Love is as Strong as Death: Interpreting the Song of Solomon
The medieval Jewish scholar Saadia compared the Song of Solomon to a lock for which “the keys have been lost.” Most modern commentators agree with his assessment. “The Song is the most obscure book of the Old Testament,” according to Franz Delitzsch. G. Lloyd Carr says, “The whole question of its overall interpretation is unparalleled in the Old Testament.” Dennis F. Kinlaw writes, “No book in Scripture has had such varied treatment. The options are so broad that some have despaired.”1
The Interpretive Challenge
On the surface, the book appears to be a lyrical poem authored by Solomon2 in which he and his bride celebrate the joys of marital love. But the book’s metaphorical language, erotic subject matter, and canonical status have led interpreters to look for deeper meaning. Yet after more than twenty centuries, there is still no consensus. In his Introduction to the Old Testament, Edward Young identifies at least eight different interpretations.3
The purpose of this post will be to survey and assess the major interpretive approaches to the Song of Solomon, and then to commend an interpretation that combines the strengths of each, while seeking to avoid their weaknesses.
A Survey of Interpretive Approaches
To simplify the study, the various interpretations have been arranged under three broad interpretive approaches: the allegorical, the natural, and the typical.
The Allegorical Interpretation
Until modern times the allegorical interpretation of Song of Solomon has prevailed both in the synagogue and also in the church.4 Allegory is an extended metaphor, usually employing highly figurative language in order to convey timeless truths.5 Perhaps the most well-known modern example of this genre is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. The characters, places, and details of the text are not historical, but are merely literary vehicles for spiritual realities.
When applied to Song of Solomon, this interpretation has traditionally viewed the book as a portrait of Yahweh’s love for Israel (Jewish) or Christ’s love for the Church (Christian).6 Guided by this divine-human love paradigm, Rabbinic and Christian exegetes alike have sought redemptive-historical and theological referents among the many expressions, descriptions, and details of the text. Thus, the Shullamite’s dark complexion and comeliness (1:5) are said to represent sin and conversion; her two breasts (1:13) are either the two cherubim between which the Shekinah glory appears (Jewish) or the Old and New Testaments (Christian); her navel (7:2) is the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem which is in the middle of the world (Jewish) or the church’s baptismal font (Christian). The “voice of the turtledove” (2:12) refers to the preaching of the apostles, and Solomon’s eighty concubines (6:8) represent the eighty heresies that would afflict the church.7
Advocates have argued that the allegorical method is necessary to give Song of Solomon religious value and also to avoid moral obscenities, as well as descriptive absurdities.8 To interpret Song of Solomon literally, they caution, not only misses the divinely-intended meaning, but it also places a soul in spiritual danger. “Anyone who would dare treat this book as a secular love poem,” warns Rabbi Akiba, “forfeits his share in the World to Come.”9
The Natural Interpretation
Despite the strong warnings, a few early interpreters10 and many modern interpreters11 view the book as depicting an emotional and physical relationship between two young lovers. Most have classified the genre as lyrical poetry, whether a single poem or an anthology,12 while a few have suggested that Song of Solomon is a drama.13 The more traditional variation of this interpretation sees the book as a love song written by Solomon about his romantic relationship with his Shullamite bride. Others, however, see a “love triangle” and posit a third character, a rustic shepherd, whom the Shullamite chooses over Solomon.14
In defending its place in the canon, proponents point to the divine institution and approbation of marriage (Gen 1:31; 2:18-25) and argue that Song of Solomon provides the reader with an example of ideal marital love. Writes E. J. Young,
The Song does celebrate the dignity and purity of human love. This is a fact which has not always been sufficiently stressed. The Song, therefore, is didactic and moral in its purpose. It comes to us in this world of sin, where lust and passion are on every hand, where fierce temptations assail us and try to turn us aside from the God-given standard of marriage. And it reminds us, in particularly beautiful fashion, how pure and noble true love is.15
The Typical Interpretation
Attempting to combine the strengths of both the allegorical and natural interpretations, other commentators advocate the typical approach to the Song of Solomon.16 Unlike the allegorical, the typical view affirms the grammatical-historical meaning of the text. It interprets the book, like the natural interpretation, as a love poem, celebrating the joys and virtues of marital love. Nevertheless, the typical view, unlike the natural, sees beyond the immediate historical referents to theological and redemptive-historical realities. Proponents of this approach base their interpretation upon the analogical and typical nature of human marriage. God designed the marital relationship to replicate the archetypical inter-Trinitarian love, as well as divine-human communion (Gen 1:26-28). Furthermore, in the context of redemptive history, the marriage relationship serves as a type of Yahweh’s relationship to Israel (Isa 50:1; 54:4, 5; Jer 3:1-20; Ezek 16, 23; Hos 1-3) and Christ’s relationship to the church (2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:23-32; Rev 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17).17
The typical interpretation has been applied to Song of Solomon in two ways. The more common approach sees Solomon as a type of Christ and the Shullamite as a type of the church.18 But others, following the “Shepherd Hypothesis,” interpret the Shullamite as a type of the covenant community, Solomon as a type of the world, and the shepherd as a type of the Lord. Summarizing this view, Samuel Schultz, writes,
The bond between Israel (the Shulammith maiden) and her shepherd lover (God) was so strong that no worldly appeal (the king) could alienate Israel from her God. In the New Testament this relationship is paralleled by Christ and the church.19
An Assessment of Interpretive Approaches
Each interpretive approach exhibits certain strengths and certain weaknesses. The natural interpretation correctly interprets Song of Solomon as a poetic expression of romantic love, involving real human beings. In doing so, it properly recognizes the dignity of marital affection and conjugal intimacy. However, the natural interpretation sometimes fails to appreciate the larger theological and redemptive-historical context of Canticles.20 As canonical literature, Song of Solomon must have a theological-redemptive aim (2 Tim 3:14-17).21 Furthermore, as Christ constantly reminded the Jews and his disciples, the entire Old Testament canon bears witness to him (Matt 5:17; Luke 24:25-27; 44, 45; John 5:39).
