The 4 Most Popular Ways to Read the Song of Songs

July 14, 2016

by Iain Duguid

Part of the difficulty of the Song of Songs comes from the fact that it is a song, and therefore poetry. Poetry is the art of condensation: expressing maximum meaning in the minimum number of words. As a result, poetry is often more evocative than explicative. It doesn’t take the time to unpack its figures of speech or to explain its analogies. It relies on the reader to fill in the blanks. Poetry tends to be open-ended, leaving us pondering and wondering rather than tying up every loose end with a watertight argument.

Yet at the same time, poetry has a remarkable ability to address the whole person and to move our souls with a power that prose can rarely match.

The second challenge is to decide what precisely the Song is about. On one level, that is an easy question to answer: it is about love. But whose love? Some scholars have argued that it is an originally secular love song about two people that acquired a religious cast simply by being included in the Bible. On the opposite end of the spectrum, others have insisted that it was composed as an allegory of God’s love for his people that really has nothing to do with human love at all.

The Allegorical Interpretation

Historically speaking, an allegorical approach that sees the Song of Songs as being about the love of God for his people has certainly been the most popular among preachers. It is not hard to see why. Without having to descend to the embarrassing matter of talking about sex from the pulpit, hearers can be encouraged and directed in their spiritual lives with all kinds of edifying observations about prayer and Bible reading. Don’t worry: it is all about Jesus! So according to Cyril of Alexandria, writing in the fifth century a.d., when the woman describes her lover lying between her two breasts like a sachet of myrrh, what she is really talking about is Jesus coming between the two Testaments, Old and New. This allegorical approach enabled Bernard of Clairvaux to preach eighty-six sermons on the opening chapters of the Song of Songs to a congregation of monks!

Graeme Goldsworthy illustrates the problem of this approach, however, by the example of the Australian Sunday school teacher who was concerned that her lessons were becoming too predictable. So one week she started out by asking her children, “What’s gray, furry and lives in eucalyptus trees?” No response. So she asked again. Still no response. In desperation, she asked the pastor’s daughter, “Suzie, don’t you know what the answer is?” She replied slowly, “Miss, I know the answer must be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a koala to me.” Sometimes a koala really is just a koala, not a picture of Jesus.

The kind of free association that Cyril of Alexandria engaged in is, of course, the problem with allegorical interpretation. Given enough imagination, you can get radically different messages out of the same passage: the Song can relate to Yahweh and Israel, God and the church, or wisdom and the individual soul. Equally, you can get the same message out of radically different passages: in that case, why do we need the Bible at all, when by using the same technique you could preach edifying messages from Winnie the Pooh? . . .

. . . continue reading at P&R Publishing.

Iain Duguid

Dr. Duguid (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

Next Post...

How Does Our Christological Hermeneutic Inform Our Apologetics?

July 13, 2016

by Scott Oliphint