“Blessed is he who enters holy places, but much more blessed is he who enters ‘the Holy of Holies.’ … Likewise, blessed is he who knows holy songs and sings them …, but much more blessed is he who sings ‘the Song of Songs’” (Origen, 266).
The Song of Songs appears in the Christian canon of the Old Testament as the last of five books grouped together as books of “wisdom.” But those who read it for a first time, or perhaps for a first time with full attention, may be surprised by what they find, for its overt content is very different from that of the other books of wisdom—or indeed from that of any other book in the Bible. They will find neither ethicaltheological reflection as in Job, nor exemplification of that fear of the Lord which is wisdom, as in the Psalms, nor the dicta of sages as in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes—and assuredly not history of salvation or torah or prophecy as in the rest of the Old Testament. Instead, they will find explicit, though never quite pornographic, poetry of physical love. Sexual yearning and fulfillment are sung without reticence, moral judgment, or great deference to legal or social constraints. The opening lines set the tone for the whole: without identification or preamble a woman cries, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth …,” and when her lover appears immediately urges haste in moving to a more private chamber. She is, as twelfth-century commentator William of St. Thierry wrote, with a mixture of fascination and alarm, “wholly without modesty” (Norris, 17).
The poetry is in a general sense lyric, presumably intended for some sort of cantillation. It sings the love of a passionate woman and her sometimes elusive and sometimes importunate lover. Most passages tell or suppose some incident in the lovers’ affair; some are brief dramatic exchanges. The woman’s voice and desires dominate. Besides these two, there are a female chorus and briefly a male chorus or choruses; once or twice the poet may speak in her own voice. Several poems are or include a known Middle Eastern form for which scholarly jargon appropriates an Arabic term: a wasf details and praises the person of the beloved. Overtly, the poetry is wholly secular: neither God nor any religious practice or belief is mentioned.
It is therefore not surprising that the Song is one of the three most commented-upon books in the Bible. In the first place, its presence there urgently calls for explanation. Can a canonical book of Scripture really be as secular as this poetry seems to be? In a second place, if it has some hidden religious or theological meaning, how do we discover it? To those who think they know the answer to that last question, the Song then offers unique opportunity for exegetical virtuosity—not to say uncontrolled fantasy.
Yet for all the scholarly and imaginative labor expended over the millennia, there is no long-term consensus in even the most elementary points of the Song’s interpretation. The very title can be read differently according to an interpreter’s antecedent opinions. For simplicity’s sake we will in this commentary continue to call our text simply “the Song.”
The usual English translation of the full title is The Song of Songs, Which Is Solomon’s (1:1). The first part, “Song of Songs,” is the literal translation of a Hebrew phrase that is grammatically clear enough. “F(singular) of F(plural)” is a Hebrew idiom for the superlative, for example, “Lord of Lords” meaning “the most lordly Lord” or “Holy of Hohes” meaning “the holiest Holy Place.” But then we may observe that this is not a common idiom in the Bible and that most of its other biblical uses are, like these two, somehow related to the superlative being of God (Davis, 240). We may be led to ask: Could someone have intended the construction’s theological environment to be noticed? Are we being nudged to think of “The Godliest Song”? The earliest surviving scholarly reference to the Song, from around a.d. 100 by the revered Rabbi Aqiba, laid it down that the Song of Songs is the “Holy of Holies” among the holy books of Scripture; perhaps there was some link in tradition between the grammar of his dictum and that of this part of the title—or perhaps there was not.
Then there is the clause “which is Solomon’s.” This is not necessarily an ascription of authorship, “by Solomon.” It could also be rendered “dedicated to Solomon” or “about Solomon” or “in Solomon’s style,” or perhaps in yet other ways.
Moving on with matters usually covered in the introduction to a biblical commentary, it is a necessary early step in reading any text to get the genre right. If, for example, we read a fictional travel narrative under the impression that it reports an actual journey and try to take the same trip, we court disaster. Unfortunately for those concerned with the Song—whether preachers, teachers, private readers for devotion or pleasure, or writers of commentaries—if we consider the full history of the Song’s interpretation and not just the modern period, genre is the chiefly controverted matter. That same first scholarly mention by Rabbi Aqiba was already a polemic against persons who assigned the Song to a different genre than did he—indeed, he consigned them to eternal damnation for profaning so holy a text. Moreover, we will find that interpretation of this text depends even more on the identification of genre than is usually the case.
