A Spirituality blog from our Community

The Song of Songs

Suggestive art by Marc Chagall

Like Job and the Psalms this small book, also called ‘The Song of Solomon‘, is an example of biblical wisdom literature. It is also of a more specific genre, an epithalalium- a wedding song common in the neighbouring Egyptian and Babylonian cultures. You could get a quite a shock if you read it with no introduction as, as the image above implies, it is rather sexual.

It took until half way through the term for the Archbishop of Canterbury to (notionally) get in touch with us, and so in keeping with the dignified pace of the Vatican bureaucracy it has taken until the end of term for the Pope to send a message. He is rather concerned with this part of the bible as it seems a bit raunchy for his tastes. Imagine you were called to an general council of the church to discuss it, what would you say to him?

We read the ending of the Song, chapters 7 and 8.


We seemed to agree that it was a great piece poetry and a highlight of the bible.

At face value it is about human love, and in some of the verses we looked at,  carnal desire in particular (7:3 and 7:7-8).

It says that no amount of money can buy love (8:7).

The Song is not just carnal but erotic in the sense of living with each other, entering into each other as people (as well as as bodies).

By affirming the sanctity of human romance it actually supports traditional attitudes of sexual morality rather than undermining them.

Where God is in these passages? It seems to present the Christian message of God as love. Or God’s love as being analogous to romantic love.

In Judaism the conventional Rabbinical interpretation was that it is an allegory for the relationship between God (the lover) and his chosen people (the beloved).

But it clearly cannot be just about God and not about human bodies, as traditionally may have been said.


Read the comments below, or view the Next Part of Bible for Bluffers.


Comments on: "The Song of Songs" (3)

  1. It was the Church Father Origen (c. 180-254) who started the tradition of interpreting the (male) Lover as Christ and the (female) Beloved as the Church. This was only a small step from the common Jewish interpretation which saw the Song as the supreme expression of God’s love for his creatures. But he also took the more radical step of expanding the symbolism to apply to the romantic love between God and, not simply the Church, but each individual soul. This paved the way for the song to become the most popular text of Christian mysticism. All the major mystical writers made important references to the Song, with the medieval saint Bernard of Clairvaux composing in excess of eighty sermons on it.

    In the first section of Origen’s commentary he notes that it is a dramatic representation of the story of humankind’s salvation- dramatic because it is so rich in images and has many characters (friends and maids etc.). He states that just as the literal meaning of the Song will only be properly understood by those who have known the passion of sexual love, so the allegorical meaning will only be understood by those who have been overwhelmed by thirst for the Word of God. And indeed it is dangerous for those who do not so understand it because it may be seen to legitimise carnal behaviour.

    In section two Origen elaborates the dual nature of humanity, what Paul called the inner (spiritual) and outer (instinctual) man (2 Cor 4:16). Acting solely upon instinct leads into a state of sin which dulls the spiritual senses of the inner man. The inner man does not age like the outer man, and so ever remains peaceful and open hearted- as Christ called us to be.

    From this he supports the allegorical interpretation with the point that references to our bodies, while normally appearing to be references to the outer man, can just as reasonably be seen as references to the inner man. This is because although the outer man as we see it is corrupted by sin, they are both the same man.

    In the third section Origen points out that eros (passionate love) has many specific forms that are described under different words such as ‘affection’ or ‘charity’. He says that this was done in many parts of scripture to avoid confusion for those who, not yet so in touch with their inner man, did not understand that these were different forms of the same thing. Origen proposes that the Song is the most spiritually mature writing in scripture, and therefore it was necessary that this was no longer hidden. While this does occur in other wisdom literature, notably Pro 4:6-8 and Wis 8:2, they explicitly talk about Wisdom whereas in the Song this is taken to be understood implicitly.

    In the fourth section Origen gives a final argument that the Song teaches mystical love of God, on the basis that it makes sense for this highest discipline to be the summit of Solomon’s teaching, coming as it does as his last book after Proverbs, which gives general moral advice and Ecclesiastes, which makes general remarks about the natural order and living in tune with it.

  2. Jeanne Bouvier de la Motte Guyon (1648-1717), known simply as Madame Guyon composed the oldest surviving commentary on the Song of Songs by a woman. For her understanding of mysticism three verses of the song stood out as having particular significance: 1:1, 6:4 and 8:14.

    On the opening verse: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of the mouth” she wrote:

    “We must remember that God is all mouth, as he is all word, and that the application of this divine mouth to the soul is the perfect enjoyment and consummation of the marriage by which the communication of God himself and of his Word is made to the soul. This is what may be called the apostolic state, in which the soul is not only espoused but also fruitful, for God as mouth is some time united to the soul before rendering it fruitful by its own [the soul’s] fecundity [creative power]. There are some who maintain that this union cannot take place until the next life; but I am confident that it may be attained in this life, with the reservation that here we possess without seeing, there we shall behold what we possess.”

    Of verse 6:4 – ‘Turn away your eyes from me, because they have made me to flee away’ she elaborated:

    “When once the soul has begun to flow into her God, like a river into its original source, she must be wholly submerged and lost in him. She must then lose the perceptible vision of God and every distinct knowledge, however small it may be. … Nothing remains uncovered but the human heart, for it is impossible to love too much.

    When I speak of distinction, I do not mean the distinction of some divine perfection in God himself, for that is gone long since; for since the first absorbtion the soul has had but a single view of God in herself by a confused and general faith with no distinction of attributes or perfections. … The true consummation of the marriage causes an admixture of the soul with God so great and so intimate that she can distinguish and see herself no longer; and it is this fusion that divinizes, so to speak, the actions of this creature arrived at this lofty and sublime position, for they emanate from a principle which is wholly divine in consequence of the unity which has been effected between God and the soul melted and absorbed in him, God becoming the principle of her actions and words, though they are spoken and manifested externally through her. …

    The marriage takes place when the soul falls dead and senseless into the arms of the Bridegroom, who, beholding her more fitted for it, receives her into union.

    Lastly, on verse 8:14 – ‘Flee away, my beloved, and be like to the roe or to the young hart upon the mountains of spices’ she suggested:

    The soul has “a more perfect charity than ever before for her neighbor, serving him now for God only and in the will of God. But though she is always ready to be cursed for her brethren, like St. Paul (Rom 9:3), and is incessantly laboring for no other end than their salvation, she is nevertheless indifferent as to her success. …

    This is why she here testifies to the Bridegroom that she is satisfied he should go where he pleases, visit other hearts, gain them, purify them, and perfect them in all the mountains and hills of the church. He should take his delight in the ‘souls of spices’ embalmed in grace and virtue. … Does she therefore despise or reject the divine visits and consolations? Not at all”.

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