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. Continue reading “A Redemptive-Historical Reading of the Song of Songs”