I want to say something to the young people here this evening. This and next Lord’s Day evening are for you in a remarkably specific way. This is going to be a bit complicated, a little bit detailed, but I do not believe it is beyond your means. It wasn’t for young men and women in Israel! I’m also sure what I am about to say is not beyond your ability to take to heart.
Last Lord’s Day evening, we began our study of the Song of Songs by answering the fundamental question: what is this piece of literature? Long interpreted as an allegory – an extended metaphor of the love of Christ for his church – we concluded that, in fact, to the contrary it is a love poem, a love poem quite like other love poems written at that time in the ANE. It is a poem about the love of a man and a woman and in particular a very young man and a very young woman at least young by our standards. Young people married earlier in those days than they do today. We argued that the allegorical interpretation, though for most of Christian history the standard understanding of the book, had been discredited largely for three reasons.
- First, the effort to produce a consistent interpretation of the verses proved a failure. Without a key – such as an allegorist like John Bunyan supplies his readers, with the personal names and place names he uses throughout Pilgrim’s Progress and The Holy War – it was never possible to be sure of any interpretation of any line of the poem. I mentioned last time that very different interpretations of 1:13 have been proposed, but I could have greatly expanded the interpretative possibilities. Cyril of Alexandria proposed the interpretation that the sachet of myrrh, lying between her breasts was Christ between the Old and New Testaments, while George Burrowes, the nineteenth century American Presbyterian, took the myrrh to be the influences of the Holy Spirit. Jewish commentators took her breasts to refer to Moses and Aaron, or the two Messiahs – Messiah son of David and Messiah son of Ephraim – or Moses and Phineas, or Joshua and Eleazar. Christian interpreters have been equally ingenious, seeing her breasts as the church from which we feed, the two testaments as I said, the twin commandments of love for God and neighbor, the blood and the water flowing from Christ’s side on the cross, or the outer and the inner man (Gregory of Nyssa). [D.F. Kinlaw, “The Song of Songs,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, 1203] One gets the distinct impression that nobody knew what he was talking about!
- The second reason that the allegorical interpretation has finally been discredited and replaced is that the love described in the Song is not agape – love in spite of – but eros – love because of – which is not the kind of love with which Christ has loved us.
- And, third, from the mid-19th century, as archaeology and philology began to supply comparative literature, it became abundantly clear that the Song of Songs was a love poem of a type very familiar to ANE readers. The same figures of speech were found in Mesopotamian and Egyptian poems that had baffled Christian readers of the Song through many centuries, the same general contents were found in ANE love poems that are found in the Song, and the way the Song treats the general subject is uncannily similar to what was found in these other ancient love poems and in Arabic love poems and poems in celebration of a bride at her wedding that were still being written and read and sung in the Arab world into the modern period.
I could have mentioned a number of other specific arguments that have undermined the allegorical approach to the Song to the point that biblical scholarship has now nearly universally abandoned that approach to this biblical book. For example,
- There is no story line, such as you would expect in an allegory. It doesn’t have the narrative character we would expect of an allegory.
- All the people and place names mentioned in the book are real, not literary devices. In the Song we don’t have Mr. Worldly Wiseman or Vanity Fair or Doubting Castle; we have Solomon, Jerusalem, Lebanon, and En Gedi.
These facts have led others throughout the ages to suspect that the Song was precisely what it purported to be, a poem about the love of a particular young man and a particular young woman. In the first century, for example, some Jewish readers took it in that literal way and some were even singing portions of the Song in drinking houses. That led to the wrath of the famous Rabbi Aqiba who declared such an interpretation blasphemous. For Aqiba the Song was not about the goodness of married love but God’s choice of Israel to be his bride. [Kinlaw, 1204]
One of the ablest of early Christian biblical expositors, Theodore of Mopsuestia, who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries, whose commentaries are much more like modern commentaries of the Bible than many other patristic works on Holy Scripture, wrote a commentary on the Song according to its literal sense, but his commentary has not survived, no doubt in large part because the church condemned it at the Council of Constantinople in 553. At about the same time, Jovinian, a late 4th century monk, proposed that the Song be used to demonstrate that virginity and celibacy were not more virtuous than a holy marriage. He even had the temerity to question the perpetual virginity of Mary. That provoked Augustine to write a treatise Adversus Jovinianum, “Against Jovinian.” Remember, it was in this same 4th century that the church began to move steadily toward a celibate priesthood. The notion that there was a book of the Bible that celebrated marital sexual love was not congenial to the times!
