The Song of Songs: Yes, there is a book about sexual love in the Bible

Around last summer, I was made aware of a series of sermons Mark Driscoll preached over the notoriously difficult book, the Song of Songs, at a Christian conference in Ireland in 2007.  Evidently, he preached it as a book that celebrated human sex, therefore calling it his favorite book of the entire Bible.  He readily talked about things like stripping, oral sex, and orgasms, and he was fairly raunchy in his descriptions, pretty much treating the work as a “how-to” book on an exciting sex life.  When the content of what he said became public, many evangelicals were furious at his treatment of the book, none more so than John MacArthur, who called it a “rape” of the Song of Songs and demanded that Driscoll step down from the pastorate.  Driscoll has since apologized and removed any recordings of the sermons from his church’s website.

After hearing about this, I spent some time scouring the Internet for a copy of his sermons, and I was disappointed that I could not find one.  After all, isn’t it the Internet?  Can’t you find pretty much anything on it?  I can find basketball games from 1984 and Power Rangers episodes from 1994, but I can’t find a sermon from a famous pastor from 2007?  Surprising.  The best I could find was a transcription of parts of his sermon that some found to be the most offensive.  When I read it, I admit that I laughed and I laughed.  I could not believe he had the audacity to say such things.  I wasn’t really offended (I don’t get offended easily), and while I do think that many conservative Christians need to lighten up, I definitely agree that he was inappropriate in many respects.  I will post the link to the transcription, if you are so bold to read it.  I thought about posting the link a long time ago on Facebook and linking all of our college students so they could laugh at it, but I thought it might just confuse them too.    Well, they are “adults” (sorta) and I will try to explain the book, so here it is:  https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=13XI1e1zW1–7aX3t8n7uzFr3XylWcGKcEmaeQ7_55nw&pli=1

To start off, I’ll list some lines that I found hilarious and that are not quite as vulgar (emphases are mine):

[Men,] you should have your wife buy your cologne. You should have your wife buy your soap. You should have your wife buy your shampoo. You should have your wife buy whatever it takes to make you smell sexy. You say, but will that not rob me of my manhood? No, that will cause your wife to take her clothes off. [Laughter from audience.] And that is very manly. Amen?

When it comes to breasts, all men are breast men. Those who say they are not fall into one of two categories: gay men and liars.

 . . When you walk into the petting zoo, what animal is usually included there? Two fawns, twins of a gazelle. Baby animals, baby deer. What he’s talking about is, your breasts are the petting zoo. And I love to go there and play with them because like two newborn baby deer that are perky, and fun, and happy, and they match, and they’re exciting, and they’re fun to pet, that’s your breasts. Is that true, Gentlemen, that your wife takes her shirt off and that’s the petting zoo? How many of you women, you’re making dinner and he just comes right over the shoulder? What is he doing? He comes up the back. He’s like a ninja, he sneaks up on you quietly. [Extended laughter and clapping] It’s biblical. It’s biblical.

Men and women are different. When you women think of your husband, you probably think of looking him in the eye. When your husband thinks of you, he thinks of you naked and dancing. [Laughter from audience] Half hour later, he’s like, “There’s a head up there? I had no idea.” [More laughter.] Never got that far.

You get the idea.  If you are curious about the more risque things he said, click the link.  Otherwise, move on with me and I’ll try to explain where Driscoll went wrong while giving what I think is the best approach to the Song of Songs.

Literally Human Love Poetry

The thing is, contrary to what many Christians may think, Driscoll was not wrong in reading the Song of Songs literally.  I believe he is right in saying that the book should not be read allegorically, although that has been the most common line of interpretation for both Jews and Christians throughout history.  Where he went wrong is that he took the work as a sexual manual rather than a collection of celebratory poems about human sexual love in a committed, monogamous relationship.  He also did not do a particularly good job of arguing that the book should be read literally as human love poetry rather than allegorically.  Here is his argument against allegory:

If you would please, turn with me to the Song of Solomon. One of the great books of the Bible. Some have allegorized this book, and in so doing, they have destroyed it. They have destroyed it. They will say that it is an allegory between Jesus and his bride the church. Which if true, is weird. Because Jesus is having sex with me and puts his hand up my shirt. And that feels weird. I love Jesus, but not in that way.

*Facepalm.  If we were to take Driscoll’s logic further, we’d have to discount the explicit metaphors of marriage between God and Israel and Christ and the Church in places like Hosea and Ephesians.  I doubt he’d like to go there.

Since this was the topic of my Old Testament paper, I will reproduce it in a condensed manner below.

Jewish interpreters have typically viewed the book to be about God’s relationship with Israel or maybe individual Jews; Christians have normally interpreted the Song of Songs as speaking about Christ’s relationship with the Church.  There are several reasons for this, but for the most part, it stems from an assumption that the text cannot mean what it says because then it would either be offensive or out of place in the canon of Scripture (by the way, the Song of Songs was allegorized because it was in the canon, not canonized because it was read allegorically).  Particularly for early Christians like Origen and Jerome, they could not really see the value in a collection of poems about human love and in fact warned against reading it that way, lest the reader be tempted to lust.  This stemmed from some influence from Neo-Platonic philosophy, which taught a sharp distinction between mind and body and that the latter was inferior to the former.  This discomfort with sexuality, as well as the lack of connection with some of the idioms (try calling your wife a horse and see how that goes) led them to de-emphasize the metaphors on human love and instead point to what they believed to be a higher, spiritual love for God.  Even Protestants, who have typically revolted against the allegorical interpretations of the Catholic church, had a hard time treating this work literally.  Luther was hesitant about it and so was John Wesley.  Thus, for most of history, Christians have read the book allegorically, and one early Christian was even considered a heretic for trying to treat the poems literally.

