Bible Commentary: Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 7

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Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 7

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Allegorical Examples

We turn now to some of the particulars within the allegorical approach, starting with Jewish interpretation and progressing to traditional Christian interpretation.

As mentioned earlier, Jewish allegory is first obvious in the Aramaic Targum to the Song. “The Targum…interprets the book in five movements as an allegory of Israelite history. These are (1 [1:1–3:6]) the exodus, Sinai, and conquest; (2 [3:7–5:1]) the Solomonic temple; (3 [5:2–6:1]) Israel’s sin and exile; (4 [6:2–7:11) the return and rebuilding of the temple; and (5 [7:12–8:14]) the dispersion in the Roman Empire and expectation of the Messiah” (NAC, p. 353).

The New International Commentary tells us: “The Targum is too detailed and complex to give any kind of running description of its contents [though an English translation may be read online here]. We will satisfy our intentions by paraphrasing the Targum’s interpretation of the opening section (Song of Solomon 1:2-9). The woman, Israel, begins by begging the man, God, to kiss her. Israel desires relationship with God. She praises his reputation and asks him to take her into his private room. The bedroom is Palestine, the promised land. This opening unit then refers to the Exodus from Egypt. The kissing itself is the giving of the Law and therefore refers to the revelation of God at Sinai. However, in the wilderness they also sinned by worshipping the golden calf. The girl’s confession of blackness is an acknowledgement of this sin of idolatry. Verses 7-8 describes Moses’ concern about Israel’s future fidelity to the Lord and his warning to them. Verse 9, the reference to the woman as similar to Pharaoh’s mare, brings to mind the crossing of the Red Sea. In this manner the Targum…continues through the redemptive history of the Old Testament” (p. 25). This outline was followed by the medieval Jewish commentators, including the previously mentioned Rashi.

There is really no better way to see the allegorical method at work than to read specific examples. Here is chapter 1 of the Song, with the medieval commentator Rashi’s “translation” from the ArtScroll Bible (in parallel to the NIV text, with a few bracketed inserts added to speaker notations for clarity or to point out disputed ones):

New International Version ArtScroll (Following Rashi)
[Title] 1 Solomon’s Song of Songs. Prologue 1 The song that excels all songs dedicated to God, Him to Whom peace belongs:
Beloved [Woman] 2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine. Israel in exile to God 2 Communicate Your innermost wisdom to me again in loving closeness, for Your love is dearer to me than all earthly delights.
3 Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the maidens love you! 3 Like the scent of goodly oils is the spreading fame of Your great deeds; Your very name is “Flowing Oil,” therefore have nations loved You.
4 Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers. Friends We rejoice and delight in you; we will praise your love more than wine. Beloved [Woman] How right they are to adore you! 4 Upon perceiving a mere hint that You wished to draw me {near}, we rushed with perfect faith after You into the wilderness. The King brought me into His cloud-pillared chamber; whatever our travail, we shall always be glad and rejoice in Your Torah. We recall Your love more than earthly delights, unrestrainedly do they love You.
[To the daughters of Jerusalem] 5 Dark am I, yet lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon. Israel to the nations 5 Though I am black with sin, I am comely with virtue, O nations destined to ascend to Jerusalem; though sullied as the tents of Kedar, I will be immaculate as the draperies of Him to Whom peace belongs.
6 Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun. My mother’s sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards; my own vineyard I have neglected. 6 Do not view me with contempt despite my swarthiness, for it is but the sun which has glared upon me. The alien children of my mother incited me and made me a keeper of the vineyards of idols, but the vineyard of my own true God I did not keep.
[To her lover] 7 Tell me, you whom I love, where you graze your flock and where you rest your sheep at midday. Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends? Israel to God 7 Tell me, O You Whom my soul loves: Where will You graze Your flocks? Where will You rest them under the fiercest sun of harshest exile? Why shall I be like one veiled in mourning among the flocks of Your fellow shepherds?
Friends [? – or Lover, the Man] 8 If you do not know, most beautiful of women, follow the tracks of the sheep and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds. God responds to Israel 8 If you know not where to graze, O fairest of nations, follow the footsteps of the sheep, your forefathers, who traced a straight, unswerving path after My Torah. Then you can graze your tender kids even among the dwellings of foreign shepherds.
Lover [Man] 9 I liken you, my darling, to a mare harnessed to one of the chariots of Pharaoh.   9 With My mighty steeds who battled Pharaoh’s riders I revealed that you are My beloved.
10 Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings, your neck with strings of jewels. 10 Your cheeks are lovely with rows of gems, your neck with necklaces, My gifts to you from the splitting sea,
11 We will make you earrings of gold, studded with silver. 11 by inducing Pharaoh to engage in pursuit, to add circlets of gold to your spangles of silver.
Beloved [Woman] 12 While the king was at his table, my perfume spread its fragrance. Israel about God 12 While the King was yet at Sinai my malodorous deed gave forth its scent as my Golden Calf defiled the covenant.
13 My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts. 13 But my Beloved responded with a bundle of myrrh, the fragrant atonement of erecting a Tabernacle where His Presence would dwell between the Holy Ark’s staves.
14 My lover is to me a cluster of henna blossoms from the vineyards of En Gedi. 14 Like a cluster of henna in En-gedi vineyards has my Beloved multiplied His forgiveness to me.
Lover [Man] 15 How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are doves. 15 He said, “I forgive you, My friend, for you are lovely in deed and lovely in resolve. The righteous among you are loyal as a dove.”
Beloved [Woman] 16 How handsome you are, my lover! Oh, how charming! And our bed is verdant. Israel to God 16 It is You who are lovely, my Beloved, so pleasant that You pardoned my sin enabling our Temple to make me ever fresh.
Lover [Man? – or Woman] 17 The beams of our house are cedars; our rafters are firs.   17 The beams of our houses are cedar, our panels are cypresses

