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Which way to go with The Song of Songs? The Peasant Princess ?

So, basically I think Mark Driscoll is outstanding. I love that his church services are regularly packed with people who aren't Christians. And I love that he gets the whole Tim Keller gospel to Christians and non-Christians thing (which Keller got from Dick Lucas... which is interesting in the light of Driscoll's recent 'run in' with the Sydney Anglicans but that's another subject!) I love that Driscoll loves the Bible and fight for doctrine.. I love that his first expository series were on Ecclesiastes and The Song of Songs. I love his clarity about mission and his activity in doing it. I love that he's a reformed charismatic. I love that he came and served us in newfrontiers this summer and learned from us. I love that that's beginning to impact the ethos of our church.

But, I'm not sure that I agree with his take on The Song of Songs. Driscoll runs with the primary meaning being sex:
"As we study the Song of Songs, our primary focus will be how the Peasant Princess became an exemplary wife; our secondary focus will be the intimate marital relationship she shares with her husband. Through her example, God has much to teach us regarding his plan for sex and marriage. While the Song of Songs is not entirely about sex, the book does contain some very important lessons on the subject. In fact, this 3,000-year-old collection of love letters is extraordinary in its timeliness. In our day, people devote an extraordinary amount of time, money, and energy in pursuit of sex, making it the most popular religion in the world."
I'm not saying that's not an implication but that perhaps it's first about Christ and his bride the church. Driscoll himself notes:
The Song of Songs is a series of poetic love songs that not only describe the relationship between a husband and wife, but also serve as an illustration of the eternal heart of God, for those who are married to Christ, our beloved. And as the book title suggests, the Song of Songs is perhaps the greatest lyric ever composed—a warm dialogue between two lovers, a conversation of the heart that crescendos into a beautiful duet. This poetic exchange reflects the very heart of our Trinitarian God from whom love, intimacy, and musical expression flow.
Experience tells me that Driscoll will preach the gospel as he preaches this book - and he'll preach gospel to Christians and gospel to those who aren't Christians. I just wonder if we can be stronger on the Christological focus on this greatest of all songs - and suggest that this might have even more to show us of the gospel - and it's Creation implications for us. I'm taking my lead from Matthew Henry and others. And from the clarity of Matthew Mason, Ros Clarke and Daniel Newman.

The Song of Songs is about Yahweh's marriage to Israel. It casts that marriage in terms of a return to the Garden of Eden, picturing the land as an idyllic sanctuary-garden. However, in terms of the big plotline of Scripture, Christ's marriage to the Church is presented as a move from the Garden-sanctuary of the first Adam and his bride, to a glorious city, the New Jerusalem.
And then a sample from Daniel Newman on 1v1-1v8:
Long for Christ! (1.1-8) The bride, the church, longs to experience Christ’s love, which she esteems far more than wine; it gladdens her more than anything this world can offer (v. 2). All our senses are meant to be engaged as we let this poetry sink into us: the fragrance of anointing oils, oil poured out evokes the environment of the temple where God meets with his people. That’s further emphasised when she later describes herself as ‘like the curtains of Solomon’ (v. 5).

God is the king whom she loves (v. 3). She longs to be with him, and Christ brings her into his chamber, the place where love is to be fully experienced. This love spills over to others as they, in turn, recognize the greatness of Christ’s love, that he is worthy to be praised and they rejoice in him (v. 4).

The bride, however, recognises her own intrinsic undesirability. Her skin is sun-damaged and she has rather let herself go in her experiences of life. Kedar was a people beyond the borders of Israel. Perhaps by comparing herself to them she feels like she doesn’t belong in this relationship, that she doesn’t deserve it (vv. 5-6). Nevertheless she is confident of her own standing before her beloved, that she is ‘lovely’, and so she diverts attention away from her appearance. The church knows itself to be intrinsically undesirable - sullied, scarred, decaying and far from God because of sin - and yet in Christ’s eyes she is lovely, and so can be confident, as is the bride in the Song, to come into the presence of her beloved. He is the one whom her soul loves (’You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might’).

