One would have to be spiritually numb to miss the connection between this song and the believer’s relationship with Christ. For Christians, this is the most natural reading of the book, and the received position of the Church for millennia. Sometimes, however, the preacher is tempted to get to Christ and devotional application at the expense of a proper hermeneutic (interpretation). All sorts of fanciful interpretations are out there.
There is no doubt that Christ is in the Song of Solomon. We don’t have to stretch the text to find Him there. If the preacher maintains proper biblical methods of interpretations, he will discover Christ and find sufficient sermon material. Furthermore, if proper methods of interpretation are maintained, the application will be easily observed from the text. It will have a more powerful impact, be less confusing, and it will be more memorable. We don’t want the congregation asking, “how did he get that out of the text?”
There are three areas of study that we must deal with as we prepare to preach Christ from the Song of Solomon; First, understand where Song of Solomon fits in the unfolding story of the Old Testament. Does Solomon’s song interrupt the flow of Old Testament revelation (Biblical Theology), or is it part to that story? Second, we need to lay down some general guidelines as we develop our understanding of the book. Finally, we need to establish what method of interpretation we should use?
The Song of Solomon in the Unfolding Mystery of the Old Testament
Throughout the Old Testament God is working out his plan of redemption through a series of redemptive acts in the history of his people. From the time of Adam, through the lives of Noah, then the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and onward, God is at work. He is building a nation that will, in the fullness of time, bring the arrival of the Messiah.
It is relatively easy to identify the flow of the redemptive story through the history books of the Old Testament. We can see, also, where the prophetic books fit, as the prophets seek to bring the nation back to God. But how does the Wisdom Literature advance the flow of redemptive history and fit into the framework of Old Testament Theology? How does the Song of Solomon add to our understanding of the coming Messiah?
If the preacher is to handle the Song of Solomon correctly he will need to see the Song of Solomon in the bigger picture, where it fits in the broader context of the Old Testament. It is not a random insertion, or a rogue book. It is not a glitch in Old Testament Theology.
In the unfolding mystery of the kingdom, God chose a nation, the people of Israel. He gave Israel a land, the land of promise, and he dwelt among them there in the Temple. God gave this nation three categories of men for the spiritual administration of his people; priests, wise men and prophets. The prophets were given particularity in times of crisis, to declare God’s Word, they were what we might call the Reformers of ancient Israel.
The priests and the wise men interpreted the Law. The priest’s role was worship and the work of the Temple. The wise men or hakhamim (Proverbs 1:6; 22:17; Jeremiah 17:18) brought wisdom to the streets, into the market places of life (Proverbs 1:20), to everyday life. Their concern was how God’s chosen people lived in light of the Law of God. On the eve of the Babylonian Captivity, Jeremiah chastised the people, telling them that it is not enough to boast about possessing the Word of God. What is more important is to have a proper response to the Word (Walter C. Kaiser, The Old Testament in Contemporary Preaching, 1973, 116).
In contrast to the priests, the work of the wise men transcended national Israel. The wise men were practitioners rather than philosophers; their interests were everyday life.
The book of Job, for example, shows us how the wise man should suffer with dignity. In the Psalms the wise man wrestles through the various problems of life in prayer, in meditation and in song, observing how God has worked in the past (Psalm 105).
Solomon—the author of three of the Wisdom Books—was the greatest of the hakhamim. No one surpassed his wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-30; Ecclesiastes 9:17). Proverbs furnishes the wise man with short, quotable phrases that are easily applied to life. In Ecclesiastes the wise man is faced with the absolute vanity of life; “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” In the different arenas of life – the work place, in the place of power (8:3), in finances, in the pursuit of pleasure (1:12-18), even in the place of worship (5:1), the wise man exhorts us to remember our Creator (12:1).
In the Song of Solomon, the wise man brings Wisdom into the home of the Israelite and shows him how he ought to think about sex and the use of the body and how marriage should operate among God’s chosen people. The wise man sees this sexual relationship as a gift from God to be enjoyed. God has given humanity this beautiful gift within the context of marriage. The wise man (or woman) will reserve his/her body for that relationship when they can give themselves completely—body and soul—to one another and, in that relationship alone, find fulfillment and enjoyment.
