Monday, April 27, 2015

Thoughts on the Song of Songs

Since I received a copy of the new edition of the Reformation Study Bible last week, and since I was lecturing on the Song of Songs tonight, I spent some time dipping into the RSB discussion of the Song. According to it, “The overarching theme of the Song is love and sex.” The three subthemes are delight, disappointment, and desire. This is probably the consensus view of the Song today, but I find it disappointing.

First, I find it disappointing because that is certainly not the consensus view of the Reformed tradition. The consensus view of the Reformed tradition is that the Song is an allegory, either of the relationship between God and the church or that between God and the soul of the believer. The reasons for leaving that tradition behind are, according to the RSB, are first, the adoption of a historical-grammatical approach to interpretation; and second, the archaeological “discoveries of love poetry akin to the Song from the ancient Near East.”

Second, I find it disappointing because it fails to take seriously the larger biblical-theological context of the Song. Part of the problem may have to do with identifying the older view as allegory. Though “allegorical” is commonly used to refer to the older method of interpreting the Song, it is really inaccurate. The approach is more symbolic, in that the various elements of the Song (as the tradition approached it) symbolized spiritual elements. That is, they were signs pointing to spiritual realities.
Now I agree that many of the older interpreters went overboard in attempting to find a spiritual symbol in every detail of the text. But the misuse of an approach to the study of the Song does not mean that the approach itself is wrong. Rather, the approach needs to be more carefully defined, and more appropriately applied.

My own sense is that the Song is intended to be impressionistic. Not every detail in itself has significance. Instead, the picture taken as a whole, made up of its constituent elements, is where the significance is found. From this, three considerations come forth to aid in the understanding of the Song as a whole. First, the erotic element in the Song is relatively minor. The majority of the Song, even read in a literalistic manner has nothing to do with eroticism.

Second, the title of the book “The Song of Songs” is a Hebrew way of stating a superlative; that is, “The Greatest Song.” Now I would be the last person to minimize the importance and reality of marital love. But there is a much greater love that far exceeds “love and sex.” That is the love of God for his people.

Third, the reader should note how the descriptions in the Song regularly relate to the features of the land of Israel. Thus, the indication is that the church is being represented by the land (a common element in the Old Testament), the land of God’s own chosen people. So the Song does indeed speak of the relationship between God and his people. To my mind, a sensible impressionistic treatment of the Song is more faithful to the intent of the Song in its biblical-theological context. Further, such an approach avoids the crass, and sometimes disgusting, ways in which the Song has been so cavalierly treated in our day.


Michael Moon said...

Dr Shaw- I agree with your assertion that the Song of Songs is misinterpreted greatly in our day. As a poor teenager; I sat through a brutalizing video series that treated this song in a didactic manner for our relationships now. 'Twas very misguided with no concept of a covenantal structure and the covenantal relationship represented in this great Song.
One question I do have is that I'm not sure how to distinguish between allegory and symbolism. I immediately think of the allegory of the two mountains that Paul uses in Galatians 4.
Will you help a brother distinguish between the two?

Matthew Werner said...

Dr. Shaw. Good post. I love the Song of Solomon. It is the most beautiful book in the Bible. But why do we have to have to assert that it is either about love, sex, and marriage (don't leave out that last one!)OR Christ and his bride? Isn't it about both, just as Ephesians 5 is about both? The Song is filled with erotic imagery. Barely a stanza goes by without reference to secret gardens, open doors, ripe fruit, wine and perfume--not to mention the description of the beloved in chapters 4 and 7. But it is the quality of this imagery itself that instructs preachers on how they are to handle the Song before a congregation--delicately. Anyone who crassly explains these things from the pulpit (making explicit references to sex acts, for example), ruins the very delicacy and mystery of marital love that the spirit of the poetry inspires. He also insults the imagination of his adult congregants who understand perfectly well what "come into my garden and taste its fruits" means in the context of marriage. No preacher should touch the Song until he has fully digested Wordsworth's wisdom, "We murder to dissect."