Applying Song of Songs isn’t so neat and straight forward, whichever way we take it, either as practical wisdom about relationships or as a metaphor for Christ and the Church. Have a read through the book and spot these things.
The lead female character is someone who appears vulnerable, taken advantage of, at risk. She has been driven out to work for her brothers with no concern given to her own needs and wellbeing. Some contemporary interpreters would question the power dynamics at play and express concern that the relationship may be exploitative and abusive. We are not told that there is a clear and definite marriage covenant. Is this a faithful, monogamous relationship? Or are we looking at a situation where this poor disadvantaged girl is taken into the king’s harem?
Further, far from what we would expect in terms of a public, witnessed marriage, we may well read the story as suggesting secret, illicit meetings. This isn’t unique to Song of Songs of course, consider the way in which Ruth is encouraged to go close to where Boaz is sleeping at night or Esther, sent in by an elderly relative to a beauty competition in the hope that she will rise up through the ranks of the emperor’s harem. And the King appears to disappear away from time to time.
So, on that basis, would we want to go straight to offering marriage and relationship counselling based on the book? Not only that, do all the aspects of relationship point helpfully to the relationship between Christ and the Church? In terms of relationship advice we would have to put a lot of scaffolding around the story drawing on teaching elsewhere in Scripture.
In terms of applying the book to Christ, we want to stay clear of the idea of allegory where we attempt to fit every detail to Jesus and the Church. Instead we may think in terms of metaphor, or better still of typology. A type, Biblically is a person, object, relationship or event which foreshadows Christ and the Gospel. What this means is that as well as being a bit like Christ/The Gospel, it is also different to/unlike. Think of how King David points us to Christ as the righteous, saviour king but David may have been like Christ in his heroic defeat of Goliath but very much unlike him in his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah.
So, when we come to Song of Songs, if we are at times bewildered, shocked, disturbed, disgusted even by the what it portrays, here is why. The Song seems to me to be rooted in the real life story of King Solomon. Solomon sought wisdom and received it from God. He was also blessed with great wealth. However, he was also distracted from faithfulness by his pursuit of many wives. This led him into idolatry. And yes, in and amongst that, we have the power dynamics of a powerful lord, who may well have at some point looked with desire on a “normal girl” different to the marriages he made for political convenience.
We do not need to pretend that Solomon’s life was perfect. Scripture is clear that it wasn’t. Therefore, we shouldn’t’ be surprised that a song written either by or about Solomon meditating on one of his relationships is messy and complicated.
What I think we can do, is with the song-writer, trace through the mess of the story, the pointers to Christ and the Gospel and from there, through Christ apply this to our daily life and relationships too. We can see how Solomon as the type is imperfect. There’s no question of Christ appearing to go missing for example. However, we can also learn from the passionate, determined pursuit that we see in the story, something about Christ’s passionate pursuit of us and we can see how that should draw back from us a response of intimate love.
From there, we can also seek to apply, not the imperfect relationship of Song of Songs but the perfect relationship of Christ to his church as a model for what our human relationships should look like.