As appealing as such an interpretive method may seem given the various difficulties of the Song’s text, this approach actually magnifies the difficulties—vastly. Foremost here is the issue of there being no rules governing interpretation, except perhaps to not directly contradict other parts of Scripture. In any case, allegorizing quickly becomes an exercise of the imagination, as is well illustrated above. Consider verse 12. How does “my perfume spread its fragrance” become “my malodorous deed gave forth its scent as my Golden Calf defiled the covenant”? Or verse 13. How does a pouch of myrrh between the woman’s breasts become God’s presence dwelling at the point of atonement between the poles of the Ark of the Covenant? Such are the vagaries of allegory. And to think that this is promoted in the ArtScroll introduction as more “accurate” than the biblical text itself!

It should be further noted that there have been variant allegorical approaches among Jewish commentators. The 12th-century Jewish sage Maimonides “was the first to argue that the Song is a poem about the love between God and the individual human soul, not corporate Israel…. Maimonides’ ideas are at the root of the philosophical/mystical approach to the Song” (NICOT, p. 26 footnote). “One (among many) alternative Jewish allegorizations of the song was that of D.I. Abravanel (sixteenth century), who regarded it as Solomon’s song of his love for wisdom. Thus only the bride was allegorized. [The 12th-century rabbi] Ibn Ezra interpreted Song of Solomon 7:2 in a somewhat analogous fashion: ‘Your navel’ was taken as a reference to the Great Sanhedrin, ‘blended wine’ was the law, and ‘Your waist is a mound of wheat’ was taken to allude to the Little Sanhedrin” (NAC., p. 353). Again, there are no constraints on this manner of interpretation.

