A Redemptive-Historical Reading of the Song of Songs

In modern times, the Song of Songs has been interpreted in a manner that has moved away from the historically predominant position of interpreting the Song allegorically. This move away from an allegorical understanding has given prominence to two main interpretations: (1) an erotic love song (or collection of songs) (R. K. Harrison 2004, 1054-55) and (2) a song teaching wise dealings in marriage (Paul House 1998, 463-469). But, our contention, which we will argue below by building on the allegorical understanding, is that the Song should be interpreted redemptive-historically.

I. Literary Genre and Interpretation

Throughout the history of interpretation, the Song has been interpreted allegorically. Pre-Christian Jewish interpreters saw it as an allegory of Yahweh’s love toward Israel; similarly, Christian interpreters from the church fathers to as recent as Charles Spurgeon (d. 1892) have interpreted the Song as referring to Christ and his bride.

Now, the greatest strength of recent interpreters of the Song, who, in turn, eschew the allegorical understanding, is that there is no indication that the Song is meant to be understood as allegory. As E. J. Young (1960, 352) rightly points out, only that which is in the genre of allegory is to be interpreted allegorically (e.g., John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia). Allegorical literature can thus be adequately described as an extended metaphor.

But, with this, allegorical interpretation of the Bible is distinct from allegory per se. The Quadriga method, deriving from the Alexandrian school of biblical interpretation (esp. Origen), understands there to be a fourfold method of interpretation with the allegorical level providing a deeper, “spiritual” understanding of difficult and hard texts. This level, or sub-method, was used especially with seemingly obscure or unpalatable Old Testament texts. This sub-method is to be rejected as it strongly tends toward subjectivism and therefore arbitrariness in interpretation.

Taken at face value, then, one can agree with recent interpreters that the Song is to be interpreted as either a love song or a song of wisdom in marriage (or both). But, one must ask, does this end the debate? Are we now to toss in the proverbial dustbin the long-standing allegorical interpretation of the Song? Despite voices to the contrary, we would argue against such a proposal.

II. The Revelation of Christ and the Old Testament

When one approaches the Song on its own terms, it seems to only admit of a loving, intimate relationship between a man and a woman; most likely for instructional purposes and not merely as a poetic expression of marital love. Yet, the Song, like the rest of the Old Testament, must not be taken only on its own terms but as it relates to the subsequent revelation of God in the person of Christ.

In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul argues that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for the growth of the believer. It is commonly recognized that “all Scripture” here refers to the Old Testament, as that was the Scripture of the early church. Yet, the implication of this assertion cannot be missed. Paul is continually concerned to stress that our entire life as believers is situated in our union with Christ. Therefore, our justification, sanctification, and, indeed, glorification—our salvation from beginning to end—is inseparable from our union to Christ.

Put differently, all growth in God, all conformity to his image, is necessarily bound up, determined by, and dependent on our relationship to Christ, the express image of God, who is the true, complete and perfect revelation of God (Hebrews 1). Truly, we cannot know the Father apart from Christ (John 14). Therefore, the entirety of spiritual benefit which we are to gain from the Old Testament (“all Scripture”) finds its ultimate sitz im leben in Christ. Redemptive-historically speaking, in light of the revelation of the person and work of Christ in the New Testament (NT), our interpretation of the Old Testament (OT) is radically re-oriented to be Christocentric.

So, already with this, it would be woefully inadequate to interpret the Song in a manner which is divorced from or neglectful of the Christocentric interpretation of the Old Testament as is commended to us by the NT authors, which, if we had space, could be further substantiated by the NT use of the OT by these same authors. Yet, there is more by way of evidence to suggest a redemptive-historical reading of the Song.

In Ephesians (Eph) 5:22-33, Paul, in his exhortation to husbands and wives in their respective roles, connects the covenant of marriage, instituted with Adam and Eve (Genesis 2; Eph 5:31), to Christ’s relation to his bride, the church (Eph 5:32). He calls this connection between marriage and Christ and the church a “profound mystery” (ESV). Mystery (μυστήριον) has significant redemptive-historical import. The concept of mystery as found in the NT denotes that which was once hidden in the OT, but is made manifest and clear in the NT.