This theological-redemptive focus has been the major strength and attraction of the allegorical interpretation. Jewish and Christian allegorists have intuitively and correctly perceived the higher purpose of Song of Solomon. Yet their disinterest in the book’s historicity and preoccupation with deciphering its minute details22 clearly undermine the allegorical view as a valid and reliable interpretive method. Moreover, the allegorical view often appears to be motivated by an unbiblical view of marriage and human sexuality.23
The typical interpretation utilizes the strengths of the natural and allegorical interpretations, while avoiding their weaknesses. As pointed out above, the typical view follows the allegorical in recognizing the theological and redemptive-historical focus of canonical revelation.24 But, unlike the allegorical view, typical exegesis does justice to the grammatical and historical facets of the text without forgetting the larger canonical context. And like the natural interpretation, the typical view fully appreciates the God-given gift of marital love.
This does not mean the typical view is without its own weaknesses. The main objection to the traditional typological interpretation is the obvious incongruity between Solomon and Christ. As a polygamist on a grand scale (1 Kings 11:1-6), Solomon hardly provides an example of ideal marital love—especially of that exclusive love which Christ demonstrates towards his church (Eph 5:25)! In defense, it is often urged that the Scripture does identify Solomon as a type (Ps 72; Matt 12:42; Luke 11:31) and that a type need not correspond to its antitype in every detail.25 But the undeniable fact that the incongruity occurs at the very point where the analogy is intended, together with the fact that the Shullamite, not Solomon, is portrayed as the heroine and primary teacher in the book,26 render the traditional typical view unlikely, if not untenable.27
The “Shepherd Hypothesis” seems to overcome this impasse by positing a third character, a country shepherd, to whom the Shullamite remains faithful in spite of Solomon’s attempt to woo her into his harem. To the objection that Solomon as the author of the Song would never incriminate himself thus, defenders point to Ecclesiastes, where Solomon seems to expose his own folly.28 Nevertheless, as attractive as this view may be, its basis is more eisegetical than exegetical. The lack of any clear reference to a third character requires conjectural distinctions between the words of Solomon and those of the shepherd, which in turn result in arbitrary conclusions.29 If Solomon were not a polygamist, it is doubtful that the “Shepherd Hypothesis” would ever have been suggested.
Toward an Integrated Interpretive Approach
Having surveyed and assessed the various interpretive approaches to Song of Solomon, one is inclined to agree with Delitzsch’s observation that no single interpretation is problem free.30 Yet one must not allow past failures to deter future attempts. It seems possible to integrate the strengths of the various approaches into a more satisfactory interpretation.
The Sanctity of Marital Sex
It seems best to begin with a natural interpretation of Song of Solomon. J. Paul Tanner has offered the best overall treatment, in which he demonstrates two levels of meaning. At the first level, Song of Solomon is “about the enjoyment of God-ordained sex in marriage.”31 Here, both Solomon and the Shullamite have something to teach us. But as Tanner notes, “the book has a deeper plot.”32
The Strength of Monogamous Love
This deeper plot is hinted at in the references to Solomon’s harem (1:5, 6; 6:8), in the Shullamite’s apprehensive dreams (3:1-5; 5:2-8), and finally, in book’s conclusion, in which the Shullamite, not Solomon, provides the moral lesson (8:6-12). This she does by highlighting the exclusive and jealous nature of her love (8:6-7), as well as her chastity, which she has retained until marriage (8:10-12). And so, as Tanner points out, “There is a level of love far beyond sexual satisfaction, a love that is exclusive and possessive, having no room for intruders.”33 This interpretation does justice to the grammatical-historical demands of the text, while taking seriously Solomon’s deficiency as a paradigm for ideal marital love.
