The genre and interpretation of the Song of Solomon

GREENVILLE PRESBYTERIAN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE LITERARY GENRE OF THE SONG OF SOLOMON

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BY

 

 

 

 

 

JESSE PICKETT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Song of Solomon

 

In the history of the church, there has quite possibly been no other book which has been subjected to such a broad and diverse variety of interpretations as the Song of Solomon. No one will argue that the book contains very explicit sexual content expressing romantic and conjugal love between a man and a woman.

 However, there is a broad and varying plethora of opinion as to how the Song of Solomon is to be understood and interpreted. This book is understood by some as an allegory of Christ and His church. Others read this book as a dramatic love story depicting the beauty and intimacy involved in marriage, while others read it as a collection of love poems strung together. The last of these three interpretations is based upon 1 Kings 4:32, where we are told that Solomon’s songs were 1,005.

The allegorical view is the view which has dominated church history. Men like Cyprian, Augustine, Origen and others have read this book as a depiction of God and His church. For example, as he defended the church against the re-admittance of the lapsed who had fallen away during the Decian persecution in his first Treatise, Cyprian likens the church to the Shulamite shepherdess who is said to be without flaw (Song 4:7). Therefore, to re-communicate those who had so shamed the name of Christ and his bride would in Cyprian’s thinking be to bruise the face of a flawless bride.

 Probably the most prominent and forthright champion of the allegorical interpretation of scripture, especially the Song of Solomon, was Origen of Alexandria. He accuses anyone who would read the Canticles in a purely literal manner of harboring false opinions and making ignorant assertions about sacred Scripture.

 Obviously, Origen viewed the book as one which had a deeper allegorical meaning beyond a simply horizontal depiction of a marriage relationship.

Over the past 200 years, the allegorical hermeneutic has fallen on hard times. The preferred hermeneutic of most scholars today is to interpret the Song in a more literal sense. As such, the book is understood to be depicting the anticipation and consummation of an Ancient Near Eastern wedding processional and ceremony.

 Under this interpretive umbrella, some have proposed that there are actually two men in the story. Solomon is said by some to possess the Shulamite within his harem, but there is a constant longing by the woman to be with her true love, whom she unites with at the end of the book. This view is referred to as the Lyrical/Dramatic Interpretation. Hill and Walton countenance this three character position.

 Baptist expositor John Phillips has espoused this interpretation as well. In the preface to his commentary on the Song, Phillips avers that the unfolding drama pictures a Shulamite shepherdess who has given her heart away to her true love. They are faithful in their affections toward one another. The drama becomes complicated as Solomon tries to break the defenses of the Shulamite down and win her love for himself but is unsuccessful as the woman remains steadfast in her love to the shepherd.

 

Finally, some see in this book no real flow or theme. Instead, the book is understood in terms of a series of collected poems, selected and compiled under a similar thematic thread of marital love. The suggestion that there is no real plot line has led many to read the book without seeing any real telos toward which it is moving.

 

Although it is clear that a physical relationship is being depicted in the Song of Solomon, there is good reason to read this book with a Christ centered hermeneutic. All of Scripture speaks of Christ. The Song of Solomon is Scripture. Therefore the Song of Solomon speaks of Christ. However, to understand this book properly we need to make a distinction between typology and allegory. The latter leads and has lead to all kinds of wayward interpretation and conclusion, and has properly drawn the ire and criticism of many interpreters. The former, however, is proper and fitting inasmuch as the typology is employed within the context and parameters of the rest of Scripture. In trying to determine the genre of the Song of Solomon, it is important to bear in mind that the Song of Solomon is not a book in and of itself. It is a book within a book, or, a story within a story. When reading the Song of Solomon one must remember that the broader context of the book is the Bible. Hence, the very fact that Canticles is included in the canon suggests something of a spiritual message. A redemptive-historic, covenantal hermeneutic reads the scriptures in the way that Jesus taught His followers to read them- in light of His Person and work. If we only see the Song of Solomon in a horizontal depiction of a marriage, and we miss the vertical dimension of the beauty of the relationship of Christ and His church, then we fail to read the Bible for the very reason it was given, as a testimony to Jesus Christ. Because the Bible is not primarily a moralistic book of ‘try harder and do better’ philosophy, it is improper to read Canticles exclusively as a moralistic manual of making ones marriage better. 

