(Normally, I check all references and try to make sure on spelling but this

Introduction is presented without close scrutiny.  As usual, this is from

The Pulpit Commentary, verbatim.  CY – 2014)

 

 

The song seems to rest on an historical basis; its many details, its geographical

notices, its many references to circumstances of Solomon’s time, to its peace

and prosperity (such a period of peace and prosperity as perhaps never occurred

again during the checkered history of Israel), to its commerce, its magnificence,

point to a groundwork of actual fact. It relates the love of the great king for some

innocent country maiden — a love that was returned, that for a time at least brought

happiness to both, and seemed to refine and elevate the characters of both, as a pure

love which leads to a blessed marriage ever does. But holy men of old were

led by the Spirit to incorporate this beautiful narrative into the canon of

Holy Scripture. That fact invests the song with another and a higher

meaning. Jewish rabbis regarded it as a parable of the relations between

God and Israel. Many of the Christian Fathers have seen in it the love that

is between Christ and His Church; the longings of the Christian soul for the

presence of the heavenly Bridegroom; the vicissitudes of the spiritual life;

the blessed union of the bride, the Lamb’s wife, with the Lord of her

redemption at the last. There are great difficulties in the spiritual

interpretation of some passages; but when we consider the position of the

song in the sacred book; when we remember that “every Scripture inspired

of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for

instruction which is in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16); when we remember

the great value which many of God’s saints have set upon this book, the great

spiritual benefit which they have derived from it, we feel that it must be right to

regard it as a parable of Divine love, to see under this earthly story a deep

and holy heavenly meaning.  (Charles Haddon Spurgeon preached 64

sermons on this book.  See http://www.spurgeongems.org./  CY – 2014)

 

 

THEORIES OF INTERPRETATION.

 

 

No one can accept the Song of Solomon as a book of Scripture, the

canonical authority of which is undoubted, without forming some theory of

interpretation which shall justify the position of such a book amongst the

sacred writings. It will be evident that our fundamental principles in respect

to the nature and authority of inspired books will modify the views we hold

on any particular portion of Scripture. If the sacred writings are no more

than a collection of Jewish literature, in which there would naturally be

great variety, and not necessarily in every instance a lofty spiritual aim,

then we can regard the Song of Solomon as Herder did, as a collection of

beautiful Eastern songs, and there is no need to seek in them either unity of

purpose or special significance. But it is more difficult to reconcile such a

view with the facts than to find a tenable theory of interpretation. It is

simply incredible that such a book, if merely of literary or moral worth,

should be introduced into the collection of Jewish Scriptures, to be an

inexplicable exception to the whole volume. All other books have some

distinct and easily recognizable connection with the religious character and

peculiar national position of the Jewish people. Not one is where it is

because it is a piece of literature. Why should the Song of Solomon be an

exception? Moreover, the simple fact that Jews themselves have always

sought for an interpretation of the book shows that they were not satisfied

with the mere literary value of it. We must either eliminate it altogether

from the Bible, or we must find some method for its profitable use. Those

who have renounced all attempts to explain it have either been impatient

with the difficulties, or out of humour with the expositors. No doubt a very

large amount of folly has been published by those who have endeavored

to support a theory by ingenious manipulation of the language. We are apt

to be revolted by such extravagance, and treat the whole subject with

indifference. But there is no more beautiful book in the Old Testament than

the Song of Solomon. We cannot be right in leaving it unstudied and

unused. We must deal with it as a part of Holy Scripture. As far as

possible, therefore, we must put it in intelligible relation to the Word of

God, as a progressive revelation of Divine truth. We must understand what

is the idea of the book, and how that idea is set forth in the form in which

the poem is composed. We proceed, therefore, to give an account of the

different theories which have been held as to the interpretation of the book,

and so to justify that which we accept in the subsequent Exposition.

 

 

The theories of interpretation may be classed under three heads.

 

  • Those which assume that the work is an allegory, that the facts

contained in it are merely employed for the purpose of framework, the

language being mystical and figurative.

 

  • Those which are founded upon a naturalistic basis, taking the literary

features of the work as the first in importance, and regarding it as some

form of love poem or collection of erotic songs.

 

  • Between these two extremes stands the typical view, which, without

discarding the historical and literary basis, not to be disputed on the very

face of the work, endeavors to justify its position in the Word of God by

analogy with other portions of Scripture, in which natural and national

facts and interests are imbued with spiritual significance.

In each of these points of view there is truth, as there is variety of

interpretation. We shall be best prepared to understand the results of the

most able modern criticism by placing these different theories clearly side

by side.

 

 

The Allegorical Theory.

 

This is much the most ancient method of interpretation. It sprang, no doubt, from

the rabbinical school among the Jews, in which the verbal inspiration of Scripture

was tenaciously held, while, at the same time, all kinds of fanciful interpretations

were foisted into the divinely authorized words. If the veil of the language has to

be preserved intact, then the only resource of the dogmatist or the speculator

is to bring forth from behind the veil that which suits his purpose. It is of

no consequence to prove that there were any real persons, such as

Solomon and Shulamith, whose love for one another is celebrated in this

book. It might be so or it might not be so; these things are an allegory. The

deepest truths are set forth in the dress of these words of human affection.

Some have found in them God and his Church throughout all time. Others

the historical and political relations of the Jewish people. Others have

sought in them profound philosophical mysteries and cabalistic secrets.

