Just to get us started let me read the first few verses of chapter 1 (1-4).
When we concluded our series of sermons on the teaching of the book of Proverbs, I said that it made sense to consider the teaching of the other books of wisdom in the Old Testament, viz. Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and Job. We have spent four Sunday evenings in Ecclesiastes and now turn our attention to the Song, truly one of the most unique books of Holy Scripture and one that requires some careful examination before it can be read with profit by the Christian reader today. As one scholar reminds us:
“Perhaps no other biblical book has been read so differently from one time period to another. In the Middle Ages, very few would interpret the book in connection with human sexuality. Indeed, to do so was dangerous and could result in excommunication or worse. Today, most Christians find such an approach natural and sensible.” [Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the OT, 257]
Before we launch away, let me point out that, while we may not know precisely what the word “Ecclesiastes” means as a title to that book, the Song of Songs is a perfect specimen of the Hebrew superlative. Just as the “Holy of Holies” means “the most holy place,” and “God of Gods” means “the highest or supreme God,” so “Song of Songs” means the “greatest” or “the most beautiful” or “the choicest song.” [Waltke and O’Connor, Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 154 (9.5.3j), re “the superlative genitive”] In German it is Das Hohelied, the high song. In that first verse we also read that the Song is “Solomon’s.” There are plenty of good arguments for thinking that the book hails from the time of King Solomon, whether or not he was the author and whether or not he figures principally in the story of the book. If it were written by Solomon, he writes of himself in the third person, not the first, in the several places where Solomon is mentioned in the body of the work. [Cf. Young, An Introduction to the OT, 323; Dillard and Longman, 263-264; etc.] To say that it was Solomon’s song might mean that it was dedicated to Solomon rather than written by him. [Carr, TOTC, 19] No one knows for sure.
Now most of us are familiar with the general debate regarding the interpretation of the Song and its place in the canon of Holy Scripture. There is first the longstanding tradition of an allegorical interpretation of the Song, taking it to be intended as an extended metaphor for the love of God for his people or Christ for his church. Jewish interpreters of the Song took this view and were followed in it by the commentators of the patristic period. In largest part both Jewish and Christian commentators of that day could not believe that a book of Holy Scripture would have been devoted to erotic and romantic love and it seemed obvious to them that it must have a “higher” meaning. They established the tradition which is still represented today in some preaching and teaching of the book, even some of the preaching and teaching you will find in the Presbyterian Church in America. Indeed, until recently, allegory was virtually the only way of reading the Song. It made the book more important, or so it seemed. For example and very typically Gregory, known in Christian history as Gregory the Great and often as the first pope, wrote of the Song:
“Kisses are named, and breasts, cheeks, thighs are named in this Book. By these words the sacred discourse is not [made ridiculous]. We learn in the expression of this our own love, the ardor with which we should burn for the love of God.”
Gregory couldn’t imagine that a book would literally be about the sexual and romantic attraction of a man and woman. He thought that would genuinely be ridiculous in a book of the Word of God.
As you know, in the patristic period the church was deeply influenced by the philosophical worldview of the Greco-Roman world, which was profoundly dualist in its psychology – by which I mean that a stark cleavage was maintained between the physical and the spiritual, the body and the spirit – and emphasized the superiority of the latter to the former, the life of the soul to that of the body. There was abroad in that time and place a deep suspicion of the physical dimension of human life. The physical part of man was the origin of human weakness; the body was the realm of the temporary, the decaying, and the evil inclinations of man. Contrarily the life of the soul unencumbered with the limitations of the body was widely regarded as the goal of life and the nature of salvation, no matter the particular religion. Hence the widespread tactic of enhancing the life of the soul by the harsh treatment or denial of the body. Sexual abstinence in many parts of the Greco-Roman world was widely thought to be both virtuous and the path to true enlightenment. It was this same general prejudice against the physical and material part of nature and human nature that provided the environment in which Christian monasticism was first born and began to flourish. It was this prevailing philosophy in Greco-Roman culture, by the way, that made the message of the resurrection so revolutionary. Only Christianity proclaimed a salvation in which the body shared in the deliverance from sin and death and in which the body also was saved to live forever. But so contrary to the prevailing spirit was such a notion that the church had to fight to preserve her doctrine throughout those first centuries. In the same way the Song of Songs did not then and often has not since fit easily into the worldview even of real Christians, unless they are clearheaded and faithful to the actual teaching of the Bible.
