Lesson 4 of 5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Song of Songs

Allegorical interpretation

The Song of Songs has sometimes offended readers by its frank portrayal of erotic love, but, read allegorically, it became very attractive to Christian readers throughout history who found in the book an extended metaphor of Christ’s love for the church. Sometimes the allegorical reading has suppressed the plain meaning of the text, but it need not do so. The book’s description of romantic, passionate, and erotic love between a young woman and man celebrates and appreciates this aspect of God’s good creation, while the allegorical approach adds its own dimension. Properly understood, this reading does not deny the joys and wonders of human love, but rather incorporates these elements into the human experience of God. Especially in the church’s early and medieval history, mystics and theologians were willing to embrace such notions of the divine-human relationship-one as close as the erotic relation of human lovers.

Relation to Solomon

The mention of Solomon in the book’s title (and, in a literary inclusion, also at the end) has frequently been taken to mean Solomonic authorship. It is probably better, however, to see the traditional relation between the Wisdom literature (including the Song) and Solomon as similar to the relation between the Psalms and David. Just as David was the paradigmatic singer of Israel, so Solomon was the paradigmatic wisdom teacher. David was seen as the patron of the psalms, Solomon as the patron of the wisdom tradition. Solomon’s glory is invoked also in the depiction of the royal wedding in 3:6-11. The issue here, as often in biblical royal language, is not monarchic rule and hierarchy, but rather the pomp and grandeur of the royal court that serves as a small reminder of the glorious kingship of God.

Wisdom tradition

The Song of Songs has been seen throughout history as part of the Bible’s Wisdom literature. Wisdom’s chief concern is the conduct of human life in the created order under God, rather than the direct theological exploration of God’s redemptive work in history. Despite the Song’s lack of any direct mention of God, its association with Solomon shows that it understands itself to be a part of Israel’s life and history, marking even its explicit portrayal of human love and sexuality as part of God’s good creation to be used wisely, respected, and enjoyed.

“Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon”

Few modern, young women would be flattered by this comparison (7:4), not to mention the observation that “your hair is like a flock of goats” (4:1) and “your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes” (4:2)! These and other poetic images in the Song are, of course, specific to a particular time and culture and do not always translate well into another era. The point is to compare the beloved to objects of beauty, value, and desire in the world of the text. These verses show clearly the necessary cross-cultural considerations in an attempted translation and application of biblical texts, especially of biblical poetry.