Appreciating theSong of Solomon
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Philip Graham RykenPhilip Graham Ryken (DPhil, University of Oxford) is the eighth president of Wheaton College. He preached at Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church from 1995 until his appointment at Wheaton in 2010. Ryken has published more than 50 books, including When Trouble Comes and expository commentaries on Exodus, Ecclesiastes, and Jeremiah. He serves as a board member for the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, the Lausanne Movement, and the National Association of Evangelicals...more
Wheaton College President Phil Ryken sheds some light on the passionate poetry of the Song of Songs. The book is a collection of songs about a couple whose relationship is heading into marriage.
Appreciating theSong of Solomon
Bob: The Bible says God created marriage to be a picture—a picture of the relationship between Christ and His church—so when we read about marriage in the Bible, we ought to be looking at it through two lenses. Here’s Dr. Phil Ryken.
Phil: If we step back from the Song of Solomon—kind of pan out a little bit so we’re not just looking at the Song of Solomon; we’re looking at the whole of Scripture—we see that there is a big love story that’s being told here about God’s love for His people, which comes to marriage fulfillment—in the relationship between Jesus Christ, the worthy groom, and the church of Christ, which is the bride of Christ—that’s the big picture here.
Even a human-level relationship and romance that we find in the Song of Solomon is part of this bigger story of our soul’s relationship to God. I think we read the book with a kind of bifocal vision.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, September 11th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. What can be learn from the Song of Solomon about God’s love for us, our love for Him, and what can we learn about our marriages? We’ll hear more today from Dr. Phil Ryken. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I have a fresh excitement this week for this book in the middle of our Bible that, as I understand it—we should ask our guest about this—I understand that this book was not supposed to be read in public meetings if there were kids under the age of 13 present in those meetings.
Ann: Is that true?
Bob: Well, we’ll find out; because we have Dr. Philip Ryken joining us again.
Dave: Oh, we have a friend, who walked in on her daughters—right?
Ann: Yes; this is my friend, and she said—
Dave: Well, she’s my friend, too.
Ann: I guess she is; yes.
Dave: She’s a friend of us. [Laughter]
Ann: She walked into the bedroom; and her two daughters were sitting on the bed, reading something—they were probably ten and twelve. When the mom walked in, the girls threw the book under the bed. She’s thinking: “Ah! What are they reading? What did they find?” She pulls out the Bible and she said, “Girls, why did you throw the Bible under the bed?” She said they said, “We were reading the Song of Songs,” and it felt embarrassing to them.
Bob: Well, we have Dr. Phil Ryken joining us this week on FamilyLife Today. Before I introduce you, Phil, I need to let our listeners know about a special opportunity we’re giving FamilyLife Today listeners this week and next week. We want you to get your Bible out from under the bed and bring it with you to a weekend getaway, as a couple, to come join us for a Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway in one of three dozen cities, where we’re going to be hosting getaways this fall.
If you sign up this week or next week to attend, you save 50 percent off the regular registration fee. We’re hoping a lot of our listeners will say: “You know, we ought to do that this fall. We ought to get away together.” Maybe it’s been a few years since you’ve done anything like this; maybe it’s never happened in your marriage. Take a weekend away together and find out about God’s design for marriage and study what the Bible has to say about marriage at a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com—you can register online or get information about the locations and dates of upcoming getaways—or call 1-800-FL-TODAY for more information. We can also register you by phone. Again, the website, FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to join us for an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway and to save 50 percent off the registration. We just need to hear from you this week or next week, so you can take advantage of that special offer.
Now, let me introduce our guest, who is joining us this week on FamilyLife Today, Dr. Phil Ryken. Dr. Ryken, welcome back.
Phil: Thank you. Great to be with you; and great to be talking again about the greatest love song ever written, the Song of Solomon.
Bob: Phil is the president of Wheaton College, for almost a decade now. He has written a book, on the Song of Songs, called The Love of Loves in the Song of Songs.
Am I right in what I’ve heard?—that Jewish kids weren’t supposed to hear this?
Phil: Yes; so it probably varied across various communities. There definitely have been communities, where you had to kind of reach a certain age of maturity—
Bob: Bar mitzvah has to happen!
