Song of Solomon: Allegory, Love Poem, or Typology?

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Dr. Bob Gonzales

Puritan Board Junior
The medieval Jewish scholar Saadia compared the Book of Canticles to a lock for which “the keys have been lost.” Most modern commentators agree with his assessment. On the surface, Canticles appears to be a lyrical poem authored by Solomon 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. The primary approaches interpret the book as an allegory depicting Christ and the church, human love poem celebrating marital intimacy, or a typology, which in some ways combines the first two. What say you? And what are your reasons?

Thanks,
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
An allegory depicting God as king and shepherd and Israel as His bride, looking forward to the perfect union of Christ and the Church. Reason: allegory can account for the multiplicity of personalities whereas a literal reading would make for a display of immoral affection.
 

Kevin

Puritan Board Doctor
I have to say love poem. Other views (esp allegorical) open the door to more humenutical problems then they solve, In my humble opinion. It we grant that this is allegory then on what grounds do we not allow other passages that are dificult to also be considered this way? (i.e. genocidal warfare, creation, the flood, etc)
 

BlackCalvinist

Puritan Board Senior
Love poem..... easiest explanation and it's all that comes from a straightforward reading of the text. I understand how people have had a negative reaction over the years to anything regarding sex and the pleasure associated with sex, but that's an Augustinian hold-over from Catholicism (pleasure in sex = bad). God created sex, created it to be good and pleasurable and wrote a book to tell us how to enjoy it other than "wait until you're married".
 

FenderPriest

Puritan Board Junior
I agree with Joel and Kevin here. I find it a stretch of interpretive powers when readers see allegorical meaning in the book. The example of this that comes to mind on this topic is from Owen's Communion with God where he discusses Song of Solomon 5:11, "His head is the finest gold;his locks are wavy, black as a raven."
For the ornaments of his head; his locks, they are said to be “bushy,” or curled, “black as a raven.” His curled locks are black; “as a raven,” is added by way of illustration of the blackness, not with any allusion to the nature of the raven. Take the head spoken of in a political sense: his locks of hair — said to be curled, as seeming to be entangled, but really falling in perfect order and beauty, as bushy locks — are his thoughts, and counsels, and ways, in the administration of his kingdom. They are black or dark, because of their depth and unsearchableness, — as God is said to dwell in thick darkness; and curled or bushy, because of their exact interweavings, from his infinite wisdom. His thoughts are many as the hairs of the head, seeming to be perplexed and entangled, but really set in a comely order, as curled bushy hair; deep and unsearchable, and dreadful to his enemies, and full of beauty and comeliness to his beloved. Such are, I say, the thoughts of his heart, the counsels of his wisdom, in reference to the administrations of his kingdom:— dark, perplexed, involved, to a carnal eye; in themselves, and to his saints, deep, manifold, ordered in all things, comely, desirable. (Works II:72,73) (read here)
Obviously Owen is spot on in the truth of the mater, it's just not what this text is saying. As the phrase goes, "That may be Biblically true, but that's not what this passage means." That's why I don't mind reading allegorical interpretations of the text, especially from the Puritans since it's not bad doctrine, I just don't trust it as being from this text.
 

ManleyBeasley

Puritan Board Junior
I believe its typological. Marriage was instituted by God primarily to be a picture of Christ and His bride (though there are many other wonderful blessings in it). I believe that the more a person may argue that this describes an earthly marriage the more they point to the heavenly.
 

Dr. Bob Gonzales

Puritan Board Junior
Until modern times the allegorical interpretation of Canticles has prevailed both in the synagogue and also the church. Allegory is an extended metaphor, usually employing highly figurative language in order to convey timeless truths. 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 may or may not be historical but are simply literary vehicles for spiritual realities.

When applied to Canticles, 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). 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, yet 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) refers to the eighty heresies that would afflict the church.

Advocates have argued that the allegorical method is necessary to give Canticles religious value and also to avoid moral obscenities, as well as descriptive absurdities. To interpret Canticles 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.” More importantly, the allegorical approach seems to do justice to the Christocentric hermeneutic of Scripture (Luke 24:27, 44-45).

Though I respect those who prefer the allegorical approach, I think it creates potential problems and undermines the historical-grammatical method of exegesis preferred by the Reformers. Thus, I share the reservations of Kevin and Joel.

