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THE SONG OF SOLOMON

 

Bible Studies for the Dean=s Class

Cathedral Church of the Advent

Advent, 2005

 

 

Class One

Introduction to the Study of the Song of Solomon

November 28, 2005

 

 

At first it may seem strange to study the Song of Solomon during the four Sundays of Advent.  But there are a number of reasons to do it.  First, the book simply does not get taught or even read in the Church, and so having four classes to spend time in this book is a rare treat.  Second, the period of time from Thanksgiving through Christmas is family time, like the festivals in Israel.  These can be wonderful times, but they can also be very strained times.  To think about a book like the Song of Solomon that teaches men and women how to express their love and appreciation for each other provides a good counterbalance to the shallow and sometimes formal gift-giving way that pre-occupies our lives at this time of year--or any time.  Third, when we look at the way that the Church has used the Song of Solomon down through the ages, we will see a connection to this holy time of the year.  The medieval meditations, prayers, and hymns about the incarnation often use the language of the Song.

In fact, few books of the Bible have had as much written about them as the Song of Solomon.  Perhaps because it seemed to be such a physical book it commanded more attention, not simply to justify its place in the canon but to explain how to read it.  For example, Origen in the third century wrote a ten-volume commentary on the Song.   Bernard of Clairvaux had over 80 sermons on the first chapter and a half.  These are but two examples.  The book was a favorite of monastic orders and ascetics down through the history of the Church.

In this short study we will first survey the approaches to the book.  Then, the second lesson will study the imagery that is used in it.  The third class will walk through the book, drawing principles from the material for the relationship of a man and a woman in marriage.  And the final session will survey the way the book has been used in the spiritual meditations of the Church.

 

The Song which is Solomon=s

The heading of the book uses the superlative expression, the Asong of songs,@ meaning that this is the most exquisite song.  It identifies the work as belonging to Solomon. 

Some have interpreted this to mean that it was written for or about Solomon.

They are troubled by the fact that someone who had so many wives would be the author of a song about the pure intimate love between a man and a woman.  But saying it was written for Solomon would raise even more questions than saying Solomon wrote it.  If he was such a bad example, why would a pious author mention him?  But if Solomon wrote it, he could have written it early in his life, or could have written it to set forth the ideal.

Everything in the song fits the time and the circumstances of Solomon.  The local color of the places, the description of the court and literary form of a song are at home in the golden age.  Solomon wrote many songs and proverbs.  The Bible also tells us that Solomon had a vast knowledge of trees, plants, birds, and animals (1 Kings 4).  In the 116 verses of this song, 21 varieties of plants and 15 species of animals are mentioned.  Even the low number of foreign words in the text are such that would be normal in a royal court with international connections.  There is really no insurmountable reason to say Solomon did not write this.

The issue of polygamy is important in the study of the Old Testament.  Before the Law was given through Moses, there are a number of polygamous marriages.  The need was great to have as many children as possible, due to wars, disease, and other catastrophes.  But after the time of Samuel=s father, we have no clear case of a commoner having more than one wife.  It was too expensive for such a person to pay the bride price and the dowry too many times (Jacob had to work 14 years for Rachel and Leah).  But kings did have more than one wife, in violation of the Law (Deut. 17).  They usually did this for the sake of treaties and family alliances.  Solomon had a thousand women in court.  But the curious thing is that he does not seem to have a lot of children.  His son Rehoboam succeeded him.  We know of no others.  So it may be that the size of the harem, so important in competition between kings, may have been more courtly than physical. 

In other wisdom literature, such as Proverbs, we only read of a father and a mother training the children.  There is no mention of more than one wife.  The simple plan of creation is assumed in the wisdom of Israel--one man and one woman united through life to produce a Godly seed.

 

Views of the Song

Different folks approach this book of the Bible differently.  There are, as a result, many views for it.  But three seem to predominate:

1.   It is a unified, lyrical poem with the dramatic form of dialogue.  The poetry is presented from speakers, the woman and the man; they are persons, giving the poetry a dramatic form of dialogue; but they are also archetypes and types.  An archetype is a pattern--so the man represents any man in such a situation, and the woman any woman in such a situation.  This makes the material instructive for the reader.  A type is a form of prophecy that anticipates a future corresponding reality.  The Church has focused almost exclusively on this, the union of the Bridegroom and the Bride in biblical theology--Christ and the Church.  We shall come back to this in the final lesson.