The Apostle Paul used the Levitical provision for feeding beasts of burden as scriptural mandate to care for ministers of the Word. We ought to read our Bible as Paul did in light of the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ and how he nurtures and cares for His bride. 

One objection raised in the textbook to the allegorical reading is that to interpret the Song in this way makes it dangerously subjective.

 That is to say that the fine details of the book make for all kinds of fancy allegorical application. 

While I agree wholeheartedly with the author that the details are not to be pressed too far, and readily admit the danger of allowing for too much latitude in allegorism, I am not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some of Jesus own parables in the New Testament can be misunderstood if one presses the details of those too far. For instance, Jesus’ teaching on hell in the story of the rich man and Lazarus is used in dispensational theology to teach that because Abraham and the rich man were said to have conversed over a great gulf after death there must have been some kind of intermediary purgatory or holding place where both the blessed and the cursed were sent before Jesus resurrection and ascension. The point is not to read the story for its finer details, but to understand that those who never realize their own spiritual destitution will suffer alienation from God in hell forever. In the same way we ought to read the Song of Solomon in light of the message of the entire Bible as it conveys eternal gospel and saving truth, picturing the drawing, care, nurture and love which our heavenly Bridegroom exercises toward His bride.

A second objection raised by the author against a spiritual reading of this book is that the explicit language in the book would be an inappropriate way to portray the love relationship between God and His people.

 This is not fully satisfactory. If the intensity of Gods jealously over His bride caused Him to employ sexually explicit language negatively in places such as Ezekiel 16

 and the entire book of Hosea, not to mention all the times the other prophets accused Israel of whoring after other gods, then why would His love not be represented with equally intense language? We certainly ought not imagine that the bride of Christ has some kind of perverted physical relationship with Him. However, to depict the love of God and His people in the language of the Song of Solomon is not inappropriate at all. In fact, the intimacy of the marriage relationship is the most powerful and moving analogy of Gods love for His people. The highest and most intimate and pleasurable experience which a husband and wife share together is sex. Further, there are times in the Old Testament where God likens Himself to a mother and Israel to an infant suckling at the breast (Num 11:12). Therefore, if God were willing to communicate to us the intensity of His love for His people in the most provocative and moving language possible why would He not use sexual language? If he would refer to false teaching in terms of soiled undergarments, and to the best of our righteousness as filthy menstrual cloths

 then he could certainly help us to understand His love for His bride in terms of conjugal love between a husband and a wife. To dismiss a spiritual reading of Song of Solomon strictly on the basis of its strong language is inconsistent given the truth that God regularly uses strong and explicit language to convey spiritual truth.

In spite of these objections, we ought to read this book as a poetic portrayal of a husband and wife expressing marital love, while at the same time recognizing and acknowledging the greater love to which it points us when considered in light of the whole of scripture. The Song was read this way by the Westminster Divines, and the principal of analogia fidei suggests we ought to read it spiritually.

One example will be supplied as proof for how the Westminster theologians read the Song. In question 175 of the LC, the question is asked “What is the duty of Christians, after they have received the Lord’s Supper?” Part of the answer is that they “beg the continuance of it”. That is to say that we as Christians are to pursue continued and ongoing intimacy and communion with the living God even after the sacrament has been observed. Which passage would serve as a fitting proof text to buttress the claim that we are bound to pursue continued intimacy with our covenant Lord and Husband? The Divines supply the proof text from Song 3:4 where the bride states “scarcely had I passed by them when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her who conceived me.” Clearly, our forefathers saw more going on in the Song than a bare presentation of marital love. They recognized that the Song of Solomon was portraying a covenantal marriage relationship in which the deepest longing for and communion with the Heavenly groom was experienced. The very fact that marriage is a covenant ought to suggest to us that it is analogous to the covenant of grace which the Bride of Christ is a part of.