To be thorough, I should mention, because some of you will have heard of this, the dramatic interpretation of the Song, which had a brief heyday in the 19th and 20th centuries. In this understanding the Song was taken to be a drama with acts and scenes, dialog and, usually, with three principal characters: Solomon, the girl he had chosen to wed, and the bride’s true love, a shepherd. Frederic Godet, the justifiably celebrated Swiss biblical commentator, advanced the hypothesis that the shepherd was the girl’s true love, Solomon was his rival, and the Shulamite’s faithfulness to her shepherd lover represents the victory of pure love over every form of love that springs from egoism. [In Collins, Syllabus: Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs Section, 108] The drama concerned this poor girl’s dilemma: to marry the king or to be true to her own heart. The problem with that understanding of the book, similar to the problem with the allegorical understanding, was that no one could agree about anything: where the change of scene could be found, which character said what, just how many characters there were, and so on. Hebrew pronouns and verb forms differ according to gender, so it is easy to distinguish male and female speakers and addressees, but you cannot distinguish two separate men unless they have names or are distinguished in some other way. The fact that drama was not a characteristic genre of ancient Near Eastern literature posed an additional problem. There was no comparative literature to support this interpretation.
So for these and other reasons it seems to virtually all biblical scholarship and for very solid reasons that the Song of Songs is a poem celebrating the romantic and sexual love of a man and a woman in courtship and marriage. But that hardly solves all the problems that we face when we read the book. Let me give you an example. You are reading along through the eight chapters of the Song, not entirely sure what is happening or what you are to think about the various paragraphs, and you come to this in 8:8:
“We have a little sister, and she has no breasts.
What shall we do for our sister on the day when she is spoken for?
If she is a wall, we will build on her a battlement of silver,
But if she is a door, we will enclose her with boards of cedar.”
What in the world does that have to do with anything else in the poem? It is disjunctions like this one, in which there seems to be no connection of thought and no narrative movement, that have led some scholars in the modern era to conclude that the Song is simply a collection of separate, short love poems, poems that have no particular connection with one another. You can’t read the book as if it is a single poem with a single theme because it isn’t. It’s a jumble.
But is that true? Well, recent research has, in my view, opened up the Song in an exciting way and holds promise of giving the church, for the first time in her history, a real appreciation of this wonderful book. That in itself is a remarkable thing to say; that we have not understood a book of the Bible very much at all until the twenty-first century. Now, before I proceed, I need to admit to you that not everyone is convinced of what I am about to suggest to you is key to the interpretation of the book. Dr. Jack Collins, once of this congregation and now Professor of Old Testament at our Covenant Theological Seminary and one of our most formidable OT scholars, for example, has yet to agree that what I am going to propose to you is the right way to read the Song. I am very hesitant to disagree with Jack about anything touching the interpretation of Holy Scripture, but I find myself simply unpersuaded by his criticism. You will have to make up your own mind. But first hear me out.
As I said last time, with the aid of comparative literature, we now understand the parts and pieces of the Song – the individual figures of speech, the sections devoted to this or that – much better than before. In that sense the Song has already yielded its treasures to us. We know, as I said last time, why the beloved is called the lover’s “sister,” and why she is likened to a mare among the chariots of Pharaoh, and why love is compared to wine, and what spring, and fountain, and garden mean in such a context.
But what we lacked was an understanding of the poem in its entirety. What we needed was to identify and understand the book’s structure.
In the dramatic interpretation of the book there was such an attempt to find a structure in the book as a whole: the acts and scenes of a drama or play. The attempt was made to demonstrate that there are two lovers in the poem vying for the heart of one girl and that the poem relates the competition between them for the favor of the beloved and of her preferring the one to the other. But, as I said, no one was able to convince the largest part of biblical scholarship that such a structure existed or what parts of the poem were to be assigned to which lover. But clearly that failure was only more evidence of a structure problem. If you can’t tell where the poem is going or how its parts and pieces are organized, it is much harder to know what it is about. As I said, there are some scholars who have attempted to solve the structure problem by arguing that there is no organization or structure and that the Song is just a collection of disparate poems on the theme of romantic and erotic love. I think we know now that is not right. But can we go further and build some understanding of the structure of the poem that will help us to understand what it contains and what it is saying?