As one scholar has put it, the great early third century church father Origen, a great Christian man and a great thinker and theologian, did to the Song of Songs what he did to his own body, that is, “he denatured it and transformed it into a spiritual drama free from all carnality.” [Pope in Dillard and Longman, 261] Origen, if you remember had himself castrated as a young man as a means to promote greater holiness of life. No wonder that the early Christians did not find it natural to think of the Song as a celebration of romantic and erotic love.
Nowadays, there is much less enthusiasm for that philosophical disdain for the material or physical dimension of life, but the allegorical interpretation of the Song continues nevertheless in some Christian, even some Reformed circles, where the assumption lives on that an entire book of the Bible would not have been devoted to the subject of erotic attraction and romantic love. Part of this, of course, is simply the conservative instinct, the difficulty we find in believing that the doctors of the church for these two thousand years and more really got the Song wrong, really almost completely wrong. It is to be remembered, however, that the church fathers and the history of believing interpretation of the Song never denied that there was something here as well for husband and wives. What is more, not all of the early church fathers were allegorists. [Cf. Basil in Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, 86-87] And for others, even if the Song of Songs were taken to be an extended metaphor or allegory of Christ’s love for his people and his people’s love for Christ, the point of comparison was, obviously, that of human romantic and erotic love.
But it has to be admitted that sometimes even this admission was grudging or absent altogether. Jerome, for example in the fourth century, in setting up a reading plan for a Christian girl, insisted that the Song was to be read only after a thorough grounding in the rest of Scripture lest, if tackled too soon, she might jump to the mistaken, damaging conclusion that it is about sexual love. [Kelly, Jerome, 274] In fact in his reading plan the Song of Songs came dead last. After recommending that she begin learning the Psalms and Proverbs, then Job, then the Gospels and Acts, and then the Epistles, then the prophets, the Heptateuch – that is, Genesis through Judges – then Kings through Esther, he comes at last to the Song.
“When she has done all these she may safely read the Song of Songs but not before: for, were she to read it at the beginning, she would fail to perceive that, though it is written in fleshly words, it is a marriage song of a spiritual bridal. And not understanding this she would suffer from it.” [cf. Kelly, Jerome, 274]
There is no doubt that men such as Origen and Jerome, with their strongly ascetic and dualist philosophy of life, laid the foundation for what was to become nearly two-thousand years of the Christian interpretation of the Song of Songs.
Still today, books are being published, or reprinted by evangelical and even Reformed presses in which the poem is interpreted in this allegorical or metaphorical way. The Banner of Truth, for example, still publishes the 19th century commentary by George Burrowes, an American Presbyterian, who takes the Song as an account, and these are his words, of
“the way in which the soul longing for the manifestation of the love of Christ is led along in the gratification of that desire, from one degree to another of pious enjoyment, until attaining the greatest delight possible for the saint in the present world.” 
The great Puritan, John Owen, took the Song of Songs to have two main characters, Christ and the Christian, and he interpreted every detail of the Song as contributing to a picture of the communion that exists between the Lord and his people. [Cf. Sinclair Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life, 78-86]
But there are punishing objections to this allegorical or metaphorical understanding of the Song of Songs. The first such problem is the great difficulty of demonstrating the correctness of any particular conclusion of interpretation. Think of other allegories that you have read. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory. But it is never difficult to know what Bunyan is intending to say with the story that he tells. One of his characters is called Christian, who leaves the City of Destruction, another Evangelist, another Faithful, another Mr. Worldly Wiseman, another Mr. Legality, another Talkative, and so on. His pilgrim passes through the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, Doubting Castle on his way to the Celestial City. No one has any difficulty understanding what Bunyan means or what he is trying to teach us in his book. He has provided his readers with a key. His allegory is obvious and clear.
