Recovering the Song of Songs as a Christian Text

Liam Goligher
Senior Pastor
Tenth Presbyterian Church

Editorial Note: On July 16, 2018, Dr. Liam Goligher, Senior Minster of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, delivered the inaugural Paideia Center Summer Lecture at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. We are pleased to publish a transcript of his address.

It’s a joy for me to be here at RTS Orlando, and a particular pleasure for me this evening to talk about the Song of Solomon which has fascinated me since childhood. In fact, as a sixteen-year old, I had the temerity to speak to our youth fellowship on a verse from Song of Solomon which provoked some animated discussion I seem to remember!

We actually are influenced by the Song of Songs in a whole variety of ways which we don’t recognize. References to it are being gently edited, for example, out of our hymns. We sang a hymn this morning in chapel and one of the verses from that hymn goes like this, “Jesus my Shepherd, Brother, Friend, my Prophet, Priest, and King.” The original by John Newton reads, “Jesus my Shepherd, Husband, Friend.” “Husband” has been changed to “brother” for some obscure reason. But the hymnbooks we used when I was a boy, had the original version.[1]

And then there is its influence in the works of Samuel Rutherford:

The bride eyes not her garment,

But her dear Bridegroom’s face;

I shall not gaze on glory

But on my king of grace.

Not on the crown He gives me,

But on his pierced hand;

The Lamb is all the glory

of Emmanuel’s land.[2]

That is a very long hymn and we don’t sing all the verses. If you read the whole thing, it is saturated, as were Rutherford’s letters, with the language of the Song of Songs.

My third example is the great C. H. Spurgeon. He was a great Baptist preacher and he preached 54 sermons on the Song of Songs. He was a textual preacher, so you have to sift through his work to discover them. It was evangelistic preaching; it was pastoral preaching; and it was preaching that made the heart soar as you considered the themes that were introduced.

So why preach on the Song of Solomon? My answer is quite simply: to know God. At one level we know so little about God. Paul says that the heavens – the universe that God has made – shout to us of something of his eternal power and his divine nature. But we still know so little about God. Yet the God who knows himself has graciously revealed to us, using creaturely language, the language of analogy to communicate something of who he is. God is incomprehensible and ultimately unknowable apart from revelation. Scripture uses the language of analogy chastened and corrected by special revelation to speak truly if not exhaustively about God. That’s one of the things that we are rediscovering, as it where, as we come to look at the whole way in which we interpret the Bible today. God has given us two books by which we might know him: the book of nature and the book of Scripture. And he has given us two gifts by which we might know him: he has given us his Son and he has given us his Spirit. The whole point of the Christian life is that we might know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent (John 17:3).

So how may we know God? Throughout Scripture God is concerned to communicate to us theological knowledge, which by extension means Christological knowledge. In other words, the point of the Bible is that we might know God. In the book of nature, God teaches us all kinds of things that are available to people whether they are Christians or not, whether they are God-fearing or not. The book of nature teaches us not just about God, but about how to live as human beings in the world that God has made. From the book of nature, we learn how to farm and how to have interrelationships with other human beings. But the special revelation we find in Holy Scripture is given to us that we might know God and that we might know God particularly as he has revealed himself in Christ.

The Song of Songs, because it is Scripture, intends to bring us to this saving knowledge of God. Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, it was treated as a book of theological and spiritual knowledge pointing us to God. In fact, one writer calls it a sacramental word that uses visible and tangible things to point us to things that are invisible and immaterial.

