Song of Songs is, to many, one of the greatest love poems ever written. It is patently a collection of ancient Hebrew love poems celebrating the experiences of a lover and his beloved as they taste the beauty, power, agony, and joys of human sexual love. Is that appropriate, however, for a book that is part of the Hebrew-Christian Scriptures? If you’re looking from the outside in, you might be wondering what Song of Songs is doing in the Bible at all.

There are two primary issues: the book’s existence and its interpretation.

How important is Song of Songs?

Why is the Book of Song of Songs part of the canon of Scriptures? If this book were found alone, detached from biblical context and tradition, it undoubtedly would be viewed as secular. The book has no obvious religious content. Its few references to a historically identifiable person and to known places show its Jewish provenance. But the usual marks of biblical literature– its religious themes, institutions, and practices, are absent. There are no references to law, grace, sin, salvation, or prayer. In fact, there is not a single, indisputable reference to Yahweh in the text.

Yet Song of Songs is in our Bible. Furthermore, it has held a significant place in the affections of the synagogue and the church. In Israel the book was associated liturgically with the greatest Hebrew festival, being read on the eighth day of Passover. During the first fifteen centuries of the Christian church, most major Christian writers turned their attentions to this little work. Neither Jews nor Christians have been able to ignore it. Pope (not to be confused with The Pope), with reason, says that no other composition of comparable size in world literature “has provoked or inspired such a volume and variety of comment and interpretation”.

Since the Book of Song of Songs is in the sacred canon, how should it be interpreted? No book in Scripture has had such varied treatment. The options are so broad that some have despaired.

Approaches to interpretation

1. An Allegorical Song

The oldest documented interpretation of the Song of Songs sees it as an allegory.

This position was well established by the first century and has a long history in both Judaism and Christianity.

An allegory is an extended metaphor. Allegory normally does not spawn from history or the real world; it comes from the mind and imagination of the author. Its purpose is not to present real events related to identifiable places and persons, but rather to communicate spiritual truth of an abstract nature. Allegory, used from the earliest days of Greek literature, is an old device in which there is a divorce between the obvious literal meaning and the “high” spiritual message.

A distinguished line of successors picked up allegorical interpretation of religious literature. Philo, Origen, Jerome, Bernard, Calvin, and many other illustrious figures stand in that train.

The Jews saw in the Song of Songs a depiction of the relationship of Yahweh to his chosen people, Israel. This is found from the earliest known Jewish interpreters such as Rabbi Aqiba in the first century to the interpretations in the Targum, the Midrash, the great medieval commentators such as Saadia, Rashi, and Ibn Ezra, down to some present day orthodox scholarship. Early Christian interpreters took a similar tack. Hippolytus, who lived about 200 A.D., is our first known example of allegorical interpretation. He was soon followed by Origen (who wrote a ten-volume commentary and a series of homilies on the Song), Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, and a host of other noteworthies, including some in our own century. These have seen the Song primarily as a statement of the love of Christ and his church.

There are problems, however, in accepting the Song of Songs as an allegory.

First, nothing in the text indicates that the intention of the author was to allegorize. The result is that the meanings in the text, if taken allegorically, are open to the imagination of every interpreter.

Second, the people, places, and experiences recorded seem to be real, not literary devices. The use of names like Solomon, Jerusalem, Lebanon, En Gedi, Tirzah, and others do not have the ring of metaphor about them.

A third reality is that this little book does not have the narrative character or clear progressive story-line that we usually expect in allegory.

The result of the use of the allegorical approach is that the Song of Songs has become a field for fertile imaginations with few or no hermeneutical controls. The boundaries of interpretation have tended to be as wide as the creative fancies of the scholars.

Luther was an opponent of allegorical interpretation, calling it, “uncertain, unreliable, and by no means safe for supporting faith”. Although he also had difficulty admitting the literal sense of the Song. Rather, he saw in the bride a happy and peaceful Israel under Solomon’s rule. The Song was for Luther a hymn in which Solomon “commends his own government to us and composes a sort of encomium of peace and of the present state of the realm”. The modern reader though finds few references in this text to provoke meditation on political philosophy.

2. A Natural Song

Occasionally through history someone has become unhappy with the allegorical treatment and has raised a voice for a more natural approach to the plain sense of the text. Until the modern era, such bravery same with a price.