General Guidelines for Understanding the Book
- Identify the Speakers
- Solomon,the bridegroom, is identified as a shepherd (1:7) and also as the king (1:12, 3:9). Throughout the book the king pursues the bride. In every part where he speaks he is either describing her beauty or he is telling her how much he loves her.
- The Shulamite,the bride. The Shulamite is not known by her name, but by a title, mentioned only at one time in the book (6:13). Sheis identified as a vinedresser (1:6) and a shepherdess (1:8) who falls in love with the king. She comes at the beginning with uncertainty, shy and insecure (1:5), hiding from him (2:14). By the end of the book she has developed into a thinking, articulate and confident individual (8:6-7; 8:14).
- The Daughters of Jerusalem(1:5; 2:7; 3:5, 10; 5:8, 16; 8:4). The identity of the “Daughters of Jerusalem” is a little more difficult. Some suggest they are the women of Solomon’s harem, others the female inhabitants of Jerusalem. Others think that they are an invented category (a literary device) to enable the author to develop more fully the thoughts of the main characters. Still others think that the Daughters of Jerusalem are simply the friends of the bride, the bridesmaids, as it were, who serve the bride and for whom the bride serves as a pattern and example (1:4).
- The Watchmen of the city(3:3; 5:7). The Watchmen are mentioned only in the “dream sections” of the book (3:1-5; 5:2-8). These are times when the girl dreams of times when her lover is absent. Their job, of course is to guard and keep order in the city. On both occasions where the Watchmen are mentioned, the girl is wandering in the city, having lost her lover and on both occasions the watchmen act in a disciplinary role.
- The Brothers. Referred to as “my mother’s children”at the beginning of the book (1:6), they speak at the end of the book (8:8-9). On both of these occasions the relationship between them and the central girl, the bride, is strained. They are angry with her (1:6) and she defends herself against them for thinking her too young and under-developed to marry (8:8-9).
- Understand the story-line behind the Poetic Imagery
The story of Solomon and the Shulamite, although hidden behind the veil of ancient poetry, is a real love story. This is a real event. Solomon is a real person, and the Shulamite also. With three thousand years between now and when the book was written, there are many difficulties; historical, geographical, cultural and linguistic. One of the most difficult tasks of understanding the story is unravelling the metaphors and similes of the poetic language. We have to wrestle through these and translate the poetry into prose.
The poetic imagery meant something to the first people listening to the song. We want, as far as we can, to understand what it meant to the original hearer.
We are introduced to the couple only after Solomon and the Shulamite have met. The Shulamite had at least two brothers (8:8). Her mother is still alive, but it seems her father was dead, and the brothers take responsibility (1:6) Perhaps Solomon had met her in the country, as he visited his many vineyards (8:12). She has a vineyard (8:12), so they had that common interest to start with. Whenever they met we do not know, nor the circumstances, but we are introduced to the story as she is on a visit to the palace.
She is there in the palace, among the women of the court, the Daughters of Jerusalem (1:4). It is here that she beings to feel her self-consciousness among the beautiful manicured woman of the court, because of her weather-beaten appearance (1:5-6). Not including the introduction (1:1) and the conclusion (8:5-14), the book consists of four main sections; the meeting (1:2-2:7), the courtship (2:8-3:5), the wedding (3:6-5:1) and the life of love (5:2-8:4).
In the first major section of the book (1:1-2:7) the girl opens up with an expression of desire towards him (1:1-7). She is to him, the “fairest among women”(1:8), and the dialogue continues with an exchange of compliments. In the next main section, the courtship (2:8-3:5), the story continues told through the voice of the girl. Hers is the only voice in this section, in which she tells of a day-trip in the spring to the country (2:8-17). The emphasis of this particular poem is his pursuit of her. In contrast to this spring-time event, the girl turns immediately to a dream. It is more like a nightmare, in which she struggles with the thought of losing him (3:1-5 see also 5:2-8), despite the fact that he was previously pursuing and calling her. Her insecurity become very clear in this section.
The third main section deals with the wedding (3:6-5:1). This larger section forms the central part of the book. The wedding has already taken place in the wilderness, and they are making their way to the city. The wedding procession and accompanying songs culminates with the invitation from the spouse to “take possession”of her (4:16) and the response of her groom. Words specific to this section are “spouse”(six times 4:8,9,10,11,12; 5:1) and the term “King Solomon”(twice 3:9,11). The wedding is consummated in the exact center of the book in the original language (4:16-5:1).