Kevin and Joel prefer the "natural" interpretation, which sees the book as a human love poem. Despite the strong warnings, a few early interpreters and many modern interpreters 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, while a few have suggested that Canticles is a drama. 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. However, others see a “love triangle” and posit a third character, a rustic shepherd, whom the Shullamite chooses over Solomon.

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 Canticles 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.
I agree with this view at one level. Yet, the Christocentric hermeneutic of Scripture mentioned above compels me toward the typological interpretation, which seeks to do justice to the concerns of both the allegorical and the natural interpretive approaches. But then the question arises, To whom or what do Solomon, the Shullamite, and, if we accept the "love triangle theory," the third person (whom the Shullamite really loves) point?
 

Honor

de-cool
couldn't it... like so many things in Scripture be both??

BTW Driscoll just finished a series on this called the Peasant Princess.... really good
 

Dr. Bob Gonzales

Puritan Board Junior
couldn't it... like so many things in Scripture be both??

BTW Driscoll just finished a series on this called the Peasant Princess.... really good

Jessica, I think both approaches (the allegorical and natural) are driven by legitimate concerns. The one seeks to relate the book to Christ and the theme of redemption. The other seeks to maintain the historicity of the book and interpret it naturally, as a love poem celebrating the God-given gift of marriage. In my opinion, the typological interpretation does justice to both concerns.

Thanks for the recommendation of Driscoll's Peasant Princess. Are the lectures in MP3 format for download?

Your servant,

-----Added 2/19/2009 at 09:01:05 EST-----

I agree with Joel and Kevin here. I find it a stretch of interpretive powers when readers see allegorical meaning in the book. The example of this that comes to mind on this topic is from Owen's Communion with God where he discusses Song of Solomon 5:11, "His head is the finest gold;his locks are wavy, black as a raven."
For the ornaments of his head; his locks, they are said to be “bushy,” or curled, “black as a raven.” His curled locks are black; “as a raven,” is added by way of illustration of the blackness, not with any allusion to the nature of the raven. Take the head spoken of in a political sense: his locks of hair — said to be curled, as seeming to be entangled, but really falling in perfect order and beauty, as bushy locks — are his thoughts, and counsels, and ways, in the administration of his kingdom. They are black or dark, because of their depth and unsearchableness, — as God is said to dwell in thick darkness; and curled or bushy, because of their exact interweavings, from his infinite wisdom. His thoughts are many as the hairs of the head, seeming to be perplexed and entangled, but really set in a comely order, as curled bushy hair; deep and unsearchable, and dreadful to his enemies, and full of beauty and comeliness to his beloved. Such are, I say, the thoughts of his heart, the counsels of his wisdom, in reference to the administrations of his kingdom:— dark, perplexed, involved, to a carnal eye; in themselves, and to his saints, deep, manifold, ordered in all things, comely, desirable. (Works II:72,73) (read here)
Obviously Owen is spot on in the truth of the mater, it's just not what this text is saying. As the phrase goes, "That may be Biblically true, but that's not what this passage means." That's why I don't mind reading allegorical interpretations of the text, especially from the Puritans since it's not bad doctrine, I just don't trust it as being from this text.

Jacob,

I have to agree with you. I fear that the allegorical exegetical method has lead otherwise sound exegetes into all sorts of imaginative conclusions that, as you point out, may be consistent with other teaching in Scripture, but have no historical-grammatical basis in the text.

Thanks for the quote,
 

TimV

Puritanboard Botanist
For the ornaments of his head; his locks, they are said to be “bushy,” or curled, “black as a raven.” His curled locks are black; “as a raven,”

Exactly. Jews mostly had black, curly hair. An ancient world Semites used to call themselves was the Black Headed Race. She's describing racial standards of handsomeness, like the old Spartan poem praising "my golden haired Spartan beauty", or an Englishman speaking of his girl's peaches and cream complexion.

, the Shullamite’s dark complexion, yet comeliness (1:5) are said to represent sin and conversion;

Son 1:5 I am very dark, but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.
Son 1:6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has looked upon me. My mother's sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!

The tribe I used for labor in the South African vineyard I developed are yellowish in complexion. They hated what the sun did to them, i.e. making them darker. Not because they found it ugly, but because it meant that they were engaged in low paying agricultural labor.

She's tanned, and due to her what she got from her momma plus the good physical labor really pretty, and she knows it, but is fishing for compliments.

