Part of God’s Word
I suppose that Song of Songs or Song of Solomon is one of the most neglected books of the Bible. I’ve never preached on it before and I suspect most of my colleagues have never preached on it. One reason why we’re reluctant to preach on it is because of the subject matter. It’s obviously about love and romance, but it’s also about desire. And it can be embarrassing for us to deal with that kind of thing in church; and it might be inappropriate to deal with such matters on Sundays when there are children in the congregation and other people who may find this kind of thing difficult to handle. We don’t like embarrassing anyone or making anyone uncomfortable. And so, we neglect this book.
But another reason why we often avoid it is because we’re not entirely sure how to interpret it. I’ll say more about that in a moment, but it’s a difficult book to interpret and we’re not too sure what to make of it and how to apply it to our lives.
So, there are two reasons why we tend to neglect this book. It can be embarrassing for us. And it’s hard to interpret. Nevertheless, as Paul tells us, all Scripture — including Song of Songs — is God-breathed and is useful for teaching and rebuking and correcting and training in righteousness. God has given us this book so that the man of God — the preacher — may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Song of Songs is part of the Bible; and so we mustn’t neglect it or disregard it, but we must strive to understand it.
What Kind of Book?
What kind of book is it? The commentators discuss this and various suggestions have been made. For instance, some say it’s a drama, because you have these different characters, including a man and woman who are in love, plus additional characters who appear from time to time; and there are different settings, because some of the action takes place in the country and some of the action takes place in the city; and there’s clearly a kind of love story plot. So, some say it’s a drama.
Others say it’s a collection of songs. In other words, there’s no real unity to the book. It’s just a selection of love songs or love poems which have been stuck together. Think of a compilation CD: it’s a bunch of songs that have no real connection to one another, but they’re just stuck together on one CD. That’s the Song of Songs, some commentators say. There are five or six songs and they’re all stuck together.
And there have been other suggestions for what kind of book the Song of Songs is. However, the very first verse of the book is the best clue to what kind of book this is. It’s not a drama or a collection of songs or poems, it’s a song. It’s one song.
The phrase Song of Songs is a superlative. You know what a superlative is, don’t you? There’s good, better and best. Something is good. Another things is better. But then there’s the best. That’s the superlative. Well, some songs are good. Other songs are better. But this song, the Song of Songs, is the best song. The phrases ‘Holy of holies’ and ‘King of kings’ are similar. The ‘Holy of holies’ was the most holy place in the temple. The ‘King of kings’ is the best king, the greatest king. And ‘Song of Songs’ is the best, the greatest song, the superlative song.
The first verse also tells us that this book is the Song of Songs of Solomon. That might mean he wrote it. And we know from 1 Kings 4:32 that Solomon, who was wiser than any man, spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. So, Solomon was a song writer and he could therefore have written Song of Songs. However, it could be that Song of Songs was written, not by Solomon, but for Solomon. Or perhaps it was written about Solomon. Or perhaps it was Solomon’s favourite song. It’s not entirely clear from the first verse who wrote this book.
If we don’t know who wrote it, do we know who the song is about? Unfortunately, that’s not entirely clear either. You’ll know that modern English Bibles usually add headings to the text of the Bible to try to break up the text into smaller parts and to offer some guidance to the readers for how to understand what they’re reading. Sometimes these headings can be helpful; sometimes they can be misleading. And the headings, of course, are not part of the original Bible text.
However, the NIV doesn’t include any headings for the Song of Songs apart from the captions ‘Beloved’, ‘Lover’ and ‘Friends’ to help the reader know who is speaking. So, if you’re looking at the NIV, you’ll see it refers to the ‘Beloved’ above verse 2 and to ‘Friends’ in verse 4 and to the ‘Lover’ above verse 9. The ‘Beloved’ is female and the ‘Lover’ is male. The ESV uses the captions ‘She’ and ‘He’ and ‘Others’. There’s a little footnote in the NIV which explains that they’ve worked out when a woman or man is speaking, or when several people are speaking, based on the gender and number of the Hebrew pronouns. So, in verse 2 of chapter 1, the speaker says:
Let him kiss me….
We assume a woman said that, because the speaker says she wants ‘him’ to kiss her. In verse 4, it says:
We rejoice and delight in you….
So, the pronoun ‘we’ means more than one person is speaking. And in verse 9 someone says:
I liken you…
The pronoun ‘you’ is female and therefore we assume a man is speaking. However, the little footnote in the NIV states that the division and their captions are sometimes debatable. In other words, it’s not always entirely clear who is speaking. And that means, the captions may sometimes be wrong.
The Beloved character, the woman in the song, is called ‘O Shulammite’ in chapter 6 and verse 13. And so, in the commentaries, she’s often referred to as the Shulammite. The commentators don’t think this is her name or the place where she’s from. They think it might be a title. Others suggest that the Hebrew word ‘Shulammite’ is the feminine form of the name ‘Solomon’. And therefore some commentators suggest she’s described in this way to make the point that she’s a perfect match for Solomon.
Traditionally the male character, the Lover, is taken to be Solomon. In that case, this is a love song about King Solomon and this young Shulammite woman. However, other commentators suggest that there are in fact three main characters in the song. So, there’s the woman. Then, there’s Solomon. However, there’s another male character in the song and he’s a young shepherd who loves the woman. So, he’s the one who is depicted as leaping across the mountains and bounding over the hills in chapter 2 and who is described as a gazelle or young stag. Those commentators who suggest there are three main characters sometimes propose that the woman has a choice to make. Will she enter Solomon’s harem and become one of his wives, so that she’ll benefit from his great wealth and will live in luxury for the rest of her life, but she’ll only be one wife among many. Or will she choose to remain with this young shepherd. He is not rich or famous like Solomon, but he loves and adores her. Which will she choose?
