It’s been titled Canticles, Song of Songs, and Song of Solomon. The first words of this work are The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.
How could the Gospel of Jesus Christ be seen in a poetic saga that is a highly sensual, sometimes starkly sexual and with “no obvious religious content”* and doesn’t even mention God? What could this remotely have to say about the Gospel?
Ancient Jewish Interpretation set the stage for early Christian analysis. It is not a human love story at all, but allegory, an extended metaphor, of the relationship of Yahweh (LORD) to Israel; or understood by Christians to be a description of the love between Christ and his church. Roman Catholic teaching has strangely identified the bride with the Virgin Mary,
But how does any of this make sense of this Song? The effort can be quite entertaining as Jewish scholars saw the bride’s breasts as representing Moses and Aaron or a variety of other options. Christian suggestions included equally bizarre possibilities; her breasts represent the Old and New Testament or the church from which we are nourished.
Why such fanciful interpretations? Because otherwise, it is just too sexual to be included in the Bible and it must mean something different than what it most obviously seems to say; it is just too sexy to be taken literally. And sadly, the early centuries of the church developed a negative view of marriage, seeing sex as a necessary evil for the procreation of children. Married clergy were to give up sexual relations with their wives and live together as brother and sister. Ordination to the priesthood was contingent on a married couple exchanging vows of continence, promising to end sexual relations.That ultimately led to celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood, a pattern that violates Scripture (1 Timothy 3:2; Hebrews 13:4) and has led to inestimable abuse.
I absolutely reject the allegorical approach, bordering on silliness, to suppress the obvious meaning of the Song about a passionate and highly sexual pursuit, the love of a man and a woman. This is about the God ordained sexual relationship between husband and wife. There is a warning, stated three times as a refrain, Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.(2:7; 3:5; 8;4) NIV or ESV that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases. The meaning seems to be a call for self-control and restraint until the right time for love to be expressed in marriage.
Song of Solomon affirms one of God’s purposes in his creation of male and female for marriage; that they are to sexually delight in one another. It is a vital part of what it says in Hebrews 13:4, Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure…
So where is the Gospel then in this song? Is the rejection of allegorical interpretations giving up on finding the Gospel in it? Not at all!
Actually taking the Song literally is the key to finding the Gospel in it. Throughout the Old Testament, God is pictured as pursuing Israel as His bride. Negatively, Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, idolatry, is likened to adultery in a marriage. In the New Testament, the church is the bride of Christ, analogous to the marriage relationship. The prime responsibility of a husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. Ephesians 5:25
So we don’t have to reject the obvious sexual nature of the Song in order to find the Gospel Rather in taking it literally, we have a human example of God’s relentless pursuit of his bride, Israel and then the Church.
Admittedly, the details of the cross, substitutionary atonement, grace and faith in the crucified and risen Christ are not found in the Song. But the analogy of God’s love and pursuit of a bride is very much there and is truly Gospel, that is, really Good News!
*quotation from Dennis Kinlaw, introduction to the Song of Songs in The Expositors Bible Commentary, volume 5. Kinlaw’s work was very helpful and influenced this post significantly.