Really, if you can read a description of ideal Hebrew physical standards like black curly hair and come up with

are his thoughts, and counsels, and ways, in the administration of his kingdom. They are black or dark, because of their depth and unsearchableness, — as God is said to dwell in thick darkness; and curled or bushy, because of their exact interweavings

then nothing has any meaning, because everything can mean anything!
 

CharlieJ

Puritan Board Junior
I also go for the typological method. As far as I'm aware, typological or allegorical was the pretty much unbroken consensus of the church until critical scholarship. I don't think that allegorical exegesis was totally off the deep end. It was a system that attempted to do justice to each part of scripture being a part of the canonical context, as well as highlight the spiritual and Christo-centric nature of the Bible.

I think modern redemptive-historical exegesis and preaching combines the concerns of the allegorists with the necessary grounding from literal interpretation. I definitely think that the genre of this book lends toward a heavier typological interpretation. If Solomon did not intend it to be a spiritual book, why would anyone have put it into the canon? The Jews took their scriptures more seriously than to include a song, just because it was a literary masterpiece.

I think the New Testament's common use of marriage as a metaphor for union with Christ forces us to read SoS in that light. I think it is very likely that the NT writers grounded those metaphors in examples from the Old Testament, which is also replete with the marriage metaphor.

The teaching of Eph. 5:22-33 leads Christians never to consider human marital union totally separate from our divine union, and vice versa. I see no reason the OT people of God could not have made the same connection.
 

Dr. Bob Gonzales

Puritan Board Junior
The typological approach to Song of Songs

Attempting to combine the strengths of both the allegorical and natural interpretations, other commentators advocate the typical approach to Canticles. Unlike the allegorical, the typical view affirms the historical-grammatical 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).

The typical interpretation has been applied to Canticles in two ways. The more common approach sees Solomon as a type of Christ and the Shullamite as a type of the church. 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.
Which of these two typological approaches do you think most correct? Or is there a third way?
 

PastorSBC

Puritan Board Freshman
I have to say love poem. Other views (esp allegorical) open the door to more humenutical problems then they solve, In my humble opinion. It we grant that this is allegory then on what grounds do we not allow other passages that are dificult to also be considered this way? (i.e. genocidal warfare, creation, the flood, etc)

My thoughts exactly.
 

Dr. Bob Gonzales

Puritan Board Junior
Towards a Typical Interpretation of the Song of Songs

Below I'd like to offer a typical interpretation of Song of Songs that tries to draw from the strengths of the allegorical and purely natural interpretations but avoids their weaknesses. My conclusions are still somewhat tentative, so feel free to offer some constructive criticism.

An Assessment of Interpretive Approaches
Each interpretive approach exhibits certain strengths and certain weaknesses. The natural interpretation correctly interprets Canticles 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. As canonical literature, Canticles must have a theological-redemptive aim (2 Tim 3:14-17). Furthermore, as Christ constantly reminded the Jews and his disciples, the entire Old Testament canon bears witness to him (Mat 5:17; Lk 24:25-27; 44, 45; Jn 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 Canticles. Yet their disinterest in the book’s historicity and preoccupation with deciphering its minute details clearly undermine the allegorical view as a valid and reliable interpretive method. Moreover, the allegorical view sometimes appears to be motivated by an unbiblical view of marriage and human sexuality.

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. 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.

But 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! (Ephesians 5:25). In defense, it is often urged that the Scripture does identify Solomon as a type (Psalm 72; Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31) and that a type need not correspond to its antitype in every detail. 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, render the traditional typical view unlikely, if not untenable.

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 Canticles would never incriminate himself thus, defenders point to Ecclesiastes, where Solomon seems to expose his own folly. 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. 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 Canticles, one is inclined to agree with Delitzsch’s observation that no single interpretation is problem free. 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.

It seems best to begin with a natural interpretation of Canticles. J. Paul Tanner has offered the best overall treatment, in which he demonstrates two levels of meaning. At the first level, Canticles is “about the enjoyment of God-ordained sex in marriage.” Here, both Solomon and the Shullamite have something to teach us. But, as Tanner notes, “the book has a deeper plot.” 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.” This interpretation does justice to the historical-grammatical demands of the text, while taking seriously Solomon’s deficiency as a paradigm for ideal marital love.

Tanner’s natural interpretation, however, fails to do justice to the theological and redemptive-historical demands upon Canticles as canonical literature. Yet to avoid the pitfalls of the typical interpretation, one must on the one hand avoid making Solomon a 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; Psa 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. Secondly, 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” (Psa 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 jealous exclusivity and holy chastity (contrast 1 Kgs 11:1-4 with Eph 5:25-32).

