong suspicion that at the center of the story is a love triangle.

      • My reading of SoS is that the lovers are betrothed…

      • You’re right, there is no reference at all to them being married.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Anyone wonder if SoS is written in “Everybody Knows That!” idioms a Rabbi of 3000 years ago would understand? Instead of a Spiritual Engineering Manual of Fact, Fact, Fact for “minds of wheels and metal”?

  10. onehitwonder says

    I have found in my following Jesus the last 30 years that I am no longer interested in 5 ways to be a better husband, 7 ways to be a better Dad, 10 ways to be a better leader ….I am no longer interested in 3 point sermons that all begin with the letter R…I am tired of listening to the answers to questions no one is asking…I have been to the Conferences and I have read the books…..just give me Jesus…tell me He loves me even if I am not a good husband or a great Dad or leader….talk to me about the mercy and grace and love of Jesus…in the end thats all I will have that will last…

    • +1

    • Rev. Randall says

      Amen.

      I am so tired of what I call “success driven Christianity” “X easy steps to be a better Y” is the tired formula of a church that has been co-opted by a consumeristic society.

      But if we listen to the story…God loves humanity in all our failures, and even though we keep trying to place God is safe places far away, in Holy sites and behind temple curtains…God chooses to walk among the oppressed, the sick, and the dirty. God chooses to offer us life, not when we die…but right now. That’s worth talking about.

    • You forgot one: 5 practical steps to help prevent hangnails.

      At the end of the day, “Christian Rules And Principles(tm)” deserves the acronym it gets.

    • Excellent, onehitwonder. I will probably steal your comment at some point!

  11. “He brought me to his banqueting table… I am my beloved’s and he is mine…”

    (great, another favorite praise song from college ruined by looking closer at the source… ;P )

    I can think of one reason to discuss SoS in a sermon – you want an excuse to talk about sex. Ok, maybe that’s not best for a sermon.

  12. Vega Magnus says

    Song of Solomon is interesting to analyze because the narrative is so odd to a modern reader, but quite frankly, I’ve never been able to see any sort of allegory in it, probably because I can’t associate eroticism with God. In my own humble non-theologian opinion, SoS is just about really passionate copulation, and I think that is okay.

  13. Perhaps the real issue here is that nearly all evangelical churches simply have no other place but the sermon for the SoS to enter into a worship service (apart from the even worse idea of inserting it into the congregational singing/worship band jam session prior to the sermon.)

    But in liturgical practice, there are all sorts of other places for Scripture to enter the worship service, from straightforward Scriptural readings to the inclusion of biblical language in the various petitions, litanies, benedictions, etc. This multi-way division of labor, in my EO experience anyway, produces a natural balance: homilies almost always focus on the Gospel text of the day, the Christian calendar directs which other passages are read elsewhere in the Liturgy, and centuries of experience nudge esoteric texts such as the Apocalypse to the periphery where they belong. I’m not suggesting this necessarily produces a more biblical literate group of Christians (in fact, I don’t think it generally does — especially as far as the Hebrew Bible is concerned), but it certainly produces a more balanced worship service devoid of episodic weirdness.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      Perhaps the real issue here is that nearly all evangelical churches simply have no other place but the sermon for the SoS to enter into a worship service (apart from the even worse idea of inserting it into the congregational singing/worship band jam session prior to the sermon.)

      Technically, there are weekly small groups, but in my experience, those gatherings are notorious for their failure to deal adequately with particularly challenging texts. The group facilitator is often not a trained scholar or teacher, and the pace at which those classes go usually don’t allow for people to get very deep. As a result, the purpose of those classes tend to be to affirm what people already know and believe, rather than allow people to acknowledge and navigate through a complex ancient text that is the foundation for a gi-normous institution like Christianity.

      • Marcus,

        But you do bring up an important, alternative possibility that my little post didn’t entertain. In principle, some sort of formal Bible study group could tackle the SoS in a meaningful way quite apart from the worship service proper. (In many EO churches, a sort of midweek “Bible study” does function as an extra-liturgical forum for dealing with various aspects of the Tradition.) But, like you said, you need to have someone with some serious theological moxie to do this well.

