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- Song of Solomon
by Thomas Coke
THE SONG OF SOLOMON.
SOLOMON, in this Song of Songs, celebrates the chaste marriage of Jesus Christ with his church, and also with every faithful soul in particular. This is the sublime idea, to which the mind and the heart must be elevated in reading this book. Whoever inspects it with profane eyes, and a heart enslaved by carnal love, will find in it a literal sense which kills, instead of a spiritual which regenerates. It was on this account, that the Jews ordained that it should not be read by any one under thirty years of age. Not that they did not hold this book to be inspired and dictated by the Holy Ghost: for they acknowledge that it is not only Holy, but, as they term it, The Holy of Holies. They did not prohibit it to the weak and the profane, but because it was above the comprehension of the former, and too sacred for the latter. And in the early ages of christianity, the leading men of the church, as far as possible, interdicted the reading of it to carnal souls, and to such as were incapable of comprehending the spiritual and mystical ideas with which it is replete.
With respect to the canonical authenticiy of the Song of Songs, it is equally acknowledged both by the Jews, and by the Christian church. We know of no person among the primitive christians, except Theodore Mopsuestes, who has had the boldness to contest it. To all objections then, we oppose the authority of all the Christian churches, the authority of the Jews, that of all ages, of all the fathers, and of all the commentators, who have unanimously received this work as canonical and inspired. If the name of God be not to be found in it, it is because, this composition being one continued allegory, in which, under the title of a Bridegroom, is to be understood God, or Jesus Christ, it was the intention of the author, and in some measure the very essence of his work, that the thing signified should remain concealed under the allegorical vail. It is the duty of those who explain it, to draw aside this vail, and to expose to view the real personage. The scriptures are full of such metaphorical figures. How often, for instance, are the synagogue and the church represented under the similitudes of a vineyard and of a bride. Has it ever been required that God should be expressly named, who is the husband of this wife, and the master of this vineyard? The Song of Songs is one continued allegory of the marriage of Jesus Christ with the church. The Hebrews were accustomed to these figures, and, in Holy writ, they are to be found having all the appearance of real history. The fathers of the christian church, in all ages, considered the Canticles as the Epithalamium of the mystical marriage of Jesus Christ with his church. Those who complain that they find nothing but allegories in this book, complain without reason; for what they call an allegorical and mystical sense, is the proper sense of this book. If it be interpreted in a carnal sense, it is totally misunderstood. We do not mean to canonise all the conceits and imaginations of commentators and mystics: if low, trivial, puerile, and impertinent conceptions are to be found in their works, these are not in the least to be imputed to the work itself, which is sacred and divine. Moreover, the idea of the Canticles, as representing the marriage of Jesus Christ with his church, is noble and sublime, and founded on the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, and on the consent and unanimous, usage of the synagogue and of the church in all ages. This general view of the union of Jesus Christ with his church does not, however, exclude another of a more private nature; the union of every true believer with this divine husband. I divide the Canticles into seven days, according to the plan of the celebrated Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux.
I. Day. The Bride, who represents the church, testifies a great desire to be united to Jesus Christ, in order to be instructed by him. It is in him that she places all her delight; she perceives herself overpowered by the favours that he has conferred upon her; she acknowledges herself unworthy of them; makes an humble confession of her imperfections; and asks him where she may find him, that she may place her whole confidence in him alone (chap. Song of Solomon 1:1-7.).
The Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, instructs the church by telling her that she must thoroughly know herself, in order to be well acquainted with her Husband: and this is an instruction which belongs also to every soul that wishes to be united to its God. She must hearken to her Bridegroom, who tells her, that by attaching herself to him, she will acquire all the beauty which is necessary to please him. Then the perfume of her spikenard, which denotes her prayers and praises, shall be as an agreeable odour which will give pleasure to the Bridegroom, to whom the bride has just united and attached herself. He recognizes the beauty that he has himself given to the church; and the bride is full of admiration, in contemplating the excellent qualities which render her husband infinitely amiable (ver.
7, and following). Again, the Bridegroom, or Jesus Christ, makes known the purity of his bride, by comparing it with the most delicate flower of the fields—to the most agreeable lily of the vallies; and afterwards he explains the nature of his bride's chastity, by comparing it to the blossom of a lily flourishing among thorns, that is to say, amidst the disorders and vices of a corrupt age (chap. Song of Solomon 2:1-2.).
The bride converses with the daughters of Jerusalem, that is to say, with true believers: she praises the beauties of her Bridegroom; she imparts to them the favours that she has received from him; she informs them of the transports of divine and sacred love; she perceives how much she stands in need of the assistance of Jesus Christ, that he may support her under pains and persecutions with his left hand, and that from his right hand she may receive favours and consolations.
She then appears among the daughters of Jerusalem, to forbid them to disturb the repose of her Bridegroom. The pious soul dreads nothing so much as to offend her Lord, or grieve his Holy Spirit.
