Earlier this week, I wrote about a tweet by Beth Moore that had caused some controversy and then suggested at the end of my article that perhaps a read of Song of Songs might be helpful to give us a sense of the kind of language employed in Scripture to describe our love for Christ.
Now, the suggestion that we apply Song of Songs in that way is not itself uncontroversial. In fact, the book itself has been one that people have struggled with given its sensual, even sexual imagery. The question then is whether or not the book is intended to be read allegorically in order to portray God’s relationship to his people or whether it’s meant to be read as practical wisdom for life and hence to offer instruction on marriage.
Now, those taking either position tend to defend their view fiercely to the exclusion of the other position being possible. And part of the debate has been whether or not particular interpretations are in fact driven more by discomfort with the imagery in the text than by normal exegetical and hermeneutical methods. So, for example it’s often suggested that discomfort at the sensual imagery is what has caused the church throughout the ages to treat it as allegory in order to distance the text from actual human relationships and emotions.
However, I’ve also met people who have insisted that it’s exactly because of the sexual imagery that it is inappropriate to apply Song of Songs to our relationship with God. It is from their perspective, the wrong type of love.
Those who argue against applying the text to the church and Christ tend to argue that “the plain meaning” of the text points us away from doing that. On a plain reading, we should see that it is about a husband’s love for his wife and nothing more. Now, there are two problems with that. First of all, a “plain reading” may not immediately and always suggest that the Song applies directly and obviously to marriage. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons why people have felt uncomfortable with sexual connotations. The plainest reading is that this is simply a love song telling the story of lovers. We have to read marital faithfulness into the song.
Secondly, a “plain reading” requires not just that we look at the specific words on the page but that we ask questions about genre and context. This means for example that we don’t treat the parable of the wise and foolish builders as being on a “plain reading” an instruction manual for architects.
So, first of all, we observe that this is poetic. This means that it will draw upon all types of imagery to use metaphorically and allegorically. It is not unusual then to see language used in poetry to apply to contexts outside of its normal literal application. Secondly, we observe that the Song is set in canonical context.
There are two aspects to this. First, its context as wisdom literature should encourage us to spot practical advice. Secondly, just as we can both read Proverbs as practical family advice and also see its setting in redemptive revelation, so too, we can read the Song as practical advice whilst also having our attention drawn to the way in which Scripture consistently uses the language of marriage to portray God’s love for his people/Christ’s love for the church and the right response to this. We are reminded of how Christ showed that all Scripture including Song of Songs pointed to him and his death and resurrection. The question then is not “Does Song of Songs point us to Christ and his love for his people” but “how does Song of Songs point us to Christ and his love for his people.”
So, is Song of Songs about human marriage or about God and his people/Christ and his church? What if we treated it as both? What if we read it first as telling the story of Christ’s love for his people? Then, after that we also began to draw out gospel application for marriages as well.