The courtship is over, the wedding event also and now life settles down into the honest vicissitudes of love (5:2-8:4). It is an exciting life, but one of struggles and self-discovery. In this section, the young couple are working out their relationship. Here we see an honest picture of the life of love; the ups and down, the ebbs and flows of love in a fallen world. In this section they discover more about themselves in this relationship. We see the changefulness of love, the girl’s indifference (5:2-8) and also her growing confidence and initiative, where she now invites him to “come” (7:11,12). There are also three descriptive poems. One wasf, a description of Solomon by the girl (5:10-16) and two describing the girl (6:4-7; 7:1-7).
The last section, the conclusion, begins with the question “who is this…” It is the same question which introduced the wedding. Now it introduces the beginning of the rest of their lives. In this concluding section, there is an emphasis on the continuance of their love. It hints at the “fruitful and multiply” mandate given to humanity (Genesis 1:26).
The book might end here but the story is not over. Commentators view these last view verses as a tying up of a few “loose ends.” This section, however, seems designed to endorse the love between the girl and her lover. She calls for him to publicly confirm the marriage and highlights the power and passion of love (Vs. 5b-7). She defends her marriage against the misgivings of her brothers (Vs. 8-10). Finally, in a duet of invitation the happy couple confirm the security of their marriage (Vs. 11-14).
- Develop a Working Structure
Connected with understanding the story line is getting the big picture of the book. To do this you need to develop a general structure of the book
- Introduction: Title and Authorship (1:1)
- The Meeting and Initial Developments (1:2-2:7)
- Initial Discovery (1:2-7)
- Further Development (1:7-2:7)
- The Courtship (2:8-3:5)
- Springtime (2:8-3:4)
- Separation (3:1-5)
- The Wedding (3:6-5:1)
- Wedding Procession (3:6-11)
- Solomon’s Songs (4:1-15)
- Beauty: (4:1-7) Wasf
- Desire: (4:8-15)
- The Consummation (4:16-5:1)
- The Changeful Life of Love (5:2-8:4)
- The Dream: Sleep and Search (5:2-6:3) including Wasf
- Overwhelmed with Love (6:4-10) including Wasf
- A Sweet Encounter (6:11-13a)
- Togetherness: A Loving Exchange (6:13b-8:4) including Wasf
- Conclusion: Love Endorsed and Encouraged (8:5-14)
- Sealed and Secure: The Power of Love (8:6-7)
- Pure and Mature: The Proof of Love (8:8-10)
- Hear and Hurry: The Progress of Love (8:11-14)
- Understand the Proper Use of the Descriptive Poems (Wasfs)
There are four descriptive poems (wasfs) in the Song of Solomon. One describes the male’s body (5:10-16) and three describing the female’s body (4:1-7; 6:4-7; 7:1-7).
These descriptive songs are called Wasfs, an Arabic word for a descriptive love song that praises the physical beauty of the bride or bridegroom.These songs were common in that culture and deeply rooted practice in an Ancient Near Eastern wedding. In the early 1860s Dr. J. G. Wetzstein was on a visit to Damascus in Syria. In August 1861 he was the guest at a wedding celebration—which was three whole days long—On that occasion, Wetzstein had the opportunity of having these descriptive songs explained to him and he recorded the unusual experience because he said that there were things that “serve to throw light on the Song [of Solomon].” His thesis was later published in the commentary of his friend Franz Delitzsch of Keil & Delitzsch. Archaeologists have since confirmed that this type of wedding poetry was common in the Ancient Near East.
The question is, how are we to use these poems in our interpretation of the book? They are not intended to be a visual of the details of the woman’s body or the man’s body, but simply to capture the whole beauty. Like the petals of a flower, the beauty is not in the individual items (the petals) but as they are seen together in the whole. Commentators have dissected these body parts and their comments are a grotesque distraction from the stated purpose of Scripture.
Three general observations.
- These descriptions are between a man and his wife, in the context of a marriage ceremony. These are not the random and lustful meanderings of lose morals.
- They are speaking of a clothed body. Notice the jewels on the neck (4:4) and shoes on the feet (7:1a). This point serves to highlight the fact that the general beauty of the subject is in view, not the individual parts of the body.
