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The Song of Songs: Who's being allegorical eh?

Ellen Davis, in a book review observes:
"a sexual interpretation of the Song is allowable, but scholars interested in the poet’s original intention must in honesty admit that such an interpretation is metaphorical, indeed allegorical."
Very daring for her to throw the accusation hurled against the mainstream back at these modern critics: Historical and Literary study of The Song says it's allegorical to say it's just about human love!!

These are days when many resist any interpretation of The Song as about the love of God for his people... following the footsteps of Mahaney, Driscoll and Marcia Falk etc. One has to ask why?!

The mainstream historical approach held by the church for centuries (millenia) is not dead today. See it maintained by many - such as Ellen Davis, Robert Jenson... along with the Church Fathers, Reformers and Puritans. Catch it as Tim Hughes writes "altogether lovely" into Here I am to Worship (yes: that's a quote from the Bible!), or in Prosch's 'His Banner over me is love".... charismatic worship songwriters haven't been afraid to embrace the language of this song. They're not prudes, neither were the puritans. Not embarrassed to have a god of whom we cannot speak fully without the language of eros.

In her commentary on The Song of Songs Davis echoes others who've said it is the most Biblical of books. Though you'd think it the least, for the lack of modern preaching of it...
“The Song is thick with words and images drawn from earlier books. By means of this “recycled” language, the poet places this love song firmly in the context of God’s passionate and troubled relationship with humanity (or, more particularly with Israel), which is the story the rest of the Bible tells. Far from being a secular composition, the Song is profoundly revelatory"
The examples of recycled language are almost endless, shepherds and kings, all the talk of Lebanon which evokes the temple and Solomon's curtain, love better than wine, garden language evoking Eden... the one whom my soul loves etc. And:
"The Song of Songs answers that tragic history, stretching all the way back to Eden. What we hear throughout – and only here in the Bible – is mutual love speaking at full strength."
Have the Song as part of your Christian Scriptures and you'll be able to derive an allegorical interpretation that will be useful to think about marriage (not that the Bible is short on valuing marriage!). Have it read as literature laden with the gospel and you'll have categories and language and encounter with God that can handle intimacy and jealousy and passion and love strong as death. No cold submission to a lord, no dispassionate love that lets us go, but the burning passionate heart of the God who truly loves.

Further consideration of Ellen Davis approach, interacting with Origen, in Jason Byasse's Roomy Hearts in a More Spacious World.


  1. I find myself asking why is it SO important to the Mahaney/Driscoll camp to win this argument? After all - we are not saying that the book isn't concerned with intimacy inside of marriage. Simply saying that the great pattern/the great example is Christ and His Bride - the church.

    So is the problem at the heart of resisting this - an unease and a prudishness (ironic!) at allowing ourselves to think that God views and sees us - His church - so passionately?

    Yet it's okay to vaguely apply the allegorical, poetic language to our wives (if we have them - if we don't, then the book isn't for us apparently) and say that "blowing up my garden" is goodness knows what?!

    To me, it's far neater, far more sense and above all far more gloriously gracious and wonderful to imagine and believe that God - Almighty God - could look at us and feel that deep passion that is only "dimly reflected" in the marriage of a man and a woman.

  2. Thanks for this. Kingsmill's book is a bit pricy - a good reason to make use of access to a copyright library!

  3. Kingsmill looks absurdly expensive, though it sounds interesting!
    Previews via google

  4. $130!? Is it printed on famous paper?

  5. I think the reasoning behind the position taken by Driscoll et al (and I am sympathetic to some of the points) is (and I use the more common understanding of the word allegory here)...
    1. Admit an allegory at this point and you leave the whole of Scripture open to uncontrolled interpretation. (This argument, I confess, is weak, since the control is Christ and the rule of faith).
    2. Reading the Song as an allegory has historically been part of an ascetic trend in the church which is unBiblical. Driscoll and chums are seeking to restore a Biblical emphasis on the goodness of the body.
    3. Reading the Song as an allegory leads you to say silly things. "The cheeks of a man are the seat of comeliness and manlike courage... This comeliness and courage [in Christ] the spouse... calleth his cheeks". I could pick a dozen such nonsenses from Owen alone, and he is no mean exegete.
    4. Reading the song as an allegory opens us up to the accusation that we are importing our ideas into the text. (Again, not the strongest argument).

    Personally, I resist the urge to see the Song as mainly or exclusively about Christ in the way in which the mainstream of church tradition has seen it because a) the text seems to me to resist that reading itself and b) it can be fully and completely about a human love affair and still be all about Christ because marriage really is all about Christ. Even if the authorial intent was purely to praise human love, when the context of the canon is taken into account, how could that not also (and indeed upon closer reflection primarily) be about Christ?