    • Trevis, thanks for adding to my ecclesiological vocabulary–“episodic weirdness”

      • To be distinguished from the far more serious, and mercifully less prevalent, “chronic weirdness” that afflicts certain dimly lit corners of Christendom.

        • I just don’t hang around “chronic weirdness”. Well, second thought, if my wife were asked she might refer to her husband as “chronically weird”, but then it takes one to know one…..

  14. I think you should preach on Ezekiel 23 without resorting to euphemisms.

    Then there is this article in Semeia 82: In Search of the Present: The Bible Through Cultural Studies (you might have it in your Logos collection like I do)

    Prophetic Scatology: Prophecy and the Art of Sensation
    Yvonne M. Sherwood
    University of Glasgow

    Abstract

    Traditionally, prophetic criticism has drawn on the language of Romanticism, rhetoric, gentlemanliness (and cleanliness); it has focussed on eschatology, transcendence and the individual prophetic heart. But prophecy is also a crudely embodied discourse—a discourse that deals in bodies and body fluids/body waste—in faeces used as visual aids, in eyes rotting in their sockets and corpses decomposing like dung. This study attempts to go where critics choose not to tread (for fear of getting their shoes, and their critical personae dirty), and looks at prophecy’s more excruciating, execrable passages with the help of artists such as Gilbert and George and Damien Hirst. The questions addressed include “What kind of deep cultural transgressions are involved in linking the bible and dirt, the sacred and the ‘philistine’?” and “What kind of violent, dark revolts of being do these baroque, decomposing figures provoke?”

    There is one English book and one only where … perfect plainness of speech is allied with perfect nobleness, and that book is the Bible. (Arnold, 1861)

    Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious … think about these things. (Phil 4:8)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Oh, yeah. Ezekiel 23. Dirtiest mouth of any of the prophets.

      Anyone for getting a rainbow fright wig and holding up an “Ezekiel 23:20” sign at sporting events?

      • Patrick Kyle says

        Years ago I worked for an internationally recognized ministry. (I won’t name it but everyone would know it if I did.) In the main lobby of their ministry center, there was an open bible on a pedestal that had all the positive scriptures and promises highlighted in blue. I opened it up to Ezekiel 23:20 and highlighted it with a blue highlighter. It stayed open to that page for for a couple years and no one ever noticed. ( Yeah, I was that guy..)

    • Believe it or not, EricW, I once heard a friend of mine preach on Ezekiel 23 in a small Baptist church near here, aiming to warn the congregation to guard against apostasy. It came across quite strongly and left that little group of lovely Christian people looking a bit surprised, to say the least…

  15. I would say it isn’t that this book should never be preached. The problem is that it is just always handled poorly . . . like the rest of the Old Testament. Preaching that doesn’t proclaim Christ isn’t preaching – it’s a lecture. If Jesus is a minor character in the sermon or doesn’t even appear at all, consider that what you’re selling may not be CHRISTianity. If Jesus doesn’t die in your sermon, you haven’t preached the Gospel. It’s akin to preaching David and Goliath as “how to defeat the giants in your life” or Cain and Able as “how not to treat your siblings.” It misses the point (which is Christ) entirely. The Old Testament should NEVER be preached without reference to the New Testament. In Christian belief, both Testaments need each other to be rightly understood. The problem with SoS preaching is that I’ve never heard somebody expound on it as viewed threw a NT lens. This is why many objected to including it in the cannon unless it was understood as an allegory of Christ and the church. It’s not that it doesn’t have other meanings and messages. It’s just that without Christ, the message isn’t Christian. But like the rest of scripture, Christ is all over this book, for those who have learned to see Him.

    Also, this book should be read through the lens of traditions. Many passages have been selected as traditional wedding canticles. These also can be understood more fully through the NT passages on marriage.

