King Solomon had penned 1,005 songs (1 Kings 4:32), but there is one that is greater than all of them; it is the Song of Songs. It is so great that God included this in the canon of Scripture as an entire book. The Song of Solomon was never questioned by Jews or Christians as to whether it was God’s word. Commentator George Burrowes (1811-1894) gives us eight reasons for this book being included in Scripture:
“This book is received as canonical for the following reasons.
1. We have seen that there is every ground for the presumption that the Divine Author of the Scriptures would give us a book on the subject with which this is occupied.
2. There can be no presumption against it from the nature of the book, for there are other parts of Scripture containing the same kind of illustrations.
3. “Ezra wrote, and, we may believe, acted by the inspiration of the Most High, amid the last blaze indeed, yet in the full lustre of expiring prophecy. And such a man would not have placed any book that was not sacred in the same volume with the law and the prophets.”
4. The Song of Songs has always been a canonical book in the Jewish church.
5. Our Saviour and his apostles gave their sanction to the canon of the Scriptures received by the Jewish church ; in that canon this book had then a place ; and therefore, though not quoted by Christ and the apostles, it clearly received their sanction as canonical.
6. In his Antiquities (viii. 2,5), Josephus speaks of Solomon as inspired; and in his work against Apion, gives the number of their canonical books as thirty-nine: the Song is necessary to make up this number.
7. According to Eusebius (iv. 26), Melito, Bishop of Sardis, in the second century of the Christian era, went to Palestine for the purpose of ascertaining the sacred books of the Jewish canon, and found the Song of Solomon among the number.
8. Origen in the third century, Jerome, Augustine, and Theodoret in the fifth century, not to mention various others, all testify to the same point. The testimony of the Christian Church on this subject is uniform. This book, illustrating that love which is the very core of the believer’s spiritual life, is therefore a part of the Scriptures given by inspiration.”
George Burrowes, A Commentary on the Song of Solomon, p. 13
The Song of Solomon is no doubt the word of God but there is disagreement as to what this song is actually about. When we begin with a straight-forward reading of this song, we see the expression of love between a king and his bride. They are communicating their feelings for one another and sometimes with sexual references. This is the reason why many were forbidden from reading this book until they were mature to read it. James Durham (1622-1658) says that this song “and some other Scriptures, were of old refrained by the Jews from younger sort, that none should read them, but these who were at thirty years of age…” (Clavis Cantici: or, An Exposition of the Song of Solomon, pg. 16) The difficulty of this inspired song is the interpretation of it. Is this a literal, typical, prophetic, or allegorical description? One of these interpretations is called the Puritan view. They were not afraid to preach or write concerning this song, and they agreed with each other in its meaning. Puritan Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) describes it in this way:
“Other books of Solomon lie more obvious and open to common understanding; but, as none entered into the holy of holies but the high priest (Lev. 16:2; Heb. 9:7), so none can enter into the mystery of this Song of songs, but such as have more near communion with Christ. Songs, and specially marriage songs, serve to express men’s own joys, and others’ praises. So this book contains the mutual joys and mutual praises between Christ and his church.”
Richard Sibbes, The Love of Christ
James Durham says that we find in this song, “…the mutual love, and spiritual union and communion that is betwixt Christ and his Church” (Clavis Cantici: or, An Exposition of the Song of Solomon, pg. 9). Many reformers and puritans believed in singing the Psalms exclusively but James Durham makes the case for singing the Song of Solomon in worship. The main reasons are because God inspired it as the greatest of all songs and because it is about the love between the church and her Lord, therefore meant for it to be sung. It is a little short of being convincing but he does make a strong case for it, showing the incredible importance of this song. George Burrowes says, “It is an allegorical illustration of the operations of love in the bosom of the saint and of the Redeemer” (A Commentary on the Song of Solomon (1853), pg. 32). Matthew Poole (1624–1679) says that the mysteries in this song are “breathing forth the hottest flames of love between Christ and his people; most sweet, and comfortable, and useful to all that read it with serious and Christian eyes.” (Annotations upon the Holy Bible, S.O.S. 1:1) The Westminster Assembly also held to this interpretation. The Scripture proofs of the Westminster Confession of Faith include verses from the Song of Solomon concerning Christ and the church in the sections 10.1, 18.4, 17.3. They are also found in the Larger Catechism in questions 81 and 175. In the Assembly’s commentary of the Bible, the song is explained this way:
“…look upon it, as generally it is acknowledged, that is, not as an history, or prophecy (as some conceive it) but as a divine Parable, wherein naturall and visible things allegorize things supernaturall, and under the figures of Solomon and his Love, is shadowed the true Prince of peace, and his rich affections to his Church and people.”