What happened in the middle of the nineteenth century? German higher criticism, which was the fruit of the so-called Enlightenment, reordered the focus of our handling of the Bible to a starkly literal reading of the text, on the principle that the text has only one meaning and that is the kind of surface meaning, one which the original author was aware of or would have testified to. Instead of asking the question, what was in the divine author’s mind in the writing of Scripture, the question focused on what the human author was thinking. This was a naturalistic approach: what does it mean at the natural level? At the natural level, what do you read in the Song of Songs, what do you have? Keil and Delitzch say that you have a love song, period. It has nothing to do with a relationship with God or anything about our relationship with God. Can we not read the Song as a series of lyrics about love and desire? Paul Griffiths responds, “well, of course, that is possible. But to do that would not be to read the Song as a Scriptural book; neither would it be to take seriously the weight of the Song’s readings by Jews and Christians over two thousand years.”[3]

The Christian church through most of its history has seen the Song of Songs as a Christian book. D.M. Carr writes this, “The increasingly exclusive focus of the literal sense of the song has corresponded with the functional decanonization of the Song in those sections of the church and synagogue which have been most deeply influenced by the historical and critical method.”[4] In other words, you don’t preach on it. You don’t want to preach on sex, don’t preach on the Song of Songs (unless you are someone like Mark Driscoll!). You don’t go anywhere near it. But in the history of interpretation, both in Jewish circles as well as Christian circles, it has been understood to be about God and his relationship to his people Israel and the Church.

At the first century Council of Jamnia, Rabbi Avika stated, “no one in Israel ever disputed about the Song of Songs. The whole world is not worth the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Yadayim 3:5). The Song affirms two things. It affirms that the intimate elements of human love and marriage are important and significant, but it says it is teaching us that we must see beyond those to a spiritual, higher significance in the text.

Paul Griffiths argues for a figural reading of the text and he says that Scripture “is first and last about more than what the surface of its text says. That more is always and necessarily the triune Lord and, necessarily, that Lord’s incarnation as Jesus Christ.[5] The New Testament teaches us that the key that unlocks the entire canon of Scripture are the events surrounding the sending of the Son and the Spirit in order to open the door of our understanding to a deeper knowledge of the God who is there.

It is impossible for us to avoid the Song of Songs if we have any grasp of the God that is revealed throughout the rest of Scripture. Here is a God who is passionate in his love for his chosen people Israel. He is a God who desires them for himself, who is jealous at her immorality by playing around with other gods. He is a God who is repeatedly approaching his people, wooing his people, speaking love to his people, drawing them to himself with the cords of love. Great passages such as Hosea 1-3 or Isaiah 50 or 54 or Jeremiah 2-3 and Ezekiel 16 display this passionate love of God for Israel. In the words of God, “for your maker is your husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name, and the Holy one of Israel is your redeemer. For a brief moment I deserted you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you says the Lord your redeemer” (Is 54:5-6). The language of Hosea and Jeremiah is even more intense and passionate on God’s love for his people. He communicates his love for his people through those creaturely realities of which we are aware, particularly, human love. He uses human love at its highest level – that is in marriage – and at the highest level within marriage – the sexual aspects of marriage – to communicate by analogy the intensity, particularity and passion with which he loves his people, his giving of himself to his people.

That is precisely what the New Testament writers recognize. Paul when he is writing to Corinth says, “I feel a divine jealously for you. I betrothed you to one husband. To present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor 11:2). Or Revelation 21:9 where it is the church that is “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”

In Ephesians 5, we read that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Here the apostle addresses Christian marriage and the responsibility of husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and he quotes from Gen. 2:24: “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” That language of leaving and cleaving in the Old Testament is used of the way in which Israel is in a covenant relationship with God. Israel has to leave its idols and cleave to the Lord. This stresses “a radical change, not of domicile, but of one’s pre-eminent loyalty.” In other words, the marriage relationship becomes a template for the spiritual relationship between Israel and the Lord, between Christ and the church. Throughout the Old Testament the Lord’s relationship to Israel is that of between a husband a wife.

