If It's New, It Probably Isn't True - A Response to C J Mahaney's Views on the Song of Solomon.
A smile crossed the speakers face as he uttered his next joke. With a clear and concise tone, his speaking flowed freely into the conference hall. He sighed with satisfaction. The message was going very well. This was some fine work. The audience were roaring with laughter and were obviously with him.
Okay so this is an unashamed perversion of C J Mahaney's opening paragraph to his book, but I hope the point is clear. The "Sex and the Supremacy of Christ" conference organised by Dr John Piper was always going to lift some eyebrows - and I am sure Dr Piper intended it so but it was something of a surprise that it came through a new and somewhat alternative view in the preaching of C J Mahaney. I have said previously that he is an excellent speaker and extremely popular the world over. I have yet to find someone who doesn't like him. He is famed for firstly his pronounced humour (he will have you weak in your seats), his proclaimed Reformed theology (he will astound you with Spurgeon-esque points in his sermon and astonish you with clear and relevant quotes from his heroes) and finally his passionate delivery (everything he says or utters is either shouted or wept over).
A Summary of What Mahaney Is Arguing.
His message to married men was called; "Sex, Romance and the Glory of God: What Every Christian Husband Needs to Know". It was essentially a summary of one of his small books published under the same title. He uses the Song of Solomon in his message, but here comes the concerning thing ... Mahaney does not believe in the historically honoured view that the Song of Solomon is primarily a picture of Christ and His Bride - the Church. He argues that it is primarily a book about sex. Not only does he not believe the historical view, but he seems to make fun of it in his comments - which draws the said laughter from the audience.
A Summary of What This Article Is Arguing.
There is a real sense of regret as I embark on this article. C H Spurgeon was surely right to describe controversy in the Song of Solomon as: "The invasion of the dove's nest of the Canticles with the eagle of debate". I have waited for some time for a clear and concise response to Mahaney's somewhat different views presented both in the conference but none seems forthcoming. Maybe Mahaney's excessive popularity has brought him theological immunity from being roasted in the world of exegesis. So therefore I am going to present an argument as to why I believe C J Mahaney is wrong, and it is vital that we see all aspects of the Bible, and all books as primarily concerning God and His Bride. I have no problem with Mahaney's desire to extract important truths from the Song of Solomon. His book and his message filled a much-needed void in our conservative world. Sex is a taboo subject and there is no better person I can imagine that Mahaney to fill it with humour and honesty. But I do believe it is dangerous to make the subtle switch that he has.
I am therefore going to argue from a logical approach, a historical approach, and a bibilical approach.
1. A Logical Approach.
Much of Mahaney's argument seems to be logically based. He does admit that by taking the view he is, he is going against the historical view, including that of his hero C H Spurgeon - but does not interact with their arguments. Rather he gives 5 reasons to buttress his views.
"i) Solomon's topic was obviously sex ... Just look at all the sensual and erotic language in the book! ... ii) The Bible never suggests that the Book isn't primarily about sex. iii) God's Relationship with Man is not sexual. iv) Spiritualising the book doesn't work ... Guy's I'm no scholar but I don't think so! ... v) We need instruction on sexuality".
Therefore I too have a number of logical points from the Song of Solomon which would seem maybe to conflict with Mahaney's view (or more disturbingly maybe don't).
i) The male figure in the Song of Solomon is a king (i.e 1:4).
Using Mahaney's form of apologetic, I would ask - where in the New Testament is the male in a married couple EVER likened to a king? Indeed he is instructed to lead his wife lovingly like Christ, and the wife is instructed to submit to him - but I do not see the male gender being awarded the type of royalty. The only use of royalty I see is in 1 Peter; "You are a Royal Priesthood" and I believe that to be applied to both men and women - the corporate church.
However if Mahaney (and by default SGM) do indeed see the Christian husband as some sort of royalty, then that would indeed have strong implications for their view of biblical manhood and womanhood but it would be a view (I would suggest) that is taking Dr's Piper and Grudem's views one step further as I have never seen the man referred to as a "king" in any of their books on this matter.
ii) The male figure in the Song of Solomon is wont to depart or arrive at his pleasure. (i.e 2:8, 3:11 and 5:6).
As I understand SGM's view of marriage, they believe in young couples getting married as soon as possible and then (I would hope) spending the rest of their lives together - including the compulsory date nights.
