Spoiler up front: For this week’s reading and half of next week’s reading, I’m not going to do chapter summaries. The readings in question come from Song of Solomon, and though some of the poetry of the book can be hard to understand, for the sake of our bulletin-reading children, I’d prefer to keep it that way!
As the above implies, I’m firmly of the opinion that Song of Solomon is about marital intimacy. However, as obvious as it seems to me, that’s not the only interpretation. Indeed, theologians have been arguing for centuries that the text is an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the church.
Oddly, this view is adopted by many of our hymns. The title phrase of “The Lily of the Valley” comes from Song of Solomon 2:1 (though in context, “the lily of the valley” is female). The same is true for “Jesus, Rose of Sharon”. Many hymns, chief among them “In Christ Alone,” cite “My beloved is mine, and I am his,” from 2:16. “You are altogether lovely,” in “Here I Am to Worship” is taken from 4:7. Few books of the Old Testament feature as prominently in our worship of Christ as Song of Solomon does!
However, the justification for such application is quite thin. For one thing, Song of Solomon is among the books of the Hebrew Bible that are never cited nor even alluded to in the New Testament. If Paul had said that Jesus was the lily of the valley, that would be one thing, but he didn’t.
Additionally, if the Song of Songs is intended as Christian allegory, it is an allegory that gets quite detailed in perplexing ways. For instance, breasts are mentioned frequently throughout the book, appearing eight times in eight chapters. No other book of the Bible is as concerned with breasts as Song of Solomon. If it is about the relationship between husband and wife, that makes perfect sense. However, if the wife of Song of Solomon is the church, I am at a loss to explain their significance.
From this, I think there are two lessons we should draw. As always, we should be concerned with how the hymns that we sing influence our thinking. If we adopt romantic, even sexual language from Song of Solomon and apply it to Christ, that’s likely to romanticize our view of Him in unbiblical ways. I don’t think that we should remove these hymns from the repertoire (especially not “In Christ Alone”!), but we should be aware that they are using Biblical imagery in ways that the Holy Spirit did not intend.
Second, we should not shy away from the true meaning of the book. It is meant to be a celebration of married sexuality, and married sexuality is something we should celebrate. Even though the capacity for intimacy can be corrupted and misused, it is still a gift of God, and like all of God’s other gifts, it is good. We should not allow Satan’s corruption of it to corrupt our understanding of it too.
Psalm 86 is an appeal to God for help. It begins by listing a number of reasons why God should intervene: because David is poor and needy, because he is godly, because he prays continually, and because God Himself is good and loving. David then shifts to praising the virtues of God: His willingness to answer prayer and His uniqueness among all other gods. He asks God to teach him His way and promises to praise Him for His deliverance. The psalm concludes by contrasting the wickedness of David’s enemies and God’s goodness. God should respond by blessing David and defeating them.
Psalm 87 is about the city of Jerusalem, founded on Mount Zion. God loves her and glorifies her. Indeed, just as it was meaningful to be a citizen of the great cities of the ancient world—Babylon, Tyre, and so on—it’s meaningful to be born in Zion because God remembers her citizens. Zion is so beautiful that she inspires those who praise her.
Psalm 88 is one of the darkest psalms in the psalter. The psalmist cries out to God continually and asks Him to bless him. His life is so bad that he’s practically dead, and he attributes his plight to the wrath of God. God has done this to him. He’s been abandoned by his friends, he’s so desolate that he can’t see, but God won’t help him.
The psalmist rhetorically asks God if He thinks he will praise him if he is dead. Do dead people even care about God anymore? Nonetheless, even though he prays all the time, God continues to hide His face. He’s miserable, he feels attacked by God, and all of his friend have vanished. The end.
Psalm 89 is nearly as gloomy. It begins on an optimistic note. The psalmist expresses his determination to praise God forever because He is faithful. Particularly, He has established a covenant with David. For this, he glorifies God as incomparable. He has defeated His enemies, and He reigns over the heavens and the earth. He is righteous, and His people rejoice in Him.
The psalmist then returns to the subject of David. God anointed him and promised to protect him from his enemies. In response, he was supposed to honor God. Similarly God would confirm his offspring on his throne forever, and even if those offspring sinned, God swore that He would not reject them completely. David’s descendants would endure forever.
However, now it seems like God has done the opposite. He appears to have rejected the descendants of David. Jerusalem has been conquered and looted. The enemies of Judah are happy. The king has been defeated and humbled by his foes. The psalmist asks how long God is going to allow this to continue? He urges Him to remember how frail and fleeting the lives of men are. He asks where God’s faithfulness is, and he urges Him to remember how God’s anointed is being mocked. Nonetheless, he continues to lift up God as blessed.
Proverbs 31 contains the wisdom of King Lemuel’s mother. She addresses two main topics. The first concerns the dangers of drinking alcohol. She warns him that alcohol isn’t for kings. It will destroy him and lead him to forget justice. If he wants to defend the rights of the poor and needy, he needs to abstain.
The rest of the chapter concerns the worthy woman. She is a trustworthy wife to her husband, works hard in providing for her household, cares for the needy and the members of her own family, and earns their praise.
Psalm 82 is addressed to the judges of the earth (called “gods” in 82:1 and 82:6 because they exercise the authority of God). It warns them that as they sit in judgment on others, God sits in judgment on them. He calls them to account for their failure to judge in favor of the weak and vulnerable. Because they have not judged wisely, God will strike them down, and they will die as other men do. The psalm concludes with an appeal to God to exercise this judgment.
