Thursday 13 November 2014

Song of Songs

I preached on Song of Songs a couple of Sundays ago. I was asked to do so by a church which is devoting a sermon once a month to a whole book of the Bible, interspersed with a more standard programme of preaching and teaching.

This was an interesting exercise for me – having read a fair bit of scholarly and popular material on Song of Songs over the years, as well as having taught a few sessions on it as part of an undergraduate module on biblical interpretation, and led workshops for lay folk in other contexts too.

In preparation, I struggled most with how much to say about issues to do with interpreting the Song of Songs – which I felt it would be odd to ignore, given the Song’s history of interpretation – and how much to engage directly with passages in the book – which, however, would not be easy to do without some overall framework for approaching them.

In the end, I tried to combine the two. This felt like a good idea in principle, but I’m not sure how well it worked out in practice!

In the introduction to the sermon, trying to use a bit of humour and some self-deprecation, I alluded to the different approaches that have been taken to the book, but in a context of assuming that the Song of Songs is to be taken at face value as a collection of love songs between a man and a woman. Very briefly – in no more than a couple of minutes – I offered three reasons for taking the Song this way:

• Historically – the shared characteristics with ancient love poetry provides a credible historical and cultural context for the Song of Songs.

• Literarily – Song of Songs is what it appears obviously to be – a collection of love poems, in which we are taken across a range of emotions and experiences, with a developed use of imagery and figurative language, symbolism and metaphor.

• Biblically – the link with Solomon places the book in the wisdom tradition (along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) where our ‘fear of the Lord’ is expressed in everyday matters, including the more ‘earthy’ ones (I was helped here in that the earlier part of the service this particular Sunday had looked at the portrait of the ‘valiant woman’ in Proverbs 31:10-31).

I then looked at five representative passages under the following headings:

1. Expressions of desire (1:2-4)

2. Affirmations of devotion (1:15-2:7)

3. Invitations to love (2:8-17)

4. Praises of beauty (5:10-16)

5. Requests for security (8:6-7)

My plan in each case was to say a few things about the verses, and to reinforce some of the earlier interpretive points along the way. I think I managed this to some extent, but essentially set us too much to do in the timeframe of a sermon (the church had asked for 30 minutes) and I ended up offering only a fairly superficial sketch of the last three sections.

Towards the end, painfully aware of the passing of time, I made only a few comments on how the Song of Songs may still lead us, finally, to reflect on our relationship with the Lord. But I still closed by encouraging the congregation not to leapfrog too quickly over the Song of Songs to Christ and so miss the significance of the book in affirming and celebrating the lovers’ delight in each other, that the joy of the lovers is a part of God’s provision for humanity – without shame, without prudery, without innuendo, which presents it in the context of a relationship of committed, passionate, reciprocal love, which gives equal place to male and female.

But I fear it was all way too rushed.

I had wanted to say more about the significance and implications of the book for Christians today, so was disappointed that I didn’t manage to do so to any great extent. My sense is that this came down to being overly ambitious in what I could cover in the time allotted and not being strict enough with myself in the preparation process. If I was able to do it again, I would go for two or three representative passages at the most, or perhaps even one longer section, and leave more time to draw out implications for different types of people in the congregation – marrieds, singles, widowed – all within an overall gospel framework of forgiveness for sexual sin and our identity resting finally in Christ.


Anonymous said...

But I am glad to hear that someone preached on it! It is so rare to hear any message on Song of Songs these days! Hmmm... In fact I don't think that I have ever heard one in my life!

To be able to convey any kind of message on this amazing book is no doubt - a privilege of privileges!

~ Raj Rao

Antony said...

Thanks Raj – yes, a great privilege!