A Book Review from Books at a Glance
By Brandon D. Myers
It has been pointed out that Song of Songs is a difficult book to interpret (if not the most difficult!) which could explain the relative neglect of the book in the pulpit of our churches. However, in recent years there have been a number of helpful books on the Song of Songs from an evangelical perspective (see this Themelios review of books by First (Old) Testament Scholars Iain Duguid and James Hamilton).
Philip Ryken’s new book is a welcome addition. Ryken is currently the eighth president of Wheaton College. Prior to this he was a pastor at the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for 15 years. Ryken is one of the best writers of pastoral expository commentaries in our day and is a great gift to the church of the Lord Jesus. Along with his outstanding expository commentaries on Exodus, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 1 Timothy, and Galatians, he has authored a host of other pastorally wise works. Ryken writes in an engaging style pulling from great works of fiction and nonfiction literature for apt illustrations and he is clearly very mindful of the sorrows and sufferings of many saints from past experience. The book emerged out of Ryken’s sermons and is laced with weighty illustrations that drive readers further to the Lord and to a deeper understanding of His Word and themselves.
The Love of Love in the Song of Songs is a short book laid out in seven easy to follow chapters. The ESV text of the Song of Solomon (no chapters or verses) opens each chapter (see Crossway’s generously long sample here). There is also an engaging prologue and pastoral epilogue and the book comes with a 21 page discussion guide making it an ideal choice for a church small group study (163-184).
In the prologue, Ryken admits, “most books are easier to write about than Song of Songs” due to questions of how to connect the book to King Solomon and the unashamed free talk about human sexuality (12). Ryken states “Our culture needs this book. As a college president, I often hear students as for more guidance in understanding human sexuality” (14). For Ryken the Song of Songs is part of the remarkable story of God’s faithfulness to us supremely seen in Jesus. “This undeserved romance is the ultimate reality” (24).
Chapter 1 (“You’re the One That I Want” Song 1:1-14) helpfully describes weddings in ancient Israel while briefly addressing Solomonic authorship and the nature of love songs which Ryken refers to as “really poems set to music” (31). He engages with the text of scripture that references the woman’s desire, the woman’s hesitation and the man’s affirmation and concludes with a discussion of “The Mystery of Spiritual Matrimony” which points to the Bible which “repeatedly uses marital imagery to describe God’s love relationship with his people” (40).
In chapter 2 (“Underneath the Apple Tree” Song 1:15-2:7), Ryken opens by presenting probing spiritual questions and an analysis that demands each reader assess their health and relationship with the Lord (43-46). He then moves to analyze the vivid interchange between the lovers in Song of Songs 1:15-2:7, weaving in helpful practical comments for how Christian men and women can strengthen their romantic relationship with one another. Ryken gives helpful warnings of the power and potential destructive devastation illicit sexual desires can bring. He closes with a powerful call to reconnect a passion for sexuality purity to our spirituality stating “If we do not answer God’s call to sexual purity, the gospel will not penetrate this area [inner spiritual identity] of our lives” (58).
Chapter 3: (“I’m for You, and You’re for Me” Song 2:8-3:5) Ryken smoothly transitions back and forth between the big picture of God’s mercy and love for us as his people and the immediate detailed narrative in the Song of Songs. This chapter focuses on protecting love’s vineyard and is teeming with pastoral wisdom drawn from the text.
Chapter 4 (“Royal Wedding” Song 3:6-5:1) Ryken wades honesty through vivid imagery that can tend to disorient contemporary believers. He helpfully expands on the vital Hebrew and Christian views of the body and earthly pleasure properly exercised (in this case sex in biblical marriage) as being wonderful gifts from God. Ryken notes the word “bride” appears in 4:8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 and at the beginning of chapter 5, “demonstrating beyond all doubt that the Song of Songs is a wedding song” (88-89) and closes with a reminder that “the Bible gives us the picture of a perfect marriage to awaken our sense of longing for him. This is true for all of us, whether we are married or single” (95).
Chapter 5 (“Lovers’ Quarrel” Song 5:2-6:3) is a masterful walk through the text explaining the dramatic scenario inviting readers to consider and deal with their own rejections, hurts, fears, and anger. Ryken helpfully pauses to lament the terrible evil and abuse that many women have similarly experienced in light of Song of Solomon 5:7,and concludes the chapter important explanations that “every truly happy marriage has both romance and friendship” (106-110) and a powerful personal story of when his wife showed him undeserved love tying it back to God’s great love for us in Christ.
Chapter 6 (“The Duet after the Fight” Song 6:4-8:4) is an exposition of the groom’s response and the couple’s reconciliation. Ryken comes back to his view that the book is an album of love songs about a man and woman who fall in love and get married and need to work at their relationship and that this also teaches us about Christ and the church (122). The album of love songs focuses not merely on literal descriptions of physical makeup but focuses on “deeper connections” and a celebration of “beauty that is more than skin deep” (126). Ryken draws out many practical examples of these deeper connections that will strengthen each reader’s marital relationship through pointed text-driven comments about sharing, friendship, companionship and fruitfulness.
Chapter 7 (“Forever Yours” Song 8:5-14) opens with an inspirational illustration of theologian B.B. Warfield’s committed love for his wife (134-135) followed by a focus on themes found in the final chapter in the Song of Song’s (such as: love’s power— comparison to death, unquenchable, love’s cost—it is not a commodity). Ryken continues to emphasize the importance of protecting our sexual purity (138-143), exhorting all Christians to help one another stay out of trouble sexually (144) and closes with a comparison again between Christ and the church (“Jesus Christ is worthy of our every desire, because his love is everything we see in the Song of Songs and more” (147-148) ).
This book is not burdensome or technical but a delightful soul-nourishing read. However, for being such a quick read I would not want to give readers the impression it is sloppy or overly-simplistic–Ryken engages in exegetical analysis and presents common scholarly interpretations, commenting even where he may differ. I highly recommend the book to pastors who lack the confidence of preaching this book. It is a wonderful example of how to preach and teach a difficult book for God’s glory and in a wise accessible manner. I also recommend this book to scholars, not necessarily because it makes original, technical contributions, but as a model for how to take deep reflective thoughts about a rich book in God’s Word and make them accessible and digestible to the larger church. Ryken does not sacrifice depth or fall prey to a pure pragmatism. More broadly I cannot more highly and heartily recommend this book to every Christian believer. Whether you are a late elementary school student, a young adult, in your middle years or later years read this book and you will be both challenged and encouraged. We need to reclaim the rich, biblical and beautiful view of relationships, marriage, romance and sex and this book is an excellent contribution to helping us retrieve just that. As D.A. Carson used to tell us in seminary, “sell your shirt to buy the book!”
With this book, Crossway provides a substantive (42 page!) sample excerpt and a Download Media Pack (look at the very bottom) with some key quotes and Vimeo video links. As is often the case the good folks over at Westminster Theological Seminary Books offer the book for cheaper and provide a number of helpful sample pages to give you a taste for this little book. Over at The Gospel Coalition, Nancy Guthrie interviewed Dr. Ryken on Teaching Song of Solomon which is also a helpful resource.
The Bible Project’s short introductory video on the Song of Songs gives helpful background and a few years ago Douglas Sean O’Donnell wrote a really helpful article, “The Earth is Crammed with Heaven: Four Guideposts to Reading and Teaching the Song of Songs.”
Brandon D. Myers serves as pastor of First Baptist Church of Niles (IL).
Buy the books
THE LOVE OF LOVES IN THE SONG OF SONGS, by Philip G. Ryken