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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Song of Solomon

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8

Book Overview - Song of Solomon

by William Nicoll

THE STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK

THE Song of Solomon is a puzzle to the commentator. Quite art from the wilderness of mystical interpretations with which it has been overgrown in the course of the ages, its literary form and motives are subjects of endless controversy. There are indications that it is a continuous poem; and yet it is characterised by startling kaleidoscopic changes that seem to break it up into incongruous fragments. If it is a single work the various sections of it succeed one another in the most abrupt manner, without any connecting links or explanatory clauses.

The simplest way out of the difficulty presented by the many curious turns and changes of the poem is to deny it any structural unity, and treat it as a string of independent lyrics. That is to cut the knot in a rather disappointing fashion. Nevertheless the suggestion to do so met with some favour when it was put forth at the close of the last century by Herder, a writer who seemed better able to enter into the spirit of Hebrew poetry than any of his contemporaries. While accepting the traditional view of the authorship of the book, this critic described its contents as "Solomon’s songs of love, the oldest and sweetest of the East"; and Goethe in the world of letters, as well as biblical students, endorsed his judgment. Subsequently it fell into disfavour, and scholars, who differed among themselves with respect to their own theories, agreed in rejecting this particular hypothesis. But quite recently it has appeared in an altered form. The book, it is now suggested, is just a chance collection of folk songs from northern Palestine, an anthology of rustic love-poems. These songs are denied any connection with Solomon or the court. The references to royalty are accounted for by a custom said to be kept up among the Syrian peasants in the present day, according to which the week of wedding festivities, is called "The king’s week," because the newly-married pair then play the part of king and queen, and are playfully treated by their friends with the honours of a court. The bridegroom is supposed to be named Solomon in acknowledgment of his regal splendour-as an English villager might be so named for his conspicuous wisdom; while perhaps the bride is called the Shulammite, with an allusion to the famous beauty Abishag, the Shunammite of David’s time. [1 Kings 1:3]

Such a theory as this is only admissible on condition that the unity of the poem has been disproved. But whether we can unravel it or not, there is much that goes to show that one thread runs through the whole book. The style is the same throughout, and it has no parallel in the whole of Hebrew literature. Everywhere we meet with the same rich, luxurious language, the same abundance of imagery, the same picturesque habit of alluding to a number of plants and animals by name, the same vivacity of movement, the same pleading tone, the same suffused glow as of the light of morning. Then there are more peculiar features that continually recur, such as the form of the dialogue, certain recognisable characters, the part of chorus taken by the daughters of Jerusalem, in particular the gentle, graceful portrait of the Shulammite, the consistency of which is well preserved. But the principal reason for believing in the unity of the work is to be found in an examination of its plot. The difficulty of making this out has encouraged the temptation to discredit its existence. But while there are various ideas about the details, there is enough in common to all the proposed schemes of the story to indicate the fact that the book is one composition.

The question whether the work is a drama or an idyl has been discussed with much critical acumen. But is it not rather pedantic? The sharply divided orders of European poetry were not observed or even known in Israel. It was natural, therefore, that Hebrew imaginative work should partake of the characteristics of several orders, while too naive to trouble itself with the rules of any one. The drama designed for acting was not cultivated by the ancient Jews. It was introduced as an exotic only as late as the Roman period, when Herod built the first theatre known to have existed in the Holy Land. Previous to his time we have no mention of the art of play-acting among the Jews. Nevertheless the dialogues in the Song of Solomon are certainly dramatic in character; and we cannot call the poem an idyl when it is rendered entirely in the form of speeches by different persons without any connecting narrative. The Book of Job is also dramatic in form, though, like Browning’s dramatic poetry, not designed for acting; but in that work each of the several speakers is introduced by a sentence that indicates who he is, while in our poem no such indication is given. Here we only get evidence of a change of speakers in the form and contents of the utterances, and the transition from the masculine to the feminine gender and from the singular number to the plural. Even the chorus takes an active part in the movement of the dialogue, instead of simply commenting on the proceedings of the principal characters as in a Greek play. We seem to want a key to the story, and the absence of anything of the kind is the occasion of the bewildering variety of conjectures that confronts the reader. But the difficulty thus occasioned is no reason for denying that there is any continuity in the book, especially in view of numerous signs of unity that cannot be evaded.

Among those who accept the dramatic integrity of the poem there are two distinct lines of interpretation, each of them admitting some differences in the treatment of detail. According to one scheme Solomon is the only lover; according to the other, while the king is seeking to win the affections of the country maiden, he has been forestalled by the shepherd, fidelity to whom is shewn by the Shulammite in spite of the fascinations of the court.

