Eight Principles for the True Exposition of the Song of Solomon

8 Principles for the True Exposition of the Song of Solomon

Theodore Beza

Sermons upon the Three Chapters of the Canticle of Canticles (1587)

First Sermon upon the First Chapter

It is written as followeth in the title of the third book of Solomon:

“The Canticle of Canticles, or Song of Songs, of Solomon.” (Songs 1:1).

The principal points handled in the first Sermon.

1. Read with discretion.

1. That this book is canonical, but ought to be read and expounded in the Church with great discretion.

This book albeit it has been as well in the ancient Church of the Israelites, as also in the Christian Church by one common consent not only reckoned amongst the number of those which the Holy Ghost has spoken and uttered to the pen, and which ought to be the rule and canon of our faith: but also held for one of the most excellent and spiritual of all the rest. Yet has it not been handled or read in the Church as every of the other, but reserved to be proposed unto them, who were farther advanced and grown up in the knowledge of God, and were of a more stable and constant judgement.

Reasons for discretion.

The causes whereof were,

1. First because the style and phrase thereof is altogether allegorical and enigmatical, that is to say, delivers to our understanding things heavenly and spiritual, by a similitude and figure of things natural and corporal, which every man neither of himself can, nor by the help of an other is able, so to conceive and understand, as thereby throughly to be profited and instructed.

2. Secondly because this allegory is wholly grounded upon the conjunction and coupling of man and wife in marriage: in the which, being humanly and carnally considered, we shall find even from the beginning thereof unto the end, many great wants and imperfections on men’s behalf, which defaults as they have been ever rife since the entrance of sin into the world. So we know how they have been daily increased since men have for so long a time given themselves over to all this uncleanness and wantonness, which is no other thing than a polluting and defiling of the honest and chaste caresses, dilections, and embracements in marriage. The which notwithstanding it has in it many defects and blemishes, which the Lord of his great goodness must support and cover, hinders not but that according to the saying of the Apostle, “Marriage is honourable amongst all, and the bed thereof undefiled.” (Heb. 15:4).

And thus you see how some considering the mischievous manners of this world, and because there are in this Canticle many kinds of speeches, according to the simplicity of that time in which this book was written, which the world might easily abuse, have been hardly induced to interpret it in the Church, fearing lest it should bring more harm thereunto, than profit and edification. Others there have been which have gone farther, and have been so bold and hardy, or rather so overweening and heady, as to go about to erase this book out of the canonical Scriptures, as being a writing altogether profane, and compiled by Solomon in the midst of his wanton and licentious dissolutions. As touching the first sort of these men, they are herein to be greatly commended, that they think it not good that every one should rashly and unadvisedly be carried or led to the handling of this book—according unto the saying of the Apostle, that we must begin with milk, and so proceed and come to hard and solid meat (1 Cor. 3:2). Which thing has been carefully and diligently observed both in this church and in others by the faithful pastors and ministers.

Allegory of Marriage prevalent in the Scriptures.

But as for those which presume to condemn this book, they are no more to be harkened unto or regarded than those who desperately and arrogantly address and oppose themselves against the Spirit of God. For besides that the old and new Church has from all times judged the contrary—this book being diligently expounded by the ancient Doctors both Greek and Latin, yea even in monasteries amongst the monks used and handled, as a book altogether contemplative more than any besides (albeit they then made solemn profession of being far from all thought of women and marriage)—this very allegory of marriage is very amply to the same end and purpose prosecuted in other books, which by a perpetual and common consent have been always held for holy and divine. As in Psalm 45, which is as it were a sum and abridgement of this whole Canticle, and in Isaiah 62:1-6; Jeremiah 3; Ezekiel 16 and 23; Hosea 1:2; Matthew 25; John 3:29; Romans 7:1-2; 2 Corinthians 11:2; and especially Ephesians 5 where the Apostle uses the very same words which Adam used in the first institution of marriage, to wit, that the Church is made flesh of the flesh of Jesus Christ, and bone of his bones (Eph. 5:30; cf. Gen. 2:23), which is, saith he, “a great secret and mystery” (Eph. 5:32). To be short, the Holy Ghost in Revelation [22:]17 is the expounder and interpreter of the beginning of this book. [“And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.“]

Canonicity.