There is one point, and one alone, in which all these allegorical interpreters

agree, and that is, that nothing is to be made of the book taken literally,

that there is no consistency and order in it if we attempt to regard it

historically; therefore we have nothing in it but words, which may be

applied in any manner which is spiritually or otherwise profitable. Such a

view condemns itself, for it deprives us of any ground of confidence in

seeking the true interpretation. That surely must be the mind of the Spirit

which best accords with the facts of the case. If there is not a foundation of

historical truth underlying all the Scripture, then it is a mere unsubstantial

cloud which may be blown away by the changes in the atmosphere of

human opinion. It is against the analogy of Scripture. It opens the way to

extravagance and folly, by removing all bounds and inviting the license of

mere individual speculation. It repels the common sense of the ordinary

reader of Scripture, and simply shuts the book which it misinterprets, so

that many refuse to look into it at all. “This mode of expounding each

separate particular, not with a view to its place in the description in which

it stands, but as a distinct reference to the spiritual object typified by it,

necessarily leads both to a serious distortion of the lessons to be conveyed,

and to a marring and mangling of the symmetry and beauty of the objects

depicted.” Postponing any further discussion of this principle, we proceed

to give a summary of the history of the allegorical interpretation.

There is no evidence that the Song of Solomon was allegorically infer

preted among the ancient Jews previous to the Christian era. Had it been a

well known, traditional view, it would certainly have appeared in some of

the writings of the Apocrypha, or in the works of Philo. But there is no

clear trace of it in either. The allusion which is found in the Fourth Book of

Esdras (5:24, 20), in which the terms “lily” and “dove” are employed of the

Church, must be referred to a Christian origin, and dates probably about

the end of the first century A.D. There is no decided evidence of the

allegorical theory until the eighth century, when there appeared a Targum

on the book itself, with Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, and Ecclesiastes. The

allegory is taken to be a figurative representation of the history of the

Israelites from the time of the exodus to their final restoration and

salvation. The Targum is marked, like most similar productions, by great

extravagance and absurd anachronisms. After an interval of several

centuries, distinguished rabbis published commentaries which contained

references to older interpreters who had followed the Targum in the

allegorical view. Such were Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (or Rashi), who died

1105; David Kimchi (1190-1250); Ibn Ezra (died 1167); Moses

Maimonides (died 1204); Moses ben Tibbon; Immanuel ben Salome, and

others. Some of these rabbinical writers have used the book to support

their peculiar philosophical views and their rabbinical interpretations of

Scripture; but most of the Jewish writers have regarded the allegory as

veiled history and prophecy.

 

It was very different, however, with the Christian commentators. Not only

did they almost without exception treat the book as an allegory, but they

strained the interpretation beyond all limits of common sense and Scripture

analogy, so that their example has remained a warning, which has produced

a healthy reaction in the Church, and has led to the more reasonable view

which is now adopted by all the best critics. The rise of the allegorical

method can be traced chiefly to the Alexandrian school, and to its great

representative Origen. It was the fruit of philosophy in union with

Christianity. Origen wrote two homilies on the Song of Solomon, which

were translated by Jerome, and a commentary, part of which still remains in

the Latin of Rufinus. The idea of the book, according to Origen, is the

longing of the soul after God, and the sanctifying and elevating influence of

Divine love; but he varies in his explanation of the allegory, now taking it

of the individual and then of the Church. His example was followed by later

Christian writers, as by Eusebius, Athanasius, Epiphanius, Cyril, Macarius,

Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Theodoret, Augustine, and

Chrysostom. There were slight differences among these early Fathers in

their application of the method, but they all adopted it. Ambrose went so

far as to suggest in his sermon on the perpetual virginity of Saint Mary,

that there are allusions to Mary in such expressions as the “locked garden”

and the “sealed fountain” (Song of Solomon 4:12); and Gregory the

Great regarded the crown wherewith Solomon’s mother crowned him as a

mystical emblem of the humanity which the Saviour derived from Mary.

There were some of the Fathers, however, as Theodore of Mopsuestia,

who advocated the literal and historical method of interpretation, and he

was challenged by some of his critics for his sensual view of the book.

When we come to the Middle Ages we meet with larger and fuller

commentaries, in which the allegorical method is wrought out with great

ingenuity. The highest name, perhaps, is that of the mystic Bernard of

Clairvaux (died 1153), who wrote eighty-six sermons on the first two

chapters, followed by his scholar, Gilbert von Hoyland, who wrote fifty-eight

discourses on another portion. Bernard’s discourses are mystical. The

soul is seeking her heavenly Bridegroom, and introduced by him into

progressive states of privilege — the garden, the banqueting hall, the

sleeping chamber. The kiss of Christ is explained of the Incarnation. He

was followed by Richard de St. Victor, and by the great theologian

Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, Gershon, and Isidore Hispalensis. The

whole mystery of the soul’s intercourse with the Saviour is, according to

them, represented in the language of the Song. The book was, of course,

greedily laid hold of by the Middle Age mystics, as it has been by the

mysticoevangelical school of modern times, and amidst a dense cloud of

fanciful extravagance there are here and there to be found in their

commentaries gleams of highly spiritual discernment and profound thought.