  16. Ernst is incorrect in saying that Krishna is a semi-divine king in Hindu legend. According to Hindu sacred lore, Krishna is a fully divine avatar of the Lord Vishnu, who is one of the forms of God. Krishna appears human, though with blue skin, but he is divine all the way through. Nothing semi about him.

  17. Since the essay by Ernst made a comparison between Krishna and Solomon, it would be interesting to juxtapose the Song of Solomon and the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of God (Krishna). While the SoS is a poem at the literal level about sensual love that has been interpreted allegorically and mystically as being about the love of God for Israel or the Church, the SoG is a poem using the context of a legendary war as an extended metaphor for explication of the way to spiritual liberation. Two poems, one about love, the other about war, both extraordinarily important in the spiritual history of their respective cultures. That would be an interesting study and comparison. No doubt it’s already been done.

  18. Mule Chewing Briars says

    The Song of Solomon is part of the unfinished business of the Christian Church.

    Two Christian thinkers who spring immediately to mind are Charles Williams with his Way of Affirmation of Images and the late Holy Father, John Paul II, and his Theology of the Body. Unfortunately, Williams comes with a lot of baggage, but he was also braver than most for even venturing where he did. “The dreams of the hermeticists are but the shadows of the Divine Body“, he wrote.

    John Paul II was taken from us before he could do more than sketch a rough outline of what he wanted to tell us. Lesser men and women will have to color in what he traced.

    There is no bottom to sex. It proceeds directly out of the Trinitarian mode. I would have liked to have heard what the Arminian preacher had to say about the Song of Songs. It couldn’t possibly have been any more ridiculous than the genderscape the Academy is trying to get us to swallow these days.

    • My assumption is, as others have said, that he had little to actually say about the SoS itself. Rather, he just advised people on what he thought was good Christian moral behavior with regard to relationships.

      • Mule Chewing Briars says

        Good Christian moral behavior with regard to relationships is not in short supply. The problem is not that is being disregarded because it is so scarce, but because it is so inconvenient.

        I’ll agree with you that using the Song of Solomon is a strange choice for teaching traditional Christian sexual morality. Kind of like using a leaf from a Gutenberg Bible or a Shakespeare folio to wrap cheese, but I’m glad the poor guy tried. and I hope he wasn’t too deeply embarrassed.

  19. The thing to remember about SoS is that it’s a poem. In poetry, images of sensual love are about sensual love, but sensual love is itself metaphorically thick and spills over into all kinds of other things. You might say that for the poetic imagination, sensual love, sexuality, the thing itself, is metaphor.

    That doesn’t mean sensual/sexual images are not about sensuality/sexuality. It just means that, for the poet, sensuality/sexuality itself is not a discrete phenomenon that can be cut off from all other depths of meaning and experience. Poetry invites multiple layers of meaning to be read into itself; whether those readings are faithful to the original poetic arc and thrust depends on the poetic aptness and inner metaphorical consistency of the various interpretations.

    • Robert, see my comment to Miguel. Your description makes me fear and tremble when thinking of a pastor trying to communicate such complexity, beauty, and profound metaphorical content to the average church congregation.

    • there is something transcendent about the SofS, I think, though not in an allegorical or mystical sense.

  20. Good post.

    I teach an adult Sunday school class, an in-depth discussion/study of a book of the Bible. Whenever we’re about to finish a book, I ask everyone what book they’d like to study next, always making it clear, “But it can’t be Revelation and it can’t be Song of Solomon!”

    When someone asks why, I just say they’re too confusing, too symbolic, they’ve been saddled with too much past mis-interpretation, they’re just not worth diving into in a room full of people.

  21. When my wife and I were married back in 2011, we both specifically named verses from SoS as the Scripture passages we wanted read out as for both of us, they were (and still are) some of our favorite verses from Scripture. For me personally, I also wanted to hear this particular book read out as part of a public liturgy given that in the church where we both attend (Methodist), this book is usually avoided like the plague (even for Bible Studies). The preacher however did an admirable job in his sermon by not only pointing out all of the love poetry aspects of the book but also found Christ in the pages of this Old Testament book and related it back to the years of marriage we have together going forward.

