Gary Millar on the Song of Solomon

Last night Gary Millar spoke on Song of So(ngs)lomon. With a particular focus on how to preach it. He had what I think is a pretty interesting take on the book – an interpretation that would make Song of Songs a nice foil to Ecclesiastes (which explores the futility of a life lived pursuing material happiness).

He suggests the book is written by Solomon about “the one that got away” – a woman who rebuffed his advances because she had found true love with her “beloved”. The thrust of the argument is that the book then gives Solomon’s insights into a life lived pursuing happiness and completion through the pursuit of sexual encounters – and comes to the conclusion that true happiness is found in its proper context, and if you fully subscribe to his theory, real satisfaction and joy comes through experiencing the love of God.

Here are my notes in slightly edited form. Simone has blogged her response to the evening here.

  • What is Song of Songs doing in the Bible? Nobody seems to know – none of the commentators agree.
  • When we read the Bible our starting point has to be “this is the word of God” – and with careful reading we really should be able to figure out what it’s about.
  • There’s a very long tradition of ignoring the sexual element – the Westminster council suggested that any reading along those lines was incorrect… Calvin said “it’s about sex, what’s the big deal?”
  • The people who insisted it wasn’t about sex believed it was all about Jesus.
  • Ascribed to Solomon – uniquely placed to write this sort of treatise on love and marriage. 1,000 women, world’s wisest man… Solomon realised that he’d mucked it up. And that’s why he wrote this book.
  • The key to the book is found in the last few verses… chapter 8 verses 1-11. “Solomon had a vineyard”… These statements unlock the whole book – almost certainly a reference to Solomon’s harem. “Lord of the multitude”… the tenants are probably the staff of the harem… each was to bring for its fruit 1000 shekels of silver… “my vineyard (body in ch 1)”, the thousand shekels are for you and 200 are for those who care for the harem. Solomon would pick someone, send the guys out to make an offer they couldn’t refuse, and it seems there was a feisty woman “my vineyard is my own” – don’t try to buy me. Money, wisdom and henchmen can’t buy you love.
  • Solomon is the wisest man in the world. He is rich. He is powerful. “Who does this woman think she is…” perhaps leads Solomon to reflect on his life and “who does he think he is”. Perhaps realises that somewhere along the line he’s lost the plot.
  • Solomon realises he has missed out on real love. And perhaps even a relationship with God. And so he writes about a young couple who are passionately and permanently in love. As the book goes on it becomes less and less likely that Solomon is one of the lovers. He becomes distant to the story.
  • The book opens up a raft of very difficult pastoral issues – because as soon as we start talking about issues surrounding sex people become edgy. Many people have baggage in this area.
  • The man works really hard to make his beloved feel beautiful. His beloved is his standard of beauty cf Driscoll (one area where he was helpful). It’s clear when reading the poetry (though sometimes the imagery is culturally odd for us) that this man thinks and puts all of his effort into making his words encouraging for his wife.
  • It’s hard to distinguish between actuality and anticipation. The book is full of images that are clearly enticing but can’t actually be tied down. General pictures not specific pictures. It’s a mistake to press this book into service of saying anything about sex. The metaphors are deliberately slippery – nudge, nudge, wink, wink – you can’t work out what the specific language is. Immensely sexual but not explicit.
  • It’s not entirely clear who is speaking at what point. We’re not sure if the people are real or parables. We’re not sure if he’s writing through the lens of rejection and imagining the world of the woman who turned him down… the way in which this relationship is described is with Solomon as a stranger to this kind of love.
  • Chapter 1 v 5-6 – dysfunctional families do not rule out the possibility of real love. Solomon seems to be urging us to hold out for the real thing.
  • Chapter 3 v 6 – “Solomon’s carriage”, King Solomon made it himself, royal guard, wearing the crown etc… This woman is dreaming about her wedding. It’s a royal wedding – she dreams of her dream man rocking up in the royal regalia. No suggestion throughout the rest of the book that this is a royal wedding, she gets beaten by the night watchmen which is unlikely if she’s a princess etc… Possible explanation: The girl has a dream, having seen Solomon’s wedding she imagines her wedding to be something like this. Her dream man has the face of her lover – by the end of chapter 3 it could potentially still be Solomon.
  • Solomon is being passed over for this woman’s real king. “I opened the door…”, “oh daughters of Jerusalem what would you tell my lover…” – this is not how things work for Solomon in terms of securing a wife. Solomon starts to understand that he has love wrong.
  • Solomon isn’t the Bible’s sex therapist – he warns us of the problems of sexual idolatry.
  • Because of Ephesians 5 we’re used to modeling love on the trinity. But Solomon instead suggests we need to look the other way. We should see marital love as an echo of God’s love for us.
  • God is the ultimate – not sex. So at the end of his debauched life Solomon comes to the conclusion that he’s mislead it and that God should be the focus.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