Neither is that to be regarded which some bring for an argument why this book is not canonical, because that no place of it is alleged in the New Testament. For first, beside that which I have said of the 45th Psalm, that it is an abridgement of this book, the similitudes which are taken from marriage in St. Paul, and in the last chapter of Revelation are drawn from here: and by the same reason we may condemn other books of the Old Testament, which are received without contradiction or gainsaying.

2. Not to be concealed from the Church.

2. That nothing contained in holy writ ought to be concealed or hid in the Church, and wherefore God has not always spoken so plainly at one time as at another.

We must therefore use and observe a mean in the exposition of this book, handling it in such wise as it appertains, in the Church of God. For God will not that anything which he teaches us by his Prophets and Apostles should be hidden or kept secret in such sort, as to content ourselves to have it registered only in his Word, without farther regarding and considering what it is. As the Paynims [i.e. Heathens] were wont to deal in their false religions and worships, who feared their abuses should be discovered, if their mysteries were known. Or as we yet to this day see it practiced in the false church, where the reading of the Scriptures in the vulgar and common tongue is forbidden. Whereas the Apostles and Prophets since the beginning have spoken and written in a common and intelligible language, to the end they might be understood of all men.

And yet is it very true, that the Holy Ghost has not used throughout the same style and manner of writing, but has spoken sometimes very plainly, sometimes obscurely, in such sort, notwithstanding, that (as one of the ancient fathers have heretofore well observed) obscurity and darkness is tempered and mixed with plainness and clearness. To the end to sharpen and quicken our desire to search after that which we understood not at the first, and to cause us to esteem more higher of the secrets of his wisdom, after that he has bestowed on us the gift of knowledge and understanding of them, upon our careful diligence of reading and conferring together the places of Scripture. And this is that which we hope to do, by God’s good assistance obtained by your prayers, in the expounding of this book. Seeing it is now about fifty years that God has set up, as it were anew, his holy Jubilee amongst us, causing the holy light of his gospel to shine in such sort in this place. That now nothing in this behalf ought to seem new and strange unto us—as if we were yet young infants and babes in understanding—instead of being ashamed not to be of the number of those, of whom it is spoken in the fifth to the Hebrews, that they be exercised and practiced in discerning between that which is good and that which is evil (Heb. 5:12-14).

3. Why God uses marriage allegorically.

3. Wherefore the Holy Ghost has chosen and prosecuted so far the allegory of marriage, both in this Canticle or Song, as also elsewhere.

Now for the understanding of this book, it is requisite we learn and know, what moved the Holy Ghost to choose and prosecute so far this similitude of marriage: the which is not, as I said before, if God would deal with rigor in examining every point thereof, without many great wants and imperfections. This was it therefore, to speak in few words, because:

There is not amongst men, either in respect of the obligation, a more sacred and divine, or in regard of the effect, a more strait and firm bond to be found, than this of marriage.

For in all other contracts and bargains wherein one man is obliged and bound unto the other, the question and point is only of the goods and possessions of this world, and of such things as are without the persons which bargain and contract together. Or if the matter be touching the body, yet is not the obligation reciprocal, wherein the one party is as much interest as the other: but may happily be as far to the disadvantage of the one, as the advantage of the other. As for the contract of marriage, therein God himself as principal author so deals, as that this bond continues indissoluble, if himself say not the word to the contrary, and break this bond either by death or by any other his ordinance. And again the obligation or bond of both parties is so mutual and reciprocal, that neither of the parties is free and at his own choice, and both of them become as it were one person by the conjunction of marriage. Now, which is more, the effect thereof is rather divine than human, to wit, the generation and procreation of mankind. For God by this contract uses men as his instruments to do that which is properly belonging to himself, to wit, to the engendering of mankind, whereof his Church is made and composed. 

For albeit this ordinance of God, “increase and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), be extended generally to all the creatures, comprising man also in the number of them: yet notwithstanding, as the creating of man, both touching the male and touching the female, is other and different from that of the rest of the creatures. Even so we must conclude that God has led and conducted the race and succession of mankind from the father to the son, to his effect by a special and particular conjunction in wedlock, specially ordained and blessed by the inspiration of his Holy Spirit and calling upon of his name. The Holy Ghost therefore, minding to represent unto us that which in itself is incomprehensible, and not to be conceived—I mean that most strait spiritual bond of Jesus Christ, with every faithful soul, to the end to engender in the minds of the believing (the assembly and congregation of whom is called the Church) the knowledge of truth, together with all other holy motions and operations, thereby to quicken and give life to every one of the faithful wholly and entirely, and consequently to his whole Church and congregation in the true life which lasts for ever—could not choose a more proper similitude, nor a more lively pattern and model thereof than this conjunction of marriage.

