I think it is fair to say that the Song of Solomon is one of the least read and studied books in the Bible today. When did you last read it or hear a sermon on it?
Over the past few months, I have read various Christian writers from the early church to the 19th century and I have been struck by the number of quotes from the Song of Solomon I found. That book is everywhere present in the writings of early church and medieval theologians. Someone like Bernard of Clairvaux preached one of his best and longest series of sermons on that book. It also struck me how often the book is quoted by the English puritans and reformed authors until the 19th century. Recently, I read Robert Murray McCheyne’s letters and Andrew Bonar’s diary and quotes from the Song of Solomon abound.
So what happened to that great book? Well, the fact is that christians in the past read it as an allegory of the love between God and his church but, by and large, Christians today have rejected that interpretation. Many scholars say that the book is simply a celebration of romantic and erotic love and that reading it christologically is naïve and anachronistic. Now, love is surely a great gift from God but, if that’s all there is to the book, then no wonder we don’t read or preach on it very often.
But what if older theologians were right? Should we really read the whole Bible Christologically? Should we focus more on what the Holy Spirit has to say and less on what the human author meant at the time?
And do we know for sure what the author meant at the time? I wonder whether the real issue is that, as people brought up in a society obsessed with science and techonlogy, we instinctively distrust symbolism and allegories and we have no real appreciation of poetry.
In my spare time I enjoy learning a bit of Farsi and reading Persian poetry. I recently read an introduction to a mystical Persian poet in which a scholar made an interesting point: he said that many western readers have been puzzled or even shocked by the sensual nature of many of these poems but that, of course, it should be taken for granted that all this poetry is ultimately religious and that the “beloved” is God himself. Now the Old Testament is not the same as Persian poetry but it still made me think.
Let’s leave the last word to the great John Owen. In his work about the glory of Christ he says this:
“[The glory of Christ] was represented in the mystical account which is given us of his communion with his church in love and in grace. As this is intimated in many places of Scripture, so there is one entire book designed into this declaration. This is the divine Song of Salomon, who was a type of Christ and a penman of the Holy Ghost therein. A gracious record it is of the divine communications of Christ in love and grace unto his church, with their returns of love unto him, and delight in him….. But because these things are little understood by many, the book itself is much neglected, if not despised...” (Works, Volume I, p.349)