Bible Commentary: Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 8

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Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 8

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The Typological Approach to the Song

In the typological (or typical) view, a lesser type or prototype character or situation is understood to correspond to a greater antitype, often in a prophetic sense. “Our English word type, in the sense that it is used here, comes from the Greek word typos, meaning either a pattern, or the thing produced from the pattern…. The related word antitypos ‘antitype’ means ‘corresponding to something that has gone before’” (Carr, p. 24). Often we see the former in the Old Testament and the latter revealed in the New. “Thus the New Testament fulfillment, or ‘antitype,’ corresponds to the material presented in the Old Testament original, the ‘type’” (p. 24). Both these terms occur in the New Testament. Paul described Adam, head of the human race, as a “type” of Jesus Christ, head of a redeemed humanity (Romans 5:14-15)—Christ thus being the antitype. And Peter described baptism as an “antitype” of the deliverance of Noah’s family through the Great Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), that past deliverance being the type.

Given the many concrete examples of this manner of interpretation in the New Testament, many Christian interpreters believe that type-antitype parallelism can be found even if not explicitly spelled out in the New Testament. Jewish interpreters in embracing typology have looked for antitypes not in the New Testament of course, but elsewhere in the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures and in the historical circumstances of the Jewish people.

Dr. Carr points out regarding the typological approach: “Many writers and interpreters make no distinction between this method and allegory, but there is a clear difference which needs to be recognized. Whereas allegory denies or ignores the historicity or factualness of the Old Testament account and imposes a deeper, hidden or spiritual meaning on the text, typology recognizes the validity of the Old Testament account in its own right, but then finds in that account a clear, parallel link with some event or teaching in [other passages, this predominantly for Christians meaning in] the New Testament which the Old Testament account foreshadows…. The typical interpretation does not provide a ‘different’ meaning that replaces the one the text appears to present, but gives an added dimension to the sense already present in the text. This is similar to the so-called ‘dual fulfillment’ of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament” (p. 24).

There are some similarities between the allegorical and typological approaches. Chief among these is a general figurative interpretation. Indeed, the general overview interpretations of the Song of Songs in the allegorical approaches would be considered typological if they were not accompanied by extensive figurative interpretation of everything in the Song in disregard of its surface meaning. Thus, the main similarity here highlights a key difference—the degree of correspondence between the story in question and its ultimate fulfillment.

Commentator Franz Delitzsch, who held to a literal, dramatic understanding of the Song in combination with a typological view, had this to say in his introduction: “The book is not an allegory, and Solomon is by no means an [allegorical depiction] of God. But the congregation is truly a bride (Jeremiah 2:2; Isaiah 62:5), and Solomon a type of the Prince of peace (Isaiah 9:5; Luke 11:31), and marriage a mystery, viz., as a pattern of the loving relation of God and His Christ to the church (Ephesians 5:32). The Song has consequently not only a historical-ethical, but also a typico-mystical meaning. But one must be on his guard against introducing again the allegorical interpretation…under the misleading title of the typical interpretation. The typical interpretation proceeds on the idea that the type and the antitype do not exactly coincide; the mystical [component here is] that the heavenly stamps itself in the earthly, but is yet at the same time immeasurably different from it. Besides, the historico-ethical interpretation [i.e., the plain sense of the text] is to be regarded as the proper business of the interpreter. But because Solomon is a type…of the spiritual David in his glory [i.e., the Messiah on David’s throne], and earthly love a shadow of the heavenly, and the Song a part of sacred history and canonical Scripture, we will not omit here and there to indicate that the love subsisting between Christ and His church shadows itself forth in it” (Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, introduction to the Song of Songs).

Of course, variant ideas about Solomon’s role in the literal story impact the overall typological interpretation of the Song. Those who view him as the lover in the Song would typologically see him as representing Christ, as Delitzsch does. Yet typology advocates who embrace the shepherd hypothesis see Solomon cast in quite a different role. This perspective views the Church and Christ as symbolized by the Shulamite and her often-unseen shepherd husband—Jesus being the Bridegroom and the Good Shepherd of His flock in this age. Solomon, on the contrary, is seen to represent the world or even the powerful ruler of the world, Satan the devil, attempting to seduce the woman (the Church) with worldly wealth and station—yet she remains faithful to her shepherd husband.

We should note the more restrained nature of typological interpretation, as concerning a more overall approach. Of course, some of the specifics of the storyline may be types as well—and that is a reasonable avenue of study. It is when interpreters become too specific in such analysis where typology is not even hinted at that the unrestrained interpretation characteristic of allegory springs up in this methodology as well.