2.   It is a drama, or a melodrama.   This view sees a tension or crisis in the story that creates the drama.  One interpretation actually suggests that the woman is a prostitute and divine love converts her.  The Adaughters@ in the book then become the equivalent of a Greek chorus.  Other interpretations see it as a liturgical drama to be used in the worship.  Others suggest there are three characters, a shepherd, the shepherdess, and the king (the villain, who tries to take her away).

3.   It is an anthology of loosely connected individual love lyrics.  In other words, there is no drama, no unity, simply a collection of poems.  These would be recited during wedding festivities, for example.

I would follow the first view.  There is unity and progression through the song.  The identical imagery and local color are maintained throughout, the refrains are repeated (2:7, 3:5, 8:4), and the same characters are in all the parts--the bride, the bridegroom, and the daughters of Jerusalem.

It is close to a drama, but not fully a drama.  If we say it is a full drama, there are some difficulties: the difficulty of assigning the parts to the participants, the lack of an obvious plot, the lack of narrative links, and no known drama from the ancient world with which to compare it.  And yet there are scenes--outdoors, which is dangerous; the cultivated land, which is paradise; inside the city, which is private and supportive; and outside in the city, which is dangerous.  There is a loose sequence of the poems that certainly can be explained as the development of the relationship between the two lovers.    

 

The Interpretation of the Song

There are three ways this song is interpreted: literally, as an allegory, or as typology.  I think the best approach is a combination of the first and third, as the following discussion will explain.

1.   The Literal Interpretation.  The poem is primarily about human love between a man and a woman.  It celebrates the dignity and purity of human love, physical, emotional, and spiritual, as God created it. 

The use of the word Aliteral@ in biblical studies includes the use of figures of speech--that is why we can say we take a passage literally--it has a literal meaning behind the figure.  We hear a lot today about Ataking the Bible literally.@  What people mean by that is that it should not be taken literally, but can be given a meaning that we want to give it--some folks like to attack another position by cavalierly saying it is literalist.  That is not a proper way to work with the Bible.  The words of the text must be interpreted in their contexts, with the meanings that they had at that time.  If there are figures of speech in the passage, we must interpret them as the author meant them to be interpreted, and that will yield a literal meaning to the sentence.   

Why would such a message be in the Bible?  Well, the world around Israel, as also today, had so corrupted and perverted sex and marriage that people were warned again and again to remain pure from it.  They, as today, were caught in the middle: the pagan world made sex an idol, a perversion; and the pious leaders in trying to combat that made it a taboo.  The perversion created guilt; the taboo created false guilt.  But as a balance to those warnings, here was a book that said it was perfectly acceptable and right to enjoy sex within the place that it belonged.

In the Bible God created the man and the woman according to Genesis 1 and 2.  God created sex.  God told the couple to be fruitful and multiply.  So sex within a marriage was a God-given gift.  The man and the woman were created by God; and before sin entered, they were naked, and felt no shame--no guilt, no fear of exploitation, no vulnerability.  There was innocence and integrity.  After sin entered the race, nakedness became a symbol of vulnerability and exploitation.  But in marriage, it was meant to be natural and sanctioned by God.  This book then redeems a love story that has gone awry--it seeks to restore pre-fallen bliss as the lovers try to find that garden again.

The book is clearly an adult book in the good sense.  But in describing the feelings and desires, it never stoops to be crass or crude, as the world would.  It is in the context of Holy Scripture, and so remains on the heightened level of purity.  Besides, lovers who respect and value each other are not crude and base; they find their own language of love, which they each understand and appreciate.  It keeps their intimacy beautiful, and prevents it from becoming profane.  And what is fascinating about this book is how the female has more to say than the male; she is a dominant character in the book, demonstrating her equality and independence and expressing her feelings.  That emphasis is not often there in some of the historical records of kings and warriors.

Obviously, this book is not, then addressing the topic of people who are not married.  It is dealing with one topic alone, the divinely ordained intimacy between a man and a woman in marriage.  That is its meaning in the biblical revelation.  Although the book does not address being single, we shall in a later study.