Phil: —yes; past puberty to start looking at this very intimate part of the Bible.
Bob: At our Weekend to Remember marriage getaways, we spend an hour talking about intimacy in romance/sex in a marriage relationship.
Dave: Some of us spend an hour-and-a-half. [Laughter]
Bob: We’re supposed to take just an hour.
But part of the question coming up is: “What does the Bible have to say about intimacy and sex in a relationship?” You turn to a couple of passages in the Song of Solomon, and it’s pretty explicit in what it says. In fact, as we read these passages out loud to married couples, and you get to parts about palm trees and climbing palm trees, there’s a little giggling going on among the grownups.
Phil: Yes; well, you know, some giggling is good. One of the things I’ll say about the Song of Solomon is: “This is definitely poetry—it is love poetry; it is erotic poetry; that is, it has to do with sexual intimacy; but it is not pornographic.
That’s one of the reasons why certain things are expressed in metaphor, drawn from the natural world: the flowers, the animals, the fruitfulness of certain things. It’s pretty clear what’s being suggested there. You know, you don’t have to know too much about human anatomy to understand some of the things that are talked about there. But it doesn’t cross that line; it knows where the line is. I think, in a culture where we often don’t know where the line is, we can get a little embarrassed with the Song of Solomon.
Ann: I’m so grateful for this; because I think so many, like myself—I was exposed, very early, to pornography, probably four years old and on—it was just around. I was exposed to it through other people and, then, have sexual abuse.
I’ll never forget the first time I went to a Weekend to Remember and heard God’s plan for sexual intimacy. I was blown away; because I had been bombarded with the world/the culture—all that they said about sex and sexual intimacy, even in marriage—and I had never heard God’s plan.
So I am so excited that we have a healthy, biblical view of what God says. Thanks for doing that.
Bob: So, if somebody is in their Bible-reading schedule, and they open their schedule this morning—and it says, “Song of Solomon, Chapter 1,” and they’re going to start reading through this—what do they need to know, going in? How can they have the best experience reading through this?
Phil: Here’s the thing that’s really helped me a lot. In the Song of Songs, there are people that speak to one another. There are these daughters of Jerusalem that enter in—I think even some of the ways some of the Bibles are laid out, it tells you who the speaker is. You feel almost like you’re reading a play, kind of like the manuscript for the high school musical you were in, which tells you who has which part. And there’s an aspect of that—there’s a dramatic aspect to it.
But this is love poetry, and it’s organized a little more loosely. It’s really a collection of songs. I think, very likely, these were songs that were sung at weddings in biblical times. This is what you would sing during that week-long celebration. You know, you’d hear a song coming from over the wall; you kind of join in the song, because you knew these words.
I think of the Song of Songs—these are like the liner notes in an album of love songs; they kind of hang together. You feel like: “This is this part of their story,” “This is another part of their story”; but you’re not expecting it to tell you everything about their relationship or describe everything—it’s a little looser than that—the way a collection of love songs would be.
I think, when you enter into a book of the Bible, knowing what kind of a book it is—it clarifies your expectations. I think that’s important to know.
I also think it’s important to know that this intimate relationship is heading in the direction of marriage. This isn’t just about sexual relationships; it’s about romance leading to marriage, and it’s in that context that sexual desire has its fulfillment. You can follow that arc through the story.
Bob: Should it be read chronologically? Do we think that all of these scenes are happening in chronological order?
Phil: Yes, I think it’s loosely chronological. I would definitely read the book in order. I would also read it slowly, and that’s hard; it’s hard to slow down. I love a single-column for some of my Bible reading. I have a Bible in my hands, right now, that’s exactly the opposite of that. All the words are crammed together in this little Bible, with two columns. You feel like you should go on and read the next thing, rather than reading a line or a verse and just kind of savoring it and letting it sink in.
Another thing is—you know, there are parts of the Bible that are very straightforward—the historical parts, like, “This is who did what to whom, and here’s what happened…” You just kind of read it fairly rapidly. You get the story, and you’re absorbed in the story. Poetry doesn’t work that way—it gives you an image/a picture—maybe something from the natural world. You kind of have to think about, “Why is that comparison being made?” It’s an invitation to reflection.