Professor Collins takes the view that the organization of the poem is linear, proceeding from beginning to end. There is, he thinks, a logic and a narrative structure, but it is linear or consecutive. But I don’t see it, frankly, and a great many other interpreters of the book haven’t seen it either. But recently the case has been made for another structure altogether, and I am more and more convinced that these scholars have found the key that unlocks the Song of Songs. [cf. Westminster Theological Journal [vol. 65, No. 1] (2003) 97-111.] You have heard, most of you at least, of chiasm, a common literary device in the literature of the ANE. Chiasm is inverted parallelism and you find it frequently in the Bible. No one any longer disputes that fact. For example, the narrative of the flood in Genesis 6:9-8:22 is chiastic or palistrophic, another term for inverted parallelism. Palin is the Greek word for back, as in the phrase “to go back.” So a palindrome, for example, is a word – eye, racecar, madam and the like – that is spelled the same forwards and backwards. Go back through the word from the end to the beginning and you get the same spelling as when you go from the beginning to the end. A palistrophe or chiasm is a literary structure in which a verse or a section or, for that matter, an entire piece of writing is the same in some respect front to back and back to front. As I said, you can take the flood narrative for an example. It begins with God making a covenant with Noah, then the account of Noah embarking together with his family and the animals, then the flood waters rising, next the waters falling, Noah, his family and the animals disembarking, and again God making a covenant with Noah. The pattern is ABCCBA: covenant, embarkation, rising waters, falling waters, disembarkation, and covenant. In the case of the flood narrative there is a central pivot that has no parallel; a hinge in the middle. It sits in the exact middle, right between the rising waters and the falling waters. That pivot is Gen. 8:1: “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark.”
Over the past generation we have been growing more and more familiar with the literary form known as chiasmus in which elements are paralleled to each other but in an inverted relationship: AB/BA; or ABC/CBA and the like. Sometimes, but not always, the inverted elements surround a central, unparalleled unit, a pivot for the work or section as a whole, as in the flood narrative. We find chiasmus as a literary form or structure everywhere in the Old Testament. And, so it seems to a growing number of scholars, we find it in the structure of the Song of Songs. I don’t hesitate to admit that some purport to find chiasmus where I can’t see it and to be over-subtle in their identification of it in a particular text. So Jack’s caution about imposing a literary structure upon a text is deserving of a careful hearing. But, consider this.
- If the structure of the Song is chiastic, we should expect to find the conclusion of the matter in the center of the poem not at the end. One huge problem with the linear view of the Song is that the end doesn’t seem to be an end; at least it is not obviously the conclusion of anything. The fact that we do find the conclusion in the middle of the Song is the first and perhaps the most powerful argument for its chiastic structure. The exact center of the Song of Songs is 4:16-5:1. In the versification of BHS (and it is relatively simple and uncontroversial to versify Hebrew poetry) there are 111 lines of poetry before 4:16; there are 111 lines after 5:1. [Omitting the title line.]By the way, in reading the Song as in some other books of the Bible but especially here it is important to ignore the chapter divisions in your English Bible. They were added a thousand years after Christ and do not reproduce the structure of the poem in any useful way. No matter how one reads the Song, nobody thinks the chapter divisions help at all! Read the poem as if there were no chapter divisions, for there were none in the original Song of Songs. But take note of this important fact: the center of the poem is sexual consummation. Unmistakably sexual consummation in 4:16 and 5:1. And, in my view, the only place in the poem where you have that. Prof. Collins argues that you can find sexual consummation later in the poem. He takes 8:5-14 as marriage and consummation, but I confess that I don’t find that understanding of those verses persuasive. Read the verses and compare them to 4:16-5:1 and see which you think describe the consummation of the marriage bed. You have many statements of sexual anticipation in the book, but, so far as I can see, only here in these two verses in the exact middle of the poem, do you find and unmistakably find sexual consummation in a marriage bed. You have longing and virginity before and after but consummation only here in the middle. In my view this is a crippling objection to the argument for a linear structure to the poem. Sexual consummation occurs in the middle, not the end! That is precisely what makes a chiasmus!