Delitzsch’s caution about not allowing typological reading to turn into allegorizing is an important one. Indeed, some commentators refer to typology as a back-door reintroduction of allegorization. This occurs when interpreters who embrace the literal meaning of a text as well as a general symbolic meaning overreach in interpreting far too many details in symbolic terms. Gledhill gives the same caution: “Those who interpret the Song following the typological analogies used by the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles, need to take care that their exposition does not blossom into the uncontrolled extravaganza of extreme allegorism (i.e. the sort of thing that makes the voice of the turtle dove (Song of Solomon 2:12) the preaching of the apostles; the little foxes (Song of Solomon 2:15) the sins that spoil the church; the mountain of myrrh (Song of Solomon 4:12) the hill of Calvary and so on)” (p. 34). All the points against such a tendency in regard to allegory, including Adam Clarke’s stern warnings, can be brought to bear here as well. In both cases, such unconstrained interpretation is an exercise of the imagination—even if the conclusions are true in themselves, being taken from other passages. Likewise, the previously mentioned danger of eroticizing the Christ-Church relationship through becoming too exhaustive in drawing parallels must be avoided.

Frankly, we must even be cautious in holding a typological view of a passage (or book) altogether when the New Testament gives no clear indication that it should be taken that way. Jesus did say that the Old Testament Scriptures testify of Him (John 5:39; Luke 24:27, Luke 24:44). But does that mean every line? In this regard, Carr lists the following valid principles: “1. When the New Testament writers, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, selected certain Old Testament texts and applied them to Jesus, etc., their application and interpretation are correct. 2. It is not legitimate, however, to say therefore that all the Old Testament or even other specific texts must also be interpreted the same way. Where the New Testament does not make these connections we are not required to either. 3. This does not mean that the rest of the Old Testament may not speak of Christ; it means only that it does not necessarily speak of Christ, even though there is a long tradition of such exegesis in the church. 4. Careful attention needs to be given to vocabulary, meaning, grammar and context before one can legitimately argue that any given text or passage be interpreted Christologically” (p. 28).

Carr then goes on to compare the vocabulary of the Song of Solomon with that of the other Old Testament love song, Psalm 45, which the New Testament quotes from as referring to Christ (Hebrews 1:8-9). He points out that Psalm 45 has a high number of religious terms identifying it with the divine messianic King—terms absent from the Song of Solomon. This, of course, does not rule out a typological interpretation of the Song—but it should rule out a firm or dogmatic position on the matter.

As Tanner comments: “Admittedly Scripture does at times utilize typical fulfillment, and certain verses or passages may be typico-prophetic (e.g., Psalm 22). In fact Solomon is used as a type of Christ elsewhere (2 Samuel 7:12–17; 2 Samuel 23:1–7; Psalm 72; cf. Matthew 12:42). The typical view then does have some claim to legitimacy and is certainly more viable than the allegorical method by the mere fact that it is much more restrained [that is, as long as it remains so]. The question, however, is not whether typical interpretation is valid but whether the Song should be so interpreted. The text itself gives no indication that it is intended as typology, nor is there any indication from the New Testament that the Song is to be interpreted or applied Christologically. Thus to interpret the Song of Songs by the typical view is to do so at the interpreter’s suggestion, not that of Scripture itself” (pp. 32-33).

Furthermore, it should be realized that there are possible conflicts with a typological view of the Song’s love story when considering the apparent plot progression. Recall that the central point in the Song in 4:16–5:1 is apparently a sexual encounter—perhaps the marriage consummation. Many understand the events recorded after this in Song of Solomon 5:2-7 to be within the context of marriage—after conjugal relations have commenced. This passage concerns a problem between the lovers, who again many see as married, leading to a period of separation and the woman being wounded, whether real or imagined. How is this supposed to fit into the relationship of Christ and the Church? Their divine wedding and marriage supper will not come until Christ’s future return, at which time the Church will be raised in perfection. There will be no problems whatsoever between Christ and His Church after their wedding—and the Church will no longer be subject to physical or mental suffering.

Of course, it is conceivable that Song of Solomon 5:2-7 is a flashback to premarital life. Alternatively, it may be that the consummation in 4:16–5:1 points typologically to the earlier union of Christ and His Church in this age through the Holy Spirit—as Paul drew a parallel between becoming one flesh in physical union to being one spirit with the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 6:15-17). On the other hand, some argue that the marital intimacy of 4:16–5:1 is not actually achieved within the plot of the Song—rather, that it is a central focus only in the sense of anticipation, still longed for at the end of the Song in Song of Solomon 8:14. Yet picking and choosing between such possibilities may amount to nothing more than attempts to make everything fit the preconceived typological notion. Indeed, the difficulties in merely comprehending the story in the Song might seem to call the overall typological approach into question. On the other hand, perhaps the typology applies to segments of the Song and not to the overall plot, though this would seem odd, given the poetic union of the entire work.

It should not be forgotten, however, that a seemingly major point in favor of a typological understanding is the association of the Song with Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, which goes back at least as far as the arrangement of the Old Testament—when the Song was placed first among the Megilloth or festival scrolls. The parallel terms in the Song of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7) also constitute a point in favor. So there may well be glimpses of the relationship between God and His people in the Song. And even apart from that, there are at least concepts of the Song that can be applied to that relationship, as will be noted in the concluding section of our introduction.