Ann: When you’re reading it, are you reading it as, “This is a man and a woman,” or are you reading it—do you read it another time, thinking, “This is God pursuing me”?
Phil: I think it’s both—it’s both/and—and I think that’s a very important part. This book operates on a horizontal level/human level: romance and relationship; vertical level. Vertical level—not because God gets mentioned a lot in the book—but because, if we step back from the Song of Songs—kind of pan out a little bit, so we’re not just looking at the Song of Solomon; we’re looking at the whole of Scripture—we see that there is a big love story that’s being told here about God’s love for His people, which comes to marriage fulfillment—in the relationship between Jesus Christ, the worthy groom, and the church of Christ, which is the bride of Christ—that’s the big picture here.
Even a human-level relationship and romance that we find in the Song of Solomon is part of this bigger story of our soul’s relationship to God, so I think we read the book with a kind of bifocal vision.
Dave: Tell me, then—you just touched on it—the first time I ever came across the Song of Solomon—I’m a new believer, I’m reading the Bible, really, for the first time. My question, when I got there—because I didn’t understand it, initially—was, “Why?” I didn’t know how the Bible was put together/the canon of Scripture; but I found myself going: “Why’s this book here? What is the real purpose of how this ended up in the 66 books? I’m not sure!” You started to hit on that—why’s it there?
Bob: And then you get to Ecclesiastes and you go, “Why is this there, too?”—right? [Laughter]
Phil: Well, it’s not hard to understand why Ecclesiastes is there on Monday morning; right? [Laughter]
Here’s, maybe, a way of thinking about it. What are God’s two greatest commandments?—love for God and love for one another. What is the Song of Solomon about?—it is about love for God, and it is about love for one another. So why is this book here?—for a lot of reasons; but it’s talking about core issues, and it’s also giving us a beautiful soundtrack for the love story of our redemption.
Also, you know, we need propositions about marriage—we need, “Husbands, love your wives,” “Lay down your life for your wife the way Christ…”—I mean, we need those kinds of propositions/commands; but we also need stories, and poems, and songs so that we don’t just know about a relationship; but we actually feel and experience it through the stories, and emotions, and experiences, and responses of others.
Bob: So if most of us are being catechized—being instructed on marriage and relationships by our culture—we’re going to wind up in the ditch. How will reading the Song of Solomon—what are the major themes that will correct from what the culture is training us or teaching us about relationships? How is it countercultural?
Phil: Yes; well, you know, in so many different ways. I think one is that, if you look closely at this love relationship, obviously, there’s a physical attraction that ultimately finds sexual consummation. If you look closely at what is being said, this man and this woman value the personhood of the man or woman with whom they’re falling in love.
They express—here’s just an example. It’s interesting the way the man, as time goes on—he’s very attracted to this woman’s physical beauty—but then, when he sees how she perseveres in their relationship, he starts praising her strength. That’s not where he started, but he actually came to a deeper understanding of who she was. That’s countercultural, really, I think, to see the whole personhood of another person—the physical, but also the character/the emotional. That would be one example of what’s countercultural.
It’s very countercultural to have something erotic that’s not pornographic—that’s countercultural.
It’s countercultural, I think, to see a relationship that is absolutely based on equality—both seeing, in the other person, the image of God. He praises her as much as she praises him; there’s a symmetry and, in effect, equality; but there’s also a very strong complementarity. There are ways in which this woman is drawn to the leadership qualities of this man, which do not in any way infringe upon her dignity or equality.
Putting all of that together—what is equal before God/what is complementary in the way that human beings are made to relate, particularly in the context of marriage—all of that is countercultural.
Bob: Yes; help me with the last chapter of this book, where it looks like the brothers have come alongside the wife and said, “We’re putting a hedge around you.” If they’re married by this point, what’s going on there?
Phil: I don’t know if I can wrap that up in an easy way, Bob. [Laughter] I will try, though.
These brothers don’t come off so well. They’re kind of intruding on the relationship in certain ways. You can read their comments at the end either a little more favorably or a little less favorably.
