The Song of Songs is both a mystery and a beauty. It is elusive, dancing lightly from image to image, and as such is difficult to get a solid hold of in any sort of narrative-historical or allegorical way. Even so, it has been counted by Jews and Christians throughout history as the height of wisdom literature and the height of poetry. In Martin Luther’s translation, he calls it Das Hohelied, the High Song. It is the Song of Songs – a verbal construction that parallels King of Kings or Holy of Holies. It is multi-layered and heavily allusive, reaching out and pulling in imagery and ideas from all over the rest of scripture.
First, it is helpful to consider the Song’s position in the canon as part of the wisdom literature. In Proverbs, the king exhorts his son to seek wisdom, and throughout the book wisdom is personified as a great and righteous lady. She is contrasted with Harlot Folly, the strange or foreign woman who tempts the simple to turn aside to their ruin. “In the final chapter, we find that the prince has chosen well: He has made Lady Wisdom his bride. As King Lemuel’s mother urged, he has renounced the women who destroy kings (31:3) and embraces the woman who enables him to rule well” (Leithart 2011).
Ecclesiastes follows on this theme and shows the limit of wisdom. Wisdom is rightly prized and sought, but it is not ultimate. This life, this creation, is good and is meant to be enjoyed, but, to borrow a phrase from Doug Wilson, that joy is on a tether.
The Song of Songs displays the King’s desire for his Bride, the one in whom he delights. This is the joy of finding the excellent wife, one who is far more precious than jewels. The language strains the tether as Solomon plunders the store of biblical imagery to show the desire of the lovers and their praise for one another.
The beauty of the Bride is often expressed in geographic or agricultural terms. Her body is like a rolling landscape, her breasts like spiced mountains, her hair like goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead. Her neck is like the Tower of David, set with warriors’ shields. She is beautiful as Tirzah, lovely as Jerusalem. Her eyes are pools in Heshbon, her nose like the tower of Lebanon, her head crowns her like Mount Carmel. This is the love of the King for his country, his people.
The great praise song of the maidens for the Bride, “Who is this who looks down like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun, awesome as an army with banners?” alludes to the gathered host of Israel encamped under the tribal banners around the tabernacle (Num 2). The people surround the King as the Bridal City, the New Jerusalem, which is decked out in royal splendor and surrounds Christ, the Husband, and which outshines the sun and moon with the reflected glory of God (Rev 21).
“The Song is full of the imagery of Eden. Solomon uses the word ‘garden’ eight times (4:12, 15, 16 [2x], 5:1; 6:2 [2x]; 8:13), and the poem frequently refers to trees, fruits, flowers, springs” (Leithart 2009). Each of the uses of ‘garden’ (with the exception of 8:13) is a reference to the Bride, conflating garden and bridal imagery together. The Song implies that it is in the Bride that “Yahweh God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9). Solomon-Adam comes to his garden to enjoy its choicest fruits, to climb the tree of his Eve and gather her clusters. Eve invites him in and feeds him, giving him spiced wine and the juice of her pomegranates. She is wheat and wine, honey and milk. From her fountains come streams of living water, like the river that flowed from Eden through the garden and into the outlying lands.
“Eden’s garden was Adam’s original sanctuary, and the imagery of the garden in the Song shades over into imagery of the sanctuary. The house where the lovers meet is made from temple materials – cedar and cypress (1:17), and like the temple the garden of love is a place of feasting (2:4; 5:1). Solomon frequently mentions the fragrances that waft from the garden, reminding us of the pacifying smoke from Israel’s sacrifices” (Leithart 2009). Both the Bride and the Beloved are described in terms of this edenic-temple imagery. She is pictured as a lily, with cheeks like halves of pomegranates, like the lily-topped and pomegranate-encircled pillars in the temple court (1 Kg 7:21ff). She is a pillar that the Beloved climbs, a palm tree like the palm groves carved into the walls of the temple (1 Kg 6:29). Her aroma is that of frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon and spices, like the perfumed anointing oil used in the sanctuary (Ex 30:23ff). He is described like a statue of a man with a head like gold – the Holy of Holies; eyes like doves – the seven branched lampstand*; cheeks of spices – the altar of incense; lips of lilies – the flowers carved into the walls of the temple and the lily-topped pillars; body of ivory, legs of alabaster and gold, appearance like cedar – the foundation and structure of the temple.