To be sure, we have already noted some clear points about genre: the Song is lyric love poetry with a continuing cast of personae. But two questions then arise: Is the book simply a collection of poems, or is there some structure of the whole? And above all, who are those lovers? As we shall shortly see, also this second question is a question about genre.
We might expect to get help with both questions—and with the sense of “which is Solomon’s”—from the provenance of the poetry, another usual topic in introductions to biblical commentaries. But proposals in this case vary so widely that if we survey them with a minimum of precommitment we must conclude that, pending new discoveries, we can know very little about when—within a span of centuries—where, by whom, or on what occasion or occasions this poetry was written (Murphy, 5).
The Song’s great consistency of matter and tone does suggest that one poet or closely knit group of poets is responsible for all or most of it, and this commentary will refer simply to “the poet.” Given the viewpoint from which much of the poetry is cast, the poet or a dominating figure among the poets may well have been a woman; our pronoun for the poet will be “she.” Past that, there is, in the present commentator’s judgment, only one usable lead. Two contemporary commentators of otherwise antithetical views have pointed out a phenomenon insufficiently noted in modern scholarship: the Song is constructed from the language and imagery of the rest of the Old Testament in a fashion unique among the biblical books (LaCocque; Davis). Whoever the poet was otherwise, she was a devotee of the sort of literature that now makes up our Old Testament. We can therefore at least exclude origin outside the culture of Israel—or anyway that part of it represented by the Old Testament—and with it such scholars’ fantasies as that the Song was originally a liturgy for the fertility cult of Ishtar and Tammuz, or is an adaptation from the Egyptian.
Moreover, for our poet to have become so steeped in the specific images and language found in the Old Testament canon, many of the documents now in that canon must have been extant and available together in such a way as to speak with one voice; when the Song was written, there must have been a formal or informal library anticipating a canon. Thus very early provenance, certainly Solomon’s own time, seems excluded. But these are meager results.
As to a possible overall structure of the Song, agnosticism seems again the wisest course. There have been attempts to construe the Song as a drama, or as a long recitation, perhaps for use at weddings, or as a liturgy (Pope). These have convinced few but their proposers, and all require reconstructive hypotheses supported only by their own internal coherence and the history-of-religions predilections of the proposers. The more modest proposal, that the Song is a structured suite of poems building to an emotional climax, does indeed seem plausible at most points in the Song, but is less easy precisely in the chapter containing the putative climax (8:6-7). The present commentary will therefore adopt another minimal position and take the Song simply as a collection of verses, with consistent personae, a consistent theme and attitude, and some patterns of diction linking groups of poems. Occasionally we will note closer connections between two or three poems in a row. The Song in fact may be more organized, in some way yet to be divined, but we will rely on no supposition about that.
Indeed, of attempts to discover a unifying plot for the Song, the one most influential through history, and one of the most intrinsically interesting, is also one of the least likely. Rabbinic Judaism’s exegesis always tended to historicize the Song, to connect events in the lovers’ affair with events in Israel’s history with the Lord. The Aramaic paraphrase-commentary of the Song, Targum Canticles, in its present form probably coming from the seventh century and Palestine (Targum, 55-60), took this a step further and found in the Song a complete sequential history of Israel from Abraham to the eschaton. Moreover, according to the Targum, the Song portrays a periodic-theological pattern of that history: it presents three cycles of beginning, disaster, and restoration. This reading decisively influenced later Jewish commentary and a minority stream of medieval Christian exegesis. Such interpretation is now likely to be pejoratively labeled “allegorical”; we will come back to that. And we will in the commentary see that on individual passages the Targum is well worth citing.
So we have before us a collection of highly sensual love lyrics. It is tempting to leave it at that, as most modern commentators do, even those who then try hard to give the presence of the Song in the canon some theological significance. But rabbinic and churchly scholarship has in any longer run not been able to accept this limit. The Song, after all, is a concern of Christian or Jewish exegesis, and indeed has been preserved at all, only because it is in the Jewish and Christian canons of Scripture. It need not—as some modern commentators have assumed—be prudery that moves us to ask what such lyrics are doing there (e.g., Pope, 114). All other books of the Old Testament in some way concern Israel’s relation to her God; the supposition is not immediately likely that a collection of sheerly secular lyrics came among them by pure accident. The present commentator will claim that the Song indeed provides “a theology of human sexuality” (Murphy, 101) but pace the excellent commentator just cited, the overt sense by itself offers no such thing. Which brings us to that second question: Who are the lovers?
