A few introductory comments may be helpful. To begin with, it is obvious from the contents of the Song of Solomon that its author refers to a relationship between a man and a woman, which raises the question as to the focus of the book. From the time of the early church fathers down to the twentieth century, the almost universal opinion was that this book was an allegory depicting the relationship between Christ and his people (either individually or corporately). Today it is common, even among evangelical commentators, to deny that it speaks of that union and instead to claim that it describes the relationship of a husband and wife.
Of course, it is difficult to prove that either view is wrong. Regarding the possibility of a human relationship depicting the tie between Christ and his people, there are other references in the Bible that use the husband/wife union to illustrate the love between Jesus and believers. Paul uses it in Ephesians 5:22-23, John uses it in Revelation 19:6-8 and 21:9ff., the Old Testament prophets use it to describe God and Israel on numerous occasions, it is found in Psalm 45, and Jesus calls himself the Bridegroom (with the implication that his people are his Bride).
It seems to me that sometimes one’s interpretation of the Song is connected to one’s Christian interests. Some believers are more active than contemplative. It cannot be denied that there is a need for active Christians. But activity, even Christian activity, cannot feed our souls. And I suspect today that there has been a subtle shift from contemplative religion to a form of Christian activism that is commendable in several ways; yet instead of maintaining a balance between a healthy heart religion and a healthy walk, the heart has been largely jettisoned and we have produced a kind of Christianity that is not as warm as the spiritual life of our forefathers. We may be more active in many areas of life, which they may have stayed away from, as we attempt to become light and salt in society. Yet no matter how important these initiatives are, sometimes the cost is too high because they mean that we do not have enough time in which to meet with Jesus Christ and have fellowship with him in our souls.
What has this to do with the Song of Solomon? If it is taken to describe an ideal human marriage, then it ceases to be descriptive of the love between Christ and his people. Perhaps reading the Song as a marriage manual does produce better marriages, although I think that those who do use it in this way reveal as much imagination in interpretation as ever did the allegorists of the past. But is it spiritually wise to remove Jesus from a book of the Bible, especially in face of all the evidence of countless myriads of believers who claim to have met him in the Song of Solomon?
Personally, I think it describes Christ and his people, and taking this approach has been of great blessing to my own heart. Some may respond by suggesting that such an interpretation is subjective rather than objective, as if a subjective experience could not be genuine. This would be a valid criticism if the meanings of the various descriptions in the Song were left to human imagination alone. Yet I would say that using other biblical teachings to prevent illegitimate interpretations also enables a reader to draw appropriate meanings from the descriptions of the King and his beloved in the Song. Surely it is better to have a genuine subjective experience that is in line with objective truth than to have only an objective understanding of a reality. For example, it is good to understand all the details of the truth concerning divine adoption, but it is far better to have that understanding alongside the strong cry of ‘Abba, Father,’ a subjective experience brought about by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The Song of Solomon gives to believers an answer to a very important question: ‘What is it like to have contact with Jesus Christ?’ We make contact with him in a variety of ways. At times, we come to him as penitent, recovering from inner backsliding – the Song can show us the causes of such spiritual troubles as well its effects on one’s relationship with Jesus, before depicting for us the way of restoration. At other times, we come to Jesus as members of a congregation gathering together to meet with him – the Song, through the contributions of ‘the daughters of Jerusalem’, describes the joys and delights of fellowship as well as the dangers to such fellowship posed, not by outward enemies, but by friends. There are many other ways of having contact with Jesus, and we can see them in the Song. Such contact is superior to other encounters that our souls have. For example, on holiday abroad my heart is moved by hearing something related to Scotland (sound of bagpipes, a song played in a shop), but at that moment Scotland does not come to me nor do I have an authentic Scottish experience (merely nostalgia, a substitute for the real thing). Contact with Jesus, however, is genuine because he does, by his Spirit, visit the soul and brings heavenly blessings with him, giving to his lovers tastes of his peace and joy. Since these experiences are not described in such detail elsewhere, we need the contents of the Song to guide us as we develop a spiritual relationship with Christ.
Of course, the Song uses the human relationship as a picture, but it is only by illustration that we can speak about God and his ways. The Spirit in the Bible uses many images drawn from human life to depict the ways by which God relates to his people. He is likened to a potter, to a metalworker, to a warrior, to a guide, to a shepherd, to a singer, and many others. All these illustrations depict realities about God. He is the potter who shapes our lives, he is the metalworker who burns off the dross we have accumulated, he is the warrior who fights on our behalf, he is the guide who leads us safely through the desert, he is the shepherd who provides provision, and he is the singer who rejoices over his beloved. Some of these appear also in the Song, although the main illustration is that of a Royal Lover and the woman of his affections. Like the other illustrations, it describes truth in the heart of Christ and depicts his interactions with his people.
A second introductory point we should note is that the book is a collection of poems. If you read the book in a modern version, you will see that is the case. Poetry is a type of literature that appeals to the imagination; it can draw in illustrations, play on words and introduce an endless manner of ways of depicting a situation. This happens in this book. In one scene, the lovers are in a palace, in another scene they are in a field, in another scene they are on a journey. Poetry is the language of lovers, and it can communicate to our minds in a way that simple prose does not do. As far as I can tell, there are eight poems within the Song, and they are identified on the contents page.
Further, I don’t think the book is describing a relationship from its beginning to its conclusion. Rather it contains different pictures or cameos of the relationship believers have with Jesus, highlighting features that recur often in their experience. For example, it would be easy to think that because 1:5, which is near the beginning, contains the woman’s self-description of herself as black, it is a reference to the conviction of sin that a disciple has at conversion. But disciples of Jesus often discover that they are dark, so the description in 1:5 could refer to subsequent spiritual experiences.
There are three types of speakers in the book: the king, the woman, and the daughters of Jerusalem. The king depicts Jesus, and I take the woman to be a believer and the daughters of Jerusalem to be her fellow-believers. In the original language, usually the speakers can be identified as masculine or feminine, singular or plural, and modern versions of the Bible identify the speakers. The version used in this study is the English Standard Version.
As we know from other places in the Bible, the chapter and verse divisions can be arbitrary. For example, in 1:4 two different speakers are put together. The woman says, ‘Draw me after you; let us run. The king has brought me into his chambers,’ while the daughters of Jerusalem say, ‘We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine; rightly do they love you.’ Again it is helpful to know who is speaking.
Also, it is not difficult to show from Scripture that Solomon is a type of Christ. Psalm 72, which describes the kingdom of the Messiah, is an enhanced description of Solomon’s kingdom. Further his names point to Christ: Solomon means ‘prince of peace’ and he was also called Jedidiah, which means ‘beloved of the Lord’: ‘Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her and lay with her, and she bore a son, and he called his name Solomon. And the Lord loved him and sent a message by Nathan the prophet. So he called his name Jedidiah, because of the Lord’ (2 Sam. 12:24-25).
Lastly, if the Song of Solomon depicts the relationship between Christ and his people, then when it was first written it was a book of prophecy anticipating the joys that would be known once the Saviour had come. For example, it was a common opinion among the early church fathers that the cry, ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,’ was the prayer of the Old Testament Church as it longed for the day of Christ’s coming. Among the Jews, the Song of Solomon was read at Passover time because they regarded it as the supreme description of God’s love to his people. For a similar reason, portions of the Song were sung on special occasions at the Temple.