And this is also the reason, why the Word of God, which is received and fructifieth by faith, is by St. Peter called the “incorruptible seed” (1 Pet. 1:23). Hereunto also tends that second generation and new-birth, which is made by the Spirit, whereof our Lord Jesus Christ so largely treats with Nicodemus in John 3, which I will therefore declare unto you and handle more at large, because this secret, whereof I now speak, is the ground and foundation of our salvation.

4. Three ways God joins himself with his creation.

4. Three manners of God’s joining himself with his creature, the one general, the other particular in the person of Christ Jesus, the third of the Son of God with his Church.

1. In General.

Every one of us then is constrained to confess, that every good thing comes from God, whether we consider the essence and being which all the creatures have received of God, or the diverse qualities whereby they are maintained. Which thing is signified unto us by the Apostle in Acts 17 when he says that “in him we are, we live, and have our moving,” as if God the Creator did, as I may so say, insinuate himself within his creatures, to declare unto us the better, that divine efficacy and working of his, which is in them opened and displayed, according to that measure and durance it pleases him—although to speak properly, his divine essence be neither within nor without the world, but comprehends all, itself being incomprehensible.

2. In the Person of Christ Jesus.

But there are two other manner of conjunctions, yea rather unions of God with man, much different from that whereof I last spake, and of an effect of greater consequence. To wit, first of all the uniting of the eternal Son of God with a true body and true human soul in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, by a personal union, which to the Angels themselves is incomprehensible, by which, the Word, which is the Son, eternal and co-essential with the Father, was made flesh (John 1:14). In such sort that since, this person, which is called Jesus Christ (Mat. 1:16) is true God and true man, without any either severing or confounding of the two natures—which is that great secret whereof the Apostle speaks (1 Tim. 3:16).

3. The Son of God with his Church.

And upon this depends a third conjunction of our Immanuel with the believing, by the which every faithful person, and so consequently the whole Church which is composed of them, is spiritually, as it were, married with Jesus Christ, and made flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bones (Eph. 5:30). Not that the body of Christ is really within our bodies, or his soul within our soul (which the truth and verity of his body and of his soul cannot suffer, as neither any such conjunction appertains any whit at all to this mystery, which is altogether spiritual and tending to a spiritual life). But because that, as in an human body, the soul, being naturally joined thereunto, quickens and enlivens all the members of the body (if so they be knit and joined together according to the frame and building of the body): so Jesus Christ, as the spiritual bridegroom of his Church, by the and virtue of his Holy Spirit, and by the means of his human nature—by the which he symbolizes, that is, agrees in one part with us—is so near and so powerfully joined with us, by the means of faith which apprehends him, that he quickens us to life eternal. Working in our understanding and will to repair in us by little and little the image of God done forth and defaced by sin. To make us in the end perfect partakers of his glorious immortality in the later day, into which the consummation and perfecting of this holy spiritual marriage is reserved.

Hence it is that the Apostle has drawn these manners of speaking, which he learned of Christ himself, when he says that “we are in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 8:1), and that “Jesus Christ is in us” (Rom. 8:10). That “he liveth in us, and we in him” (Gal. 2:20), and that “he dwelleth in his saints” (John 14:23). And Jesus Christ himself to this end compares himself to a vine, and us to the branches which fructify and bear fruit (John 15). And his body is called our food, and his blood, our drink (John 6), because that as corporally by meat and drink this present life is maintained in us: even so by Jesus Christ incorporating himself in us, in that manner I have said, and being as I may so say, received, eaten, and digested by the inner man, we receive and draw from him the true life everlasting. 

In the exposition therefore of this book, there is no question of bringing with us unto the understanding thereof a sensual mind and carnal, but our soul must with Solomon conceive this husband, this marriage, and whatsoever is said thereof, after a spiritual fashion, far removed from all carnal and filthy cogitations, remembering the saying of the Apostle, that “he which cleaveth unto the Lord is made one spirit with him” (1 Cor. 6:17), and that of Christ that “he which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).