It was the unanimous answer of Jewish and Christian premodern exegesis—of the ancient rabbis and the later Jewish commentators, and of the Fathers of the church and the medieval and Reformation commentators—that these poems belong in the canon because the lovers are the biblical Lord and his people, whether YHWH and Israel or Christ and the church, or therein comprised Christ and the believing soul. The near-unanimous answer of interpreters in the modern period was that this is “allegorical exegesis” and that such exegesis is a bad thing.
In modern discussions of premodern exegesis, “allegorical” is regularly used imprecisely, and usually pejoratively, for the more correctly so-called “spiritual” exegesis of the Fathers and medievals, of which allegory was only one mode. The church has read “spiritually” because she reads the whole of Scripture as a dramatically coherent narrative plotted by the Spirit from creation to consummation, with nonnarrative genres present to point the moral and religious import and context of the narrative. It was a consequent principle of the church’s older exegesis that in such a dramatically connected narrative all events before the last are most interesting just as they point forward in the story, which will usually be perceptible only from the viewpoint of what they point to, and that one way this happens is that earlier events figure later events.
Thus when, for example, Martin Luther in the preface to his translation of the Pentateuch called Aaron a figure of Christ, he did not mean to deny that there was an Aaron who lived earlier in Israel’s history than Christ, or to say that Aaron’s story as a person of that time and place was unimportant. Quite to the contrary, he meant that in what Aaron did and suffered, and in how the narrator tells of him, one could see something of why there would be the Christ and so something of what he would be like, and that in reading passages about Aaron the church must reckon with this figuration. And, in general, the locus of the church’s spiritual exegesis was in thus reading the Old Testament from the viewpoint of the New; within this broad sweep of spiritual exegesis, “allegory” was then the most specifically christological of several types. However, to avoid repeated pedantic explanation, this commentary will use the current idiom, and usually speak in its loose general fashion of “allegory.”
Allegoncal exegesis—also as loosely so called—is thus a churchly exegetical procedure applied principally to narrative texts of the Old Testament. The above paragraphs were needed because for our present task it is vital to be clear: it is one thing to exegete a narrative text allegorically, and a different thing to make the genre judgment that a text presented for interpretation is itself an allegory; that is, that its plain sense is precisely its solicitation of realities other than those it overtly mentions—and there are of course many such texts. When the ancient rabbis judged that the Song speaks overtly about two human lovers in order to tell the mutual passion of the Lord and Israel, and when the church’s exegetes made a parallel decision, this judgment was not itself allegorical exegesis, in either the current or the more precise use of the term. If the rabbis and the Fathers were right in their judgment about genre, then construing theological allegory for the Song’s overtly secular poems is in fact plain-sense reading, and is an allegorizing reading just in the sense that allegory is the sort of interpretation which the text invites the interpreter to employ. In the church’s traditional exegesis of the Song, more narrowly named allegorical exegesis then occurred as a second step: when the church read the theological story about the Lord and Israel as a story about Christ and the church. With most of the Song, this step is so short that our commentary will not trouble to announce it, but with a few poems, observation of the step will be important.
Of course the next question is: Were the rabbis and the Fathers right in their assignment of genre? There is again a modern near-consensus: they were not. According to most modern commentators, the poems must have been written as secular love poems and then appropriated for the canon by arbitrarily allegorizing exegesis. We may instance two recent and often helpful commentators who span an ecclesial spectrum: Evangelical (Longman) and Catholic (Bergant). The rabbis, or earlier savants of similar bent, may be thought to have done this on purpose or to have done it unwittingly. They may be supposed to have done it in order to bring the poems into the canon in the first place, or they may be supposed to have found the Song already in the canon and to have made them be allegory to justify their presence after the fact.
The warrants for that “must have been” are, however, surprisingly few and weak—and indeed modernity’s dominant position is more often assumed than actually argued. Chief among its warrants is the existence in neighboring ancient cultures of love poetry that the Song strongly resembles and that celebrates love purely between human lovers. The refutation of argument based on this warrant is a simple “So what?” That there is love poetry between creatures scarcely implies there can be no love poetry between Creator and creatures; indeed the contrary inference is the more plausible in the case of Israel’s God, who is so deeply involved with his creatures. We may, in fact, speculate further: in Israel’s immediate environment there was love poetry between gods and goddesses, which also resembles the secular love poetry; it would have been precisely in line with Israel’s general position in that milieu to replace love poetry between deities with love poetry between the one deity and Israel. Finally, the delicately evocative lyricism of the Song would have been the obvious form for a theological poet immersed in the ancient Eastern traditions, as our poet manifestly was—the moderns are indeed right about that.
