Determining the Purpose of the Book
As we have seen, many and varied are the difficulties in understanding the Song of Solomon as it was meant to be understood. More confusion has surrounded it than perhaps any other book in the Bible. Yet the Song is in the Bible for a reason, however hard that reason might be to discern. As the apostle Paul writes, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Yet how does the Song fulfill these functions? It does not even contain a clear mention of God (except possibly in Song of Solomon 8:6, as we will note shortly). The book of Esther does not directly mention God either, but there at least His name is acrostically hidden in the text, whereas this is not the case in the Song of Solomon. Moreover, there is at least a mention of the spiritual tool of fasting in Esther—and God’s intervention can be seen through the remarkable circumstances that lead to the deliverance of the Jews. So where is God to be found in the Song? Must we reinterpret the text along spiritual lines to give Him and His righteous instruction a place within it? Or is the scriptural point of the book achieved through a natural reading of the text? And if so, is there then room for a spiritual understanding? Just what is the message of the book?
A Spiritualized Meaning?
We have seen the pitfalls of the spiritualizing, allegorical approach to the Song. It is true that Scripture elsewhere portrays as a marriage the relationship between Jesus Christ and Israel (i.e., between the preincarnate Christ and Israel in the Old Testament and between Christ and spiritual Israel, His Church, in the New Testament). Yet the Song itself gives no indication that it is to be read as an allegory, and attempts to explain its many details as allegorical representations, being without interpretive rules, are always subjective and tend toward unchecked imagination.
More reasonable in terms of spiritual interpretation is discerning general typological parallels between the Song and the Christ-Church relationship—while still accepting a natural reading of the text. Consider that after Paul’s discussion about husbands and wives relating properly to one another, he wrote, “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). Even here, though, such spiritual parallelism is not indicated by evidence in the Song itself or by it being clearly quoted elsewhere in Scripture in a typological sense. Yet the association of the Song with Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, evident from it being the first of the Megilloth or festival scrolls, would seem to encourage this view—as would the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5 referring to God as the Beloved and Israel as His vineyard, these figures having very possibly been adapted from the Song of Solomon.
The focus of the Song on such a level, however, depends on how the text is understood on a literal level. Those who see Solomon and his bride as the lovers in the Song, or an anonymous bride and groom as a figurative royal couple, understand the Song to depict the Christ-Church relationship culminating in the royal marriage of the divine King and Queen of the Kingdom of God. For those who believe in the three-character shepherd hypothesis, the focus on the literal level is on the purity of monogamous love in contrast to Solomon’s polygamous degradation as well as on the woman remaining faithful to her shepherd husband in the face of Solomon’s worldly enticements—and on the spiritual level the focus is understood to be that of the Church remaining faithful to her monogamous covenant and love with Christ in this age despite the world’s or Satan’s temptations.
In either case, it should be noted that the supposed spiritual meaning is not new information—or information unique to the Song. In fact, we do not know these possible explanations from the Song at all. We are aware of them only because they are revealed elsewhere in Scripture. The same is usually true when people press the analogies to discern further representative types in the details of the Song. The meanings perceived are, for the most part, known from other books of the Bible. Some interpreters, of course, may attempt to gain novel insights from such exposition. But the results are highly questionable. The only reliable conclusions are those found elsewhere in Scripture—and it remains uncertain whether these are intended in the Song.
What, then, is the point of the Song? What is it supposed to teach us? Surely the best way to discern this is to concentrate first on what the Song itself actually says in its proper setting—rather than read into it an uncertain spiritualized interpretation as a primary emphasis. Exposition of the Song has for many centuries been sidetracked, and even hijacked, by the notion, as Roland Murphy puts it, “that the Song must have an intentional meaning beyond its literal sense. How, it is often asked, can we account for the Song’s canonization unless we suppose that it had a spiritual significance from the outset? The question is moot, in any case, but it is usually posed to urge that poetry concerned with human sexual love would be unworthy of canonical status; this is a bias that must be challenged” (p. 92).
Indeed, as Lloyd Carr states, when through allegorical and typical terms “the Song becomes an instrument to provide access into some deeper spiritual truth, not a means of exploring relationships on a more personal, human level…implicitly or explicitly, this approach denigrates the very physical beings we are by virtue of our creation” (pp. 50-51).
Countering a Low View of Human Sexuality—With the Right View
As we earlier saw, the Neo-Platonic, Gnostic view of human nature as promulgated through Origen and others—which looked on spiritual elements as good and matters of the flesh as intrinsically base and evil—played a significant part in driving the early development of the allegorical interpretation of the Song within the Christian tradition. Not only that, but the grip this philosophy imposed on Christendom prevented contrary voices from ever being heard for the better part of two millennia.
