Intended Allegory in the Song of Songs?

For a number of years now learned interpreters of Scripture have been telling us that the Song of Songs is (primarily) about human love. I put the word primarily in parentheses in that last sentence for a reason. I had grown so accustomed to the emphasis on human love in the Song that I had begun to assume that’s all modern commentators said about it. As I was recently pondering this, I went back and looked at what they actually say. They typically add a word like “primarily” or “mainly,” leaving the door open to a spiritual meaning of the Song. But then when they get into it, all they talk about is human love.

In this post I want to pose a question: is it possible that Solomon intended the Song to have an allegorical layer of meaning?

Usually when you suggest that the Song is about something more than human love, people roll their eyes and write you off as a prude.

I’m not a prude, okay?

I do think the Song is about human love, and I think human love is great. Really great! I love my wife, and I can’t get over God giving us something so surprising, so pleasing, so good as marriage. Everything that happens within the context of this comprehensive interpersonal union of one man and one woman being one flesh is better than any of the perversions people use to ruin it. So I’m on board with human love in the Song.

My question, though, is whether there’s more to the Song than merely human love, more that Solomon, whom I take to have written the Song (cf. Song 1:1), intended his audience to get from this piece of poetry. I’m not out to defend the history of interpretation by asking this question, but it is worth observing that the idea that the Song has a spiritual meaning has been, well, dominant across the ages. Is there exegetical evidence for it, though?

Let me note that by allegory I don’t mean something terribly complicated. Let’s stick with a simple definition from dictionary.com: “a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.” This seems to work for the way Paul uses allegory in Galatians 4:24.

So here’s the simple proposal this post is inviting you to consider: is it possible that Solomon intended to represent the spiritual relationship between God and his people through a poetic depiction of the human relationship between the King and the Bride in the Song of Songs?

What could have prompted Solomon to think of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel as being analogous to human marriage?

Well, in Exodus 34:14–16 Israel is already being warned not to “whore after their gods.” By describing idolatry with the language of prostitution and sexual immorality, Moses is talking about the covenant between Yahweh and Israel as though it is a marriage. So this way of thinking about God’s relationship with his people is well established prior to the time of Solomon, and it continues after Solomon, not least with Hosea, where when Hosea marries Gomer, Hosea plays the part of Yahweh, Gomer the part of Israel.

So I think we can be confident that biblical authors prior to and after Solomon were thinking about a spiritual meaning of marriage, recognizing an analogy between human marriage and God’s covenant with Israel. Is there more specific evidence?

Psalm 45 is perhaps the closest analogy to the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, being a wedding song for Israel’s king. The Psalm begins with a celebration of the king in Psalm 45:1–9, then concludes with an address to the princess marrying the king in 45:10–17. As the psalmist extols the greatness of the king, he says in Psalm 45:6, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,” showing—at least—a very tight connection between Yahweh and the king who represents him. With a statement like this in Psalm 45, and with other texts in the OT communicating a very close connection between Israel’s God and Israel’s king (e.g., Num 23:21; Isa 9:6; Jer 23:6; Hos 3:5; Mic 2:13; 5:4; Zech 12:8; 13:7) it would seem natural—not forced or fanciful—to see an analogy between the King and his Bride and Yahweh and Israel in the Song of Songs.

What about evidence that later OT authors might have read the Song this way? Is there anything that points in that direction? The King in the Song is regularly called the Bride’s “beloved.” This particular Hebrew word means different things in different contexts. In some contexts it means “uncle.” It is not often used outside the Song of Songs the way Solomon uses it in the Song. In fact, the only place outside the Song of Songs where the word is used with the same meaning it has in the Song is Isaiah 5:1, where Isaiah writes, “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard.” What follows in Isaiah 5 makes it clear that Isaiah is referring to Yahweh as his beloved. Given the fact that the only Scripture in which the word is used this way prior to Isaiah is the Song of Songs, it would seem at least possible that Isaiah’s thinking about the Lord has been influenced by the Song, with the result that Isaiah refers to the Lord the way the King is referenced in the Song. A related form, though not exactly the same Hebrew word, is used in a similar way, with reference to the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, in Jeremiah 11:15, Ezekiel 16:8, Psalm 60:5 (MT 60:7)/108:6 (MT 108:7), and 127:2.

