Song of Songs

As it stands in the Bible the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) presents itself as a collection of Hebrew love-poems, as one commentator puts it, ‘celebrating the varied experiences of a lover and his beloved as they taste the beauty, power, agony and joys of human sexual love’. These poems which basically take the form of a dialogue between the lover and his beloved follow six cycles which range from an expression of the passionate longings of the beloved for her male lover to a rapturous declaration of the security of that love which essentially binds together husband and wife in the most intimate aspects of their life together. These poems also describe that new-found love which draws the couple together, the love which finds its splendid fruition within the monogamous bond of marriage, though a love which can at times be lost sight of and needs to be renewed, and a love which is a celebration of outward beauty as well as inward bliss or happiness.

The climax of the book comes in chapter 8 verses 6 and 7 where we have what is in effect a brief hymn to love: ‘Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned’ (NIV).

This sounds exotically different from the apostle Paul’s great ‘Hymn to Love’ in I Corinthians 13, but both fall within the total revelation of scripture - though on the surface the Song of Songs appears a purely secular document. Apart from the work being attributed to King Solomon there is no reference to God (Yahweh) or to the great biblical themes of law or sacrifices, sin or salvation. And as for the Solomonic, authorship as one commentator says, ‘Solomon’s multiplicity of wives and concubines means little in terms of his knowledge of the kind of love described in the document, unless this is a product of his earlier and purer years’. As we all know, Solomon began his reign with much wisdom and spiritual insight but ended it in the depths of foolishness and depravity.

What we make of this erotic love-song, which has surprisingly occupied historically the minds of many biblical expositors, remains to be seen. In the first 1500 years of the Christian era more commentaries were written on the Song of Songs than any other book in the Bible. Then following the Reformation there was a tendency to sideline the work as something not quite worthy of scripture as a whole, until recent times when a more open and honest approach has been made.

More traditionally in both Jewish literature and Christian teaching the whole book has been treated as an allegory or an extended metaphor. In the case of orthodox Jewish thought it is seen as a poetic description of the relationship Yahweh has to his chosen people Israel and from the Christian standpoint it has been taken to denote the love Christ has for his Church. Consequently all the imagery has been made to fit these presuppositions, leading to a somewhat false over-spiritualisation and sacramentalisation of the work.

The modern view is to take the more natural interpretation that this is a love-song, eloquently and passionately expressed in the idioms of Hebrew poetry based upon the Old Testament teaching from the Book of Exodus, and endorsed by Jesus himself, ‘that a man shall leave his parents and shall cleave to his wife and that they shall be one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:3-9). So it is implied that this very human, even erotic love should point to and find its ultimate fulfilment in the supremely self-sacrificial and transforming love of Christ for which the New Testament writers find the word, ‘agape’. As the Expositor’s Bible Commentary puts it, ‘The Bible does not see marriage as an inferior state – a concession to human weakness. Nor does it see the normal physical love within that relationship as necessarily impure or unworthy. Marriage was instituted before the Fall (of Adam) with the divine command that the first couple become one flesh. Therefore physical love within that conjugal union is good, is God’s will and should be a delight to both partners.’

It was early in the history of the Christian Church at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD when it was first mooted that clergy should give up all co-habitation with their wives, and though this did not carry at the time the mistaken and unspiritual notion was eventually adopted that both ordination to the priesthood and the vocation to reach the highest levels of sanctity and holiness demanded chastity and therefore celibacy. Prominent Christian teachers like St Augustine (354 – 430) lent force to the notion, especially Augustine with is own neurotic hang-ups about his previous immoral life as a student who saw the sexual act as only allowable in God’s sight for the procreation of the human race and not for any personal pleasure or fulfilment.

So it isn’t difficult to see why the Song of Songs was given the heavy allegorical treatment it was. Thankfully a more enlightened and indeed fundamentally more biblical approach is now made to the work. It is seen for what it is, and its true meaning sought more honestly and deeply. There are, of course, some problems in understanding the text, which is not an unusual situation with certain scriptures. There are an amazing number of Hebrew words that only occur in this book and nowhere else in the Old Testament; the imagery used was part of a pastoral and Middle Eastern culture very different from our modern world; the various terms of endearment are often alien to us and it isn’t always clear who in the text is speaking and whether what is being said represents reality or exists purely in the imagination.

Nevertheless this short book sandwiched in the Old Testament has a message for our 21st century, for in spite of our enlightened attitudes and amazing technology we are still not good at making and keeping the most intimate of all human relationships. Although saturated with sexual images, our modern or post-modern society finds it hard to come to terms with our basic human sexuality and still swings between the prudish and the totally vulgar with regard to sex. The current obsession with sex seen almost as a sporting activity, one-night stands and the most gratuitous of activities, it is no surprise that marriages or partnerships quickly break down, corrupting family life and bringing misery to millions both physically and psychologically.

Everybody would agree with another song from the ‘pop world’ that they would not like to live in a world without love. As C S Lewis reminds us, love is a highly ambiguous word meaning different things to different people, but all would agree that love at its best should mean something that is for the physical, mental and spiritual betterment of all people irrespective of creed or culture or clan. The Bible elsewhere tell us that God is love and that that love expressed itself on our behalf through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every other love that is worthy of the name should be a reflection of that divine love, and surely the love that brings us together in the most intimate of human relationships should somewhere along the line help prepare us for that love of God from which nothing can part us. The naturalness, joyousness and sheer delight of the albeit physical love the young couple have in the Song of Songs should point us in the right direction - not in the often sordid ways of the world, but in the truly good and life-giving power of the love of God.