But the Song of Songs has no such key provided to aid in its interpretation if indeed it is an allegory. And the fact is, even among allegorical interpreters through these two thousand years, everyone has his own idea as to what each statement in the book actually means and hardly any two commentators come to the same conclusion about any statement in the book. Think, for example, of 1:13:
“My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh that lies between my breasts.”
Cyril of Alexandria, the fourth and fifth century bishop of Alexandria, interpreted that statement to be a reference to Christ between the Old and New Testaments! But how would anyone know that? How would you know that such was the meaning of the sentence and not a hundred other things? How does John Owen know that the daughters of Jerusalem, mentioned in 1:5 are “all sorts of professors [of faith in Christ],” that the watchmen are the “office bearers,” and the city of Jerusalem the visible church? How could he know, as he argues, that 2:1-7 is an elaborate description of the character of Jesus Christ, the alluring nature of which character draws Christians to him? [Ferguson, 79] Commentaries that treat the Song allegorically, that is, find its theme lying under the actual words and hidden behind them, that assume that its true subject is something other than what the words themselves suggest, generate such questions on every page. How do you know that that is what the author was trying to say; that what he really meant was not what the words he used seem to suggest, but mean this other thing instead? George Burrowes took the perfume of 1:12 to be a reference to “the influences of the Holy Spirit,” but, as I said, Cyril took the perfume in vv. 12 and 13 to be a reference to Christ. Which is it? Or is neither of them correct? The fact is, though the Song has been interpreted allegorically for more than 2,000 years, if you add the Jewish commentators of the intertestamental period, no consistent pattern of interpretation has emerged in all that time. Everyone has his own idea about what everything means. Look at 1:2-4. In the Jewish targums, Aramaic translations and interpretations of the biblical texts from the time before and shortly after the Lord Jesus, those three verses were taken to refer to the exodus from Egypt. God took Israel away from Egypt into his own chambers, that is, into the Promised Land. Really? Is that what those verses mean? That certainly isn’t the way most Christian allegorists have read those verses in the ages since!
That’s the first problem of the allegorical interpretation. Without a key to its interpretation it is impossible to know whether any particular interpretation of any statement is in fact correct. But there is a deeper problem still with the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs. It is this: the love described in the Song is not agape, it is eros. Taking the words of the poem in their ordinary sense and their consistent sense throughout the poem, the love being discussed and celebrated in the poem is not, is very definitely not, love in spite of, or love in defiance of, but rather love because of. But if Christ’s love for us is being described in this poem, as all allegorical interpreters believe, then, according to this poem, God or Christ loves us because we are so lovely, so attractive, and so beguiling. Read the portions where the lover, the male partner is speaking about his beloved and you will see it so. Take, for example, 4:1:
“Behold, you are beautiful my love, behold, you are beautiful.”
Now, wait a minute! Did Christ go to the cross for us because we were so attractive and so deserving of his sacrifice? Did he love us in that selfless way because we were so worthy of his love? Not according to the rest of the Bible! He loved us in spite of our unworthiness, our unattractiveness, our spiritual ugliness. “While we were his enemies Christ died for us.” Now George Burrowes has a solution for that problem. He takes the statement in 4:1 this way:
“The soul, thus conveyed to the bosom of Jesus, is oppressed with a deepening sense of unworthiness, and finds difficulty in believing there can be so glorious a destiny awaiting us; conscious of our corruptions and short comings, we cannot understand how the pure eyes of Jesus can see anything in us attractive. Hence, he takes special pains to enlarge on this point, and assure us how greatly he delights in beholding our ripening graces.” 