6 thoughts on “Gary Millar on the Song of Solomon”

  1. Hey Nathan

    I love SOS! It sucks me in, always 'further up and further in' (The Last Battle) — which I think is the way SOS spins God's own vision of love.

    Do you know why Millar is pushing Solomonic authorship so hard? Trying to connect the various movements of the Song with Solomon's life seems like pretty wild speculation to me! Besides, I think we can read the text without this.

    I think he's spot on with his comments about the way sex and desire appear in the text — 'immensely sexual but not explicit'.

    1. Arthur,

      At a guess I'd say he's keen to push Solomonic authorship because the book opens in a way that suggests it's by him.

      I thought his point about Solomon being uniquely placed (with 1,000 wives and concubines and God endowed wisdom) to write about love and fulfillment was well made.

      Why don't you think it's written by Solomon? It is either by him or by someone trying pretty hard to pretend to be him.

      He didn't try to connect the song with Solomon's life – except to speculate that it was something Solomon may have written in his old age suggesting that he'd had it wrong. He doesn't think the character (the beloved) in the book is Solomon, but a competitor to this young lady's heart. He also suggested that the characters may even be allegorical. A tool Solomon used to make the point.

      He also said he wouldn't go to the stake for any of these ideas – that they were basically his best guess based on reading pretty widely and looking at the Hebrew (and being really smart).

    2. I'd say he's keen on Solomon being the author for the same reason he's keen on Moses being the author of Deuteronomy (though I'm not quoting directly, it's just a vibe) he seems to want to redeem the Bible from the works of shoddy scholarship over the last 60 years where the authorship of just about every book we've got in the canon has been scrutinised, questioned and overturned on the whims of scholars looking to make names for themselves.

  2. Yeah, I'm just interested. :)

    One of my first year essays last year was on whether SOS is wisdom literature, and people often say "yes" or "maybe" but then don't explain why! But the obvious connection with Solomon is pretty intriguing.

    I reckon the superscription, "Solomon's song of songs", is ambiguous. As well as ascribing authorship, it could imply that the text was written for Solomon, or was specially selected by Solomon, or even that the text is simply associating itself with Solomon 'after the event'.

    Solomon seems to be the quintessential OT sage, in the way that the law is synonymous with Moses and the Psalms are synonymous with David. Were those texts actually written word for word by those figureheads? Well, maybe, maybe not — but I think that's a bit beside the point. They're all canon! *Kapow* :D

    On that note, there has been an exciting move in biblical scholarship *away* from historical criticism and the supposed "truth behind the text". These days there's a renewed focus on the text as it stands in its final form — going by the name of "new criticism", "rhetorical criticism", "narrative criticism", etc. Because of this, I reckon it's a pretty encouraging time for Christians to get into theological education! :D

    But what I think is clear about the Solomon connection in SOS it that the lovers are idealising or role-playing Solomon — although I reckon this is not so much because of Solomon's wisdom as his grandeur. In other words, the love that's on view is an extravagant and costly love.

  3. "Chapter 1 v 5-6 – dysfunctional families do not rule out the possibility of real love. "

    I struggled with this point. Think it was a bit imaginative. I read what she says there as a teasing kind of comment, not at all saying she's been abused by her family. Kind of daring him to contradict her (which he does for most the rest of the book.)

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