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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Song of Solomon 5

 

 

Verse 1

-17

TRUE LOVE TESTED
Song of Solomon 1:1-17; Song of Solomon 2:1-17; Song of Solomon 3:1-11; Song of Solomon 4:1-16; Song of Solomon 5:1

THE poem opens with a scene in Solomon’s palace. A country maiden has just been introduced to the royal harem. The situation is painful enough in itself, for the poor, shy girl is experiencing the miserable loneliness of finding herself in an unsympathetic crowd. But that is not all. She is at once the object of general observation; every eye is turned towards her; and curiosity is only succeeded by ill-concealed disgust. Still the slavish women, presumably acting on command, set themselves to excite the new-comer’s admiration for their lord and master. First one speaks some bold amorous words, [Song of Solomon 1:2] and then the whole chorus follows. [Song of Solomon 1:3] All this is distressing and alarming to the captive, who calls on her absent lover to fetch her away from such an uncongenial scene; she longs to run after him; for it is the king who has brought her into his chambers, not her own will; [Song of Solomon 1:4] The women of the harem take no notice of this interruption, but finish their ode on the charms of Solomon. All the while they are staring at the rustic maiden, and she now becomes conscious of a growing contempt in their looks. What is she that the attractions of the king before which the dainty ladies of the court prostrate themselves should have no fascination for her? She notices the contrast between the swarthy hue of her sunburnt countenance and the pale complexion of these pampered products of palace seclusion. She is so dark in comparison with them that she likens herself to the black goatshair tents of the Arabs. [Song of Solomon 1:5] The explanation is that her brothers have made her work in their vineyards. Meanwhile she has not kept her own vineyard. (Song of Solomon 1:6) She has not guarded her beauty as these idle women, who have nothing else to do, have guarded theirs: but perhaps she has a sadder thought-she could not protect herself when out alone at her task in the country or she would never have been captured and carried off to prison where she now sits disconsolate. Possibly the vineyard she has not kept is the lover whom she has lost. (See Song of Solomon 8:12). Still she is a woman, and with a touch of piqued pride she reminds her critics that if she is dark-black compared with them-she is comely. They cannot deny that. It is the cause of all her misery; she owes her imprisonment to her beauty. She knows that their secret feeling is one of envy of her, the latest favourite. Then their affected contempt is groundless. But, indeed, she has no desire to stand as their rival. She would gladly make her escape. She speaks in a half soliloquy. Will not somebody tell her where he is whom her soul loveth? Where is her lost shepherd lad? Where is he feeding his flock? Where is he resting it at noon? Such questions only provoke mockery. Addressing the simple girl as the "fairest among women," the court ladies bid her find her lover for herself. Let her go back to her country life and feed her kids by the shepherd’s tents. Doubtless if she is bold enough to court her swain in that way she will not miss seeing him.

Hitherto Solomon has not appeared. Now he comes on the scene, and proceeds to accost his new acquisition in highly complimentary language, with the ease of an expert in the art of courtship. At this point we encounter the most serious difficulty for the theory of a shepherd lover. To all appearances a dialogue between the king and the Shulammite here ensues. [Song of Solomon 1:9-17; Song of Solomon 2:1-6] But if this were the case, the country girl would be addressing Solomon in terms of the utmost endearment-conduct utterly incompatible with the "shepherd hypothesis." The only alternative is to suppose that the hard-pressed girl takes refuge from the importunity of her royal flatterer by turning aside to an imaginary, half dream-like conversation with her absent lover. This is not by any means a probable position, it must be allowed; it seems to put a strained interpretation on the text. Undoubtedly if the passage before us stood by itself, there would not be any difference of opinion about it; everybody would take it in its obvious meaning as a conversation between two lovers. But it does not stand by itself-unless, indeed, we are to give up the unity of the book. Therefore it must be interpreted so as not to contradict the whole course of the poem, which shews that another than Solomon is the true lover of the disconsolate maiden.

The king begins with the familiar device by which rich men all the world over try to win the confidence of poor girls when there is no love on either side, -a device which has been only too successful in the case of many a weak Marguerite though her tempter has not always been a handsome Faust; but in the present case innocence is fortified by true love, and the trick is a failure. The king notices that this peasant girl has but simple plaited hair and homely ornaments. She shall have plaits of gold and studs of silver! Splendid as one of Pharaoh’s chariot horses, she shall be decorated as magnificently as they are decorated! What is this to our staunch heroine? She treats it with absolute indifference, and begins to soliloquise, with a touch of scorn in her language. She has been loaded with scent after the manner of the luxurious court, and the king while seated feasting at his table has caught the odour of the rich perfumes. That is why he is now by her side. Does he think that she will serve as a new dainty for the great banquet, as a fresh fillip for the jaded appetite of the royal voluptuary? If so he is much mistaken. The king’s promises have no attraction for her, and she turns for relief to dear memories of her true love. The thought of him is fragrant as the bundle of myrrh she carries in her bosom, as the henna-flowers that bloom in the vineyards of far-off Engedi.

Clearly Solomon has made a clumsy move. This shy bird is not of the common species with which he is familiar. He must aim higher if he would bring down his quarry. She is not to be classed with the wares of the matrimonial market that are only waiting to be assigned to the richest bidder. She cannot be bought even by the wealth of a king’s treasury. But if there is a woman who can resist the charms of finery, is there one who can stand against the admiration of her personal beauty? A man of Solomon’s experience would scarcely believe that such was to be found. Nevertheless now the sex he estimates too lightly is to be vindicated, while the king himself is to be taught a wholesome lesson. He may call her fair; he may praise her dove-like eyes. [Song of Solomon 1:15] His flattery is lost upon her. She only thinks of the beauty of her shepherd lad, and pictures to herself the green bank on which they used to sit, with the cedars and firs for the beams and roof of their trysting-place. (Song of Solomon 1:16-17) Her language carries us away from the gilded splendour and close, perfumed atmosphere of the royal palace to scenes such as Shakespeare presents in the forest of Arden and the haunts of Titania, and Milton in the Mask of "Comus." Here is a Hebrew lady longing to escape from the clutches of one who for all his glory is not without some of the offensive traits of the monster Comus. She thinks of herself as a wild flower, like the crocus that grows on the plains of Sharon or the lily (literally the anemone) that is sprinkled so freely over the upland valleys. [Song of Solomon 2:1] The open country is the natural habitat of such a plant, not the stifling court. Solomon catches at her beautiful imagery. Compared with other maidens she is like a lily among thorns. [Song of Solomon 2:2]

And now these scenes of nature carry the persecuted girl away in a sort of reverie. If she is like the tender flower, her lover resembles the apple tree at the foot of which it nestles, a tree the shadow of which is delightful and its fruit sweet. [Song of Solomon 2:3] She remembers how he brought her to his banqueting house; that rustic bower was a very different place from the grand divan on which she had seen Solomon sitting at his table. No purple hangings like those of the king’s palace there screened her from the sun. The only banner her shepherd could spread over her was love, his own. [Song of Solomon 2:4] But what could be a more perfect shelter?

She is fainting. How she longs for her lover to comfort her! She has just compared him to an apple tree; now the refreshment she hungers for is the fruit of this tree; that is to say, his love. [Song of Solomon 2:5] Oh that he would put his arms round her and support her, as in the old happy days before she had been snatched away from him! [Song of Solomon 2:6]

Next follows a verse which is repeated later, and so serves as a sort of refrain. [Song of Solomon 2:7] The Shulammite adjures the daughters of Jerusalem not to awaken love. This verse is misrendered in the Authorised Version, which inserts the pronoun "my" before "love" without any warrant in the Hebrew text. The poor girl has spoken of apples. But the court ladies must not misunderstand her. She wants none of their love apples, {See Genesis 30:14} no philtre, no charm to turn her affections away from her shepherd lover and pervert them to the importunate royal suitor. The opening words of the poem which celebrated the charms of Solomon had been aimed in that direction. The motive of the worm seems to be the Shulammite’s resistance to various attempts to move her from loyalty to her true love. It is natural, therefore, that an appeal to desist from all such attempts should come out emphatically.

The poet takes a new turn. In imagination the Shulammite hears the voice of her beloved. She pictures him standing at the foot of the lofty rock on which the harem is built, and crying, -

"Oh, my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the cover of the steep place,

Let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice;

For sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely." [Song of Solomon 2:14]

He is like a troubadour singing to his imprisoned lady-love; and she, in her soliloquies, though not by any means a "high-born maiden," may call to mind the simile in Shelley’s "Skylark":

"Like a high-born maiden In a palace tower,

Soothing her love-laden Soul in secret hour,

With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower."