The problem is that Burrowes is just making that up. There is nothing in the text to suggest that that is what the words mean or should be taken to mean. Where does it say that what the Lord finds so beautiful in us is his own grace? What the lover actually says is that his beloved is extraordinarily beautiful; not even simply beautiful to him; but beautiful in herself. He is captivated by her. And that is obviously a problem if we are explaining why Christ loves us! He loves us, the whole Bible teaches us, in defiance of our lack of beauty not because we are so beautiful. But the mutual attraction of the couple, the delight in one another, the constant desire to express the virtues of the other, the distraction created by the beauty and sensual attractiveness of the young woman that the young man loves is consistently the perspective of the poem. The love of the Song is not agape, love in spite of; it is eros, love because of. By the way, eros does not mean simply sexual love; it can be any love that is love because of.
Now it is worth saying at this point that the old works on the Song of Songs, including that of Burrowes, are still worth reading. Indeed, one of the reasons the allegorical interpretation of the Song hangs on still today is that such works as those of Owen and Burrowes are still so inspiring to read. What you have in those works, whether Burrowes’ or Owen’s or Bernard of Clairvaux’s famous eighty-six sermons on the Song, is an account of salvation and the Christian life in terms of the love that binds the Lord to his people, the individual soul’s communion with the Lord, and the believer’s love for Jesus in return. Great men have bent their genius to describing that love and that communion of love in works on the Song and those works remain useful not because they faithfully reproduce the teaching of the Song but because they beautifully convey what the rest of the Bible teaches about communion with God. The fact that this teaching is being imposed on or imported into the Song from outside does not mean that the teaching itself is not true, beautiful, and inspiring. This is also the reason why allegorical interpretations of the Song and other passages of the Bible that you find in patristic commentators are not more idiosyncratic or absurd. The New Testament and the clear teaching of the whole Bible was exercising its control and what was really happening was that truth found elsewhere in the Bible was being imported into the Song. So it is often wonderfully true what the allegorical interpreters of the Song of Songs write, it just isn’t what the Song of Songs itself is talking about.
As I will demonstrate as we go further, the text in all the Bible nearest in meaning to the Song is Proverbs 5. But no one treats Proverbs 5 as an allegory about Christ’s love for the church. It is about the love of man and woman in its sexual dimension and, in particular, marital erotic love as God’s appointed protection from the scourge of sexual sin. There is, in other words, a category mistake in the allegorical interpretation of the Song. These interpreters are taking the book as theology – about Christ and redemption – when it is actually wisdom; they are treating it as soteriology, understanding it as teaching about the salvation, when it actually concerns the living of the godly life.
Firmly fixed as the allegorical interpretation of the Song was in the church’s mind for nineteen centuries, it is interesting to consider how that interpretation lost its popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries. Before the mid-19th century biblical interpreters of all stripes had nothing with which to compare the Song. There was no control by which they might test their interpretation of the book. But in the middle of the 19th century love poems from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt were discovered and began to be translated. And it became perfectly obvious that there were many striking similarities between those love poems and the poetry of the Song of Songs. Indeed, so striking and so many were the similarities that it became increasingly obvious that the Song was, in fact, an ancient Near Eastern love poem. The imagery found in the Song was found in those other ancient poems, indeed, down to the very details. As more and more of this love literature was found and translated, it became impossible to deny that the Song of Songs was a love poem of the ancient Near Eastern type in the same way that many of the proverbs found in the book of Proverbs were proverbs of an ancient Near Eastern type.
All of that led to still further investigations and it was discovered as biblical scholars began to learn the languages of the Middle East, Arabic in particular, for example, that the Song also had many striking similarities to wedding poems still being written and sung in Arabic in the nineteenth century. Middle Eastern culture is very conservative and still today some features of its poetry and especially its wedding and love poetry are very like what we find in the poetry of the ANE and in the Song of Songs in particular. Such poems celebrated the beauty of the bride in a long series of metaphors that only a Middle Easterner would understand, how handsome the groom, how great their love for one another, how distracting they are to one another, and so on. [cf. J.G. Wetzstein, Appendix to F. Delitzsch, 173-176]
Let me give you just a few examples of how the language and especially the metaphors of the Song are now understood because we have something to compare them to.
