See also : Song of Songs : Introduction – Part 1
“The song of songs, which is Solomon’s.” (Song of Songs 1:1)
“And he [Solomon] spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five.” (1st Kings 4:32)
I will not dwell on the question of the authorship of Song of Songs because I believe the traditional view that Solomon is the author of this book. I see no serious reason to doubt it. If one wants to read a discussion about the authorship of the book then I would suggest the Pulpit Commentary (introduction to Song of Songs). I would rather spend time looking at the more important and interesting topic of the theories of interpretation of the book.
Albert Barnes in his introduction to the Song of Songs wrote these words:
“The Song of Songs which is Solomon‘s,” so designated by its most ancient (Hebrew) title, holds a unique position in sacred literature. It may be said to be THE ENIGMA OF THE OLD TESTAMENT, just as the Apocalypse (Revelation) is of the New Testament.”
It is no surprise then that different theories of interpretation have been put forth to try to make sense of this mysterious book. Does not the Bible teach that the relationship between Christ and His Church is a MYSTERY (Ephesians 5:32)?
Though Adam Clarke in his lengthy introduction to the book does prefer a literal interpretation only and believed that one should avoid preaching from this book I will quote his summary of different views that had been put forth historically up to his time:
“I. It is a plain epithalamium* on the marriage of Solomon with the daughter of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and is to be understood in no other way.”
* Adam Clarke defined the word as meaning a “congratulatory song, sung to a new married pair, wishing them abundant blessings, a numerous and happy offspring, etc.”
“II. It is an allegory relative to the conduct of God towards the Hebrews, in bringing them out of Egypt, through the wilderness to the Promised Land.”
“III. It is intended to represent the incarnation of Jesus Christ, or his marriage with human nature, in reference to its redemption.”
“IV. It represents Christ‘s love to the Church or elected souls, and their love to him.”
“V. It is an allegorical poem on the glories of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary**.”
** only Mary-centered, Roman Catholic minds could concoct such a fanciful view; they need to take their “Mary goggles” off first in order to see clearly
“VI. It is a collection of sacred idyls; the spiritual meaning of which is not agreed on.”
Arno Gaebelein after having presented his view on the matter – the love between Christ and His Church as being the larger application – did give a brief historical sketch of interpretations given:
“Hippolytus (225 A.D.) was the first commentator of Solomon’s Song and he states that the primary application is to Israel and next to the Church. Origen developed this application to the Church and her union with Christ more fully. After him the identification of the bridegroom and the bride with Christ and the Church became the predominant one. Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa and Jerome followed more or less the interpretation and application made by Origen. Jerome’s view was that the bride and the bridegroom were Christ and the Church, or Christ and the soul. Augustine agreed with him also, but restricted the meaning to the union of Christ and the Church.”
“Theodore of Mopsuestia, a great expositor of the Word of God, gave the Song a more literal explanation. Chrysostom, Theodoret and nearly all the great exegetes of the early Church teach that the Song typifies the love of Christ for His Church.”
“In the Middle Ages the mystical school made great use of this portion of the Word of God. Thus Bernard of Clairvaux preached not less than eighty sermons on the first two chapters. To mention all the expositors of the Middle Ages and more recent ones would fill pages.”
“The critical school has broken away completely from the spiritual application to Christ and the Church.”
I like the way the Pulpit Commentary summarized the different views:
“1. Those which assume that the work is an ALLEGORY, that the facts contained in it are merely employed for the purpose of framework, the language being mystical and figurative.”
“2. Those which are founded upon a NATURALISTIC basis, taking the literary features of the work as the first in importance, and regarding it as some form of love poem or collection of erotic songs.”
“3. Between these two extremes stands the TYPICAL view***, which, without discarding the HISTORICAL AND LITERARY BASIS, not to be disputed on the very face of the work, endeavours to justify its position in the Word of God by analogy with other portions of Scripture, in which natural and national facts and interests are IMBUED WITH SPIRITUAL SIGNIFICANCE.”