She remembers how her lover had come to her bounding over the hills "like a roe or a young hart," [Song of Solomon 2:9] and peeping in at her lattice; and she repeats the song with which he had called her out-one of the sweetest songs of spring that ever was sung. [Song of Solomon 2:11-13] In our own green island we acknowledge that this is the most beautiful season of all the round year; but in Palestine it stands out in more strongly marked contrast to the three other seasons, and it is in itself exceedingly lovely. While summer and autumn are there parched with drought, barren and desolate, and while winter is often dreary with snowstorms and floods of rain, in spring the whole land is one lovely garden, ablaze with richest hues, hill and dale, wilderness and farm-land vying in the luxuriance of their wild flowers, from the red anemone that fires the steep sides of the mountains to the purple and white cyclamen that nestles among the rocks at their feet. Much of the beauty of this poem is found in the fact that it is pervaded by the spirit of an eastern spring. This makes it possible to introduce a wealth of beautiful imagery which would not have been appropriate if any other season had been chosen. Even more lovely in March than England is in May, Palestine comes nearest to the appearance of our country in the former month; so that this poem, that is so completely bathed in the atmosphere of early spring, calls up echoes of the exquisite English garden pictures in Shelley’s "Sensitive Plant" and Tennyson’s "Maud." But it is not only beauty of imagery that our poet gains by setting his work in this lovely season. His ideas are all ill harmony with the period of the year he describes so charmingly. It is the time of youth and hope, of joy and love-especially of love, for,

"In the spring a young man’s fancy

Lightly turns to thoughts of love."

There is even a deeper association between the ideas of the poem and the season in which it is set. None of the freshness of spring is to be found about Solomon and his harem, but it is all present in the Shulammite and her shepherd; and spring scenes and thoughts powerfully aid the motive of the poem in accentuating the contrast between the tawdry magnificence of the court and the pure, simple beauty of the country life to which the heroine of the poem clings so faithfully.

The Shulammite answers her lover in an old ditty about "the little foxes that spoil the vineyards." [Song of Solomon 2:15] He would recognise that, and so discover her presence. We are reminded of the legend of Richard’s page finding his master by singing a familiar ballad outside the walls of the castle in the Tyrol where the captive crusader was imprisoned. This is all imaginary. And yet the faithful girl knows in her heart that her beloved is hers and that she is his, although in sober reality he is now feeding his flocks in the far-off flowery fields of her old home. [Song of Solomon 2:16] There he must remain till the cool of the evening, till the shadows melt into the darkness of night, when she would fain he returned to her, coming over the rugged mountains "like a roe or a young hart." [Song of Solomon 2:17]

Now the Shulammite tells a painful dream. [Song of Solomon 3:1-4] She dreamed that she had lost her lover, and that she rose up at night and went out into the streets seeking him. At first she failed to find him. She asked the watchmen whom she met on their round, if they had seen him whom her soul loved. They could not help her quest. But a little while after leaving them she discovered her missing lover, and brought him safely into her mother’s house.

After a repetition of the warning to the daughters of Jerusalem not to awaken love, [Song of Solomon 3:5] we are introduced to a new scene. [Song of Solomon 3:6-11] It is by one of the gates of Jerusalem, where the country maiden has been brought in order that she may be impressed by the gorgeous spectacle of Solomon returning from a royal progress. The king comes up from the wilderness in clouds of perfume, guarded by sixty men-at-arms, and borne in a magnificent palanquin of cedar-wood, with silver posts, a floor of gold, and purple cushions, wearing on his head the crown with which his mother had crowned him. Is the mention of the mother of Solomon intended to be specially significant? Remember-she was Bathsheba! The allusion to such a woman would not be likely to conciliate the pure young girl, who was not in the least degree moved by this attempt to charm her with a scene of exceptional magnificence.

Solomon now appears again, praising his captive in extravagant language of courtly flattery. He praises her dove-like eyes, her voluminous black hair, her rosy lips, her noble brow (not even disguised by her veil), her towering neck, her tender bosom-lovely as twin gazelles that feed among the lilies. Like her lover, who is necessarily away with his flock, Solomon will leave her till the cool of the evening, till the shadows melt into night; but he has no pastoral duties to attend to, and though the delicate balancing and assimilation of phrase and idea is gracefully manipulated, there is a change. The king will go to "mountains of myrrh" and "hills of frankincense," [Song of Solomon 4:6] to make his person more fragrant, and so, as he hopes, more welcome.

If we adopt the "shepherd hypothesis" the next section of the poem must be assigned to the rustic lover. [Song of Solomon 4:8-15] It is difficult to believe that this peasant would be allowed to speak to a lady in the royal harem. We might suppose that here and perhaps also in the earlier scene the shepherd is represented as actually present at the foot of the rock on which the palace stands. Otherwise this also must be taken as an imaginary scene, or as a reminiscence of the dreamy girl. Although a thread of unity runs through the whole poem. Goethe was clearly correct in calling it "a medley." Scenes real and imaginary melting one into another cannot take their places in a regular drama. But when we grant full liberty to the imaginary element there is less necessity to ask what is subjective and what objective, what only fancied by the Shulammite and what intended to be taken as an actual occurrence. Strictly speaking, nothing is actual; the whole poem is a highly imaginative series of fancy pictures illustrating the development of its leading ideas.

Next-whether we take it as in imagination or in fact-the shepherd lover calls his bride to follow him from the most remote regions. His language is entirely different from that of the magnificent monarch. He does not waste his breath in formal compliments, high-flown imagery, wearisome lists of the charms of the girl he loves. That was the clumsy method of the king; clumsy, though, reflecting the finished manners of the court, in comparison with the genuine outpourings of the heart of a country lad. The shepherd is eloquent with the inspiration of true love; his words throb and glow with genuine emotion; there is a fine, wholesome passion in them. The love of his bride has ravished his heart. How beautiful is her love! He is intoxicated with it more than with wine. How sweet are her words of tender affection, like milk and honey! She is so pure. there is something sisterly in her love with all its warmth. And she is so near to him that she is almost like a part of himself, as his own sister. This holy and close relationship is in startling contrast to the only thing known as love in the royal harem. It is as much more lofty and noble as it is more strong and deep than the jaded emotions of the court. The sweet pure maiden is to the shepherd like a garden the gate of which is barred against trespassers, like a spring shut off from casual access, like a sealed fountain-sealed to all but one, and, happy man, he is that one. To him she belongs, to him alone. She is a garden, yes, a most fragrant garden, an orchard of pomegranates full of rich fruit, crowded with sweet-scented plants-henna and spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon and all kinds of frankincense, myrrh and aloes and the best of spices. She is a fountain in the garden, sealed to all others, but not stinted towards the one she loves. To him she is as a well of living waters, like the full-fed streams that flow from Lebanon.

The maiden is supposed to hear the song of love. She replies in fearless words of welcome, bidding the north wind awake, and the south wind too that the fragrance of which her lover has spoken so enthusiastically may flow out more richly than ever. For his sake she would be more sweet and loving. All she possesses is for him. Let him come and take possession of his own. [Song of Solomon 4:16]

What lover could turn aside from such a rapturous invitation? The shepherd takes his bride; he enters his garden, gathers his myrrh and spice, eats his honey and drinks his wine and milk, and calls on his friends to feast and drink with him. [Song of Solomon 5:1] This seems to point to the marriage of the couple and their wedding feast; a view of the passage which interpreters who regard Solomon as the lover throughout for the most part take, but one which has this fatal objection, that it leaves the second half of the poem without a motive. On the hypothesis of the shepherd lover it is still more difficult to suppose the wedding to have occurred at the point we have now reached, for the distraction of the royal courtship still proceeds in subsequent passages of the poem. It would seem, then, that we must regard this as quite an ideal scene. It may, however, be taken as a reminiscence of an earlier passage in the lives of the two lovers. It is not impossible that it refers to their wedding, and that they had been married before the action of the whole story began. In that case we should suppose that Solomon’s officers had carried off a young bride to the royal harem. The intensity of the love and the bitterness of the separation apparent throughout the poem would be the more intelligible if this were the situation. It is to be remembered that Shakespeare ascribes the climax of the love and grief of Romeo and Juliet to a time after their marriage. But the difficulty of accepting this view lies in the improbability that so outrageous a crime would be attributed to Solomon, although it must be admitted that the guilty conduct of his father and mother had gone a long way in setting an example for the violation of the marriage tie. In dealing with vague and dreamy poetry such as that of the Song of Solomon, it is not possible to determine a point like this with precision; nor is it necessary to do so. The beauty and force of the passage now before us centre in the perfect mutual love of the two young hearts that here show themselves to he knit together as one, whether already actually married or not yet thus externally united.


Verses 1-8

LOVE UNQUENCHABLE

Song of Solomon 5:1-8

WE have seen how this strange poem mingles fact and fancy, memory and reverie, in what would be hopeless confusion if we could not detect a common prevailing sentiment and one aim towards which the whole is tending, with all its rapidly shifting scenes and all its perplexing varying movements. The middle of the poem attains a perfect climax of love and rapture. Then we are suddenly transported to an entirely different scene. The Shulammite recites a second dream, which somewhat resembles her former dream, but is more vivid and intense, and ends very painfully. [Song of Solomon 5:2-7] The circumstances of it will agree most readily with the idea that she is already married to the shepherd. Again it is a dream of the loss of her lover, and of her search for him by night in the streets of Jerusalem. But in the present case he was first close to her, and then he deserted her most unaccountably; and when she went to look for him this time she failed to find him, and met with cruel ill-treatment. In her dream she fancies she hears the bridegroom knocking at her chamber door and calling upon her as his sister, his love, his dove, his undefiled, to open for him. He has just returned from tending his flock in the night, and his hair is wet with the dew. The bride coyly excuses herself, on the plea that she has laid aside her mantle and washed her feet; as though it would vex her to put her feet to the ground again. This is but the playful reluctance of love; for no sooner is her beloved really lost than she undertakes the greatest trouble in the search for him. When he puts in his hand to lift the latch, her heart is moved towards him, and she rises to open the door. On touching the lock she finds it covered with liquid myrrh. It has been ingeniously suggested that we have here a reference to the construction of an eastern lock, with a wooden pin dropped into the bolt, which is intended to be lifted by a key, but which may be raised by a man’s finger if he is provided with some viscid substance, such as the ointment here mentioned, to adhere to the pin. The little detail shews that the lover or bridegroom had come with the deliberate intention of entering. How strange, then, that when the bride opens the door he is not to be seen! Why has he fled? The shock of this surprise quite overwhelms the poor girl, and she is on the point of fainting. She looks about for her vanished lover, and calls him by name; but there is no answer. She goes out to seek for him in the streets, and there the watchmen cuff and bruise her, and the sentries on the city walls rudely tear off her veil.

