Most of the book consists either of dialogue between the two lovers, or of soliloquy. These considerations along with the intimate sensuality of the writing, have made interpretation a challenge.
We may broadly contrast two sets of approaches – ‘spiritual’ and ‘naturalistic’. In the former, the book is primarily about the loving relationship between God and his people, or between Christ and his church. Such interpreters may interpret the book an allegory, or they may feel free to allegorise its teaching. In the latter, the book is primarily about the love between a man and a woman. Such interpreters may, however, emphasise the poetic nature of the book, and be content to find a good deal of symbolism in it.
Many of the rabbis and Church Fathers favoured an allegorical approach. In Jewish thinking, the book was sometimes regarded as an allegory setting out the history of God’s dealings with Israel. Until relatively recently, Christian scholars tended to take an allegorical approach, understanding the Song as referring to the love between God (or Christ) and his people (or the individual believer). They saw the book as an allegory of the love of Christ for the church. In fact, a literal reading of the book was condemned by the Council of Constantinople in AD 550. This approach was adopted even by Luther and Calvin, who generally eschewed allegorical interpretations of Scripture.
Richard Sibbes (The Love of Christ) holds that ‘this book contains the mutual joys and mutual praises between Christ and his church.’
James Durham says that we find in this song, ‘…the mutual love, and spiritual union and communion that is betwixt Christ and his Church’ (Clavis Cantici: or, An Exposition of the Song of Solomon, pg. 9).
Matthew Henry, while confessing the extreme difficulty of understanding the nature of this book as holy Scripture, describes it as ‘an allegory…a parable…a song…a pastoral’. He thinks it may be understood, first, as expressing the love between God and his people Israel, and, then, the love between Christ and his church. This commentator notes that ‘Christ [is] represented as the bridegroom of his church (Mt. 25:1; Rom. 7:4; 2 Co. 11:2; Eph. 5:32), and the church as the bride, the Lamb’s wife, Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9.’
Henry adds: ‘The best key to this book is the 45th Psalm, which we find applied to Christ in the New Testament, and therefore this ought to be so too.’
Matthew Poole: ‘it is not to be understood carnally, concerning Solomon and Pharaoh’s daughter, as some have fancied, although the occasion of this love and marriage may be taken from that, or rather he makes an allusion to that; but spiritually, concerning God, or Christ, and his church and people.’
JFB: ‘The song throughout consists of immediate addresses either of Christ to the soul, or of the soul to Christ.’
Fee and Stuart write of the allegorical approach:
‘Because readers were uncomfortable with its forthright, explicit exultation of human sexual love, many early interpreters—both Jewish and Christian—looked for a way around it. They found it in the allegorical “love songs” in the Prophetic Books—one way the prophets told the story of God’s love for his people, Israel, and how that love was rejected or abused (e.g., Isa 5:1–7; Hos 2:2–15). Since some of the same kind of language and imagery used by the prophets in these songs is also used throughout Song of Songs, they concluded that the book was also an allegory. In an age when it was a common practice to allegorize virtually all of Scripture, some early church fathers argued that the Song of Songs should be read as an allegory of Christ’s love for the church.’ (How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth)
Fredericks and Estes note that
‘it is undeniable that the Bible contains some genuine allegories in Isa. 5:1–7; Ezek. 16 and 23, and Gal. 4:21–31, but they are marked as allegories by the biblical writers (Brettler 2006: 186). Within the OT, numerous passages refer to the love between Yahweh and Israel in the language of marriage, including Isa. 54:5–7; Ezek. 16:8 and Hos. 2:19–20. In the NT, similar imagery is used to speak of the love between Christ and the church in 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:22–33; Rev. 19:7–9 and 21:2, 9–10. Thus both the genre of allegory and the use of the marital image for the relationship between God and his people are attested in the biblical text.’
Duguid notes that an allegorical method tends to lead to ‘free association’: to the exercise of uncontrolled imagination in deriving meanings and applications from the text.
