The dilemma presented by the Song of Songs has been around for a very long time. That it has been considered to be part of the Scriptures since many centuries before Christ is clear enough, and its controversial aspects since early times is also more than clear. There are ancient references to its having been read aloud in what we might call taverns since antiquity would lead us to understand that there were the same problems with it in ancient times as we have today. Around the time of Christ, there was controversy about the book as many Jewish leaders sought to strike it from the Scriptures. In the early church, we have manuscripts that suggest that the same problems were present, with many asserting its allegorical understanding and others asserting a literal understanding, and still others who wished it to simply go away. If nothing else, the Song of Songs gives scholars something to write literary criticisms about.
From our point of view as followers of Jesus Christ today, we might just wish we didn’t have the Song of Songs to deal with, and quite frankly, most of us simply pass it by. I can’t remember ever having come across a Sunday School curriculum based on it, for example; certainly not one that is for young people. I have come across a young preacher who wanted to preach a sermon series on it to teach “old people” about physical intimacy, because they “don’t have a clue,” but as I recall he was persuaded to preach about something else instead. I must admit that I got a chuckle out of that incident!
On an academic level, I have seen quite a few articles, essays and books of criticism and analysis, and I have also seen a few books on Christian marriage that quote it freely, but all of these are cases of specialized approaches to the book, as opposed to a general attempt at finding application to Christian life to a general audience. I’m sure such pieces have been written, I know that it is covered in commentary sets that comment of all 66 books, and I have gotten the impression once or twice that the authors of these breathed a sigh of relief when the Song of Songs sections were completed.
With all of that said, here I am at my keyboard setting out to try to do what few commentators or Christian teachers want to deal with; for the record, I’ve also been known to stay out in the rain.
I propose to approach the Song of Songs like I would approach any other book in the Bible and let the chips fall where they may. I’m not sitting at a desk piled high with commentaries and scholarly volumes, ripping off everyone else’s ideas and basing my conclusions on another person’s thinking; what would be the point of that? Instead, I’m going to simply comment on the text, in context, beginning with the overall context of the Word of God. When all is written, you dear reader are welcome as always to hang on to whatever you find useful, and to leave the rest behind. Seems fair enough to me…
So, let’s begin with overall Bible context. What is the Bible?
What we call “The Bible” is the collected works of Scripture, which are the written record of God’s revelation of Himself to Mankind. Often, we refer to this as the Word of God, but in doing so, we must bear in mind that the Word of God is not a bunch of collected writings on paper; it is a Person, the Person of Jesus Christ as revealed in John chapter 1. The Word of God cannot be separated from the Person of Jesus Christ: they are One. Second, the Bible is not a scientific manual or a self-help book, it is God’s revelation of Himself. In revealing Himself to Man, God reveals a little science, some rules for living, and ways in which He worked out His purposes among people in history. In fact, He has revealed Himself to us in many and various ways, but His whole purpose in inspiring the Scriptures is to reveal Himself to us. This is my first, and most important presupposition.
In doing so, God didn’t make mistakes; He got His facts straight. He also did not contradict Himself by teaching one thing in one place, and another thing in another place; He is consistent and in harmony. Thus, if we in our interpretation of His Word find ourselves having a hard time because of an apparent contradiction, it is our understanding and not His Word that is the problem: Time to start over. Finally, God has revealed Himself for a purpose, and has a purpose in all that He does; He has a purpose for each of us. Therefore, it seems highly unlikely to me that He would inspire Solomon to write down a divine sex manual or guide to happy and jolly romance.
Thus, in light of the fact that marriage relationships are used in Scripture as a metaphor for the relationship between Man and God in other places, I must conclude that this is most likely the intention of Song of Songs. In fact, I see this as being in some ways parallel to Ephesians 5:22-33, which I will discuss next. After that, I might drop in a thought or two on how this could be the case in an Old Testament book.