When Paul is quoting that in Eph. 5, he says about marriage: that this mystery is great, and he’s talking about Christ and the church. Greg Beale and Benjamin Gladd in their book Hidden But Now Revealed,  emphasize that nowhere else in the New Testament is the word mystery is labeled as “great,” in the way in which it is done here in Ephesians 5. Metaphorically, it applies to God and Israel. Sinai may be viewed as a marriage between the Lord and Israel. It points forward to the consummative marriage of Israel in the end time of which Isaiah speaks in Isaiah 61 and 62. Paul’s move is simply to identify the Lord with Christ and the church as the end time Israel. The word mystery captures the continuity and discontinuity between the two testaments and the fulfillment towards which the OT is moving. So that when Paul says of this mystery of marriage pointing to Christ and the church and says it is great, he is echoing the language of the Song of Songs that says the song about the marriage between the Lord and his people is the Song of Songs. That is, it is a superlative song as we will see in a moment.

I want to several things about the book as a whole. First of all, it is a poem. It is not a collection of poems, but a unified piece of poetry. Now, we see poetry all over the Bible. We see it in the psalms and the prophets. We need to know something about poetry. We need to understand that poetry at its best is evocative speech. Its metaphors, images, and phrases stir the imagination. They heighten our emotions. They are aesthetically pleasing. In poetry the effect of language is primary and uppermost. It elevates our thoughts. It is marked by the noblest of themes. It is meant to stir the purest of emotions and it should deal with the richest of ideas and should connect with the deepest feelings of our hearts. John Milton said, true poetry is “simple, sensuous, and passionate.”[6]

The Song of Songs falls into the category of good poetry, even sublime poetry. When God made the world, he multiplied within the world beautiful sights and sounds and smells and senses. When he made us humans, he made us capable of enjoying and savoring such beauties. He gave us a love for beauty, and this poetic song is a work of exquisite beauty. Its theme is love, the love that is from God because God is love. Yes, it is a love song between a man and a woman, but that is only where it begins. It leaps from there to become a song of the relationship between Christ and the church.

A single woman leaving my congregation in Philadelphia early on in my series on the Song of Songs said to me at the door: “For the first time in my Christian life, I can read the Song of Songs and it can be for me.” The problem with making the Song of Songs only about love and marriage, is that you disenfranchise, not just our single people and our widowed people, but you actually disenfranchise 99% of our married people because they’ve never had that kind of experience either. Only in their dreams, they would have the kind of experience touted by those who teach a naturalistic view of the Song of Songs. It is more than that; it is above that, it is beyond that. It is beyond our creaturely experience, and that is intentional because it is lifting our thoughts to some other dimension above our creaturely experience. God is lifting us out of ourselves and away from ourselves and saying there is something higher, greater, better — the spiritual realm of our relationship with God. It uses creaturely analogies because that’s what we know as creatures. In order to help our understanding of spiritual communion with God in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit employs from the tool box of God’s revelation the tools of natural things with which we are familiar. And so, this song of love points us beyond married love to something far greater, to the marriage we were made for.

It is a song that we are looking at, and the word “song” is used of many of the Psalms and other great songs in the Bible. Of particular relevance for us is that Psalm 45 belongs to that group. If you should read Psalm 45 together with the Song of Songs, you will find that there is a very close parallel between those two songs. Psalm 45 is a love song: “To the choirmaster according to the Lilies.” If you read the Song of Songs, you’ll find there is reference to lilies all over the place. The fact that this Psalm 45 mentions the lilies establishes a point of connection between these two songs. In Psalm 45:2, talking to the divine Son, we read, “you are the most handsome of the sons of men, grace is poured on your lips, therefore, God has blessed you forever.” The Psalm goes on to talk about the throne of Christ: ‘Your throne, O God is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of righteousness…therefore O God, your God has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions; your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.” It then goes on to talk about his marriage to the princess. “All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold…with her virgin companions following behind her.” The resemblances from what is a very well-received messianic Psalm and the Song of Songs are just too numerous to ignore.