- Take the comparison of love to wine or the influence of love to the influence of wine in 1:2 and several other places in the Song. The association between sexual love and the pleasing effects of intoxicating drink is well-attested in the ANE poems. Here is a poem from the group of poems called The Cairo Love Songs that date from 1300-1100 B.C., so, quite close to the time of the Song. [No. 23]
I embrace her,
And her arms open wide,
I am like a man in Punt, [Punt was a town on the Somali coast, known for
Its myrrh trees]
Like someone overwhelmed with drugs,
I kiss her,
Her lips open,
And I am drunk without a beer.
This is not the greatest poem in the world perhaps, but you get the point.
- Or take the reference to the female lover as a sister in 4:10. No one understood why she should be called her lover’s sister. You can imagine what the allegorists did with that. But that way of speaking is also found often in the ANE love poems. In one of these poems the beloved says to her lover, “I am your best sister.” [Papyrus 500, in Dillard and Longman, 262]
- Or consider the simile in 1:9: “I compare you, my love, to a mare among the Pharaoh’s chariots.” Burrowes took this be a reference to beauty (for he figured that the ancients must have thought that mares were the most beautiful of horses) and tender affection (because he figured that people of the ancient Near East must have loved their horses as we love our pets). Don’t blame him for that; nobody else knew what that metaphor, that figure of speech meant either. It was entirely opaque to the modern reader. His was as good a guess as anyone’s. But we now know better. Horses were not ridden into battle at this time – the stirrup had not yet been invented – but pulled chariots around the battle field. Egyptian chariots, as everyone would have known in that day, were pulled by stallions – war horses – not mares. The presence of a mare would sexually excite the stallions and keep them distracted from their proper work. In fact there is a battle tactic in the ANE known to have been used in one Egyptian battle in the fourteenth century B.C. in which a mare in heat was let loose among the chariot horses precisely to divert their attention from their proper work. [R.S. Hess, Song of Songs, 63-64] The simile, therefore, concerns the sexual attractiveness of the woman, her power to distract him by her beauty. It is a very potent figure of speech and explicitly erotic, not even simply romantic, but erotic, sexual.
- In 4:12 we have clearly metaphorical references to a garden, a spring, and a fountain. All of these are now well-attested as familiar euphemisms for the woman’s sexual charm, or for sexual activity, or for the female genitals themselves. If you remember, we found “spring” and “fountain” in Proverbs 5:12-18 where the reference is unmistakably to sexual love-making. And so with “garden.” In one of the erotic ritual texts of the ANE a goddess invites the king to “plough her.” One of the Egyptian love poems from the period begins:
“Distracting is the foliage of my pasture
The mouth of my girl is a lotus bud
her breasts are mandrake apples…”
and proceeds to describe her charms in similar figures. Both “lotus” and “mouth” are widely recognized euphemisms for the female genitals and mandrakes, as we learn in the saga of Leah and Rachel’s jealousy of one another in Genesis 30, were prized aphrodisiacs in the ANE world. In another Egyptian poem we read:
I am your best girl
I belong to you like an acre of land
which I have planted/with flowers and every sweet-smelling grass.
Now you have these double entendres all through the Song of Songs. Here, in 4:12, the spring is enclosed; the fountain is sealed, the garden is locked up: all indications of virginity. Sexual consummation has not yet been enjoyed. We’ll consider the significance of that next week.
- Or consider the descriptions of the woman’s beauty that are found throughout the Song. There are three longer descriptions of her physical attractiveness in the Song. An ancient love poem, written in Hebrew, understandably proves difficult for us to appreciate simply because the genre of ancient love poetry is alien to us. We don’t express such things in the same way. We talk about the same things; we just don’t express them the same way as they did three thousand years ago in the near east. In 4:1-2, for example, we read, in a depiction that is obviously intended to convey how captivating, how ravishingly beautiful the woman is to her lover,
“Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each one has its twin, not one of them is alone.”