The Spanish mystics went to great lengths of absurdity; the “cheeks” of the

bride were outward Christianity and good works; her “golden chains” were

faith; the “silver points” of the golden ornaments were holiness in the walk

and conversation; “spikenard” was redeemed humanity; “the breath of

myrrh” was the Passion of our Saviour; “the thorns about the rose” were

temptations by tribulations, crimes, and heretics; “the chariot of

Amminadab” represented the power of the devil, and so forth.

When we come to the time of the Reformers, when biblical study received

an entirely new impulse and direction, we find the allegorical method, while

not altogether discarded, somewhat modified by the historical and critical

spirit which was growing in the Church. Martin Luther was to a large

extent under the influence of mystical writers in the early part of his

theological course, but he did not follow them in their allegorical

tendencies. He saw the danger, which they had promoted, to the healthy

use of Scripture, and the mist they threw around its simple, practical

meaning. In his ‘Brevis Enarratio in Cantica Canticorum’ he takes the book

as written for an historical purpose — to glorify the age and kingly power

of Solomon, and so to exalt the theocracy at its highest splendour. It is to

help the people to thank God for the blessings of peace and prosperity.

God is the Bridegroom, and his people are the bride. Luther was followed

in his view by other Reformers. Nicolas de Lyra, in his ‘Portilla,’ regards it

as a representation of the history of Israel from Moses to Christ, and in the

later chapters, of the Christian Church from Christ to the time of the

Emperor Constantine. Starke (in his ‘Synopsis,’ pt. 4.) sees in it a prophecy

in which is represented the coming of Messiah in the flesh, the outpouring

of the Holy Spirit, the gathering of the New Testament Church from Jews

and Gentiles, and the special trials and providential leadings of the people

of God in every age. Bishop Perez of Valentia, in 1507, published a

commentary, in which an elaborate system of chronological interpretation

is set forth. There are ten canticles setting forth ten periods — the

patriarchs, the tabernacle, the voice of God from the tabernacle, the ark in

the wilderness, Moses on Pisgah, the death of Moses, entrance into

Canaan, conquest and partition of Canaan, conflicts under the Judges,

prosperity and peace under Solomon. To these ten Old Testament facts

correspond ten New Testament fulfillments — the Incarnation, teaching of

Christ, his life and miracles, his ascent to Jerusalem, his death on the cross,

the ingathering of Jewish converts, the mission to the Gentiles, the conflicts

of the martyr Church, prosperity and peace under Constantine. Cocceius

(1673), in his ‘Cogitationes,’ finds in it the prediction of the events of his

own time; and Cornelius a Lapide treats it, in a high Roman Catholic

manner, as significant of the glory of the Virgin, while he takes it as a kind

of prophetic drama, setting forth the history of the Church.

When we come to more modern times and to the great “Introductions” to

the study of the Bible, written by the most learned critics, we see the

influence of a closer attention to the structure and language of the book in

the gradual decay of the allegorical method, and the attempt to unite the

facts which underlie the words with a distinct spiritual significance. In the

beginning of this century, the great Roman Catholic theologian and critic

Leon. Hug (1813) made a novel attempt to maintain the allegorical view.

The bride represented the ten tribes, the bridegroom King Hezekiah, the

brother of the bride a party in the house of Judah opposing the reunion of

the rent kingdom. He was followed by Kaiser in 1825. Rosenmuller sought

to put fresh life into the worn out theory by analogies brought from

Hindoo and Persian poetry; as Puffendorf (1776) introduced in his

paraphrase mystical allusions to the grave and the hope of the resurrection,

the “virgins” being “pure and chaste souls shut up in the dark grave,” and

waiting for the light of the Saviour’s resurrection. Until we come to the

tame of Keil and Hengstenberg, we have no really sensible defence of the

theory put forth, and it is scarcely necessary to make the remark that their

defence is a virtual surrender, for their use of the allegorical method is so

moderate that it barely exceeds the ideal and typical view, and is

substantially the same as that of Delitzsch and Zockler. Keil (‘Introduction

to the Old Testament,’ vol. 1, p. 503, Eng. transl.) says, “The book depicts

in dramatico-lyrical, responsive songs, under the allegory of the bridal love

of Solomon and Shulamith, the loving communion between the Lord and

his Church, according to its ideal nature as it results from the choice of

Israel to be the Church of the Lord. According to this, every disturbance of

that fellowship springing out of Israel’s infidelity leads to an ever firmer

establishment of the covenant of love, by means of Israel’s return to the

true covenant God, and this God’s unchangeable love. Yet we are not to

trace in the poem the historical course of the covenant relation, as if a veil

of allegory had been thrown over the principal critical events in the

theocratic history.” Hahn, e.g., finds allegorically represented “that the

kingdom of Israel is called in the service of God finally to overcome

heathendom with the weapons of love and righteousness, and to lead it

back to the peaceful rest of loving fellowship with Israel, and so with God

again.” Hengstenberg, in his ‘Prolegomena to the Song of Solomon,’ and

in his Exposition (1853), argues for the allegorical view from the use of

similar erotic language in the Psalms and prophets, as well as in the general

tone of the Old Testament. The beloved of the heavenly Solomon is the

daughter of Zion; the whole, therefore, must be explained of Messiah and

his Church. But he proceeds to attempt an application of this view to the

details of the language, in which he shows that it can only be accepted in a

modified form — the hair of the bride like a flock of goats represents the

mass of nations converted to Christianity; the navel of Shulamith denotes

the cup from which the Church refreshes those that thirst for salvation with

a noble and refreshing draught; the sixty and eighty wives of Solomon, the

admission of the original Gentile nations into the Church, 140 being 7

multiplied by 2 and by 10 — the “signature of the covenant,” the kingdom

of Christ being prefigured by the diverse nations introduced into

Solomon’s harem! Such follies tend to blind the reader to the substantial

truth of the theory, which is that, under the figure of the pure and beautiful

love of Solomon for Shulamith, is imaged the love of God in Christ for

humanity, both in the individual and in the Church.