There is no denying the rural simplicity of much of the scenery; evidently this is designed to be in contrast to the sensuous luxury and splendour of the court. Those who take Solomon to be the one lover throughout, not only admit this fact; they bring it into their version of the story so as to heighten the effect. The king is out holiday-making, perhaps on a hunting expedition, when he first meets the country maiden. In her childlike simplicity she takes him for a rustic swain; or perhaps, though she knows who he is, she sportively addresses him as she would address one of her village companions. Subsequently she shews no liking for the pomp of royalty. She cannot make herself at home with the women of the harem. She longs to be back in her mother’s cottage among the woods and fields where she spent her child days. But she loves the king and he dotes on her. So she would take him with her away from the follies and temptations of the court down to her quiet country retreat. Under the influence of the Shulammite Solomon is induced to give up his unworthy habits and live a healthier, purer life. Her love is strong enough to retain the king wholly to herself. Thus the poem is said to describe a reformation in the character of Solomon. In particular it is thought to celebrate the triumph of true love over the degradation of polygamy.

It is impossible to find any time in the life of David’s successor when this great conversion might have taken place; and the occurrence itself is highly improbable. Those however are not fatal objections to the proposed scheme, because the poem may be entirely ideal; it may even be written at the king. Historical considerations need not trouble us in dealing with an imaginative work such as this. It must be judged entirely on internal grounds. But when it is so judged it refuses to come into line with the interpretation suggested. Regarding the matter only from a literary point of view, we must confess that it is most improbable that Solomon would be introduced as a simple peasant without any hint of the reason of his appearing in this novel guise. Then we may detect a difference between the manner in which the king addresses the Shulammite and that in which, on the second hypothesis, the shepherd speaks to her. Solomon’s compliments are frigid and stilted: they describe the object of his admiration in the most extravagant terms, but they exhibit no trace of feeling. The heart of the voluptuary is withered, the fires of passion have burnt themselves out and only the cold ashes remain, the sacred word "love" has been so long desecrated that it has ceased to convey any meaning. On the other hand, frequent practice has outstripped the clumsy wooing of inexperienced lovers and developed the art of courtship to a high degree. The royal bird-catcher knows how to lay his lines, though fortunately for once even his consummate skill fails. How different is the bearing of the true lover, a village lad who has won the maiden’s heart! He has no need to resort to the vocabulary of flattery, because his own heart speaks. The English translations give an unwarrantable appearance of warmth to the king’s language where he is represented as calling the Shulammite "My love." [Song of Solomon 1:9] The word in the Hebrew means no more than my friend. When Solomon first appears he addresses the Shulammite with this title, and then immediately tries to tempt her by promising her presents of jewelry. Take another instance. In the beginning of the fourth chapter Solomon enters on an elaborate series of compliments describing the beauty of the Shulammite, without a single word of affection. As she persists in withstanding his advances her persecutor becomes more abashed. He shrinks from her pure, cold gaze, calls her terrible as an army with banners, prays her to turn away her eyes from him. On the theory that Solomon is the accepted lover, the beloved bridegroom, this position is quite unintelligible. Now turn to the language of the true lover: "Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; thou hast ravished my heart with one look of thine eyes." [Song of Solomon 4:9]

A corresponding difference is to be detected in the bearing of the maiden towards the rivals. Towards the king she is cool and repellent; but no dream of poetry can equal the tenderness and sweetness of her musing on her absent lover or the warmth of love with which she speaks to him. These distinctions will be more apparent in detail as we proceed with the story of the poem. It may be noticed here, that this story is not at all consistent with the story that Solomon is the only lover. According to that hypothesis we have the highly improbable situation of a separation of the newly married couple on their wedding day. Besides, as the climax is supposed to be reached at the middle of the book, there is no apparent motive for the second half. The modern novel, which has its wedding at the middle of its plot, or even at the very beginning, and then sets itself to develop the comedy or perhaps the tragedy of married life, is not at all parallel to this old love story. Time must be allowed for the development of matrimonial complications; but here the scenes are all in close connection.

If we are thus led to accept what has been called "the shepherd hypothesis" the value of the book will be considerably enhanced. This is more than a mere love poem; it is not to be classed with erotics, although a careless reading of some of its passages might incline us to place it in the same category with a purely sensuous style of poetry. We have here something more than Sappho’s fire. If we are tempted to compare it with Herrick’s "Hesperides" or Shakespeare’s "Sonnets," we must recognise an element that it is not didactic in form. It is not only in and maidens. Even on the "Solomon theory" pure love and simple living are exalted in opposition to the luxury and vices of the royal seraglio. A poem that sets forth the beauty of a simple country life as the scene of the true love of husband and wife in contrast to the degradation of a corrupt court is distinctly elevating in tone and influence, and the more so for the fact that it is not didactic in form. It is not only in kings’ palaces and amid scenes of Oriental voluptuousness that the influence of such ideas as are here presented is needed. Christian civilisation has not progressed beyond the condition in which the consideration of them may be resorted to as a wholesome corrective. But if we are to agree to the "shepherd hypothesis" as on the whole the more probable, another idea of highest importance emerges. It is not love, now, but fidelity, that claims our attention. The simple girl, protected only by her virtue, who is proof against all the fascinations of the most splendid court, and who prefers to be the wife of a poor man whom she loves, and to whom she has plighted troth, to accepting a queen’s crown at the cost of deserting her humble lover, is the type and example of a loyalty which is the more admirable because it appears where we should little expect to find it. It has been said that such a story as is here depicted would be impossible in real life; that a girl once enticed into the harem of an Oriental despot would never have a chance of escape. The eunuchs who guarded the doors would lose their heads if they allowed her to run away; the king would never give up the prey that had fallen into his trap; the shepherd lover who was mad enough to pursue his lost sweetheart into her captor’s palace would never come out alive. Are we so sure of all these points? Most improbable things do happen. It is at least conceivable that even a cruel tyrant might be seized with a fit of generosity, and why should we regard Solomon as a cruel tyrant? His fame implies that there were noble traits in his character. But these questions are beside the mark. The situation is wholly ideal. Then the more improbable the events described would be in real life, the more impressive do the lessons they suggest become.

