The Song of Songs is one of those hidden treasures of the Bible that is more hidden than treasured in contemporary preaching and liturgy. Its explicit sensuality, its celebration of love in all its emotional fervour and poetic physicality, and its unmistakbable affirmation of love as the utter giving up of the self in deepest longing and passionate embrace, tend to mean that those committed to expository preaching give it a skilled body swerve.
That's a pity, however understandable. Some of the most lyrical writing, and spiritually perceptive devotional expression, and profound theological imagining has been produced by those in the Christian tradition who have studied and sung and prayed over this collection of Hebrew Love songs. From the mystical Bernard of Clairvaux and his eighty odd sermons on the first couple of chapters to the equally mystical if evangelical Charles Haddon Spurgeon's communion meditations, from the speculative and extravagant Origen to the restrained devotion of the 19th C. Lutheran Franz Delitzsch, from Samuel Rutherford the intense and volatile Scottish Puritan whose letters are marbled with the sensual imagery of the Song, to Marvin Pope whose Anchor Bible Commentary remains the vade mecum of previous interpretations, from such diverse directions in the tradition the Song of Songs has been a rich source of devotional and theological nourishment.
But no. It isn't necessarily the text to read out in church of a Sunday morning, either before or after the children leave. And yes, it is probably wise not to decide to do a long detailed series of expositions verse by verse - though that was done 30 odd years ago by the Rev Willie Still in Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen.
But still, this book about love and passion and longing is there, right in the middle of the Bible, and it won't go away. So what to do with it. Read it. Think about it. It has much to teach a culture saturated by overstated desire, tone deaf to tenderness and delicacy, suffering an ennui of the heart and losing the capacity for imaginative and winsome discourse (a recent article mercilessly mocked the crass opening chat up lines that now pass for respectful introduction and consideration for the other).
Alternatively, buy Patrick Hawes' beautiful arrangement of 6 songs on the Song of Songs. The soloist Elin Manahan Thomas has one of the clearest and sharpest voices I've heard. The CD is a really good example of exegesis by lyric and music, a genuine expansion and exposition of ideas that lie at the centre of the Song. These ideas give content and substance to those words we try to use when we speak of love, desire, longing, passion, anticipation and fulfilment, devotedness given and received, the move from fear to trust and therefore to that joy which, if never complete, at least finds its home in the mutual enjoyment of human togetherness.
The Song of Songs has been understood as an allegory of the love between Christ and the Church, between Christ and the soul, and between a man and a woman. That such rich resources to explore divine and human love lie in this earthy but sublime poetry is one of the great miracles of the canon of Scripture. I guess there are those who, if it were up to them, would have wanted it excluded for reasons of modesty. And the Holy Spirit thankfully thwarted them! So here it is, between Ecclesiastes with his probing mockery of faith that comes too easy, and Isaiah with his defiant imagination in face of exile and imperial power, daring to hope - and between them, Sage and Prophet, this love letter, this unabashed celebration of love, divine and human, love which in the human heart and in the heart of God is the foundation of existence and the meaning and purpose of life itself.