Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you! Take me away with you – let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers. Song of Songs 1:2-4
I was lent a book recently and asked what I thought of it. It’s not as if I’m any sort of expert, of course, but, being a minister, I think it was felt that I might have a “professional” opinion. It was in effect a small commentary on the Old Testament “Song of Songs”.
Well, that’s fair enough, I thought. The Song is famous for its difficulty and I’m always keen to learn. Then I noticed the subtitle: “A Devotional Study of some Portraits of Christ in the Song of Solomon”. I thought, “Hang on a minute! – portraits of Christ? Surely not! How can Christ be found in The Song?” It’s hard to follow the thread of the story as it is, but it reads very like a love poem – starting with a young woman longing to be kissed by her lover, and to be “taken away” by him “into his chambers”.
I knew that such interpretations of this book were quite common a hundred or so years ago, but I had no idea that there were people today who still propose them.
I’m sure the author is a delightful Christian man and, glancing through his book, there’s no doubt he has succeeded in culling together all sorts of truths and lessons about Jesus.
But the question can’t be avoided: do those truths and lessons lie naturally on the surface of the text, or are they – if I may use a blunt word – in fact foisted on it? Putting the question another way: Is the book meant to be interpreted in this way? Is it really about Jesus?
Reading the blurb on the cover, I came across what I suspected was a give-away sign: the author’s aim, apparently, was to discover “Christ in all the scriptures”. This is an expression we find in the story of the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:27). The risen Jesus, the mysterious stranger, explains to his companions on the road how the words of Old Testament scripture point towards him.
I’m sure all Christians will gladly accept that: the Old Testament scriptures, as a whole, do indeed lead up to Christ; and the New Testament scriptures lead on from him. But… and this is the big “but” – does that mean that every single verse of the Bible is about Jesus? Including the Song of Songs? Surely not!
I started this blog with some words from the Song of Songs; but that’s not really what I’m concerned about. Really, it’s about the much bigger picture of Bible interpretation as a whole. When we hold the Bible we have in our hands a whole library of books, some long, some short, some straightforward, some mysterious, some factual, some poetic, some simple, some complex. And the key is to read them according to their kinds, recognising that the Bible is humanly written as well as divinely inspired.
Read the New Testament letters the same way you read Kings and Chronicles and you are going to come unstuck. Read the psalms the same way you read the book of Revelation, and likewise… You wouldn’t read a thriller the same way you read a car maintenance manual because, while they’re both books, that’s pretty much all you can say. And it’s no different with the books of the Bible.
I’ve used the Song of Songs as an extreme example of how fine Christian people can get, as I believe, into a muddle because they are determined to find certain things in a text, even though those certain things simply aren’t there. I may be wrong, that goes without saying. But once an interpreter starts forcing an unnatural meaning onto a text, I think we’re wise to be a bit suspicious.
Here’s a simpler example…
I can’t remember when I first really noticed Psalm 1, but I expect it was before I was twenty (I became a Christian at fifteen). It’s been a favourite ever since: short, easy to understand, and with that lovely picture of “the tree planted by streams of water” and “yielding its fruit in season”.
I was talking to a friend about it, and commented how glad I was that in the first line of the NIV Bible the “man” who walks in step with God has become the “one” who does so, thus allowing it to be a woman as well as a man. (The word “man”, after all, can mean “a member of the human race”, male or female, not a male as opposed to a female.)
But my friend was unconvinced. He felt that the word “man” should have been kept, “because, of course, it’s really about Jesus”.
At first I thought I hadn’t heard him right. I had been a Christian some sixty years, and I had always taken that little psalm at face value – as a pen-portrait of a “righteous” person. To be told that it was “really” about Jesus seemed well-nigh incredible.
The lesson learned? When we read the Bible, let’s read what is there – not what we think ought to be there, or what we would like to be there, or what some impressive preacher or teacher tells us is there. The natural interpretation is likely to be the right one.
Putting it another way… When we read the Bible, our business is to read out of it what’s there, not to read into it what isn’t.
Father, I thank you that you that your word is often so beautifully simple and clear. But I have to confess that often I find it difficult to understand, and even obscure. Please help me to read it right, to find and make use of skilled teachers and interpreters, and so to live in the light of its truth day by day. Amen.