I will say not everything in the book, necessarily, is chronological; so I wouldn’t get caught up in the fact that, “Oh, this is—
Bob: —“at the end.”
Phil: Yes; that’s not a stumbling block for me.
Read most favorably, they are being appropriately protective of the purity and virginity of their sister. I think that is a thing that is, not just a personal commitment, but has a communal context—that there’s something at stake for a family.
But I also find the woman being corrective of her brothers, saying, “Yes, that’s good advice for that stage of my relationship; but I actually have entered into my womanhood in the context of marriage here.”
Bob: Well, I will tell you—that last chapter—we wrote our vows when we got married. Today, I don’t think I would want that to be the case. I think it’s fine for you to express sentiment to one another in a marriage ceremony, but the vows ought to be vows. You ought to be saying: “I promise this…” and “I promise that…”
I was doing more love poetry in my vows than I was doing pledging things. But I did go to Song of Solomon 8, where it says, “Put me as a seal over your heart, for love is as strong as death.” That’s a statement of the power and the commitment of love that needs to be reinvigorated in our culture today; doesn’t it?
Phil: Yes; you know, I think that’s one of the most famous verses in the Song of Songs. You, often, do hear it at a wedding.
By the way, just on the topic of vows, my own conviction—and Lisa and I wrote our own vows. They were kind of lengthy; they were too long—all these things that, when you’re 18— [Laughter] You were thinking you were going into ministry and like you have something to say.
Ann: Dave wrote a song for me—not to make you guys feel bad—but—
Phil: Yes; I blessed my family by not writing a song. [Laughter] But actually, I love having the traditional wedding vows in a marriage; because it emphasizes: “This isn’t about your creative relationship and who you are in your individuality. It’s about you entering into a God-given institution that’s much bigger than all of us.”
But in the context of a wedding, it’s great to have some poetry; because it awakens that passion. It’s just such a strong image—this “seal upon your heart.” The ancient, probably cylindrical, seal that was kind of like your signet ring—like the thing that you would put into wax or roll into clay—that’s such a strong sign of possession. That’s the thing that you would hold onto, even more than your credit card chip—is your seal. Then to enter into a relationship of mutual possession—where you’re just giving everything to this person that you’re committed to in a lifelong love relationship—that’s the beautiful image there: it’s the constancy of love; it’s permanence.
Here is the place in the Song of Songs where God is mentioned explicitly. This love—you know, we’ve been talking about it on a human level—but we’re talking, now, about a love that’s stronger than death. I mean, the love that’s stronger than death is the love of Jesus Christ, which is demonstrated on the cross and vindicated through the empty tomb. That’s the fiery, passionate love of God for us in Jesus Christ. The Song of Solomon is pointing us toward that; it’s awakening that desire for that kind of love. That relationship is available to every one of us.
Dave: Yes; I love, toward the end of your book, where you’re talking about the seal, and the covenant, and the perseverance through good times and bad times—the story of Benjamin Warfield, which I had never heard. What a picture of God’s love for us and how that reflects in marriage.
Phil: Yes; Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield—Presbyterians will know this particularly—but a famous theologian of old Princeton and very well-read across the country, because he had theological essays that were just household across the country—very influential theologian.
His wife was tragically struck by lightning, caught in a storm—they were honeymooning, I think it was in Germany/somewhere in Europe—and she was never the same. She was basically an invalid from that time on. B.B. Warfield was so devoted to her that he rarely traveled more than an hour from their home; I mean, he would go to teach his class at Princeton; he would go back home.
You know, “What is the exact quote?”—it’s in the book—but it was said of Dr. Warfield: “He had two great interests in life: his studies and Mrs. Warfield.” What a powerful testimony to the constancy of love/selflessness; and I think—hopefully, not surprising—but actually, sensible that a theologian would have this kind of devotion to his wife.
I think another way of looking at that devotion to his studies and his theology—I mean, that was all about his love for Christ. He was living out the horizontal and the vertical: love for God/love for espoused neighbor. That’s the testimony and the witness of B.B. Warfield.
Ann: That’s beautiful, and inspiring, because he was living out his vows.