The same goes for Christian allegorizing. Besides the predominant general approach of seeing the characters of the song as representing Christ and the Church (whether collectively or individually), there are other general approaches. Within Catholic circles, for instance, many have seen the bride of the song as Mary, the mother of Jesus. “For instance, ‘you are altogether beautiful, my darling, and there is no blemish in you’ (Song of Solomon 4:7), is used to support the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary” (Tanner, pp. 28-29). Likewise, Song of Solomon 6:4 is interpreted as “Mary as beautiful in her holiness, like Jerusalem in that peace between God and man came through her, and awesome in that she was surrounded by a troop of angels. Recent Roman Catholic interpreters, however, have turned away from this mode of allegorization” (NAC, p. 354). Another Catholic interpretation is that “the Song teaches the ‘mystical marriage’ of the union of the soul with God when the loving awareness of God becomes most transcendent and permanent…. A variation…is that the Song refers to the mystical union that [supposedly] takes place between the soul and Christ during Holy Communion” (pp. 29-30).

The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, “while rejecting the normal allegorical interpretation [of bride and groom as Christ and the Church] was still not able to embrace the literal erotic sense of the book. So he ‘propounded the theory that the bride of the Song is the happy and peaceful [political] State under Solomon’s rule and that the Song is a hymn in which Solomon thanks God for the divine gift of obedience’ [Pope, p. 126]” (Tanner, p. 29).

Most, however, continued to follow a Christ-Church interpretation. Some even saw the Song as a rather detailed prophetic narrative of church history: “Some commentaries, somewhat like the Targum, see the Song of Songs as an allegorical history of redemption. [The 17th-century Puritan expositor Thomas] Brightman divided the song into two parts: 1:1–4:6, the true church from David to the death of Christ, and 4:7–8:14, from A.D. 34 to the second advent. [Writing on the Song later the same century, the German Reformed theologian] Johannes Cocceius saw it as a history of the church that particularly emphasized the Protestant Reformation” (NAC, p. 354). In Brightman’s commentary, “the beginnings of Protestantism appear in [Song] 5:8 which was applied to the multitudes who flocked to Peter Waldo to seek the Beloved in 1160. In Song of Solomon 5:9-10 Christ appears at the battle of the Albigenses against the anti-Christian bands of [Pope] Innocent the Third” (Pope, Anchor Bible, p. 128). And so it goes.

Within traditional Christianity, interpretations of the Song’s details through the ages have been rather varied, yet the following examples give a general sense. “Typical allegorizations are that the kisses (Song of Solomon 1:2) are the word of God, the dark skin of the girl (Song of Solomon 1:5) is sin, her breasts (Song of Solomon 7:7) are the church’s nurturing doctrine, her two lips (Song of Solomon 4:11) are law and gospel, and the ‘army with banners’ (Song of Solomon 6:4) is the church as the enemy of Satan” (NAC, p. 353). Furthermore: “The one who is brought into the king’s chambers (Song of Solomon 1:4) is said to be those whom Christ has wedded and brought into His church. The breasts in Song of Solomon 4:5 are taken to be the Old and New Covenants, and the ‘hill of frankincense’ in Song of Solomon 4:6 [likely an erotic symbol] is said to speak of the eminence to which those who crucify fleshly desires are exalted” (Tanner, p. 27)—that is, in the latter case, almost the exact opposite of the intent derived from a natural reading!

Such interpretation can thus be downright bizarre—ranging quite far from what is actually written. Consider the mentioning of the woman’s beautiful teeth as shorn and washed sheep bearing twins in Song of Solomon 4:2 and Song of Solomon 6:6. “The Targumists made these to be the Priests and Levites who ate the sacrifices” (Coffman’s Commentaries, note on 4:2). Furthermore, “several early Christian interpreters, following [early Catholic theologian] Gregory of Nyssa, took the teeth to mean the Doctors of the Church who grind down the hard sayings and dogmas of the Faith to make them suitable for reception by the body of Christians who are shorn and free of encumbrance…. Augustine saw the teeth as the teachers cutting away the converts from their former superstitions, the washing as Holy Baptism, and the twins as the love of God and of one’s neighbor. Aponius related the upper and lower rows of teeth to the books of the Old and New Testament” (Pope, pp. 462-463, note on 4:2). These conclusions are surely utter nonsense.