That is not what we would say today to a woman whom we were seeking to impress with our mastery of the language of love! But the fact is this kind of imagery is utterly typical of the ANE love poems and of much more modern love poems of the near eastern world. And they make more sense than you might at first think. Most Palestinian goats have long wavy black hair. The movement of a large flock on a distant hillside makes it appear as if the whole hill were alive. And the sheep just shorn are white and lustrous. People of that time and place were familiar with these facts. The fact is, probably nothing is so bound to its time and place as erotic poetry, heavy-laden with metaphor as it always is. Listen, for example, to Lucian, a Greco-Roman writer, many centuries later than the Song, describe the beauty of a woman’s teeth:
“When laughing, she showed her teeth; in what way shall I express how white they are, how symmetrical, how perfectly fitted together. They are like a very beautiful necklace of pearls glistening and of the same size, thus ranged in regular order. They received additional beauty from the redness of the lips; for they appeared between them, like the cut ivory in Homer…with a perfect uniformity of all in colour, size, and arrangement.” [Burrowes, 354]
The Greco-Roman world is much closer to our own in literary style than that of the ancient Near East and Lucian’s description is much easier for us to appreciate, but we still wouldn’t describe a woman’s teeth the way Lucian did. His description is still too florid for us. The fact is that in different times and places the beauty of a woman’s body or the power of sexual attraction is described in very different ways and, in their own way, such forms of words are as distinctive as anything we find in the Song. Take, as another example, a much more modern description of the attractiveness of a woman’s body – remember, such a description is the subject of three highly figurative passages in the Song – this from Edmond Burke, the British statesman.
“Observe that part of a beautiful woman where she is perhaps the most beautiful, about the neck and breast; the smoothness; the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface, which is never for the smallest space the same; the deceitful maze, through which the unsteady eye slides giddily, without knowing where to fix or whither it is carried.”
That is a description of the erotic mystery that rivals anything in the Song, even if in a completely different language, expressing the same things in the thought forms of a different time and culture. This is the problem scholars had to surmount in interpreting the Song of Songs and until the mid-nineteenth century there was no way to surmount the obstacle that that alien form of figurative speech presented to the reader and the interpreter of this book.
I could go on at great length. The fact is, we now understand most every simile, metaphor, and figure of speech in the book because we have access to comparative literature, poems like the Song of Songs that use the same figurative language. What this new learning amounted to was the death knell of the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs. It became perfectly obvious that the Song is an ANE love poem.
There is no mention of God in the Song [absent a merely possible translation of 8:6]. It is not theology. It is wisdom. It teaches the skill of right and godly living in respect to a fabulously important dimension of human life, the romantic and erotic dimension. What the song has to say to us and how it says it, we will begin to consider next time. But, for the moment, let’s conclude with this thought.
I love the fact and I hope you do too that the Song of Songs is written in the common way of ancient Near Eastern and contemporary Middle Eastern love poems. Though clearly placing this dimension of our lives on a different moral foundation, it draws unashamedly on the universal sexual experience of mankind and on the sexual ethos of its own day. It expresses erotic ideas and describes sexual eroticism in the way that was perfectly ordinary in and common to that culture. I find it intriguing and important that the aphrodisiacs mentioned in the Song in 4:13-14 – they are the common aphrodisiacs of the ANE – are the same aphrodisiacs used by the prostitute seeking to lure a customer in Proverbs 7:16-17. In other words, the world doesn’t know anything about sex and sexual pleasure God’s people don’t know and can’t know. Christian lovers are to be just as savvy about love-making and sexual pleasure as any Playboy columnist. But Christians know how to integrate the sexual dimension of life into the rest of life in such a way as to make it a blessing and not a curse, a joy and not a sorrow, the way of life and not of death. That is biblical wisdom! And chiefly Christians achieve that successful integration by expressing that erotic desire and experiencing that erotic pleasure in and only in the context of a faithful marriage. That, as we will see, is the lesson of the Song of Songs.