Not only did the Westminster Divines support a deeper message in the Song of Solomon but also comparing scripture with scripture we may arrive at the same conclusions. One of the most prominent and pervasive analogies of how God covenantally relates to His church is the analogy of a bride and groom. The passages which present the church as a bride and Christ as her groom are too numerous to cite. Just a cursory reading of Psalm 45, the prophet Hosea, Ephesians five, Revelation 21 or Isaiah 54, just to name a few, provide ample evidence for this. No other passage in scripture is more clearly didactic in relation to the marriage relationship than Genesis 2:24. There, Moses commands that “a man shall leave his father and mother and shall hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” If we were to read this passage as teaching the need to ‘leave and cleave’ we would not be misunderstanding it. We would, however be inadequately understanding it. By using the analogy of scripture, in light of the full revelation of God now completed in the coming of Christ, it is plain that Paul taught that this passage “refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32). 

As alluded to above, if we employ the analogy of scripture, letting scripture interpret scripture then we ought to have no problem understanding the spiritual dimension of this book and at least recognizing a whisper of Christ in Canticles.  Greg Beale points out a striking parallel between Song 5:2 and Revelation 3:20.

 The Song passage states “the voice of my beloved, he knocks on the door. Open to me my beloved.” The groom is pictured as knocking on the door to the room where his bride is lodging. In the Revelation passage, Christ says to His bride “I stand at the door and knock; if anyone should hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him”. If Beale is correct in drawing this parallel then we would be safe to assume that our Lord saw Himself as the one who is called the beloved in the Song of Solomon.

It almost seems natural for Christians to subconsciously if not purposefully see Jesus in the Canticles. If we were to survey 500 Christians, asking them who is the “rose of sharon”, the “lily of the valley”, the “chief among ten thousand”, the one whose “banner over me is love”, the one whose name is “as ointment poured forth” or “him who my soul loves”, I suspect almost to a man that every one would identify him as Christ. These names attributed to Christ have been passed down to the Church from her history of seeing the Lord Jesus Christ as the central figure of all of scripture and therefore the Song of Solomon. However, if we follow a strictly horizontal, Christless, bare and woodenly sensual interpretation of this book then we are incapable of reaching these conclusions. 

Although we ought not push the metaphors too far, as many in church history have, and erred greatly in doing so, we must read the Bible in light of Christ including the poetic love Song of Solomon. Truly, without the paradigm of Christ as a faithful covenant Husband, marriage has no real reference point. The kind of relationship and fulfillment which the Canticles depict a husband and wife enjoying becomes unintelligible without a gospel lens through which to view it. Further, the fact that Solomon is the author, a man who was anything but a monogamous and faithful husband makes the need for a “greater than Solomon” especially obvious when reading this book. Solomon himself represented to the people of Israel nothing less than the partial fulfillment of the Davidic covenant which anticipated the coming of Christ who would sit on the throne of His father David forever. To the Jew who would have been reading this book during those times, they would have understood that the promised seed of David would come through the perpetuation of a royal Davidic line which would result from the sexual union of David’s offspring with their wives. Eventually, the greater than Solomon, Davids true Son would come who would win to Himself a bride with whom He would commune forever. The Song of Solomon is a lovely anticipation and expression of that promise!

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Beale, G.K. The Book of Revelation: a Commentary On the Greek Text in The New International Greek Commentary Series. Carlisle, Cumbria: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.

 

Merrill, Eugene, M. Rooker, and M. Grisanti. The World and the Word. Nashville: B & H Publishing Co., 2011.

 

Phillips, John. Exploring The Love Song of Solomon. The John Phillips Commentary Series. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publishing Co., 2008.

 

Placher, William. Origen’s first principles in Vol. 1 of A Reading in the History of Christian Theology. London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983.

 

Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, ed. ,  The Ante-Nicene Fathers in The Life and Passion of Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr  American Reprint of the Edinburgh Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1971.

 

 

 

 

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