Malcolm Maclean's latest volume, a devotional treatment of the Song of Solomon, is something of a bold venture for at least a couple of reasons. First, there's the sheer complexity of the Song itself. Besides the usual hermeneutical difficulties presented by temporal, cultural, geographical, and linguistic "distance," the Song is unique in its genre, style, content, and structure. Thus Delitzsch, e.g., begins his introduction to this writing by announcing the "Song is the most obscure book of the Old Testament." And he's not alone in that assessment. Daniel Estes has noted: "Virtually every verse presents challenges in text, philology, image, grammar or structure." Complex! Then, if that weren't enough, there's also quite an assortment of interpretive approaches on offer, each characterizing and reading the Song rather differently. Estes again says, "Scholars vary widely on nearly every part of its interpretation...." And Marvin Pope writes, "[N]o composition of comparable size in world literature has provoked and inspired such a volume and variety of comment and interpretation as the biblical Song of Songs." The results have not always been happy, and have yielded what Leland Ryken has called some extravagant misinterpretation. So, Maclean's devotional is a bold venture into some highly disputed territory. But I, for one, am glad to see it.
Maclean begins with an "Introduction" in which he teases out his understanding of the Song and offers some warrant for the method and message of his book. What is the Song of Solomon about? Maclean says plainly: "I think it describes Christ and his people ...."--an approach that stands over against much current scholarly opinion that it describes, at least primarily, human love. Thus, he adopts an interpretive approach that's now largely brushed off as unsound. But is it?
Jim Hamilton (associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) has penned a very helpful piece entitled "Is There Intended Allegory in the Song of Solomon?" (online at [...]). He doesn't deny that the Song addresses human love at all. That's clear, I think. But he asks, provocatively, whether there's also possibly "an allegorical layer of meaning" in the writing.
In making his case, Hamilton, noting something that Maclean also points out, writes: "... it is worth observing that the idea that the Song has a spiritual meaning has been, well, dominant across the ages." Maclean calls on such worthy preachers/theologians/commentators as Robert Murray McCheyne, C. H. Spurgeon, Hudson Taylor, Jonathan Edwards, and John Owen to at least get us to pause and ask what Jim Hamilton is asking: "Is there something more here than we usually think?"
In responding to the charge that this approach is "subjective rather than objective," Maclean argues, "Surely it is better to have a genuine subjective experience that is in line with objective truth than to have only an objective understanding of a reality." Agreed, of course! Of course, we can't find in a text just any meaning that comes to mind provided only that it's in line generally with objective truth. There's too much arbitrariness about that. But on the other hand, Maclean's proposal may pose a legitimate challenge to the more analytical and rationalist approaches to exegesis/exposition that often so flatten the text out with the great historical and grammatical hammers that the spiritual richness of the truth is lost.
Here's the simple proposal as Hamilton puts it: "... is it possible that Solomon intended to represent the spiritual relationship between God and his people through a poetic depiction of the human relationship between the King and the Bride in the Song of Songs?" And he makes a good initial exegetical case for "Yes and Amen" as the answer. Maclean is asking the same question, answering in the affirmative, and then devotionally exploring that spiritual relationship through meditating on the Song in light of the Gospel of God revealed in all of Scripture.
I have to admit that I'm not always comfortable with the author's understanding of a passage, which seems in places to be a bit too detached from the text, and more the product of some creative imagining than seems contextually warranted. But even then, the material remains true biblically.
In the end, though, I believe there is sufficient warrant for Maclean's reading the Song of Solomon devotionally and spiritually as about "Christ and his people" and I find him a steady guide into "the immeasurable riches of [God's] grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2.7). Theologically broad and accurate! Devotionally warm and rich! Pastorally profitable! Christ-centered! Gospel-driven! Get this book, go aside from the hustle and bustle, sit and read and ponder. Wonder! And worship!