So many titles – the Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon, the Canticle of Canticles… it’s kind of funny that the book of the bible with the most varied set of titles comes with an equally varied set of interpretations. Is it an expression of love and attraction between King Solomon and one of his wives? Is it just a more general collection of love poetry? Is it really an allegory referring to the love of Christ and his Church? Is it a combination of these, and if so, how do we justify that?
Peter Leithart, over at First Things, posted an insightful article about the Song just yesterday. He observes, like many others, that one the most central truths of the books is found in 8:6:
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the LORD.
Love is as a strong as death! The power of sheol, as certain and final as it seems throughout biblical poetry, is actually matched by the power of love. Leihart points out that “death” (or Mot in Hebrew), is also the name of a Canaanite god, which makes for an interesting contrast with how love’s flames “the very flame of the Lord.” All of a sudden a whole new layer is added to the surface reading of the Song’s love poetry: love is a divine fire which draws us into a sort of spiritual struggle against death itself.
There’s also a lot of garden imagery throughout the Song, which is very easily considered Temple imagery too. And when you bring into consideration Paul’s words to the Ephesians, things get even more interesting:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
So with marriage understood as an image of Christ’s love for his bride, the Church, we are invited to see yet another layer of meaning in the Song: in the same way that a husband and wife love one another, so too does God love us! As Leithart put it, “The lover’s enthrallment to his beloved is the Lord’s enthralled fascination for his people, black [in their sins] but beautiful.”
Leithart calls this all this allegory, at the end of his article. But as I have observed before, this is better termed as typology. Allegory means that the second meaning is unconnected to the literal meaning. Typology means that that the second meaning is connected to the literal meaning – the one is a type (or analogy) of the other.
At the end of the day, the most basic thing I think we need to take to heart from Leithart’s article is the reminder that we must not read the Song of Songs from a modern perspective as if it’s some quasi-pornographic erotica from the 900’s BC. Rather, the Song of Songs is a book of wisdom poetry. It celebrates marital love, but lifts it beyond our broken sinful perception into the divine realm to which love and sex are supposed to elevate us!