The Silhouette of the Savior
Tanner’s natural interpretation, however, fails to do justice to the theological and redemptive-historical demands upon Song of Solomon as canonical literature. Yet to avoid the pitfalls of the typical interpretation, one must on the one hand avoid making Solomon an ideal type of Christ, and on the other hand avoid introducing a third character.
Perhaps two suggestions may help: in the first place, it should be noted that women, as much as men, are visible replicas of God (Gen 1:26, 27). It is interesting to note that the woman’s role as a “helper” (‘ezer) is often predicated of God in the Old Testament (cf. Gen 49:25; 1 Sam 7:12; 2 Chron 26:7; Pss 10:14; 20:2; 30:10; 54:4). Thus, the Shullamite’s love, not Solomon’s, may point upward to God’s love for His people and forward to Christ’s love for His church.
Second, it is possible that Solomon may function as a type by way of contrast. David’s decayed body pointed forward to a greater David who “would not see corruption” (Ps 16:9-11; Acts 2:29-32). So too Solomon’s deficient love may point forward to the love of a Greater Solomon—a love that would correspond to the Shullamite’s in exclusivity and chastity (contrast 1 Kings 11:1-4 with Eph 5:25-32).
- The citation of Saadia is taken from Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, in The Anchor Bible, ed. William F. Albright and David N. Freedman (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1977), 89. For the other quotations, see the following works respectively: The Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes, trans. M. G. Easton (1872; reprint, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), 1; The Song of Solomon: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 17 in Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 9; “Song of Songs,” in vol. 5 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 1202. [↩]
- For a defense of Solomonic authorship, see Gleason L. Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 537-40. [↩]
- Edward J. Young, Introduction to the Old Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1964), 333-36. Marvin Pope lists sixteen categories under “Interpretations of the Sublime Song.” [↩]
- For more thorough surveys of the allegorical approach to Canticles, see Weston W. Fields, “Early and Medieval Interpretation of the Song of Songs,” Grace Theological Journal 1:2 (Fall 1980): 222-33; J. Paul Tanner, “The History of Interpretation of the Song of Songs,” Bibliotheca Sacra 154:613 (January 1997): 24-47. Marvin Pope also provides a helpful historical survey in his introduction, 89ff. [↩]
- A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1989), 231-235, provides an extended discussion of this literary device. [↩]
- There are, of course, variations of the allegorical approach. For example, Pope refers to later Rabbis who portrayed the Song as the spiritual intercourse between the faithful Israelite (Solomon) and Wisdom (the Shullamite), 106-12, and to later Christians who portrayed it as the spiritual intercourse between the believer (Solomon) and Mary (the Shullamite), 188-92. Another example would also include the more modern cultic interpretation, which suggests Canticles is actually an adaptation of a pagan depiction of marriage among gods and goddesses (cf. Pope, 145-53; for a refutation of this view, see G. Lloyd Carr, “Is the Song of Songs a ‘Sacred Marriage’ Drama?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22:2 (June 1979): 103-121). Like the more traditional allegorical view, these views deny the historicity of the text and spiritualize its meaning. [↩]
- I gleaned these from Fields, 227-31; Pope, 93-132; Tanner, 26-30; Young, 333-34. [↩]
- See the arguments in James Durham, Clavis Cantici: An Exposition of the Song of Solomon (1840; reprint, Minneapolis: Klock and Klock, 1981), 28-30. [↩]
- Cited by Fields, 229. The church father Origen agrees: “But if any man who lives only after the flesh should approach it, to such a one the reading of this Scripture will be the occasion of no small hazard.” Origen then alludes to the Jewish custom of forbidden young men to read the book. Cited by Pope, 117. [↩]
- Pope identifies Theodore of Mopuestia and Jovinian (4th century), 119, 120, as well as Sebastian Castellio (16th century), 126-27, who, as a consequence of his natural interpretation, rejected the book’s canonicity. [↩]
- Edward J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament; G. Lloyd Carr, The Song of Solomon; Tom Gledhill, The Message of the Song of Songs, in The Bible Speaks Today, ed. J. A. Motyer (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994); J. Paul Tanner, “The Message of the Song of Songs,” Bibliotheca Sacra 154 (April 1997): 143-62. [↩]
- Robert Gordis, The Song of Songs and Lamentations, revised and augmented edition (New York: KTAV, 1974); Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs, in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison and R. L. Hubbard (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); Greg W. Parsons, “Guidelines for Understanding and Utilizing the Song of Songs,” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (October 1999): 400-23. [↩]
- This view was first suggested by Origen and later revived by Delitzsch. But in his article, “Is the Song of Songs a ‘Sacred Marriage’ Drama?” G. Lloyd Carr effectively demonstrates that Canticles does not bear the marks of an ancient drama text. [↩]