    To flip Dan Bowen's question around: why is it so important to advocates of the allegory to win this argument? Is it because they're uneasy with saying that every marriage really is a witness to and a sign of the love of Christ for his church?

    I think you can have your cake and eat it, precisely because it turns out that every crumb of the cake that we can gather here below - including human marriage - is a part of the great infinite and inexhaustible cake above. (If it is not irreverent so to say).

  6. I return to the language of the book itself... loaded with interpretation.

    It does work both ways in both readings (though I don't hear Driscoll's sermons teaching both from my memory of them), and I'm not sure you get quite the same emphases if you say its really only marriage with implications for church, as you would if you can say it's firstly the LORD and his people, and thus lots to say about marriage.

  7. Daniel

    1) Does it really? Why can't we read allegory as allegory in the same way we read letters as letter and history as history?

    2) A message of the Song is that the body is very good. Physical love in marriage is a Biblical gift, as is romantic language. The more, however, i think these things through, the more it appears that all the 'human' applications hang on the 'divine' applications. The woman in 8:6-7 is either guilty of the most ridiculous hyperbole, which makes for poor poetry, or speaking of a love far greater than between a man and a woman.

    3)Yes it does, but is human folly the rule of divine intent? And aren't there examples of poor allegory from the other interpretation as well? You could probably find a slightly crazed interpretation of each book of the Bible. We have to follow the best ones.

    4)I think the Song is presented as allegory. Either that or plenary inspiration seems to involve a lot of coincidence in this case, which opens up another can of worms.

  8. 'Have it read as literature laden with the gospel and you'll have categories and language and encounter with God that can handle intimacy and jealousy and passion and love strong as death.'

    Yes, oh yes!


  9. Hi Daniel,

    I really like this sentence of yours:

    'Even if the authorial intent was purely to praise human love, when the context of the canon is taken into account, how could that not also (and indeed upon closer reflection primarily) be about Christ?'

    I think I'd only add that we also need to remember here that what he often refer to as 'authorial intent' is a funny thing, a slippery thing, and sometimes a mysterious - we simply don't know a lot of the time what it is. Yes there are books where the author tells us, but the rest of the time we're piecing it together.

    With this in mind I think it can be dangerous to base such a lot on our reconstruction of authorial intent. It inevitably involves all sorts of assumptions about what the author can and can't have been intending, most of which we can't be certain of. Canonical context, including the stuff Bish refers to re. the language of the Song and the connections/ allusions to elsewhere in the scriptures, seems 'safer' (is that the right word?) ground perhaps.

  10. Just a thought. If Paul is right that our marriages are about Christ and the church and Christ and the church provide the model for our marriages, then not only do we not need to chose which is the correct reading, but to chose one or the other would be a wrong move.

    Perhaps you could talk about which is the primary reading (although primary could have multiple meanings, e.g. 'most important', 'original author's intention', 'typological fulfilment'), but that is a fairly academic discussion.

    Dan's comments probably say it better though.

    Questions I would be interested in asking are:

    1. What do people think about it being a song about the king and his bride, therefore typologically about Christ and church (i.e. not really about Israel and Yahweh under the OT but as truly as any part of the OT about Christ and his church)?
    2. What difference should it make to our reading that Israel was married to Yahweh, but the church is presently only engaged to be married to Christ?
    3. If Israel is the bride, who are the daughters of Jerusalem?
    4. verses 2:7; 3:5 and 8:4 seem massively important to the book, but I don't know quite what to do with them on a allegorical reading. How do you all read them?

  11. PS any thoughts on Jim Hamilton's article?

    How closely would your interpretation of the Song parallel your interpretation of Psalm 45 (which as Hamilton reminded me is quoted in
    Hebrews 1)?

  12. Hamilton is helpful, he's saying what Davis says really - that the allegory is the sexual interpretation, because the language is so Biblical and Messianic that it's plain meaning is Christ and the church. And I love that he ends with the Shelley quote.

    Davis emphasises that a strength of the song is that it's a happy story where most of the use of marital language in the OT is of adultery...

    As for their married, we're betrothed - I'd guess it's used both ways. Hosea speaks of betrothal... now/not-yets?

  13. I liked what he said about alienation and intimacy... brings in the themes of both personal relationships and Israel's exile/restoration, fall/New Creation, etc.

    I thought you'd like the quotation from your relative.

    Intereting about Hosea. I'll have to think about that. It's almost like renewing the vows.

    Betrothed v. engaged is an interesting one with language. I expect betroth is more Biblical and true to original meaning as implies more certainty than the more modern language of engagement. I'll have to think about that too!

  14. PS interesting to see Tullian Tchividjian is reading the Hammer of God, and quoted a passage with the sunshine of the Gospel phrase. Reminded me of you!

    I forgot that was in that book, even though I'd quoted that very passage myself once!


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