The king is also a shepherd. See Ezekiel 34.11-24 - the shepherd is the Lord God who is also of the line of David, the one whom we meet in the Word incarnate. The bride is not content with second-best. She doesn’t want to be with his companions, veiled. She wants full, unhindered relationship with him (v. 7)

And he wants her, describing her as the ‘most beautiful amongst women’, directing her how she may find him and welcoming her presence with him (v. 8). This all makes sense when we realise that the love Christ has for his people is a love that meant he ‘gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish’ (Ephesians 5.25-27).

O that as a church we would recognize the greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ and long for him ardently! O that we would remember how Christ sees us and welcomes us when we doubt his love for his people, and in our insecurities.


  1. Sorry, but I don't see how there can be any doubt that the intention of the Song's author was to extol faithful, passionate, romantic love between two human beings. It just seems thoroughly obvious from the text. Are we sure it isn't just a little bit prudish to spiritualise the whole thing? Why not take it at face value - at least that way you'll avoid some of the bizarre allegorising of the Puritans (Owen goes on at length about the significance of the colour of Christ's hair in the Song...)

    Now, if the Song is about human lovers, given what is revealed in the gospel about the meaning of marriage, can we learn something about the relationship of Christ and the Church from this marriage? Absolutely! In fact, we can hardly read the book canonically without making this application. The book is about Christ because it is about human marriage, and human marriage is about Christ. But it is first and foremost about erotic love.

    Here endeth the rant.

  2. I don't think we're going to agree on this one! Perhaps I didn't need to rehearse the issues again, though I figured blogs will be aflame with the MD approach.

    I'm no prude - I do think it has much to teach us about love and marriage between human lovers... but I wonder if there is more and whether precedence doesn't go to Christ and the Church and then back to marriage...

    I've not read much of John Owen on it but I did find what I've read of Matthew Henry to be helpful.


  3. Mark Driscoll reports:

    "Well, we kicked off Peasant Princess which is our study of the Song of Songs and grew by almost a mega church (2000 people) in one week. Unreal. The colleges start up this week so the college students should join us beginning next Sunday."

    Which is good news as far as I'm concerned.

  4. Sometimes a rambling question about Song of Songs comes to my mind:

    Could it be that this book stands alone in Scripture, with its poetic nature permitting personal understanding of it?
    That core values remain throughout it such as romance, marriage, sex etc & its reflection of Christ & the Church, but could it be that between the lines there are various ways of taking it?

    I probably haven't said that very clearly - & I'm not saying that I hold that conclusion but its been a question on my mind about the book!

    I do think that its primarily about relationships & marriage and so Christ & the church are reflected in this.
    There is alot of what Daniel decribed as 'bizarre allegorising' needed to make its primary teaching to be about Christ & the church. But like any portion of Scripture I would agree with a statement by Matt Chandler that if you can't show Christ in any text you aren't ready to teach, hence Christ should be evident in any teachings from Song of Songs regardless of one's view of its primary focus.

  5. Yeh, I agree. I guess when I look at the language - and the way that Newman and Mason highlight the God-Israel language that is all over it - I'm inclined to see Christ first.

    Likewise, given what we have in Genesis Adam in Eden pointing toward Christ...

    I'm up for critique on that, and well aware that I may need to adjust the grid I'm reading the OT through.

  6. Can one square the circle by saying that marriage itself is primarily about Christ and the Church?

  7. Mo - almost I think yeh.

    I just wonder if it's emphasis... so is it about marriage which teaches about Christ, or about Christ which teaches about marriage.

    Which is where the detail counts. Is it just love poetry from ye olde days hence all the obscure language... or is the language there to shows us something more about it's wider Biblical meaning.

    Both directions have potential for wierdness.

  8. "Both directions have potential for wierdness."

