Abandoned? How do we square the difficult bits of Song of Songs?

I keep coming back to the question that Mike Ovey frequently asked his students at Oak Hill, “Will you let God disagree with you through his word?”   The point he would make was that we can tell the difference between an imaginary friend and a real friend by whether or not the friend disagreed with us. An imaginary friend won’t because they are a product of our own imagination and desires.  A real friend should because they have their own mind on things. 

If Mike was right, and I believe he was, then this should encourage us to lean hard into the bits of Scripture that we find difficult. By this, I don’t mean difficult to understand, though we should pay attention to them too. I mean difficult to accept. The stuff that disagrees with us.

Song of Songs is a difficult book.  I’ve mentioned that there are two recommended ways of applying it.  Some Christians apply it primarily, or even solely as practical wisdom for love and relationships.  Others argue that it is to be read as a picture of Christ and his love for the church.   I lean to the second but I don’t think it has to be taken exclusively that way. I think there are practical lessons for human relationships too, once we’ve applied the book to and through Christ.

Whichever way we take the book though, we are going to find that there are bits that are difficult to square with our view of what it should say.  Here’s one example.

Read Song of Songs 5

There’s great intimacy, passionate and strong language in the passage, especially at the beginning as once again, Solomon speaks of his love for the woman in v1. However, in verse 2-8, the story seems to take a darker turn.

Solomon goes to visit the woman.  It’s late and she appears to have already prepared herself for bed. She’s awake, longing for him but also reluctant to answer when he knocks (v2-3).  Now, at one level, we may be quick to judge her slowness of response here.  However, it is worth considering that she is not just worried about a bit of inconvenience.  It’s not a western modern apartment where she can quickly slip something on and unlock the door. The house will have been made secure for the night, lamps extinguished and she may have gone through ritual washings etc.  She will have been concerned about appearance and there will have been two aspects to this.  First, the possibility that his late arrival might start tongues wagging about the kind of relationship they had (remember, it has not yet been made clear where they were in their courtship).  Second, she will have wanted to make herself beautiful and ready for him.

Eventually she responds but it seems that she gets to the door too quickly.  He has gone away.  She goes searching for him and here we reach the darkest point of the story (v4-6).  The night watch find her wandering the streets alone.  Now, they may have had a responsibility to ensure people were at home.  They may even have decided that her nocturnal habits were unlawful and so could have taken her to the city elders. Instead they rough her up, they beat and wound her.  In fact the language suggests that they aren’t just a bit over the top. There is, in my opinion something quite nasty going on here.  The removing of her veil may have been to identify her but also could indicate an exposing, a shaming and there may even be at least a hint of sexual assault in understated language (v7)

On a side note, it strikes me here that if we see Song of Songs as pointing to the Gospel, then we may do well to identify the watchmen with the guardians of the church.  I include here both the formal leaders, specifically elders with a responsibility to provide and protect but also the informal and the self-appointed prophetic voices.  Both are needed (well except that I’m wary of the self-appointed bit) but there are ways in which people in those roles can act harmfully towards the church, sometimes for their own self-gratification but sometimes because of a harsh legalism.

Yet after this experience, she persists, she enlists help, she keeps seeking and she finds her beloved.  Before she finds him though, her friends challenge her.  Why should they help her out? Why should they keep looking? Why does she bother so much about this man who after all appears to have abandoned her (v8-9)?

So, she responds in the vivid, evocative language of v10-16. Do you recognise the language from elsewhere? It’s very close to the language of Revelation 1 isn’t it, where John describes his vision of the risen, exalted Saviour.  I think what we see there (and we may return to this in detail), is that John sees a vision, so beautiful that it is beyond the words he has.  So what does he do? The answer is that he draws on the language of Song of Songs, language to describe another king poetically applies, even more so, to the King of Kings.

Like and not like

The bit we are most likely to struggle with here, is the section where Solomon appears to give up, he walks away, he abandons her and leaves her vulnerable.  If we were looking at this story as relationship advice, would we consider it wise and helpful. Would you use this incident as a positive example in the youth study on boyfriends and girlfriends? I doubt it.  You are more likely to use it as a salutary warning.

What then if we apply this to Christ and us?  Does Christ abandon us? Does he leave us at risk? Well, perhaps there is a warning too that we should not dilly dally with God. Perhaps we are challenged by our self-righteousness, our attempts to make ourselves ready.  Perhaps too, there is something of the warning that there are consequences for  unresponsiveness. We’ll come back to that.  However, the idea of Jesus giving up on us and leaving us vulnerable seems to clash with what we expect of him and not just from our idealised views of him.  Jesus in the New Testament, especially in the parables of lost things in Luke 15, is the one who radically and relentlessly pursues us to find us and rescue us.  He doesn’t play hide and seek with the lost sheep.