Evaluation of the Allegorical Approach

Tanner comments: “Despite the popularity of the allegorical method, it suffers most from the novelty of suggestion and lack of consensus of meaning. The fanciful interpretations lack objectivity as well as any means of validation…. The eighty concubines referred to in Song of Songs 6:8 have been interpreted as eighty heresies destined to plague the church, but there is no validation of this suggestion anywhere outside the Song. The bride’s two breasts in Song of Solomon 4:5 and Song of Solomon 7:8 have been variously interpreted as ‘the church from which we feed; the two testaments, Old and New; the twin precepts of love of God and neighbor; and the Blood and the Water. Gregory of Nyssa found in them the outer and the inner man, united in one sentient being” (p. 30). Once again, there are simply no constraints for this method of interpretation beyond the imaginations of the individual interpreters. As Murphy remarks, “Despite the pretense of exegetical precision, exaggeration and uncontrolled fantasy seem to be flaws endemic to allegorical exposition” (p. 93).

The lack of consensus Tanner mentions is also worthy of note. As commentator Othmar Keel has astutely observed, “If two allegorizers ever agree on the interpretation of a verse it is only because one has copied from the other” (The Song of Songs, 1994, Continental Commentaries, p. 8). The point is that one does not naturally arrive at a particular allegorical interpretation among the endless possible varieties the mind can concoct. Conclusions are extremely subjective, as we see abundantly in virtually every attempt at allegorizing this book.

Tanner continues: “Proponents of the allegorical method claim that Scripture elsewhere uses an allegorical method (e.g., Psalm 45 and Isaiah 51:1–17 are said to have allegorical overtones). Also they say Scripture elsewhere uses the marriage relationship to depict a greater spiritual truth, as in the prophets where the marriage relationship bears an analogy to Yahweh’s position toward Israel (Isaiah 54:6; Isaiah 61:10). [Hassel] Bullock [in his Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books, 1988] points out that because the book is profuse with symbolism and figures of speech, it lends itself readily to a nonliteral interpretation. This can be illustrated from the perceptive analysis of [Song commentator Robert] Gordis on Song of Solomon 2:4–5: ‘When, for example, the maiden, in 2:4f., announces that she is faint with love and asks to be sustained with raisins and apples, she is calling for concrete food, to be sure, but at the same time, by her choice of fruits that are symbolic of love, she is indicating that only the satisfaction of her desires will bring her healing’ [The Song of Songs and Lamentations, 1974]. Bullock concludes, ‘Such extravagant symbolism tends to push the interpreter in the direction of allegory or typology, because the richness of the symbols seems difficult to exhaust by means of a literal interpretation.’

“However, the Song of Songs makes no suggestion that it should be interpreted allegorically. The presence of figures of speech does not permit interpreters to veer into unrestrained allegorical treatment of the text…. As for symbolic use of the husband-bride picture elsewhere in Scripture, one should observe the uniqueness of such instances. [Roland Harrison’s Introduction to the Old Testament (1969) notes:] ‘A fundamental objection to allegorical method, based upon other Old Testament Scriptures…is that when the male-female relationship is employed allegorically it is clearly indicated as such, whereas in Canticles there is no hint of an allegorical approach’” (p. 30).

The New American Commentary says that allegorical interpretation where no clear allegory is present “is not intrinsic to biblical thinking but is an alien method to interpret the text out of regard for philosophic assumptions that are themselves unbiblical…. It is best suited to a Gnostic, not an orthodox, Christianity” (pp. 356-357). Note also: “The text most commonly alleged to validate allegorical hermeneutics [i.e., interpretive methods] is Gal[atians] 4:21-23, where Paul used the births of Ishmael and Isaac and their respective mothers as allegoroumena (allegorized figures, v. 24). Despite Paul’s use of the term…however, he did not engage in the kind of allegorism advocated by the Alexandrian school and their followers” (p. 356, footnote). Indeed, Paul symbolically interpreted only a few features of the story of the people here—not the entire account of them in Genesis and certainly not to the point of rendering the literal reading of Genesis irrelevant. His exposition is closer to typology. As Leonhard Goppelt explains in Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New: “Only certain aspects of [Paul’s] exposition come close to being allegorical as we conceive of it. His exposition is entirely confined to a typological comparison of historical facts” (1982, pp. 139-140, quoted in NAC, pp. 356-357, footnote).

