That we all seek our own happiness is a universal truth. That we all fail to obtain the happiness we all seek is also a universal truth. God alone is our true good: he alone can fill the bottomless well of our longing for happiness.
The ancient rabbis, later Jewish commentators, church fathers, mediaeval and Reformation commentators are all unanimous in agreeing that the Song of Songs belongs in the canon of Scripture because the two lovers in the Song of Songs are the biblical Lord and his people, Yahweh and Israel, for us as Christians, Christ and the church. The church reads spiritually because she reads the whole of Scripture as a single story, unfolding from creation to new creation, written under the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit, a story which directly tells of the Lord’s stormy love affair with Israel and with humanity more broadly, sometimes in precisely those terms. The Song of Songs is a richly-woven tapestry whose lyrics are crafted from the language, imagery, botany, and geography of the Old Testament Scriptures, which tell a significant part of this story. These allusions are meant to inform our understanding of the Song. The formula “something of somethings” in the first verse is rare and almost always occurs in phrases that speak of the supremacy of God. Ancient tradition ascribes the Song to Solomon. 1 Kings 4.32-33 attributes 1,005 songs to Solomon and tells us that he spoke of trees, including the cedar tree that is in Lebanon, and of beasts and birds, all of which feature in the poetic world of this song. Solomon appears as a character and the Song is set in Solomon’s world, describing the land over which he reigned, making references throughout to the furnishings, decorations, and scents of the Temple where God met with his people, Solomon’s greatest achievement. (With the whole Bible story, the Song’s portrayal of God as husband and lover should exorcise once and for all the demon of falsely stereotyping the God of the Old Testament as chiefly an angry judge and vicious warrior.) The Song of Solomon is “a parable of the love of God and His people, in the form of an exotic, erotic, ecstatic love-duet” (J. I. Packer). Right analogies between divine and human characters or acts work both ways: they give us language with which to speak about God, and it is precisely at that point we also see the truth about the human matters called upon to do this, so the Song of Songs does give a theology of love between a man and a woman, once we have understood its allegorical meaning.
1. The Supremacy of Christ’s Love (vv. 2-4)
The woman talks to herself about her longing for her beloved (v. 2a), then she praises the man’s love and fragrance, and describes how she and others feel about him (vv. 2b-3). He is the king and her wish for more than just kisses from him is granted (v. 4a). From the beginning, the man and the woman are husband and wife, enjoying the deepest level of loving union. A chorus joins in singing the man’s praises (v. 4b).
The Old Testament repeatedly affirms that the Lord is king. Throughout the prophets, Israel is called a virgin. The king’s chambers hint at the Temple’s Holy of Holies. The furniture, utensils, and people associated with the Temple were anointed with oil blended with the finest aromatic spices. The words sung by the chorus are lifted from Israel’s corporate worship, praising God for his salvation (Psalm 118.24 and Isaiah 25.9). Remembering what God has done out of love for his people is a theme which runs throughout the Old Testament. The glad and joyful virgin bride brought into the chambers of the fragrant king she loves is Israel at the Temple singing Psalms to her Lord in celebration of his saving acts. The high point of this scene is the Lord’s union of love with his people, which is better than gladdening wine (cf Psalm 104.15). Salvation from the perspective of the Song of Songs is not receiving some benefit from God but union with Christ and thus with the Holy Trinity, being ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 St. Peter 1.4), which is what Christ prays for (St. John 17.21-23). This union of love takes shape in the world of touch, scent and sound: his bursting from the spicèd tomb, the touch of bread and wine –
Christ’s body and blood – on our lips in the Lord’s Supper, the Psalms and Easter hymns which the church sings. God in Christ alone gives us the true happiness for which we constantly seek and try but fail to obtain from substitutes. “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you” (Augustine). We are to praise Christ to the complaining, restless world, that it might join us in being united to him as his bride, receiving his love and loving him.
Sexual union broadly considered, from kisses to where those kisses lead in the privacy of the inner chamber, provides an analogy for the Lord’s union with his people, so our bodies and what we do with them matter, and a failure to recognize this is a root cause of so much sexual immorality. We bear witness to this high view of physical love by abstaining from all sexual activity outside marriage. Within marriage, kissing, fragrance, praising one another, the king drawing his queen into the bedchamber are all integral to love. Dependence on one another is not weakness (cf Genesis 2.18).