 

The only other names which require mention in connection with the

allegorical theory are those of Thrupp, Wordsworth, and Stowe. Joseph

Francis Thrupp published a revised translation with introduction and

commentary (Cambridge, 1862). The millenarian view dominates his work

throughout. It is a prophecy of the coming of Christ. Wordsworth

(Christopher), in his ‘Commentary on the Bible,’ published 1868, also

regards the poem as a prophetic allegory, suggested by Solomon’s

marriage with Pharaoh’s daughter, and describing “the gathering” of the

world into mystical union with Christ, and its consecration into a Church

espoused to him as the bride. Calvin E. Stowe defends the allegorical view

in the Biblical Repository (April, 1847), giving a partial translation. The

fault of all these writers, able and learned as they are, is that they push their

theory too far, and that they are led away by it into a misuse of Scripture to

support that which does not fairly rest upon it. This is the danger which

must always attend upon the allegorical method. The ingenuity of the

interpreter is tempted to supply, out of his own creed, what is lacking in

the scheme of the allegory, he has liberty to suggest what analogies he

discovers. The highly figurative language of such a poem as the Song of

Solomon is easily accommodated to the demands of any system of thought

to which the wish is father. But while the allegorical method, as a formal

treatment, may be erroneous, it recognizes the spiritual meaning and value

of the Book. The canonical position of such a work requires to be justified.

The allegorist attempts to do so. lie is certainly right in demanding that a

distinct religious purpose shall be the vital centre of any system of

interpretation put forth. As Isaac Taylor has remarked, in his ‘Spirit of

Hebrew Poetry,’ “The book has given animation, and depth, and intensity,

and warrant, too, to the devout meditations of thousands of the most

devout and of the purest minds. Those who have no consciousness of this

kind, and whose feelings and notions are all ‘of the earth, earthy,’ will not

fail to find in this instance that which suits them, for purposes, sometimes

of mockery, sometimes of luxury, sometimes of disbelief. Quite

unconscious of these possessions, and happily ignorant of them, and unable

to suppose them possible, there have been multitudes of earthly spirits to

whom this, the most beautiful of pastorals, has been, not indeed a beautiful

pastoral, but the choicest of those words of truth which are ‘sweeter than

honey to the taste,’ and ‘rather to be chosen than thousands of gold and

silver.’”

 

 

A Collection of Natural Erotic Songs.

 

We must now proceed to describe the theories of interpretation which

have been based upon a naturalistic principle. These may be styled the

erotic, as they all regard the work as a collection of erotic songs, put

together simply on the ground of their literary worth and poetic

arrangement, religiously used by being idealized, just as the language of

secular poetry may be sometimes mingled with sacred, though the original

intention of the words had no such application. There are several varieties

in the form of this erotic theory. The songs have been regarded by some as

separate idylls of love, collected together and formed into a poem only by a

predominating reference to Solomon, and by the one pervading spirit of

pure love. But others have attempted to trace a dramatic unity and

progress in the whole, and have elaborated a history on which to found the

drama, while those who have renounced all such attempts to find a drama

in Hebrew poetry have yet clung to the idea of an epithalamium, composed

on the occasion of Solomon’s marriage, either with the Egyptian princess

or some Israelitish bride, and have endeavored to justify their view by the

literary form of the poem. It is not necessary entirely to reject the

naturalistic basis in order to find a reason for the position of Solomon’s

Song in the Bible. There is an element of truth in all the erotic theories.

They help us to remember that human love is capable of being mingled

with Divine ideas. That which is so often impure, and which sinks the life

of man below that of the beasts that perish, may yet be sanctified, lifted

above the evil of a fallen nature, and so may be taken, ideally, as the fitting

vehicle by which to convey the Spirit of God to the spirit of man.

The earliest writer whose treatment of the book was based upon the

secular view of it was Theodore of Mopsuestia (died A.D. 429). He dealt

with all Scripture much in the same way, in the spirit of a rigid literalism, in

which he followed the school of Antioch. Like others of the same class, he

found only human love in the language, and his ‘Commentary’ was publicly

condemned on that account in the Fifth (Ecumenical Council (A.D. 553).

The Church’s anathema crushed this commentary out of existence. The

Middle Ages were dominated by the allegorical spirit, and no other view

was put forth for hundreds of years. Until the free spirit of the Reformation

introduced a new criticism, the secular view of Solomon’s Song did not

reappear. In the time of Calvin, Geneva was startled by the brochure of

Sebastian Castellio (1544), who represented Shulamith as a concubine, and

denounced the book as unworthy of a place in Scripture — to the great

displeasure of Calvin himself, who is said to have compelled Castellio to

withdraw from Geneva. The next name in the bibliography is that of Hugo

Grotius, who published his ‘Annotations’ on the Old Testament in 1664. In

his view the work is a nuptial song, with allegorical and typical meanings,

which he admits are to be found in it, though he does not himself seek

them. R. Simon, J. Clericus, Simon Episcopius, are other instances of the

same treatment of the book in the latter part of the seventeenth and the

beginning of the eighteenth centuries. The rise of rationalism was the

revival of the theory. Semler and Michaelis led the way, in the middle of

the last century, disparaging the book altogether.