II. Day. The Bride hears and knows the voice of her Bridegroom: so the chaste and faithful soul feels the attractions of the grace of Christ, and rejoices that she has been able to thaw the ice of hardened hearts. The Bridegroom wishes to hear the voice of the church, who renders him thanks for so many wonderful instances of his love: and that the enemies of the graces and of the advantages enjoyed by the church may not come and snatch these blessings from her, the Husband, Jesus Christ, orders his ministers and the pastors of his church to seize the foxes which destroy the vines. The bride then declares that she is intirely devoted to her Husband, who has given himself to her by his Incarnation and by his Spirit of Union.*
* As the beautiful allegory contained in this divine song affords so large a scope for the exercise of the imagination, I have not scrupled to give in my preface, criticisms, and reflections, the sentiments of the most eminent commentators, attending through the whole with the utmost care to the analogy of faith.
The Bride, afterwards conversing with the daughters of Jerusalem, makes known to them the very great uneasiness that she suffers when she has any cause to fear that she has lost her divine Bridegroom. She gets up, and takes every necessary step to find him; she applies to the officers to whom the duty of guarding the city is instructed, that is to say, to the pastors of the church; but she must exalt herself above them: she does not find her well-beloved till she has gone beyond them; and after she has found him she exerts her utmost efforts not to lose him any more. It is in him alone that she finds repose; and the Bridegroom will not suffer any one to disturb her in this state of tranquillity (chap. Song of Solomon 3:1-5.).
III. Day. The daughters of Jerusalem being assembled, and admiring the glorious state to which the church, the bride of Jesus Christ, was exalted, they exclaim, Who is this that springs up from the wilderness of nations formerly deserted? She resembles the smoke that ascends on high, and the vapour which exhales from the various sorts of incense, by the exercise of all the graces, which are signified by the different kinds of perfumes. These pure souls, the companions of the church, afterwards shew her the bed on which the Bridegroom reposes; he is surrounded by three-score valiant men, who represent the saints that fight for Jesus Christ, and more particularly the ministers of the Gospel: they have swords in their right hands, and carry others in their belts, to shew that they are indefatigable in the combat, and in the use of the word of God: and the truly pacific King, encompassed by these valiant warriors, is carried in a litter, or carriage, the pillars of which are of silver, emblems of the eloquence of the true evangelical preachers: the back is of gold, which signifies the universal love with which the pastors of the church ought to be animated: the seat is purple dyed with the blood of the martyrs, and all the inside is decorated with every thing that is most precious, and best suited to adorn the souls which are devoted to God; and the whole is done in behalf of the daughters of Jerusalem, who say to each other—Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and behold King Solomon wearing the crown with which his mother crowned him; come, and behold Jesus Christ, that God made man, who is crowned with the human nature, which he took upon him on the day of his marvellous nuptials and ineffable alliance with us (ver. 6 and following).
The Bridegroom, now conversing with the bride, cannot help admiring her beauty, which consists in her being adorned with all the graces and virtues, more particularly with humility and modesty, with the mildness of lambs, and the purity exemplified by the whiteness of a flock of sheep that have just been washed: this beauty of the church is likewise described by such lively comparisons as are best adapted to convey a just idea of the divine love which animates this spiritual bride, and which ought to dwell constantly in the hearts and upon the lips of the preachers of the Gospel. This chaste spouse, for instance, is compared to the tower of David, from which are suspended a thousand bucklers, that is to say, witnesses of the truth of the Scriptures—the holy ministers of the Gospel, who repel the shafts of the enemies of the church, by drawing their artillery from the inspired writings, those fertile sources from whence are derived all things necessary for life and salvation. From them, when accompanied by the Spirit of grace, springs up that quickening light which serves to conduct us to the dawn of that great day, when the shadows which surround us in this world shall be for ever withdrawn.
IV. Day. The divine Husband must go up to the mountain of myrrh, where he must drink the sacred cup of his passion, and offer up the incense of his holy intercession for the reconciliation of mankind. It is on this hill that he will invite the bride to come in search of him: on her arrival upon mount Libanus, or the mountain of incense, which denotes his intercession, she will be crowned, after having passed over the mountains of Amana, of Shenir, and of Hermon;—that is to say, after having conquered all the difficulties which are to be encountered in preaching the Gospel in those different nations, where the people, before this, resembled lions and leopards by the ferocity of their manners. Their conversion will considerably improve the beauty of the bride, and will be a token of her fecundity; and the agreeable odour of her garments shall be diffused through all the parts of the earth. Like an inclosed garden she will be full of all sorts of fruits, of all heavenly tempers, and of all good works; and the rivers of grace will pour forth in it those waters of health, which will continue to flow on in every faithful soul to life eternal. The zephyrs, breathing the soft winds of the Holy Spirit, shall constantly fan this mystic garden, to render it still more fertile and odoriferous (chap. Son 4:1 and following.).