    So True!

  9. Mo, that's more or less what I was going for: the Song's about marriage, and marriage is about Christ. But when it comes down to the intent of the original author (which I think decides the primary meaning, although not necessarily the meaning in its entirety) I think human marriage is in view.

    Out of curiosity, where does the weirdness come in on this view?

  10. Could be wading deep into something I only know a bit about but is this part of the broader question about whether Scriptures is primarily about us and secondarily about Christ or primarily about Christ and secondarily about us (and whether we are 'in Christ' or not)?

    Some seem nervous about saying it's primarily about Christ because they say we can't show that from authorial intent - that seems to me to be a perfectly acceptably Jewish reading. But should we, as Christians, read all of Scripture Christologically and Christo-centrically, so making sure we avoid moralism on the one hand, but also preaching Christ in such a way that we are not allegorising on the other?

    (Dave - you'll be able to tell I've been listening to Tim Keller and Ed Clowney! I too was concerned about allegorising and whether it's slightly secret-knowledgey to say look we've got this special way of reading it which unlocks it's true meaning. I've found it pretty convincing though. It made me think whether we read the Scriptures selfishly looking for it first and foremost to be about us and so perhaps its more 'natural' for us to think the same of SoS, even if it's not right to do so.)

  11. Matt... I think you're hitting at the issue for me. If everything is meant to be about Christ then the question is 'just' how is this about Christ.

    I am very wary of allegory and I want to be v.careful...

    Here's what I did. I took Daniel Newman's notes as commentary for a week of my own personal Bible reading of Song of Songs. I accepted the assumptions he makes - arguing from the language being like one of the Psalms, and I tried out where it went, verse by verse, section by section... without wierdness, but feeling the language and the way it strongly resonates with the language used of God and Israel.

    Seems worth trying to me.

    Perhaps wrongly, I think I want to say that Adam and Eve in Eden properly and primarily point us to Christ and so if a narrative is meant to do that, couldn't love poetry too? None of which is to say there wouldn't then be secondary application to marriage.

    Likewise, the way we read the gospels with Jesus as hero... whatever other smaller life-lessons and examples might be derived from the events recorded.

  12. I'm concerned that anything other than the 'straightforward' human physical love meaning is labelled 'allegorising'.

    Either Christ is the main subject of the Bible, Old Testament as well as new, or he isn't. Unless you take SoS to be primarily about Christ, you can't take the passover, Abraham sacrificing Isaac or Noah and the flood to be primarily about Christ. Unless those meanings are 'allegorisation', SoS from a Christ/Israel -> church perspective can't be dismissed so easily.

    As for thinking it's a prudish view; well, only if you assume that the contrary is true. We need to do the exegesis first, just as with any other book. Who was it written by and to? Where is similar language used in the scripture and to what effect (eg. Ps 45, Is. 61, Ez. 16)?

  13. I actually think that this interpretation of the Song is a slightly shallow (sorry!) understanding of the way in which all the Scripture is about Christ. I think it shows some slight doubt/hesitancy as to whether human marriage and erotic love are really about Christ and the Church. Because if they are, we don't need to allegorise the Song to make it about Christ. It can be about erotic love in a marital context and we can be unashamed of that and unbaffled by its inclusion in the canon because marriage exists for Christ - it isn't just a convenient illustration of his relationship with the Church but is modelled on it and signifies it.

    If we deny the Song's place as the only Biblical witness to the joy of erotic love (post-fall: Adam celebrates marriage in his little 'Ode to Eve') then do we betray that we're not quite sure what marriage is about? It seems to me that this displays at least a little equivocation...

  14. "But when it comes down to the intent of the original author...I think human marriage is in view."

    That point is not self evident to me. Could it be that we sometimes assume that writers are writing with the same kind of interests and intentions as us? Rather, assume that the writer wrote self-consciously as an Israelite covenant member, with a covenantal view of history and life, knowing that what he wrote was to be set within the context of the canon, and the point above doesn't seem quite so self-evident. Then start to do some exegetical-canonical work on the imagery used, and the 'sex manual' interpretation starts to fall apart even more.