 

It was only as the literary spirit of German criticism began to deal more

fairly with the whole of Scripture, as the remains of a great people, that the

poetic merits of Solomon’s Song began to be recognized, and an attempt

was made to understand its position in the canon. Lessing, who was the

greatest critical mind of Europe at that time, saw that there was great

idyllic beauty in these ‘Eclogues of King Solomon,’ as he called them, and

compared them with those of Theocritus and Viral; but the most

distinguished name is that of Herder, whose celebrated work on ‘The Spirit

of Hebrew Poetry’ did much to revive the interest of the literary world in

the Bible. Herder wrote a separate work on Solomon’s Song, treating it as

a collection of songs of love, and as intended to describe ideal human love,

for the purpose of setting forth the example of purity and innocence when

it was most needed in the ancient world. His criticism is in many respects

valuable and highly aesthetic. He draws attention to the exquisite poetry of

the songs, and to their surpassing worth as an ideal of human sentiment.

But delightful reading as Herder’s work undoubtedly is, it is yet but little

help to the biblical student, as there is no attempt to follow out the

religious intimations of the language, or to find in it any parabolical

intention. The rationalistic critics have, most of them, regarded the songs

as fragmentary and isolated, and thus have deprived themselves of their

true position as commentators; for if there be no unity in the book, it is

hard to find any basis on which to rest the explanation of its meaning as a

whole. To suppose a sacred work written simply in praise of human

feeling, or even to cherish the ideal of human relationship, is to resist the

analogy of Scripture. It may be doubted if even the Proverbs of Solomon

should be regarded from so wide and general a point of view as that.

There is no need to trouble the reader with an account of the many books

which have appeared in Germany, treating not only Solomon’s Song, but

eyeing other book in the Bible, in the most flimsy, superficial spirit, as

though no deeper meaning need ever be sought in them than that which

satisfies the logical understanding of a narrow-minded, pedantic professor.

Eichhorn, Jahn, De Wette, Augusti, Kleuker, Doderlein, Velthusen, Gaab,

Justi, Dodke, Magnus, Rebenstein, Lossner, — all such critics have

proceeded on the principle of finding a literary explanation of the form, not

a spiritual exposition of the matter. Their highest aim is critical, and they

have their reward — they shake together a heap of dry bones, and their

own dead hearts hear no living voice of response. But there is a little

advance upon the barren, dreary emptiness of this rationalistic criticism in

what is called the dramatic theory of interpretation, which has received a

considerable accession of interest during the present century by the

development of a new historical hypothesis by which it is attempted to

explain the dramatic unity and progress of the composition. Jacobi, in

1771, led the way, in a work in which he professed to defend the Song of

Solomon from the reproaches brought against it, supposing Solomon to

have fallen in love with a young married woman, who, with the husband, is

brought to Jerusalem. The husband is induced to divorce his wife for

Solomon’s sake, and she is alarmed at the king’s approach, and cries out

for her husband’s help. The whole is a worthless attempt to work out a

baseless hypothesis, which is entirely out of harmony with the pure spirit of

the whole book. Other German critics, such as Hezel, von Ammon,

Staudlin, and Umbreit, have followed Jacobi in endeavouring to unfold the

dramatic unity of the poem, but none have gone further than the great

historian Ewald, who has translated it with an introduction and critical

remarks (1826); see also his work on ‘The Poets of the Old Testament’

