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What to do with the Song of Songs?

There seem to be two extreme positions on interpreting the Song of Songs in our context – either it’s purely about Christ and the Church, or it is purely about human relationships. And the second of these seems to be much more common. And perhaps more common than either is a reluctance to even attempt to preach from the book.

And then the other day I was reading a Christian book on marriage when the author suddenly felt the need to argue strongly at some length against the idea that the Song of Songs can be interpreted allegorically of Christ and the Church. So maybe it’s worth going through the key arguments the author made there against what is the traditional interpretation through church history that the Song is primarily to be taken as referring to the relationship between Christ and the Church.

1. The topic of the Song of Songs is obviously sex. Solomon is plainly writing about human, romantic relationships. That is his theme. Not Christ and the Church. In answer: That’s a fair observation. The plain literal reading is a story about a man and a woman (or more likely on a literal reading two men and a woman) and their relationship. But then the plain literal reading of Psalm 22 is that David is surrounded by bulls and dogs. The point is, what if it is metaphor that isn’t waving a big flag saying “I’m a metaphor”? In Psalm 22 the surface topic is wild animals but the referent is David’s human enemies, and the subject/message of the whole metaphor (which cannot really be reduced to non-metaphorical language, hence the importance of the metaphor) is a graphic portrayal of the ferocious, powerful, merciless, terrifying assault of enemies. So it would be quite possible to say that the surface topic / plain reading of the Song of Songs is human romantic/sexual relationships and yet the referents are Christ and the Church and the real subject/theme is a beautiful expression of that tender, intimate relationship.

2. The Bible never suggests that this book isn’t primarily about sex. There are no OT or NT quotations from this book showing that it should be taken as about Christ and the Church. In answer: It’s true that it is not quoted explicitly but three things in the canon point very strongly in the Christ-Church direction:
1) The very strong theme throughout the OT which represents the relationship between God and his people as a marriage (esp. clear in Ps. 45, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea), picked up in the NT (e.g. Mark 2, John 3, Rev. 19-21) – in fact the shape of the whole Bible is from marriage to marriage, as Christopher Ash says, “In a sense Genesis 2:24 is the proleptic preaching of the gospel, for the first marriage foreshadows the climactic marriage of the Lord with his people” (Marriage, p. 88-89).
2) The explicit interpretation at Eph. 5:31-32 of marriage oneness in terms of Christ and the Church suggests that we should always see marriage as a picture of something else.
3) Texts indicating that all the OT Scriptures are designed to teach us Christ and faith in him (Luke 24; John 5; 2 Tim. 3) mean that the difficulty is rather with those who would have a non-Christological book in the Bible.
But even within the book of Song of Songs itself, there is a strong explicit indication that it is ultimately about God’s love for his people. Chapter 8 verse 6 starts talking about the sealing of the love of the lover for the beloved, bases this on the nature of love and jealousy (a common word for God’s love for his people) and then equates this with ‘the very flame of the LORD’ (the reference to Yah is hidden in some translations). Coming close to the end of the book this seems a strong pointer to how we should be understanding this love that it describes so beautifully.
3. God’s relationship with man is not sexual. It is inappropriate to use erotic language to describe the relationship between Christ and the church. In answer: it is true that God does not have a sexual relationship with man (in contrast with many ancient near eastern and Greco-Roman mythologies). However God has chosen to use human marriage as the great picture of oneness between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:31-32). And marriage is a man and a woman becoming ‘one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24). And 'one flesh' here, is more than but not less than sexual intercourse (Ash, Marriage, p. 348-349). So at Ephesians 5 Scripture is very happy to interpret the human marriage (in all its fleshiness) as referring to Christ-Church oneness.
Further, we might look at Ezekiel 16 where the relationship between the LORD and Israel is pictured in very intimate language (esp. v6-24). We need to remember that (see point 1 above) this is metaphor. When the idolatry and faithlessness of God’s people is pictured as prostitution (in extraordinarily explicit language – e.g. Ezek. 16:25; 23:19-21) it does not mean that God’s people had a sexual relationship with the foreign powers or their gods. They may well have been outwardly very upright people. It was a heart issue. It is metaphor. And likewise, when Israel is the wife of God (Hosea etc.) it is metaphor describing a heart/spiritual reality.
We might also add that the word ‘erotic’ is not helpful. Ezekiel and the prophets and the Song of Songs are actually very discrete and restrained when describing the love between those representing the Lord and his people and hold back from describing an actual consummation between them. Their emphasis is on love, tenderness, delight and longing.
4. Spiritualizing the book doesn’t work. Examples are brought out to show how, in the history of Christological interpretation of the Song of Songs, the imagery has been forced into an allegorical mould and the plain meaning ignored. For example, SoS 1:2 is clearly about real kisses and 7:7-8 about real breasts; 1:13 is about myrrh between breasts not Christ between the two covenants. In answer: Clearly the imagery has been abused in the past. But on the other hand, the ‘keep simply to the plain meaning’ approach doesn’t work particularly well either. You only have to turn to some of the more liberal commentaries on the Song of Songs to find that a ‘plain reading’ can result in a woman with two lovers (a shepherd boy (1:7) and a king (3:7-11)) or endorse sex before marriage. Actually, looking to Christ and the church makes a lot of sense of the book. When we think of a ruddy Davidic shepherd and a Solomonic king then we find them in one man – Jesus the Christ.
The allegorical reading actually makes much more sense of some of the stranger imagery – “What is that coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense” (3:6) – it’s the column of fire (LORD) leading his people through the wilderness, it’s the fragrance of the High Priest. Why is the beloved described in terms which seem more appropriate to the land of Israel or the city of Jerusalem (4:1,4,6,11-12,15-16; 5:1; 6:4-5; 7:4-5)? Could it be a clue to who she is? In other words there is plenty of material within the Song of Songs itself that suggests that this book may be more than it seems at first glance and points towards Christ and the Church.
5. We need instruction on sexuality. That is why the Song of Songs is there. If we don’t teach it like this then Christians will run to the world for their bedroom advice. In answer: There is some truth there. We certainly mustn’t be prudish and think sex is any way dirty or unspiritual or not appropriate to teach about as perhaps some wrongly believed in the Middle Ages and Victorian England. The Bible is incredibly earthy and often more explicit than we would be. God invented sex and the fact that marriage is great picture of the gospel shows what a massive importance he places on it.
But I don’t think it’s either/or – i.e. just teach about human sex/marriage or just teach about Christ/Church. You can have both. But also I don’t think it’s a case of ‘balancing’ – i.e. preach a bit about sex/marriage and then a bit about Christ/Church. In Ephesians 5 Paul says that marriage refers to Christ and the Church. Human marriage is all about Christ and the church. And then he shows how Christ and the Church is the model for human marriage. So it works like this: Marriage takes us to The Ultimate Marriage which we then apply to our marriages. I think exactly the same thing can work well for our preaching and applying of the Song of Songs: a) Look at the marriage language, get a feel for the tenderness and love and dynamics going on there; b) Look at how it is pointing to Christ and the Church, dwell on those great gospel realities of oneness and justification and intimacy (e.g. as Luther did from SoS 2:16); c) apply this gospel of Christ and the church – both into our Christian lives (is this how we understand our relationship with Christ?) and particularly into our marriages (are they shaped like the Ultimate Marriage?). Taking this route means that we avoid gospel-less moralism and superficial application and means that we get much deeper, richer more powerful marriage applications than if we just read it as a good sex handbook.

Here’s some great stuff on the Song:


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