Heiser (The Bible Unfiltered) remarks that, if the Song is an allegory of Christ’s love for the church, then the NT writers had many opportunities to confirm this:
The language of bride and bridegroom appears nearly two dozen times in the New Testament, several of which appear to reference the Church (e.g., Rev 19:7; 21:9). Jesus is referred to as the “bridegroom” (John 3:29; Mark 2:19); the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:6–10) is a clear allusion to the time when believers are finally in Jesus’ presence. In Ephesians 5:22–25 Paul specifically uses the relationship of Christ and the Church to talk about marriage…
Yet nowhere in this passage—or anywhere else in the NT—do we find imagery from Song of Solomon. The New Testament writers’ decision not to use Song of Solomon demonstrates there is no basis for presuming Song of Solomon is about Christ’s love for his Church.
Of course, even if it can be shown that allegorical interpretations of the Song is invalid, ‘such interpretations [may?] represent sublime truth that is legitimately taught elsewhere in the Scriptures, but it has been imported by the interpreter into the Song of Songs.’ (Estes)
Many scholars today would take a naturalistic approach.
As far back as the mid-19th century, the biblical commentator Albert Barnes noted:
‘the primary subject and occasion of the poem was a real historical event, of which we have here the only record, the marriage union of Solomon with a shepherd-maiden of northern Palestine, by whose beauty and nobility of soul the great king had been captivated. Starting from this historical basis, the Song of Songs is in its essential character an ideal representation of human love in the relation of marriage (Song 8:6, 7).’
According to the Reformation Study Bible:-
The poem is perhaps best understood as expressing the depth of love between the Shulamite girl and her beloved shepherd in the language of romantic fantasy. She envisions him as a dashing king, the prince of her dreams. In this interpretation Solomon is the archetypal lover, not an intruder. Yet he is not presented as one who must be envied. The Song shows us a world in which a country girl and a shepherd can be as happy and fulfilled as a king on his throne (8:11, 12).
‘It may seem strange to some readers that the Bible should contain love poetry. While the marriage relationship is meant to be a partnership and friendship on the deepest level, that does not mean that the sexual and emotional aspects of love between a man and a woman are themselves unworthy of the Bible’s attention. Sexuality and love are fundamental to the human experience; and it is altogether fitting that the Bible, as a book meant to teach the reader how to live a happy and good life, should have something to say in this area.’
For Fee and Stuart,
‘it centers on human love—love between a man and a woman, celebrating both this love itself and their attraction for one another.’
Fredericks and Estes note that ‘Kaiser (2000: 111), in discussing Prov. 5:15–23, observes that ‘the metaphors used are so similar in some key places in Song of Songs that the presumption for similar concepts must be the first line of interpretive thought’.’
Tom Gledhill (in The Bible Speaks Today series) sees the Song of Songs as a celebration of
the capacity to delight in physical beauty, to be attracted by members of the opposite sex, the desire to form secure and intimate relationships, and to express love and affection in demonstrably physical ways.
The book records the various phases in the relationship between the two lovers:-
From the aching yearnings for intimacy, to the ecstasy of consummation, from the tensions of separation and the fears of loss, to the relaxed contentment of togetherness, from coquetry and flirtation, to the triumphalism of passion; all these are traced out in the ebb and flow of a growing relationship of mutual love.
here we have a strong biblical affirmation of love, loyalty, beauty and sexuality in all their variety.
Gledhill takes a ‘naturalistic’ interpretation, viewing the Song
primarily as a literary poetic exploration of human love.
The Song does not, however, represent the Bible’s only word on the subject of human love and sexuality. Other biblical material will remind us of
our creatureliness, our finitude, our mortality, our downright sinfulness, our ultimate destiny, our social and cultural conditioning.
And, in any case,
beauty, intimacy and consummation can never be ends in themselves. They can never ultimately satisfy…They are pointers to another world, another dimension, only occasionally and very dimly perceived, always seemingly just out of reach around the corner. These transcendental longings, intimations of immortality, are part and parcel of our complex physical, psychological and spiritual natures.
