Ask Pastor George: Song of Solomon

Oct 18, 2017

Interpreting Song of Solomon

Dr. Robertson,


I'm emailing you to ask for how you approach and interpret Song of Solomon and how it fits into the narrative of the Bible as whole? We are currently in a couples small group going through a study of Song of Solomon and have found differing and conflicting approaches to interpreting this book and are at a loss on what to do. We have in the past interpreted this book as an allegory for God's passion for his people but others interpret this strictly as the relationship between man and wife.

 

We have looked into resources on Desiring God, the Gospel Coalition, and collection of sermons by Charles Spurgeon on Song of Solomon about how to approach this scripture and found conflicting views throughout. It appears the newer approach to interpreting this book is centered on the relationship between a husband and wife and is not considered to be allegorical to God's relationship with his people, but I have a hard time understanding the role of the book in the narrative of the Bible as whole with this viewpoint. I have in the past approached Song of Solomon similarly to how Charles Spurgeon expresses his understanding of it and with it being a poem I have taken many components in it to be symbolic of or representing other things than what is explicitly said. But after it was our turn in our small group to “teach” and this approach was not received well by our group, I’m afraid of if we have been wrongly interpreting scripture.

 

For all my Love of the Puritans, I do not adhere to their strict interpretation of the Song of Solomon as allegorical of Christ’s love for the Church. While they have said many beautiful and true things about Christ’s love for the Church, those points could have been made more clearly from other texts of Scripture.

 

At the same time, Song of Solomon does indirectly say something about Christ’s love of his Church because, as Paul said effectively, the mystery of marriage is intended by God to convey the mystery of the gospel (Eph 5:21ff). To understand marriage better is to understand the gospel better, and vice versa.

 

However, Song of Solomon is a divinely inspired love poem celebrating conjugal marriage and must be studied and preached as it was intended. To do anything other is to rob the Church of a blessing both in deepening its marriages and seeing a God who has given us such generous love.

 

I have also provided an outline of the key points of the introduction to Tremper Longman’s commentary on Song of Solomon. This will give you the different approaches taken in church history and the major theological themes we find in the book. Additionally, the three sermons linked below are a series Dr. Robert Rayburn preached on Song of Solomon. They each include the audio and the transcript.

 

·      Song of Songs No. 1

·      Song of Songs No. 2

·      Song of Songs No. 3

Tremper Longman - Song of Songs

 

Title

The title Song of Songs comes from the first two words of the first verse in the Hebrew text (šîr haššîrîm). The most obvious meaning of this phrase follows from a recognition that the syntax (the use of the same word in construct relationship, first in the singular and the second time in the plural) denotes a superlative in Hebrew. This, in other words, is the best song of all (17).

 

Style

The Song bears all the characteristics of what we recognize as Hebrew poetry: terseness, parallelism, imagery, and secondary poetical devices (29).

 

Date

Being lyrical in character, with no historical allusions, most of the songs are “undatable.”

 

History of Interpretation (2 main ways of interpreting)

Decision of genre determines the direction of interpretation. (47)

 

In any case, there are two major interpretive questions that will also shape the following section: (1) Is the Song allegory or natural love poetry? (2) Does the Song have a plot? We will answer these questions by examining the following interpretive options: allegory, love poetry, drama, cultic poetry, psychological poetry, and wisdom. These are not all mutually exclusive categories, and thus we must remain open to the possibility of combining some of them in our final genre identification. (47)

 

1) Allegorical interpretations

Dominant way of interpreting until the middle of the nineteenth century. (47)

 

Allegorical piece of literature vs. allegorical interpretive strategy.

a.     Allegorical piece of literature

                                              i.     “The former is an intentional piece of writing: an author intends the reader to take the surface meaning of his text as symbolic of another level of meaning.” (49)

                                            ii.     “Obvious” in its intent to be allegorical. (49)

b.     Though allegory appears in the Bible, based on our definition, Song of Songs is not an allegory. (49)

c.     “The book itself has no signals that it is to be read in any other way than as a love song. No one can dispute this fact. However, this observation does not end the discussion. Even though the Song is not an allegory as such, it has been the object of an allegorical interpretation from the very beginning of recorded commentary on the book.” (49)

                                              i.     Most early Jewish interpretations were allegorical – the man being God and the woman being Israel. (51)

                                            ii.     Early Christian interpretation pulled from the Jewish tradition.

1.     Hippolytus: two breasts of the woman being the Old and New Testaments (4:5).

d.     Origen “desexed” Song of Songs.