- The imagery used often highlights the character of the person rather than the physical frame. This is especially true of the last poem (7:1-9). This poem, more than any of the others, highlights characteristics of her noble personality (prince’s daughter, Vs. 1), elegant posture (tower of ivory, Vs. 4; palm trees, Vs. 8), and strength of character (tower of Lebanon, Vs. 4).
- Develop an Understanding of the Purpose (A Purpose Statement)
The book presents a high view of marriage, with Solomon, the wisest king of Israel as the leading figure. Song of Solomon therefore is intended to instruct men how to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, and wives to lean and depend on their husbands in humble obedience. It is an antidote to the commercialised sex-craze of the modern world, the abuse of male authority and the misplaced desire for female power in the modern world.
The primary purpose of this book, like every book of Scripture, is to present the ideal marriage between Christ and His Church. This book, more than any other, teaches us how intense and persevering Christ’s love is for his people. It teaches us, how insecure and uncertain our love really is and calls us to “rise up…and come away…” (2:10).
Methods for Preaching Christ in the Song of Solomon
Typology and Analogy
So, we have established the Song of Solomon in the development or unfolding of Old Testament revelation. We have identified the speakers, developed a storyline and a working structure of the book. This is tedious work, unravelling the imagery of the poetry, but it is important foundational work. The only thing that remains is to establish a method of interpretation. How are we going to apply the Song of Solomon to a modern audience?
One method of preaching Christ from the Song of Solomon is to preach themes, repeated words and phrases. The Garden theme, for example, opens up a rich treasury of preaching material. The garden in the book speaks of mutual enjoyment, of the pleasure of intimacy and fellowship. Sometimes it is her going to his garden (2:5; 8:13) and sometimes it is him going to her garden (4:12-13). The Church is in Him and He is in His Church. Another theme found in the book is the idea of ‘love-sickness” which is found twice in the story (2:5, 5:8). This is an experience that is identified only with the girl and it is linked to her insecurity and indifference. There are four components of this sickness; he brought her to him (2:4-5), she falls in love with him, there is a felt absence (5:2-8), or insecurity (2:5), and she is troubled (“sick”). He does not leave her hanging in the agony of lovesickness and loneliness, he brings comfort and reassurance to the heart. He stays her and strengthens her (2:5). Notice that her “sickness” is not because he has left, but because she refuses him (5:2ff) or cannot completely rest in his loving embrace (2:5).
The most common method of preaching Christ from the Song of Solomon is to identify the types and shadows (see Hebrews 10:1). This is the first and primary method of finding Christ in the Old Testament. Typology is prophetic symbolism, like a shadow of a future reality. In the Old Testament, there are types in persons (e.g. David, Solomon), events (e.g. Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath story, Moses and the serpent, etc.), and things or institutions (e.g. The Tabernacle, the offices of prophet, priesthood and king).
The God who controls history, placed “shadows” of himself in the story of the Old Testament. These were images of his future work in Christ. The marriage between Solomon and the Shulamite is one of these.
The persons, events or institutions of the Old Testament are all part of the flow of the history of salvation. fundamental to our understanding of typology is that it is based in history. God is working in history, revealing himself through his ancient people to His people in succeeding generations. This is why we need to understand Song of Solomon in the context of the unfolding story of God’s salvation.
Another important aspect of typology is that it is based on a literary-historical interpretation. We have already noticed the historical aspect, but let’s consider at the literary aspect. What was the author’s intent to the original audience? This is why, especially in a book like Song of Solomon, we need to wrestle through the poetry and establish a storyline. The Song of Solomon meant something to the original audience.
We need to understand that that original message presented a symbol of the ideal marriage. From this symbol then, of the ideal marriage, we can move on to the type—the spiritual marriage between Christ and his people. These three stages are important in understanding the typology; event (Solomon and the Shulamite), symbol (marriage) and type (Christ)
Within the type of the marriage relationship, and the events building up to it, there are things that Solomon or the Shulamite say or do that are analogous to Christ and his Church. When we understand the story of Solomon and his bride, these implications and similarities come quite easily to mind. The story of Christ and His Church then develops as one understands more of the relationship between Solomon and the Shulamite.