Today at the Gospel Coalition Andrew Shanks posted an article on the difference between Song of Solomon and erotica literature. Shanks points out that while Songs wants to celebrate marital love and beauty as expressed in human sexuality, erotica merely wants to celebrate and exploit sexuality.
I appreciate Andrew’s points there, and I hope this post doesn’t come across as me too harshly critiquing a fellow brother. But this post, and my reference to Andrew’s, are about much more than either of us individually. Instead, this post for me is about how evangelicals continue to read the Song of Solomon as not much more than a Christianized Kama Sutra. In my estimation it still seems like we are, as Christian readers of Songs, lowering the bar on the ultimate meaning of the book. Looking back to my series on theological method, Andrew’s article, along with much of evangelicalism, leaves out the bigger and more important hermeneutical question of how Songs points us to Christ and his gospel. I would say that perhaps Andrew merely wanted to focus on another aspect of Songs, not the primary one of pointing to Christ, but he makes this statement towards the beginning: “In his Song, Solomon’s primary goal is to describe love and beauty” (emphasis mine). This is commonplace in evangelicalism (think Driscoll’s sermons on the book). For many of us, Songs is primarily about the beauty of marriage, the intimate and physical connection that consummates it, the way to handle difficulty before and during it, etc. Don’t get me wrong – each of those things is important. Andrew’s point is important. Many other evangelical teachers’ points, that the book gives us a picture of what marriage ought to be and that we ought to emulate it, are important. But in my understanding these are neither the divine nor human author’s primary goals in any book of Scripture, including Songs. Rather, the Spirit’s, and through the inspiration of the Spirit the human author’s, primary goal is to show us Christ so that through seeing him we might see the Father. And it is only by seeing the Son in the power of the Spirit that we can then move on to understanding the implications for ethical living in areas like marriage and sexuality.
The human author of Songs actually gives us clues that he is talking about much more than beauty, sex, and marriage by making explicit textual connections and allusions to Davidic, Temple, Garden, eschatological, and Lady Wisdom language elsewhere in Scripture. This is highly charged OT language – it encompasses the major facets of OT eschatological hope. It gives us a picture of the wise king and his virtuous bride in a restored garden. It follows the search for a wise king and virtuous woman in the Hebrew Bible order of Psalms, Job, Proverbs, and Ruth. The mystery of marriage is that it a picture of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:22-32). There are abundant reasons for thinking this book is about much more than beauty or sex. But in the name of the historical-grammatical method, we focus on the physical to the detriment of its spiritual message.
I think we ought to continue to think through the way Songs confronts the sexual ethic (or non-ethic) of our day, as Andrew has. And once again, I am appreciative of that type of work. I think work on the moral sense of Scripture is vitally important. But our understanding and interpretation of Scripture must remember that the primary goal of both the Spirit and the human author is always to point to Christ so that by seeing him we might see the Father and be changed into his image.