A scriptural song is an act of confession. When you hear Moses or Mary or Elizabeth singing, or Isaiah’s poetic songs, they are acts of confession. The principle notes of these songs are praise and gratitude. And when we sing, at Christmastime for example, Mary’s great song, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” we are singing with Mary and we are saying that everything within our being is magnifying the Lord. We want to be closer to the Lord. We want to have a more intimate relationship with the Lord. We want to embrace him. We want to have a personal relationship with him in a deeper and a more vital way. We are drawing nearer. These scriptural songs that we read throughout the Bible acknowledge the surprising, awe-inspiring, and wonderful presence of the Lord. Moses Song: the great movement of the children of the Israel through the Red Sea. The presence of the Lord. They compress great ideas in one place.

The Song of Songs is scripture. It’s in the Bible. If it is merely a love song, it probably shouldn’t bother being there. But it is in the Bible, which means that it partakes of the inspiration of the Bible, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It partakes of what the Confession calls the perfection of the Bible, because God’s ways are perfect. It partakes of the holiness of the Bible, because God is holy. Not only that, but it partakes of the theme of the Bible. What is the Bible all about? What did Jesus tell the people of his day what the Bible was all about? “These speak of me. You search the Scriptures, and yet, these Scriptures are about me and you don’t see it.” Jesus accused the Pharisees. To the disciple on the road to Emmaus, he showed them from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. The Bible is the revelation of God that culminates in the revelation of God the Son and God the Spirit.

One of the main Biblical themes that you see again and again in the Song of Songs is that of the garden. There are echoes of Eden in the Song of Songs. Eden you remember before the land was cursed was “very good.” There man and woman had a perfect relationship with one another, but also a personal and perfect relationship with God who walked among them and who met with them and who spoke to them in some way that we can’t speculate. God was there; he was present with them in the Garden of Eden. James Hamilton in his little book on the Song of Songs says, “The closest we get to bring to being back in the Garden of Eden in the whole of the Bible is in the Song of Songs.”[7] This garden is linked in the Song with Jerusalem. Which is an interesting link because if we handle the Bible properly, very often it is better to go to the very end and to look at what happens at the very end. And at the very end of the Bible, here we have the bride, the lamb’s wife, coming down from God out of heaven as a garden city. The New Jerusalem the holy city. The place where God dwells. There is no temple because God lives there. Here is the new Eden. Here are springs of living water flowing from the temple echoing Ezekiel’s dream. Echoing Song of Songs’ garden with the flowing living water, that phrase that is used by Jesus when he is talking in John 7 when he speaks to the woman at the well, in Revelation when it is talking about that final temple that garden temple city new Jerusalem. That language is from Song of Songs. The garden a renewed Eden. There in that garden there is a new Adamic figure. There is the beloved. Her beloved the one that she is waiting for. Who she describes as a new Adam as it were. The second Adam. He is the hero. The seed of the woman, Abraham’s seed, from the tribe of Judah, son of David, who comes to the garden to meet with his church.

Consider the placement of the Song in our Bibles. Originally, it belonged to the writings. The book of the writings in the scripture are prefaced in the canon by Psalms 1 and 2. They describe the godly man who walks with God, who obeys God, who does everything that Adam failed to do. Who abides by the word of God. When Psalms 1 and 2 are closely held together they are regarded as the introduction to the book of Psalms and to the whole of the writings. In Psalm 2 you have God’s king, eternally begotten of God, given the nations. The exhortation is “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry.” Submit to him, kiss him, bow the knee to him, receive him and find in him the refuge you need in the day of judgment. That theme pervades the writings. In the Psalms, God’s king suffers before entering glory. In the book of Job, the innocent suffers and is restored. In Proverbs, lady wisdom is seeking the son, seeking the king, the messiah. Ruth, the wise Gentile, joins herself with God’s people and becomes an ancestor of the Messiah.