    To illustrate, by itself, the parable of the sower is self-evidently about seeds and farming, Without the remarks and explanation around it, if we just had the raw data of the story, we'd assume it was first and foremost about farming, and we'd perhaps be able to make some secondary applications to word ministry/ the progress of the gospel etc. once we realised that that's the way 'farmy stuff' operates at other parts of the bible. But it doesn't come divorced of context, and so we interpret it differently. What those who advocate a 'Christ and the Church primarily' reading of the Song think they are doing is setting the Song in it's obvious and necessary primary context(s) - the canon of scripture/ the covenantal history of Israel and the world, etc. etc. Only if we adopt an atomistic approach to 'context' do we find a problem with this way of viewing the book. And who wants to read scripture like that? We're post-criticals aren't we?

  15. "If we deny the Song's place as the only Biblical witness to the joy of erotic love (post-fall: Adam celebrates marriage in his little 'Ode to Eve') then do we betray that we're not quite sure what marriage is about?"

    Not really. We can totally have our cake and eat it here. The question is about the order/ priority of the various things the Song teaches, not whether or not it does teach such and such.

    Plus, it's hardly the only text about marriage is it? If all we had was the marriage supper of the lamb text in Rev 19 we could even then argue by analogy that God must think x, y, z about human marriage, couldn't we?

  16. So the primary argument I'm hearing is that because we believe all the scriptures are about Christ then Christ has to be a character in the Song.

    This is clearly not how we do exegesis!

    Christ is the perfect image of God and so all of human life can be related to him as we are all corrupted images of God. Christ is the creator, sustainer, ruler, lawgiver, saviour, priest of the world so of course he is going to be in all the scriptures.

    When Paul writes about the relationship between husband and wife he recognises that this is teaching derived from what he knows of Christ, and itself points to Christ. However, if we came to Eph 5:22ff and preached on how the church should submit to Christ, and how Christ loved the church, we would be serverely missing the point. It would frankly be saying that we don't think Paul is being spiritual enough and while speaking truth needs to be lifted to a higher level.

    A couple of points that appear to me to count against the 'alegorical' interpretation:

    > 2:7, 3:5 and 8:4 - how does it make sense to discourage the daughters of Jerusalem from stiring up love? Should we not stir up love for Christ?

    > The constant references to the daughters of Jerusalem itself. As this is a common way of referring to the people of God, is it not strange that they are considered seperate from the bride?

    Finally, a thought on Pete's point that 'What those who advocate a 'Christ and the Church primarily' reading of the Song think they are doing is setting the Song in it's obvious and necessary primary context(s) - the canon of scripture/ the covenantal history of Israel and the world, etc.' When we set the context as wide as this we are basically saying that we are considering what is the most important teaching of the bible (whether this is in narrative form, systematic form, or whatever). We are then applying this primary teaching in such a way that we flatten the diversity of the bible because we have the meta-narrative that we are going to crush everything into the shape of. So it seems we have decided that Christ's relationship to his people is what the whole bible is about. Therefore that is what the Song is about. QED.

    I think this is a simplistic interpretation which does not take into account the infinite majesty of God and the massive complexity of humanity. The bible is diverse for a reason. Let's not turn it into a series of illustrations for our theology which we nailed down before we even got to it.

    BTW sorry if this was quite a strongly worded comment. I'm feeling quite passionate at the moment. However... believe it or not, I am open to persuasion.

  17. This is actually a pretty important debate and warrants some extra posts. We all agree that the ultimate focus and subject of the Scriptures is CHRIST, but the vexing question is how directly this is true, and what are the appropriate ways to get to him.

    Taken to one extreme, we would only ever have one message from an OT passage - and it is true at one level that there is only one message, but Scripture is richer and more diverse than that. So, whilst moralising is not a primary hermeneutic from the OT, it is surely not inadmissable?