The message of the Song is powerfully relevant in our own day:-
We live in an age when modern methods of mass communication have allowed an unprecedented expansion of the possibilities for the exploitation of human sexuality. Not that our own generation is necessarily more promiscuous than any other age…But today we live in an era where we are bombarded from every side with commercialised eroticism. From advertisement hoardings, films, TV, videos and novels, promiscuous sexual gratification is publicly placarded as an acceptable part of our society. Love has degenerated into lust, liberty into licentiousness. The desire for instant and immediate satisfaction of every urge is paramount. Permanency in relationships is out – with the result that we have domestic disintegration, unmarried fathers, unmarried mothers and, most recently, the tragedy of Aids. The modern Christian is immersed in this society, and is under obligation to offer the hope of a better way, the way of Christian marriage, the way of unabashed delight in a sexuality within the framework of a secure and stable relationship.
But, given that the book does not mention or even allude to God, and does not contain any overtly religious themes, we then have to ask what its place is in Holy Scripture
If the Song is not an allegory or type conveying a spiritual message, what place does it have in the Canon? It serves as an object-lesson, an extended masal (Proverb), illustrating the rich wonders of human love. As biblical teaching concerning physical love has been emancipated from sub-Christian asceticism, the beauty and purity of marital love have been more fully appreciated. The Song, though expressed in language too bold for Western taste, provides a wholesome balance between the extremes of sexual excess or perversion and an ascetic denial of the essential goodness of physical love. E. J. Young carries the purpose one step further: “Not only does it speak of the purity of human love, but by its very inclusion in the Canon it reminds us of a love that is purer than our own”. (NBD)
First ‘naturalistic’, then ‘spiritual’
We think that it is legitimate to interpret the Song of Solomon on both levels. We should, first of all, understand it as poetry expressing the love between a man and a woman. The, secondly, we should understand it as pointing to the love between God and his people, or Christ and his church.
Fredericks and Astes move a little way in this direction when they conclude that ‘there seems to be compelling justification to read the Song of Songs literally as a song of human erotic love. There may well be additional theological significance that can legitimately be drawn from the Song, but its primary meaning is centred in what it communicates about intimacy between a man and a woman.’
Some commentators incline towards a typological interpretation: this preserves the literal meaning, but identifies a higher, spiritual, meaning, in the main themes if not in the details of the book. According to this approach ‘the Song of Songs speaks of a human love, but in addition to that it is intended to serve as a pointer to the greater theological significance of the relationship between God and his people.’ (Fredericks and Estes). David Murray (Jesus On Every Page), for example, insists that if we are to read all of Scripture in a Christ-centred way, then a naturalistic reading, although valid, must be secondary to a reading that sees the Song as expressive of the relationship between Christ and his church. It is particularly important, Murray stresses, not to get lost in the fine details of the book. Don’t dissect it, he urges, feel it.
Fredericks and Estes object that
‘the text of the Song…gives no signal that it is intended to be read as a type, and the NT does not draw this connection, as it does with the typical messianic psalms.’
Provan rejects the idea that the Song is to be interpreted only, or even primarily, along allegorical lines, while arguing that such an approach need not be rejected altogether. He writes:
‘authors need not have only one aim in writing or only one intention in the words they use. Especially when we consider the language used elsewhere in the Old Testament of the God-human relationship, it becomes clear that we cannot rule out the possibility that allegory was at least partly in the mind of the author of this song. If Israel is elsewhere a bride or a vineyard (Isa. 5:1–7; Hos. 1–3); if the whole Bible story begins with a picture of intimacy in a garden, between God and humans and between human and human (Gen. 1–2); and if the individual soul can be said to desire God in much the way that a lovesick lover desires an absent beloved (e.g., Ps. 42:1–2); then it becomes difficult when reading the Song of Songs entirely to dissociate what is said of human love from what might be implied in such speech about divine-human love.’
‘We do not need to choose between literal and allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, as earlier generations of Christian readers felt they had to. There is no good reason to see erotic, earthly love as problematic either in itself or in its ability to speak by analogy of the divine-human relationship. Even if we had a problem here, of course, we should still have to ask whether we had good grounds for thinking that the original author found any difficulty in this area—and there is in truth no good reason to think that he or she did.’