In Song of Songs, these themes are brought together. Here is this woman who represents the people of God. She is the church, she is Israel. She is looking for the Messiah. She is longing to see the Messiah.  Though she talks about him, though she hears him speak to her early in the book, in the middle of the book you discover that she has never actually seen him. She is challenged by some onlookers and they say “what is your beloved more than another beloved?” and she describes him. Well, you might think she was describing a statue, because she’s never actually met him at this point. The book begins with a longing to have a personal relationship with him. “Kiss me, with the kisses of your mouth:” in other words, appear to me. Speak to me. Breathe in me. Be here. I want you to come here. She anticipates him coming. She sees him racing over the mountains towards her echoing the language you find in Isaiah of the mountains being leveled and everything being clear for the Lord is coming. “Behold, he comes” she says. “Behold, the Lord comes,” says Isaiah. She is waiting for him to come, longing for him to come. And he comes, but she doesn’t see him. There she is in her house and he is on the outside looking in. She knows that he is present, that he is looking, that he is searching, but she hasn’t seen him. She goes through the garden, but he is not there. She prays to him, “will you not come?” He comes to her and says “I was there in the garden.” The garden represents the temple the place of worship. The place where you meet with God. And he tells her “I was there.” I was among the lilies, which is how he names his people as the lilies. He is with his people. But she hasn’t seen him yet. Her longing is that one day she will see him. In her description of him, she describes him with a human appearance, but with a head of gold, and a belly of ivory, and legs of gold, in sockets of gold. It’s reminiscent of the kind of pictures you see in Ezekiel and Daniel and in these apocalyptic books, that attempts to describe the indescribable: Ezekiel says, it’s the appearance of the likeness of whatever. His language is bursting apart to describe the realities that are being revealed to us here.

Thirdly the Song of Songs is superlative. Just like the Sanctum Sanctorum, the heaven of Heavens, the Kings of Kings, the God of gods, the vanity of vanities, this is the Canticum Cantorum. It belongs to a special category. It is the highest song, we are being told. That’s the title actually that the Bible gives: The Song of Songs.

Consider all the songs of Scripture. Think of Mary’s song. Isn’t Mary’s song the most exalted song imaginable? Yes, it is. But what is she doing in that song? She is describing the Messiah. In the Song of Songs, you get to hear him speaking to his church. You hear what he thinks about his church: how he loves his people, how he delights in his people, how he projects onto his people his own characteristics so they become increasingly like him. You hear him. This is the song of songs: the very best song you could ever sing. And this is how we are to interpret this song.

Brian Toews in a paper on this song makes much of this.[8] He asks us to think about what kind of song in the Bible would be the best song. Would it be man-centered or God-centered? Would the Song of Songs in the Bible be anything other than a God-centered song? Imagine if the best song you could ever sing in your life would be of a marriage, love, and sex, in the Bible. That is inconceivable. But if this song is God-centered, then the song is the best song we can sing about God.

Think about those great songs in the Bible that talk about God. Psalm 45 is a song about the love for the king who will come to deliver his people. Exodus 15 is Moses’s song about God’s rescue. Isaiah 5 sings of my beloved and his vineyard. Which has connections with the Song of Songs. This song is called the Song of Songs because it describes, as the Rabbi said it describes, what happens in the holy of holies. And it is addressed to him who alone is called the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. In other words, the Messiah stands at the center of Scripture’s self-revelation. The Song, then, is the superlative song of love between the believer and the church and her Lord. It transcends the songs of Mary, Simeon, Anna, and Elizabeth, because in this song the Lord speaks directly as a lover who longs for his people and desires to bring her into his presence.

There are biblical-theological connections. You find a lot about the doves in the Song of Songs. Doves? Isn’t that a random thought, we might think. He has doves’ eyes, which she recognizes. And she is pronounced by him to have dove’s eyes. He gives her doves’ eyes. You think, wow, are we getting into a bit above our paygrade here? But consider the two dominant features in the Christ figure in this song: (1) how he is named and (2) his chief characteristic. He is named the beloved and the chief characteristic his dove’s eyes.