This was not a unique view to the Reformers and Puritans. The Early Church Fathers looked at the song the same way. Some of the church fathers that taught the book allegorically are Jerome (347–420), Augustine (354-430), Gregory of Nyssa (335-394), Cyril of Alexandria (376–444), Gregory of Elvira (359-385), Aponius, Cyril of Jerusalem (313–386), Nilus of Ancyra (d. 430), Hippolytus (222-245), Theodoret of Cyr (393–466), and many more (J. Robert Wright, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament IX: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, p. xxviii).
The allegorical view does not see any of the song as historical fact concerning King Solomon. It is entirely a picture of the love between Christ and the Church. In the 19th century, theologians began to favor a non-allegorical view. Most commentaries and preachers that you will find today favor a non-allegorical view (e.g. R.C. Sproul, Keith Mathison, John Piper, John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, Tremper Longman). The view that is closest to the allegorical view is the typical view. In this interpretation, the song is historically true and at the same time, it points us to the relationship between Christ and the Church. James Durham explains the differences between a type and an allegory.
“…types suppose still the verity of some history; as Jonas casting in the sea, and being in the fish’s belly three days and three nights, when it is applied to Christ in the New Testament, it supposeth such a thing once to have been. Allegories again have no such necessary supposition, but are parables proponed for some mystical end: thus, while ’tis said, A certain King made a marriage, planted a vineyard &c. (Matt. 22:2), that place supposeth it not necessary, as to the being of the allegory, that ever such a thing was; it may be an allegory without that: but a type cannot be without reality in the thing or fact, which is made a type.
…Types are only historical as such, and the truth of the fact agreeing in the anti-type, make them up, it being clear in scripture that such things are types; for we must not forge types without Scripture-warrant: but allegories are principally doctrinal, and in their scope intend not to clear, or compare facts, but to hold forth and explain doctrines, or by such similitudes to make them the better understood, and to move and affect the more, or the more forcibly to convince; as Nathan made use of a parable, when he was about to convince David (2 Sam. 12:1-2) &c.”
Clavis Cantici: or, An Exposition of the Song of Solomon, pp. 7-8
The danger in allegorizing what is historical in scripture is that we are nowhere commanded to interpret scripture in this manner. There are a few examples in scripture where historical narratives are allegorized but this is done by inspiration of God. Anything else would be arbitrary.
“For the first, There is a great difference betwixt an allegorick exposition of Scripture, and an exposition of allegorick Scripture: The first is that which many fathers and school-men fail in, that is, when they allegorize plain scriptures and histories, seeking to draw out some secret meaning, other than appeareth in the words; and so will fasten many senses upon one Scripture. This is indeed unsafe, and is justly reprovable; for this maketh clear Scripture dark, and obtrudeth meanings on the Words, never intended by the Spirit; As, suppose one speaking of Goliah’s combat and David’s, should pass by the letter, and expound Goliah to be the flesh, or the devil, and David to be the Spirit, or Christ: Such expositions may have some pleasantness, but often little solidity; and such, who most commonly thus interpret Scripture, often fall in errors. As guilty of this fault, Origen is generally complained of, tho’ more also be guilty, as might be cleared by many instances.”
James Durham, Clavis Cantici: or, An Exposition of the Song of Solomon, p. 18
The second issue with the typical view is in the application of the type. George Burrowes says, “Types are incidents, personages, or objects, appointed under the Old Dispensation as illustrations of truths to be there after fully revealed” (A Commentary on the Song of Solomon (1853), pgs. 39-40). If the type is looking to a fulfillment in the future, then the reality that it is pointing to cannot be true under the old covenant. The beauty of this song is that the Old Testament saints did relate to God in this loving relationship. German commentator Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg (1802-1869) shows us the connection between the Song of Solomon and the Old testament Church.