I find it somewhat disturbing therefore to entertain this literal image (if we accept Mahaney's argument) of a Christian husband who will sometimes disappear from his wife and his home allowing her to search through the city desperately looking for him ... and then also without warning to be seen coming back to the Christian wife bounding and leaping like a goat (2:8, 9). How would this be explained? If we are consistent with Mahaney's exegesis then it cannot be symbolised as the man's "emotions" or "spirituality" or any such subjective argument. No - if the book of Song of Solomon is literal, then we see a man who is prone to leave his wife (with his door handle dripping with eau de toilette?) and may also arrive back unannounced.
iii) The female is sometimes referred to a "sister". (4:9, 10 and 5:1).
Let me remind you that I am using C J Mahaney's form of apologetic at the moment - examining the whole of the Song of Solomon as a literal book primarily designed to talk about sex. Why then does the author refer to his bride as his sister? Being a single man, I am not privy to the pet-names married couples may have for each other, so in writing this article I conducted a mini-survey. I have yet to find a Christian man who would advocate calling his wife - his sister.
I do not need to elaborate at the even more disturbing connotations, unless we are soon to read an SGM blog that advocates referring to one's wife as one's sister.
iv) Both the female (4:1-5) and the male (5:10-15) are described in supernaturally beautiful poetic language.
Mahaney does actually deal with these passages in his address to the conference, therefore this is the point of logic I have the least problem with. He argues that they demonstrate "serious creativity" and "creative compliments". Now it may be that the marriages within SGM in the USA do indeed demonstrate this kind of flowery poetic desciptions and I do appreciate that Mahaney in his view is attempting to re-address a balance. What Mahaney wants from his hearers is this: "You should definately follow the example given to us in the Song - by carefully composing words of a romantic and erotically suggestive nature that will express your love for her".
But at the risk of being lynched by the supposed wives who are longing for this sort of poetic language, I would question whether this really is what is intended by God and His Spirit in including this in the canon of Scripture. Are we not told that true beauty lies within? I have no doubt that Mahaney is an extremely verbally proficient gentleman (and how blessed his wife is for that) but I am deeply concerned that he, by default, is placing many men under condemnation who do not have the same verbal talent. Does the fact that some men cannot express their deepest feelings in accurate and poetic language really REALLY mean that they love their wives any the less than Mahaney and the SGM husbands who can?
To finish and again use his argument, I see no New Testament argument of this nature. Once again Song of Solomon stands alone. Husbands are told - indeed commanded - to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. How did Christ love the Church? Not by primarily expressing His love for her in poetic Song of Solomon-esque language, but by dying for her. I would argue that some husbands can and do demonstrate their Christ-like love for their wives by the other following possible ways:
a) Working 9 till 5 every day of the week to bring home a wage to support her.
b) Buying her an almond croissant because he remembers that it is her favourite.
c) Babysitting the children so his wife can have a night off.
d) Getting up in the night to feed the baby even though he knows he has to be up in a few hours for work.
e) Paying and sorting every bill possible to she does not have to worry about the money.
And so on and so on. My point is - does true love really ultimately have to be verbal? I am not trying to discredit the power of the spoken word but it must be acknowledged that indeed "Words are Cheap" unless they are backed up by action. I read in my New Testament that some people who said "Lord, Lord" will be sent to hell because their words were not backed up by actions.
v) And finally ... What about the rest of the Old Testament?
I am particularly interested in the apologetic that gives Mahaney the right to use the Song of Solomon literally. Again - my desire is for consistency therefore my interest is in the book of Leviticus. I have absolutely no doubt that one verse Mahaney would take literally (just like the Song of Solomon) is Leviticus 20:13.
What about for example Leviticus chapters 12, 13 and 14? In particular chapter 14:33-57?
Okay so again my tongue is in my proverbial cheek but my point is - what gives us the right to decide what is to be taken literally in the Old Testament and what is not? Mahaney argues that the Song of Solomon can be taken literally because it is not mentioned in the New Testament. I fail to see the chapters I have just mentioned in the New Testament either, other than the mention of the Lord saying that He did not come to do away with the law, but fulfill it.
2. A Historical Approach.
I have already noted, as did Mahaney, that in this view he is advocating - he is going against much of the greats of church history. I have therefore collated a summary of my findings as to what most great writers say of the Song of Solomon. We will then weigh their views against Mahaney's and compare and contrast.
"This is spoken in the person of the Church, or of the faithful soul inflamed with the desire of Christ, whom she loves". (from the Geneva 1599 Bible Notes)
"It treats of Christ and his Church, in their most glorious, lively, and lovely actions, to wit, his care of, and his love unto his Church, and that in its most eminent degree; and also, of her love to him". - James Durham (1622 Puritan) who incidentally C H Spurgeon described as "that master of masters".
On Song of Solomon 2:1 - "If these are the words of the Well-beloved,—and I have no doubt that they are,—then it may be suggested by some that here we have the Savior praising himself; and it is true; but in no unworthy sense, for well may he praise himself since no one else can do it as it should be done". - C H Spurgeon.