                                              i.     “The “Bridegroom” and the “Bride” in the Song are immediately spiritualized in Origen’s conception of the book; they are identified, respectively, with Jesus Christ and the Church or, at least occasionally, the individual human soul.” (56) He said the sexual elements were of no profit and did not advance the narrative.

e.     Jerome, like Origen, was into asceticism and so renounced any “fleshly” pleasures. Unsurprisingly, he also interpreted the book allegorically. (59)

f.      Luther changed the allegorical interpretation to God and Luther (63).

g.     Men like John Wesley were repulsed by anything other than an allegorical reading. Too sensual (64).

h.    The allegorical approach was the dominant approach but is now “a kind of eccentric archaism.” (64)

i.      No other book has undergone quite the shift in interpretation Song of Songs has. (64)

j.      “There is absolutely nothing in the Song of Songs itself that hints of a meaning different from the sexual meaning. As a result, the assignment of spiritual meaning to the text assumes an incredibly arbitrary character.” (66)

 

In sum, most of the motivation for interpreting Song of Songs allegorically stemmed from the belief that its sexual nature had no place in the Bible. These approaches separate body and soul, saying that anything fleshly is inherently sinful and anything having to do with the soul is inherently spiritual.

 

Although it could be said easy to do so and is an attractive option, there is not a convincing case for reading Song of Songs allegorically.

 

2) The literal/natural interpretation

The literal/natural reading of the Song resists the idea that the Song is a code, saying something different than the words imply. There is no need for a special key to unlock the code, but rather the interpreter applies the same principles to the Song as he or she would to any other comparable writing. (69)

 

As mentioned, it is fair to say that the literal/natural approach to interpretation has replaced the allegorical approach as the standard way of understanding the intention of the poem. However, that is just the first part of the question. Among those who agree that the Song is a poem about love, there are disagreements about precisely what type of love the poem represents. We will now turn to a discussion of the main schools of thought among those who believe it concerns human love under the following topics: (1) the dramatic approach (two character and three character) and (2) the anthological approach. (70)

 

Dramatic approach

About human love but also tells a story (70)

 

“The dramatic approach has the same fatal shortcoming as the allegorical approach. Nothing in the text supports taking this interpretive strategy. In the first place, the Song is composed of dialogue with absolutely no stage directions. There is no narrative voice that guides readers as they process the speeches of the characters.” (74)

 

Love Poetry

“In the section to follow on Structure, we will admit to literary dynamics that cause us to see an overall coherence to the book, but not a strict narrative unity, that is, a plot. We thus conclude that the Song is an anthology of love poems, a kind of erotic psalter.” (75)

 

Genre

“We have surveyed the major options and have anticipated our identification of the Song as an anthology of love poetry.” (82)

 

“In terms of the structure of the Song, we will below explicate the relationship

between the poems; for now suffice it to say that they are only loosely connected by

recurrent refrains, a consistency of persona, and repetition of themes and metaphors.” (82)

 

“Our genre identification, rather, triggers a reading strategy that will concentrate on unpacking metaphors, recovering ancient customs and conventions, and describing the thoughts and emotions evoked by the poet.” (82)

 

“We should also pay attention to the form of the individual poems that constitute the Song. The introduction to each poem will comment on its form and, when helpful, give a description. Here, we will just list the different forms and give examples in parentheses. First, we see the use of both monologue (2:8–17; 7:12–14) as well as dialogue (1:15–17; 2:1–7; 4:1–5:1; 8:13–14). Second, in terms of content we have noted admiration songs (1:15–17; 2:1–3; 3:6–11), descriptions of experience (2:4–7; 5:2–7; 6:11–12), songs of yearning (3:1–5; 8:1–4; 8:13–14), invitations (2:10–14; 4:8–9; 7:12–14), the tease (1:7–8), and the waṣf (4:1–7, 12–14; 5:10–16;

6:4–6; 7:2–8).” (83)

 

The significance and theology of the Song of Songs

“It is important to insist on the Song’s primary significance in relationship to an important aspect of our humanity: love and sexuality.” (95)

 

“Indeed, as human love poetry, the Song plays a crucial role in the Bible as a

whole. In answer to the question, “What is a book like the Song of Songs doing in

the canon?” we respond by asking the reader to imagine a Bible without the Song.

