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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

It Ain’t All About You Either

More Reflections On the Song of Songs

This continues an overview of the Song of Songs that is more about what the book is not rather than what it is. I’m looking for ways to interpret a rather unusual portion of scripture that do not result in an excess of speculation. Such esoterica finds its way into public teaching more than it ought to.

Yesterday’s post looked at four more-or-less traditional interpretations of the book. Today’s post explores a fifth.

5. The Song of Songs as Prophetic Timeline

This relatively recent and fairly novel interpretation of the book may well have originated with a missionary’s wife named Marian Berry in Nairobi between 1948 and 1953. Berry failed to receive a satisfying answer to the meaning of the Song of Songs from her husband and now insists, based on her own study of Hebrew, that the Song of Songs is “coded in symbolic language”. In Berry’s view, the bride and bridegroom in Revelation are the same bride and bridegroom as the Song of Solomon and the statements of the Shulamite, taken in sequence, are alleged to set out the history of the church.

Marian Berry has her say about her discovery here:


As far as I can see, the Berry take on the Song of Songs is a potentially toxic fusion of the Christ-and-the-Church allegory with a game of word association played in Daniel and Revelation. I call it “toxic” because the suggestion that the primary or most spiritual meaning of any text is hidden — or “coded”, as Berry puts it — is antithetical to the purposes of God in revealing his word to us, as well as deeply discouraging to young believers and mature Christians alike who find themselves bewildered by their inability to see what the preacher insists is present in the text, and at a loss as to how they may judge such things for themselves.

I’m not saying that what Berry believes she discovered is impossible. She would not be the first to hypothesize that God has encoded all manner of things into the plain text of scripture, and if anyone is equipped to write a communication that works on multiple levels it is certainly the creator of the universe.

What I am saying is this: if a prophetic message has been hidden in the Song of Songs — something I find rather unlikely — it is not the primary or most spiritually significant meaning of the book. To obsess about it as an important or secret revelation is to minimize or miss the book’s more significant messages. I am far from being an education snob, but the recognition that meaning is genuinely coded is not a task requiring spiritual discernment. The code is either there or it is not. If it is not merely the product of unwarranted word association and fancy, it seems far more likely to be obvious to Hebrew scholars than to a missionary with a concordance. The thought that coded meaning might exist is intriguing and mysterious, much like the Loch Ness monster. But its value in corporate edification is negligible.

If such coded messages genuinely exist, they were not intended to give rise to the publication of best sellers, promotional tours or PowerPoint presentations. The platform is not the place for opinions that are not substantiated from scripture to the satisfaction of other mature believers, no matter how exciting they are to us or how much we may be convinced they are true. Both Paul and John were given revelations that were not intended for the church at large. There were also times Paul wished to share certain things with fellow believers and restrained himself because his audience was not ready.

Coded messages offered indiscriminately, whether real or not, surely fall into that category. They can easily do far more damage to the Body of Christ than any good that may come out of them.

However, the Berrys are not alone in their enthusiasm. An unnamed writer at BibleExplained.com picks up the ball and runs with it:
“At several points in the Song of Songs drama, the daughters of Jerusalem are charged not to awaken love before it is ready. This happens when the bride is waiting for the realization of hope. In comparing the story of the history of the church, we see the charges appearing during periods of trial and expectation for God’s people — times when the fulfillment of love had to remain asleep.”
Here we are in even more perilous territory because we are talking about interpreting the Bible through the lens of history. Like so much else that relies on the opinions of historians, these “periods of trial and expectation for God’s people” are very much in the eye of the beholder.

An even more bizarre example of the prophecy/Christ/church muddle is set out by Brother Bill at TheWayPrepared.com, if you can follow it. In this increasingly esoteric casserole of half-baked notions, astrology even makes a cameo appearance:
“Yahushua promised there would be ‘Signs and wonders’ in the heavens and in the earth, to mark the end times, including the time of His return. These signs are first detailed in Scripture, and then will be confirmed in the heavenly signs at the appropriate times. One of these signs can be seen in the Song of Solomon — in the midst of a discussion of certain Bride characteristics — and can be seen in the heavens now!”
Still others in evangelical circles see prophecies about national Israel rather than prophecies about the church in the Song, giving rise to theories such as the one that the repeated phrase, “I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, do not stir up or awaken love until it so desires” actually means that the nation of Israel is still asleep because she hasn’t learned to love the Lord yet.

There has to be a better way.

The Common Thread

The common danger in all unrestrained allegorical interpretations, prophetic or otherwise, is this: the absence of a standard by which they may be judged as to their truth or falsehood. Provided you don’t bring Mickey Mouse, President Obama and the constellations into your interpretation (and sometimes even if you do), anything is fair game.

Allegory and figurative language have a significant place in scripture as sources of spiritual insight (and also as intentional obfuscation to those who do not exercise faith). But I am comfortable limiting my understanding of figurative language to that which is clearly explained in context or elsewhere in scripture. When the Lord says, “The seed is the word”, I’m good with that. When Peter says, “… this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel”, there is no argument to be made. When we read, “This is my body”, I’m clear on what the Lord referred to.