“In favour of the allegorical explanation we may urge further, that the passages in the Prophets, which contain allusions to the Song of Songs, all rest on the view we are advocating. Compare Hosea xi. 4 with chap. i. 4 ; Hosea xiv. 6,8,9 with chap. ii. 3 ; Joel iii. 3 with chap. iii. 6 ; Obadiah 8 with chap, ii. 24; Isaiah xxxiii. 17 with chap. i. 6 ; Isaiah xxxv. 1 with chap. ii. 1 ; Jeremiah vi. 2, 8 with chap. i. 7 ; Jeremiah xxxi. 3 with chap. i. 4 ; Jeremiah xlix. 16 with chap. ii. 14 ; Lamentations ii. 18 with chap. i. 9; Lamentations iv. 7 with chap. V. 10; Lamentations iv. 20 with chap. ii. 3; Ezekiel xvi. 61 with chap. i. 5; Ezekiel xxvii. 10, 11 with chap. iv. 4.”
Commentary on Ecclesiastes: with other treatises (1860), p. 296
The love described in the Song of Songs is not something foreshadowing the New Testament Church. Believers in all ages share in that affection between them and their Savior. So if this cannot be typical, can this song be taken literally? The literal view keeps the song as a historical description and expression of love between King Solomon and his wife. The song may be an example to follow for all married couples. In the literal view, this might have been an epithalamium, a song or poem written to the bride for the wedding day.
When looking at the history of the king, there are some inconsistencies with history and with biblical law, demonstrating its inadequate and sinful example. Historically, Solomon was not a shepherd (1:7), Pharaoh’s daughter was not a keeper of a vineyard (1:6), and this could not have been an epithalamium since it was written at least 20 years after Solomon was married (compare 7:4 with 1 Kings 7:1, 2), etc. Morally, this would not be a good example for married couples because the woman is looking for other women to pursue the king to love him (1:3; 3:6-11; 6:8, 9), the woman’s young sister is offered to the king (8:8), the king has multiple wives, concubines, and virgins (6:8-9), the husband leaves his wife at night (3:1), the woman roams the streets alone at night to look for her husband (3:2), the king is married to his sister (4:9, 10, 12; 5:1, 2), etc.
If we read through these things allegorically, they make sense and answer these questionable descriptions. The multiple virgins are individual believers that make up the Church. The woman is called the king’s sister because he took on flesh and shares in her nature (c.f. Matthew Poole and 1599 Geneva Bible). We can easily reconcile these difficulties when we study the song through the lens of other scriptures.
What is concerning is that the early church rejected this literal view as a possible interpretation, but some still hold to it as a valid option. Theodoret of Cyr ((393–466) said that those who interpreted the book literally were “drawn into that awful blasphemy” (Commentary on the Song of Songs, Preface, p. 14). When the literal view was presented, it was condemned by the second council of Constantinople.
“The single writer in the early church favoring a literal and rationalizing exegesis of the Song was Theodore of Mopsuestia (360–429) of the school of Antioch, a sample of whose comment is presented below, who clearly implied that the literal is all there is, and whose views were condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II, 553). Theodore’s literal interpretation of the Song as an account of the marriage of Solomon to Pharaoh’s daughter also finds echoes in his contemporary Julian of Eclanum, a Pelagian theologian and bishop, fragments of whose commentary are also presented here, although Theodore’s literal interpretation is not followed in Theodoret of Cyr, who nearly matched Theodore in time and place. Located in the West and less easy to categorize are Gregory the Great (590–604), who wrote two homilies containing important and at times even mystical commentary that survive covering the first eight verses, and the Venerable Bede (672–735), who composed a verse-by-verse explication that covers most of the Song’s text in five books.”
J. Robert Wright, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament IX: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, pg. xxvii
Theodore’s interpretation of the Song of Solomon was not the only reason why his views were brought up at the council. There were various troubling doctrinal errors. It would not be safe to follow a teaching condemned by the Church when it contradicts the universal interpretation of the early Church and Reformers.