Writing in the Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Tremper Longman strikes, we think, a good balance:-
The Song of Songs, then, describes a lover and his beloved rejoicing in each other’s sexuality in a garden. They feel no shame. The Song is as the story of sexuality redeemed.
Nonetheless, this reading does not exhaust the theological meaning of the Song. When read in the context of the canon as a whole, the book forcefully communicates the intensely intimate relationship that Israel enjoys with God. In many Old Testament Scriptures, marriage is an underlying metaphor for Israel’s relationship with God. Unfortunately, due to Israel’s lack of trust, the metaphor often appears in a negative context, and Israel is pictured as a whore in its relationship with God (Jer 2:2; 3:14; 31:32; Isa 54:5; Hos 2:19). One of the most memorable scenes in the Old Testament is when God commands his prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute to symbolize his love for a faithless Israel. In spite of the predominantly negative use of the image, we must not lose sight of the fact that Israel was the bride of God, and so as the Song celebrates the intimacy between human lovers, we learn about our relationship with God.
So we come full circle, reaching similar conclusions to the early allegorical approaches to the Song. The difference, though, is obvious. We do not deny the primary and natural reading of the book, which highlights human love, and we do not arbitrarily posit the analogy between the Song’s lovers and God and Israel. Rather, we read it in the light of the pervasive marriage metaphor of the Old Testament.
Longman goes on to comment on the teaching of the New Testament in this regard:-
The New Testament also uses human relationships as metaphors of the divine-human relationship, and none clearer than marriage. According to Ephesians 5:22-23, the church is the bride of Christ (see also Rev 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17). So Christians should read the Song in the light of Ephesians and rejoice in the intimate relationship that they enjoy with Jesus Christ.
Some think that the book is made up of a random collection of love songs, originally independent and then strung together. This is unlikely, for there seems to be a genuine sequence in the book. It begins with the girl’s first days in the palace of the king (Song 1:1-14), then there is a delightful countryside scene (Song 1:15-2:17). This is followed by the girl meditating on her fiance‚ (Song 3:1-5), the wedding day (Song 3:6-11) and the wedding night (4:1-5:1).
A lapse in the relationship follows (Song 5:2-6:3), but the two eventually make up (Song 6:4-13). A beautiful scene in the king’s bedroom is then described (Song 7:1-10) and further scenes in the countryside (Song 7:11-8:14). To see it as a story with a sequence gives much more meaning than to see it as a set of isolated love songs. It is important to note that there is no sexual intercourse before the marriage; a significant fact in the light of modern behaviour.
1. The Song of Songs, as its title suggests (Song 1:1), claims to be the best song on married love ever written. It is superior to all other love poetry, and so we must give full heed to it.
2. It describes love in poetic rather than prosaic terms. This stands in contrast to the emphasis today on the mechanics and techniques of love-making which so easily debases the relationship.
3. God is concerned about the physical. After all, he made us, and he made us to make love. As this is such an important part of peoples’ lives he provided a whole book about it. But, to keep it in balance, this is only one book out of the sixty-six in the Bible.
4. It is not wrong to talk about the human body (see Song 4:1-5; 5:10-16; 6:5-7; 7:1-5). Today we will probably not use quite the same language as this book does, for it was written in a particular cultural setting. Also some of the descriptions may seem strange to us, but they refer as much to feel as to actual physical shape.
5. We must know God’s timing in love-making. Love must not be aroused until it is ready (Song 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). The world says, any time, any place. God says, my time, my place.
6. Family training is all important (Song 8:8-10). The girl’s brothers, especially, trained her to be a ‘wall’ to keep out unwanted intruders rather than a ‘door’ that would let anyone in and so do damage to her life. The training proved successful.
7. There is a danger in taking each other for granted (Song 5:2-8). These verses constitute a timely warning to those who fail to respond to the loving approaches of their spouse and describe the regret that follows.
8. Married love is exclusive (Song 4:12). In terms of physical love each partner must remain as a locked garden and a sealed fountain. Each life is a private vineyard for the other (8:12). Neither is on the open market.