Returning from the distressing recollection of her dream to the present condition of affairs, the sorrowful Shulammite adjures the daughters of Jerusalem to tell her if they have found her love. (Song of Solomon 5:8) They respond by asking, what is her beloved more than any other beloved? [Song of Solomon 5:9] This mocking question of the harem women rouses the Shulammite, and affords an opportunity for descanting on the beauty of her love. [Song of Solomon 5:10-16] He is both fair and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand. For this is what he is like: a head splendid as finest gold; massive, curling, raven locks; eyes like doves by water brooks, and looking as though they had been washed in milk-an elaborate image in which the soft iris and the sparkling light on the pupils suggest the picture of the gentle birds brooding on the bank of a flashing stream, and the pure, healthy eyeballs a thought of the whiteness of milk: cheeks fragrant as spices; lips red as lilies (the blood-red anemones); a body like ivory, with blue veins as of sapphire; legs like marble columns on golden bases. The aspect of him is like great Lebanon, splendid as the far-famed cedars; and when he opens his lips his voice is ravishingly sweet. Yes, he is altogether lovely. Such is her beloved, her dearest one.

The mocking ladies ask their victim where then has this paragon gone? [Song of Solomon 6:1] She would have them understand that he has not been so cruel as really to desert her. It was only in her dream that he treated her with such unaccountable fickleness. The plain fact is that he is away at his work on his far-off farm, feeding his flock, and perhaps gathering a posy of flowers for his bride. (Song of Solomon 6:2) He is far away, -that sad truth cannot be denied: and yet he is not really lost, for love laughs at time and distance; the poor lonely girl can say still that she is her beloved’s and that he is hers. [Song of Solomon 6:3] The reappearance of this phrase suggests that it is intended to serve as a sort of refrain. Thus it comes in with admirable fitness to balance the other refrain to which reference has been made earlier. In the first refrain the daughters of Jerusalem are besought not to attempt to awaken the Shulammite’s love for Solomon; this is well balanced by the refrain in which she declares the constancy of the mutual love that exists between herself and the shepherd.

Now Solomon reappears on the scene, and resumes his laudation of the Shulammite’s beauty. [Song of Solomon 6:4-7] But there is a marked change in his manner. This most recent capture is quite unlike the sort of girls with whom his harem was stocked from time to time. He had no reverence for any of them; they all considered themselves to be highly honoured by his favour, all adored him with slavish admiration, like that expressed by one of them in the first line of the poem. But he is positively afraid of the Shulammite. She is "terrible as an army with banners." He cannot bear to look at her eyes; he begs her to turn them away from him, for they have overcome him. What is the meaning of this new attitude on the part of the mighty monarch? There is something awful in the simple peasant girl. The purity, the constancy, the cold scorn with which she regards the king, are as humiliating as they are novel in his experience. Yet it is well for him that he is susceptible to their influence. He is greatly injured and corrupted by the manners of a luxurious Oriental court. But he is not a seared profligate. The vision of goodness startles him; then there is a better nature in him, and its slumbering powers are partly roused by this unexpected apparition.

We have now reached a very important point in the poem. It is almost impossible to reconcile this with the theory that Solomon is the one and only lover referred to throughout. But on the "shepherd hypothesis" the position is most significant. The value of constancy in love is not only seen in the steadfast character of one who is sorely tempted to yield to other influences; it is also apparent in the effects on a spectator of so uncongenial a nature as king Solomon. Thus the poet brings out the great idea of his work most vividly. He could not have done so more forcibly than by choosing the court of Solomon for the scene of the trial, and shewing the startling effect of the noble virtue of constancy on the king himself.

Here we are face to face with one of the rescuing influences of life, which may be met in various forms. A true woman, an innocent child, a pure man. coming across the path of one who has permitted himself to slide down towards murky depths, arrests his attention with a painful shock of surprise. The result is a revelation to him, in the light of which he discovers, to his horror, how far he has fallen. It is a sort of incarnate conscience, warning him of the still lower degradation towards which he is sinking. Perhaps it strikes him as a beacon light, shewing the path up to purity and peace; an angel from heaven sent to help him retrace his steps and return to his better self. Few men are so abandoned as never to be visited by some such gleam from higher regions. To many, alas, it comes but as the temporary rift in the clouds through which for one brief moment the blue sky becomes visible even on a wild and stormy day, soon to be lost in deeper darkness. Happy are they who obey its unexpected message.

The concluding words of the passage which opens with Solomon’s praises of the Shulammite present another of the many difficulties with which the poem abounds. Mention is made of Solomon’s sixty queens, his eighty concubines, his maidens without number; and then the Shulammite is contrasted with this vast seraglio as "My dove, my undefiled," who is "but one"-"the only one of her mother." [Song of Solomon 6:8-9] Who is speaking here? If this is a continuation of Solomon’s speech, as the flow of the verses would suggest, it must mean that the king would set his newest acquisition quite apart from all the ladies of the harem, as his choice and treasured bride. Those who regard Solomon as the lover, think they see here what they call his conversion, that is to say, his turning away from polygamy to monogamy. History knows of no such conversion; and it is hardly likely that a poet of the northern kingdom would go out of his way to whitewash the matrimonial reputation of a sovereign from whom the house of Judah was descended. Besides, the occurrence here represented bears a very dubious character when we consider that all the existing denizens of the harem were to be put aside in favour of a new beauty. It would have been more like a genuine conversion if Solomon had gone back to the love of his youth, and confined his affections to his neglected first wife.

On the shepherd hypothesis it is most natural to attribute the passage to the shepherd himself. But since it is difficult to imagine him present at this scene between Solomon and the Shulammite, it seems that we must fall back on the idealising character of the poem. In this figurative way the true lover expresses his contempt for the monstrous harem at the palace, He is content with this one ewe lamb; nay, she is more to him than all Solomon’s bevy of beauties; even these ladies of the court are now constrained to praise the noble qualities of his bride.

Solomon’s expression of awe for the terrible purity and constancy of the Shulammite is repeated, [Song of Solomon 6:10] and then she tells the story of her capture. [Song of Solomon 6:11-12] She had gone down to the nut garden to look at the fresh green on the plants, and to see whether the vines were budding and the pomegranates putting forth their lovely scarlet blossoms, when suddenly, and all unawares, she was pounced upon by the king’s people and whisked away in one of his chariots. It is a vivid scene, and, like other scenes in this poem, the background of it is the lovely aspect of nature in early spring.

The Shulammite now seems to be attempting a retreat, and the ladies of the court bid her return; they would see the performance of a favourite dance, known as "The Dance of Mahanaim." Thereupon we have a description of the performer, as she was seen during the convolutions of the dance, dressed in a transparent garment of red gauze, -perhaps such as is represented in Pompeian frescoes, -so that her person could be compared to pale wheat surrounded by crimson anemones. [Song of Solomon 7:1-9] It is quite against the tenor of her conduct to suppose that the modest country girl would degrade herself by ministering to the amusement of a corrupt court in this shameless manner. It is more reasonable to conclude that the entertainment was given by a professional dancer from among the women of the harem. We have a hint that this is the case in the title applied to the performer, in addressing whom Solomon exclaims, "O prince’s daughter," [Song of Solomon 8:1] an expression never used for the poor Shulammite, and one from which we should gather that she was a captive princess who had been trained as a court dancer. The glimpse of the manners of the palace helps to strengthen the contrast of the innocent, simple country life in which the Shulammite delights.