“The interweaving of imagery in the Song hints at the double reference of the poem: It is a poem of ideal human love, the lovers like unfallen Adam and Eve, but it is also a poem about Yahweh’s trysts with Israel in the love-garden of the temple” (Leithart 2009). As a love poem, it expresses in very passionate terms the desire of the Bride for the Beloved, and that of the Beloved for his Bride. In Ephesians 5, Paul points out that the fundamental meaning of the sexual relationship between a husband and wife is that it is an image, a type, of the relationship of Christ and the Church. “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
Scripture, especially in the prophets, frequently refers to Yahweh as Husband and Israel as Wife (cf. Is 54:5, Jer 3:20, 31:32, Hsa 2) Ezekiel 16 is a retelling of the history of Israel in Husband/Wife imagery:
When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord Yahweh, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty.
Yahweh brought His people out of wallowing in the blood of Egypt to bring them to His mountain and establish His covenant with them. He washed them by baptism in the Red Sea (1Cor 10:2) and by the sprinkling of blood at Sinai (Ex 24:8). He anointed Aaron and the whole tabernacle with oil, setting them apart for holy use. He adorned them with the glory of the tabernacle: gold, silver, embroidered cloth and leather – plunder from the Egyptians. The rendering of the story in Ezekiel highlights the covenant of Sinai as His marriage covenant with His people. Despite all of this, Israel turned away and whored after other lovers, lusting after the gods of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and anyone else who happened to pass by.
The Song shows desire set over against lust. The desire of the two lovers for one another is full, passionate, mature. Each is fully longing for and seeking after the other and will not turn aside to any substitute. “As a lily among brambles, so is my love among the young women” (2:2). He is captivated by her beauty. “You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes… Turn away your eyes from me, for they overwhelm me” (4:9, 6:5).
Four times Solomon calls her “my sister, my bride” which brings to mind Adam’s statement of Eve, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen 2:23). Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh is a statement of kinship, a statement of brother-brother (or sister) relationship. It is nearly the same greeting Laban gives Jacob (Gen 29:14), and different groups claim kinship in similar terms (cf. Jud 9:2, 2 Sam 5:1, 19:12, 13). The Man-Woman relationship is that of the husband and wife. The Hebrew behind the ‘Woman’ and ‘Man’ is Ishah and Ish. Up until this point the man had been called adam because he was formed from the dust of the ground, adamah. Now he is Ish, and as Jim Jordan has pointed out, this is much more closely associated with fire, esh. The dirt-man becomes fire-man in union with his bride. The woman transforms her husband as fire on an altar of earth, lighting and glorifying him (cf. 1 Cor 11:7). By the end of the Song, the Bride has taken on the name of the Beloved. She is the Shulamite, a feminine form of Solomon’s name. She has become the radiant, glorious, spotless Bride – a Bride fit for the King.
If what Paul says is true – that marriage is a picture of God with His people, Christ with the Church – then here we see the complete devotion and passionate desire of Christ for His Bride and of the Church for Christ. This has implications for how the Church should be viewed. How often was Israel led astray? How often is today’s Church led astray by lovers less wild than Jesus? The Song shows an idyllic relationship, one that has not been born out in the Church (at least with our limited perspective on history), but Paul says it will and that Christ will “present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
The Song of Songs is a love poem, to be sure, but through its use of allusive imagery it reaches beyond individual human relationships. It draws us into the dance of the lovers and robustly expresses the love and glory, the mystery and beauty of God with His creation. It has been rightly prized by the church throughout history as the height of wisdom and poetry.
*the Spirit who descends as a dove at the baptism of Christ and as flames of fire on Pentecost is the same ‘seven Spirits (or seven-fold Spirit) of God’ in Revelation 4:5, and the seven flaming eyes of Christ in Revelation 5:6.
I am indebted to Dr. Peter Leithart for his writings and lectures on the Song of Songs. For further reading, you can visit his website.