Your servant,
 
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Romans922

Puritan Board Professor
I believe that it is primarily a love poem, declaring what true premarital and marital love of two people ought to look like.

From this, I think it can easily have implication and applications to not only our marriages but also aiding us in understanding the relationship between Christ and the Church. I do not think that this (the second sentence here) can be thought of as primary meaning.

I hold primarily the first, but also the second (applicably) for the reasons already stated.
 

ColdSilverMoon

Puritan Board Senior
I believe that it is primarily a love poem, declaring what true premarital and marital love of two people ought to look like.

From this, I think it can easily have implication and applications to not only our marriages but also aiding us in understanding the relationship between Christ and the Church. I do not think that this (the second sentence here) can be thought of as primary meaning.

I hold primarily the first, but also the second (applicably) for the reasons already stated.

:ditto:
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
If it is both literal and allegorical, there are going to be all sorts of difficulties when the speech shifts from singular to plural. E.g., draw me, we will run. A purely allegorical approach is the only way of accounting for it.
 

moral necessity

Puritan Board Junior
And so, Luther sees it as a song that is figurative. Here's a piece of his introduction:

"It rightly belongs with Ecclesiastes, since it is an encomium of the political order, which in Solomon's day flourished in sublime peace. For as those who wrote songs in Holy Scripture wrote them about their own deeds, so in Solomon this poem commends his own government to us and composes a sort of encomium of peace and of the present state of the realm. In it he gives thanks to God for that highest blessing, external peace. He does it as an example for other men, so that they too may learn to give thanks to God in this way, to acknowledge His highest benefits, and to pray for correction should anything reprehensible befall the realm."

Blessings!
 

Parsifal23

Puritan Board Freshman
I would say Song of Solomon is an poetic allegorical or typological description of God's love for The Israel of God that is all of The Elect.
 

Eoghan

Puritan Board Senior
Are we adopting a neo-platonic view?

I prefer the more literal view. We seem to shy away from the more corporeal aspects of this life. The puritans did not shy away from excommunicating thos ewho failed to fulfill their marital obligations (have sex frequently with their spouse) - have not heard of it comming up at church meetings recently though.

I am always wary of taking things allegorically. What are the rules for identifying an allegorical passage?

The New Testament, does it quote Song of Solomon? If so does it do so allegorically? If as some propose it is a metaphor/allegory for the CHurch I would expect that it is quoted profusely in that context.

It is a falsifiable proposition :judge: - I'm off to check out if it holds water (Concordance etc...)
 

Eoghan

Puritan Board Senior
NT References

8 references?
1. SS 2:1 use of the word "lily" in Luke 12:27 evokes a reference to "lily of the valley" BOTANICAL REFERENCE

2. SS 2:7 "daughters of Jerusalem" in Luke 23:28 is also found in Isaiah, Zephaniah and Zechariah AN ALLUSION?

3. SS 2:16 Pauls emphasis on the reciprosity of sexual relations recalls the mutual belong in in Song of Solomon SEXUAL

4. SS 8:6 Reference to "Hades" found in the OT SS one of a dozen sources dozen CULTURAL?


5. SS 4:4 use of the term "one thousand" in Revelation may be temporal or non-temporal as in a thousand shields (along with 12 other reference) NUMERICAL

6. SS 5:4 "hand" being a euphamism for the male genitalia (also Isa 57:8) SEXUAL

7. SS 5:7 the removing of the cloak was a serious affront Luke 6:29 recalling the Song of Solomon verses CULTURAL

8. SS 8:2There is a parallel in John 14:3 the groom taking the bride to be with him and the SS bride taking the groom to be with her mother???? ALLUSION

In short I can find no direct quotations at all. SS helps understand the culture non-temporal use of numbers etc...

The only "allusion" which might serve as allegory (No.8) has role reversal at it's root - so forgive me if I say the evidence dows not support the hypothesis and the proposition is falsified!

Unless of course somebody knows of a direct quotation
 

Kevin

Puritan Board Doctor
Johnny Mac always reminds me of my fundamentalist roots. :D

And sadly (in this case) why I am NOT a fundamentalist.

I still remember the revelation that "the Gospel According To Jesus" was to me all of those years ago...
 
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