This is where I think it is helpful to come back to the idea of typology.  This is different from allegory where we attempt to apply every little detail, treating it as a secret code.  Typology accepts that we are dealing with real people and real events in the Old Testament.  So, if there are dark parts of the song, this should not surprise us. There were dark points on Solomon’s life. If we think there is bad advise for lovers here, then too right. Solomon’s relationships were a mess. That’s an understatement, they were idolatrous and they led him astray from the Lord.  So, we will see things that are not right if he is telling the story honestly, warts and all.  What this means is that a type of Christ will be both like him and unlike him. Jesus is better than the type and so it is helpful to trace the ways in which the New Testament shows him to be both like and unlike the man in Song of Songs. Similarly, we may see ways in which the church should be like the woman and ways in which she can be but should not.

We can be like the woman, as mentioned above both in terms of at times, sometimes for what seem like good reasons, our slowness in responding to God’s call. We can, and should be like her in her whole hearted, expressive love and devotion and her hunger for him, her seeking for him.

Christ is the one who loves us and comes looking for us.  However, he does not play a dangerous game of hide and seek. He is faithful, he keeps pursuing us.  So, if we see Solomon as a bit half hearted and negligent here. Then Jesus is not like that. He is so much better.

Though there are ways in which we may see real warnings in chapter 5 too.  Does Jesus recklessly abandon us? No.  However, if our hearts grow cold, if we are disobedient, then we will experience a sense of distance.  And yes there are consequences. Scripture also talks about God being like a father, disciplining us.  Now here’s the thing.  If we hear that God is like a father who disciplines and our own experience of our dads was that they were distant, abandoned us, let us down or harshly, even abusively inflicted pain under the guise of punishment then we may find it hard to accept this language about God.  The truth is that even as God, the Father disciplines us like a human father would, he is not like the human father because he is perfect love.

In the same way, if our experience of relationships with others, parents, friends, a spouse or boyfriend has been that they’ve let us down, abandoned us, played games with us, put us in harms way, then we will react to Song of Songs 5 if we read this as portraying Jesus in exactly the same way. Indeed, for some of us, it may not just be human relationships in that sense. Some of us may have experienced the failings of other Christians when we needed them in our spiritual walk. Some of us may feel abandoned and deserted by the church. 

It is important to remember then that even when we experience the consequences of sin, that the way God treats us is not the way that those people have.  We need to keep remembering that he is different, he is faithful, reliable, kind.

What is asked of us?

As I wrote recently, we also have to be alert that Scripture is not simply there to answer our questions.  Rather, it is also about the questions it asks of us.  That’s when Scripture disagrees with us the most, when it asks me the questions I don’t really want to answer and/or when the answers I know I must give leave me uncomfortable.

Song of Songs 5 therefore challenges us by asking us questions about our relationship to God and our relationships with others. 

  • Are they charactised by deep devotion?
  • Am I able to express the depth of my devotion and passion?
  • Am I responsive or resistant?
  • Am I persistent or flakey?
  • Am I hungry for Christ and ready to pursue?
  • Am I ever at risk of behaving like the watchmen?
  • Would I say that my relationship to Christ is currently close and intimate or distant and cold?  (We can apply this to our human relationships too

Applying corporately

It’s also important to remember that when we talk about Song of Songs pointing us to Christ and us, the love relationship is a corporate one. It is the church together, that is the bride of Christ.  And I think we can see examples in Scripture and history of what has happened when the church has been slow to hear his call. There are times when the church has seemed to be sleeping.  In many cases that may well be true today.  There are times when our own local churches have done that.  Remember that when John employs the language of Song of Songs 5 to describe Jesus, it is in the context of his warnings and rebukes to churches.  It’s a to a luke-warm church that Jesus says “behold I stand at the door and knock.”  There’s a promise to come in when the door is opened but those churches that refuse to let Jesus in among them are warned that their candle-stick will be removed.  Sadly, we’ve seen that throughout history. We cannot assume that God will just persist with an unresponsive, rebellious church for ever.

Conclusion

So, there are warnings and challenges in Song of Songs 5, difficult words to hear.  Yet we need to hear them both as individuals and as churches.  There is however also great comfort and encouragement to us.  Christ is like the king in the Song in his great love for us but his love is perfect unlike Solomon’s.

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