2. The Unworthiness of Christ’s Bride (vv. 5-6)
The woman is speaking, defending her appearance to the daughters of Jerusalem (v. 5). She has a dark complexion because she has been working outside in the sun and this has given her a tan (v. 6), a mark of low social status. Her brothers have made her work in the family vineyards to punish her for not guarding her own vineyard, her body (cf 8.12): she has not been chaste. Nevertheless, she insists on her beauty, describing it in terms which places her at the pinnacle of high society amidst nobility and royalty: Kedar was a nomadic people renowned for power and splendour, the word for curtain is the same word used for the curtains in the wilderness tabernacle, and the curtain Solomon made is the dark Temple curtain of blue, purple and crimson which hung before the Holy of Holies.
The repeated message of the prophets is that Israel has not guarded her vineyard (a common Biblical metaphor). She has given her fruit to other lovers, building altars to other gods and worshipping idols (Hosea 10.1-2), thus incurring the punishment of exile to labour in another land, another vineyard. Yet in the Lord’s eyes, his bride is beautiful. The nomadic tent of meeting and its successor, the Temple, were the places where Israel’s unfaithfulness was dealt with through animal sacrifice, places which God made beautiful with the cloud of his glory filling them. The prophets’ accusation could equally be levelled at us. We have given the worship and trust that is rightly Christ’s alone to other people, institutions, and lifestyles.
We deserve God’s anger and punishment but in Christ’s sight his church is beautiful because he died in the place of his bride, taking her sin upon himself, facing the punishment that was rightly hers (Ephesians 5.25-27). The church is a holy temple for God to live in by the Spirit (Ephesians 2.21-22), who makes her more beautiful. Despite past sins and their ongoing consequences, we who have turned from our sins and are trusting in Christ can be sure of our standing before him, that we are part of his bride who is lovely in his eyes and whose loveliness is growing.
An unchaste, lower-class woman who is nevertheless considered beautiful is the analogy for the Lord’s bride. Beauty is important, but we should not allow our idea of what is finally beautiful to be determined by what the world thinks. One who imitates Christ’s love embraces in the union of marriage a person with all their imperfections, weaknesses, and stains, gives himself for them and so transforms them into one who is beautiful. Past infidelity – confessed, repented of, and forgiven – should not lessen the loveliness of the one who has been unfaithful in the eyes of the injured party.
3. The Trysting-Place Where Christ Waits (vv. 7-8)
The king is now a shepherd and the girl a shepherdess. She wants to know where he takes his flock to graze and rest so that she may go there to be with him and join her flock to his that it may rest and feed with his flock. She does not want to find herself amongst the flocks of another shepherd because he is the one she loves (v. 7). Her lover sees her beauty and gives her directions to find him: he tells her to follow the tracks his flocks have made and she will come to where his under-shepherds are encamped (v. 8).
“Thou whom my soul loveth” is a significant phrase in the Song of Songs, repeated four more times, and it echoes Deuteronomy 6.4-5. The woman is Israel and the shepherd-king who is the object of her love is the Lord. The first half of verse 7 uses the same phrase and verbs as Ezekiel 34.15, in which the Lord God is the subject. The flock the shepherd already has is the church of previous generations. Christ, the Good Shepherd (St. John 10.11), feeds them and gives them rest. The woman with her flock is the present generation of the church, wanting to join with the generations which have gone before in being with Christ, enjoying his nourishment and rest. The faithful church seeks this from Christ, no rival shepherd, and Christ seeks this too. Israel’s shepherds were the prophets and priests, those who taught the people (cf Jeremiah 23). For the shepherdess to follow the footsteps of her beloved’s flock and feed her kids by his shepherds’ tents is for the church of today to walk in the paths of the church of yesterday and be taught, protected, and nurtured where the church of yesterday was taught, protected, and nurtured, in local congregations under ministers of Christ. We reach our countryside rendezvous with our husband when we are faithful to the teaching, worship, and conduct of the church of previous generations (cf. Jeremiah 7.16) and when we gather with believers under pastors who are ministers of the word and sacrament, shepherds caring for and feeding their flock (means, not merit). A very literal demonstration of this is seen in a church in which successive generations grow up, marry, have children, and worship where their ancestors worshipped. Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day we enter our Sabbath rest and when we gather for worship, we ascend into heaven, where the souls of the faithful departed are themselves at rest, into the presence of the risen and ascended Christ himself (Hebrews 12.22-24).