A second warrant, plainly operative but rarely stated, is the feeling that Israel just could not have produced sexy poetry about the Lord. But since, by the currently dominant account itself, Israel did in fact read sexy poetry as poetry about the Lord, this inhibition cannot have been very powerful. Further warrants do not appear.
Therefore a radically dissenting—and only at first glance “conservative”—position is possible, though we will not finally adopt it as a general methodological principle. Since the poet of these songs was a devotedly Scripture-reading Israelite, who cast her lyrics in the language and imagery of that Scripture—that is, of texts which directly tell the Lord s stormy love affair with Israel and sometimes explicitly call it that—there seems to be no reason why such an Israelite poet should not have written these songs for that very love (Davis).
There are other arguments from the text for this view. One poem, which is often regarded as the climax of the Song, 8:6-7, almost compels us to suppose that the poet did intend at least this one of the poems to be about both human lovers with each other and God with Israel; for we will see that in this passage the boundary between a secular reading and a theological reading amounts to no more than the difference between alternative resolutions of a play with mythic names that can hardly be accidental. Further, we will encounter three poems, two of them in a row (5:2-8; 3:1-11), whose overt story is merely bizarre, but which become plausible when construed as invitation to theological allegory. Finally among possible arguments for the poet having set up allegorical reading, it is remarkable that the poems where one of the lovers inventories and praises the other’s body, for all the explicit sensuality with which they are invested, stop short at the genitalia or even skip over them; it may be that an Israelite poet, intending the poems to be read about the Lord and Israel, felt that speaking explicitly of penis or vulva smacked just too much of the fertility cults.
Nevertheless, it must be admitted that these considerations are some way from being conclusive, so that agnostic caution will again be the best policy. Fortunately, what we can be certain of is enough to be going on with, if more precariously than we might wish. We do know that so soon as we have any record of the Song’s existence, it had its place in the canon, and that the earliest recorded comment on this—Rabbi Aqiba’s again—insisted on allegorical-theological identification of the lovers as the reason. In the present commentator’s judgment, we can also be certain in dismissing modern exegetes’ certainties about the fact or nature of an initial secular life of the Song. Moreover and finally, even if the Song had some precanonical and pretheological existence and even if we knew anything about it, the text as it inhabits the canon is the text for our exegesis. In this case as in others, a reconstructed precanonical life of the Song—in this commentator’s judgment unachievable—could serve only as an aid for the interpretation of the text in its canonical entity.
Perhaps the poems were originally written about the Lord and Israel. Or perhaps they became poems about the Lord and Israel when they were taken into the canon. Or perhaps they came by some now unknowable other route into some precanonical collection and were later made to be poems about the Lord and Israel in order to justify their place in a canon; for exegetical purposes, this possibility anyway collapses into the second. In whichever of these ways, the canonical entity is about the love of Israel and the Lord, and to read it by construing theological allegory is to read what we may call its canonical plain sense. For what exegetes of other opinion will likely call the “plain” sense, we will speak of the “overt” sense, as in the following.
It of course remains that the overt stories and exchanges told or presumed by the poems are enacted between two human lovers, and that our first task must be to offer such clarification of this overt sense as may be in each case needed and possible. We cannot construe allegory for a passage until we understand the overt text that solicits it.
In trying to clarify the overt stories we will make what is usually the most natural and is anyway the safest assumption: that the lovers and other personae are fictions interior to a world imagined by a poet, that, for example, the poem alluding to Solomon’s wedding day will not be clarified by trying to reconstruct the historical Solomon’s—well-used—wedding ritual. In this we depart from the premodern exegetes whose insights we will in other connections seek to reappropriate, for at the level of what the Fathers and others called the “plain narrative” or “historical sense” they of course did not have the heritage of modern historical criticism, and took ascriptions and references to Solomon at historical face value. The third-century Christian polymath Origen of Alexandria set the general pattern for much subsequent premodern Christian exegesis by calling the overt narrative an epithalamium, a “wedding song,” in dramatic form, composed by Solomon as if for a royal bride (Origen, 21).
