In spite of the difficulties of handling the text, the Song of Solomon was a frequently commented on, and frequently preached on, book of the Bible until fairly modern times. Recently, however, it has suffered from something of a neglect in pulpits, with those evangelical ministers brave enough to preach from it not quite sure how to handle it.
At one level it is not difficult to see why this should be so. The text of the Song of Solomon is evidently written around the theme of love. Even here, preachers and scholars have been divided over whether the love is between a woman and the King, or whether the king is in fact the villain who is keeping the woman in his harem and away from her true love.
Malcolm Maclean has no difficulty with this question. The love celebrated in the song is between the sovereign and the lady, whose affections he has won and drawn to himself.
Nor does he have difficulty with the next question. Once you have established the storyline behind the song, how do you get from there to Jesus? After all, evangelical preachers know that all Scripture is profitable only insofar as the written Word sheds light for us on the incarnate Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. So is the king in the Song a type of Jesus? Is this poem an allegory about Jesus? Or is it suggestive of Jesus just because it is in the Bible?
Malcolm Maclean is not too concerned to justify his devotional work on the Song by dealing with such technicalities of exegesis. His consistent aim is to use the text of the Song to elevate our thoughts about Jesus and to shed light on our relationship of love to him.
The strength of this spiritual element in Malcolm Maclean’s book more than compensates for the lack of a justification for his method and style. In fact, of the devotional works I have consulted on the Song, this work is among the most rich in its suggestive allusions and its preachable material.
Deep in feeling and wide in application, this book shows a preacher’s heart as well as a preacher’s art. It makes no apology for opening up the Song as a commentary on the intimacy that ought to characterise our walk with the Lord Jesus Christ. Some may find the application too stretched in places, but so be it. This is devotional literature in the best Puritan tradition, allowing the illustrations, colours and sounds of the Song to be opened up in the light of the wider Scripture.
So, for example, the king’s description of his lady has having doves’ eyes in Song 1:15 is opened up with reference to ways in which the Bible speaks about the dove (pp. 62-65); while the description of the lady as a garden in 4:12-15 is opened up with reference to the way the Bible describes the believer as a fruit-bearer (pp. 151-153). This way of handling the text is a lesson in the way Scripture ought to be used to illustrate Scripture.
While some may quibble with the application of some passages, there is no doubt that Malcolm Maclean is doing something quite brave here: he is taking a text of Scripture and unashamedly applying it to the realm of Christian experience. Increasingly, evangelical preaching has shied away from such activity, preferring to make the sermon equal to the sum of the meaning of the words.
But this book reminds us that there is more to Bible words than their meaning. Christ’s words are living; they are spirit and they are life. As such, they touch our souls and move our hearts. Royal Company reminds us that there are such things as religious affections, and is enthusiastic about stirring them up.
Towards the end of the book, Malcolm Maclean writes: ‘The Christian life can be described in many ways. It is a race, a fight, an ascent; it is also a romance in which the Beloved comes and visits the one he loves’ (p. 224). His book may not satisfy every student of the Song of Solomon, but as a devotional work on this wonderful book of the Bible, it will kindle afresh our desire for such visits of King Jesus to our souls. At once heart-warming and soul-stirring, it will also enable us to search our hearts and return to our first love.
Iain D Campbell