It has been suggested, with some degree of probability, that the Shulammite is supposed to make her escape while the attention of the king and his court is diverted by this entrancing spectacle It is to be observed, at all events, that from this point onwards to the end of the poem, neither Solomon nor the daughters of Jerusalem take any part in the dialogue, while the scene appears to be shifted to the Shulammite’s home in the country, where she and the shepherd are now seen together in happy companionship. The bridegroom has come to fetch his bride. Again she owns that she is his, and delights in the glad thought that his heart goes out to her. [Song of Solomon 7:10] She bids him come with her into the field, and lodge in the villages. They will get them early into the vineyards and see whether the vines, are blooming, and whether the pomegranates are in blossom. [Song of Solomon 7:11-13] It is still early spring. It was early spring when she was snatched away. Unless she had been a whole year at the palace.-an impossible situation with the king continuing his ineffectual courtship for so long a time, -we have no movement of time. But the series of events from the day when the Shulammite was seized in her nut garden, till she found herself back again in her home in the north country, after the trying episode of her temporary residence in the royal palace, must have occupied some weeks. And yet the conclusion of the story is set in precisely the same stage of spring, the time when people look for the first buds and blossoms, as the opening scenes. It has been proposed to confine the whole action to the northern district, where Solomon might have had a country house adjoining his vineyard. [Song of Solomon 8:11] The presence of the "daughters of Jerusalem," and allusions to the streets of the city, its watchmen, and the guard upon the walls, are against this notion. It is better to conclude that we have here another instance of the idealism of the poem. Since early spring is the season that harmonises most perfectly with the spirit of the whole work, the author does not trouble himself with adapting its scenes in a realistic manner to the rapidly changing aspects of nature.

The shepherd has addressed the Shulammite as his sister; [Song of Solomon 8:1] she now reciprocates the title by expressing her longing that he had been as her brother. [Song of Solomon 8:1] This singular mode of courtship between two lovers who are so passionately devoted to one another that we might call them the Hebrew Romeo and Juliet, is not without significance. Its recurrence, now on the lips of the bride, helps to sharpen still more the contrast between what passes for love in the royal harem, and the true emotion experienced by a pair of innocent young people, unsullied by the corruptions of the court-illustrating, as it does at once, its sweet intimacy and its perfect purity.

The proud bride would now lead her swain to her mother’s house. [Song of Solomon 8:2] There is no mention of her father; apparently he is not living. But the fond way in which this simple girl speaks of her mother reveals another lovely trait in her character. She has witnessed the wearisome magnificence of Solomon’s palace. It was impossible to associate the idea of home with such a place. We never hear the daughters of Jerusalem, those poor degraded women of the harem, speaking of their mothers. But to the Shulammite no spot on earth is so dear as her mother’s cottage. There her lover shall have spiced wine and pomegranate juice-simple home-made country beverages. [Song of Solomon 8:2] Repeating one of the early refrains of the poem, the happy bride is not afraid to say that there too her husband shall support her in his strong embrace. [Song of Solomon 8:3] She then repeats another refrain, and for the last time-surely one would say now, quite superfluously-she adjures the daughters of Jerusalem not to awaken any love for Solomon in her, but to leave love to its spontaneous course. [Song of Solomon 8:4]

Now the bridegroom is seen coming up from the wilderness with his bride leaning upon him, and telling how he first made love to her when he found her asleep under an apple tree in the garden of the cottage where she was. [Song of Solomon 8:5] As they converse together we reach the richest gem of the poem, the Shulammite’s impassioned eulogy of love. [Song of Solomon 8:6-7] She bids her husband set her as a seal upon his heart in the inner sanctuary of his being, and as a seal upon his arm-always owning her, always true to her in the outer world. She is to be his closely, his openly, his forever. She has proved her constancy to him: now she claims his constancy to her. The foundation of this claim rests on the very nature of love. The one essential characteristic here dwelt upon is strength-"Love is strong as death." Who can resist grim death? who escape its iron clutches? Who can resist mighty love, or evade its power? The illustration is startling in the apparent incompatibility of the two things drawn together for comparison. But it is a stern and terrible aspect of love to which our attention is now directed. This is apparent as the Shulammite proceeds to speak of jealousy which is "hard as the grave." If love is treated falsely, it can flash out in a flame of wrath ten times more furious than the raging of hatred-"a most vehement flame of the Lord." This is the only place in which the name of God appears throughout the whole poem. It may be said that even here it only comes in according to a familiar Hebrew idiom, as metaphor for what is very great. But the Shulammite has good reason for claiming God to be on her side in the protection of her love from cruel wrong and outrage. Love as she knows it is both unquenchable and unpurchaseable. She has tested and proved these two attributes in her own experience. At the court of Solomon every effort was made to destroy her love for the shepherd, and all possible means were employed for buying her love for the king. Both utterly failed. All the floods of scorn which the harem ladies poured over her love for the country lad could not quench it; all the wealth of a kingdom could not buy it for Solomon. Where true love exists, no opposition can destroy it; where it is not, no money can purchase it. As for the second idea-the purchasing of love-the Shulammite flings it away with the utmost contempt. Yet this was the too common means employed by a king such as Solomon for replenishing the stock of his harem. Then the monarch was only pursuing a shadow; he was but playing at love-making; he was absolutely ignorant of the reality.

The vigour, one might say the rigour, of this passage distinguishes it from nearly all other poetry devoted to the praises of love. That poetry is usually soft and tender; sometimes it is feeble and sugary. And yet it must be remembered that even the classical Aphrodite could be terribly angry. There is nothing morbid or sentimental in the Shulammite’s ideas. She has discovered and proved by experience that love is a mighty force, capable of heroic endurance, and able, when wronged, to avenge itself with serious effect.

Towards the conclusion of the poem fresh speakers appear in the persons of the Shulammite’s brothers, who defend themselves from the charge of negligence in having permitted their little sister to be snatched away from their keeping, explaining how they have done their best to guard her. Or perhaps they mean that they will be more careful in protecting a younger sister. They will build battlements about her. The Shulammite takes up the metaphor. She is safe now, as a wall well embattled; at last she has found peace in the love of her husband. Solomon may have a vineyard in her neighbourhood, and draw great wealth from it with which to buy the wares in which he delights. [Song of Solomon 8:11] It is nothing to her. She has her own vineyard. This reference to the Shnlammite’s vineyard recalls the mention of it at the beginning of the poem, and suggests the idea that in both cases the image represents the shepherd lover. In the first instance she had not kept her vineyard, [Song of Solomon 1:6] for she had lost her lover. Now she has him, and she is satisfied. [Song of Solomon 8:12] He calls to her in the garden, longing to hear her voice there, [Song of Solomon 8:13] and she replies, bidding him hasten and come to her as she has described him coming before, -

"Like to a roe or a young hart

Upon the mountains of spices, "{Song of Solomon 8:14}

And so the poem sinks to rest in the happy picture of the union of the two young lovers.

MYSTICAL INTERPRETATIONS

THUS far we have been considering the bare, literal sense of the text. It cannot be denied that, if only to lead up to the metaphorical significance of the words employed, those words must be approached through their primary physical meanings. This is essential even to the understanding of pure allegory such as that of "The Faerie Queene" and "The Pilgrim’s Progress"; we must understand the adventures of the Red Cross Knight and the course of Christian’s journey before we can learn the moral of Spenser’s and Bunyan’s elaborate allegories. Similarly it is absolutely necessary for us to have some idea of the movement of the Song of Solomon as a piece of literature, in its external form, even if we are persuaded that beneath this sensuous exterior it contains the most profound ideas, before we can discover any such ideas. In other words, if it is to be considered as a mass of symbolism the symbols must be understood in themselves before their significance can be drawn out of them.

But now we are confronted with the question whether the book has any other meaning than that which meets the eye. The answers to this question are given on three distinct lines:-First, we have the allegorical schemes of interpretation, according to which the poem is not to be taken literally at all, but is to be regarded as a purely metaphorical representation of national or Church history, philosophical ideas, or spiritual experiences. In the second place, we meet with various forms of double interpretation, described as typical or mystical, in which a primary meaning is allowed to the book as a sort of drama or idyl, or as a collection of Jewish love-songs, while a secondary signification of an ideal or spiritual character is added. Distinct as these lines of interpretation are in themselves, they tend to blend in practice, because even when two meanings are admitted the symbolical signification is considered to be of so much greater importance than the literal that it virtually occupies the whole field. In the third place there is the purely literal interpretation, that which denies the existence of any symbolical or mystical intention in the poem.

Allegorical interpretations of the Song of Solomon are found among the Jews early in the Christian era. The Aramaic Targum, probably originating about the sixth century A.D., takes the first half of the poem as a symbolical picture of the history of Israel previous to the captivity, and the second as a prophetic picture of the subsequent fortunes of the nation. The recurrence of the expression "the congregation of Israel" in this paraphrase wherever the Shulammite appears, and other similar adaptations, entirely destroy the fine poetic flavour of the work, and convert it into a dreary, dry-as-dust composition.