Despite the extreme sensuality of the poems, we will not share some commentators’ zeal to discover all possible allusions to genitalia or their uses. Although formal analysis of the Song’s prosody—of alliteration, the more subtle parallelisms, and so forth (Bergant)—can be fascinating, this sort of elucidation only once or twice falls within the scope of this commentary. The signs are too plain to be missed, that an editor or editors have at some point shaped the collection as we have it. Beyond this observation, however, little is discernible about this editing, especially about editorial predilections; any attempt at redaction criticism would be mere fantasy.
Following the policy of the series, the text initially taken for comment is the New Revised Standard Version, nrsv usually translates the Hebrew text stabilized by Jewish scholars called “the Masoretes,” who worked from the sixth through the tenth centuries. Where the nrsv translators have found the Masoretic text too implausible, and an ancient version—the Syriac, Greek Septuagint, or Latin Vulgate—seems to have translated a more likely Hebrew text, they have sometimes followed the version. In this commentary, we will abide by nrsv where a decision about either text or translation depends mostly on linguistic considerations. Where other than linguistic criteria play a significant role, we will occasionally depart from nrsv, sometimes to what is—remarkably—the one really interesting English alternative, the Authorized or King James Version. We will not make surveys of translations. Following the nrsv in respect for Jewish awe before God’s proper name, YHWH will appear in its ancient circumlocution as “the Lord.”
It has been this commentator’s intent to retrieve insights of Jewish and Christian premodern exegesis, but this is often hindered by the circumstance that for the ancient church the canonical Old Testament was effectively the early Greek translation called the Septuagint—even when the interpreter could read Hebrew—and that later in the West the church’s effective Bible was the Latin Vulgate. The difficulty is that in the case of the Song the Septuagint and the Vulgate differ so much from the Masoretic Hebrew that the Fathers’ and medievals’ comments are often on effectively different—often very different—poems than those before us with nrsv. The problems thereby posed cannot generally be dealt with in this commentary. It is, indeed, a doctrinal question about which the commentator is personally undecided: Is the church’s authoritative Old Testament an unavailable “original” Hebrew or the Masoretes’ Hebrew or the Septuagint? Also that question cannot be dealt with here.
Translations of citations from Bernard of Clairvaux, Gregory of Nyssa, and Origen are the commentator’s. Other citations from the Fathers and Christian medievals are from the translations made by Richard Norris for his anthology of patristic and medieval commentary on the Song.
The commentary to follow will be prudent—insofar as that is possible with the Song—and assume only the less radical dissent from current opinion; that is, we will suppose that the canonical Song solicits allegory, but will take no general position about who intended this, the poet or subsequent canonizers. This does make particular exegeses more delicate. If we could be sure that the poet herself intended allegorical reading, we could expect this to show in the texts. And if we look for such signs, and remember that we are dealing with poetry, so that we attend to wordplay, glancing allusions, choices of simile and metaphor, and the like, we do seem to find them. On the supposition that the poet was responsible for such clues—that is to say, that they are indeed “clues”—we could then take them as guides of our reading. Since, however, we will methodologically refrain from that supposition, we cannot proceed so safely.
Since we accept that the rabbinic and patristic genre identification correctly specifies the canonically plain text, are we bound to the rabbis’ or the Fathers’ specific allegorical readings? Fortunately for our escape from such bondage but unfortunately for the security of our interpretations, there never was a standard rabbinic or churchly allegory for any particular poem. It was taken that the personae of the Song are the Lord and his people, but there was no consensus about what the Song says about them in any individual passage. We are therefore not only free but compelled to find our own best way into each poem.
It may then seem that any and all proposals must be equally appropriate. Texts that provoke allegory but provide no key to the code must obviously be exposed to arbitrary fancy—of which the history of the Song’s exegesis provides abundant example. It may seem that everyone can do with the Song as they please—and that therefore, among other things, writing or reading a commentary is superfluous. And, indeed, proposals of the Song’s theological allegory will inevitably be somewhat individual; one reader may perceive one theological story and another a different one. This does not, however, mean that all proposals are equal; there are some controls.
If we had access to the intent of the author, we could control our discernment of theological allegory by that intent and so by actual clues left by the author. We have decided not generally to rely on this assumption. Even so, with individual images or phrases it sometimes does seem that the text itself is prodding us to a theological reading; we are sometimes compelled to think, “The poet can hardly have written..’ without expecting hearers or readers to think of….”