9. The smallest things can spoil a healthy relationship (Song 2:15). Both partners must watch out for ‘the little foxes’ that spoil the blossoms of those early days of marriage. True love is both unquenchable and without price (8:6-8). No-one is immune from those things that seek to quench the fires of love, but true love, because its source is in the heart of God, can never be put out. Likewise, no material things can ever buy love.
10. Used illustratively, the song says some beautiful things about the relation of Christ with his beloved church. We are reminded, among other things, of the strength of Christ’s love (Song 8:7); his delight to hear the prayers of the church (8:13); the sense of yearning for his presence (8:14); the invitation of Christ to share his company (2:13); the dangers of the failure to respond to his knocking (5:2-8; cf. Rev. 3:20).
We cannot do without this book, especially in an age of ‘free love’. Let it remind us that God is deeply concerned about our love relationships, not only to him but to each other.
(John Balchin, NBC)
The Song of Songs and the wider Biblical context
According to the Reformation Study Bible,
The Song of Solomon reveals three qualities of love between a man and a woman: self-giving, desire, and commitment. In all these ways love reflects the greater love of God our Creator. God delights in us and gives Himself to us. God desires us wholly for Himself. God feels deeply both the pain and pleasure of His relationship with us. Although it is not proper to attribute sexuality to God, there is an analogy between the love we experience in marriage and the love that God has for us. The Old Testament prophets compare the love of God for His people to the love of a bridegroom for the bride (e.g., Jer. 2:2; Hos. 2:14–20). Christian marriage, according to Paul, should be modeled on the most perfect expression of such love, the self-giving love of Christ for His church and its willing response (Eph. 5:22, 33). The climax of the Song of Solomon is the praise of vehement and faithful love (8:6, 7). (Reformation Study Bible)
The Song has always been counted as belonging within the canon of Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. It is fair to say that the process of canonisation took place in parallel with the process of reinterpreting spiritually. However, it is not possible to say with any certainty what the cause-and-effect relationship may have been between these two processes.
The Song is sometimes regarded as belonging to the Wisdom literature, along with Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and some of the Psalms. One suggestion is that just as Job explores the riddle of suffering, and Ecclesiastes the riddle of existence, so the Song explores the riddle of love.
Many have noted the Song’s ‘secular’ feel. The old commentator Matthew Henry spoke for many when he noted:-
There is not the name of God in it; it is never quoted in the New Testament; we find not in it any expressions of natural religion or pious devotion, no, nor is it introduced by vision, or any of the marks of immediate revelation.
But, as Gledhill remarks, there was no clear distinction made in Hebrew thought between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’:-
The whole of life was sacred. God was both transcendent and immanent. He was over all and in all…This idea of God permeating every area of life was fundamental to Israelite society. It was essentially a holistic view of the world. The social world, the natural order, the realm of spirituality, were all mutually interlocking and interdependent parts of the whole…If we ask the questions, ‘Where is God in the Song?’ the answer is ‘Nowhere and everywhere.’ He is nowhere explicitly mentioned, everywhere assumed.
Hints for reading the Song of Solomon
Fee and Stuart (How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth) offer the following guidelines:
- The original readers of the Song would have assumed the norm of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. The book celebrates faithfulness before and after marriage, and to the consummation and continuation of love between and married man and woman.
- The Song belongs to a genre of love poetry that would have been sung at wedding banquets. Such songs did not celebrate sexual attraction generally, but within marriage. ‘They speak of attraction, fidelity, warding off the temptation to cheat, the preciousness of love, its joys and pleasures, and the dangers of infidelity.’
- In describing godly feelings and choices, the Song commends these to the readers (and hearers). Passionate and faithful love within marriage is taught lyrically, rather than propositionally.
- In contrast to much modern teaching, the Song focuses on romance rather than on technique. ‘Our culture encourages people to fulfill themselves, whatever their sexual tastes and desires, whereas the Song of Songs is concerned with how one person can respond faithfully to the attractiveness of another and fulfill the needs of the other. In most of the modern world, romance is thought of as something that precedes marriage, and is based primarily on feelings or pleasure. In the Song of Songs, romance is something that actually characterizes marriage.’
Commentaries by Durham, Gledhill, Longman, Fredericks & Estes, Duguid, Garrett, Curtis, Cleverley.