Symbolical interpretations were very popular among Christian Fathers-though not with universal approval, as the protest of Theodore of Mopsuestia testifies. The great Alexandrian Origen is the founder and patron of this method of interpreting the Song of Solomon in the Church. Jerome was of opinion that Origen "surpassed himself" in his commentary on the poem-a commentary to which he devoted ten volumes. According to his view, it was originally an epithalamium celebrating the marriage of Solomon with Pharaoh’s daughter; but it has secondary mystical meanings descriptive of the relation of the Redeemer to the Church or the individual soul. Thus "the little foxes that spoil the grapes" are evil thoughts in the individual, or heretics in the Church. Gregory the Great contributes a commentary of no lasting interest. Very different is the work of the great mediaeval monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who threw himself into it with all the passion and rapture of his enthusiastic soul, and in the course of eighty-six homilies only reached the beginning of the third chapter in this to him inexhaustible mine of spiritual wealth, when he died, handing on the task to his faithful disciple Gilbert Porretanus, who continued it on the same portentous scale, and also died before he had finished the fifth chapter. Even while reading the old monkish Latin in this late age we cannot fail to feel the glowing devotion that inspires it. Bernard is addressing his monks, to whom he says he need not give the milk for babes, and whom he exhorts to prepare their throats not for this milk but for bread. As a schoolman he cannot escape from metaphysical subtleties - he takes the kiss of the bridegroom as a symbol of the incarnation. But throughout there burns the perfect rapture of love to Jesus Christ which inspires his well-known hymns. Here we are at the secret of the extraordinary popularity of mystical interpretations of the Song of Solomon. It has seemed to many in all ages of the Christian Church to afford the best expression for the deepest spiritual relations of Christ and His people. Nevertheless, the mystical method has been widely disputed since the time of the Reformation. Luther complains of the "many wild and monstrous interpretations" that are attached to the Song of Solomon, though even he understands it as symbolical of Solomon and his state. Still, not a few of the most popular hymns of our own day are saturated with ideas and phrases gathered from this book, and fresh expositions of what are considered to be its spiritual lessons may still be met with.

It is not easy to discover any justification for the rabbinical explanation of the Song of Solomon as a representation of successive events in the history of Israel, an explanation which Jewish scholars have abandoned in favour of simple literalism. But the mystical view, according to which the poem sets forth spiritual ideas, has pleas urged in its favour that demand some consideration. We are reminded of the analogy of Oriental literature, which delights in parable to an extent unknown in the West. Works of a kindred nature are produced in which an allegorical signification is plainly intended. Thus the Hindoo "Gitagovinda" celebrates the loves of Chrishna and Radha in verses that bear a remarkable resemblance to the Song of Solomon. Arabian poets sing of the love of Joseph for Zuleikha, which mystics take as the love of God towards the soul that longs for union with Him. There is a Turkish mystical commentary on the Song of Hafiz.

The Bible itself furnishes us with suggestive analogies. Throughout the Old Testament the idea of a marriage union between God and His people occurs repeatedly, and the most frequent metaphor for religious apostasy is drawn from the crime of adultery. {e.g., Exodus 34:15-16, Numbers 15:39, Psalms 73:27, Ezekiel 16:23, etc.} This symbolism is especially prominent in the writings of Jeremiah {e.g., Jeremiah 3:1-11} and Hosea. [Hosea 2:2;, Hosea 3:3] The forty-fifth psalm is an epithalamium commonly read with a Messianic signification. John the Baptist describes the coming Messiah as the Bridegroom, [John 3:20] and Jesus Christ accepts the title for Himself. [Mark 2:19] Our Lord illustrates the blessedness of the Kingdom of Heaven in a parable of a wedding feast. [Matthew 22:1-14] With St. Paul the union of husband and wife is an earthly copy of the Union of Christ and His Church. [Ephesians 5:22-33] The marriage of the Lamb is a prominent feature in the Book of the Revelation. [Revelation 21:9]

Further, it may be maintained that the experience of Christians has demonstrated the aptness of the expression of the deepest spiritual truths in the imagery of the Song of Solomon. Sad hearts disappointed in their earthly hopes have found in the religious reading of this poem as a picture of their relation to their Saviour the satisfaction for which they have hungered, and which the world could never give them. Devout Christians have read in it the very echo of their own emotions. Samuel Rutherford’s "Letters," for example, are in perfect harmony with the religious interpretation of the Song of Solomon; and these letters stand in the first rank of devotional works. There is certainly some force in the argument that a key which seems to fit the lock so well must have been designed to do so.

On the other hand, the objections to a mystical, religious interpretation are very strong. In the first place, we can quite account for its appearance apart from any justification of it in the original intention of the author. Allegory was in the air at the time when, as far as we know, secondary meanings were first attached to the ideas of the Song of Solomon. They sprang from Alexandria, the home of allegory. Origen, who was the first Christian writer to work out a mystical explanation of this book, treated other books of the Old Testament in exactly the same way; but we never dream of following him in his fantastical interpretations of those works. There is no indication that the poem was understood allegorically or mystically as early as the first century of the Christian era. Philo is the prince of allegorists: but while he explains the narratives of the Pentateuch according to his favourite method, be never applies that method to this very tempting book, and never even mentions the work or makes any reference to its contents. The Song of Solomon is not once mentioned or even alluded to in the slightest way by any writer of the New Testament. Since it is never noticed by Christ or the Apostles, of course we cannot appeal to their authority for reading it mystically; and yet it was undoubtedly known to them as one of the books in the canon of the sacred Scriptures to which they were in the habit of appealing repeatedly. Consider the grave significance of this fact. All secondary interpretations of which we know anything, and, as far as we can tell, all that ever existed, had their origin in post-apostolic times. If we would justify this method by authority it is to the Fathers that we must go, not to Christ and His apostles, not to the sacred Scriptures. It is a noteworthy fact, too, that the word Eros, the Greek name for the love of man and woman, as distinguished from Agape, which stands for love in the widest sense of the word, is first applied to our Lord by Ignatius. Here we have the faint beginning of the stream of erotic religious fancies which sometimes manifests itself most objectionably in subsequent Church history. There is not a trace of it in the New Testament.

If the choice spiritual ideas which some people think they see in the Song of Solomon are not imported by the reader, but form part of the genuine contents of the book, how comes it that this fact was not recognised by one of the inspired writers of the New Testament? or, if privately recognised, that it was never utilised? In the hands of the mystical interpreter this work is about the most valuable part of the Old Testament. He finds it to be an inexhaustible mine of the most precious treasures. Why, then, was such a remunerative lode never worked by the first authorities in Christian teaching? It may be replied that we cannot prove much from a bare negative. The apostles may have had their own perfectly sufficient reasons for leaving to the Church of later ages the discovery of this valuable spiritual store. Possibly the converts of their day were not ripe for the comprehension of the mysteries here expounded. Be that as it may, clearly the onus probandi rests with those people of a later age who introduce a method of interpretation for which no sanction can be found in Scripture.

Now the analogies that have been referred to are not sufficient to establish any proof. In the case of the other poems mentioned above there are distinct indications of symbolical intentions. Thus in the "Gitagovinda" the hero is a divinity whose incarnations are acknowledged in Hidoo mythology; and the concluding verse of that poem points the moral by a direct assertion of the religious meaning of the whole composition. This is not the case with the Song of Solomon. We must not be misled by the chapter-headings in our English Bibles, which of course are not to be found in the original Hebrew text. From the first line to the last there is not the slightest hint in the poem itself that it was intended to be read in any mystical sense. This is contrary to the analogy of all allegories. The parable may be difficult to interpret, but at all events it must suggest that it is a parable; otherwise it defeats its own object. If the writer never drops any hint that he has wrapped up spiritual ideas in the sensuous imagery of his poetry, what right has he to expect that anybody will find them there, so long as his poem admits of a perfectly adequate explanation in a literal sense? We need not be so dense as to require the allegorist to say to us in so many words: "This is a parable." But we may justly expect him to furnish us with some hint that his utterance is of such a character. Aesop’s fables carry their lessons on the surface of them, so that we can often anticipate the concluding morals that are attached to them. When Tennyson announced that the "Idyls of the King" constituted an allegory most people were taken by surprise; and yet the analogy of "The Faerie Queene," and the lofty ethical ideas with which the poems are inspired, might have prepared us for the revelation. But we have no similar indications in the case of the Song of Solomon. If somebody were to propound a new theory of "‘The Vicar of Wakefield," which should turn that exquisite tale into a parable of the Fall, it would not be enough for him to exercise his ingenuity in pointing out resemblances between the eighteenth-century romance and the ancient narrative of the serpent’s doings in the Garden of Eden. Since he could not shew that Goldsmith had the slightest intention of teaching anything of the kind, his exploit could be regarded as nothing but a piece of literary trifling.

The Biblical analogies already cited, in which the marriage relation between God or Christ and the Church or the soul are referred to, will not bear the strain that is put upon them when they are brought forward in order to justify a mystical interpretation of the Song of Solomon. At best they simply account for the emergence of this view of the book at a later time, or indicate that such a notion might be maintained if there were good reasons for adopting it. They cannot prove that in the present case it should be adopted. Moreover, they differ from it on two important points First, in harmony with all genuine allegories and metaphors, they carry their own evidence of a symbolical meaning, which as we have seen the Song of Solomon fails to do. Second, they are not elaborate compositions of a dramatic or idyllic character in which the passion of love is vividly illustrated. Regarded in its entirety, the Song of Solomon is quite without parallel in Scripture. It may be replied that we cannot disprove the allegorical intention of the book. But this is not the question. That intention requires to be proved; and until it is proved, or at least until some very good reasons are urged for adopting it, no statement of bare possibilities counts for anything.

But we may push the case further. There is a positive improbability of the highest order that the spiritual ideas read into the Song of Solomon by some of its Christian admirers should have been originally there. This would involve the most tremendous anachronism in all literature. The Song of Solomon is dated among the earlier works of the Old Testament. But the religious ideas now associated with it represent what, is regarded as the fruit of the most advanced saintliness ever attained in the Christian Church. Here we have a flat contradiction to the growth of revelation manifested throughout the whole course of Scripture history. We might as well ascribe the Sistine Madonna to the fresco-painters of the catacombs; or, what is more to the point, our Lord’s discourse with His disciples at the paschal meal to Solomon or some other Jew of his age.