For me, after being a believer for a long time—I’ve given my life to Jesus, I’ve served Him in ministry, Dave and I have been in ministry for 38 years—but I remember this—one day thinking about the Bridegroom and how Jesus is the groom; and He’s coming back for me. I decided to renew my vows with God—went out into the woods, where I have this secluded place, where I have basically built an altar of rocks of prayers that I’ve laid down. Dave’s been there—it’s this big place.
Dave: It’s a big mound.
Phil: And getting bigger, maybe!
Ann: It is getting bigger.
Dave: It is; it grows by the week.
Ann: Actually, one of our sons proposed to his wife there. It’s become almost a sanctuary for us.
But I’ll never forget—one day I decided, “I’m going to renew my vows and my covenant with God.” I went out there, got on my knees, and I basically spoke wedding vows to the Groom, who was coming for me/re-surrendered my life to Him. As you’ve been a believer and follower of Christ for awhile, you know that it’s amazing; it’s wonderful; you give your life to Him; but you also know it’s hard, and there’s tragedy and hard times.
I’ll never forget that day that I surrendered to Him; and I bought myself a ring, almost kind of as that seal/as a sign. I always wear it on my right hand to remember that my King and my Groom is coming back for me. I love this idea that our perfect Groom is Jesus, who’s coming back for us.
Bob: Well, that’s where you point us, Dr. Ryken, in the book, The Love of Loves in the Song of Songs. You keep reminding us there’s a great love story going on here, but it’s a picture of a greater love story to come.
Phil: I love what you’re talking about, Ann. That is exactly the kind of thing the Puritans would have done—very tangible, covenant-oriented, bed-rock promises that God has made to us and that we make back to God. Beyond that, I mean, very Old Testament to raise up an Ebenezer; you’ve got your stones of remembrance. I think it’s different for each person; but I think, “Wow, there’s such wisdom in doing tangible things to reinforce it.” That love relationship, which is symbolized in the ring on your right hand, that’s forever—that is forever—your relationship with Jesus.
Phil: We want to be living into/living towards that destiny.
Bob: Thank you for pointing us in that direction; and thank you for this book and for your work on it, and for being here and sharing this with us.
Phil: Yes; I’m glad to do it! Thank you!
Bob: We have copies of Dr. Ryken’s book, The Love of Loves in the Song of Songs, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order the book from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy. This is a great book for you to go through together, as a couple, or maybe in a small group series—The Love of Loves in the Song of Songs by Dr. Phil Ryken. Order, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy—that’s 1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Thinking this week about the Song of Solomon, I always think about the hour on Saturday afternoon, at the Weekend to Remember marriage getaway, where we talk very candidly about intimacy/about sexual intimacy in marriage. So many couples come up to us and say: “Thank you for that hour. We have no place else to go, where we can get a biblical perspective on sex and intimacy in marriage.”
I have the president of FamilyLife®, David Robbins, here with us. This week, as we’re encouraging listeners to attend a getaway, dealing with these kinds of important practical issues is a part of what the Weekend to Remember is all about.
David: Yes, the Weekend to Remember is a whole weekend that basically is a lot like the conversations we’ve been having with Dr. Ryken. Song of Solomon is one of those books that goes deep when it comes to spiritual intimacy, and emotional intimacy, and physical intimacy. It doesn’t dodge anything. That’s what I love about Weekends to Remember—is that you get a couple, face to face, often talking about things that you just have avoided. It’s not going to happen unless you prioritize it.
I want to challenge you—that if you haven’t been to a Weekend to Remember; or you’re in a season, where you go, “I need something to jolt and to jumpstart…”; or maybe you’re in a good season, but you want to get a great season in your marriage—the Weekend to Remember and setting time aside is an opportunity you have right now, this week, to take advantage of the half-price sale. There are locations all over the nation; you will not regret it.
Bob: Yes; go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, and sign up for a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. Save 50 percent off the regular registration fee. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call if you have any questions or if you’d like to register by phone: 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear about an acrobatic stunt that Dave and Ann Wilson attempted that went tragically wrong. It’s a great story, and it unpacks something about marriage that I think all of us can benefit from. We’ll share that story with you tomorrow. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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