Who wrote the book? The only answer that can be given to this question is negative. Assuredly, Solomon could not have been the author of this lovely poem in praise of the love and fidelity of a country lass and her swain, and the simplicity of their rustic life. It would be difficult to find a man in all history who more conspicuously illustrated the exact opposites of these ideas. The exquisite eulogy of love-perhaps the finest in any literature - which occurs towards the end of the book, the passage beginning, "Set me as a seal upon thine heart," etc., [Song of Solomon 8:6-7] is not the work of this master of a huge seraglio, with his "seven hundred wives" and his "three hundred concubines." [1 Kings 11:3] It is impossible to find the source of this poetry in the palace of the Israelite "Grand Monarch"; we might as soon light on a bank of wild flowers in a Paris dancing saloon. There is quite a library of Solomon literature, a very small part of which can be traced to the king whose name it bears, the greatness of this name having attracted attention and led to the ascription of various works to the royal author, whose wisdom was as proverbial as his splendour. It is difficult to resist the impression that in the present case there is some irony in the singular inappropriateness of the title.

The date of the poem can be conjectured with some degree of assurance, although the language does not help us much in the determination of this point. There are archaisms, and there are also terms that seem to indicate a late date-Aramaic words and possibly even words of Greek extraction. The few foreign terms may have crept in under the influence of revisers. On the other hand the style and contents of the book speak for the days of the Augustan age of Hebrew history. The notoriety of Solomon’s court and memories of its magnificence and luxury seem to be fresh in the minds of the people. These things are treated in detail and with an amount of freedom that supposes knowledge on the part of the readers as well as the writer. There is one expression that helps to fix the date with more definiteness. Tirzah is associated with Jerusalem as though the two cities were of equal importance. The king says:

"Thou art beautiful, O my love, as Tirzah,

Comely as Jerusalem." [Song of Solomon 6:5]

Now this city was the northern capital for about fifty years after the death of Solomon-from the time of Jeroboam, who made it his royal residence, [1 Kings 14:17] till the reign of Omri, who abandoned the ill-omened place six years after his vanquished predecessor Zimri had burnt the palace over his own head. [1 Kings 16:18; 1 Kings 16:18;, 1 Kings 16:23-24] The way in which the old capital is mentioned here implies that it is still to the north what Jerusalem is to the south. Thus we are brought to the half century after the death of the king whose name the book bears.

The mention of Tirzah as the equal of Jerusalem is also an evidence of the northern origin of the poem; for it is not at all probable that a subject of the mutilated nation of the south would describe the beauty of the rebel headquarters by the side of that of his own idolised city, as something typical and perfect. But the poem throughout gives indications of its origin in the country parts of the north. Shunem, famous as the scene of Elisha’s great miracle, seems to be the home of the heroine. [Song of Solomon 6:13] The poet turns to all points of the compass for images with which to enrich his pictures-Sharon on the western coast, [Song of Solomon 2:1] Gilead across the Jordan to the east [Song of Solomon 4:1] Engedi by the wilderness of the Dead Sea, [Song of Solomon 1:14] as well as the northern districts. But the north is most frequently mentioned. Lebanon is named over and over again, and Hermon is referred to as in the neighbourhood of the shepherd’s home. [Song of Solomon 3:9; Song of Solomon 4:8; Song of Solomon 4:15; Song of Solomon 7:4] In fact the poem is saturated with the fragrant atmosphere of the northern mountains.

Now this has suggested a striking inference. Here we have a picture of Solomon and his court from the not too friendly hand of a citizen of the revolted provinces. The history in the Books of Kings is written from the standpoint of Judah; it is curious to learn how the people of the north thought of Solomon in all his glory. Thus considered the book acquires a secondary and political meaning. It appears as a scornful condemnation of the court at Jerusalem on the part of the poorer and more simple inhabitants of the kingdom of Jeroboam and his successors. But it also stands for all time as a protest against luxury and vice, and as a testimony to the beauty and dignity of pure love, stanch fidelity, and quiet, wholesome, primitive country manners. It breathes the spirit that reappears in Goldsmith’s "Deserted Village," and inspires the muse of Wordsworth, as in the poem which contrasts the dove’s simple notes with the nightingale’s tumultuous song, saying of the homely bird,

"He sang of love with quiet blending;

Slow to begin, and never ending;

Of serious faith and inward glee;

That was the song-the song for me."

{e-Sword Note: The printed edition shows this material at near the end of Song of Solomon.}

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.

{e-Sword Note: The printed edition shows this material at near the end of Song of Solomon.}

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.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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