“…the history of the interpretation of the Scriptures presents a result decidedly unfavourable to the literal view. The older defenders thereof were all men of doubtful name: — for example, Theodore of Mopsuest, Castellio, Grotius, Simon Episcopius. But whenever the Church has been in a flourishing condition, and has had a clear and decided consciousness of its position and duty, it has rejected this principle with horror.”
Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, Commentary on Ecclesiastes: with other treatises (1860), p. 301
Another minority view is the prophetic view. This was held by the Puritan John Cotton (1585-1652). In this view, some things are literal, others are allegorical, and others specific prophecies about things in Solomon’s life and the church in all ages. The song presents prophetic images concerning specific future fulfillments. This is not a popular approach and nothing in the book itself hints that it should be interpreted prophetically.
“Some would have Solomon, by a spirit of prophecy, to take a view here of all the time, from his age to the second coming of Christ, and in this song, as in an abridgment, to set down the several passages and periods of the church in several ages, as containing divers things which are more correspondent to one age of the church than another. But howsoever this song may contain, we deny not, a story of the church in several ages, yet this hinders not, but that most passages of it agree to the spiritual estate of the church in every age, as most interpreters have thought.”
Richard Sibbes, The Love of Christ.
Scripture Interprets Scripture
“The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.9). This is really helpful to keep in mind when studying the Song of Songs. This is why Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown say, “The clue to the meaning of the Song is not to be looked for in the allegory itself, but in other parts of Scripture” (Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible). We saw above that the principle of marriage was connected to the Old Testament saints and so many of the key features of the song are things that they did relate to. The song is nowhere quoted in the New Testament but the imagery of the song is found all over.
“The New Testament is pervaded by references to the Song of Songs, and all of them are based on the supposition that it is to be interpreted spiritually. Proportionally no book of the Old Testament is so frequently referred to, implicitly or explicitly, in the New Testament, as this one; and we cannot but be surprised at the superficiality or the prejudices of those who have asserted that the Song of Songs is never quoted in the New Testament…The Lord refers to the Song of Songs, with the supposition that it has a spiritual meaning, in Matthew vi. 28-30, as compared with chap. ii. 1. Compare also Matthew xiii. 25, xxiv. 42, with chap. V. 2; Matthew xxi. 33 ff, with chap. viii. 11 ; Luke xii. 35-37, with chap. v. 3; Luke xiii. 81, 32, with chap. ii. 15; John vi. 44 with chap. i. 4; John vii. 33, 34, with chap. v. G; John xxi. 1 6, with chap. i. 8. Further, may be compared with chap, i. 12, Matthew xxvi. 6 13, Mark xiv. 3, John xii 3, Luke vii. 38 with chap. ii. 4, John ii. 1-11; with chap. ii. 8, John iii. 29; with chap. iv. 7, Ephesians v. 27.”
Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, Commentary on Ecclesiastes: with other treatises (1860), p. 297
There is no greater interpreter of Solomon’s song than Psalm 45. This is called “a song of loves” (Psalm 45:1). Matthew Henry calls this Psalm the “best key to [the Song of Solomon]…which we find applied to Christ in the New Testament, and therefore this ought to be so too” (Commentary on the Whole Bible, pg. 1057). The application that he is referring to is Hebrews 1:8, when the inspired author quotes Psalm 45:6. Matthew Poole says that Psalm 45 is an abridgment to the Song of Solomon (Annotations upon the Holy Bible, Vol. 2, pg. 71). This Psalm is also about the love between the King and his queen. It is the first Psalm to explicitly identify the Messiah as God. The author of Hebrews identifies this King as Christ himself. Both Psalm 45 and the Song of Solomon mention of a king, a queen, the uniqueness of the king (Song 5:10, Psalm 45:11), multiple brides, the virgins are compared to lilies, the desire for the king’s lips, the majesty of the king is praised, the places of ivory (and tower of ivory), bridal procession, etc. The linked songs cannot be denied. If Psalm 45 is not allegorical then neither will the Song of Solomon be allegorical. Since the New Testament interprets Psalms 45 allegorically, then the Song of Solomon is also allegorical. James Durham plays with words by granting that the Song of Songs has a literal meaning, and that literal meaning is allegoric (Clavis Cantici: or, An Exposition of the Song of Solomon, p. 5).