- Now, before descending to particulars, let me point out the broad structure as I now see it. You have a certain number of segments before and after a middle pivot and those segments are related to one another in inverted parallelism. So in a structure of ABCD/DCBA, the two A sections are parallel to one another, one at the very beginning the other at the very end. The next two in from beginning and end are parallel to each other and so on. And that is true both with regard to micro-elements or smaller sections and macro-elements or larger sections of the poem. Let me illustrate this so you see it in a broad way and that, I hope, will help you to get the sense of the parallelism of smaller units.
- For example, the central major section, the pivot of the poem, is 3:6-5:1, or if it does not begin as early as 3:6, shortly thereafter. There are four sections before it and four after. The catchword “bride,” occurs only in this middle section. In other words, the young man and the young woman are not regarded as bride and groom or husband and wife before or after this middle section, the one section that has no parallel. The wedding and the sexual consummation are found here in the middle section.
- Look, for example, at 4:1 where the young woman is wearing a veil. Normally girls and women did not go veiled in Israel. They may have worn head-dresses but not veils, except on special occasions. Engagement was one such occasion (as we read in Gen. 24:65 when Rebekah first met her intended, Isaac; she wasn’t wearing a veil but she put one on for the occasion). The wedding was another occasion for wearing a veil (as we read in Gen. 29:23, which seems to be at least a partial explanation why Jacob did not realize that he was consummating the marriage with Leah and not with Rachel). So 4:1 and the presence of the veil, which any ANE and especially Jewish reader would have understood, indicate that in this section we are viewing the young woman as a bride, a young woman engaged and about to be married and then married.
- You have virginity expressed in 4:12 in the midst of a highly erotic account of sexual desire. She is a garden, which we said last time is a common ANE figure for the woman as an object of sexual desire, but the garden is locked. She is a fountain and a spring, again common images of the woman as a sexual partner (we find the terms with that meaning in Proverbs 5), but the spring is locked and the fountain is sealed.
- Then, finally, in 4:16 and 5:1, the exact center of the poem, we have sexual consummation. These two verses of the poem are, therefore, the exact center of the chiasmus. What that means is that the structure of the poem itself indicates that this section, culminating in sexual intimacy and fulfillment, is the central interest of the entire poem. The earlier sections – full of longing and anticipation – look forward to it and build up to it, and the later sections look back to it or work toward it backwards. The crowning piece of the poem is thus not at the end, but in the middle. The poem, therefore, is about the romantic and erotic attraction, desire, and then fulfillment of a young couple who wait until marriage. This is the blessedness of the romantic and sexual dimension of life in the context of covenantal faithfulness to God and that is why the Song belongs in the wisdom section of Holy Scripture.
- Now, let me show you, in just a few particulars, how this structure is discerned. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to show you the chiastic parallelism that joins the beginning of the poem to its end. In a chiasmus you expect to find parallel units at the beginning and the end. If the structure is ABCDDCBA, the two A sections are at the beginning and the end, the two D sections nearest the middle, and so on. Well so it is in the Song.
- Look first at 1:5-6: The sense in context is rather clear: she is in love but her brothers think that she is too young for love. So, to give her something useful to do, to distract her from daydreaming about her lover, they require their sister to tend the vineyards – that is the family’s literal vineyards – hence her dark tan. She is outside working every day in the family farm. The result of this assignment, she says, is that she has no time to tend her own vineyard (that is, her figurative vineyard, her own person, her own heart, especially as one who loves and is loved). Indeed, that is precisely why her brothers have given her this work to do. They know she’s in love. They know she wants to spend her time with her young man. They don’t think that wise so they fill up her time with other things.
- Now go to 8:8-12. I read this to you already and I was always mystified by these verses. I couldn’t tell what they had to do with anything. “We have a young sister and her breasts are not yet grown.” What in the world does that have to do with anything else that has been said so far? Even Jack Collins, interestingly, had to admit that this section of the poem was not fully integrated into the work as a whole. But, if the sister is the same girl of chapter one and her situation in chapter 8 is the same as in chapter 1, which would be the case in a chiasmus, this statement makes perfect sense. Her brothers view her as not yet ready for love and marriage. She is too young; she must wait.
