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DOES A LITERAL INTERPRETATION OF THE SONG OF SONGS REMOVE ITS CHAR
ACTER AS SCRIPTURE?
BY PROFESSOR SAMUEL IVES CURTISS, D.D.
WE raise this question because the modern critics insist on a literal interpretation of this exquisite poem, which is perhaps now more neglected by the church than any other portion of the Old Testament. While some of the most saintly characters have used its glowing language as a medium of expressing their love and devotion to Christ, the ordinary reader cannot easily adopt the current traditional interpretation; hence finds no aid to devotion in the book. But does every book of the Bible subserve a devotional purpose? Is the character of a biblical writing as an aid to devotion to be a test of its claim to be received as Scripture? This is evidently not the standard set in 2 Tim. iii. 16, 17. According to this passage, anything in the Old Testament which is profitable for building up a noble character and which tends to righteousness of life may lay claim to scriptural authority.
Let us now turn to examine the object which the writer had in mind in the production of this book. The solution of this problem depends on the interpretation that is given to it. The interpretations that have been proposed are allegorical, typical, and literal.
I. The allegorical has been dominant from the time that
the Song was finally received into the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures.1 Indeed, the persuasion that it was to be interpreted allegorically overcame the opposition of those Jewish scholars who thought it should be relegated to the apocrypha on account of its erotic tone. The Jewish allegorical interpretation may be found in the Targum, which discerns in it a history of God's dealings with Israel.2 God is represented as the bridegroom, and the Jewish congregation as the bride. This interpretation has no connection with the text except in the conceit of the interpreter. This is evident from the following example, when a translation of the Song (v. 1, 2) is compared with the Targum upon it.
1 There seems to be pretty good evidence that the Song was not universally regarded as canonical until the second century A.D., if we are to judge from the fact that it is not quoted by New Testament writers, and from the expressions of Talmudists. The heat, as Wildeboer suggests (The Origin of the Canon of the Old Testament, p. 75), with which Rabbi Akiba (A.D. 110-135) denies that any one in Israel had ever doubted the sacredness of the Song, and with which he affirms that it is the most holy book of the Hagiographa, is a sufficient confirmation of another statement, that "in the beginning there were those who were saying that Proverbs and Solomon's Song and Ecclesiastes should be withdrawn [from public use] because they contain only worldly poetry, and hence could not belong to the Hagiographa; they therefore remained apocryphal until the men of the great Synagogue came and explained them." See Fürst, Der Kanon des Alten Testaments (Leipzig, 1868), pp. 83, 84.
2 See Walton's Polyglot in loco. A hint of the allegorical interpretation is found in the title given to it in the Peshitto, which is well rendered Sapientia Sapientiarum. Another specimen of the allegorical interpretation is found in the Midrash, translated by Wünsche (Leipzig, 1880). The following is the explanation given of viii. 5: "Under the apple-tree I awakened thee': Sinai is compared with an apple-tree because it yields its fruit in the month of Sivan, in which also the law was given. Why was the mountain not compared with a nut-tree, or with some other kind of tree? Every other tree produces first its leaves and then its fruit, but the apple-tree produces first its fruit and then its leaves. In like manner the Israelites said, 'We will do, and then we will learn'" (Ex. xxiv. 7).
"I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride;
I have drunk my wine with my milk.
"I sleep, but my mind is awake:
For my head is filled with dew,
And my locks with the drops of the night."
Targum: "The holy and blessed One said to his people, the house of Israel: I have gone to the house of my sanctuary which thou, my sister, the congregation of Israel, hast built for me, which art compared with a chaste bride. And I have made my Shekinah to dwell in thy midst, I have received the incense of thy spices which thou hast prepared for my name. I have sent fire from heaven, and it consumed the burnt offerings and the holy sacrifices: the libation of red wine has been received with favor before me and of white wine which the priests have poured out upon my altar, but now come, ye priests who love my precepts, eat what is left of the oblation, and delight yourselves in the good things which are prepared for you.