Already, in the OT, we see hints of the relationship between God and his people construed in marital terms (Hosea 1-3; Jeremiah 2:2-3; 3:1-24; and Ezekiel 16; 23 [esp. vv. 37, 43-45]), albeit largely as a negative portrayal of Israel infidelity toward the Lord. If one grants Solomonic authorship for the Song, then these hints would follow the writing of the Song in terms of dating, and thus, provide further warrant for the later Jewish allegorical interpretation of the Song. Returning to our prior point, we would suggest that Paul’s use of “mystery” in Eph 5, drawing from the hints found in the OT (cf. Eph 5:26; Ezekiel 16:9), refers to the revelation of the profound intimacy and love that exists between God and his people which, while present in the OT, was present in a dim manner. The fullness of God’s love toward his people, his bride, wasn’t fully apprehended until the revelation of God in the person and work of Christ.

III. The Song of Songs Redemptive-Historically Understood

Probably one of the strongest reasons why one would reject a redemptive-historical reading of the Song is the intimate, subtly erotic nature of it. It is off-putting, to say the least, to understand the love that exists between a man and a woman as expressed in the Song as indicative of the love that exists between Christ and his bride. Yet, does this not betray a fallen and therefore tainted understanding the marital bond rather than present an argument against a redemptive-historical interpretation? Sexual, marital union between a husband and wife is indeed the most intimate of unions that can exist between two people on this earth hence the significance of Paul’s connection of this with the “mystery” of Christ with the church, his bride.

Stepping back a little, we can describe it in this way:

In the progression of God’s revelation, the covenant of marriage was instituted at the outset (Gen 2), and, in the OT texts noted above, hinted at as reflecting God’s love toward his people. Yet, what was dim in the OT, was made clear in the NT, with Eph 5, as the text par excellence, making clear that the covenant of marriage pointed to a heavenly reality, namely, Christ’s love for and intimate connection with his bride, whom the Father gave him (John 17). In sum, much like the priesthood type (cf. Hebrews 7), marriage, as God’s revelation of himself progressed in redemptive-history, pointed typologically to the heavenly reality of the union of Christ with his bride; that is, marriage reflected a heavenly reality which found its substance in the church’s union to Christ.

Perhaps Jesus’ statement that “… in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30 ESV) further substantiates this typological understanding of marriage. That is to say, after the resurrection of the dead, the type of marriage will find its completion (antitype) as Christ will be fully united with his bride at the consummation of his kingdom (Revelation 21).

Turning back then to the connection between the marital bond and the union between Christ and his bride, the strong sexual ethic of the Bible is brought into stark relief. Sexual immorality, with all that falls under this rubric, undermines and obscures the “profound mystery” that is revealed in marriage. The marital bond that is expressed in sexual union is a profound picture of Christ’s love for and union with his church. Thus, the Song, with all its erotic, sexual undertones, rather than undermining the redemptive-historical interpretation, supports it. If marriage is the most intimate union between two human persons, what does this say about the union between the Christ and his bride? When our minds and hearts are lifted above the banal caricatures and distortions of the marital bond as seen in our culture, our own sexual immoralities and our fleshly desires, it becomes clear, arguing from lesser to greater, that the Song is a most fitting description of the union that exists between Christ and his church.

IV. Conclusion

To conclude, with regard to literary genre and OT understanding, the Song, we would argue, is an love song written to instruct in courtship and marriage. But, with a consideration to the redemptive-historical or Christological reading of the OT, it is clear that we cannot stop there. The Song portrays in vivid imagery, although not always clear, the intimacy between a husband and wife, and provides wise instruction for the same. How much more does it provide an understanding of the deep intimacy that exists between Christ and his people! The clear teaching of Eph 5 must inform the evocative, poetic and suggestive nature of the Song. Truly, the Song is deep, but not in the allegorical sense (i.e., in a sense that is subjective and arbitrary), but in the redemptive-historical sense, grounded in the firm revelation of the Son of God, the God-man, Christ Jesus.

Now, this does not eliminate the prior OT lens upon which to read the Song. Rather, just as Paul exhorts husbands and wives on the basis of Christ’s union with his church, so can the intimacy and wisdom that the Song provides for the marital relationship be based on Christ’s union with his church, and, indeed, enriched and filled in by it. Moreover, the tensions found in the Song, and the wilderness motif in Song 8:5, point to the already/not yet dynamic of the church’s relationship to Christ. During our time in exile, in this wilderness, passing through this passing away age, we await the day when Christ, who is now sanctifying us (Eph 5:26), will “present [us] the church to himself in splendor … holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27 ESV). May we, like the wife of the Song, come “up from the wilderness, leaning on [our] beloved” (Song 8:5 ESV).

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