- Now, the first thing that scholars note about the two sections – the one in chapter 1 and this one in chapter 8 – is the comparative vocabulary. You have “vineyard” used in both sections, and, what is more, you have it used literally and figuratively in both. You have “my vineyard” in both sections, that is the figurative use but it is put in the same way in both sections. You have the phrase “which is mine” in both 1:6 and 8:12, though that is obscured in the ESV, and you have the Hebrew verb “to tend” in both. The poet is linking up the parallel sections of his poem by this common vocabulary. Once you see this, the use of “vineyard” in 1:6 and in 8:11-12 forms a striking parallel. The word “vineyard” is used a few other times in the Song but only in statements of generalities, such as in 1:14 where we read “My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En Gedi. En Gedi, as you remember, was a place famous in Israel for its water and so its fertility. Hence such henna blossoms would be the most beautiful of all. But the use of vineyard, twice in both 1:6 and 8:11-12 is very different; in both sections we have the literal vineyard and the figurative vineyard compared to one another.
- In 1:5-6 we read of what her brothers made her do. In 8:8 you have, once again, her brothers talking. The NIV’s editorial heading “Friends” is a guess and a bad guess as it turns out. The ESV editors simply put “Others” to indicate who is speaking in vv. 8-9. But the use of “sister” in v. 8 certainly suggests that it is her “brothers,” not simply “others” who are talking. By the way, there is no mention of a father in the Song. The implication seems to be that he is dead and that the brothers are fulfilling the leadership role in the family as they would upon the death of their father. All of that, of course, may suggest that the Song was originally composed about a specific wedding, about a particular couple, and their love and its consummation. It had its origin, in other words, in an actual situation. Their sister is a minor, she is not sexually mature, and they are wondering what to do with her when a young man declares his love and wants to marry her. Perhaps they know in her heart she has already returned the young man’s love. Verse 9 then seems to be their determination to protect her purity. So, once again, we have the brothers in both sections protecting their sister, an obligation brothers had in that time and place. Whether putting her to work in the family vineyards or, more figuratively, building a wall around her, the thought is the same. They are keeping her away from the temptations of love before she is ready to marry. Wise parents have done this from time immemorial and do so still today. And young people have always needed this help from others who care for them; they need it still today. Boy do they need it!
- Now, go back to 1:7-8. Though her brothers are determined to keep her from any romantic entanglement, she desires to see the one she loves. “Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends?” She wants to be with him like his friends are. But a veiled woman in those days who wandered alone would be taken for a loose woman. Then, in v. 8 the friends, those called “the daughters of Jerusalem” in v. 5, tell her where to find her lover and how to go to him and be near him without arousing suspicion or putting her reputation at risk. In other words, she wants to see her lover and she manages to do it. They manage a “date” on the QT!
- Now, go back to the parallel section in 8:10-12. In v. 10 the girl asserts that she is grown and ready for love and has freedom to tend her own vineyard (in the figurative sense – v. 12). In v. 11 there is the comparison between the rights of the king to administer his own possessions and the rights of this young woman to her own person, to give her love to her lover. And in v. 12, again, the contrast is between the king’s extensive properties and her own person, which remains her right to give to the one she loves. The tenant must pay the king for the use of his vineyard, but she owns her own person so far as love is concerned. And, then, in v. 13, the lover now wants to be with his beloved – just as the beloved wanted to be with her lover in 1:7. He wants to be with her as her friends are, just as she wanted to be with him as his friends were. In both cases, in 1:8 and 8:14, their wishes for a “date” are fulfilled.
- Now, there is much more to tell, of course, about the chiastic parallelism of the elements of the poem. For example, we could talk about the romantic rendezvous described in 1:9-2:7 and its parallel section in 7:1-13. Or notice that the section immediately before the central pivot and immediately after it are both unmistakably dreams. In 3:1 we read: “All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves; I looked for him but did not find him.” A dream. In 5:2 we read: “I slept but my heart was awake.” A dream. Just as we would expect in a chiasm, the section immediately before and immediately after the central pivot should be parallel and they are: both are dream sequences. There is, as you can imagine, much more to say about all of this.
