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Song of Songs

Author: Solomon

Date: 970-723

 

Song of Songs is a mosaic of love poems which has a loosely defined plot.  The original text does not include indications for each speaker, but most translations include notes naming the Bride and Groom characters based on the Hebrew pronouns used.  Besides the Bride and Groom characters, there is a group of speakers often called the Friends or the Daughters of Jerusalem (1:5).  The book is attributed or dedicated to Solomon (1:1), but we don't have enough evidence to support or deny his authorship.  Song of Songs is similar to some Egyptian love poetry of the same era.

 

Song of Songs has a long history of interpretation.  Some commentators, seeking the literal sense of the book, have explained it as a celebration of conjugal love in marriage.  The traditional Jewish interpretation identifies the Groom as the Lord and the Bride as the people of Israel.  Early Christian interpreters understood the Groom as Jesus and the Bride as the Church.  Both traditions have also applied interpretations which regard the Bride as an individual believer's soul.  St. Bernard and St. John of the Cross are among the Church's foremost interpreters of this book.  Other passages in the Old and New Testaments compare God's relationship with his people to a marriage (Isa 54:6; Hos 2:16-20; John 3:29; Rev 21).  Therefore Song of Songs has often been read in the allegorical sense, which sees the Groom in the Song as fulfilled in the person of Christ.

 

The traditional interpretations of the book make more sense when the whole context of the Bible is taken into account.  If we understand God's covenant with his people as a marriage covenant then it is easy to see God as Groom and his people as Bride.

 

Song of Songs can be a challenging read because there are many unusual words and proper nouns.  It includes rare plants and spices along with unfamiliar place names.  Yet the poetic imagery centers on young married love in ancient Israel.  The man and the woman delight in one another's physical beauty and in the joys of conjugal love.  The setting is in springtime at the royal court (6:8-9), in shepherds' fields (1:7-8) and in the royal gardens (5:1; 6:11).  The Song is very sensual but delicately presented.  It is not lustful since it does not reduce love to its sexual expression.  Rather it extols the virtues of love, which is "stronger than death" and presents sex in the context of love of the whole person (8:6).  The plot poses a difficulty because it is so inexact.  It is no use searching for a straightforward story, but there are pieces of a story woven into the book.  The climax is right around 5:1.

 

The book does not give us detailed history or theology, but if understood in the allegorical sense it reveals the passionate love of God for his people.  Though he is a great and mighty king (1:4; 7:5), the Lord loves us ardently like a young Groom loves his Bride.  The bridal imagery can be startling to us, but it simply shows the intensity of God's love.  For all human love is a merely a dim reflection of God's perfect love.

 

By Mark Giszczak

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August 28, 2014

Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

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