It’s probably the most popular love story ever written, but its portrayal of marital intimacy has generated no small amount of controversy.
Some Jews forbade men from reading it before age 30. John Calvin once had a man expelled from Geneva in part because of the way he interpreted it. And former Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll drew sharp criticism for using it to describe specific sexual acts.
Should Christians remain above the fray and avoid reading such a provocative love story? No, because it’s in the Bible, it’s inspired by God, and it gives insight into one of Israel’s most significant kings, Baptist seminary professors say.
It’s the Song of Solomon.
“I believe that by teaching our churches the principles of this book, we’ll have stronger marriages, we’ll have parents being more accountable for their children in the teenage years and we’ll have more people waiting to engage in sexual relationships in marriage,” Archie England, professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press.
The first of many mysteries associated with Song of Solomon, also known as Song of Songs, relates to its opening verse: “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” Bible scholars have long asked whether this means it is by, for or about Solomon, with theological conservatives divided in their answers.
One common view is that King Solomon wrote the book as a young man about an early romance before polygamy with pagan women turned his heart away from God. But some scholars note grammar and vocabulary in the book that seem to reflect a date following Israel’s return from exile in 537 B.C. Still others believe the book was written in Solomon’s time but by someone other than Solomon.
Photo by Jonathan Thorne
One of the great questions about Song of Solomon asks whether it is an explicit account of marital intimacy or symbolic account of God’s love for His people – or both.
Scholars also are divided on whether to interpret Song of Solomon as a continuous story about one couple or as an assortment of loosely related love songs. During the past century, some have even proposed that the book is a narrative with three main characters rather than two, but England believes that is unlikely.
Regardless of whether the book is one story or several vignettes, it obviously extols the virtue of married love, England said.
Song of Solomon “is probably best described as having been written by somebody who is married now and is so thrilled at the joys of marital bliss,” England said. “Without caution, he’s writing about pursuing the lover, chasing the lover, protecting the lover, discovering the lover, and then all this comes to consummation.”
Perhaps the greatest disagreement associated with Song of Solomon is whether to interpret it as a literal love story or as symbolic of God’s love for His people – or both.
“The mainstream of the Christian tradition – be it patristic, medieval, Reformation or the broadly orthodox Protestant tradition down to Spurgeon – would have allegorized the book in terms of Christ and His church,” Michael Haykin, professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP. “It’s in the 20th century particularly that you start to find the interpretation of the book leaning toward it being a love song.”
Beginning sometime after Israel’s return from exile in Babylon, Jews started reading Song of Solomon annually at Passover, viewing it as an illustration of God’s love for Israel. Many contemporary Jews continue this tradition.
By the second or third century A.D., Christians saw Song of Solomon as an allegory, an elaborate symbolism in which even minute details in the poetry were said to represent Christian doctrines. For example, medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux saw chapter one’s reference to kisses as an allusion to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Eighteenth-century Baptist John Gill regarded a mention of the Shulammite woman’s breasts as symbolic of the Old and New Testaments.
Furthering the symbolic interpretation, section headings in the 1611 King James Bible assumed Song of Solomon pointed to Christ and the church. Headings such as “the church’s love unto Christ” for chapter one and “Christ awaketh the church with His calling” for chapter five persisted in King James Bibles until at least the 1960s.
When Calvin helped expel a foe named Castellio from Geneva in the 1500s, one of the reformer’s complaints was that Castellio interpreted Song of Solomon as a literal love poem.
The pendulum swung by the mid-20th century though, when Tim and Beverly LaHaye began to present the book as “a love manual for married couples,” Haykin said. Seeing Song of Solomon as providing practical instruction in marriage continued with the publication of Tommy Nelson’s popular The Book of Romance in 1998 and Daniel Akin’s God on Sex in 2003.
While Haykin believes it is an error to read Song of Solomon as an allegory, he argued that discounting the church’s historic interpretation of the book is a form of “chronological snobbery.”
“We should never lightly discount a received exegetical tradition that has such longstanding consensus,” Haykin said. “It may be wrong. But I’m hesitant to say that as widely diverse figures as Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Calvin, Andrew Fuller and C.H. Spurgeon are all wrong on this.”
Haykin views Song of Solomon as both describing the relationship between a husband and wife – although he is “deeply opposed” to seeing it “as a sex manual” – and picturing the relationship between Christ and His church.
Rejecting an allegorical interpretation of the book, Haykin labels his approach “typology,” a theological term that describes the practice of interpreting Old Testament persons, objects and practices as prefiguring New Testament realities.
Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, takes a similar approach. But he hasn’t always.
In his book God on Sex, Akin interpreted Song of Solomon almost exclusively as a book about married love. Yet as he prepared to write Exalting Jesus in Song of Songs – published by B&H in February 2013 – Akin concluded that the book should be interpreted on two levels.
Solomon, whom Akin believes wrote the book, “is giving us a picture of what marriage was intended by God to be,” Akin told Baptist Press. “… But I also think the book is anticipating the ultimate relationship between a bride and a bridegroom that is fulfilled in Christ and His church.”
Like Haykin, Akin objects to interpreting the book as an allegory, preferring to label it typology. In Exalting Jesus in Song of Songs, Akin includes a section in each chapter about how the passage under consideration points to Christ.
Of particular note, the description of Solomon in chapter five bears striking resemblance to the description of Jesus in Revelation chapter one, Akin said. He added that both Revelation and Song of Solomon end with a call by the bride for her groom to come.
Song of Solomon’s depiction of Solomon as a “shepherd king” would have caused its original Hebrew readers to ask, “Will we ever actually see such a shepherd king on the pages of history love a bride in this kind of a way?” Akin said. “Of course the answer is, yes we do – in Christ.”
Song of Solomon also has practical application to marriage, Akin said. Two important lessons from the book are that Christians should communicate well with their spouses and that they should praise their spouses with specific compliments.
The couple in Song of Solomon is “very quick to extol the good things that they see in their mate,” Akin said. “In other words, they major on the good things, not the bad things. The glass really is half full.”
Song of Solomon “is a book about sex,” Akin said. But “what takes place outside the bedroom is very, very important to what takes place inside the bedroom. If you’ve got a happy couple outside the bedroom, you’re going to have a very happy couple inside the bedroom.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)