- But, taking it all together, we come to several conclusions:
- The situation of the couple is the same before the poem’s center – remember only in the center do we find the wedding and the sexual consummation – and after. It is not chronological, the poem does not move in a linear way from beginning to end. We have the couple in love and unmarried in the first four sections and the last four; only in the middle one do we find them marrying and consummating their marriage. The poem is a chiasm, a palistrophe.
- In both the first four and last four sections, we find the young lovers both frustrated that they cannot act on their passion for one another and concerned with moral purity. For example, in 8:1 – “If only you were to me like a brother, who was nursed at my mother’s breasts! Then, if I found you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me.” That is, she could kiss her lover, which she longs to do, without moral reproach, because no one would object to a sister kissing her brother and expressing such familial affection. But, she will not kiss her beau before it is time and so she must burn with longings unfulfilled. She is not yet married and so cannot yet enjoy the physical intimacy that belongs to marriage. And, in 8:2 the thought is the same. She could bring her lover into her home. In v. 3 she is imagining the scene. But she cannot yet do this because it is not yet time. Her family would rightly object.
- There are different ways to take the statement in 8:4, which also occurs in 2:7 and 3:5. It has been taken to mean “don’t interrupt the sweet dream of love she is enjoying by calling her back to the reality of the present situation” or, as the context suggests is more likely, “don’t start the process of loving exchange until the opportunity and appropriate occasion is present.” [Carr, TOTC, 94-95] Once again, the moral nature of the situation is front and center.
- Throughout the poem this seems to be the great issue and it is emphasized by the poem chiastic structure. Here is one commentator elaborating the point.
“Our imaginations often run far ahead of our physical reactions and they in turn run far ahead of what our actual relationship may be able to bear at that particular moment. When the physical outstrips the fully personal, emotional and psychological integration of the two lovers, the danger signals should start flashing. Adulterous thoughts, thoughts of fornication are all too easy to entertain in the abstract, divorced from a relationship that is developing healthily at its own pace. It seems that the girl of the Song recognizes that… She wants their love to be consummated, but she is in great tension, because she knows the time is not ripe…. She is basically telling herself to cool it, to wait for the appropriate time. For the Christian, the appropriate time is always within marriage, never outside it.” [That re the garden scenes in 1:9-2:7 and 7:1-13; T. Gledhill, The Message of the Song of Songs, 147, cited in Andrew Hwang, WTJ, 107-108]
So, no wonder we find marriage and sexual consummation in marriage in the center of the poem and in the crowning position in the chiasmus!
The Song is a poem about the powerful passionate attraction of love, love in its romantic and erotic dimension, and of the wait required before that love can be consummated, of the necessity of the moral control of erotic attraction, and of marriage as the righteous time and place for the fulfillment of these human longings. It is very important to observe that while our sex education nowadays is entirely clinical, the Bible’s sex education is exclusively moral!
I realize that tonight’s sermon was perhaps more a lecture than a real sermon. I hope you found it helpful and interesting nonetheless. I couldn’t help the approach I took because we can’t consider the message of the book until we have figured out what that message is. Next time we will consider the poem in its entirety and its message, so wonderfully practical, so eminently necessary – all the more in our day and age – and so beautifully encouraging. But I said as we began tonight that I was speaking especially to the young people. Taking the Song this way, fellows and gals, here are its key lessons:
- You must be chaste until you are married and then you will be able to enjoy the erotic life and the love of man and woman without harm or regret.
- It takes all manner of devices to protect that chastity until marriage; it did then as it does now. Today as then we must build walls and doors of cedar. Modern dating is usually the reverse of this ancient wisdom and has had predictable consequences; all bad!
- Whatever it takes it is altogether worth it.
- It is not only the responsibility of the individuals themselves to protect their purity but of their parents and other responsible relatives. It is a group thing. Young people can resent what they take to be interference, but if they are wise they will be thankful for it, ask for it and receive it gladly when parents set rules designed to keep two lovers apart until they can be together without sin or harm.
- The Bible never says “no!” to sexual pleasure and fun. It says “wait!” which is a very different thing and a wise young man or woman will appreciate the difference.