*** this is my current view concerning the interpretation of this book
“In each of these points of view there is truth, as there is variety of interpretation. We shall be best prepared to understand the results of the most able modern criticism by placing these different theories clearly side by side.”
Please note that I am quoting selectively from the Pulpit Commentary for sake of brevity. The Pulpit Commentary offers much more information on the historical development of the theories of interpretation. Here is what the Pulpit Commentary says concerning the allegorical theory:
“1. The allegorical theory. This is much the most ancient method of interpretation. … The deepest truths are set forth in the dress of these words of human affection. Some have found in them God and his Church throughout all time. Others the historical and political relations of the Jewish people. Others have sought in them profound philosophical mysteries and cabalistic secrets. There is one point, and one alone, in which all these allegorical interpreters agree, and that is, that nothing is to be made of the book taken literally, that there is no consistency and order in it if we attempt to regard it historically; therefore we have nothing in it but words, which may be applied in any manner which is spiritually or otherwise profitable. Such a view condemns itself, for it deprives us of any ground of confidence in seeking the true interpretation. That surely must be the mind of the Spirit which best accords with the facts of the case. If there is not a foundation of historical truth underlying all the Scripture, then it is a mere unsubstantial cloud which may be blown away by the changes in the atmosphere of human opinion. It is against the analogy of Scripture. It opens the way to extravagance and folly, by removing all bounds and inviting the licence of mere individual speculation. It repels the common sense of the ordinary reader of Scripture, and simply shuts the book which it misinterprets, so that many refuse to look into it at all.”
Here is what the Pulpit Commentary says concerning the naturalistic theory:
“2. We must now proceed to describe the theories of interpretation which have been based upon a naturalistic principle. These may be styled the erotic, as they all regard the work as a collection of erotic songs, put together simply on the ground of their literary worth and poetic arrangement, religiously used by being idealized, just as the language of secular poetry may be sometimes mingled with sacred, though the original intention of the words had no such application. There are several varieties in the form of this erotic theory. The songs have been regarded by some as separate idylls of love, collected together and formed into a poem only by a predominating reference to Solomon, and by the one pervading spirit of pure love. But others have attempted to trace a dramatic unity and progress in the whole, and have elaborated a history on which to found the drama, while those who have renounced all such attempts to find a drama in Hebrew poetry have yet clung to the idea of an epithalamium, composed on the occasion of Solomon’s marriage, either with the Egyptian princess or some Israelitish bride, and have endeavoured to justify their view by the literary form of the poem. It is not necessary entirely to reject the naturalistic basis in order to find a reason for the position of Solomon’s Song in the Bible. There is an element of truth in all the erotic theories. They help us to remember that human love is capable of being mingled with Divine ideas. That which is so often impure, and which sinks the life of man below that of the beasts that perish, may yet be sanctified, lifted above the evil of a fallen nature, and so may be taken, ideally, as the fitting vehicle by which to convey the Spirit of God to the spirit of man.”
“The earliest writer whose treatment of the book was based upon the secular view of it was Theodore of Mopsuestia. He dealt with all Scripture much in the same way, in the spirit of a rigid literalism, in which he followed the school of Antioch…. The Middle Ages were dominated by the allegorical spirit, and no other view was put forth for hundreds of years. … In the time of Calvin, Geneva was startled by the brochure of Sebastian Castellio, who represented Shulamith as a concubine, and denounced the book as unworthy of a place in Scripture — to the great displeasure of Calvin himself, who is said to have compelled Castellio to withdraw from Geneva. The next name in the bibliography is that of Hugo Grotius, who published his ‘Annotations’ on the Old Testament in 1664. In his view the work is a nuptial song, with allegorical and typical meanings, which he admits are to be found in it, though he does not himself seek them. R. Simon, J. Clericus, Simon Episcopius, are other instances of the same treatment of the book in the latter part of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries. The rise of rationalism was the revival of the theory. Semler and Michaelis led the way, in the middle of the last century, disparaging the book altogether.”