"It may more easily be taken in a spiritual sense by the Christian church, because the condescensions and communications of divine love appear more rich and free under the gospel than they did under the law, and the communion between heaven and earth more familiar. God sometimes spoke of himself as the husband of the Jewish church (Isa. lxiv. 5, Hos. ii. 16, 19), and rejoiced in it as his bride, Isa. lxii. 4, 5. But more frequently is Christ represented as the bridegroom of his church (Matt. xxv. 1; Rom. vii. 4; 2 Cor. xi. 2; Eph. v. 32), and the church as the bride, the Lamb's wife, Rev. xix. 7; xxi. 2, 9. Pursuant to this metaphor Christ and the church in general, Christ and particular believers, are here discoursing with abundance of mutual esteem and endearment", - Matthew Henry.
3. A Biblical Approach.
It would be ill to fill up the space in this article with quote after quote (of which there are abundance). I have taken the controversial step of suggesting that Mahaney is not arguing from a truly biblical position, but rather from one that seems to fit the aim of what he is attempting to argue (which, I might add is not a bad thing - I have no particular problem with that). Therefore we must look at the Song of Solomon and ask why is it in the canon of Scripture and what is the chief aim for us to learn from it? I do not even need to suggest that this article will biblically expound the entire book - there are plenty of commentaries to do that. However I want to pick up on a number of sections of the book that Mahaney seems to have forgone to explain.
Here are some of my suggestions as to what the Song of Solomon teaches us.
a) The King Loves His Bride Enough to Come To Her.
(2:8-13) "Listen! My lover! Look! Here He comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills ... My lover spoke and said to me; "Arise my darling, my beautiful one and come with me".
If we were to adopt Mahaney's view of the Song of Solomon, how would he interpret this beautiful passage of the book? Would he argue that it is the wedding day of a couple? And the bridegroom was to arrive at the church "leaping and bounding?" maybe?
No rather this seems to speak of that great truth that the active Presence of God is apt to wont and wane at His divine will. Matthew Henry applies it even more directly and literally in a manner that one might think Mahaney would approve of - he applies it to the coming of Christ. While I am sure this is one most appropriate way of understanding the passage, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones also see this text as demonstrating the Spirit coming (as He does throughout church history) in revival to His church.
b) The King Loves His Bride Enough to Hide From Her.
(3:1-5) "On my bed night after night I sought him whom my soul loves, I sought him but did not find him ... I must seek him whom my soul loves ... when I have found him whom my soul loves I held onto him and would not let him go".
I cannot quite understand how this vital section of the Song of Solomon would fit into Mahaney's literal interpretation of the book, unless he would argue that this is describing a Christian wife before she has found her husband to be. But if that were the case, then why does she consult watchmen to find him?
No, rather this seems most powerfully to speak of God's right to at times "Hide His Face". One of the best books I have read on this subject comes, ironically from conference organiser Dr John Piper. It is the second volume in his series of biographies and it is entitled: "The Hidden Smile of God". Piper's thesis is that the "swans sing most sweetly when they suffer". It is unarguable that as believers our faith grows when He is not most evident. Once again I would argue that this text speaks of how the Song of Solomon should primarily be applied to Christ and His church - and not, as Mahaney has tried to argue, primarily about "sex".
c) The King Loves His Bride Enough to Invite Her Away.
(2:10, 11) "Arise my darling, my beautiful one and come along. For behold the winter is past, the rain is over and gone ... Arise and come along!".
I would guess that once again Mahaney would have to argue that this is the Christian on his wedding day? And that winter signifies becoming single? I fail to see how else and where else in Christian marriage, a husband would speak thus so to his wife.
This touches on another more pragmatic concern of mine with C J Mahaney's argument. If his argument is correct and this book is primarily about "sex" then the Song of Solomon has no use for single people. We may as well cut it out of our Bibles because we are clearly in the "winter" of life. That seems a little unusual particularly as the apostle Paul argues that; "I say to the unmarried ... that it is good for them if they remain even as I, but if they do not have self-control, let them marry". It does not seem as if the apostle sees the state of being single as "winter".
As to the biblical meaning of this text, Matthew Henry writes; "Whatever opposition is given at any time to the deliverance of God's church, Christ will break through it, will get over it ... She remembers what her beloved said to her for it had made a very pleasing and powerful impression upon her ... He called her his love and his fair one. Whatever she is to others, she is acceptable and in His eyes she is amiable ... He called her to rise and come away. The repetition denotes backwardness in her (we have need to be often called away with Jesus Christ) but it denotes earnestness on His part. He gave for a reason the return of the spring ... Now this description of the returning spring, as a reason for the coming away with Christ is applicable. To the introducing of the gospel in the room of the OT dispensation during which it had been winter time with the church. Christ's gospel warms that which was cold".
