The Window to Divine Love,
The Typological Use of the Song of Solomon
Sunday, December 19, 2004
From all assessments of the text, the Song of Songs appears to be a lyrical poem celebrating the joy and fulfillment of the union of a man and a woman in marriage. A book with this message is not a problem in the collection of holy books known as the Bible. After all, God created the male and the female and established the institution of marriage. However, down through the history of the faith people have not always been comfortable with this straightforward reading of the text. And so an array of interpretations have been put forward that have tried to safeguard the "spiritual" meaning of the poem.
Reasons for a Spiritual Interpretation
The early Christians, as well as devout Jews of the same period, were forced to deal with the clash of cultures they encountered. For example, Caesarea by the Sea was a major seaport city built by Herod the Great, probably about 20 B.C. It was a thoroughly Roman (i.e., pagan) city with statues of nude gods and goddesses everywhere, a theater, a hippodrome, bath houses, and the like. And in it the devout were trying to live in purity and holiness. To have a poem that the pagan Romans would have loved seemed base and low. This was a problem the ancestors had living among the pagan Canaanites--it is a problem we have today as well. Of course, this was all the more reason to have a book like this, to confirm that within marriage the enjoyment of sexual union was fine. But a lot of the early teachers went the other way and tried to distance the house of faith from anything pagan.
Then, too, there were a lot of teachings on the rise that fed into the search for a better interpretation. The emphasis on virginity, especially in view of the fact that God chose a virgin for the birth of His Son, worked to make people think that virginity or celibacy was equal to holiness and purity--it was the way that pleased God the most. And as Gnosticism grew up, the idea that the body and its functions were evil, but the soul was righteous captured the imaginations of the devout leaders.
Then, with that burden in place, the teachers were able to point out that throughout the Bible God Himself used marriage as a symbol of the covenant of redemption between God and humans. In the Old Testament they could show that Israel was frequently described as the wife of Yahweh. Most important in this teaching was the Book of Hosea. God used Hosea's marriage to Gomer as a means of teaching the people about the covenant. Hosea's marriage represented God's redemption of Israel--he took them to be his wife. Then Gomer's unfaithfulness and adultery represented the nations abandonment of the faith and pursuit of idolatry. Throughout the Old Testament the images of adultery and unfaithfulness were used to describe Israel's spiritual defection to idols (and in the Book of Revelation this is carried over when it describes the 144,000 who did not defile themselves with women, likely meaning who did not get involved with pagan religion, symbolized by the great whore of Babylon).
Yet even though God judged Israel, He did not abandon them (maybe those Israelites who were unbelievers and abandoned him, but Israel as a whole remained the people of God). Even when Israel went into exile in Babylon because of their idolatry and their social injustices, and when they lamented that God had thrown them off, the word of the Lord came to them asking, "Where is the bill of divorcement?" (Isa. 50). God was saying I did not divorce Israel--Israel was unfaithful and abandoned me. The guilty unbelievers would be purged, but the people who repented would find they still had a glorious future based on the covenant of redemption that God had made with them. But the language of marriage and divorce adds to the basic imagery used for God's relationship to the people of the covenant.
Why did God use marriage as a symbol of the covenant? Well, it is the most logical and most specific portrayal one could use. It emphasizes that the covenant of redemption is based on love, that the covenant is one of close, personal and intimate union between the believer and God, and that the covenant required vows of faithfulness and covenant stipulations to maintain that relationship.
But this imagery was not limited to the Old Testament. The Church Fathers could point to the writings of Paul in 2 Corinthians 11. Paul said that he had betrothed the Corinthians to Christ as a pure virgin. The "betrothal" is conversion, or salvation. They were not pure, but by being introduced to Christ and coming to faith they were made pure by the blood of the Lamb (this is the doctrine of imputed righteousness, or justification). Now they could be called the "bride of Christ." But the complete union of Christ and His Church awaited the second coming--it is now the betrothal period. John, in Revelation 19, would speak of that future union as "the marriage supper of the Lamb" in which the bride had made herself ready for the wedding. He explains that they were clothed with white linens, the wedding garments, which he says are the righteous acts of the saints. This image of the marriage of the King to the bride is drawn from Psalm 45, a wedding song, which was clearly a prophecy about Jesus Christ. There the bride--we who believe--was instructed to forsake the old live and worship and serve the Lord, for He is not only a "husband," He is Lord.