Approaching the Song of Songs
When approaching the greatest of all songs, we must be very careful. Many commentators say the study of this book is for the mature Christian; not only because of the sexual references but because the mature Christian has a level of great affection for Christ, which will make the interpretation more plain.
“Hence, this Song is not so much a favourite in the early stage of the religious life, as at subsequent periods when we have grown in grace. It is the manual of the advanced Christian. When love has been more perfected by the Spirit, hither do we come for expressions of that love. When we are anxious to hear from the lips of Jesus the fulness of his love to us, here do we rejoice to sit and listen.”
George Burrowes, A Commentary on the Song of Solomon (1853), pg. 24
Some modern pastors do not acknowledge this or they assume their maturity and handle the word of God immaturely. For example, Mark Driscoll inappropriately jokes about the content in the book and turns non-sexual symbols into symbols of sexual acts, which have never been interpreted in that manner in all church history. We must follow Matthew Poole’s advice when he says that “this book requires a sober and pious, not a lascivious and foolish reader” (Annotations upon the Holy Bible). Do not approach this book without prayer, humility, and meditating on God’s love. If you do these three things, you will receive the love in this song as your own.
To understand the meaning of this song, there are six main parties mentioned: The Bridegroom is Christ, the bride is the Church, the Bridegroom’s friends are ministers, the virgins are individual Christians that make up the daughters of Zion, the mother is the universal visible Church, and the children are true virgins that love Christ (James Durham, Clavis Cantici: or, An Exposition of the Song of Solomon, pp. 30-31). The first chapter can be understood this way: the Church desires kisses from Christ, which symbolizes peace and Scripture that comes from his mouth (v.2, Theodoret of Cyr, Ambrose, Westminster Assembly, James Durham), the virgins that love Christ are individual believers or churches (v.3, Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, John Gill, Reformation Heritage Bible), the Church wishes to be drawn by the Spirit to Christ as in John 6:44 (v. 4, Matthew Poole, 1599 Geneva Bible, Matthew Henry, Synod of Dort), the blackness of the church is her beauty even though she is still sinful and suffering (v. 5, Ambrose, Hippolytus, Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, 1599 Geneva Bible, Synod of Dort, John Brown’s Self-Interpreting Bible), the church desires to be spiritually fed by Christ and not to be led astray by false teachers (v. 7, Matthew Poole, 1599 Geneva Bible, Westminster Assembly, Synod of Dort, John Brown’s Self-Interpreting Bible), Christ instructs her to go to the church to be taught by the shepherds, who are faithful ministers (v. 8, Matthew Poole; 1599 Geneva Bible; Matthew Henry, John Brown’s Self-Interpreting Bible; Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown; George Burrowes, John Gill), Christ compares the church to Pharaoh’s chariots for her beauty and being most excellent in all the world (v. 9, 1599 Geneva Bible; Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown; Reformation Heritage Bible; Matthew Poole, Synod of Dort), the King declares, “We will make thee borders of gold.”
This is Christ speaking about the protection of the church as a unified work of the Trinity (v. 11 Reformation Heritage Bible, Westminster Assembly, Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole), we sit with the king at his table when we commune with him and especially during the Lord’s supper (v. 12, Matthew Henry; John Gill; Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown), Christ lies between our breasts, which is our Lord dwelling in our hearts (v. 13, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodoret of Cyr, Matthew Henry, John Gill, Westminster Assembly) the Church has dove’s eyes, and as she looks to Christ she will be led by the Holy Spirit (v. 15, Gregory of Nyssa; Matthew Henry; Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown), and finally the beams of the house made of cedar expresses the stability of God’s church on earth (v. 17, Matthew Poole, John Gill). In the beginning of the next chapter, King Jesus declares that he is the rose of Sharon and lily of the valleys. This is the holiness of Christ; he is set apart from everything else and is worthy to be loved (2:1, Ambrose of Milan, Theodoret of Cyr, Jerome, Reformation Heritage Bible, Matthew Henry, Westminster Assembly).
Now go and learn the meaning of the rest of the Song that is greater than any other song written by Solomon!