“The rationalistic critics have, most of them, regarded the songs as fragmentary and isolated, and thus have deprived themselves of their true position as commentators; for if there be no unity in the book, it is hard to find any basis on which to rest the explanation of its meaning as a whole. To suppose a sacred work written simply in praise of human feeling, or even to cherish the ideal of human relationship, is to resist the analogy of Scripture…. There is no need to trouble the reader with an account of the many books which have appeared in Germany [in the 19th century], treating not only Solomon’s Song, but eyeing other book in the Bible, in the most flimsy, superficial spirit, as though no deeper meaning need ever be sought in them than that which satisfies the logical understanding of a narrow-minded, pedantic professor. … Their highest aim is critical, and they have their reward — they shake together a heap of dry bones, and their own dead hearts hear no living voice of response.”
“But there is a little advance upon the barren, dreary emptiness of this rationalistic criticism in what is called the dramatic theory of interpretation…. Jacobi, in 1771, led the way… supposing Solomon to have fallen in love with a young married woman, who, with the husband, is brought to Jerusalem. The husband is induced to divorce his wife for Solomon’s sake, and she is alarmed at the king’s approach, and cries out for her husband’s help. The whole is a worthless attempt to work out a baseless hypothesis, which is entirely out of harmony with the pure spirit of the whole book. … but none have gone further than the great historian Ewald… His view, as set forth in the latter work… the hypothesis that there is an actual love history at the basis of the poem; a young shepherd, of the north of Palestine, being the real lover of Shulamith, from whom Solomon desires to alienate her affection; and that the main idea of the book is the successful resistance of Shulamith to the allurements of the royal lover and her faithfulness to her first love, to whom she is restored by the king in acknowledgment of her virtue and as an act of homage to faithful affection. This theory … is not only exceedingly improbable in itself, but out of harmony with the place of the work in the canon of Scripture. Even if we could suppose Solomon capable of writing such a history of his own delinquencies, we could still less understand how such a “confession” should be incorporated in the sacred volume. There may be expressions in the mouth of the bride which seem at first sight to favour such a theory, but the position of Solomon throughout is quite inconsistent with the idea of illicit solicitation, or indeed with any other relation to Shulamith than that of chaste and legal marriage. The only forcible argument in favour of this view, which is generally called “the shepherd” theory, is the use of language in reference to the bridegroom which supposes him a shepherd; but this is explained by the fact which lies on the surface of the poem: that the bride is one brought up in country life, and who in the purity and simplicity of her heart addresses even Solomon himself as her shepherd. The conclusion of the poem bears this out, for Solomon is so captivated by the beauty of her character that he follows her to her native region and rural home where he is surrounded by her relations, to whom he vouchsafes his royal favour. It must not be overlooked, that by this highly artistic method not only is the contrast between the royal splendour and the pastoral simplicity heightened, but ample scope is given for the introduction of spiritual analogies, which must be granted to be the main purpose of the book and the justification of its place in the canon.”
Here is what the Pulpit Commentary says concerning the typical view (which is the view I prefer) :
“3. The typical view. It should be frankly admitted by those who reject both the allegorical and the erotic interpretation of the Song of Solomon that no theory can be sound which does not recognize what forms the principal distinctive element in each of these views. We cannot overlook the fact that the book is a religious book, and is placed as such in the canon; therefore in some sense and to some extent it must be allegorical, that is, there must be a deeper meaning in it than that which appears on the surface, and that meaning must be in harmony with the rest of Scripture. So with regard to the various erotic and naturalistic explanations, it cannot be denied that there is an historical basis on which the whole rests, so that as poetry there is an ideal human element running through it which gives it both vitality and form. It is the attempt to carry it out to an extreme which has vitiated the theory in each case. … Lowth’s view is substantially that which has been adopted by the majority of evangelical writers since his time, that the book is not to be regarded as a “continual metaphor” nor as a “parable properly so called,” but rather as a mystical allegory in which a higher sense is superinduced upon an historical verity.” He is certainly wrong, however, in his view that the bride referred to is Pharaoh’s daughter. … Keil sums up his view thus: “It depicts in dramatized lyrical expression, by songs, under the allegory of the bridal love of Solomon and Shulamith, the loving communion between the Lord and his Church, according to its ideal nature as it results from the choice of Israel to be the Church of the Lord. According to this, every disturbance of that fellowship, springing out of Israel’s infidelity, leads to an even firmer establishment of the covenant of love, by means of Israel’s return to the true covenant God, and thus God’s unchangeable love. Yet we are not to trace in the poem the historical course of the covenant relation, as if a veil of allegory had been thrown over the principal events in the theocratic history”. … The historical, literary, and spiritual aspects blend in one, and that interpretation which is given to the language is most likely to be after the mind of the Spirit, which follows his own method and harmonizes with that which he inspired the man of God to set before us, and his Church to hand down to us with the seal of its approbation upon it. The commentary must always justify, or otherwise, its own main principle; and if as a whole it satisfies the language, it cannot be very far astray.”
