Not Just Spiritual Allegory
When people read and interpret the Song of Songs, there are a couple of mistakes that they often make. We see this all the way through church history. This has been a really popular book. You go back to the church fathers—even in medieval times. Bernard of Clairvaux preached over seventy sermons about this passionate romance between a man and a woman. He preached over seventy sermons to the chaste monks of Clairvaux! The Puritans also loved to talk about the Song of Songs.
This has been a very popular book and like any book that’s had that long a history of interpretation, there have been a number of approaches taken with it. It’s commonly taken as a spiritual allegory. It’s not really about human relationships, it’s not really about anything erotic or having to do with physical or sexual intimacy. This is really only about Christ and his relationship to the church.
When you look at the book that way, you have to do all kinds of hermeneutical gymnastics, and in a way, you lose any control. You can almost make the Bible say whatever you want it to say. I think it was Augustine that interpreted the sachet of myrrh between the woman’s breasts as the time between the two testaments. That’s the kind of fanciful interpretation that’s not really rooted in the biblical text. It’s just really making the Bible say almost whatever you want it to say. That’s a danger of spiritualizing or allegorizing the Song of Songs.
The Song of Songs is part of that mystery of spiritual marriage that runs all the way through the Bible.
Not Just Earthly Romance
I think more recently there’s been another temptation to think No. Don’t get confused by anything spiritual like that. I mean this is really about very down-to-earth romance between this country guy and this woman that he loves. It’s all very human level, with a lot of sexual overtones. Maybe it’s kind of a manual—the Bible’s guide to sex or marriage.
The Small and Large Story
I think there’s a partial truth in both of those approaches. This is a human-level relationship. And we do get a lot of practical instruction about how relationships work: how to praise someone in a way that builds a relationship, how to pursue a relationship leading toward marriage intentionally but not hastily, how to reconcile when there’s been a broken relationship. All of that is in here and there are lots of practical suggestions you can get from that.
But I think it’s important to see this book set in the larger story of God’s love relationship with his people. And all through the Old Testament, there are little hints that God is thinking of his relationship with his people as a romance. There are a lot of warnings against spiritual adultery.
Why? Because God is a jealous husband for his people. And this relationship is a love relationship that’s covenantal. And that’s what marriage is. It’s a covenant relationship in which this person makes promises to that person, and he makes promises to her, she makes promises to him. That’s the kind of relationship it is. That’s the kind of relationship God wants to have with his people, which is why he takes any kind of unfaithfulness so seriously.
For All People of God
Then of course in the New Testament it’s very explicit. Jesus Christ lays down his life on the cross as a sacrifice for his bride, which is an impure bride, but is regarded as perfectly pure because of the cleansing power of the blood of Christ. There are actually hints about that in the Old Testament, too.
It’s amazing, Israel is so unfaithful, and then God will call her “virgin Israel.” I don’t know how you put it all together until you really see Jesus on the cross and understand the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
The Song of Songs is part of that mystery of spiritual marriage that runs all the way through the Bible. Human love relationships always have that as their ultimate context. So I like to see Song of Songs not as an either/or book but as a both/and book. Human level and divine level, human marriage and ultimately, spiritual marriage—which is for all the people of God of any age, any marital status. Whoever you are, you find yourself in this love relationship.
- The Song of Songs: A 7-Day Devotional
- 5 Myths about the Song of Songs (Philip Graham Ryken)
- Intimacy with Christ Is for Men and Women (Philip Graham Ryken)