    The fact that our introit music for my wife walking in was also Matt Maher’s “Set Me As A Seal” capped off our wedding service. Both of us felt it was far better than the usual Eph 5 or 1 Cor 13 that both of us have heard at weddings for donkey’s years.

    • Brandon, your comment illustrates my suggestion that there are other ways to use SoS within faith communities that stimulate imagination, celebrate love and beauty, and help us see Christ in the metaphorical world of loving relationships.

  22. “We think we know what to do with the Bible. We don’t have much of a clue about what to do with Jesus and the Gospel.” – Chaplain Mike.

    I like the way you promoted this article on Facebook: “Not every book in the Bible should be preached.”

    That may be the exact problem. Pastors should not be preaching the Bible or a book of the Bible; rather, they should be preaching Christ and Him Crucified, as revealed and proclaimed in the Bible.

    • The subject of preaching should be Christ, not the Bible. The Bible is the media through which Christ is proclaimed; but it is not the focus.

  23. Galatians 3:22-25: “But the Scriptures imprisoned all things under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, confined for the faith which should afterwards be revealed. So that the law has become our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.”

    The Song of Solomon is not a book of the law, but I think the point is still the same: scripture is a tutor which leads us to Christ; once Christ has been revealed, scripture is still valid, but no longer functions as a tutor. As Christ proclaimed, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).

  24. Having translated several passages from Song of Solomon into English for an advanced Hebrew class, let me just say that what we read in our English Bibles has been sanitized to not offend the sensibilities of the English speaking audience.

  25. I am curious: is this how biblical inerrancy battles go off track – they attempt to defend the Bible apart from the context of Jesus? As a result, we have Ken Ham who tries to defend the Bible as a science book, and anyone who challenges him denies the existence of Jesus, the resurrection, etc.

    I say this, because I resolved my recent quandary regarding the “Do you believe the Bible is infallible?” question on a volunteer application form by essentially stating that the Bible is infallible in its witness to Jesus. Ryrie would probably label me “Barthian”.

  26. Using the Bible to promote self-help rather than allowing it to point to Jesus seems like idolatry, if not out-right blasphemy. Just sayin’.

  27. I do agree that not all scripture points to Jesus, and shouldn’t be forced to do so.

  28. NONSENSE! All of the books of the Bible can and should be preached with great profit. The Song of Solomon works with the Proverbs. The Proverbs is a book for boys showing them the kind of girl to look for. The Song of Solomon is a book for girls showing them the kind of boy to wait for. And as for Revelation… don’t get me started. A letter to encourage those under pressure for their faith in Christ and to challenge those who are complacent due to their prosperity. One of those two emphases will apply to any place any time in history. Just because some, or even a lot, screw these books up does not mean we should not preach them, Sheesh.

    • “The Song of Solomon is a book for girls showing them the kind of boy to wait for.”

      Now, there’s a novel interpretation! And what kind of boy is that?

    • Marcus Johnson says

      I think it is interesting that you separated Proverbs and Song of Solomon into gender-specific messages, as though women have nothing to gain from reading Proverbs. This is the reason why books like the Song of Solomon shouldn’t be preached; the nature of the sermon as a delivery method really cannot unpack the essence of love, sex, and romance poetry within the context of the Israelite tradition, in a 20 to 30 minute presentation, for a general audience of people at various stages of spiritual and/or intellectual growth. Watering a sermon down to a mere “Proverbs for boys, Song of Solomon for girls,” might make it easily accessible, but it will ultimately be spiritually deficient.

    • Oh, and to be clear, I do think the book of Revelation can and should be preached. I am saying that too many rush into preaching it and that far too many do not take seriously enough what a challenge it is to truly understand it. There is far too much of an “easy biblicism” among us.

  29. I’ve gotta be honest: Chagall’s Song of Songs II painting reminds me of the famous old Herb Alpert album cover.