5. The Characters and Dialogue in the Song.

5. Of the persons which are introduced and brought in in this Canticle, in manner of a dialogue, or mutual speech, with the sum and scope thereof.

Now to understand more particularly the order of handling of this Canticle or Song, we must know, that it is written in manner of a dialogue, many persons being introduced in a most wonderful and artificial manner, speaking and answering one the other. To wit, a Bride addressing her speech unto her Maidens, and a Bridegroom in like sort accompanied with his Friends: according to the manner used in the celebration of such espousals as are honestly and orderly made.

The Bride and the Maidens.

The Spouse or Bride is the company of the faithful and believing, which is called the Church, represented as it were in one only person—as it is also said that the faithful have but “one heart, and one soul” (Acts 4:32). In the which, company notwithstanding, Solomon brings one in speaking, as it were, in the name of the rest of the train. But further seeing he makes a distinction between her, which speaks as the queen and mistress, and the other daughters and maidens of Jerusalem (according to that which is written in the 45th Psalm), we may understand by these other daughters, as well, those which are in the Church rather in name than in deed, as those which are the true faithful, but are yet new, and, as it were, little children, which follow their mother—who is, as it were, a queen accompanied and waited on with her damsels and maidens.

The Bridegroom and the Friends.

On the other side the Bridegroom is our Lord Jesus Christ, by whose friends, in the treatise of this marriage, we understand: 1. First, the blessed spirits, which have at all times served Jesus Christ, and whose ministry he uses for the building of his Church—as it is said in the 34th Psalm and Hebrews 1, as also the whole Scripture shows us their effects and workings. 2. Secondly, those excellent arch-builders of the spiritual temple of the Church, I mean, the Prophets and Apostles (Eph. 2; Rev. 21). 3. Thirdly, the pastors and teachers who painfully and faithfully travail for the preparing this holy Bride (as the Apostle speaks, 2 Cor. 11:2), and gathering together the company and assembly of the saints (Eph 4:12-13).

Three stages of marriage.

We must farther note, that as in marriage there be three degrees, whereof, 1. The first is the stipulation and contracting, which we call betrothings, during the which the parties are called the Fiancer and the Fianced. 2. Afterward the solemn celebration of the marriage, at which day they are called the Bridegroom and the Bride. And lastly, 3. The consummation of the marriage, after which they are termed Man and Wife. Even so in this spiritual marriage he has, as it were, fianced and betrothed to himself his Church, by that promise of his made unto Adam, concerning the seed of the woman, the which seed should bruise the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:16), which he afterward reconfirmed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

But he has passed yet farther, when by establishing of a Levitical priesthood and other types and shadows of the promises of the gospel (the body and substance of which was in Christ, Col. 2:17), he did, as it were, espouse his Love and Fianced, howbeit in absence, and, as it were, by substitutes. And this is the cause why the Bride is first brought in by Solomon ravished with the desire and longing after of the real and personal presence of this Bridegroom, who having in divers sorts comforted and strengthened her by most certain and assured testimonies of his love and goodwill, does in the end present and yield himself personally unto her. Wherein Solomon does prophetically foretell the manifestation of the Son of God in flesh, and his real conversing among his own. Notwithstanding but for a little time, remitting the perfect and entire celebration and consummation of this holy and more than holy conjunction, until the later day, in the Heavens, when God shall be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28), and when it shall appear what the Church is, which shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

This is it then whereunto the Bride aspires with a marvelous ardent desire, to wit, unto the first and second actual coming of the Bridegroom: accordingly as said in Matthew 13:17 and by St. Peter of the desire of the ancient prophets (1 Pet. 1:10), and more plainly and expressly by St. Paul desiring to be dislodged from this body, to be long ago with Christ (Phil. 1:23) as all the true faithful do likewise desire, and that with unspeakable sighings and groanings (Rom. 8:26), demanding in their ordinary prayer, the coming of his Kingdom (Mat. 6:10).