No doubt the devoted follower of the mystical method will not be troubled by considerations such as these. To him the supposed fitness of the poem to convey his religious ideas is the one sufficient proof of an original design that it should serve that end. So long as the question is approached in this way, the absence of clear evidence only delights the prejudiced commentator with the opportunity it affords for the exercise of his ingenuity. To a certain school of readers the very obscurity of a book is its fascination. The less obvious a meaning is, the more eagerly do they set themselves to expound and defend it. We could leave them to what might be considered a very harmless diversion if it were not for other considerations. But we cannot forget that it is just this ingenious way of interpreting the Bible in accordance with preconceived opinions that has encouraged the quotation of the Sacred Volume in favour of absolutely contradictory propositions, an abuse which in its turn has provoked an inevitable reaction leading to contempt for the Bible as an obscure book which speaks with no certain voice.

Still, it may be contended, the analogy between the words of this poem and the spiritual experience of Christians is in itself an indication of intentional connection. Swedenborg has shewn that there are correspondences between the natural and the spiritual, and this truth is illustrated by the metaphorical references to marriage in the Bible which have been adduced for comparison with the Song of Solomon. But their very existence shows that analogies between religious experience and the love story of the Shulammite may be traced out by the reader without any design on the part of the author to present them. If they are natural they are universal, and any love song will serve our purpose. On this principle, if the Song of Solomon admits of mystical adaptation, so do Mrs. Browning’s "Sonnets from the Portuguese."

We have no alternative, then, but to conclude that the mystical interpretation of this work is based on a delusion. Moreover, it must be added that the delusion is a mischievous one. No doubt to many it has been as meat and drink. They have found in their reading of the Song of Solomon real spiritual refreshment, or they believe they have found it. But there is another side. The poem has been used to minister to a morbid, sentimental type of religion. More than any other influence, the mystical interpretation of this book has imported an effeminate element into the notion of the love of Christ, not one trace of which can be detected in the New Testament. The Catholic legend of the marriage of St. Catherine is somewhat redeemed by the high ascetic tone that pervades it; and yet it indicates a decline from the standpoint of the apostles. Not a few unquestionable revelations of immorality in convents have shed a ghastly light on the abuse of erotic religious fervour. Among Protestants it cannot be said that the most wholesome hymns are those which are composed on the model of the Song of Solomon. In some cases the religious use of this book is perfectly nauseous, indicating nothing less than a disease of religion. When-as sometimes happens-frightful excesses of sensuality follow close on seasons of what has been regarded as the revival of religion, the common explanation of these horrors is that in some mysterious way spiritual emotion lies very near to sensual appetite, so that an excitement of the one tends to rouse the other. A more revolting hypothesis, or one more insulting to religion, cannot be imagined. The truth is, the two regions are separate as the poles. The explanation of the phenomena of their apparent conjunction is to be found in quite another direction. It is that their victims have substituted for religion a sensuous excitement which is as little religious as the elation that follows indulgence in alcoholism. There is no more deadly temptation of the devil than that which hoodwinks deluded fanatics into making this terrible mistake. But it can scarcely be denied that the mystical reading of the Song of Solomon by unspiritual persons, or even by any persons who are not completely fortified against the danger, may tend in this fatal direction.

CANONICITY

IT is scarcely to be expected that the view of the Song of Solomon expounded in the foregoing pages will meet with acceptance from every reader. A person who has been accustomed to resort to this book in search of the deepest spiritual ideas cannot but regard the denial of their presence with aversion. While, however, it is distressing to be compelled to give pain to a devout soul, it may be necessary. If there is weight in the considerations that have been engaging our attention, we cannot shut our eyes to them simply because they may be disappointing. The mystical interpreter will be shocked at what he takes for irreverence. But, on the other hand, he should be on his guard against falling into this very fault from the opposite side. Reverence for truth is a primary Christian duty. The iconoclast is certain to be charged with irreverence by the devotee of the popular idol which he feels it his duty to destroy; and yet, if his action is inspired by loyalty to truth, reverence for what he deems highest and best may be its mainspring.

If the Song of Solomon were not one of the books of the Bible, questions such as these would never arise. It is its place in the sacred canon that induces people to resent the consequences of the application of criticism to it. It is simply owing to its being a part of the Bible that it has come to be treated mystically at all. Undoubtedly this is why it was allegorised by the Jews. But, then, the secondary signification thus acquired reacted upon it, and served as a sort of buoy to float it over the rocks of awkward questions. The result was that in the end the book attained to an exceptionally high position in the estimation of the rabbis. Thus the great Rabbi Akiba says: "The course of the ages cannot vie with the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. All the ‘Kethubim’ (i.e., the ‘Hagiographa’) are holy, but the Song of Songs is a holy of holies."

Such being the case, it is manifest that the rejection of the mystical signification of its contents must revive the question of the canonicity of the book. We have not, however, to deal with the problem of its original insertion in the canon. We find it there. Some doubts as to its right to the place it holds seem to have been raised among the Jews during the first century of the Christian era; but these doubts were effectually borne down.

As far as we know, the Song of Solomon has always been a portion of the Hebrew Scriptures from the obscure time when the collection of those Scriptures was completed. It stands as the first of the five "Megilloth," or sacred rolls-the others being Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, and Ecclesiastes. We are not now engaged in the difficult task of constructing a new canon. The only possibility is that of the expulsion of a book already in the old canon. But the attempt to disturb in any way such a volume as the Old Testament, with all its incomparable associations, is not one to be undertaken lightly or without adequate reason.

In order to justify this radical measure it would not be enough to shew that the specific religious meanings that some have attached to the Song of Solomon do not really belong to it. If it is said that the secular tone it acquires under the hands of criticism shews it to be unworthy of a place in the sacred Scriptures, this assertion goes upon an unwarrantable assumption. We have no reason to maintain that all the books of the Old Testament must be of equal value. The Book of Esther does not reach a very high level of moral or religious worth; the pessimism of Ecclesiastes is not inspiring; even the Book of Proverbs contains maxims that cannot be elevated to a first place in ethics. If we could discover no distinctively enlightening or uplifting influence in the Song of Solomon, this would not be a sufficient reason for raising a cry against it; because if it were simply neutral in character, like nitrogen in the atmosphere, it would do no harm, and we could safely let it be. The one justification for a radical treatment of the question would be the discovery that the book was false in doctrine or deleterious in character. As to doctrine, it does not trench on that region at all. It would be as incongruous to associate it with the grave charge of heresy as to bring a similar accusation against the "Essays of Ella" or Keats’s poetry. And if the view expressed in these pages is at all correct, it certainly cannot be said that the moral tendency of the book is injurious; the very reverse must be affirmed.

Since there is no reason to believe that the Song of Solomon had received any allegorical interpretation before the commencement of the Christian era, we must conclude that it was not on the ground of some such interpretation that it was originally admitted into the Hebrew collection of Scripture. It was placed in the canon before it was allegorised. It was only allegorised because it had been placed in the canon. Then why was it set there? The natural conclusion to arrive at under these circumstances is that the scribes who ventured to put it first among the sacred "Megilloth" saw that there was a distinctive value in it. Perhaps, however, it is too much to say this of them. The word "Solomon" being attached to the book would seem to justify its inclusion with other literature which had received the hall-mark of that great name. Still we can learn to appreciate it on its own merits, and in so doing perceive that there is something in it to justify its right to a niche in the glorious temple of scripture.

Assuredly it was much to make clear in the days of royal polygamy among the Jews that this gross imitation of the court life of heathen monarchies was a despicable and degrading thing, and to set over against it an attractive picture of true love and simple manners. The prophets of Israel were continually protesting against a growing dissoluteness of morals: the Song of Solomon is a vivid illustration of the spirit of their protest. If two nations had been content with the rustic delights so beautifully portrayed in this book, they might not have fallen into ruin as they did under the influence of the corruptions of an effete civilisation. If their people had cherished the graces of purity and constancy that shine so conspicuously in the character of the Shulammite they might not have needed to pass through the purging fires of the captivity.

But while this can be said of the book as it first appeared among the Jews, a similar estimate of its function in later ages may also be made. An ideal representation of fidelity in love under the greatest provocation to surrender at discretion has a message forevery age. We need not shrink from reading it in the pages of the Bible. Our Lord teaches us that next to the duty of love to God comes that of love to one’s neighbour. But a man’s nearest neighbour is his wife. Therefore after his God his wife has the first claim upon him. But the whole conception of matrimonial duty rests on the idea of constancy in the love of man and woman.

If this book had been read in its literal signification and its wholesome lesson absorbed by Christendom in the Middle Ages, the gloomy cloud of asceticism that then hung over the Church would have been somewhat lightened, not to give place to the outburst of licentiousness that accompanied the Renaissance, but rather to allow of the better establishment of the Christian home. The absurd legends that follow the names of St. Anthony and St. Dunstan would have lost their motive. Hildebrand would have had no occasion to hurl his thunderbolt. The Church was making the huge mistake of teaching that the remedy for dissoluteness was unnatural celibacy. This book taught the lesson-truer to nature, truer to experience, truer to the God who made us-that it was to be found in the redemption of love.