    In different places, this looks like different things - but surely historical fulfillment allows us to see that ending at Christ via another route is a valid understanding. Take the Messiah - I mean King Cyrus for that is what he is called in Isaiah 45.1- he shows us that Scripture can take us to Christ via indirect paths.

    The trouble with biblical theology (dare I say this?) is that if we make it our one and only guide we end up with just one message - a bit like Goldsworthy always becomes "God's people in God's place at God's time".

    For the record, I'm with Driscoll (but before Driscoll). I think Provan first caught my eye (NIVAC) but CJ Mahaney also takes this approach (Sex, Romance and the Glory of God).

  18. It'll be interesting to see how Driscoll does it then!

    I'm just starting to grapple with this stuff but if Christians agree that SoS and all the Scriptures are in (some way) about Christ then is the pratical difference between the views laid out above just how quickly one moves from the types, figures and themes of the passage to Christ?

    Adrian - if we are preaching Christ from the OT surely we would only be preaching the same sermon if one moved too quickly from the text and to only one (and the same) aspect of the life, teachings, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ? Doesn't each passage bring us up to Calvary from a new starting point to see a different aspect of Christ?

  19. Matt - that was kinda the point I was trying to make only you made it better - perhaps it's the discipline of speed in how we get to Christ...

  20. Dave K. said

    "Finally, a thought on Pete's point that 'What those who advocate a 'Christ and the Church primarily' reading of the Song think they are doing is setting the Song in it's obvious and necessary primary context(s) - the canon of scripture/ the covenantal history of Israel and the world, etc.' When we set the context as wide as this we are basically saying that we are considering what is the most important teaching of the bible (whether this is in narrative form, systematic form, or whatever). We are then applying this primary teaching in such a way that we flatten the diversity of the bible because we have the meta-narrative that we are going to crush everything into the shape of. So it seems we have decided that Christ's relationship to his people is what the whole bible is about. Therefore that is what the Song is about. QED."

    I fear you've misunderstood my argument. Perhaps I'm guilty of not having presented it well.

    What I am absolutely saying is that the context is always as wide as this. But it doesn't mean a narrowing or flattening of our readings. But it does mean I can't just consider the evidence of the text itself in my exegesis, I must consider also the place of the book within the canon, and both the contribution the storyline/ imagery/ symbols/ language/ thought-world of the canon makes to the book, and the contribution the storyline/ imagery etc. of the book makes to the canon.

    What happens, I would argue, when you do this with the song, the case for a 'Christ and the Church' interpretation becomes extremely strong (See for example the excellent work on this by Ros Clarke, available at Beginningwithmoses). Broadening the context makes me ask questions of, and look for things within the text that I might not have done otherwise, were I considering the text more atomistically.

    I'm not saying 'the bible's story is x, therefore the song of song only says x.' What I am saying is, the fact that the song is in the canon means we should read it as such, and, when we do that, it modifies the assumptions we have about the intent of the original author (by, for e.g., suggesting very strongly that he would've self-consciously seen the song as a covenantal document) and the things we read into the imagery used (by, for e.g., integrating this with how such imagery is used throughout the rest of scripture), such that, imho, the case for a 'christ and the church' reading becomes extremely strong.

    Hope that helps.

  21. "The trouble with biblical theology (dare I say this?) is that if we make it our one and only guide we end up with just one message - a bit like Goldsworthy always becomes "God's people in God's place at God's time"."

    The problem is not so much biblical theology perhaps, as interpretive minimalism which often goes hand in hand with the forms of biblical theology we're exposed to (I don't think GG is guilty here, but many of his disciples are). One only needs to spend time with biblical theologians from other theological streams (such as Peter Leithart, Jim Jordan, who're intrepretive maximalists rather than minimalists) to realise that biblical theology in and of itself is not the problem.