Neither does Solomon in the meanwhile forget to speak of the persecutions which should happen unto the Church, even by her own, and the vocation of the Gentiles, together with the most assured and excellent promises, with which the Bridegroom entertaining his Bride comforts her by the often reiteration and recital of his most ascertained promises, accompanied with great spiritual blessing which are no less than gauges and pledges unto the Church of his second most glorious and majestical coming.

6. Why it is named Song of Songs.

6. Wherefore this Canticle or Song, is called the Canticle of Canticles or Song of Songs, and who was the penman thereof.

This is then the sum and scope of this Canticle or Song: which is therefore called the Canticle of Canticles, or Song of Songs either because of the excellency thereof above all other songs contained in the scriptures (so far is it, that it should be rejected) or for that it is composed of many Canticles or Songs, by reason of the persons which answer one the other. And because no man should doubt of the author or rather the penman of this treatise, it is said expressly, that it is composed by Solomon. By Solomon, I say, when he was filled and replenished with the wisdom of God, and not then, when he followed after his wantonness and folly. In whose sliding we must as it were in a mirror behold ourselves, desiring the Lord to grant us his grace, so to profit in this Canticle, that we pass and surpass herein Solomon himself, keeping carefully in our hearts, that which Solomon let slide out of his, except we will say that in his old age (which thing may in part be gathered out of the Book of the Preacher [i.e. Ecclesiastes]) he had the gift of repentance, although the Scripture make no express mention thereof, and that at the least his idolatries endured many years after him.

7. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon compared.

7. A special observation touching the order of the three books of Solomon.

However it be, not to stay long on this point, considering the order of the three books of Solomon, we may say that:

1. In his Proverbs he teaches men the true guiding and direction of this life, in such sort, and after so familiar a manner, as if a master were speaking to his pupils in the school.

2. Afterward in his Ecclesiastes, or the Book of the Preacher, he leads us, as it were, from the plain and champion country, up to an high hill. Causing us thence, as from a more high and eminent place, to behold the divers turnings and windings, by the which men wander and go astray, some after one fashion, others after an other, declaring and showing himself, amidst these ways and labyrinths, which is the true way. That we be not surprised and overtaken with the vanity of this world, but use and order our life in such sort, that it be unto us the way, which leads unto the true and ever-during happiness and felicity.

3. Now lastly in this Song or Canticle, those whom he has in such double wise instructed, he lifts here above the clouds, being as it were ravished with the consideration and contemplation of those heavenly blessings, as if they were already dwelling in, and inhabiting the Heavens, or at the least did already knock at the gates thereof.

The which order of his book, is by one of the ancient fathers resembled, by way of allegory, to the Temple of the Lord built by the same Solomon, in the which was: 1. First, the utter common court for the people, unto which the Book of the Proverbs may be compared. 2. After that was the inner place, provided for the Priests. And lastly, 3. the Sanctuary called the Holy of Holies.

Even so we may say that the Church is, as it were, lead to enter into the Holy Place by the Book of Ecclesiastes, called the Preacher, and from thence by this Canticle or Song, brought even to the entry in of the Sanctuary, or Holy of Holies, after her Bridegroom Jesus Christ, who is first entered in there, to dedicate us the way (Heb. 9), and there to provide us a place of abode (John 14), whereunto according to that prayer and request which he has made to God the Father for this his Bride, she also might be received in her time (John 17).

8. The importance of studying this book.

8. An exhortation for everyone to make his profit by the exposition of this Canticle.

It remains now that we come to the text of this Canticle or Song, which we will not at this time begin. Let us in the mean time so heedfully consider of these things which have been said, that we make our profit by them, beseeching him which has showed us so great favour, as to have brought us into his Church, out of the filthy pollutions of this world and so many idolatries and superstitions. That he will give us his Spirit the better to consider of, and to understand, his holy doctrine taught in his Church. That we may profit thereby more and more in the knowledge and true fear of him, considering the bottomless depths of his great mercies in this. That instead of rejecting and casting us off, according to our merits, it has pleased him to cleanse us from so many filths and corruptions, to dedicate and consecrate us wholly unto himself as a chaste and pure virgin. Wherefore let us not grieve or make sad the spirit of sanctification, but contrariwise suffer him to work mightily and powerfully in us, waiting for his second coming, which shall be the accomplishment of that which we must presently hope for. According to his holy doctrine, we will crave of him grace and mercy as follows.

Almighty God and heavenly Father, &c.

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