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.