As we consider the Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, there is much of spiritual value that we can gather from it, even though we might not grasp the overall narrative thread. This intensely emotional and very erotic love poem is very much like the way of a man with a maid—everybody knows what is going on, and nobody quite knows what is going on.
“There be three things which are too wonderful for me, Yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; The way of a serpent upon a rock; The way of a ship in the midst of the sea; And the way of a man with a maid” (Prov. 30:18–19).
Interpretations of this book are legion, but there are three main options to choose from. The first is to take the book allegorically. This is what the ancient rabbis did, and is part of the reason the book managed to be included in the canon of Scripture—that, and Solomon’s authorship. The rabbis waxed eloquent about Yahweh’s love for Israel, and Christians, not to be outdone, were fully their match on Christ’s love for the Church. But this, obviously, can sometimes get out of hand—consider the rabbi who thought that the Shulamite’s belly, compared to a heap of wheat, represented the Great Sanhedrin. Or the Christian interpreter who thought her two breasts represented the Old and the New Testaments. In 550 A.D., one church council forbade any interpretation that was not allegorical. But sometimes the best hermeneutical move is to put your head between your legs and breathe into a paper bag.
The second option is to interpret the book as a dramatic representation. This option divides into two groups—one which holds it to be a love poem between Solomon and one of his brides, and the other taking it to be a three-way drama—Solomon wooing the Shulamite, with the Shulamite remaining faithful to her shepherd lover back home.
The third option, and the one I commend, is to take it at face value for what it is, a related series of intense erotic poems, which also have typological significance. With typology, it is easier to maintain the straightforward meaning of the type, while understanding the role of the antitype. With allegory, it always tends to go straight to the “real meaning” up in the sky somewhere. But typology takes in a larger meaning, without doing violence to the text. If every marriage represents Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:23-33), then surely this marriage, contained in the pages of Scripture, should represent it as well.
Speaking of Marriage . . .
Some people like to pretend that this is not a married couple, but that is plainly contradicted by the text. He refers to his lover clearly as his bride several times (Song 4:8-12; 5:1). And this is very important, as we shall see later.
The Goodness Of . . .
We don’t want to limit it to just these things, but as we consider the value of the Song of Songs, we learn, or should learn, of the goodness of certain gifts from God.
First, the goodness of marital love. God approves of sex. He invented it. And He did not do so as an afterthought, or postscript, or footnote. The establishment of mankind, male and female, is found at the crown of the creation week, and it is here that the image of God is fully displayed (Gen. 1:27). In our text from Proverbs, we see that no one fully understands the way of a man with a maid, and we also see from Ephesians that the way of a man with a maid is a “great mystery.” But you don’t need to understand all the ramifications to know that it is good. And recall that when the serpent broke into the garden, notice that he did so in order to attack the crown, to steal the crown, to dishonor the crown of all creation. Perhaps, when it comes to our marriages and sexual lives, we ought to be more protective than we are.
Second, we learn the goodness of natural dominion, the goodness of gardens. The Song of Songs is crammed full of pastoral images, and these images are not primarily about natural wilderness(although there is some of that), but rather about nature tamed. The images include fountains, gardens, orchards, vineyards, and so on. The lovers can have a tryst in a forest room (1:16-17), or in lush gardens (6:2-3), or under an apple tree (8:5). In contrast, while urban settings have their grandeur, they are also more threatening or foreboding.
And third, we can see the goodness of poetry and metaphor. This book is filled with imagery—similes and metaphors abound, and the poetic concentration in this book is intense. The Song of Songs is not just about erotic intensity; by example it declares the goodness of poetic intensity. The mundane and pedestrian approach—that which would traffic in such sentiments—is given the back of the hand. “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: If a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.” (Song of Solomon 8:7).
The Ultimate Point
Marriage is not the gospel, just as sermons are not the gospel. But marriage is intended to declare and exhibit the gospel, just as a sermon is supposed to do the same thing. Marriage is not the gospel, but marriage lived out as it ought to be lived out is most certainly a carrier.
The man initiates and the woman responds. The man bows and the woman curtsies. The man loves and the woman respects. The man gives and the woman gives back, thirty, sixty and one hundred fold. The man dies and the woman rises. The man gives and the woman glorifies. And in all this the gospel is enacted and declared. Christ has a bride, and it is through this that we can plainly see the nature of the gospel.