Yet a disparaging view of sexuality did not begin with the early Catholic theologians but was adopted from the ascetics of paganism. Within paganism all manner of twisted views of sexuality abounded, from asceticism to hedonism, the latter in a religious sense being not so much a celebration of sexuality as a demonstration of the higher, inner self remaining untainted by the filth of the baser instincts of the flesh. There was also the mythologized view of sex as a cosmic, magical power of deities regulating natural forces on earth. While that was a celebration of sex in a certain sense, it was born out of an attempt to reconcile the mystery of a supposedly vile and shameful thing being a significant part of human life. These conceptions of sex can all be traced back in some way to the sense of shame over the human body that began when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden—Satan, in assuring them of immortality, having evidently explained this on the basis of a dualistic view of human nature, wherein the higher self, an immortal soul, is imprisoned within a wicked, fleshly carcass. This lie has created untold heartache in the world throughout human history.
In recent times, the Western world has emerged from centuries of asceticism and repression to embrace sexuality. For some this has happily meant coming to view it as a precious blessing to be enjoyed in the proper context of marriage. But for most, there has been a plunge into the opposite ditch of sexual libertinism, wherein sex is thought of as something for anyone to experience with anyone else, as long as there is mutual consent, for the mere pleasure of it. This is essentially a return to hedonism—not in a religious sense to demonstrate the supposed inner soul remaining untainted, but for many nonetheless based on the assumption that the inner soul is untainted if the flesh is plunged into depravity, this assumption, again, having originated with Satan in Eden. And for those who have been corrupted into seeing no depravity in extramarital sexual experimentation, the low view of sex is not as sin but as common, having no need for a sacred bond. In either case, there is a religious sense to hedonistic pursuit today in that it is part of a search for meaning in life and constitutes servitude to pleasure as an idol—living for sex, as it were, many considering life without it to be not worth living.
The Bible speaks to both of these errant concepts—the idea on one hand that sex is a lowly, grotesque evil that must be purged from human experience and desire so as to attain to godly purity and the idea on the other hand that sex is a common thing to be indulged in freely with no restraints beyond consensuality as being just fine and even the liberating path to happiness. Most of what we see in Scripture on the subject of sex is to counter the latter notion. The Bible imposes strict regulations on sexual conduct in numerous laws and gives many examples and warnings about the dangers of flaunting these. Yet the Bible also counters the low view of sexuality as evil by giving some positive statements about sex within the proper context of marriage.
In Genesis 1, God created Adam and Eve as male and female (verses 26-27) and told them to “be fruitful and multiply” (verse 28)—obviously through sexual reproduction—declaring it along with the rest of His creation as “very good” (verse 31). In Genesis 2:23-25 we see the beginning of marriage and the command to become “one flesh”—which, as the New Testament clearly shows, includes sexual union (see 1 Corinthians 6:16)—as well as the statement that the first man and wife were not ashamed of being naked together. Of course, these are rather general encouragements to marital intimacy.
What about more specific positive expressions of sexuality within marriage? Genesis 26:8 describes Isaac “showing endearment to Rebekah his wife”—“sporting” here in the KJV apparently referring to love play (the NKJV margin has “caressing”). But this is not stated as any kind of practical exhortation on marital love. Leaning a bit more to that point is Proverbs 5:15-20, which gives instructions on the proper context for sex: “Drink water from your own cistern, and running water from your own well. Should your fountains be dispersed abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be only your own, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of your youth. As a loving deer and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured with her love. For why should you, my son, be enraptured by an immoral woman, and be embraced in the arms of a seductress?” This is a warning against promiscuity, but within it is a positive, albeit brief, frank encouragement to sexual enjoyment in marriage. The apostle Paul encouraged husbands and wives to not deprive one another of marital affection as they live in mutual possession of each other (see 1 Corinthians 7:2-5).
Yet there is not much else besides on the positive side—unless, that is, we turn to the Song of Songs. And there we surprisingly find an entire book of the Bible filled with deeply romantic and erotic dialogue celebrating the joys of marital intimacy. Rather than explain over the fact of the Song’s sexual focus, as interpreters did for long, dreary centuries, we should realize what ought to have been obvious all along—that the Song’s celebratory focus on love, romance and marital sexuality, which constitute its clear and stated subject matter, is the very reason for its place within the canon of Scripture.
The Bible Knowledge Commentary notes in its introduction to the Song: “The purpose of the book is to extol human love and marriage. Though at first this seems strange, on reflection it is not surprising for God to have included in the biblical canon a book endorsing the beauty and purity of marital love. God created man and woman (Genesis 1:27; Genesis 2:20-23) and established and sanctioned marriage (Genesis 2:24). Since the world views sex so sordidly and perverts and exploits it so persistently and since so many marriages are crumbling because of lack of love, commitment, and devotion, it is advantageous to have a book in the Bible that gives God’s endorsement of marital love as wholesome and pure.”
Recall again 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which explains that all Scripture is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Song provides a thorough equipping to be complete in the sphere of marital love—an otherwise missing element.
“Indeed,” says The New International Commentary, “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 Song to encourage us as well as warn us about its power in our lives. 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” (p. 59).
In fact, there is good reason to understand the Song as a special vehicle for divine instruction about these matters.
The next section of introductory comments will cover the Song from a didactic wisdom literature perspective.