How should we interpret the Song of Solomon?

The Song of Solomon is perhaps one of the most difficult books in the Bible to interpret with dogmatic certainty. Historically, the Christian Church has interpreted this book in at least four different ways.

The first is the allegorical approach, in which this book is seen as an allegorical poem, which is designed primarily to picture the love of Christ and His Church. In such an approach, the interpreter would often bypass the obvious surface meaning of the text, so that all that is said by the Shulamite woman is taken as being said directly by the Church, and all that is said by her lover may be taken to be said directly by Christ to His bride; and every recorded detail has signification in the relationship between Christ and His Church. The most obvious justification for this approach is that elsewhere in the Scripture, the Church is spoken of as the bride and Christ is spoken of as the groom (Jn 3:29; Eph 5:22–23; Rev 18:23; 22:17; etc.). And moreover, Christ is also portrayed as a Shepherd, a King, and a Husband, as the lover is so portrayed in the Song.

This allegorical approach was taken by the Jews, though they speak of it as being an allegorical picture of the love of God for Israel; and it was the approach of most of the early church fathers, such as Origen, Jerome, Athanasius and Augustine. Although there has been by no means consensus or agreement with regards to details, it was the approach maintained by most, if not all, of the Reformers and Puritans, and continued to be the approach until around the 19th century.

A second approach to the Song, which gained popularity at around the beginning of the 19th century, is the dramatic interpretation. In this approach, the Song is seen as some kind of a script for a romantic drama. Scholars who advocated this approach include Franz Delitzsch, H. Ewald, and S.R. Driver. However this approach has been criticised, firstly, for failing to note that the literary genre of drama scripts was not known among the Israelites and, secondly, for failing to show that the Song can indeed be analysed into scenes, acts, mimes, etc., which are the essence of a dramatic work.

The third approach, which is very popular today, is to take the Song simply as a lyrical poem to extol human love and marriage. There are some disagreements as to whether there are two or three main characters (Solomon and the Shulamite; or Solomon, the Shulamite and her Shepherd-lover).

The fourth approach, which is in some ways a combination of the first and the third approaches, is known as the typological approach. In this approach, the Song is viewed as an extended type, with Solomon typifying the Christ and the Shulamite typifying the Church. The difference between this approach and the allegorical approach is that, unlike the latter, it preserves the obvious sense and apparently historical settings of the poem, and only seeks broad typological allusion to the relationship between Christ and the Church. This approach finds its basis in the fact that much of the Old Testament has typological references to Christ, which are confirmed in the New Testament (e.g., Mt 12:40; Jn 3:14; cf. Gen 28:12, Lk 19:28).

What approach do I believe is correct? I see no value in the dramatic approach; and I am not at all comfortable with seeing the book as being purely a romantic poem. I am convinced that all of the Old Testament points to Christ in one way or another (Lk 24:27, 44). On the other hand, I am acutely aware of how a purely allegorical interpretation of the Song can lead to extremely divergent views; and yet I think there is more than just broad and occasion typological allusions to Christ and His bride in the book. It appears to me, rather that this book is, by design, to extol the love between Christ and His Church, though expressed in an allegorical parabolic way. It appears to me that just as the Lord’s parables make good sense even when read on the surface; so the Song does make good sense when read on the surface. Yes, as the Lord’s parables have their intended lessons and/or didactic meanings in the spiritual realm, so too in the Song. Though on the surface, the Song speaks about the love between the Shulamite woman and her lover, it is intended to point to the love between the Church and Christ. And just as it is necessary to understand the surface meaning of a parable before the spiritual meaning can be derived, so it is necessary to understand the surface meaning of the Song to some degree before drawing the spiritual meaning, or else our interpretations will run wild. Moreover, just as it is necessary to interpret the parables of the Lord by comparing Scripture with Scripture, so it is necessary to do so in the case of the Song. In this regard, I do not think that any theology not found elsewhere in the Scripture may be derived from the Song, and yet the Song gives a very rich exposition to the biblical theology it touches on.

But how can the Song be parabolic if it describes the actual love story between the concubine of David and King Solomon, as many commentators suggest? Well, I do not personally think that the Shulamite woman refers to David’s concubine whom he gave to Solomon when he died, nor do I think that her lover in the Song is Solomon!

In the first place, the lover is painted as a shepherd in the song (1:7; 6:3), and Solomon was not quite a shepherd although he did own flocks of sheep. In the second place, by the time this Song was written, Solomon had 60 queens, and 80 concubines, and the number was increasing because there were “virgins without number” (6:8)! And furthermore, as we read the Song, it makes a lot more sense if we see the references to Solomon as part of the imagination or dream of the Shulamite woman concerning her lover. That is, although Solomon is not the lover, in her mind he is like Solomon the king.

Who then were these two persons? Well, I am quite persuaded through my own study that these two persons in the Song did not really exist in real life. It appears to me that Solomon was not writing the love story between two real persons. He was writing, I believe, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a parable of perfect love personified,—a parable of the love between the Messiah and His bride.

With this in mind, a study of the Song with the illuminating help of the Holy Spirit would be most enriching and satisfying spiritual experience. Matthew Henry expresses it well when he says:

It requires some pains to find out what may, probably, be the meaning of the Holy Spirit in the several parts of this book; as David’s songs are many of them level to the capacity of the meanest, and there are shallows in them learned, and there are depths in it in which an elephant may swim. But, when the meaning is found out, it will be of admirable use to excite pious and devout affections in us; and the same truths which are plainly laid down in other scriptures when they are extracted out of this come to the soul with a more pleasing power. When we apply ourselves to the study of this book we must not only, with Moses and Joshua, put off our shoe from off our foot, and even forget that we have bodies, because the place where we stand is holy ground, but we must, with John, come up hither, must spread our wings, take a noble flight, and soar upwards, till by faith and holy love we enter into the holiest, for this is no other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven (introductory note to “An Exposition, with Practical Observations, of the Song of Solomon” in Comm., vol. 3).