Of the intent of whoever definitively made Scripture of the Song, we can be more certain: they intended the Song to be about Israel and the Lord. Yet even here, as we have noted, there is no consensus about what individual passages say about Israel and the Lord.
What can and must chiefly discipline our theological-allegorical proposals, is what we may call the canon’s own intent for the Song. That is, our discernments of a theological story for the overt story are—precisely historically!—appropriate if they fit the text’s overt story and if they draw from, and are in accord with, the account of the Lord and his people told by the whole of Scripture. Moreover, that the Song is in the Jewish and Christian canons sets the community of interpretation. We should read as if we were reciting in synagogue or at Eucharist, and only within the structure and rhetoric of such events let the Song’s apparent allusions play out.
Nor can or should we simply leap over the hermeneutical history between us and the older interpreters. Inevitably and rightly, beneficiaries of modernity’s “historical-critical” attitude, even when interpreting lyrics that invite allegory, and the imagination appropriate to the genre, will often perceive different lines of allusion than did the older interpreters, and what we will judge a plausible proposal of theological story will often be commended by different criteria than theirs. It was of course just such modern intuitions that occasioned rejection above of the Targum’s overall constatal.
Several considerations may be adduced under this last general rubric. For one, modernity’s acute awareness of genre will prohibit proposals of allegory that do not reckon with these texts’ obvious character as lyric poetry. A great deal of premodern interpretation must by this criterion appear as simply inadmissible. And indeed, when we turn to the new and excellent anthology of patristic and medieval exegesis (Norris), or to the premodern Christian commentaries more directly mined for this commentary, we find much brilliant theology and profound spirituality, but a disappointing harvest of allegory plausibly solicited by the particular text under consideration rather than by any other.
Second, the poems, at the immediately observed level that modernity is always and rightly careful to honor, are erotic love poetry. If they are about the Lord and his people, it is the erotic love between the Lord and his people that we have to expound, not, for example, the disembodying of the soul in prayer or the proper care of talmudic students—neither of which examples is made up. And third, an observable affinity with the literature of Wisdom, reflected in the Christian ordering of the Old Testament, generally inhibits finding narrative of actual sequences of saving history. Like Wisdom, the Song is about what is foundationally the case between God and his people; thus in the instances where the solicited theological story tells a sequence of saving events, it is the exodus itself that is told.
Readers will undoubtedly sometimes decide that the commentary’s proposal of a theological story is unconvincing. Given the character of our text, they can without sarcasm be invited to do better. It may be that the chief purpose of a commentary on this text is not to provide interpretation but to provoke it.
Finally, the real control of our reading is not one we can wield. The sundry books of the Bible are Scripture, a tool of the Spirit to guide the church, in that the Spirit guides also the church’s exegesis. The Fathers therefore unanimously maintained that the chief thing we could do to seek right interpretation of Scripture—and especially of Scripture that like the Song solicits active imagination—was to pray for the Spirit’s control. They were right.
To conclude this section, we may ask what the Song’s theological allegories—or anyway those proposed in the following—contribute to our biblical-theological understanding. In fact, the allegories that we will discern for the Song amount to an entire theology, with two special features. First, it is neither narrative nor didactic, but lyrical, theology intended to be perceived obliquely and savored for its images and allusions; the beauty of these poems is part of their theological meaning. Second, it portrays the love between the Lord and his people as desire. With his immensely influential Agape and Eros, Anders Nygren persuaded three generations of theologians and exegetes that self-giving love, agape, and desire, eros, are two incompatible sorts of love, and that only the former characterizes the relation between the biblical God and his people; no allegory plausibly solicited by the Song can agree.
There is a final and decisive methodological point to be made. We will read the Song as a solicitation of theological allegory. And we will suppose that in so doing we find truth. That is, we will suppose that the Song’s canonical plain sense rightly takes human sexual love as an analogue of the love between the Lord and Israel. But right analogies between divine and human characters or acts work both ways: they enable and structure human speech about God, and they just so show us the truth of the human matters invoked to do this. In the present instance, if human sexuality can be an analogue of divine-human love, it must somehow be correlate to, or able to be correlate to, that love. It is a principle of classical theology: in this life we cannot know what it is like to be God—in the traditional language, we cannot know his “essence”—and nor then what it is like to love as God loves. Thus we do not know how our penultimate human love is like God’s. But we can know that it is, and thereby know truth also about our loves.