Without the Song, the Church and synagogue would be left with spare and virtually

exclusively negative words about an important aspect of our lives. Sexuality is a

major aspect of the human experience, and God in his wisdom has spoken

through the poet(s) of the Song to encourage us as well as warn us about its power

in our lives.” (95)

 

 As opposed to the views held by those supporters of the allegorical view, “God is interested in us as whole people. We are not souls encased in a husk of flesh. The Song celebrates the joys of physical touch, the exhilaration of exotic scents, the sweet sound of an intimate voice, the taste of another’s body. Furthermore, the book explores human emotion—the thrill and power of love as well as its often attendant pain. The Song affirms human love, intimate relationship, sensuality, and sexuality.” (95)

 

“The Church has a tendency to make the topic of sexuality a taboo; it is rarely spoken about or discussed in the context of Christian fellowship. The Song, however, affirms the importance of love and sex and provides encouragement and a platform for frank talk about sex among God’s people. Unfortunately, it is my observation that Christian leaders rarely teach or preach on the Song. In a word, the Song celebrates human sexuality and love.” (95)

 

“In much recent writing, the Song has been correctly understood as love poetry but incorrectly used in order to promote specific dating or sexual practices. It is important to remember that the Song is not a dating guide or a sex manual. It is not a “how-to” book, but rather poetry intent on evoking a mood more than making mandates to the reader concerning specific types of behavior. Nonetheless, the Song’s passionate and intimate descriptions of sensual touch may serve the purpose of freeing married couples to experiment and experience a physical relationship they wrongly thought proscribed by their Christian commitment.” (97)

 

“The Song presents us with both celebration and also warning concerning that most intense and fragile of all human emotions, romantic love, and its physical expression, sexuality. (2:5, 7; 3:5; 5:8; 8:4). (99)

 

“We believe that the Song’s primary intention is to address the issues of human love and relationships. According to the Song, love is mutual, exclusive, total, and beautiful. To ignore or suppress this is to distort the message of the book. The man and the woman of the Song are not historical personages but rather poetic types, and as such the poet invites the readers to identify with them. In this way, the work encourages intimate, passionate love.” (100)

 

If we shift from the allegorical to the literal/natural reading, we find that the church has, in some cases, essentially “decanonized” the book by not preaching it due to its sexual nature. If we believe in the whole canon of the Bible, we must be careful not to do this. Here’s how it fits into the whole canon.

 

The Story of Sexuality Redeemed

“The creation of sexual relationship, to its distortion, and then finally to its redemption.” (100)

 

“Perhaps most relevant for our understanding of this text’s relationship with the Song of Songs is the concluding statement of the chapter: “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” It is precisely in the area of sexuality (“nakedness”) that their intimacy and total vulnerability to one another is expressed most powerfully.” (102)

 

“By the very next chapter they cover themselves with fig leaves, seeking refuge from the gaze of the other (Gen. 3:7). Why such a radical transformation in their relationship? The story of the Fall accounts for the change.” (104)

 

“It is with this background in Genesis 2–3 that we return again to the Song of Songs. In this section, we will simply provide a perspective, an overview of our reading of the Song’s contribution to the theme of the sexuality or intimacy redeemed…In the Song of Songs we read about the man and the woman in the garden. They are naked, and feel no shame. Specific poems that support this statement include 1:15–17; 2:1–7, 8–17; 4:10–5:1; 6:1–3;¹¹ 6:11–12; 7:7–11 (English 7:6–10);¹² 7:12–14 (English 7:11–13). One cannot help but to hear echoes of the

Garden of Eden while reading these poems.” (105)

 

Illuminating the Divine-Human Relationship

“Earlier we criticized an allegorical approach to the Song that read a theological meaning onto the surface of the book, and in its place we argued support for the idea that the Song is a collection of poems that celebrate and caution concerning human love. However, we now come full circle in order to affirm the legitimacy of a theological reading of the book. Read within the context of the canon, the Song has a clear and obvious relevance to the divine-human relationship. After all, throughout the Bible God’s relationship to humankind is likened to a marriage. In this metaphor God is the husband and his people are his wife.” (107)

 

Conclusion

“In summary, then, the Song of Songs has a large, but often neglected, contribution to make to the religious community and to society. In the first place, it affirms love, sex, and, if read properly within the context of the canon, marriage. Second, it warns readers that such an intense emotion has its dangers. Though the Song’s surface meaning is clearly concerned with human sexuality, a canonical reading offers at least two other major avenues of understanding the Song. (1) Human sexuality is part of the story of the creation, fall, and redemption of human relationships. God created marriage (Genesis 2), but that relationship was harmed by sin (Genesis 3). Yet the Song holds out the promise of healing, though complete harmony in relationships awaits the eschaton. (2) Throughout the Bible relationship with God is described by the metaphor of marriage. As with any metaphor, the reader must observe a proper reticence in terms of pressing the analogy. Nonetheless, from the Song we learn about the emotional intensity, intimacy, and exclusivity of our relationship with the God of the universe.” (112)