When you go to the New Testament, the first major revelation we have of the Trinity acting inseparably (apart from the incarnation of Christ where they are acting inseparably to produce the Messiah), is at the baptism of Jesus when his public work begins. Three created realities identify the invisible and indivisible persons of the Holy Trinity. There is Jesus in his incarnate humanity, human soul and body. There is the Father, who creates a voice so that he is heard. And there is a dove, a created thing, descending as a marker identifying the presence at Jesus’ baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is remarkable: why would he choose a dove? As you look at the Old Testament, where would you find it associated with the Son? The answer is on Psalm 45 and the Song. Then there are the words of the Father: “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” So when the Beloved who has ‘doves eyes’ gives ‘doves eyes’ to the woman in the Song, the eyes of the dove represent the work of the Holy Spirit in illuminating Christ in His human nature and in illuminating the Church by His gift, thus opening her eyes to see her beloved. When she utters “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved in mine” she is uttering the quintessential confession of faith. There is certainly more than a clue here of what is going on in the text.

We noted that there was a garden, which of course represents ultimately the temple. When Solomon erected the temple it was decorated with details that were arboreal and garden-like. In the garden in the Song, there are trees and there is a river of living water. Both of those details we know are in the final temple. When the bride, the lamb’s wife, descends from heaven, the holy city – New Jerusalem, the garden city – the trees of life line the river of life and those trees have leaves for the healing of the nations. Psalm 36 interprets the river from God’s presence in Eden as a picture of the abundant life that flows to God’s people:

How precious is your steadfast love O God!

The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

They feast on the abundance of your house,

And you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the fountain of life;

for in your light we see light. (7-9)

And in Isaiah 60, it is said of God to Israel to Jerusalem especially to Zion the church representing the church, “He has beautified you.” God delights to beautify his people. And the point then of the book I think is very helpfully picked up by John Owen when he talks about our union and communion with the Lord Jesus.

We typically settle for a kind of semi-detached live-in boyfriend relationship with Christ. The Song of Songs challenges us to seek more in our personal relationship with Christ, to love him more, to know him better, to sound the depths of what has been revealed of him. Why are we Christians? Surely, we are Christians in order that we might know God. Why did Jesus come and why is the Holy Spirit given to us? In order that we may know the Father. The Son died and rose again that we might know the Father that we might know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of glory and of God, rests upon us that we might have a deeper love for, appreciation for, longing for the day.

When we read the very first lines of Song of Songs and we can identify with it:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!

For your love is better than wine,

your anointing oils are fragrant. (2-3)

The bride is saying, “I know of you. I have an experience of you, but there is something missing. You are missing. You are missing in your face-to-face presence. I know you are there, and I love you wherever I am and in all the circumstances of my life. But what I long for is to have you face-to-face, face-to-face with Christ my savior, when with rapture I behold him: Jesus Christ who died for me.”

The Song will whet your appetite for more. More of Christ. More of God. More of a deep and lasting and growing relationship with the one who loves us so well.

[1] “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” (John Newton, 1779).

[2] “The Sands of Time Are Sinking,” a hymn by Anne Cousin based on the letters and last words of Samuel Rutherford.

[3] Paul J. Griffiths, Song of Songs (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), pp. lxii.

[4] Carr, D. M. “The Song of Songs as a Microcosm of the Canonization and Decanonization Process” in Canonization and Decanonization: Papers Presented to the International Conference of the Leiden Institute for the Study of Religions (LISOR), Held at Leiden 9-10 January 1997, ed. A. Van Der Kooij and K. Van Der Toorn (Leiden: Brill, 1998), pp. 184-85.

[5] Griffiths, Song of Songs, p. lvii.

[6] John Milton, Of Education (1644).

[7] James M. Hamilton, Jr. Song of Songs: A Biblical-Theological, Allegorical, Christological Interpretation. (Fearn Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2015), p. 22.

[8] Brian G. Toews, “Song of Songs 8:5-7: The Interpretive Crux in Canonical Context.” Unpublished paper, fall 1998.