Paul also used the connection in Ephesians 5. He was giving instructions for men and women in marriage, and along the way said that this was a mystery (5:32) of Christ and the Church.
Jesus too used the same biblical metaphor for the spiritual union with God that comes with salvation. In Matthew 25 he spoke of the ten virgins waiting for the coming of the Bridegroom. But five of them were foolish, and did not prepare their lamps; the other five were wise, trimmed their wicks, and filled their little lamps with oil. Oil in the Bible refers to the Holy Spirit; the virgins with oil in their lamps are true believers in whom the Spirit of God dwells. The other five represent people who know about the coming of the Lord, but do not prepare for it; they are outwardly "religious," but not true believers. This is confirmed by the fact that Jesus says to them, "I never knew you."
So the Church Fathers felt they were on sure ground by saying that the Song of Solomon was about this higher spiritual marriage, or spiritual union, between Christ and His bride, the Church (meaning true believers in the churches). They instructed people to avoid the Song of Solomon until they understood all the rest of Scripture, then they could read this without being tempted to think of carnal things.
Development of the Allegorical Approach
Many of the most influential teachers of the early Church not only chose to interpret the Song as referring to this higher spiritual union, but they also abhorred the literal approach as intrinsically evil, and those who taught it as heretical. Here are some of the major proponents, and their views, down through history.
Hippolytus around 200 A.D. put some of the teachings together on the Song. The bride was the company of believers that Christ wed (1:4). With this working hypothesis, the details then could be likewise "spiritualized." For example, the woman's two breasts represented the two covenants, the Old and New Testaments, probably because they nourished the saints of all ages (4:5). The "hill of frankincense" (4:6) came to mean the spiritual eminence of crucifying the flesh. The point about allegorical interpretation is that since it denies any literal interpretation, every detail in the passage has to mean something spiritual.
Origen around 250 made the study of the Song a huge endeavor, writing a commentary of ten volumes on it. Among other themes he stressed that the love of the flesh was derived from Satan, but spiritual love came from God. He taught that truly spiritual people would renounce earthly marriage and focus on the spiritual union; and if they were married, would take vows of celibacy to dedicate themselves to the Lord. In short, people should abandon filthy intercourse and become true temples of the Spirit. A woman might say, "I am yoked with the true Man; I have set my [earthly] husband at naught." Origen did not have a problem with the bride in the book being the Church, or the soul, or Mary, for they were inseparable (souls made up the Church, and Mary was the symbol of the Church [her body housed the Lord, and the Church is the temple of the Spirit]).
Athanasius in about 373 wrote that the Song was the Jubilee Song of the Incarnation of the Son. It is a celebration of His marriage with mortal flesh. The bride is the soul, and so the union is a spiritual union with Him.
It is interesting to read at this time the strong warnings and strictures against taking the song literally. This can only mean that people were doing it, that people were not convinced of the allegorical method. In fact, voices were raised in protest. Theodore of Mopsuestia at the end of the 4th century argued for the literal view that this was a song about the love of a man and a woman. He was verbally attacked for his views. He was in the East. In the Western Church (Roman), Jovinian was doing the same. Jovinian rightly pointed out that there was no difference between eating and fasting, in marriage or celibacy--neither in itself was more spiritual than the other, but spirituality depended on the person. He argued that marriage was not inferior to lifelong virginity and celibacy. But he probably made a mistake in carrying his argument into other issues (even though he was correct). He denied the perpetual virginity of Mary, for the Bible indicates that she and Joseph had sex after the birth of Jesus, and that she had sons and daughters. So his views were denounced as abhorrent and corrupt by the Church.
