Through the centuries, the Song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs, has been a book interpreted in arguably the widest variety of ways. From banning the reading of it to giving license for all sorts of gross sexual practices, different eras and people groups have taken this book to have different messages. It also seems that the morality and sexual attitude of the culture both play a major role in the readers understanding of what this book is saying. For instance, it was popular for the church during the 17th Century to interpret it as a parable of Christ’s love for his bride, the church, while in our modern 21st Century, the consensus says that this book is God’s message to marriages to enjoy and passionately pursue sexual union. The claim of corroboration between the culture and the interpretations is seen in that during the 17th Century, lust was considered almost as a public offense, while in the 21st Century, public advertisements and popular entertainment use sex and sexuality to generate more revenue. Another observation made in regards to the 21st Century interpretation is the length to which the meaning of Scripture is stretched. There have been some who have gone so far as to see parts of the Twenty-third Psalm to condone sexual practices popularized by the moral and sexual revolution. This observation can serve as a warning to us to be careful in the path of interpretation we take, not to let the culture inform us as to what the Scriptures are saying.
But I don’t believe that the attitude of the culture plays the largest role in the interpretation of this song. The Protestant Reformation’s return to study the Bible in the original language with a historical-grammatical hermeneutic would find that there is no indication in the text that this book is to be read allegorically – even though it can be. With any allegorical description, certain parts do not pertain to the reality of the thing described so not everything written in the Song of Solomon will have an allegorical meaning. It must also be said that a purely literal interpretation will fall short since it is a book of poetry. One, then, must find that this song both praises the goodness of sexual union in marriage and displays the intimate union between Christ and the church.
While the passion of love between the King and his bride are inspiring and desirous for marriage today, we also find a much-needed insight to Christ’s intimacy with the church. In interpreting this song in a more literal sense, we have missed the benefits of the allegorical interpretation. This was the case for Martin Luther. The darkness of human tradition and authority that had covered the church for centuries had been broken by the ray of light described as justification by grace alone. This doctrine was the turning point for Luther, and when he wrote of it in his treatise on Christian freedom, he did not turn to Romans or the other epistles first. Instead, he began with chapter two and verse sixteen of The Song of Solomon, “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” This, to Luther, was the breakthrough of the Reformation. With this passage, he told of a story between a king and a woman of bad reputation. The woman, as was easily observed, had nothing of value to present this King with that would cause him to take her hand in marriage. But regardless of her state, he still married her, and when he did, a spectacular thing took place. All that she was, now became his. All her sin, her debt, and her ill-repute were now taken by the King. And everything the King possessed, all his power, wealth and royalty belonged to his wife. Now she was a Queen. Although she had little idea of what it meant to be a Queen, that was her status, and all that was carried with that title was hers. Not only was the goodness of the king transferred to her, all that which had plagued her was now the King’s. This glorious transfer produced a deep intimacy in the couple and great security for the Queen. For though she was still learning what it meant to be the Queen, she was the Queen, and as Queen, she was deeply loved by her King.
To Luther, this was a depiction of Christ and his church. We look to King Jesus and say, “All my sin, my death, and my judgment I give to you,” and He takes it from us. Then Christ turns to us and says, “All that is mine, namely my righteousness, I give to you.” No more does the sinner fear sin and death. This meant that, as Luther put it, “The sinner can confidently display her sins in the face of death and hell and say, ‘If I’ve sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I’ve believed, has not sinned, and all mine is his and all his is mine.’”
This kind of intimacy was largely unknown by the church. Since the government was hierarchical, and the kingdom of God was hierarchal, the church believed that all of Christianity was hierarchical. When the church’s focus on the deity of Christ increased, they believed they would need a mediator between themselves and Christ – a common practice in a hierarchy. So they turned to the saints, but they became too glorious to approach. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was their next choice since she was a motherly figure and one who was sure to be a little more understanding. “Surely Jesus’ own mother will be able to persuade her son to hear our request,” they reasoned. Eventually, for some, Mary became too glorious, and so they turned to her mother, Saint Anne. Now Saint Anne had to bring the prayer to Mary, who would bring the prayer to Christ which may seem to us as incredibly dizzying.
There was no idea of intimacy with Christ with this method, so for Luther to teach such an idea from The Song of Solomon was bizarre to most in the Church. But this was what the doctrine of justification by grace alone was saying: God freely places His favour on undeserving sinners, giving them the righteousness of Christ in exchange for their sin. This means sinners are freely brought, by His grace, into a sweet fellowship with His own dear Son. If such a sweet and intimate fellowship is true, wouldn’t it be a little weird to have to go through a mediator to enjoy that fellowship? Of course, for those who have experienced this sweet intimacy, such a thought is absurd.