So, are there three main characters or only two? That’s one of the things we need to work out.
How to Interpret the Book
And then we also need to work out how to interpret the song. Fred Leahy, who taught at the Reformed Presbyterian Church’s college here in Belfast, once wrote an article about Song of Songs in which he said the following:
Before the pastor can decide how he is going to make use of [this book] he must choose one of the methods of interpretation….
Later in the same article he says:
Before the pastor can preach on a verse from [this book] … he must make up his mind….
He must make up his mind on how to interpret it. Unfortunately, as Fred Leahy goes on to say, there are a number of ways to interpret this book.
For instance, is it allegory? Think of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. That’s allegory. It’s a completely made up story, but each of the characters and places in the story symbolise, or they represent, something else. So, the main character is Christian who represents a Christian. Then there’s Evangelist who puts Christian on the road to the Celestial City. Then there’s Obstinate and Pliable and Mr Worldly Wise and so on. Those are all characters in the story. And then there’s the City of Destruction and the Slough of Despond and Wicket Gate and Valley of Humiliation and so on. Those are all places in the story. When you read that book, you know what these people and places symbolise something.
And that’s how people have treated the Song of Songs. The man and the woman and their friends in the song symbolise something. For instance, they symbolise God and the people of Israel. or Christ and his church. That kind of symbolism seems sensible enough. But then it can become far-fetched and fanciful, when, for example, the cooing of the doves in 2:12 is said to symbolise the preaching of the apostles; and the foxes in 2:15 are said to symbolise the sins that spoil the church. The problem with an allegorical interpretation — apart from the fact that there’s no indication in the text that it should be interpreted this way — is that anyone with a creative imagination can interpret the text in any number of ways.
So, others say we should give this book a natural interpretation. In that case, this love song is about love between a man and a woman. God is the one who made us and who said it wasn’t good for Adam to be on his own. And so, he created Eve to be his companion; and he therefore gave us marriage for our good. And since love and marriage is God’s idea, then why wouldn’t there be a book in the Bible devoted to love and marriage? Commentators who take this approach will point out that Song of Songs is part of the Bible’s wisdom literature. Wisdom literature — and Job and Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are included in this genre — is all about being wise and living according to God’s wisdom and not according to the wisdom of the world, which is only foolishness. And so, Song of Songs is a book to teach us to be wise about love and romance and desire. The young woman would be wise to forsake the riches of Solomon’s palace, because she won’t find true love in the king’s harem, but she will find love with the young shepherd who loves and adores her.
So, perhaps that’s how we should interpret the book: this love song is about human love. However, one commentator at least asks whether the song of songs, the best song, can really only be about human love, especially when the song of songs, the best song, is found in the Bible. Surely the songs of songs, the best song, must in some way be about God and his love. And that takes me to what is called the typological approach to interpretation. When someone or something in the Old Testament points forward and is fulfilled by something in the New Testament, we say that that person or thing is a type. It points beyond itself to something better. So, the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were types of Christ who is the true sacrifice for sins. Kings in the Old Testament were types of Christ who is the true King. Allegory and typology may appear to be similar, but remember an allegory is a made up story, whereas types were real and they had a real purpose and meaning in the days of the Old Testament, even though they pointed beyond themselves to something better to come. And so, while Songs of Songs is about human love, perhaps their love for one another points beyond themselves to the love which exists between Christ and his church. This is especially so if the main male character is Solomon, because, of course, Solomon is not anyone, but a king. And kings in the Old Testament point to Christ. And so, that’s a possible interpretation of this book.
But then there’s an eschatological interpretation. Eschatology is to do with the last things, which are, of course, anticipated in the first things. So, what we read in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, about the creation of this world foreshadows what we read in Revelation, the last book of the Bible, about the new creation to come. And so, there are others who notice the garden imagery of Song of Songs. As you read it, much of the action takes place in a garden. And it’s an idyllic setting, a perfect setting, where this man and woman enjoy what seems to be an idyllic relationship. From time to time, dangers appear. But on the whole it seems idyllic. And so, the garden imagery reminds us of the Garden of Eden. And the idyllic relationship in Song of Songs recalls Adam and Eve before the fall. And so, perhaps this love song recalls what was lost because of the fall, but it also points beyond itself to the new heavens and earth, where we will be made perfect, and where all of God’s people will enjoy perfect peace and rest; and where we won’t be married, but we won’t be single either, because all of God’s people will be united forever with Christ our Saviour, who loved us and gave up his life for us. And in the book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus is depicted as the Bridegroom who is calling his Bride to come. The Song of Songs ends with the woman calling the man to come to her. But the Bible ends with the Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus, calling his bride, the church, to come to him and to live with him forever.
So, how many characters are there in this love song? Two or three? It’s not clear. How should we interpret it? Allegorically? Naturally? Typologically? Eschatologically? It’s not clear. So, hopefully by next Wednesday I’ll have made up my mind about some of these things, otherwise I don’t know what we’ll do. But we can be sure that since this book is breathed out by God, then it’s useful for teaching us and rebuking us and for correcting us and for training us in righteousness.