A while back, a friend of mine asked me to write about several books of the Old Testament, including the Song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs. Despite its relative brevity (8 chapters of 12-17 verses each), it is not an easy book to tackle. One might genuinely ask what place do the following lines have in the Bible?
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love-making is sweeter than wine; delicate is the fragrance of your perfume, your name is an oil poured out, and that is why girls love you. — Song of Solomon 1:2-3
How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden! You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth. I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me. Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages; let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give you my love. — Song of Solomon 7:6-12
It is a question that has troubled Jews and Christians alike since at least the first century AD. The traditional answer by both has been to understand the book allegorically — the intimate love voiced by the poet is the love God has for his chosen people (Israel and the Church); however, this view has been widely rejected by modern scholars who prefer a literal approach to the Song. Seeing no internal evidence that the book is to be understood allegorically, these scholars view it as a poetic understanding of the positive way Scripture views marriage.
While this interpretation does have some merit, it also ignores the primary purpose of Scripture — the recording of revelation. Understanding the Song of Soloman in a literal interpretation fails to understand or acknowledge what this book has to say about God.
In fact, the Church encourages us to explore how this poetry speaks to the nature of God and His relationship with man. I was struck by a hymn sung at Vespers for the Feast of St. John the Apostle, Evangelist and Theologian:
John, the divinely moved harp sounding forth with Heaven’s songs, he who recorded myst’ries, that divinely inspired mouth sweetly now does sing the divine Song of Songs, for he moves his lips like strings; and as a plectrum, he uses his blessed tongue and entreats that we all be saved.
The Church is clearly equating St. John with the Beloved of the Song of Solomon and playing with one of John’s titles — the Beloved Disciple. Given the high Christology that exists in the Gospel According to John, this is a definitive invitation to understand the Song of Songs allegorically as a love song between Christ and His Church. This is further supported by the imagery of Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as the Bride used by the Church especially during Holy Week. This imagery can be found in Isaiah 61:10, used as a vesting prayer by Orthodox priests:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
The Incarnate Christ, the Bridegroom, has been crowned — both with thorns and glory — and the Church, the Bride, has been adorned with jewels of eternal life.
As an example of how useful this allegorical view can be, let us look at one of the more striking images found in the Song of Songs:
Then I got up to open to my love, myrrh ran off my hands, pure myrrh off my fingers, on to the handle of the bolt. I opened to my love, but he had turned and gone. My soul failed at his flight, I sought but could not find him, I called, but he did not answer — 5:5-6.
This bizarre image does not make much sense. Either the Beloved or her Lover covered themselves so heavily in myrrh that it literally runs off the hands of the Beloved; however, when seen in context of the Incarnate Christ, this image begins to make sense. Myrrh is one of the gifts given by the Magi to the Christ Child, along with gold and frankincense. The Fathers of the Church understand these gifts to symbolize Christ’s royalty (gold), divinity (frankincense), and Passion (myrrh). Indeed, the title the Church gives to the women who seek out Christ’s tomb to anoint Him with burial spices is the Myrrh-Bearing Women.
Thus, the disappearance of the Lover and this trace of myrrh that marks His presence becomes an image for Christ’s Passion. God so loves humanity that He is willing to intimately identify Himself with His creation by not only becoming human, but by suffering and dying as well.
We can continue this allegory with verses 6:1-2:
Where has your beloved gone, O most beautiful among women? Where has your beloved turned, That we may seek him with you?” “My beloved has gone down to his garden, To the beds of balsam, To pasture his flock in the gardens And gather lilies.
This calls to mind John’s description of Christ’s tomb:
Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been laid. — John 19:41
Christ has laid down His life for His sheep, not only for the salvation of His people Israel, but for all of humanity.
Modern scholarship has a tendency to ignore the wisdom and experience of the Church. The understanding of the Song of Solomon is an example of this. Though the modern understanding of the Song as a mere love poem that explores the positive way Scripture sees marriage is a perfectly acceptable reading, it rejects both Jewish and Christian tradition. It is as if we believe that, due to our modern sophistication, that our version of Babel will be any more successful than the original. Even for those who do not profess to be Christian, such a view neglects the beauty of an allegorical understanding of the Song of Songs — a beauty the Church has held onto and promoted for almost two millennium.