I don’t even need it to be made glaringly obvious with a paragraph of explanation. If you find me a serpent or a dragon in an obviously prophetic passage, I have great confidence that I’m reading either about Satan himself or someone displaying Satanic character. But these figurative references are limited by other scriptures and do not require me to conjecture meaning.

But how are we to understand allegorical language in the Song of Solomon that has no obvious referent in scripture? Take, for instance, “Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards …” Do I go with Matthew Henry?
“This is a charge to believers to mortify their sinful appetites and passions, which are as little foxes, that destroy their graces and comforts, and crush good beginnings.”
Or maybe it’s Bo Price that has it right:
“What are those FOXES? The FOXES can be ATTITUDES. The FOXES, more likely, can be the TRICKS of the enemy to hinder growth. And the Enemy of our soul DOES send forth FOXES to hinder growth.”
Bo knows foxes, apparently. And if Bo’s not right, he certainly gets bonus points for assertiveness. But if we don’t believe Bo, how about Bernard of Clairvaux? He’s got some serious interpretive heft:
“The worst fox is the hidden slanderer, but just as bad is the smooth-tongued sycophant.”
So are the “little foxes” my own appetites and attitudes, tricks of the enemy or other people who gossip and flatter? Any or all might be right, but how can I be sure? How about we split the difference and just say the foxes are “generalized bad stuff”? Although that does sound a bit thin, I must admit.

But you see the problem: without a clear referent I am left to my imagination, spiritual or otherwise.

Unlimited, no-holds-barred allegory is nothing but a free-for-all. It has no value in the edification of believers. At best it is novelty, whimsy or personal opinion; at worst it is heresy. It can tell us nothing that isn’t stated explicitly and without guise elsewhere in scripture. Anybody can grab a concordance and randomly associate the Hebrew of Song of Solomon with the Hebrew of other Old Testament scriptures, or tie the Septuagint to the Greek text of Revelation, especially when the starting point is a book of poetry already replete with figurative language.

And really, who can prove the speaker wrong? I can’t. Maybe these mystical concepts are actually coded within the word of God, only awaiting the musings of the initiated or the truly spiritual to reveal themselves.

I just think it’s incredibly unlikely. And that it’s a whole lot safer to stick with that which the Holy Spirit has clearly confirmed.

Some Considerations About Meaning

If it seems I’m being relentlessly negative about our ability to understand scripture, bear in mind that there are many clear, general truths we can draw from the Song of Songs; lessons related to the overall themes and ideas expressed within the book rather than painstakingly extracted from dubious minutiae.

Word study is great for eliminating misunderstandings and determining to the best of our ability the author’s intent. But comparing Hebrew words only gets you so far. It is in observing the book from a greater distance that we begin to see forest instead of trees. Scott Shifferd Jr. gets a lot closer to what I believe is a legitimate takeaway from the book in attempting to do just that:
“A beautiful poetic story about a young woman’s choosing between the King and her beloved shepherd is greatly beneficial to everyone especially to adolescent girls, young women, their matron mentors, fathers, and everyone looking after the integrity of young love and marriage. The lessons in this book are (and there may be more): 1) true love and choosing the right mate, 2) waiting for love, 3) teaching young women and men about what is most important about marriage, 4) understanding the affection of your spouse, and 5) remembering when love was fresh.”
To this I would add the wisdom of combining romantic love with deep and knowledgeable friendship.

One correspondent this week told me she believes the primary purpose of the book is:
“… an antidote to the pagan idea that marital or romantic love is inappropriate for spiritual people.”
Such reflections lack the razzle-dazzle of secret codes but possess the less-appreciated virtues of being both practical and open to being understood by any careful reader.

It ought also to be pointed out that the Song of Songs has some of the best and most enduring lines of poetry in all of scripture. It is no accident that they have made their way into our hymnology and used to be a well-known feature of western culture. Think of “your love is better than wine”, “the fairest among ten thousand”, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys”, “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away”, “My beloved is mine, and I am his” and “love is as strong as death”, among numerous others. If we need a source of authenticated, spiritual, deeply romantic statements about love, this is the motherlode.

Anticipation

Another theme I noted in my reading is the theme of anticipation, which is perhaps what Shifferd has in mind when he refers to “waiting for love”. There is nothing casual about either the Shulamite or the Shepherd (for that matter, there’s nothing casual about Solomon either, though it is clear that his interest is primarily sexual). There is a passionate intensity to the poetry that has often been absent from anything in our society other than teenage infatuation. And today, even young love lacks the sizzle it once had. Anticipation is a lost art. We live in an age of instant gratification, of sex on the first date (and even sex without the first date), and an obsession with having what we crave right now. The Song of Solomon, on the other hand, is electric with desire that can only find fulfillment in its beloved.

Is there a lesson for the church here? Certainly. 

There are many worthwhile lessons to take away from the book but for me, one of the biggest is that anything worth having is worth waiting for. And if it is not entirely legitimate to interpret every phrase in an Old Testament poem as a direct and immediate reference to the church’s relationship with the bridegroom of our hearts, we can certainly remind ourselves of what the New Testament teaches about his coming and about how appropriate it is to long for him with the anticipation of the Shulamite:
“Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”
(2 Timothy 4:8)

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