The New American Commentary stresses another important point: “The strongest refutation of the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, however, is in the obviously sexual nature of the language. Fairly unambiguous allusions to love play appear in the text (e.g., Song of Solomon 5:1). Such language is simply inappropriate as a description of the love between God and his people, other biblical metaphors notwithstanding. The very beginning of the song, ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,’ implies that this is not divine-human love. We can hardly imagine Christ describing his love for the church in the terms of Song of Solomon 7:7-8 [where the man speaks of shinnying up the woman as a palm tree to take hold of her breasts]. While the Bible does speak of the people of God as his bride, it never indulges in explicitly sexual imagery to describe the relationship. However good one’s intentions may be, sexual language should not be brought into the vocabulary of worship and devotion via allegorism or any other means. The linking of religious adoration to erotic impulses is a mark of paganism [with its amorous deities and temple prostitution] and can only be regarded as a dangerous intrusion into the Christian understanding of life and worship. The two spheres of sexuality and devotion to God should not be confounded or intermingled lest both suffer distortion” (p. 357).

Despite the problems with the allegorical approach and its widespread rejection today, it still has, as noted before, many adherents. The force of history with regard to the Song’s interpretation has had quite an impact—even on the Church of God in modern times. There has been a tendency among some within the Church to accept the Song as the allegory of the relationship between Christ and the Church that traditional Christianity has purported it to be. Making the problem here more difficult to see is that the allegories drawn within the Church of God tradition usually relate true details—because they are based on sound interpretations of other clearer passages of Scripture. But these details, as true as they may be, may have nothing to do with the message of the Song of Solomon. It is most likely that Solomon himself, or whoever the author on the human level was, did not intend them. And it is certainly questionable whether God intended, by inspiration, to convey these details through this particular book—even if He did intend to convey them elsewhere. (There may be some typological parallels to the Christ-Church relationship in the Song, as we will later discuss. But this is quite different from allegorizing the book.)

It would be instructive to reflect here on the words of commentator Adam Clarke. Writing in the early 1800s, Clarke boldly departed in his “Introduction to the Canticles, or Song of Solomon” from the allegorical interpretation that prevailed at the time. He said (in his unabridged version): “I had for a long time hesitated whether I should say any thing on this book; not because I did not think I understood its chief design and general meaning, for of this I really have no doubt, but because I did not understand it as a spiritual allegory, representing the loves of Christ and his Church. I must own I see no indubitable ground for this opinion. And is it of no moment whether the doctrines drawn from it, by those who allegorize and spiritualize it, be indubitably founded on it or not? The doctrines may be true in themselves, (which is indeed more than can be said of those of most of its interpreters,) but is it not a very solemn, and indeed awful thing to say, This [particular verse] is the voice of Christ to his Church, This [other verse] is the voice of the Church to Christ, &c., &c., when there is no proof from God, nor from any other portion of his word, that these things are so?” (Clarke’s Commentary: Vol. 2: Job to Malachi, 1977, p. 843).

Just prior to this he remarked regarding the Song: “After all that has been said, I am fully of [the] opinion it is not once referred to in the New Testament. But this is no proof of its not being canonical, as there are other books, on which there is no doubt, that are in the same predicament. But still, if it refer so distinctly to Christ and his Church, as some suppose, it certainly would not have been passed over by both evangelists and apostles [in the New Testament] without pointed and especial notice; and particularly if it points out the love of Christ to his Church, and the whole economy of God’s working in reference to the salvation of the souls of men” (p. 843).

