Bible, Song of Songs, Theology

Ready: Developing Affections in an Adulterous World


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“Listen! My beloved!
Look! Here he comes,
leaping across the mountains,
bounding over the hills.”

He’s leaping and bounding towards us. He’s coming over the horizon. He’s walking up the road. He’ll be here any moment. What do you do? Tidy the house? Hide?

Run out to meet him. And he says: Arise, come with me…

Whether you’d follow depends who is asking and what you were already doing, doesn’t it?

The one bounding and leaping and speaking is Jesus in Song of Songs 2v8. And He’s asking you to come with Him, to be yours and to be with you.

A Puritan Past (grab your journal or notebook)

Christianity was a love story, in which bridegroom Jesus beckons His church to come with him.

The Song of Songs is much neglected and yet for centuries has been the favourite place for the church to go to meet with Jesus.

In the 17th Century, Anne Hutchinson and her family had followed John Cotton from England to New England in pursuit of religious liberty, having been won to his ‘affectionate puritanism’ of The Song of Songs. Cotton emphasised holding “the gospel forth in the language of Calvin, who speaks of purity of life and growth in grace…” This was controversial, and pursuing Christ would lead Anne and her family to be exiled from their community.

(What might it cost me?)

The controversy came because of differing answers to questions like:

  • How do sinful people fight for faith in this world?
  • How do you live well in an adulterous world rather than just blending in?
  • How do you stick with God, and encourage others to do the same, when there seems to be every reason not to?

In their PhD studies historian Janice Knight, studying New England, and theologian Ron Frost, looking at the same era on the other side of the pond, identify two approaches and groupings.

On the one hand, the ‘Moralistic Puritans’ like Perkins and Ames, who with pastoral hearts, pursued the will and sought the outward conformity of believers. Muscular faith that tells you to shape up – stiff and austere and hard edged. Stereotypical Puritanism.

A Puritan Present

Not so for Anne Hutchinson. Hers was an ‘Affectionate Puritanism’, represented in England by the heavenly doctor Richard Sibbes and before him the honey-tongued Bernard of Clairvaux. For them the  emphasis was on the Spirit, the heart, and love of God. And Christianity was a love story, in which bridegroom Jesus beckons his church to come with him.

Sibbes and Bernard are known for the tenderness and sweetness of both content and tone in their preaching, especially of The Song of Songs. They read The Greatest Song as primarily concerning Christ and his church – leaving a legacy of over 100 sermons between them. Knight says they were “committed to a more emotional and even mystical theology stressing divine benevolence over power, emphasising the love of God.”

What Do I Do With This?

Choose to love his bride. To Jesus she is beautiful, clothed in his righteousness. Know Him with and through others, believing what He says about her more than what you see.

You have three options.

Firstly, do nothing. Bury your head in the sand.  But when the coming storm hits the house built there’s a story about what happens to houses built on sand.

Secondly, clamp down. Pursue separation, strict rules and standards like Perkins and co. This can look pious but there’s no power. All outward but no Spirit.

Thirdly: seek Christ. Study His word, with others, as Anne Hutchinson did, to be apprehended by the lovely and gracious Christ. We’re passionate lovers, and so is the Triune God. If you are to ‘live longing’ put yourself where Christ can be found.

Where Can I find Jesus today?

With His people. Choose to love his bride. To Jesus she is beautiful, clothed in his righteousness. Know him with and through others, believing what he says about her more than what you see.

At His table. Commune with him where he is present by his Spirit. Eat and drink with him. Know the intimacy of fellowship with him. In The Song the imagery moves with ease from table to bedroom. Don’t squeam at the language, it’s never salacious. Together the church is his bride, and he is affectionate for us.

In sight and sound of His word. Any page of the Bible will do to find Christ, but the Anne Hutchinson and her fellow puritans might especially direct us to The Song of Songs where we see Christ the faithful husband whose heart burns with unquenchable love, who poured himself out like perfume, whom the church longs for. Alone and with others, read, study and be preached to. Read not because you have to but read until you have more of him.

Smell His fragrance.
Taste His wine.
Hear His voice.
See Him coming.
Engage your senses with a full-bodied gospel.

A robust doctrine of Scripture tells us that knowledge of God requires such love poetry. Led by The Song, Bernard meditated on how salvation is not just to be forgiven, nor to have heaven, but above all having the crucified, self-giving Christ:

O sacred head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, your only crown.
O sacred Head, what glory,
what bliss till now was Thine!
Yet, though despised and gory,
I joy to call Thee mine.
(Translated from Bernard)

Christianity is Having the Coming Christ

What would stop you? Comfort? Better schools for your kids? Reputation? Count them as nothing compared to tasting the fine wine of His love, and beholding His beauty.

In The Song, says Robert Jenson, we find a call to “so limn* the beauty of God as to make hearers long for his presence.”

We must look until we see, listen until we hear…and then follow Him wherever he goes.

What would stop you? Comfort? Better schools for your kids? Reputation? Count them as nothing compared to tasting the fine wine of his love, and beholding his beauty.

The Song concludes: come away, make haste! Christ is the urgency of God, bounding toward us in his gospel with unquenchable love. The final page of The Good Book records, the Spirit and the bride crying out: come!

And, leaping and bounding, He is indeed coming.

*  limn: to depict, describe, illuminate.

** Further reading: Jesus the Bridegroom by Brant Pitre. Also “Google” Richard Sibbes and Mike Bickle for studies on Song of Solomon

_________________________________________________________________________

Dave Bish spent over a decade in student ministry with the UCCF and now serves as Associate Minister of Beeston Free Church in Nottingham.  You can follow Dave on Twitter and read his blog at The Blue Fish

(You can also find Dave’s own teaching on the Song of Solomon HERE)

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