Book Overview - Song of Solomon
by Arno Clemens Gaebelein
THE SONG OF SONGS
The Song of Solomon, as this book is called in the King James Version, is the third book of which Solomon is the author, preceded by Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. In the Hebrew Bible it occupies a different place. It is found there in the section called “Kethubim,” the Hagiographic division. It belongs to the so-called “Megilloth” or rolls and is placed first among them--Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. In the synagogual service it has been appointed to be read on the eighth day of Passover, the feast of redemption. This is suggestive, for, as we shall see, this Song is a love-song, expressing the love of Messiah for His people.
A better title for this book is “the Song of Songs.” It corresponds to the Hebrew beginning of the book in Hebrew--Shir Ha-shirim. It is called “Song of Songs” in the Septuagint (Asma Asmaton) and also in the Vulgate (Canticum Canticorum). This title expresses most fully the spiritual meaning of this little book.
Needless to say that this beautiful Song has suffered much from the hands of the men who claim to be critics of the Word of God. We do not care to repeat the charges which have been made against this Song as being sensuous, if not immoral, in its suggestions. Such is the verdict of the natural man, who, by such criticism, reveals the state of his own heart.
The Solomonic authorship has likewise been attacked, and it is claimed that the book was written long after Solomon’s day. Wellhausen, the German critic, declares that “the most original of the Hagiographic writings is the song of Solomon; the names and things which occur in it assign it clearly to the second half of the Persian period. We see from it that the law had not yet forbidden love-poetry to the Jews, and had not made the enjoyment of life impossible.” Nearly all the other critics have placed the date after the exile. The objections against the composition of the book in Solomon’s period are mostly on account of a few words, which critics think were unknown to the people during Solomon’s reign. What we have stated on these philological objections in the introduction to Ecclesiastes holds good in the case of this book also. While Wellhausen and others have denied the Solomonic authorship and date, other scholars have declared that the song itself has all the marks of Solomon. Among these marks Professor Delitzsch mentions “the familiarity with nature, the fulness and extent of the book’s geography and artistic references, the mention of so many exotic plants and foreign things, particularly of such objects of luxury as the Egyptian horses.”
Neither the Jews nor the early church doubted the authenticity of Solomon’s Song. It formed part of the Hebrew Canonical Scriptures from very ancient times, and there is no valid reason why it should be rejected or the Solomonic authorship be denied.
Another question which has been raised is as to the unity of the contents. Inasmuch as different voices are heard speaking in this little book, and it being composed of dialogues as well as monologues, some critics claim that the book is not a unity, but rather a collection of love poems, similar to those written by Burns and Heine. One critic (Budde) endeavors to prove that the book is a collection of folk-songs sung at weddings, which some unknown hand collected. But the unity of the book in tone and its language disposes of this theory, nor is there any ground to call it, as some have done, a Hebrew drama.
The Story of the Song
It is the story of the love of King Solomon for Shulamith, the bride, who by turns is a vinedresser, shepherdess, midnight inquirer, etc., while the king is described in all his beauty, as the beloved one. In this way the Jewish interpreters as well as the vast majority of Christian commentators have understood the story of the Song.
But there is also a different explanation of the story, the so-called “literalist.” It was first proposed by an expositor by name of Jacobi in 1771, and was later adopted by Herder, Umbreit, the critic Ewald, and the French infidel Renan and others. In England it found an able defender in Dr. Ginsburg. Briefly stated this literalist explanation is as follows:
There lived somewhere at Shulem a widowed mother, several sons and a beautiful daughter. They were farmers. One day while the damsel tended the flocks, while resting under an apple tree, she met a beautiful young shepherd to whom she was later espoused. One morning this youth invited her to accompany him into the field, but as her brothers were anxious for her reputation they sent her away to take care of the vineyards. She then requested him to meet her in the evening, and, as he did not keep his appointment, and fearing that he might have had an accident, she searched for him and found him. One day she met accidentally King Solomon, who happened to be on a summer visit to that neighborhood. Enraptured by the beauty of the damsel, the king took her to his royal tent, and there, assisted by court ladies, endeavored with alluring flatteries and promises, to gain her affections, but without effect. Released from the presence of the king, the girl sought her beloved shepherd. But the king took her with him to Jerusalem in great pomp, in the hope of dazzling her with his splendor; but neither did this prevail; for even while there she told her beloved shepherd, who had followed her to the city that she was anxious to be with him.