In c. 450 Theodoret in Syria followed the teachings of Origen and Jerome that the song was spiritual, that Christ was the bridegroom, and the bride the Church.
Some of the excesses of the allegorical method can be seen in the work of Cyril of Alexandria, c. 400-450. He wrote about Solomon's carriage, or palanquin, which is described in detail. The wood, he said, was the cross of Christ. The silver used for it was the 30 pieces of silver from Judas. The purple of the seat was the robe of Christ at the cross. The nuptial crown for the king was the crown of thorns for Christ. It would be hard to read these verses and discover this, unless the allegory had been so developed and taught that no other ideas seemed possible.
It is not until the 12th century that the Marian view becomes dominant. The bride is Mary, the Queen and the heavenly spouse. It is interesting that at this time an official interpretation of all the black Madonnas around Europe were explained from 1:5, "I am black." The official explanation was that ebony was incorruptible, and so the image spoke of Mary as completely pure and holy. Others said it meant that the Church was a mix of Jews and Gentiles. A detailed study of the black goddess, the queen of heaven, in the ancient cultures shows that there is a pagan background to the statues, which has been replaced by the Roman Church's explanation.
At about the same time the devout Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote many hymns and devotions and established many abbeys, wrote 86 sermons on the song, covering only chapters 1 and part of 2. He was strong in his advocacy of the spiritual meaning. When Abelard's love life with Eloise came to light, Bernard denounced him as one of the foxes that destroys the vineyard.
There was another approach based on the allegorical method that became prominent at this time. Nicholaus of Lyra (14th century) was a convert to Christianity from Judaism; he brought with him much of the Jewish allegory of the book. The official interpretation (called targum and written in Aramaic) that was to be read in the synagogue basically told the history of Israel, and every so often sprinkled phrases from the Targum into the telling. So Nicholaus carried this with him in part. To him, the song was a historical allegory. Chapters 1-6 told the history of Israel from the Exodus to the birth of Jesus the Messiah; and chapters 7 and 8 told of the Church from those days to its time of peace in the days of Constantine (the early 300s, the time of the writing of the Nicaean Creed). God came into His garden at the Incarnation and changed the course of history.
Later, in the 17th century, there are samples of how this historical approach was developed. The Protestant Brightman in England saw the book as a history and prophecy of the Church. His general outline included these points:
1:1--4:6 was the "Legal Church," the Old Testament bride of Yahweh; it traced the history from David to Christ.
4:7--8:14 was the Church from 34 A.D. to the second coming.
In this latter part there was more of a detailed breakdown:
5:8 the Protestants appear, especially the multitudes who flocked to Peter Waldo in 1160.
5:9-10 Christ appeared at the Battle of the Albigenses against Pope Innocent III.
5:12 refers to the faithful teachings that were condemned by Pope John in 1277.
5:13 is the preaching of Robert Trent in 1290.
5:14 refers to the momentous year 1300. This was the first resurrection spoken of in Revelation 1:20. It was the time of the acts of Dante, William of Ockam, John of Gaunt, King Philip of France, Edward of England, Wycliffe, Hus, and the shaking off of the Roman yoke by the Bohemians (5:15-17).
6--8 These chapters refer to the restored Church from Luther to the second coming.
Well, this is enough to give an idea of where the allegorical method leads. It is fine to see the essential thesis of the book as a type or picture of the true spiritual union with God, but these folks went too far:
1. They forced meanings in the text that could not be supported, and often found little agreement with other allegorical interpretations.
2. They saw no literal sense possible, and so condemned all who tried to interpret the song this way.
3. In the rigid view they presented a false view of virginity, celibacy, and marriage, refusing sex in marriage and calling for celibacy in marriage.
Paul will talk about brief vows of abstinence in a marriage (1 Cor. 7), but these are to be short so there is not occasion for temptation to gain a foothold. They forgot the Creator and His institution of marriage.