- This view has been called, “The Shepherd Hypothesis.” According to Zoekler, The Song of Solomon, trans. W. Henry Green, vol. 10 of Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Charles Scribner, 1871), 38, this view was first suggested by J. C. Jacobi (1771) and later defended by H. Ewald (1826). Modern exponents of this view include Brian Green, The Shepherd of the Hills: A Unique Approach Unlocking the Mysteries of the Book (Greenville, S.C.: Ambassador, 1997); Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., More Hard Sayings of the Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 232-35; Samuel J. Schultz, The Old Testament Speaks, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980), 294-97. [↩]
- Young, 336. Cf. Gledhill, 13. [↩]
- Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes (1872), 4-6; Archer, Survey of Old Testament Introduction (1994), 541-43; Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Chicago: Moody, 1981), 1107; Kinlaw, “Song of Songs,” 1207-09. [↩]
- For, as Dennis Kinlaw notes, 1208, “If divine love is the pattern for marriage, then there must be something pedagogical and eschatological about marriage.” [↩]
- Delitzsch, 6, represents this view: “But the congregation is truly a bride (Jer. Ii. 2; Isa. lxii. 5), and Solomon a type of the Prince of peace (Isa. ix. 5; Luke xi. 31), and marriage a mystery, viz. as a pattern of the loving relation of God and His Christ to the church.” Cf. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 477-78; Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 261-62. [↩]
- Schultz, 296. Cf. Green, 14. [↩]
- Young comes close when he concedes, “The eye of faith, as it beholds this picture of exalted human love, will be reminded of the one Love that is above all earthly and human affections—even the love of the Son of God for lost humanity,” 336. But I must issue two caveats. First, marital affection, which assumes a covenant, is not analogous to God’s love for “lost humanity,” but rather it is analogous to God’s love for redeemed humanity. Second, Young’s concession is inadequate, since it sees marital love only as an illustration and not as a revelatory type of divine-human redemptive love. Carr, The Song of Solomon, 34-36, manifests this same deficiency. [↩]
- So Q4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us that “The Scriptures [including Canticles] principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” [↩]
- As Gleason Archer observes, “The allegorical method if consistently carried out requires a spiritual counterpart for every physical detail. Certainly it is objectionable to equate Solomon and his enormous harem with the figure of the Lord Jesus Christ at least upon an allegorical method.” Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 541. [↩]
- Kinlaw notes how Greek philosophy influenced many church fathers to adopt ascetic views regarding marriage and sexuality, 1205-07. [↩]
- Those who, like Tanner, object to the typical view on the ground that “The text itself gives no indication that it is intended as typology, nor is there any indication from the New Testament that the Song is to be interpreted or applied Christologically” (“The History of Interpretation of the Song of Songs,” 32) need to come to grips with the implication of Christ’s words in Luke 24:27: “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, [Jesus] explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” The significance of these words for an interpretation of any unit of canonical literature cannot be underestimated. Those who see Song of Solomon merely as an expression of human love need to have Christ do for them what he did for his disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (45). [↩]
- So Delitzsch, 6, argues, “The typical interpretation proceeds on the idea that the type and the antitype do not exactly coincide; the mystical, that the heavenly stamps itself in the earthly, but is yet at the same time immeasurably different from it.” [↩]
- As Tanner, “The Message of the Song of Songs,” 158, remarks, “If the bulk of the conclusion to the book comes from the bride, and if she is the one who provides the moral lesson, then more of the book should be seen through her eyes.” [↩]
- Of course, this criticism would also apply to the natural interpretation which sees Solomon as a paradigm for ideal marital love. [↩]
- Green, 12. [↩]
- Tanner, “The History of Interpretation of the Song of Songs,” 34. [↩]
- To be precise, Delitzsch remarks, “Whatever principle of interpretation one may adopt, there always remains a number of inexplicable passages” (p. 1). [↩]
- Tanner, “The Message of the Song of Songs,” 159. Some modern interpreters have endeavored to provide more specificity in their interpretation of the sexual metaphors. See Joseph C. Dillow, Solomon on Sex (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1977); Tommy Nelson, The Book of Romance: What Solomon Says About Love, Sex, and Intimacy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998); Daniel Akin, God On Sex: The Creator’s Ideas About Love, Intimacy and Marriage (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003); Mark Driscoll, “The Peasant Princess: A Love Story from the Song of Songs,” a sermon series (accessed July 24, 2012). [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Tanner, “The Message of the Song of Songs,” 161. [↩]