The well-beloved Bridegroom, allured by the beauty of his garden, comes to it to gather myrrh, the symbol of mortification, and to enjoy the odoriferous perfume of grace and good works; and he invites his friends the pastors of the church to partake, in unity and submission, of the pleasures which his garden affords (chap. 5: Song of Solomon 5:1.).
V. Day. The bride, during the absence of her well-beloved, seems to take a little repose; but the earnest desire that she has to find her Bridegroom, who does not let her perceive his arrival, keeps her heart in constant attention; she is always on the watch. Her well-beloved Jesus Christ knocks, and asks her to open to him the door of her heart. The bride now is sensible of his approach; and, at length, after some delay, she opens her heart to the attractions of grace, that she may receive her well-beloved: but he conceals himself, and she cannot find him, and it seems as if he would not answer her.
The church, in seeking Jesus Christ, and through attachment to him, suffers persecutions, and so, like-wise, does every true believer, who loves this divine Husband. If the faithful be asked, who is this husband to whom they are so inviolably attached, they answer that he is altogether lovely—admirable for his beauty, his infinite perfections, his purity, his zeal, and his love; they extol in lofty strains his infinite knowledge, his wisdom, his power, his greatness, his strength, and his mildness; and the daughters of Jerusalem, charmed with so amiable a portrait, offer to accompany the bride, to find Jesus Christ (v. 7 and following).
The bride, after searching for her Husband, at last discovers, that he is gone down into the delightful garden; she gives herself up entirely to him, and will not possess any thing besides him. The Husband also entirely devotes himself to his wife. Jesus Christ admires the different beauties which he himself has planted in the church; he looks upon her as the most beloved; and she, on her part, employs herself in the exercise of all the graces and all the virtues, that she may have the happiness still more and more to please her divine Husband. The enemy of mankind sometimes disturbs her in this holy exercise; but the faithful ministers of the gospel encourage and comfort her (chap. 6: Song of Solomon 5:1 and following).
VI. Day. The bridegroom Jesus Christ, addressing his friends the pastors of his church, apprizes them, that imperfections will be found in it, and that, by comparing the church to a camp in which there are all sorts of soldiers, they will discover in the church imperfect believers, some of whom will perhaps be an occasion of scandal; but this will not prevent the church herself from being acknowledged to be the daughter of the prince, nor her beauty from continuing to be the object of her husband's delight and admiration. It will be at the gates of the palace of this chaste bride that a great concourse of people will assemble, and use their utmost endeavours to enter into it; all nations shall come thither in crowds. The Husband makes use of different comparisons to extol the beauty of the church, and thus address her—"O how fair and full of graces art thou, who art my dearly beloved, the delight of my heart." He, at the same time, foretels the victories that she will gain over all her enemies, by saying that her stature is like unto a palm-tree (chap. Son 7:1-9).
The bride, well knowing the love that her well-beloved has for her, gives herself up wholly to him; and, desirous to follow him wherever he goes, she invites him to go and dwell in the villages, that so the knowledge of the name of Jesus Christ may be spread abroad in every place. The church represents to him the sweetness of the fruits of the country, and the charms of frequent solitude; she herself abounds in all sorts of fruits (ver. 10 and following).
The bride continues to shew a great ardency to be united to her well-beloved: the church desires nothing more earnestly than to unite herself to Jesus Christ; she offers him wine mixed with perfumes, that is to say, the blood of the martyrs with the good odour of evangelical preaching spread abroad by the faithful ministers of the gospel, Jesus Christ watches incessantly for the tranquillity and peace of the church; the daughters of Jerusalem admire the privileges and comforts that she enjoys, leaning on her well-beloved, who has recovered her from the state of corruption into which she had fallen. He requires from her in return for so great a benefit, an ardent love for him, a love strong as death, and which nothing could overcame, nothing could extinguish—a love of preference by choice (chap. Son 8:1 and following).
VII. Day. The church acknowledges that her fruitfulness proceeds from Jesus Christ, who is the true Solomon, the King of Peace, who has planted a vineyard in which he finds a great multitude of obedient subjects: he has given it to his pastors to take care of, and it is their duty to improve the talent confided to them. There are many of his servants who love, and who seek the fruit of this vineyard: but there are only two hundred (a determinate number for an indeterminate) chosen to keep and preserve its fruits in the quality of pastors. They are all attentive to hear the voice of their Bridegroom, and faithful in the execution of his commands.
The spouse then invites him to return to his Father. Fly, my well-beloved, go to the mountains of spices and perfumes, enter into possession of the glory, which is due to thee as the Son of God, and which thou hast still further merited by thy sufferings on earth as the Saviour of Mankind.
the Fourth Week after Epiphany