"After all these things the people, the house of Israel, sinned, and he delivered them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and he led them into captivity, and they were in captivity like men sleeping, who are not able to awake from their sleep, and the voice of the Holy Spirit was admonishing them by the prophets and was awakening them from the sleep of their hearts. The Lord of all worlds answered, and thus he said, Turn in penitence, open thy mouth and exult and praise me, my sister, my beloved, the congregation of Israel, which art compared with a dove in the perfection of thy work, because the hairs of my head are full of thy tears, as a man whose head is wet with the dew of heaven, and the hair of my
locks is filled with the drops of thine eyes, as a man the hair of whose locks is full of the drops of rain which fall in the night."
We all recognize the charm of the dialogue in the Song. It is the language of two loving hearts. But the Jewish interpretation buries up the true meaning in a mass of theological pedantry. It is clear that, following this method, there may be as many allegories as there are writers.
The Christian allegorical method maintains that the bridegroom is Christ, and the bride is the church. The New Testament does indeed employ this figure in representing the relation between Christ and the church (Eph. v. 22-33). Many a beautiful and edifying interpretation has been drawn from the Song, but no rules can be established to regulate such interpretation, or determine what it is to be, aside from the most general outlines. Ordinarily there is some indication when an allegory is intended in the Old Testament; e.g., Hosea clearly states that his unfaithful wife represents Israel (i. 2-iii.), and Ezekiel, that the two harlots whom he calls Oliola and Oholibah represent respectively Israel and Judah (Ezek. xxiii. 4; cf. xvi.). But there is no hint in the Song, which does not even use the name of God once directly, that any such allegorical interpretation was intended. It was certainly farthest from the thought of the writer.1
1 Professor W. H. Green of Princeton, in his translation of Zoeckler's Commentary in Lange's series (New York, 1871), in a long addition to the introduction, condemning the allegorical method, uses the following language, p. 21: "As Adam Clarke justly says, he could make anything out of this Song he was disposed to make, if he were allowed equal liberty: he could find Arminianism in it or any type of doctrine he chose. The pious use made of the language of the book cannot redeem it from the charge of mal-interpretation. It is not exposition, but substituting human fancies for the true meaning and intent of the divine Word. The pious senses inserted, the edifying reflections and devout meditations, do not sanctify a mode of dealing with the book of God so utterly unwarrantable." Thrupp's Commentary on the Song of Songs (London, 1862) furnishes a good modern example of the allegorical method. "Let him
2. The modern orthodox interpretation is the typical. According to this, Solomon, on one of his excursions, met a beautiful peasant girl with whom he fell in love and whom he sought to win in the guise of a shepherd. It was not until later that this pleasing illusion was dissipated, and he appeared as the monarch of all Israel. Delitzsch conjectures that he owed some of his best impulses and experiences to his union with this noble girl.
The typical interpreters find in the tender language of Solomon, the hero of the poem, and of Shulamith, its heroine, a type of Christ's love for the church, and of her communion with him.. This theory, however, does not prove that the Song was originally designed to set forth such heavenly love. Such a typical use of the book can be made only through accommodation. Some of its loving and tender discourses may be made the medium of the soul's communion with Christ, although any consistent effort to use the entire book in this way must involve the writer in inextricable difficulties.
3. The third theory of the book is that it is what it purports to be a song of true love. According to this theory, the book celebrates the victory of a simple Israelitish maiden over all the blandishments of Solomon, the most powerful, magnificent, and luxurious of Israel's kings; backed by all the arts of the women of his harem, who do all they can to inflame the lust of this pure maiden, whose heart is set on her shepherd lover, who is ever present to her fancy while separated from him, and with whom she holds many an imaginary dialogue. The flatteries of the
kiss me," etc. (i. 2). "The church of Israel desires the very presence of her Saviour. She had, as the Greek fathers express it, been instructed and wooed through the messages of the prophets, as Moses and Samuel. She now desired that her promised Messiah should pour into her mouth words from his own mouth."
'This theory has been worked out most forcefully and successfully by Ewald, to whom the writer is much indebted in connection with this study.