This allegorical trend was reversed with the rise of modern biblical scholarship.  This was for two major reasons:  One, interpreters simply wanted to get at the author’s intended purpose, and the best way to do that is to read the text itself.  They saw that there was little to no evidence that the work was intended to be read as an allegory.  Second, the discovery of other Ancient Near Eastern love songs with similiarites with the Song of Solomon lent more support to a literal view.  Some more liberal scholars went too far in emphasizing these similarities without minding the important differences between the Song of Songs and these other ANE poems, chief of which is that the Song of Songs is clearly focused on the other person in the relationship while the ANE poems are very self-focused, but nonetheless, the similarities are enough to give further evidence against the allegorical reading.

Therefore, because of the above, the allegorical interpretations began to lose favor (also, God’s name does not appear in the work at all, unless you take 8:6 as the lone exception).  Also, it became quite apparent that it was exceedingly difficult to evaluate the different allegorical interpretations in an objective manner.  For example, the “two breasts” of the beloved spoken of frequently in the book has been explained as representing the Old and New Testaments by Honorious, the two greatest commandments, or even as fleeting knowledge by Jewish mystics since they are compared to twin gazelles (I guess men chase knowledge as they chase breasts?).  Some have tried to read the perpetual Virgin Mary throughout the entire book while many Jews read the history of Israel in it, such as the Exodus, the Temple, the Exile, etc.  There seems to be no end to the amount of allegory one can come up with and it is only limited by imagination, leaving the whole enterprise of allegory dubious.

Typological readings do a bit better, since they do not deny the literal interpretation but argue for another meaning that goes beyond the text.  While typology is a legitimate interpretive method in Scripture, it must be used cautiously, and there is little reason to think that the Song of Songs is to be read that way, not from the text itself or from the New Testament.

Wait, then where is God/Jesus in this?  What does it teach?

Perhaps the strongest objection to a literal meaning of the Song of Songs is that it does not seem to teach anything about God.  Isn’t the whole Bible about God?  Also, there is a movement going on, particularly in the Neo-Reformed camp, of “preaching Jesus” in every book.  Shouldn’t every sermon be Gospel-focused?  If so, how the heck do we preach this thing if it’s just human love poetry?

I affirm that the Bible is ultimately about God and humans (or else there’s no reason for it to be written) and I also affirm that Jesus is the hermeneutical key throughout the Bible.  This, however, does not mean that we have to read in meanings into a text that it does not have.  Matt Chandler, for example, rightly criticized pastors for allegorizing the story of David and Goliath by making it about overcoming life’s problems, but then he unintentionally allegorized it by equating David with Jesus, Goliath with sin, and the Israelites with everyone else.  While it’s certainly a better allegory that is closer to the meaning of the passage, the fact of the matter is that David was David and Goliath was Goliath.  Does the text teach something significant about God that applies to the Gospel?  Absolutely; it shows God’s faithfulness and his deliverance of his people.  However, we can’t say David = Jesus without reading something into the text.  It’s one thing to say that, because the Bible teaches truths about God, that we can see elements of the Gospel in all Scripture, but it is quite another to say that every passage actually teaches the Gospel.

Thus, with this in mind, here are some theologically significant truths to obtain from the Song of Songs.

1.  Sex is a good thing, but in its proper context of a monogamous, committed relationship of marriage.  While the text does not explicitly say “these two are married,” it is clear that that is the implied covenant in which the poems are set (see 2:7).  Also, this relationship is heterosexual; even liberal interpreters have a hard time justifying a homosexual reading into the work.  Especially in our culture where perversions of the biblical standard of sex run rampant, this is a very important thing to teach.

2.  God esteemed human love important and beautiful enough, in its proper context, to inspire some love poems to put in Scripture.  Human love is not completely divorced from divine love and in fact finds its source from God.  This point as well as #1 puts enormous significance on marriage that is lacking today.

3.  Even though we should resist allegory and typology here, that does not mean that there is not an application that we can draw about God.  With the wealth of metaphors of marriage in Scripture between God and Israel and Christ and the Church, any teaching that strengthens one’s view of marriage will indirectly strengthen one’s view on God’s love for his people.  If human love can be this beautiful, we can scarcely imagine the love of God.

As we can see, we don’t have to read the Song of Songs allegorically to draw rich, theologically significant truths from it.  We merely have to honor it as part of God’s Word and read it as faithfully as we can.  Where Driscoll screwed up (apart from some crass jokes)  is that he made it about mere pleasure and thought all the metaphors gave us tips on how to have sex better; while pleasure is part of the book, the purpose is to celebrate the partner in the relationship rather than focusing on physical pleasure.  It is a very unselfish type of love, which is how a true godly love operates anyway.

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