the Fourth Week of Lent
Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
Can´ticles, Solomon's Song, or Song of Songs as it is designated in the inscription, is generally believed to have been so denominated to denote the superior beauty and excellence of this poem.
In favor of the canonical authority of this book (which has been questioned in ancient and modern times) we may observe, that it is found in all the copies of the Hebrew Bible which have descended to our times, as well as in the version of the Seventy, which was finished sometime in the second century before the Christian era. It is also found in all the ancient catalogues which have come down to us from the early Christian church. It has consequently all the external marks of canonicity possessed by any other book of the Old Testament not expressly cited in the New. Those who have questioned its right to a place in the sacred volume have proceeded more on dogmatic than on historico-critical grounds.
The subject of this book is confessedly Love. But it has been a matter of much controversy, especially in modern times, what kind of love is here celebrated. It is equally a matter of dispute among divines whether the interpretation of the poem is limited to its obvious and primary meaning, or whether it does not also include a latent mystical and allegorical sense. We shall speak of these subjects in order. And, first, as to the literal and primary meaning, the earliest information which we have is contained in the preface of Origen to his commentary on this book. This eminent scholar holds it to be an epithalamium, or marriage-song, in the form of a drama. This idea has been, in modern times, improved by Lowth, Bossuet, Michaelis, and other commentators. 'The Song of Songs,' says Bishop Lowth, 'for so it is entitled, either on account of the excellence of the subject or of the composition, is an epithalamium, or nuptial dialogue, or rather, if we may be allowed to give it a title more agreeable to the genius of the Hebrews, a Song of Loves. Such is the title of Psalms 45. It is expressive of the utmost fervor as well as delicacy of passion: it is instinct with all the spirit and sweetness of affection. The principal characters are Solomon himself and his bride, who are represented speaking both in dialogue, and in soliloquy, when accidentally separated. Virgins, also the companions of the bride, are introduced, who seem to be constantly on the stage, and bear a part of the dialogue. Mention is also made of young men, friends of the bridegroom, but they are mute persons. This is exactly conformable to the manners of the Hebrews, who had always a number of companions to the bridegroom, thirty of whom were present in honor of Samson at his nuptial feast (). In the New Testament, according to the Hebrew idiom, they are called children, or sons of the bridechamber, and friends of the bridegroom. There, too, we find mention of ten virgins who went forth to meet the bridegroom and conduct him home; which circumstances indicate that this poem is founded on the nuptial rites of the Hebrews, and is expressive of the forms or ceremonial of their marriage.'
Bossuet's idea of this poem was, that it is a regular drama, or pastoral eclogue, consisting of seven acts, each act filling a day, concluding with the Sabbath, inasmuch as the bridegroom on this day does not, as usual, go forth to his rural employments, but proceeds from the marriage chamber into public with his bride. Lowth so far differs from Bossuet as to deny the existence of a regular drama, inasmuch as there is no termination to the plot. Michaelis, in his notes to his German translation of Lowth's Prelections, endeavours to overturn the views of Bossuet and Lowth, and to show that this poem can have no relation to the celebration of a marriage, inasmuch as the bridegroom is compelled in his nuptial week to quit his spouse and friends for whole days, in order to attend to his cattle in the pastures. His opinion is, that this poem has no reference to a future marriage, but that the chaste loves of conjugal and domestic life are described. This state, he conceives, in the East, admits of more of the perplexities, jealousies, plots, and artifices of love than it does with us; the scene is more varied, and there is consequently greater scope for invention.
But the idea that the conjugal state, or the loves of married persons, are here referred to, has been strongly opposed by some of the ablest modern writers, who maintain that the chaste mutual loves of two young persons antecedent to marriage are here celebrated.
Here it may be necessary to state, that the learned are divided on the point whether the Canticles consist of one continued and connected poem, or of a number of detached songs or amorets. The first person who maintained the latter opinion was Father Simon, who was on this account unjustly accused of denying the canonicity of the book. This opinion has been subsequently defended by Eichhorn, Jahn, Pareau, and many others. A very general opinion is, that it is an idyll, or rather, a number of idylls, all forming a collective whole. Such is the opinion held, among others, by Sir William Jones and Dr. J. Mason Good, in his beautiful translation of the Song of Songs. Ewald considers the poem to consist of a drama in four parts. The heroine of the poem, according to this writer, is a country maiden, a native of Engedi, who, while rambling in the plains, fell in with the chariots of Solomon, and was carried by him into his palace.
It has been in all ages a matter of dispute, whether we are to seek for any hidden or occult meaning under the envelope of the literal and obvious sense. While several eminent men have maintained that the object of these poems is confined to the celebration of the mutual love of the sexes, or that its main design, in so far as its sacred character is considered, is the inculcation of marriage, and especially of monogamy, the majority of Christian interpreters, at least since the days of Origen (who wrote ten books of commentaries on this poem), have believed that a divine allegory is contained under the garb of an epithalamium, founded on the historical fact of the marriage of Solomon with the daughter of Pharaoh: others have held it to be a simple allegory, having no historical truth for its basis.
As, however, the Scriptures give no intimation that this book contains a mystical or allegorical sense, recourse has been had to the analogy of some of the Messianic Psalms, whose application to spiritual objects is recognized in the New Testament. Especially a great resemblance has been observed between the character of the Canticles and Psalms 45; and it will suffice for our present purpose to cite the opinion of Rosenmüller, one of the ablest commentators on the Messianic Psalms, in reference to this subject. Professing to follow the opinion of the ancient Hebrews, communicated by the Chaldee paraphrast, and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews—namely, that Psalms 45 celebrated the excellences and praises of the great Messiah; he observes, 'Throughout the latter part of the psalm this allegory, in which the Hebrew poets particularly delighted, is maintained. They were accustomed to represent God as entertaining, towards his chosen people, feelings which they compared to conjugal affections; and which they deduced, under this figure, into all the various and even minute expressions. In the illustrating and beautifying of this allegory, the whole of the Song of Songs is occupied: that the subject of that poem, and that of the psalm before us, is the same, there is no doubt among sound interpreters.' The reader may also refer, in illustration of this subject, to the many passages of the Old and New Testament in which this figure is retained by the sacred writers: such as ; ; , etc.; Ezekiel 16; Ezekiel 23; ; ; ; , etc.; ; ; . The tradition of the Jews as preserved by the ancient Chaldee paraphrast is that the poem embodies a figurative description of the gracious conduct of Jehovah towards his people, in delivering them from the Egyptian bondage, conferring great benefits on them during their progress through the wilderness, and conveying them in safety to the Promised Land. Aben Ezra considered that the Canticles represented the history of the Jews from Abraham to the Messiah. Others have conceived the bride to be Wisdom, with whom Solomon was acquainted from his childhood, and with whose beauty he was captivated. Luther, in his Commentary on Canticles, maintained the allegorical interpretation, conceiving Jehovah to be the bridegroom, the bride the Jewish nation, and the poem itself a figurative description of Solomon's civil government. In his Commentary on I Peter, however, he explains the bride to be the New Testament church.
The modern writers of the Roman church have, in general, followed Origen and Jerome in their allegorical interpretations.
The opinion of those who have acknowledged no other than the literal interpretation of the Canticles has had a considerable influence in the question of the canonicity of the book. Nor is it at all surprising that those who were in the habit of attaching a spiritual meaning to it should find it difficult to believe that a book treating of human love should have a place in the inspired volume.
The author and age of Canticles have been also much disputed. The inscription ascribes it to Solomon; and this is confirmed by the universal voice of antiquity, although some of the Jews have attributed it to Hezekiah.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Canticles'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​c/canticles.html.