At first reading it seems impossible to describe a theology of the Song of Songs. After all, the name of God may appear only one time in the book, and that is debated (8:6). Moreover, God is not the only surprising absence in the book; we look in vain for a reference to Israel, the covenant, worship institutions, or anything explicitly religious. How then could Rabbi Akiba call this book the Bible's "Holy of Holies"?
The way chosen by many during the history of interpretation was to suppress the obviously sexual language of human love in the book by allegorizing it. Jewish interpreters, as represented by the Targum of the book (ca. seventh century a.d.), thought that the lover of the Song was Yahweh and the beloved Israel. Thus, when the woman pleads with the king to take her into his chamber (1:4), this has nothing to do with human lovemaking but rather describes the exodus from Egypt, God's bedroom being the land of Palestine. Early Christian interpreters also desexed the Song in this way, but, of course, identified the main characters with Jesus Christ and the church and/or the individual Christians. Hippolytus (ca. a.d. 200) was the first known Christian to allegorize the Song. From fragments of his commentary we learn that he takes the statement in 1:4 to mean that Christ has brought the worthy ones whom he has wedded into the church. The Targum and Hippolytus are just examples of an interpretive tendency that was dominant from early times until the nineteenth century and still is occasionally found today.
The allegorical method, however, lacks any external justification. The Song gives no indication that it should be read in any but a straightforward way. The discovery and publication of formally similar love poetry from modern Arabic literature as well as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia signaled the end of the allegorical approach to the text, but left the church with a number of questions about the theological meaning of the Song.
The Song serves an important canonical function with its explicit language of love. Allegorization in early times arose from the belief that such a subject was unsuitable for the Holy Scriptures. The church and the synagogue had been influenced by foreign philosophy (Neo-Platonism) to the point where bodily functions were seen in opposition to the things of the Spirit and thus to be avoided. The same attitudes and beliefs that motivated the monastic movement led to the allegorization of the Song. The Song, however, stands against such attempts and tells the church that sexuality within the context of marriage is something God created for the pleasure of his human creatures. Thus, the woman delights in the physical beauty of the man ( 5:10-16 ) and vice versa ( 4:1-15 ), and this physical attraction culminates in passionate lovemaking ( 5:1-2 ). God endowed humans at creation with sexuality as a blessing, not as a curse.
Indeed, the Song must be read in the context of the garden of Eden, where human sexuality is first introduced. The pervasive garden theme in the Song evokes memories of the garden before the fall. Since Adam had no suitable partner, God created Eve, and the man and the woman stood naked in the garden and felt no shame ( Gen 2:25 ), exulting in one another's "flesh" ( Gen 2:23-24 ).
This perfect harmony between the male and female tragically ended at the fall. Eve, then Adam, rebelled against God and a horrible distance grew between the sinful human race and their holy God. This separation between the divine and the human had repercussions in the human sphere as well. Now Adam and Eve were naked and they felt shame and fled from one another ( Genesis 3:7 Genesis 3:10 ). The sin of Adam and Eve was not a specifically sexual sin, but the alienation that resulted from the sin is recounted in sexual terms.
The Song of Songs, then, describes a lover and his beloved rejoicing in each other's sexuality in a garden. They feel no shame. The Song is as the story of sexuality redeemed.
Nonetheless, this reading does not exhaust the theological meaning of the Song. When read in the context of the canon as a whole, the book forcefully communicates the intensely intimate relationship that Israel enjoys with God. In many Old Testament Scriptures, marriage is an underlying metaphor for Israel's relationship with God. Unfortunately, due to Israel's lack of trust, the metaphor often appears in a negative context, and Israel is pictured as a whore in its relationship with God ( Jer 2:20 ; 3:1 ; Eze 16,23). One of the most memorable scenes in the Old Testament is when God commands his prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute to symbolize his love for a faithless Israel. In spite of the predominantly negative use of the image, we must not lose sight of the fact that Israel was the bride of God, and so as the Song celebrates the intimacy between human lovers, we learn about our relationship with God.
So we come full circle, reaching similar conclusions to the early allegorical approaches to the Song. The difference, though, is obvious. We do not deny the primary and natural reading of the book, which highlights human love, and we do not arbitrarily posit the analogy between the Song's lovers and God and Israel. Rather, we read it in the light of the pervasive marriage metaphor of the Old Testament.
From a New Testament Perspective. The New Testament also uses human relationships as metaphors of the divine-human relationship, and none clearer than marriage. According to Ephesians 5:22-23, the church is the bride of Christ (see also Rev 19:7 ; Revelation 21:2 Revelation 21:9 ; 22:17 ). So Christians should read the Song in the light of Ephesians and rejoice in the intimate relationship that they enjoy with Jesus Christ.
Tremper Longman Iii
Bibliography. G. L. Carr, Song of Solomon; F. Delitzsch, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs; M. Falk, Love Lyrics from the Bible; W. G. Lambert, JSS4 (1959): 1-15; M. H. Popoe, Song of Songs; P. Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality; J. B. White, A Study of the Language of Love in the Song of Songs and Ancient Near Eastern Poetry.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Song of Solomon, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".