Again, it is best to take no firm position on the matter of typology in the Song, especially in terms of degree. In any case, contrary to the opinion of many, a symbolic interpretation is not necessary to justify the Song’s place in Scripture, as we will see.

The Cultic-Mythological Approach

In the early 20th century a few scholars came to believe the Song was derived from pagan fertility worship. We here give only brief attention to this notion, which is surely wrong.

Whereas, as has been noted, there are apparent parallels between the Song of Songs and ancient Egyptian love poetry, this poetry is mostly of a secular nature. Some have seen other parallels in the language of the “sacred marriage” hymns of Mesopotamia and Canaan, which are religious rather than secular—as they speak of sexual love between god and goddess and were employed in fertility rites. These may contain a few common love motifs that can help elucidate some imagery in the Song, as we will later see. Yet the aforementioned scholars went beyond this to assume that the Song was originally a pagan hymn itself—used by Israel in periods of apostasy and later stripped of overt pagan elements.

In this view, the Song is taken allegorically, though not in any traditional sense. For it was proposed that the Song originally described the love not of real people but of the Babylonian sun god Tammuz and the moon goddess Ishtar. Tammuz, sometimes equated with Baal or Adonis, was apparently referred to as Dod (meaning “Beloved” or “Lover,” like dod in the Song) and as Shulman (taken to be parallel to Shelomoh, or Solomon), while one of Ishtar’s guises was the war goddess Shala or Shulmanitu, seen by some as a feminine counterpart to Shulman and supposedly parallel to Shulamith or the Shulamite in the Song. The sexual fertility ritual reenacted the ancient myth of Ishtar’s search for her dead lover in the underworld, raising him to life in sexual union and thereby ensuring the fertility of the land.

A leading proponent of this view of the Song was Theophile Meek, who gave this opinion in his introduction to the Song in The Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. 5, 1956). He was of course fiercely criticized, “yet his theory attracted a substantial following among cuneiformists and biblical scholars alike, in large measure because it seemed to ‘explain’ diverse features of the Song’s themes and hyperbolic language and also to draw early Israel’s cult more tightly into the orbit of other ancient Near Eastern religious traditions and practices” (Murphy, p. 40). However, it did not really explain things so well, and adherents of this view have declined since the middle of the 20th century.

The New American Commentary points out: “This interpretation suffers from four major weaknesses. First, Song of Songs lacks a number of major motifs associated with the fertility cult. Most important here is the absence of any reference to a dying and rising god. Nor does the Song hint that the sexuality of the couple helps to induce fertility. [Indeed, though the Song extols sexual love in marriage, there is no mention or even implication of fertility or childbearing at all.] Second, cultic interpretations are seldom compelling. As [Brevard] Childs notes, ‘Subtle use of erotic imagery in the biblical poem is far removed from the crass ‘explanations’ of the book’s alleged original meaning’ [Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, 1985, p. 573]. Mythological readings, moreover, are often as forced as allegorical analyses. Third, if Song of Songs were a piece of myth and ritual from the fertility cult, it is difficult to see how it was admitted to the canon [—especially since canonization appears to have taken place during periods of righteous reform, when idolatrous hymns would have been rejected altogether, not just ‘cleaned up’]. Fourth…Song of Songs and the fertility cult hymnic material are simply not in the same genre. Song of Songs is not a hymn. Incidental parallels between the love poetry of Song of Songs and the sensual references in cultic texts are instructive in that both came from the ancient Near East, but they are far from common material” (p. 362).

We would probably spend no time on this approach at all if not for the fact that a variant of it was adopted by Professor Marvin Pope in his massive Anchor Bible commentary on the Song of Songs (1977)—this being still acknowledged as the leading commentary on the Song available today. Pope sees the lovers in the Song as Baal and his consort and then takes the further step of arguing that the song concerns a pagan funerary feast. This he bases mainly on the statement that “love is as strong as death” in Song of Solomon 8:6. Yet this verse merely shows love as unyielding in its grasp on those in love. It has nothing to do with pagan funerary concepts of reaffirming the power of sensual love through fertility ritual in the face of death. Moreover, there are no references to cultic rites anywhere in the Song. And, of course, Pope’s theory suffers from the same weaknesses the other cultic interpretations do.

That being said, Pope’s commentary remains a valuable resource, for besides his own interpretations of the Song he also covers an exceedingly broad spectrum of past and contemporary opinions. His bibliography alone runs to 56 pages. And his entire commentary fills 743 pages! This should illustrate the wide diversity of opinion on how to interpret and comprehend the Song of Songs.

The next section of introductory comments will cover purposes of the Song, spiritual  interpretations, and the question of proper sexuality within the Song.