As per many of the great Reformers and Puritans, Henry (and indeed C H Spurgeon) saw Christ in all of the Old Testament, and the same is true here in the Song of Solomon. The coming of Christ in the Incarnation brings a warmth to the cold of the OT dispensation, and indeed no obstacle will stand in His way. "Every mountain shall be laid plain".
In Conclusion ...
Let me repeat that I am fully supportive of Mahaney's argument in his sermon. He brings a prophetic element that is greatly needed in Christian marriage (just as his obsession with preaching the Cross also brings a much needed element in evangelicalism today). Many Christian husbands will benefit from hearing this sermon and indeed reading his book. However I do not see how it can be justified arguing that the Song of Solomon applies soley to Christian husbands and wives and is primarily about sex. This seems to reflect isogesis rather than Mahaney's usual famed exegesis of Scripture. Furthermore I do not see why it is actually necessary to argue as he does. His message is quite strong enough and will earn himself an audience without this method of interpreting the Song of Solomon.
I do not believe that historical views should be held for history's sake per se. We should always be open to new views and suggestions on how best to interpret and understand and live the Word of God, but here I must stand strongly with the greats of church history. It seems to me that God gains far more glory and far more praise if in this spectacularly special book we see Christ and His glorious Bride BEFORE we make any other doctrines out of this book.
Let me close with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones' view of the Song of Solomon ...
"The Song of Solomon is undoubtedly a picture and a prophecy of the relationship between Christ and his church. Written in a poetic, dramatic form, it is a perfect representation of the church as the bride of Christ. This is a New Testament term but the Song of Solomon sees it long before it came to pass. This is how Solomon describes God's overflowing love: 'He brought me to the banqueting house. . .' and that is where he always brings us. It is not to some kind of 'soup kitchen', or to some temporary place where we can be given just a little food to keep us from starvation. No, no! It is a 'banqueting house'! . . . and his banner over me was love. Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of [sick with, faint with] love' (Song of Solomon 2:4-5). There is so much love that it is almost overwhelming me" - from his book, "A Superabundance of Blessing".
If we truly grasp this, then the entire church of God (not just dependents on marital status) can appreciate, enjoy and bask in the Song of Solomon and all grow from it and in it, in deeper love with our glorious Bridegroom.
Appendix - Friday 6th January.
I had an excellent comment on this article made by a trusted blogging pastor's wife friend of mine. Seeing as she is a woman I have taken her comments extremely seriously and to heart. She wondered what the Jewish scholarly opinion on this was, so I conducted some research and here's a view quotes that I found. Hope this helps Jul!
1. Rabbi Akiba upheld its divine inspiration using allegorical interpretation as a means to justify its spiritual value.
2. Another quote from the same source: "Jewish scholars have interpreted the book as God's love for Israel".
3. An excellent quote from Prof. Yehuda Feliks (who is a Botany teacher at Bar Ilan University in Israel as well as a Biblical and Talmudic scholar). It's a bit of a lengthy quote but bear with him because it's important. He says:
"Some men and women reading through the Song of Solomon find it erotic and sensually stimulating. It seems to me this is because of the projection of our own hearts onto the text. As we grow pure in heart in our relationship with the Lord Jesus we have less to project onto the book from our own unconscious unresolved issues. Some Jewish rabbis down through the ages have recommended that the book not be read by anyone under thirty years of age. The Song does produce highly subjective reactions in most readers. These reactions usually change over time indicating that the Song is a fully inspired part of God's Word. Like the rest of the Bible Canticles has life-transforming, redemptive power behind it. The Song mirrors back to the reader his or her own spiritual and emotional level of growth and maturity at all stages of life. No reputable scholar considers Song of Solomon to be erotic literature. It is a love story and there is a clear progression both of self-understanding of the lovers, and in their relationship as the story unfolds". Phew!
5. Rabbi Rashi wrote an online commentary for the Song of Solomon that is well worth checking out for a Jewish scholarly approach to the book. Here's a quote:
"It is a song that is above all songs, which was recited to the Holy One, blessed be He, by His congregation and His people, the congregation of Israel. Rabbi Akiva said: The world was never as worthy as on the day that the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, whereas the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy".
In Conclusion - the Jewish View. It seems that scholars see the book as primarily applying to God and Israel. I guess this would make sense due to the fact that most conservative scholars would not recognise the validity of the New Covenant, but not once did I find any of them interacting with the possibility that this book was written for a Jewish husband and wife as a manual for sex and romance.