Historically, interpreters of the Song of Solomon have steered away from a ‘naturalistic’ interpretation towards an ‘allegorical’ approach.
There can be little doubt that this was in large measure due to what was seen as the objectionable morality of the Song, if it was to be understood primarily as a poetic account of human love. What are we to make of the Song’s rather explicit sexuality?
Tom Gledhill, in his volume in the Bible Speaks Today series (IVP), discusses this with insight and sensitivity.
Gledhill notes that the main themes of the Song are ‘romantic love, courtship, beauty, passion and mutual commitment’. And these themes are expressed not only verbally, but in intimate, physical ways.
Gledhill suggests that we can read the Song in the context of a wedding celebration.
‘Its unembarrassed use of metaphor and allusion demonstrates the warmth and vitality of the God-given joys of love. It was not a thing to be hidden away in a corner, as though there were something furtive or indecent about it all, but a matter that could be brought out openly in the light and a cause for public celebration. Their physical and tactile relationship was taken for granted as a wholesome part of the entire spectrum of human interaction and was not regarded in any way as a concession merely to be tolerated.’
As we read the Song today, we cannot but help asking questions such as, What are the lovers up to? At what stage are they in their relationship? Are they transgressing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour?
We should probably assume that the lovers are a betrothed couple. Now, betrothal meant considerably more than modern engagement. It was a binding agreement. All the preliminary arrangements for marriage had been made. All that remained was for the marriage itself to take place. We may view the Song as recording (but not in any obvious order) the tentative explorations of love, the deepening intimacy, and the consummation of sexual union in marriage (Song 5:1). There is a question for all lovers who seek to remain obedient to God’s will and purpose about
‘how to make sure that the degree of tactile intimacy at any stage matches the progress towards marriage? For the sanctity of marriage must be preserved at all costs, and full sexual union is reserved for that state alone.’
We know that the course of true love does not run smooth, and
‘the lovers in the Song experience the agonies as well as the ecstasies of a growing relationship: the pain of separation, the fears of loss, the little misunderstandings which get magnified out of all proportion, the tensions of an insecure self-image, the lovers’ quarrels, all of which are part of the warp and woof of the fabric of relationships.’
But we cannot derive a complete manual of sexual morality from the Song. It is, after all, cast in the form of highly symbolic poetry. We must look at the wider teaching of the Bible. There we learn that
‘the ancient Hebrews possessed a very rigid moral code; premarital sexual relationships were prohibited; if, through human frailty, fornication occurred, the two partners were obliged to get married and the man was obliged to pay the bride-price to the girl’s father. Adultery was considered a more serious sin, as it involved the breaking of a covenant relationship already established.’
The New Testament sets similarly high standards for Christian sexual morality, and places additional emphasis on one’s inner thought-world as subject to the moral scrutiny of a holy God.
‘So the Song gives us no license to flout the moral codes of God’s covenant people. But having said that, we must remember that the Song is not a moral social tract. It is a celebration of love in all its dimensions. It is not primarily didactic, although it does…teach us a great deal about human relationships. As such it is profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.’
See also this article by Andrew Shanks.