Can it be denied that the same lesson is needed in our own day? The realism that has made itself a master of a large part of popular literature reveals a state of society that perpetuates the manners of the court of Solomon, though under a thin veil of decorum. The remedy for the awful dissoluteness of large portions of society can only be found in the cultivation of such lofty ideas on the relation of the sexes that this abomination shall be scouted with horror. It is neither necessary, nor right, nor possible to contradict nature. What has to be shewn is that man’s true nature is not bestial, that satyrs and fauns are not men, but degraded caricatures of men. We cannot crush the strongest passion of human nature. The moral of the Song of Solomon is that there is no occasion to attempt to crush it, because the right thing is to elevate it by lofty ideals of love and constancy.

This subject also deserves attention on its positive side. The literature of all ages is a testimony to the fact that nothing in the world is so interesting as love. What is so old as lovemaking? and what so fresh? At least ninety-nine novels out of a hundred have a love-story for plot; and the hundredth is always regarded as an eccentric experiment. The pedant may plant his heel on the perennial flower; but it will spring up again as vigorous as ever. This is the poetry of the most commonplace existence. When it visits a dingy soul the desert blossoms as the rose. Life may be hard, and its drudgery a grinding yoke; but with love "all tasks are sweet." "And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her." [Genesis 29:20] That experience of the patriarch is typical of the magic power of true love in every age, in every clime. To the lover it is always "the time of the singing of birds." Who shall tell the value of the boon that God has given so freely to mankind, to sweeten the lot of the toiler and shed music into his heart? But this boon requires to be jealously guarded and sheltered from abuse, or its honey will be turned into gall. It is for the toiler-the shepherd whose locks are wet with the dew that has fallen upon him while guarding his flock by night, the maiden who has been working in the vineyard; it is beyond the reach of the pleasure-seeking monarch and the indolent ladies of his court. This boon is for the pure in heart; it is utterly denied to the sensual and dissolute. Finally, it is reserved for the loyal and true as the peculiar reward of constancy.

But while a poem that contains these principles must be allowed to have an important mission in the world, it does not follow that it is suitable for public or indiscriminate reading. The fact that the key to it is not easily discovered is a warning that it is liable to be misunderstood. When it is read superficially, without any comprehension of its drift and motive, it may be perverted to mischievous ends. The antique Oriental pictures with which it abounds, though natural to the circumstances of its origin, are not in harmony with the more reserved manners of our own conditions of society. As all the books of the Bible are not of the same character, so also they are not all to be used in the same way.


Verses 9-16

MYSTICAL INTERPRETATIONS

THUS far we have been considering the bare, literal sense of the text. It cannot be denied that, if only to lead up to the metaphorical significance of the words employed, those words must be approached through their primary physical meanings. This is essential even to the understanding of pure allegory such as that of "The Faerie Queene" and "The Pilgrim’s Progress"; we must understand the adventures of the Red Cross Knight and the course of Christian’s journey before we can learn the moral of Spenser’s and Bunyan’s elaborate allegories. Similarly it is absolutely necessary for us to have some idea of the movement of the Song of Solomon as a piece of literature, in its external form, even if we are persuaded that beneath this sensuous exterior it contains the most profound ideas, before we can discover any such ideas. In other words, if it is to be considered as a mass of symbolism the symbols must be understood in themselves before their significance can be drawn out of them.

But now we are confronted with the question whether the book has any other meaning than that which meets the eye. The answers to this question are given on three distinct lines:-First, we have the allegorical schemes of interpretation, according to which the poem is not to be taken literally at all, but is to be regarded as a purely metaphorical representation of national or Church history, philosophical ideas, or spiritual experiences. In the second place, we meet with various forms of double interpretation, described as typical or mystical, in which a primary meaning is allowed to the book as a sort of drama or idyl, or as a collection of Jewish love-songs, while a secondary signification of an ideal or spiritual character is added. Distinct as these lines of interpretation are in themselves, they tend to blend in practice, because even when two meanings are admitted the symbolical signification is considered to be of so much greater importance than the literal that it virtually occupies the whole field. In the third place there is the purely literal interpretation, that which denies the existence of any symbolical or mystical intention in the poem.

Allegorical interpretations of the Song of Solomon are found among the Jews early in the Christian era. The Aramaic Targum, probably originating about the sixth century A.D., takes the first half of the poem as a symbolical picture of the history of Israel previous to the captivity, and the second as a prophetic picture of the subsequent fortunes of the nation. The recurrence of the expression "the congregation of Israel" in this paraphrase wherever the Shulammite appears, and other similar adaptations, entirely destroy the fine poetic flavour of the work, and convert it into a dreary, dry-as-dust composition.

Symbolical interpretations were very popular among Christian Fathers-though not with universal approval, as the protest of Theodore of Mopsuestia testifies. The great Alexandrian Origen is the founder and patron of this method of interpreting the Song of Solomon in the Church. Jerome was of opinion that Origen "surpassed himself" in his commentary on the poem-a commentary to which he devoted ten volumes. According to his view, it was originally an epithalamium celebrating the marriage of Solomon with Pharaoh’s daughter; but it has secondary mystical meanings descriptive of the relation of the Redeemer to the Church or the individual soul. Thus "the little foxes that spoil the grapes" are evil thoughts in the individual, or heretics in the Church. Gregory the Great contributes a commentary of no lasting interest. Very different is the work of the great mediaeval monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who threw himself into it with all the passion and rapture of his enthusiastic soul, and in the course of eighty-six homilies only reached the beginning of the third chapter in this to him inexhaustible mine of spiritual wealth, when he died, handing on the task to his faithful disciple Gilbert Porretanus, who continued it on the same portentous scale, and also died before he had finished the fifth chapter. Even while reading the old monkish Latin in this late age we cannot fail to feel the glowing devotion that inspires it. Bernard is addressing his monks, to whom he says he need not give the milk for babes, and whom he exhorts to prepare their throats not for this milk but for bread. As a schoolman he cannot escape from metaphysical subtleties - he takes the kiss of the bridegroom as a symbol of the incarnation. But throughout there burns the perfect rapture of love to Jesus Christ which inspires his well-known hymns. Here we are at the secret of the extraordinary popularity of mystical interpretations of the Song of Solomon. It has seemed to many in all ages of the Christian Church to afford the best expression for the deepest spiritual relations of Christ and His people. Nevertheless, the mystical method has been widely disputed since the time of the Reformation. Luther complains of the "many wild and monstrous interpretations" that are attached to the Song of Solomon, though even he understands it as symbolical of Solomon and his state. Still, not a few of the most popular hymns of our own day are saturated with ideas and phrases gathered from this book, and fresh expositions of what are considered to be its spiritual lessons may still be met with.

It is not easy to discover any justification for the rabbinical explanation of the Song of Solomon as a representation of successive events in the history of Israel, an explanation which Jewish scholars have abandoned in favour of simple literalism. But the mystical view, according to which the poem sets forth spiritual ideas, has pleas urged in its favour that demand some consideration. We are reminded of the analogy of Oriental literature, which delights in parable to an extent unknown in the West. Works of a kindred nature are produced in which an allegorical signification is plainly intended. Thus the Hindoo "Gitagovinda" celebrates the loves of Chrishna and Radha in verses that bear a remarkable resemblance to the Song of Solomon. Arabian poets sing of the love of Joseph for Zuleikha, which mystics take as the love of God towards the soul that longs for union with Him. There is a Turkish mystical commentary on the Song of Hafiz.

The Bible itself furnishes us with suggestive analogies. Throughout the Old Testament the idea of a marriage union between God and His people occurs repeatedly, and the most frequent metaphor for religious apostasy is drawn from the crime of adultery. {e.g., Exodus 34:15-16, Numbers 15:39, Psalms 73:27, Ezekiel 16:23, etc.} This symbolism is especially prominent in the writings of Jeremiah {e.g., Jeremiah 3:1-11} and Hosea. [Hosea 2:2;, Hosea 3:3] The forty-fifth psalm is an epithalamium commonly read with a Messianic signification. John the Baptist describes the coming Messiah as the Bridegroom, [John 3:20] and Jesus Christ accepts the title for Himself. [Mark 2:19] Our Lord illustrates the blessedness of the Kingdom of Heaven in a parable of a wedding feast. [Matthew 22:1-14] With St. Paul the union of husband and wife is an earthly copy of the Union of Christ and His Church. [Ephesians 5:22-33] The marriage of the Lamb is a prominent feature in the Book of the Revelation. [Revelation 21:9]

Further, it may be maintained that the experience of Christians has demonstrated the aptness of the expression of the deepest spiritual truths in the imagery of the Song of Solomon. Sad hearts disappointed in their earthly hopes have found in the religious reading of this poem as a picture of their relation to their Saviour the satisfaction for which they have hungered, and which the world could never give them. Devout Christians have read in it the very echo of their own emotions. Samuel Rutherford’s "Letters," for example, are in perfect harmony with the religious interpretation of the Song of Solomon; and these letters stand in the first rank of devotional works. There is certainly some force in the argument that a key which seems to fit the lock so well must have been designed to do so.

