Julian Hardyman: speaking of Jesus as lover, suitor, boyfriend, husband is neither new nor eccentric

en speaks to Julian Hardyman, Senior Pastor at Eden Baptist Church, Cambridge, about his most recent book on the Song of Songs.

en: Julian, tell us about your new book…

Julian: In Scripture we find all sorts of metaphors for how God relates to us in love. Two are borrowed from the closest human relationships – that God is our Father, and that Jesus is our bridegroom-husband. The former – adoption, sonship, etc. – has been very well explored and many Christians find it central to their experience of faith that God has become their Father, and rightly so. The second metaphor is comparatively much less well understood and enjoyed. I wanted to help people enjoy this Biblical teaching about Christ much more fully – that He is like a suitor, a fiancé and a husband for His people, collectively and individually.

I was pleased to find the title in the first line of a well-known hymn (with a couple of modern adaptations too): Jesus, lover of my soul. The key word is probably ‘lover’ which in English means more than ‘someone who loves’; it refers to a romantic and sexual involvement. So the phrase addresses the Lord Jesus as one who is like a lover, a suitor, a boyfriend, a husband, etc., in spiritual relation to each of us. The phrase ‘my soul’ adds to the sense that this is a metaphor, a picture, and a symbol. The fact that the hymn is well known helps us realise this is neither new nor eccentric.

en: What made you want to write about the Song of Songs in the first place?

Julian: I preached a series of sermons on the Song which treated the human and the spiritual dimensions of the Song pretty much evenly. I felt that the spiritual dimension was the least familiar to people and seemed to have been very helpful both to me and others. So it seemed that a book that majored on the spiritual dimension was worth a go, especially as this dimension has been neglected (or treated rather tentatively) in much more recent evangelical preaching and writing.

en: Some people of course emphasise an allegorical interpretation of the book, about Christ and the church, whereas more recently perhaps it has been seen more simply as love poetry. What approach does your book adopt, and why?

Julian: I am convinced that we are intended to read the Song of Songs and draw out both the human and the spiritual dimensions for ourselves. Older Christian writers (going back 1600 years or more) shied away from the raw desire and physicality of the poetry. They tended anyway to be suspicious about human sexuality (even within marriage). They majored on the Song as a picture of Christ and the church, developing rather fanciful allegorical readings of multiple details. More recent writers, including many evangelicals, have reacted to this by insisting that it is primarily or even only a portrayal of human love. (Interestingly, they in turn have often turned odd details in the story into advice about how relationships should be conducted, without it being totally clear that the text is normative at those points).

It feels to me as though an understandable concern about uncontrolled allegorising has led in effect to the loss of the spiritual dimension. A more balanced approach has been to see both dimensions, but to treat them rather unevenly: so the dramatic contours of the relationship in the Song are worked through for couples in relationships or marriage, but the divine dimension is seen in rather static terms. I have tried to see how the dramas of the text – the conversational exchanges, the movements towards and away from each other – show us something of our relationship with Christ.

The basis for the ‘spiritual’ reading is set out pretty fully in the chapter ‘Us – how the Song of Songs is about Jesus and me’. I offer six Biblically-based arguments for this reading and a short account of the history of interpretation. It was fascinating to me that a scholar as senior as Wayne Grudem started the book unconvinced of the tack I was taking but was persuaded by the reasoning I provide. I suggest that there are multiple features of the Song and the broader Biblical context which invite, suggest and actually require that the spiritual dimension be brought out.

en: There are some interesting exegetical questions about whether the couple in the book are married or not, and if so, when. What did you make of these issues?

Julian: Yes! And some! By which I mean that there a number of different suggestions, including whether actually the couple is a trio! Some have resisted any sense of linear progress within the text, simply seeing a series of love poems that are not sequential. Others have seen a tight succession of events. Either could be right in principle because poetry obeys its own rules and it not bound to narrative sequence. My view is that the most natural reading of the text is to chart the overall development of a relationship without wanting to insist on tight sequence. I have been helped by writers who have suggested that some sequences (e.g. 3:1-5) may be dreams, and that others (e.g. 3:6-11) may be extended metaphors. So I see them getting married (the use of King Solomon on his wedding day in 3:10 suggests that) with their sexual union first happening between 4:16 and 5:1. I was unconvinced that Solomon is a third character or even the bridegroom, partly because the early detail about the suitor doesn’t fit with a king and because Solomon is seen pretty negatively in 8:11-12 as one for whom relationships are viewed transactionally).

en: How do you think the Song of Songs can help Christians practically today?

Julian: It gives us a positive view of desire, sexuality and marriage, presented in dramatic form. That has to be good. It also gives us a series of pictures to understand how much Christ loves and desires us and how desirable He is – again in little poetic dramas which show us some of the typical contours and movements of our experience of Christ. It points us beyond the idea that even a very good marriage is the fulfilfment of all our desires, and even beyond the this-life experience of Christ as one who loves us, towards the final fulfilment of our desires in the new creation and the marriage feast of the Lamb.

en: Are Christians still quite embarrassed generally to talk frankly about sex, do you think?

Julian: Yes, probably, though there is some variation and, in line with shifts in our culture generally, each new generation is more at ease talking about personal things, including sex, than the previous one. There are advantages to that as well as some pitfalls. One of the things about the Song of Songs is that it is clearly erotically charged at times, but this is conveyed largely through delicately chosen symbolism. The result is that you could call it some of the least explicit erotic poetry around.