The shepherd, on hearing this, praised her constancy, and such a mutual demonstration of their love took place, that several of the court ladies were greatly affected by it. The king was still determined to win her affections and watched for a favorable opportunity, and with flatteries and allurements, surpassing all former ones, tried to obtain his purpose. He promised to give her the highest rank, if she would comply with his wishes, but she refused, declaring that her affections were pledged to another. The king then was obliged to dismiss her, and the shepherdess with her beloved returned to her native place.
There are at least three reasons why this view must be rejected. In the first place, it makes havoc with the order of the book. The text must be cut up, and a veritable “grasshopper-method,” jumping from one place and chapter to another, must be employed in order to put such a story together. In the second place, it is contrary to all the Jewish and Christian interpretation of the past; they all must be branded as erroneous if this literalist explanation is the true one. And finally it makes King Solomon, who as King of Peace, and in the glory of his kingdom, is a type of Christ, the Messiah, a vile tempter, who tries his utmost to seduce the shepherdess.
We therefore believe that it is the story of Solomon’s love for his bride, the Shulamith, as believed by the vast majority of Jewish and Christian expositors.
The Allegorical Meaning
That this song has a deep, mystical and spiritual meaning has always been recognized. The Jews have looked upon it in this light and some orthodox Jews forbade it to be read till a person had reached the thirtieth year. It has been called by them “the Holy of Holies.” Jewish interpretation has rightly explained this love-song as typifying the love of Jehovah for his people Israel and His union with His people. We believe this is the correct interpretation, only it is not Israel, the whole nation, but rather the godly remnant. The Song of Songs shows forth the affections which the King-Messiah creates in the heart of this remnant at the time of the re-establishment of their relationship with Himself, when once more they enter into that blessed relationship, which has been severed for such a long time. Here, then, is a blessed revelation in a mystical form of Christ’s devoted love for the remnant of His people and Jerusalem, and the heart response which comes from that remnant.
The Larger Application
This interpretation does not exclude another and larger application to Christ and the Church. Such an application is fully warranted by the teaching of the New Testament. While the Messiah loves the remnant of His people Israel, whose love and heart devotion He will animate in the future, when they are taken back into His favor, He also loved the Church and gave Himself for it. Both Israel’s union with the Messiah, the Lord God, and the greater union of the Church and Christ, are typified in both Testaments by the marriage relation. The following passages will demonstrate this fully: Isaiah 54:5; Isaiah 52:5; Jeremiah 3:11; Ezekiel 16:23 and many others; in the New Testament:Matthew 9:15; Matthew 22:22; Matthew 25:11; John 3:29 ;2 Corinthians 11:22; Ephesians 5:23; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 19:7; Revelation 22:17.
The teaching of some that only Israel is the bride of Christ must be rejected. It is true that the Church, as the body and bride of Christ, is unrevealed in the Old Testament, but it is anticipated, and we have a perfect right therefore to apply the precious statements in this song of love to ourselves.
This has been done in the past. The history of the application to the Church is of much interest. We touch upon it briefly.
Hippolytus (225 A.D.) was the first commentator of Solomon’s Song and he states that the primary application is to Israel and next to the Church. Origen developed this application to the Church and her union with Christ more fully. After him the identification of the bridegroom and the bride with Christ and the Church became the predominant one. Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa and Jerome followed more or less the interpretation and application made by Origen. Jerome’s view was that the bride and the bridegroom were Christ and the Church, or Christ and the soul. Augustine agreed with him also, but restricted the meaning to the union of Christ and the Church.
Theodore of Mopsuestia, a great expositor of the Word of God, gave the Song a more literal explanation. Chrysostom, Theodoret and nearly all the great exegetes of the early Church teach that the Song typifies the love of Christ for His Church.
In the Middle Ages the mystical school made great use of this portion of the Word of God. Thus Bernard of Clairvaux preached not less than eighty sermons on the first two chapters. To mention all the expositors of the Middle Ages and more recent ones would fill pages.
The critical school has broken away completely from the spiritual application to Christ and the Church. “The admixture of this carnal imagery,” says Dr. Harper in the Cambridge Bible, “With the more spiritual passion of the bride and her lover has grown repulsive to us as it could not be formerly.”
The Division of the Song
Different divisions of this song have been made; none appears to be satisfactory. We believe the best way to study the Song of Songs is to take it up verse by verse without attempting a detailed division and analysis.
the Second Week after Epiphany