On the other hand, the objections to a mystical, religious interpretation are very strong. In the first place, we can quite account for its appearance apart from any justification of it in the original intention of the author. Allegory was in the air at the time when, as far as we know, secondary meanings were first attached to the ideas of the Song of Solomon. They sprang from Alexandria, the home of allegory. Origen, who was the first Christian writer to work out a mystical explanation of this book, treated other books of the Old Testament in exactly the same way; but we never dream of following him in his fantastical interpretations of those works. There is no indication that the poem was understood allegorically or mystically as early as the first century of the Christian era. Philo is the prince of allegorists: but while he explains the narratives of the Pentateuch according to his favourite method, be never applies that method to this very tempting book, and never even mentions the work or makes any reference to its contents. The Song of Solomon is not once mentioned or even alluded to in the slightest way by any writer of the New Testament. Since it is never noticed by Christ or the Apostles, of course we cannot appeal to their authority for reading it mystically; and yet it was undoubtedly known to them as one of the books in the canon of the sacred Scriptures to which they were in the habit of appealing repeatedly. Consider the grave significance of this fact. All secondary interpretations of which we know anything, and, as far as we can tell, all that ever existed, had their origin in post-apostolic times. If we would justify this method by authority it is to the Fathers that we must go, not to Christ and His apostles, not to the sacred Scriptures. It is a noteworthy fact, too, that the word Eros, the Greek name for the love of man and woman, as distinguished from Agape, which stands for love in the widest sense of the word, is first applied to our Lord by Ignatius. Here we have the faint beginning of the stream of erotic religious fancies which sometimes manifests itself most objectionably in subsequent Church history. There is not a trace of it in the New Testament.

If the choice spiritual ideas which some people think they see in the Song of Solomon are not imported by the reader, but form part of the genuine contents of the book, how comes it that this fact was not recognised by one of the inspired writers of the New Testament? or, if privately recognised, that it was never utilised? In the hands of the mystical interpreter this work is about the most valuable part of the Old Testament. He finds it to be an inexhaustible mine of the most precious treasures. Why, then, was such a remunerative lode never worked by the first authorities in Christian teaching? It may be replied that we cannot prove much from a bare negative. The apostles may have had their own perfectly sufficient reasons for leaving to the Church of later ages the discovery of this valuable spiritual store. Possibly the converts of their day were not ripe for the comprehension of the mysteries here expounded. Be that as it may, clearly the onus probandi rests with those people of a later age who introduce a method of interpretation for which no sanction can be found in Scripture.

Now the analogies that have been referred to are not sufficient to establish any proof. In the case of the other poems mentioned above there are distinct indications of symbolical intentions. Thus in the "Gitagovinda" the hero is a divinity whose incarnations are acknowledged in Hidoo mythology; and the concluding verse of that poem points the moral by a direct assertion of the religious meaning of the whole composition. This is not the case with the Song of Solomon. We must not be misled by the chapter-headings in our English Bibles, which of course are not to be found in the original Hebrew text. From the first line to the last there is not the slightest hint in the poem itself that it was intended to be read in any mystical sense. This is contrary to the analogy of all allegories. The parable may be difficult to interpret, but at all events it must suggest that it is a parable; otherwise it defeats its own object. If the writer never drops any hint that he has wrapped up spiritual ideas in the sensuous imagery of his poetry, what right has he to expect that anybody will find them there, so long as his poem admits of a perfectly adequate explanation in a literal sense? We need not be so dense as to require the allegorist to say to us in so many words: "This is a parable." But we may justly expect him to furnish us with some hint that his utterance is of such a character. Aesop’s fables carry their lessons on the surface of them, so that we can often anticipate the concluding morals that are attached to them. When Tennyson announced that the "Idyls of the King" constituted an allegory most people were taken by surprise; and yet the analogy of "The Faerie Queene," and the lofty ethical ideas with which the poems are inspired, might have prepared us for the revelation. But we have no similar indications in the case of the Song of Solomon. If somebody were to propound a new theory of "‘The Vicar of Wakefield," which should turn that exquisite tale into a parable of the Fall, it would not be enough for him to exercise his ingenuity in pointing out resemblances between the eighteenth-century romance and the ancient narrative of the serpent’s doings in the Garden of Eden. Since he could not shew that Goldsmith had the slightest intention of teaching anything of the kind, his exploit could be regarded as nothing but a piece of literary trifling.

The Biblical analogies already cited, in which the marriage relation between God or Christ and the Church or the soul are referred to, will not bear the strain that is put upon them when they are brought forward in order to justify a mystical interpretation of the Song of Solomon. At best they simply account for the emergence of this view of the book at a later time, or indicate that such a notion might be maintained if there were good reasons for adopting it. They cannot prove that in the present case it should be adopted. Moreover, they differ from it on two important points First, in harmony with all genuine allegories and metaphors, they carry their own evidence of a symbolical meaning, which as we have seen the Song of Solomon fails to do. Second, they are not elaborate compositions of a dramatic or idyllic character in which the passion of love is vividly illustrated. Regarded in its entirety, the Song of Solomon is quite without parallel in Scripture. It may be replied that we cannot disprove the allegorical intention of the book. But this is not the question. That intention requires to be proved; and until it is proved, or at least until some very good reasons are urged for adopting it, no statement of bare possibilities counts for anything.

But we may push the case further. There is a positive improbability of the highest order that the spiritual ideas read into the Song of Solomon by some of its Christian admirers should have been originally there. This would involve the most tremendous anachronism in all literature. The Song of Solomon is dated among the earlier works of the Old Testament. But the religious ideas now associated with it represent what, is regarded as the fruit of the most advanced saintliness ever attained in the Christian Church. Here we have a flat contradiction to the growth of revelation manifested throughout the whole course of Scripture history. We might as well ascribe the Sistine Madonna to the fresco-painters of the catacombs; or, what is more to the point, our Lord’s discourse with His disciples at the paschal meal to Solomon or some other Jew of his age.

No doubt the devoted follower of the mystical method will not be troubled by considerations such as these. To him the supposed fitness of the poem to convey his religious ideas is the one sufficient proof of an original design that it should serve that end. So long as the question is approached in this way, the absence of clear evidence only delights the prejudiced commentator with the opportunity it affords for the exercise of his ingenuity. To a certain school of readers the very obscurity of a book is its fascination. The less obvious a meaning is, the more eagerly do they set themselves to expound and defend it. We could leave them to what might be considered a very harmless diversion if it were not for other considerations. But we cannot forget that it is just this ingenious way of interpreting the Bible in accordance with preconceived opinions that has encouraged the quotation of the Sacred Volume in favour of absolutely contradictory propositions, an abuse which in its turn has provoked an inevitable reaction leading to contempt for the Bible as an obscure book which speaks with no certain voice.

Still, it may be contended, the analogy between the words of this poem and the spiritual experience of Christians is in itself an indication of intentional connection. Swedenborg has shewn that there are correspondences between the natural and the spiritual, and this truth is illustrated by the metaphorical references to marriage in the Bible which have been adduced for comparison with the Song of Solomon. But their very existence shows that analogies between religious experience and the love story of the Shulammite may be traced out by the reader without any design on the part of the author to present them. If they are natural they are universal, and any love song will serve our purpose. On this principle, if the Song of Solomon admits of mystical adaptation, so do Mrs. Browning’s "Sonnets from the Portuguese."

We have no alternative, then, but to conclude that the mystical interpretation of this work is based on a delusion. Moreover, it must be added that the delusion is a mischievous one. No doubt to many it has been as meat and drink. They have found in their reading of the Song of Solomon real spiritual refreshment, or they believe they have found it. But there is another side. The poem has been used to minister to a morbid, sentimental type of religion. More than any other influence, the mystical interpretation of this book has imported an effeminate element into the notion of the love of Christ, not one trace of which can be detected in the New Testament. The Catholic legend of the marriage of St. Catherine is somewhat redeemed by the high ascetic tone that pervades it; and yet it indicates a decline from the standpoint of the apostles. Not a few unquestionable revelations of immorality in convents have shed a ghastly light on the abuse of erotic religious fervour. Among Protestants it cannot be said that the most wholesome hymns are those which are composed on the model of the Song of Solomon. In some cases the religious use of this book is perfectly nauseous, indicating nothing less than a disease of religion. When-as sometimes happens-frightful excesses of sensuality follow close on seasons of what has been regarded as the revival of religion, the common explanation of these horrors is that in some mysterious way spiritual emotion lies very near to sensual appetite, so that an excitement of the one tends to rouse the other. A more revolting hypothesis, or one more insulting to religion, cannot be imagined. The truth is, the two regions are separate as the poles. The explanation of the phenomena of their apparent conjunction is to be found in quite another direction. It is that their victims have substituted for religion a sensuous excitement which is as little religious as the elation that follows indulgence in alcoholism. There is no more deadly temptation of the devil than that which hoodwinks deluded fanatics into making this terrible mistake. But it can scarcely be denied that the mystical reading of the Song of Solomon by unspiritual persons, or even by any persons who are not completely fortified against the danger, may tend in this fatal direction.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Song of Solomon 5:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/song-of-solomon-5.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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