Psalm 83 asks God for His help in battle. Many of the nations around Israel, from the Philistines to the Assyrians, have joined together and conspired against her. The psalmist appeals to God to defeat this alliance as He defeated the Midianites in the time of Gideon. He asks God to make them as impermanent as chaff and fire, so that they will be defeated and forced to acknowledge Him.
Psalm 84 is an expression of delight in God’s temple. The psalmist longs to be in the temple, and he compares being in the temple to a bird being in its nest. He belongs there, and he envies those who are always there. Similarly, the most blessed people are those who know how to travel to Zion, where the temple is. God will protect them.
Finally, the psalmist asks God to hear his prayers. Because of God’s presence and attention, a day in the temple is better than a thousand elsewhere, and dwelling in the temple is better than dwelling with the wicked. God will surely bless those who seek Him.
Psalm 85 is an appeal to God to restore His favor. It begins by pointing out His past kindness in bringing Israel back from captivity. Now, the psalmist asks God not to remain angry forever, but to show similar kindness to His people in their current trouble.
The psalmist then expresses his determination to wait for what God will do. He is confident that God will bring peace and bless the land. All sorts of virtues will come together there, the land will prosper, and God will dwell there.
Most of us don’t like causing controversy and stirring up trouble. However, some do. In Proverbs 25:21, Solomon warns, “As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.” To use a more modern metaphor, people like this are a spark to gunpowder. With seemingly little effort, they cause an explosion.
Certainly, Christians should not be quarrelsome. Especially in our dealings with brethren, but also in our dealings with everyone, we should seek to unite and reconcile. If that means keeping our lips clamped down on personal opinions that others find offensive, so be it! Romans 12:18 urges us to live peaceably with everyone so far as it is possible with us, and even if limiting our self-expression may not be pleasant, it is certainly possible.
Indeed, the only inflammatory views that Christians should express are those that come from the law of God. Like Paul, we are to declare the whole counsel of God, even knowing that it will prove divisive.
Too often, though, brethren shy away from proclaiming the gospel while freely expressing their provocative personal views on any number of topics. They get the Biblical pattern exactly backwards.
The sources of this problem are obvious. There are many in our society, of every political and philosophical persuasion imaginable, who do not honor the Bible’s teachings on the importance of peace. Instead, their goal in life is to stir up strife.
This is often quite calculated. They know that if they take a loud, obnoxious stand on some contentious issue, they will get lots of attention. Half the people will hear them, get infuriated, and start screaming back. The other half will hear them, applaud them for “telling it like it is”, and scream in the opposite direction.
Page views and video clicks skyrocket. Blood-pressure readings elevate. Our poor, divided country becomes even more divided, as suspicion of the other increases. People become more cynical, more embittered, less warm and loving.
Incalculable spiritual damage is done, but the instigators don’t care because they got money and attention out of the deal. Next week, they will try to do the same thing again and recklessly cause even more damage. Only God knows where it will end, but the outcome won’t be good.
As Christians, we need to be very, very suspicious of the professional disturbers of the peace. They want to manipulate us too. They want to use fear and anger to enroll us in their hateful little tribes. Even though it’s true that fear and anger leave no room in our hearts for the love of Christ, they’re not concerned about that.
We need to be concerned. Paul points out in Romans 13:8 that love is something we owe to everybody. To Christians, there is no “them”, other than the devil and his angels. We are on everybody’s side, even the side of the people who aren’t on our side. When we stop listening to Christ’s call to service and self-sacrifice, we become less than the disciples He wants us to be.
Watch out for the strife-kindlers. Watch out for the people who want us to look at others with anything less than love. When they provoke enmity in our hearts, it is not the work of God that they are doing. It’s the work of someone else.
Psalm 79 laments the destruction of Jerusalem. The psalmist begins by enumerating several woes: the temple has been defiled, the city has been ruined, its inhabitants have been slaughtered, and the survivors are being mocked by their neighbors. He asks God to reveal how long this horrible state will continue and encourages Him instead to punish the heathen kingdoms that are responsible for Jerusalem’s destruction.
The psalmist then implores God to forget their sins and rescue them for three reasons: because of the magnitude of their suffering, for the glory of His name, and to rebut the nations who doubt His power. He encourages God to hear the cries of the captives and punish Judah’s enemies instead so that they can glorify Him.
Psalm 80 expresses similar sentiments. It opens with an appeal to God to save His people. V. 3 contains a refrain that is repeated in vs. 7 and 19. In the second “verse”, the psalmist observes that God has made His people suffer, figuratively feeding them their tears.
The third “verse” (which is considerably longer than the others) begins by contrasting God’s past behavior to current conditions. He established Israel in Canaan like a vine in a vineyard, but now the vineyard wall has been broken down and Israel’s enemies are ravaging it. Then, the psalmist appeals to God to have compassion for His vine, and particularly for “the son of man”, who is probably the king. If God will rescue His people, they will praise Him.
Psalm 81 is a contrasting psalm of praise. It encourages God’s people to praise Him with various instruments during a feast day. Then, the psalmist looks back to the historical origins of that feast day. It stretches all the way back to God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt.
After this, the psalmist considers God’s words to His people at Meribah. In exchange for their rejection of idolatry, He promises to bless them. However, they ignored Him. God then laments their decision, because if they were to listen to Him, He would defend them from their enemies and feed them with the best food.