“It has been objected by some that we ought not to employ Solomon as in any sense a type of God or of Christ, because he was a sensual man; but such a principle would simply exclude all types, for they must be inferior in worth to that which they typify. The patriarchs were far from perfect men in their moral features, but they were plainly employed in Scripture typically as well as historically. David himself, the leading typical character and norm of the Old Testament, was guilty of great sins. Moreover, while Solomon appears in the poem itself as a sensual Eastern monarch, there is no reference to the sensuality of his life. Nor need we doubt that, sensualist as he became, and degraded as he was in the latter part of his life, he would in the earlier portion of his manhood be capable of the sincere attachment portrayed in the songs. At the same time, it may be allowed that the facts are idealized. Fundamentally they are historical. For a religious purpose they are lifted up into the region of poetry. To a considerable extent the same may be said of the Book of Job, which builds a splendid poem on a basis of facts.”
“There remains, then, only, in conclusion, to justify this typical interpretation by showing that it is in analogy with other parts of Scripture. It will not be denied by any one, however much opposed to allegory or type, that the metaphor of marriage is common through the Old Testament in connection with the exhortation to covenant faithfulness. This is so familiar in the prophetical writings that it is quite unnecessary to adduce instances. The fifth, fiftieth, and sixty-second chapters of Isaiah and the first few chapters of Hosea, with the opening words of Malachi, will suffice to remind the reader that it was an illustration which all the sacred writers made use of. It should again be remembered that we have in the forty-fifth psalm an instance of what the title describes as a “Song of Loves,” or Epithalamium, which no one doubts was composed on the occasion of Solomon’s marriage, or on some similar occasion in Israel. It is only a very extreme rejection of typical interpretation which would refuse to such a psalm any higher application than that which appears upon the surface, especially with such language in it as ver. 6, “Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre.” Admitting that such terms might be at first employed only as royal adulation and homage, it can scarcely be doubted that their place in the Word of God is due to the fact that the Israelitish king was regarded as the type of him who was called by the believing “Israelite indeed, in whom was no guile,” “the Son of God, the King of Israel” (John 1:49). The reference to Messiah was certainly believed by the Jews themselves, as we see from the introduction of it into the Chaldee paraphrase and others of the Jewish writings, and as such it is cited in Hebrews (Hebrews 1:8, 9). No satisfactory explanation of the psalm can be made out on any other view. If we deny a Messianic reference in such a case, while the New Testament confirms it, our position must be that of dealing with the whole of the Old Testament only as a fragmentary Jewish literature, without proper unity and without inspired authority.”
“… it must be admitted that the use of metaphors formed from the marriage relation and from the language of human affection, in application to the highest intercourse of the soul with the objects of faith, is common both in our Lord’s discourses and in the writings of the apostles. It is especially prominent in the Apocalypse. The Church is the bride, the Lamb’s wife. Would such metaphors be employed by the Apostle John unless he had found them already in the Old Testament? Would the Apostle Paul have spoken as he does of the mystical meaning of marriage as setting forth the union between Christ and his Church, unless the Scriptures had familiarized the people of God with the symbol?”