In the first century some Jewish readers understood the Song of Songs literally. Some were even singing portions of it in their drinking houses. This evoked the wrath of Rabbi Aqiba, who considered this blasphemy.

Theodore of Mopsuestia, at the end of the fourth century, rejected the allegorical meaning and read Song of Songs in its plain sense. The Council of Constantinople in 553 condemned his views. In the same era Jovinian, a Roman monk, proposed that the book demonstrated how virginity and celibacy were not more virtuous than a holy marriage. This was too much for Augustine, who responded hostilely to him in the treatise Adversus Jovinianum.

In Reformation times in Geneva, Sabastian Castellio saw in it “a colloquy of Solomon with his lady friend.” Such, he felt, should not have a place in the Scriptures. This distressed Calvin, who assisted in Castellio’s departure from Geneva. Often those who dared to reject the allegorical approach questioned the spiritual value of the book.

A welcome relief came in the work of Robert Lowth.

Lowth was the eighteenth-century Anglican bishop who put all biblical scholarship in his debt with the discovery of a key to biblical poetry (parallelism). He suggested that the book actually tells us about the marriage feast of Solomon. The bride, he felt, may have been the daughter of Pharaoh. He accepted the Song as historical but was willing to see something typological here.

Solomon, the king of Israel, took a Gentile bride and made her a part of the people of God. Lowth felt that there might be reason to see here a foreshadowing of that other King, the Prince of Peace, who would take from among the Gentiles a bride, the church.

This approach helped prepare the way for the stance most commonly taken among biblical expositors in our own time. As Horace Hummel points out, modern scholarship has moved “massively and almost unanimously away from allegory, at least in any strict sense of the term.”

3. A Dramatic Song

In the last century Delitzsch revived a suggestion of Origen, a suggestion largely undeveloped in the period, that the Song was a drama. A number of writers have picked this up and elaborated it. There has been no consistency though in the development of this view. Absence of stage directions, lack of agreement on how many characters or who said what, the lack of any clear signs of division into “acts” or “scenes,” and the fact that dramatic form never really caught on in the East have prevented this approach from gaining any real support.

4. A Cultic Song

Recent studies of comparative literature of the ancient Near East have given us another approach to the interpretation of our text, the cultic-mythological. According to this view the poem doesn’t really speak of human love at all; rather, it is either the celebration of the sacred marriage of a goddess with the king, or else it is the celebration of the victory of the divine king over death and drought. The origins of the Song are thus apparent in Canaanite mythology where the union of the goddess and her once-lost lover represented a restoration of fertility and well-being to the land. Of course, our text, so the argument goes, reflects Hebrew adaptations to cover the pagan origins.

A careful reading of the text is enough to refute this view.

Arthur Weiser is right when he says such a view can only be maintained by reading into the text what is not there or by amending the text to fit the hypothesis. He sees it as based on ill-founded conjectures and thinks it difficult to believe that heathen cultic songs were admitted “without further ado into the religious life of Israel and into its canon.”

The conclusion to all this is that…

Today the majority of commentators, regardless of their theological position, tend to begin their approach to the text with the assumption that this is first of all Hebrew love poetry that originated in the ancient experience/s of human love. They find that they cannot accept the divorce of literal and spiritual meanings so often assumed by the allegorist. They feel that the baseline here is in history. There may be more than the literal, but that is not up for discussion until one can accept the meaning of the plain sense of the text.

A factor that cannot be ignored that has its influence here is that allegory as a method for interpretation of Scripture has fallen out of honor in most scholarly circles. Louth explains: “Basically, I think we felt that there is something dishonest about allegory. If you interpret a text by allegorizing it, you seem to be saying that it means something which it patently does not. It is irrelevant, arbitrary: by allegory it is said, you can make a text mean anything you like”. While Louth makes a strong appeal for a reconsideration of allegory, he is largely a voice crying in a wilderness.

Keep reading

Song of Songs Expositor's Bible Commentary Solomon

The above content was abridged from the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (12 Vols). This post is getting too long already, so if you want to read how the commentators reconcile the seemingly human quality of the book inside Holy Canon, get your copy of the Expositor’s Bible Commentary today! You can also look inside before you buy.

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