    Interestingly enough, it's the interpretive minimalists who tend to triumph the 'sex manual' interpretation of the song.

  22. Quoting from Ros Clarke's masters dissertation on the Song:

    "What seems to be required is something akin to the typological interpretation that allows the text to function at the literal level with all its poetic artistry and yet to maintain its spiritual application by means of a proper concern for its biblical context. Such an interpretation cannot, however, be arbitrarily imposed on the text but must be shown to be required by the text itself."

    That's what I was trying to say I guess.

  23. Thanks for the clarification Pete. That is very helpful. Sorry if I didn't understand you properly.

    This has been a helpful discussion IMHO and has helped clarify some of the issues for me.

    As an aside, and this is probably a discussion for another day, I'm not sure that 'maximalist'/'minimalist' is the best way to compare Jordan/Leithart's hermeneutic compared to others. I don't think I have ever seen either use the terms and I'm not sure that it is a helpful way to describe what they are doing. Perhaps more helpful in comparing Moore College BT with Biblical Horizons BT is between a theological approach and a literary one (not that either is employing the one to the exclusion of the other).... just an idea.

  24. I think Jim Jordan self-identifies as an interpretive maximalist, I might be wrong though.

    You're right that minimalists might not self-identify as such, the term isn't all that flattering. I use the term only when defining such approaches over against maximalism, rather than as encompassing everything about them.

    My main 'complaint' wouldn't be with Moore anyway, or Goldsworthy at all (GG changed my life, and for the better), so much as with the popular manifestations of BT teaching from those who've learned the basics of a Gospel and Kingdom approach and little else. That's where we find the more 'flat' readings of scripture, and the fear of more richly typological and maximalist approaches.

  25. "learned the basics of a Gospel and Kingdom approach and little else."

    Yeh, we need something richer than the basics. I'm loving the contours and facets of The Song, and of Genesis at the moment. Great riches.

  26. This thread seems primarily about how to handle wisdom categories and how to make lines of OT - NT application when the NT doesn't make the Christological connection explicit.

    I have gone both ways on this over the years. Currently I am with Driscoll (and Adrian Reynolds). For two main reasons:

    1. the genre is clearly intended to be wisdom. We have no difficulty in concluding that Job is about how God is involved with the issue of suffering, and about how to consider suffering (and to suffer) wisely. I don't have any problem with the idea that Song of Songs is mainly about how God is involved with the issue of romance, sex and marriage. Along with Job I think this gives us two wisdom books from God on two of the most critical aspects of human experience. Add in Proverbs - wisdom from God on how to make life decisions - and we have three very practical books. God is good to us! I think this debate probably wouldn't be as lengthy if we Brits had a better appreciation of wisdom as a category and genre.

    2. There is (as far as I know) no direct NT usage of Song of Songs. Therefore, the lines of application directly to Christ/Church are not overtly as clear as, say, Isaiah 40. Where the lines are not completely explicit to make them out to be extremely strong falls into normal danger of strong typology, namely that you have to discover how absolutely every little detail is about Christ in order to make your hermeneutic work. Christ is the end and goal of the plot line of the Bible, the fulfilment of the Law. We don't have to squeeze absolutely everything into a first order christological line of application.

    Therefore Little Mo is correct. The right place to go for applications about marriage and intimacy (and sex) is Ephesians 5. But I would do it after exploring Song of Songs on its own terms. Make marriage and sex out to be as good as Songs say it is, then explore how union between Christ and Church is the ultimate intimacy for which this works as a foreshadow.

    I would also refer to the fact that there is no marriage in Heaven (Matt 22:30, parallel passages in Mark and Luke) to point out that however much Songs sounds like the highest possible pleasure, it isn't. Union with Christ is better than sex is the message of Ephesians 5.

  27. Matthew Henry goes for the language being the same as Psalm 45 which Hebrews 1 says is about Christ. I maintain it doesn't have to be either/or, my query is when it's only one and not the other at all..


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