(1866). His view, as set forth in the latter work, is that it was actually

prepared for representation. This opinion is supported by the hypothesis

that there is an actual love history at the basis of the poem; a young

shepherd, of the north of Palestine, being the real lover of Shulamith, from

whom Solomon desires to alienate her affection; and that the main idea of

the book is the successful resistance of Shulamith to the allurements of the

royal lover and her faithfulness to her first love, to whom she is restored by

the king in acknowledgment of her virtue and as an act of homage to

faithful affection. This theory has been adopted by many critics in later

times, as by Hitzig, Vaihinger, Renan, Reville, and Ginsburg; but it is not

only exceedingly improbable in itself, but out of harmony with the place of

the work in the canon of Scripture. Even if we could suppose Solomon

capable of writing such a history of his own delinquencies, we could still

less understand how such a “confession” should be incorporated in the

sacred volume. There may be expressions in the mouth of the bride which

seem at first sight to favour such a theory, but the position of Solomon

throughout is quite inconsistent with the idea of illicit solicitation, or

indeed with any other relation to Shulamith than that of chaste and legal

marriage. The only forcible argument in favour of this view, which is

generally called “the shepherdtheory, is the use of language in reference

to the bridegroom which supposes him a shepherd; but this is explained by

the fact which lies on the surface of the poem: that the bride is one brought

up in country life, and who in the purity and simplicity of her heart

addresses even Solomon himself as her shepherd. The conclusion of the

poem bears this out, for Solomon is so captivated by the beauty of her

character that he follows her to her native region and rural home where he

is surrounded by her relations, to whom he vouchsafes his royal favor. It

must not be overlooked, that by this highly artistic method not only is the

contrast between the royal splendor and the pastoral simplicity

heightened, but ample scope is given for the introduction of spiritual

analogies, which must be granted to be the main purpose of the book and

the justification of its place in the canon. The theory is seen in all its

improbability in the form which is given it by Renan, who represents the

shepherd following his beloved one to the foot of the tower of the seraglio

where she is confined, being admitted secretly by her, and then exclaiming,

in the presence of the chorus, in a state of rapturous delight, “I am come

into my garden, my sister, my spouse,” etc. (Song of Solomon 5:1),

carrying her home when she is at last released from the king’s harem,

asleep in his arms, and laying her under an apple tree when she awakes to

call upon her lover to set her as a seal upon his arm, etc. The shepherd

hypothesis is also defective in another respect, and that is, that it fails to

give a clear explanation of the two dreams which Shulamith narrates,

which certainly must both refer to the same object of love, and would seem

to imply that there was some defect of love on her part. The spiritual

interpretation is perfectly simple and plain; the bride representing the soul

of man, and therefore its inferiority to that with which it would be united.

But if we suppose Shulamith shut up in a harem, the representation is most

forced and unnatural, for she certainly could not have either wandered by

night in the city of Jerusalem, nor dreamed of such an adventure. The

whole hypothesis is rendered unnecessary by the arrangement which

disposes the language among three classes of speakers only — the bride,

the chorus of ladies, and the king. Thus the shepherd lover is identified

with the royal bridegroom, and the basis is still left secure on which a

spiritual interpretation of the whole can be based. Notwithstanding the very

ingenious attempts made by Ginsburg and Reville to defend the theory, it

must be given up, with all the erotic explanations, as untenable and

lowering to the character of the poem. We can only justify this decisive

statement of opinion by setting forth, in opposition to what we oppose, a

more excellent way, which we now proceed to do, giving an account, at

the same time, of the various shapes which have been given to the typical

view, which we adopt.

 

 

 

The Typical View.

 

 It should be frankly admitted by those who reject both the allegorical

and the erotic interpretation of the Song of Solomon that no

theory can be sound which does not recognize what forms the principal

distinctive element in each of these views. We cannot overlook the fact that

the book is a religious book, and is placed as such in the canon; therefore

in some sense and to some extent it must be allegorical, that is, there must

be a deeper meaning in it than that which appears on the surface, and that

meaning must be in harmony with the rest of Scripture. So with regard to

the various erotic and naturalistic explanations, it cannot be denied that

there is an historical basis on which the whole rests, so that as poetry there

is an ideal human element running through it which gives it both vitality

and form. It is the attempt to carry it out to an extreme which has vitiated

the theory in each case. The main principle can be preserved without

acceptance of the details. It is true, as Zockler has observed, that it was

the greatly preponderating inclination of the Fathers in the Middle Ages,

which soon obtained exclusive sway, to plunge immediately and at once

into the spiritual sense, which stifled at its birth every attempt to assert at

the same time an historical sense, and branded it with the same anathema as

the profane-erotic interpretation of Theodore of Mopsuestia.” But the

spirit of the Reformation broke the spell of the allegorists. The desire to

know the mind of the Spirit led to a truer searching of the Scriptures. Even

in the Roman Catholic Church there were signs of that freedom, especially

among the mystics, one of whom, the Spanish mystic Louis de Leon, in the

latter part of the sixteenth century, wrote a translation and explanation of

the Canticles, in classical Spanish, in which, recognizing the historical basis

of the book, he lifted the veil from the spiritual beauties which he said were

hidden behind the figures. Others followed in the same track, as Mercerus

(Le Mercier), 1573, in his ‘Commentary,’ and Bossuet in his work on the

‘Books of Solomon’ (Paris, 1693), and Calmet in his ‘Commentary;’ but

the two great English names in connection with a revival of the study of

the book on a more intelligent foundation are John Lightfoot (1684) and

Bishop Lowth (1753). The latter, especially in his ‘Prelections in Hebrew

Poetry,’ somewhat after the style of Herder, led the way in this country to

a profounder attention to the literary form and critical examination of the

Bible. Lowth’s view is substantially that which has been adopted by the

majority of evangelical writers since his time, that the book is not to be

regarded as a “continual metaphor” nor as a “parable properly so called,”

but rather as a “mystical allegory in which a higher sense is superinduced

upon an historical verity.” He is certainly wrong, however, in his view that

the bride referred to is Pharaoh’s daughter. Harmer, the author of the

‘Observations on Passages of Scripture,’ followed Lowth, in 1778, with a

commentary and new explanation of Solomon’s Song; but it is merely of a

literary kind, no attempt being made to explain the spiritual application of

the language, and it is of no great value. Dr. Mason Good, the learned

physician, translated the Song with very interesting notes, regarding it as a

collection of idylls in praise of Solomon’s queen. Charles Taylor has added

valuable notes to Calmet’s ‘Dictionary,’ and Pye Smith advocated the

merely literary value of the book and its unspiritual character. Hoffmann

explained it of Pharaoh’s daughter, and Zockler went back too far towards

the allegorical theory. The two great German commentators, Keil and

Delitzsch, substantially agree in their view, which, while admitting the

allegorical intent of the book, refuses to see hidden meanings in every

detail of the historical basis. One would find, more distinctly than the other,

reference to the Church of Christ, both in Israel and in the new

dispensation, but both agree that the love of Solomon for his bride is

idealized, and so used spiritually. Keil sums up his view thus: “It depicts in

dramatized lyrical expression, by songs, under the allegory of the bridal

love of Solomon and Shulamith, the loving communion between the Lord

and his Church, according to its ideal nature as it results from the choice of

Israel to be the Church of the Lord. According to this, every disturbance of

that fellowship, springing out of Israel’s infidelity, leads to an even firmer

establishment of the covenant of love, by means of Israel’s return to the

true covenant God, and thus God’s unchangeable love. Yet we are not to

trace in the poem the historical course of the covenant relation, as if a veil

of allegory had been thrown over the principal events in the theocratic

history” (‘Introd. to Old Testament,’ vol. 1, p. 504). The Revelation T.L.

