So far I’ve written two articles about the Song of Songs, and all that I’ve written concerns the human relationship between Solomon and the Shulamite woman. I haven’t yet mentioned Jesus, or even God – I’ve just explained the song as a poem that teaches us of love.
Some Christian writers view the Song as an allegory of the love that God has for His people. For them, the first and only point of application is about Jesus Christ and His church. Sometimes this is because people think that if the song was just about human love, it would be too earthy, too sexual. The implication is that that sort of thing shouldn’t be in our Bibles. But I hope we understand that the Bible has a great deal to say about human love, and about the ways that love should be expressed within a marriage relationship. It is true that today’s society has become too open about sexual intimacy, but that shouldn’t force us into pretending that the Bible says nothing about intimacy at all. The last two articles have sought to show just how relevant the Song’s teaching is to a generation who has largely been starved of any God-centred view of relationships.
Others view the Song as an allegory because they want to find Christ in all the Scriptures. But we need to remember that the Bible not only tells us that we ought to find Christ in all the Scriptures, but throughout the New Testament, it also shows us how. And whilst Jesus does teach in parables, neither he nor any other New Testament writer ever uses the Old Testament as an allegory – nor should we.
I quoted from Stuart Olyott in the first article, and it’s worth repeating:
Song of Songs is not an allegory. Those who try and read it in that way tie themselves in knots trying to find a spiritual meaning for every single allusion and turn of phrase that the book contains. The task is impossible, and those who attempt it have to resort to boundless ingenuity and inventiveness, rather than to solid principles of biblical interpretation.
So, if allegory is out, what are the solid principles of biblical interpretation? How does one find Christ in the Song of Songs?
Is Jesus in the Song?
The New Testament writers don’t allegorise the Old Testament, but they do find Jesus there. They find him in types, in prophecies, and even in the narrative. Interestingly, they also often use metaphors to talk of Christ: he is the Good Shepherd, the Bridegroom, the Lamb. Clearly the Song of Songs turns our mind to the metaphors of Jesus as the Bridegroom. When it does so, we start to remember that there are many other related metaphors in the Bible: marriage, adultery, divorce, and consummation, for example.
So when we see the Song as a story of human love, the Christian will also realise that it illustrates many of the metaphors that the Bible uses to describe our relationship with God. We shouldn’t read Song of Songs and wonder – as some commentators do – what could be attractive about the legs of Jesus (Song 5:15). The answer, apparently, is that when the Bible tells us that the lover’s legs were as marble columns on gold bases, this tells us that Jesus is orderly, strong, beautiful, stable, stately, glorious and excellent. That’s quite a list for half a verse! (It’s interesting that they didn’t also conclude that Jesus was inert, cold, and rather showy. Such is the problem with allegory.)
No, we shouldn’t wonder about the legs of the lover. Rather, when we read the Song, we should wonder about the glorious gift of love, and go on from there to wonder how He could love me, a sinner condemned, unclean!
Relationship, not romance
As we read the Song, we should begin to draw lessons both for our marriage relationship, and our relationship with God. In terms of our relationship with God, the central, astonishing truth that the Song points us to is the incredible joy and privilege of an intimate relationship with God. Although our relationship with God is not a physical, nor even a romantic one, the Scriptures teach very clearly that it is an intimate one. Jesus is described as our friend (Matt. 11:19), and brother (Matt. 12:50). That’s a personal relationship with every believer, which brings us into the family of God through adoption (Gal. 4:5).
The Bible also describes Jesus as the Bridegroom (Luke 5:34, Rev. 19:7). But we sometimes forget that He is not promiscuous. The Bridegroom only has one bride, as Revelation makes very clear (18:23, 19:7, 21:2, 21:9, 22:7). I am not the Bride of Christ. Nor are you. Rather, the gathered world-wide church is the Bride of Christ.
These metaphors help us to see both the importance of our individual relationship with Christ (as sons of God), and our corporate relationship (as the Bride of Christ). Whilst some Christians seem to despise the church, Christ gave Himself for the church, to bring us into an intimate relationship with Him.
The awfulness of adultery
It’s a very sobering thought – and one that we often try and keep out of our minds as we read the Song – that Solomon could hardly be described a one-woman man. God makes His practice clear in 1 Kings 11:
Now King Solomon loved many foreign women… Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father… So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord… And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel.
It’s hard to square that with the single-minded love of the Song, isn’t it? How could Solomon do that to the Shulamite woman? Yet awful though Solomon’s actions were to her, the focus on 1 Kings is not on the Shulamite woman. The writer of 1 Kings instead wants to ask, ‘How could Solomon do that to His God?’
It is the image of adultery that God chooses to use for those who do as Solomon did, and turn away from the Lord, the God of Israel (Jer. 3:6, Matt. 16:4, James 4:4, Rev. 2:20-22, 19:2). Jeremiah 2 brings a sobering thought as God speaks to the nation of Israel:
I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown…Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.
Given such promiscuity by God’s people, we should not be surprised to find that God has given His people Israel a ‘certificate of divorce with which I sent her away’ (Isaiah 50:1, cf Jer. 3:8). The special relationship that God has with his people seems ended, as the exile of Israel to Assyria in 721BC and Judah to Babylon in 587BC shows. Indeed it is this exile to Babylon which both Jeremiah and Isaiah prophesied and said was the consequence of the adultery and subsequent divorce.
The glory of grace
Yet how the grace of God amazes us! Isaiah 54 brings good news for the next generation (New Testament believers):
‘For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,’ says the Lord… For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God.
‘For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord, your Redeemer. ‘For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
These themes are picked up in the New Testament, where Paul reminds us in Ephesians 5 that:
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish
It is no wonder that the great multitude in heaven break out into glorious praise as we read in Revelation 19:6-8:
Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns! Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.
What a picture! What a gospel! What a Saviour!