2.   The Allegorical Interpretation.   From the very beginning many students of the Bible were troubled by having a book describing physical love and passions.  They wondered if a book about human love was eligible for the canon of Scripture. In fact, they instructed people that this book should be the very last thing they ever studied, after they had studied all the Bible and its theology; that way they would be safeguarded from the literal interpretation.

The Rabbis debated the book (after it was solidly fixed as part of the canon), and of course concluded it is rightly included in the collection of inspired writings: AThe whole world is not worth the day on which the Song was written.@  But, nevertheless, they and others were not quite sure what to do with it.  They preferred to give it an allegorical interpretation; in fact, if you read the Aramaic Targum on the Song you will see that they essentially wrote the history of Israel and then regularly worked lines from the Song into that treatise.  Christians also have followed an allegorical approach for ages, but instead of leaving it with Yahweh and his wife, took it to mean Christ and his bride. 

So many writers, Jews and Christians, thought it should be figurative only, not talking about humans and human love, but about the LORD and his love for his people, in the Old Testament Israel was the Awife@ of Yahweh, and in the New Testament the Church is the Abride of Christ.@  These metaphors clearly drew on the divinely ordered relationship between the man and the woman in marriage to teach the covenant relationship that God has with people--a binding union based on love.

There were a number of things that prompted this interpretation.  In the early Church there was a real tension in the thinking about the body and the soul, as if they could and should be kept separate.  The purity was in the spirit, and gradually the body was looked at as evil.  Moreover, sexual abstinence and virginity were viewed as a virtue.  God had brought his Son into the world through a virgin; and his Son remained pure and was the head of the Church.  Therefore, priests and women in holy orders were to remain celibate.  The literal interpretation of the song ran counter to all these teachings of the Church.  They did to the song what they did to their own bodies, tried to keep the physical out of it.

But the problem with an allegorical interpretation, apart from the fact that it runs counter to the normal manner in which the historic faith has interpreted Scripture, is that there are no safeguards for the interpretation.  The meaning of any passage can be made to say anything.   And as we shall see in the fourth lesson, some of the ideas were far afield.  So, for example, the young man looking through the lattice at his bride can become the deity of Christ on the cross looking through the wounds of Jesus at the believers at the foot of the cross, the bride of Christ!

Besides, the song has far too many details to be a normal allegory.  It is written as a dramatic lyrical poem with all kinds of references and details; but an allegorical approach rules out the historicity of the setting and the events.  And an allegory usually has some kind of plot, but that is not present here.

3.   The Typological Interpretation.  Typology is a form of prophecy, indirect prophecy because you do not know it was a prophecy until you have the fulfillment.  Any person, event, or object can be a type; the type will have a corresponding fulfillment, intended by God (not just a view that we have).  For example, Apassover@ is a type.  There was a passover in Egypt (Exodus 12).  It was a festival of freedom, where the Hebrews put the blood on the doors and were delivered from death and bondage.  Then they ate the passover lamb.  For 1400 years that was celebrated as a main festival for Israel.  When Christ came and shed his blood for our sins, and we were instructed to eat the bread and the wine in memory of his death, Paul could say ANow Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.@  That is typology.  God legislated the old festival with the death of Jesus in mind.  The old was literal and true; the new corresponds but shows a greater meaning.

If we apply typology to the song, then it does not destroy the literal and historical meaning (as allegory would), but it builds on it.  Solomon here, and elsewhere, is a type of Christ; the woman, the Shulamite, is a type of the Bride of Christ.  In typology you do not press every detail in the passage to correspond, only the general themes.  The themes are the mutual love and praise, the union, and the enjoyment that that union brings.  In the Bible, Paul says that he has betrothed believers to the Lord as a pure virgin.  And John portrays our union with Christ in glory as a marriage supper in which the bride has prepared by clothing herself with righteousness.  The fulfillment is spiritual, because physical sex does not enter the New Testament teaching on the relationship between Christ and believers, not now, and not in heaven.  But marriage has always been a picture of the holy covenant God has made with us.  

So the song describes the enjoyment of the intimacy of a man and a woman in a marriage relationship.  The bride and bridegroom will know that God intended for them to enjoy everything about their relationship; and that within the bonds of marriage that intimacy is fulfilling and free of guilt.  But while that message comes through loud and clear, the believers also see here a picture of a greater enjoyment, a greater relationship, a greater bridegroom.  Believers, then, cannot think of human marriage without its greater implications for Christ and the Church.