Dismissing an allegorizing approach to the Song, he continued (writing at a time when public discussion of sexual matters was unthinkable): “It is much better, therefore, if explained or illustrated at all, to take it in its literal meaning, and explain it in its general sense. I say general sense, because there are many passages in it which should not be explained, if taken literally, the references being too delicate; and [Middle] Eastern phraseology on such subjects is too vivid for European imaginations. Let any sensible and pious medical man read over this book, and, if at all acquainted with Asiatic phraseology, say whether it would be proper, even in medical language, to explain all the descriptions and allusions in this poem” (p. 843).

Essentially castigating fellow interpreters, Clarke later poignantly assessed: “It is curious to see the manner in which many preachers and commentators attempt to expound this book. They first assume that the book refers to Christ and his Church; his union with human nature; his adoption of the Gentiles; and his everlasting love to elect souls, gathered out of both people; then take the words bride, bridegroom, spouse, love, watchmen, shepherds, tents, door, lock, &c., &c., and, finding some words either similar or parallel, in other parts of the sacred writings, which have there an allegorical meaning, contend that those here are to be similarly understood; and what is spoken of those apply to these; and thus, in fact, are explaining other passages of Scripture in their own way, while professing to explain the Canticles! What eminent talents, precious time, great pains, and industry, have been wasted in this way!” (p. 849).

Indeed, Clarke in his earlier introductory comments issued a stern warning, which is still valid today: “The principal part of the commentators on this book, especially those who have made it their separate study, have in general taken it for granted that their mode of interpretation is incontrovertible; and have proceeded to spiritualize every figure and every verse as if they had a Divine warrant for all they have said. Their conduct is dangerous; and the result of their well-intentioned labours has been of very little service to the cause of Christianity in general, or to the interests of true morality in particular” (pp. 843-844).

Addressing the idea of starting from an allegorical premise, he asks: “Why then assume the thing that should be proved; and then build doctrines on it, and draw inferences from it, as if the assumption had been demonstrated? Were this mode of interpretation to be applied to the Scriptures in general, (and why not, if legitimate here?) in what a state would religion soon be! Who could see any thing certain, determinate, and fixed in the meaning of the Divine oracles, when fancy and imagination must be the standard interpreters? God has not left his word to man’s will in this way. Every attempt, however well-intentioned, to revive this thriftless, not to say dangerous, Origenian method of seducing the Scriptures to particular creeds and purposes, should be regarded with jealousy; and nothing received as the doctrine of the Lord but what may be derived from those plain words of the Most High which lie most on a level with the capacities of mankind. Allegory, metaphor, and figures in general, where the design is clearly indicated, which is the case with all those employed by the sacred writers, may come in to illustrate and more forcibly to apply Divine truth; but to extort celestial meanings from a whole book, where no such indication is given, is most certainly not the way to arrive at the knowledge of the true God, and of Jesus Christ whom he has sent” (p. 845). This is impeccably sensible.

In summary, Clarke gave this bold assessment of the Song of Solomon (most of the words here forming the conclusion to his abridged introduction in the one-volume version of his commentary): “The conviction on my mind and the conclusion to which I have conscientiously arrived, are the result of frequent examination, careful reading, and close thinking, at intervals, for nearly fifty years; and however I may be blamed by some, and pitied by others, I must say, and I say it as fearlessly as I do conscientiously, that in this inimitably fine elegant Hebrew ode I see nothing of Christ and his Church, and nothing that appears to have been intended to be thus understood; and nothing, if applied in this way, that, per se, can promote the interests of vital godliness, or cause the simple and sincere not to ‘know Christ after the flesh.’ Here I conscientiously stand. May God help me!” (p. 844).

Yet Clarke, in his zeal to counter the excesses of allegorizing, may have overstepped here in the opposite direction. For many who reject the allegorical approach still maintain that there is something of Christ and the Church in the Song—and this is not at all unreasonable. We refer, of course, to the typological approach. Clarke himself allowed for the possibility of spiritual parallels with Christ’s love for mankind and the relationship between God and Israel—but he thought it unfruitful to inordinately expound on such, this being very subjective (pp. 848-849). And indeed, extreme caution must be exercised here, as we will see.

The next section of introductory comments will cover the typological and cult-mythological interpretive approaches to this book.