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If you followed the links in my previous post you may have been (I hope you were) shocked by some of the ways the Song has been interpreted. I was not precisely shocked, but then I’ve read more commentaries on the Song in the last few years than most people. I’ve seen all the things that MacArthur refers to, and then some. There are books and articles on the Song that really should be kept on the top shelf and given an adult content warning. MacArthur quite rightly quotes Tremper Longman on this, pointing out that these interpretations (at least as much as any allegorical interpretation) tell us more about the interpreter’s mind than they do about the Song. And biblical interpreters sometimes have minds as dirty as you may care to imagine.
I was, however, shocked that these kinds of things were being preached from the pulpit of a well-known reformed, evangelical church. And I was more than a little surprised that I hadn’t heard any reaction to this sermon series (preached last summer) before this. I know that several of my friends regularly listen to podcasts of sermons from this church (in fact someone sent me the link to the webpage for the series before it came out. I didn’t listen because I thought I knew what the sermons were going to say. And they don’t seem to be available online any more.) Did anyone listen to these? Were there no alarm bells ringing?
A sermon is not a stand-up routine. It ought not to conform to the standards of this world. No matter what the subject, a preacher ought not to blaspheme or to titillate. Where preachers use humour, they must be doubly careful to ensure that they do not dishonour the Lord whom they are representing for the sake of a cheap laugh. The more I think about this, the more sickened I feel.
A helpful antidote may be found here in a quote from Jim Packer’s essay on Charles Simeon’s preaching. Now, there’s a model to emulate.
John MacArthur has an excellent series of posts on the hows and how nots of preaching the Song:
The Rape of Solomon’s Song Part 1 addresses the problem of the Song being used both as a descriptive and, even more frighteningly, as a prescriptive sexual text.
Part 2 points out that just as the Song is deliberately euphemistic so preaching of the Song should avoid frankly erotic and pornographic content.
In Part 3, while denying the validity of the allegorical method of interpretation, MacArthur points out that the ‘literal’ approach can have its problems too. This post deals with a particularly offensive, and I would say downright blasphemous, “joke” that has been used to illustrate the problem with using a sexual analogy for the relationship between Christ and the church. It’s blasphemous because, as MacArthur observes, even if you don’t think the analogy is there in the Song, it’s certainly there in other parts of Scripture.
Part 4 is a question and answer session dealing with some of the issues raised by the earlier posts.
The counterexamples MacArthur uses are really shocking, both because of their content and their source. Because of this, this discussion is about propriety and purity in preaching at least as much as it is a discussion about the interpretation and application of the Song. There are some comments on MacArthur’s own blog, but the discussion at Tim Challies’ blog is also worth checking out.
Challies raises some interesting questions about the nature of poetry (and especially the lyric poetry of the Song) and preaching:
So here is what I am wondering. Don’t we do damage to the Song of Solomon when we seek to interpret and explain every line? To use an old cliche, don’t we miss the forest for the trees? Isn’t it better to leave some mystery in the Song, understanding themes but ultimately finding satisfaction not in drawing a one-to-one comparison between metaphor and act, poetry and body part, but rather in seeing it as one man’s attempt at expressing the joy, the wonder and the mystery of sex and sexuality? Isn’t the very reason he had to use poetry was that prose just couldn’t express the wonder? The beauty and the mystery of the Song go hand-in-hand. To remove one is to remove the other.
I think that what Challies is grasping for when he talks about ‘leaving some mystery’ is the very nature of poetic communication – ambiguity, multivalency, layer upon layer of meaning and resonance. A poem can’t be ‘explained’, it can only be experienced and expressed. Now there’s a challenge for you preachers.
Over the last few weeks I’ve sat through a number of sermons and bible talks in very different settings. As far as I can remember, these have begun in the following ways:
A confused (and inaccurate) explanation of the Large Hadron Collider;
A moving story about a persecuted pastor in China;
A lengthy (ten minutes at least) and detailed explanation of the pension provisions within the Free Church of Scotland;
A series of utterly banal comments about the Queen;
Four or five stories about lies, birthday parties and balloons.
In each case, we’d already had the bible passage read. So, although some of these introductions were relevant to the sermon (and others less so), all of them took us away from the bible at the start of the talk. And in some cases, it was a very long way round to get back to the bible. When David Fletcher used to preach at St Ebbe’s he would begin every sermon by reading out one key verse from the passage. You’d know from that what the sermon was about. It was about what the bible said and that’s why you kept listening.
When I’m listening to a sermon, I’m listening because I want to hear God’s word preached. I’m not there to learn about CERN, or pension schemes. I’m certainly not interested in tedious remarks about your child’s birthday party or what you think it might be like to be the Queen. You don’t need to find a hook – the hook is the bible you hold in your hand. This is God’s word you’re preaching to your congregation. That should be what they’ve come to hear, not your feeble attempt at a stand-up routine.
So, here’s my top tip for preachers for this week: start with the bible. Make it easy for yourself – don’t start somewhere else and then find your way back to the text. Just start with the text. It’s been read, the people are looking it – so don’t distract them from it! It seems to me that a lot of preachers have got into the habit of apologising for their sermon even as they’re preaching. I bet you’ve heard it too: ‘Don’t worry, my next point is much shorter’; ‘Listen up, we’re getting to the end now.’ If even the pastor seems to think that sermons are too long and too dull for anyone to listen to, then of course their congregation will be bored. But if you are excited by the text you’re preaching, and you’re convinced there’s nothing more important for the people to be doing than hearing your sermon, then they’ll have a different attitude as well. You have to set that example and teach them (and teach yourself first if need be) that it’s right to come to church wanting to hear God’s word.
I’m not saying you should deliberately make your sermons dull. But I am saying that you should make sure that it is the content and substance of your sermon that captures the hearts and minds of your congregation, not the presentation.