Kingsbury, M.A., in the ‘Speaker’s Commentary,’ has accepted the

suggestion which seems the most natural — that the history which is

involved in the Song is genuine, and that it refers to “some shepherd

maiden of Northern Palestine, by whose beauty and nobility of soul the

great king has been captivated; that as the work of one endued by

inspiration with that wisdom which ‘overseeth all things’ (Wisd. 8:23), and

so contemplates them from the highest point of view, it is in its essential

character an ideal representation of human love in the relation of marriage;

that which is universal and common in its operation to all mankind being

here set forth in one grand typical instance.” “No allegorical method of

exposition,” he rightly observes, “which declines attempting to elucidate an

independent literal sense, on the plea that such endeavour would involve

the interpretation in a succession of improprieties and contradictions,”

should be accepted. It is both untrue and dishonoring to a sacred and

canonical book. The fundamental idea he would take to be “the awful

all-constraining, the at once leveling and elevating powers of the mightiest

and most universal of human affections; and the two axes on which the

main action of the poem revolves are the twofold invitation, the king’s

invitation to the bride on bringing her to Jerusalem, the bride’s to the king

in recalling him to Shunem.” While we willingly coincide in the general

truth of these remarks, we incline to the view which Keil has expressed so

moderately, that the main purpose of the book is not to glorify a human

sentiment or relationship, which seems out of place in a Hebrew book, but

rather, using the ideal human feeling and relationship to lead the soul of

man into the thought of its fellowship with God, the condescending

privilege which is included in that fellowship, the exaltation of man which it

brings with it, and the mutual character of religion, both in the individual

and in the Church, as based upon the mystical union of God and his

creature and their interchange of communications. We must not be

deterred from a moderate and chastened employment of type in the

interpretation of Scripture by the abuse which has been only too frequently

made of it. No doubt, if we look above the historical, or natural, or literary

aspects of the book, it is easy to find in it the meanings which we may be

tempted to put there; but the same thing may be said of the Lord’s parables

and of all Scripture. The historical, literary, and spiritual aspects blend in

one, and that interpretation which is given to the language is most likely to

be after the mind of the Spirit, which follows his own method and

harmonizes with that which he inspired the man of God to set before us,

and his Church to hand down to us with the seal of its approbation upon it.

The commentary must always justify, or otherwise, its own main principle;

and if as a whole it satisfies the language, it cannot be very far astray.

It has been objected by some that we ought not to employ Solomon as in

any sense a type of God or of Christ, because he was a sensual man; but

such a principle would simply exclude all types, for they must be inferior in

worth to that which they typify. The patriarchs were far from perfect men

in their moral features, but they were plainly employed in Scripture

typically as well as historically. David himself, the leading typical character

and norm of the Old Testament, was guilty of great sins. Moreover, while

Solomon appears in the poem itself as a sensual Eastern monarch, there is

no reference to the sensuality of his life. Nor need we doubt that, sensualist

as he became, and degraded as he was in the latter part of his life, he would

in the earlier portion of his manhood be capable of the sincere attachment

portrayed in the songs. At the same time, it may be allowed that the facts

are idealized. Fundamentally they are historical. For a religious purpose

they are lifted up into the region of poetry. To a considerable extent the

same may be said of the Book of Job, which builds a splendid poem on a

basis of facts.

 

There remains, then, only, in conclusion, to justify this typical

interpretation by showing that it is in analogy with other parts of Scripture.

It will not be denied by any one, however much opposed to allegory or

type, that the metaphor of marriage is common through the Old Testament

in connection with the exhortation to covenant faithfulness. This is so

familiar in the prophetical writings that it is quite unnecessary to adduce

instances. The fifth, fiftieth, and sixty-second chapters of Isaiah and the

first few chapters of Hosea, with the opening words of Malachi, will suffice

to remind the reader that it was an illustration which all the sacred writers

made use of. It should again be remembered that we have in the forty-fifth

psalm an instance of what the title describes as a “Song of Loves,” or

Epithalamium, which no one doubts was composed on the occasion of

Solomon’s marriage, or on some similar occasion in Israel. It is only a very

extreme rejection of typical interpretation which would refuse to such a

psalm any higher application than that which appears upon the surface,

especially with such language in it as v. 6, “Thy throne, O God, is forever

and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre.” Admitting that

such terms might be at first employed only as royal adulation and homage,

it can scarcely be doubted that their place in the Word of God is due to the

fact that the Israelitish king was regarded as the type of him who was

called by the believing “Israelite indeed, in whom was no guile,” “the Son

of God, the King of Israel (John 1:49). The reference to Messiah was

certainly believed by the Jews themselves, as we see from the introduction

of it into the Chaldee paraphrase and others of the Jewish writings, and as

such it is cited in Hebrews (Hebrews 1:8-9). No satisfactory

explanation of the psalm can be made out on any other view. If we deny a

Messianic reference in such a case, while the New Testament confirms it,

our position must be that of dealing with the whole of the Old Testament

only as a fragmentary Jewish literature, without proper unity and without

inspired authority. In that case we are thrown back upon far greater

difficulties than any which the older view meets, for we cannot explain the

history and character of the Jewish people as a whole, and we must be

prepared to answer the full force of the Apostle Paul’s emphatic statement,

that “to them were committed the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). Such