Both Literal and Spiritual
When we call a passage a "type," or speak of interpreting a passage "typologically," we mean that it is a form of indirect prophecy--but we do not know that or its meaning until the fulfillment comes. In typology the old has and retains its literal meaning, even though it speaks of a greater meaning to come. For example, the Israelites ate Manna in the wilderness. Jesus declared in John 6 that he was the bread of life for people to receive. The fulfillment of the story is in Him; but there was manna! And even though the idea is fulfilled in Jesus, Jesus does not try to make something out of every detail in the Old Testament about manna.
If we take the Song of Songs as a "type of Christ and the Church," we still may apply it in its primary sense as a poem celebrating the union of the sexes in marriage and giving instruction for the couple in a subtle way. But we may also see it as a type, a picture, a preview of the spiritual union of the Bride and His bridegroom. But we will not try to make every detail fit some New Testament truth.
In this light we may tease out some general observations that the Church must understand, not only in reading this book in the Bible, but the Bible as a whole. These are biblical truths anyway; but the Song helps rivet them to our thinking.
1. Redemption is a love story. The covenant God has made with us is based on divine love. Even while we were yet sinners, God loved us, and sent His Son to die for us. Jeremiah records, "I have loved you with an everlasting love." We tend to think of salvation as a business transaction, cash on the barrel, i.e., that God redeemed us in Christ by paying the ransom for our sins, and that he did this begrudgingly and so we dare not step out of line. True to a point, but He did this because he loved us (Jn. 3:16), and loves us to the end. And it was a triumphant love. Just imagine, He actually loves each one of us--and He knows more about each of us than anyone else in the universe.
There is an interesting verse in Hosea 9:10, namely, that the Lord says that when he found Israel it was like finding grapes in the desert. What a powerful image! But it clearly means that God was delighted to find a believing people.
2. The heart and the goal of redemption is complete union with the Lord.
Ever since sin interpreted the union between God and His people in the garden, God has been at work restoring it. This is the spiritual union--to be one with God, totally accepted by Him with pleasure, and so being able to walk with God and serve Him. Jesus prayed that we might be one, as He and the Father are one (Jn. 17:21). This is what the covenant is all about; but ultimately the complete spiritual union will take place in glory.
In glory we will see complete joy and fulfillment in our praise and service of the living God. Marriage is not eternal; if you are married, happily or no, you will not be married to that person throughout eternity. Those we are closest to down here will certainly be close in the next life. But Jesus said there will be no marriage, but we will find our fullest joy in the union with Him. Thus, we should be instructed that even our marriages should be used as means to bring about greater union with Christ..
3. The expression of union with Christ, the Bridegroom, is praise. Praise, in this sense, is the expression of loyalty to the covenant. Listen to some of the things that the Lord says about us: I have loved you from the beginning, with an eternal covenant; I have chosen you to be my bride; I am going to prepare a place for you, that where I am there you may be also; I will declare your name in my Father's house; I will not leave you alone, but will send the Comforter. These are a few; read through the New Testament to see what our Lord says about us.
But praise is reciprocal. We, the Bride of Christ, are to be filled with praise and adoration of Him--and we will be if we truly believe in Him and know Him. Praise is not a fixed duty; it is the natural response to someone or something that we love and treasure. If we are not praising, our love has grown cold, or we have little knowledge of and appreciation for Him.
So in addition to the practical lessons that this book has for men and women in a marriage, it also instructs all of us Christians, whether married or single, on how to maintain our relationship with our Lord and find fulfillment in it. Based on the metaphor of this book, the Bride and Bridegroom theme, we would say that we must maintain our union with Christ by praise, gifts of gratitude, reconciliation when there is trouble, and fellowship. And, we must respond to all that the Lord is preparing for us in the age to come by being ready for the marriage supper of the Lamb, by having oil in our lamps (being genuine believers by the grace of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in us), by getting robed in white linens (doing acts of righteousness), by waiting and watching for the Bridegroom to come, and by being filled with endless praise and devotion now, for as John Donne says, by doing that we are tuning up our instruments for glory.