There is more that could be said. For instance, the king’s procession to the wedding in Song 3:6–11 seems to have been crafted to recall Israel being led out to Sinai for the wedding between herself and Yahweh, who would dwell with her in the tabernacle and lead her by the pillar of fire and cloud. But the strongest argument for this way of thinking about the Song, it seems to me, comes from Paul telling the Ephesians what marriage is ultimately about in Ephesians 5:32, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”

Yahweh married Israel at Sinai. When she broke the covenant by whoring after other gods, she was eventually exiled, with the prophets promising a renewal of the broken marriage (see esp. Hos 2:14–23), a new covenant (Jer 31:31–34). Jesus came calling himself the Bridegroom (Matt 9:15), being recognized as such by the Baptist (John 3:29), and laying down his life for his bride (Eph 5:25) that she might be clothed in white linen for the marriage feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:7–8).

The Song of Songs is a poetic summary and interpretation of the Bible’s big story: the descendant of David—king of Israel about whom the promises of 2 Samuel 7 were made (promises resonant with the blessing of Abraham from Genesis 12:1–3, promises that will be realized through the one whose descent can be traced all the way back to Adam, who can thus be identified as the promised seed of the woman from Genesis 3:15)—renews an eden-like intimacy between himself and his Bride, reversing the affects of the fall (cf. Gen 3:16 and Song 7:10). All this is fulfilled in Christ Jesus, son of David, Yahweh incarnate, the one greater than Solomon (Matt 12:42), who initiated the new covenant between himself and his bride, the church, and who will return for the grand consummation when the Bride herself, the new Jerusalem, will descend from heaven having the glory of God (Rev 21:9–11).

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This post originally appeared at Christianity.com.

18 Responses to Intended Allegory in the Song of Songs?

  1. Jeremy E April 1, 2013 at 8:08 am #

    In my view SOS is primarily about human love. It has a secondary application to our relationship with God for the reason that you mentioned: marriage is frequently used in Scripture as a metaphor for God’s relationship with his people.

    But here is the catch for me. The marriage metaphor almost always emphasizes the covenantal nature of the relationship. It is the commitment that is meant to be highlighted. But SOS emphasizes the free-flowing romantic side. It is highly sexual, and our relationship to God is not described that way. True, to “cheat” on God (idolatry) is akin to “whoring”, but to be faithful to God is never viewed as sexual monogamy or in sexual terms.

    So for me, the natural reading is human love. I don’t think that pushes God out of the centre. That’s my two cents.

    • Justin Garcia April 1, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

      Here is a question I have about the interpretation that sees SOS as primarily about human love. If the bible is about God and more specifically about the history of redemption, then where does a book primarily about human love fit? As we know God is the hero in every book of the bible. The bible beautifully lays out through story, poetry, history, song, prophecy, epistle, and apocalyptic (to name a few) not only God’s plan of redemption for mankind through His Son Jesus Christ but His very nature and character.

      So what attribute of God is presented in SOS or what do we learn about God’s design for marriage in the plan of redemption if it is primarily about human love?

      Why would the Apostle Paul feel compelled to write about Christian marriage in Ephesians if the classic textbook for it was already written in SOS?
      Might I suggest that human marriage was always intended from the beginning to mirror that of God’s covenant relationship with His people and as Paul reveals in the NT that the mystery of marriage was always pointing to Christ and His bride the Church.

      I think the mere fact that both the ancient Jews and the better part of church history has always seen SOS as primarily about God and His people should make us moderns reevaluate out present view. Great post!

  2. Josh April 1, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

    What would you think of using the term analogy rather than allegory? Thanks for the post. I have long wondered why the greatest song of all songs would be primarily about human love.

    • JMH April 1, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

      Paul uses the word allegory, and I’m happy to use it the way he does.

      • Josh April 1, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

        You define allegory in the post as “a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.”

        I see now that you aren’t using “allegory” to necessarily refer to a fictional story.

  3. Jeff B April 1, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

    Thanks for this. I’ve been reading SOS the past few days as a part of my regular Bible reading plan, and this question has been on my mind a lot as I make my way through the book.

    I tend to lean towards the allegorical interpretation, and this post certainly helps to add some ammunition to that argument.

  4. mike wittmer April 1, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

    I think you’re on to something Jim. I have noticed recently that “mainly” can be used to sort of passive aggressively marginalize the thing that isn’t “mainly.” As in, Paul views Adam “mainly” as an archetype, which cashes out as he doesn’t think he’s historical, or if he does, it doesn’t matter any way. If you haven’t seen it, David Steinmetz has a terrific essay on how modernity’ literal grammatical historical method may not be better than the old spiritual interpretations. It’s called “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis.”

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