“We entirely sympathize with that revulsion of feeling with which healthy minds turn away from the extravagant fancifulness and arbitrariness of the allegorical school of commentators. But we refuse to follow those who, in their avoidance of one extreme, fly to the other. The book cannot be a mere literary product.”
“This Song excels all other songs of the Old Testament. They being, for the most part, songs of deliverance from captivity, Solomon for such had no occasion. In the height of glory, singular in wisdom, abounding in riches, secure in peace, he here by Divine inspiration sings the praises of Christ and his Church, the grace of holy love, the mysteries of the eternal marriage, yet all the while like Moses putting a veil before his face, because at that time there were few or none that could gaze upon such glories”. It is unworthy of any devout interpreter of such a book to despise and disparage the spiritual element in it. What so many of God’s people have recognized must be substantially the mind of the Spirit….”
“But the errors of commentators are generally gropings towards the light. The truth is more likely to be found in the mean between the two extremes. The allegorist gives the reins to his fancy and ends in absurdities; the literalist shuts himself up in his naturalism and forfeits the blessing of the Spirit. We trust that the following Exposition will show that there is a better way.”
When studying a book like Song of Songs one needs to compare Scripture with Scripture. Psalm 45 (“A Song of loves.”) is one of the keys in interpreting Song of Songs. J. Sidlow Baxter (“Explore the Book”) : “Has the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures, provided anywhere a key which really fits the lock and opens up to us the mystic doors of this love-poem in such a way as to assure us that we are rightly interpreting it? … Accepting it as a principle of Biblical exegesis that scripture is to be explained by scripture, we believe that the key to the Song of Solomon is psalm xlv.” We know from the Book of Hebrews (chapter 1) that portions of it ultimately point to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, so that means if the typical view is valid for Psalm 45 then it must be valid as well for Song of Songs.
One could also mention Isaiah 5:1-7. Is the “SONG OF MY BELOVED touching his vineyard” in Isaiah chapter 5 another Scriptural clue telling us that there’s more than meets the eye in Solomon’s Song and that it points to one “greater than Solomon” (Matthew 12:42)?
We also have another interesting similarity of language between a Messianic verse in Isaiah and a passage in Song of Songs:
“WHO IS THIS THAT COMETH OUT OF THE WILDERNESS like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant? Behold his bed, which is Solomon’s; threescore valiant men are about it, of the valiant of Israel. They all hold swords, being expert in war:” (Song of Songs 3:6-8a)
“WHO IS THIS THAT COMETH FROM EDOM****, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save.” (Isaiah 63:1)
**** in 2nd Kings 3:8 we have the word “wilderness” in connection with Edom : ” the WILDERNESS of Edom.” (2nd Kings 3:8)
Isn’t it also interesting to point out that at least 3 times (which come to mind) Shulamith is compared to a group of persons/animals? Is this not maybe another clue that Shulamith may figuratively represent the people of God?
“I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh’s chariots.” (Song of Songs 1:9)
“Thou art beautiful, O my love, as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners.” (Song of Songs 6:4)
“Return, return, O Shulamite; return, return, that we may look upon thee. What will ye see in the Shulamite? As it were the company of two armies.” (Song of Songs 6:13)
Hmmm… would calling a woman an “army” or a “company of horses” in a love song be normally appropriate?
I do believe the allegorical theory has its limits. For example, here is 1 verse that I do not believe one could apply to Christ either literally or spiritually (allegorically):
“There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number.” (Song 6:8)
Christ did not have a literal wife or literal concubines and Christ does not have “spiritual concubines” or “spiritual wives”. Christ has one bride, the Church.
To hear a presentation of problems associated with the naturalistic (strictly literal) view I suggest listening to this very helpful sermon:
Sermon : “Interpreting the Song of Songs” (David Silversides*****)
***** he favors the allegorical view
I hope God willing in the next post to continue expanding upon this introduction because much can be said about this wonderful book of the Bible.