Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits. (Song of Solomon 4:16)
What is this book about?
Song of Solomon is one of the more difficult books in all of Scripture to understand. What is this love poem doing in the middle of the Bible? What is its purpose? What is it intending to teach?
As Protestants, we stress that scripture cannot be allegorized unless Scripture itself demands it. We do not allow there to be multiple meanings of a passage; this is explained in Westminster 1.9 which affirms the “true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one).” This was in some ways a rejection of earlier medieval forms of biblical interpretation. However, as has been shown elsewhere, it wasn’t so much a rejection as a reformulation. The literal meaning of the text may not be abandoned in the pursuit of its consequential, typological truths. Thus, in the introduction to his commentary on Song of Solomon (“Clavis Cantici“), Westminster Divine James Durham wrote the following:
For there is a Two-fold Literal Sense of Scripture. 1. Proper and Immediate, as where it’s said, Solomon married Pharaoh’s Daughter. The Second is Figurative and Mediate, as when it is said, Matth 22.2. A certain King made a Marriage to his Son, &c. Both have a literal meaning. The first Immediate, fulfilled in Solomon: The second is Mediate, setting out God’s calling Jews and Gentiles unto Fellowship with His Son; and so that Parable is to be understood in a Spiritual Sense. Now we say, this Song (if we would take up its true sense and meaning) is not to be understood the first way, Properly and Immediately, but the second way, Figuratively and Mediately, as holding forth some Spiritual thing under borrowed expressions, which will further appear from these things.
The Literal Sense of Scripture and Allegory
So Durham argues for a “two-fold” literal sense, an immediate sense (what the text plainly says) and a figurative, mediate sense (the spiritual truths shown through the literal expressions of the text). Durham provides his justification from the parables of Christ. Moreover, we may look to Ephesians 5, where Paul takes literal expressions of love between husband and wife and applies a further Spiritual sense to this literal expression (“I speak concerning Christ and the Church”, Eph 5:32) Therefore, we can say that consequential truths may be derived from the lieral sense of Scripture. Ryan McGraw argues in his small but helpful book on biblical hermeneutics:
If the only thing a minister or commentator did was to give the people of God the proper literal and historical meaning of the Scriptures, then there wold be no theology and no application in the sermon or commentary. (p. 25)
Thus, we can conclude that a Reformed hermeneutic is:
- rooted in the literal meaning of the text,
- with the spiritual sense,
- Allegory situated within biblical boundaries and to show forth truths about Christ and the Church
- For the purpose of application of the biblical text to build up the church.
When we approach the Song of Solomon, then, we approach it as a text showing forth Christ and his love for the Church, and the churches love for Christ as his Bride. John Owen, in his letter to the reader preceding Durham’s commentary, also says this:
The book of the Canticles is not in any part of it, much less in the whole, a meet subject for every ordinary undertaker to exercise upon. The matter of it is totally sublime, spiritual, and mystical; and the manner of its handling universally allegorical. So did God think meet in his manifold wisdom to instruct his church of old, whilst it tabernacled under those clouds and shadows, whose departure and flying away it so earnestly breathes after in this very book. God committed unto it then, in his oracles, the same treasure of wisdom and grace, as he doth now unto us under the gospel, only he so folded them up under types and allegories, that they could not clearly and distinctly look into them, he having provided “some better things for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.”
Allegory and Typology
When we look at Song of Songs, were we to take it as a mere love poem, we would be missing the full sense of the poem itself. Thus, the allegorical application of this book is typological in nature, with a type (which is shown forth expressly in the text) and an antitype (greater than that shown in the express text and by which we more fully understand what God has revealed). The same is true of other poetic works in the bible; many of the Psalms speak of David’s battles with his enemies. These literal encounters are to be interpreted in that sense; however, we see that these literal sense has a spiritual sense which also, typologically, shows forth Christ. Take Hebrews 2:12 for instance. Here, David’s prayer of deliverance in Psalm 22:22 is quoted and understood as speaking of Christ and the Church.
Song of Solomon 4
Thus, we move to our text. This will be a flyover for the sake of time and space; however, I encourage you to read Durham’s commentary, at it is one of the masterpieces of Reformed biblical interpretation in the 17th century. We see in this book that it is appropriate to identify the husband as Christ and the bride as the Church, as we explained from Ephesians 5 earlier. When we look at verses 1-5, when the body parts of the Bride are commended, we see Christ looking at the new nature of man, the one united in faith to himself. He says in verse 6 that he will commune with the bride “until the day break”, showing that he will not abandon nor forsake his Bride, and has made her clean through justification and holiness in her sanctification according to the new nature. He moves from there to speak of how great the love of the Bride is for Christ. We learn from this that Christ loves His Church and delights in her. You can take comfort in the fact that you are not merely serving a master who demands servile obedience. You are serving a husband who loves his Bride. Finally, chapter ends with the Bride asking that the elements make her garden more beautiful, so that the husband will enjoy the Bride. We have here a figure of the Bride praying that she would be made acceptable to the husband, praying for graces to be fit for His presence.
I encourage you, as you read this book, to remember that these are God’s words. He has given them for the edification of the church. When you read the Song of Solomon, remember that God is showing forth his love for his elect in Christ and rejoice in the joy of your salvation.