bold rationalism is now completely out of date, and we must be at the pains

to study the language of the Old Testament with a reverent

acknowledgment of the purpose of God in unfolding the secrets of his mind

and will. Hengstenberg bases his argument for the allegorical interpretation

of Solomon’s Song on the fact that Solomon himself is the author, and that

we cannot otherwise account for the title and place given to the work. Had

it been a mere collection of love songs, it would be a dishonor to the

Word of God to call it by such a name and place it side by side with the

sublime inspired songs of Moses, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, and David.

There is certainly considerable force in that view. And the close

correspondence between the “Song of Loves,” the forty-fifth psalm, and

the “Song of Songs” seems to confirm the typical character of both. We

find, for instance, such language as this, apparently adopted as a religious

phraseology, “fairest among the children of men” (Psalm 45:3),

chiefest among ten thousand” (Song of Solomon 5:10). “The king,” as

the highest object of praise; “lilies,” as the emblems of virgin purity and

loveliness; loveliness of the lip, as representing excellence of discourse;

heroic might, majesty, and glory in the king; the idea which pervades both,

of conjugal fidelity, with other minor resemblances, lend considerable

weight to the suggestion that the forty-fifth psalm was a kind of adaptation

of the Canticles for performance by the sons of Korah in the temple,

Hengstenberg mentions many instances in the prophetical Scriptures in

which he traces allusion to the language or metaphors of the Song of

Solomon, but they are not sufficiently clear to be relied upon as evidence.

And the same may be said of the instances which he adduces from the New

Testament, which he thinks is “pervaded with references all of them based

on the Supposition that the book is to be interpreted spiritually.” Our Lord

refers to “Solomon in all his glory;” can we safely affirm that he alludes to

the description in Canticles? Hengstenberg points to the metaphor in

Song of Solomon 2:1, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley,” but

unfortunately he has put those words into the lips of Solomon instead of

the bride, which defeats his reference. Most of the other instances are

equally unsatisfactory. At the same time, it must be admitted that the use of

metaphors formed from the marriage relation and from the language of

human affection, in application to the highest intercourse of the soul with

the objects of faith, is common both in our Lord’s discourses and in the

writings of the apostles. It is especially prominent in the Apocalypse. The

Church is the bride, the Lamb’s wife. Would such metaphors be employed

by the Apostle John unless he had found them already in the Old

Testament? Would the Apostle Paul have spoken as he does of the mystical

meaning of marriage as setting forth the union between Christ and his

Church, unless the Scriptures had familiarized the people of God with the

symbol?

 

We entirely sympathize with that revulsion of feeling with which healthy

minds turn away from the extravagant fancifulness and arbitrariness of the

allegorical school of commentators. But we refuse to follow those who, in

their avoidance of one extreme, fly to the other. The book cannot be a

mere literary product. We must find for it some true place in the sacred

volume. “Shall we then,” asks Mr. Kingsbury, in the ‘Speaker’s

Commentary,’ “regard it as a mere fancy, which for so many ages past has

been wont to find in the pictures and melodies of the Song of Songs types

and echoes of the actings and emotions of the highest love, of love Divine,

in its relations to humanity; which, if dimly discerned through their aid by

the synagogue, have been amply revealed in the gospel to the Church?

Shall we not still claim to trace, in the noble and gentle history thus

presented, foreshadowings of the infinite condescensions of incarnate love?

that love which, first stooping in human form to visit us in our low

estate in order to seek out and win its object (Psalm 136:23), and then

raising along with itself a sanctified humanity to the heavenly places

(Ephesians 2:6), is finally awaiting there an invitation from the mystic

bride to return to earth once more and seal the union for eternity

(Revelation 22:17)? With such a conception of the character and

purpose of the poem, we may at any rate sympathize with the glowing

language of St. Bernard concerning it. This Song excels all other songs of

the Old Testament. They being, for the most part, songs of deliverance

from captivity, Solomon for such had no occasion. In the height of glory,

singular in wisdom, abounding in riches, secure in peace, he here by Divine

inspiration sings the praises of Christ and his Church, the grace of holy

love, the mysteries of the eternal marriage, yet all the while like Moses

putting a veil before his face, because at that time there were few or none

that could gaze upon such glories” (vol. 4. p. 674). It is unworthy of any

devout interpreter of such a book to despise and disparage the spiritual

element in it. What so many of God’s people have recognized must be

substantially the mind of the Spirit. No doubt, as Delitzsch has observed,

no other book of Scripture has been so much abused by an unscientific

spiritualizing and an over-scientific unspiritual treatment.” But the errors of

commentators are generally gropings towards the light. The truth is more

likely to be found in the mean between the two extremes. The allegorist

gives the reins to his fancy and ends in absurdities; the literalist shuts

himself up in his naturalism and forfeits the blessing of the Spirit. We trust

that the following Exposition will show that there is a better way