The old churchly exegetes, having discerned a theological story for the overt story, regularly stopped there. They indeed understood the two-sidedness of analogy; thus the same William of St. Thierry wrote: “[T]hough a person … is spiritual, nevertheless the pleasures of the flesh are natural to him …; and once they have been taken captive by the Holy Spirit, he embraces them as part of his allegiance to spiritual love” (Norris, 17). But they do not develop what this embrace might mean for the practice of the flesh’s pleasures.
There is a regrettable theological reason for this. The Fathers performed a marvel in bending the suppositions and language of the Greek thinkers, that is, of their own native world of thought, to the gospel’s purposes, but at a few points the adapted notions remained unbaptized. One such point was that soul and body continued in some contexts to be conceived not merely as different but as antithetical. So the great Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century: “What has the immaterial… soul to do with material things …? That inner fount of knowledge must not waste itself on what is foreign to it—that is, on bodily matters” (Gregory, 9, 277). Thus for the Fathers and medievals, once the reader has made the ascent to a spiritual reading, to go back and consider bodily matters would be a relapse.
Thereby the older exegesis indeed did the Song violence; there is a vital moment of truth in modernity’s rebellion against it. For the poems remain, whosever affair they narrate, sensual love poetry. They are about erogenous zones and seductive aromas and lovers looking for a place to be alone and frustration and the morning after.
Whether the poet intended it or canonization imposes it, the Song’s canonical entity posits an analogy of the love between human lovers with the relation between God and his people, precisely with respect to the erotic aspect of human love. By the classic understanding of Creator/ creature analogies, most clearly developed by Thomas Aquinas, this does not mean that our eroticism is the original and that we construe God’s relation to his people by projecting it—as recent “metaphor theology” rather naively supposed. Just the other way around, it means that human lovers’ relations to each other are recognizable in their true eroticism only by noting their analogy to an eroticism that is God’s alone. Just as in general our faulty righteousness can nonetheless be anticipation of our eschatological sharing in God’s own righteousness, only so to be righteousness at all, so our frail eroticism can be an anticipation of final sharing in the fulfillment of God’s and his people’s desire for one another.
Also under this heading, we may ask: What is the Song’s contribution within the whole of Scripture? The answer this time is very simple: if the considerations just adduced are correct, then the Song, after its way through theological allegory, provides the chief biblical resource for a believing understanding of human sexuality, of the lived meaning of “Male and female he created them.”
The commentary will not be organized by verse or chapter, but by poem. The units we will treat as individual poems are often shorter than those proposed by other commentators, who sometimes perceive more continuity between verses than the present commentator is able to do.
For each poem we will follow a three-step pattern of interpretation, in accord with the analysis above. A first section will offer such explanation of the overt story as seems needed and possible. A second section will propose theological allegory. So far we will have followed Gregory of Nyssa’s methodological mandate: “We must first draw out the sense present in the lines as they stand, and then connect these inspired words to what is to be envisioned” (Gregory, 6, 173). And a third will consider what may be said about our created sexuality in view of the divine-human analogies exploited by the poem under consideration.
Both the total space devoted to a poem and the balance of space devoted to the three sections will vary considerably from poem to poem. It will not always be convenient to keep the three discussions neatly separate, though we will maintain the distinct sections. Comment on the first two poems will be oversized, since they provide opportunity to discuss certain matters of general application without further distending this introduction by taking them up here; readers may wish to read these before turning to other passages of their interest. A general comment on the state of chapter 8 will be intruded before the commentaries on individual units.
Citations from premodern Christian exegesis will pile up with earlier poems and become scarce with later ones, since the three generally thought most important, and most drawn on here, are all incomplete. Gregory of Nyssa and Bernard of Clairvaux never finished their expositions, and the last two thirds of Origen’s foundational works are lost.
Where references in parentheses appear with the author or editor’s name only, they are either general or at the place. As is usual with ancient texts, Gregory of Nyssa and Bernard of Clairvaux are cited by standard internal numbering systems, to allow use of various editions. No useful system of this sort is provided for Origen on the Song; he will therefore be cited by page in Lawson’s translation.
The character of the Song, as a set of love lyrics with most of the same personae from one lyric to another, with the same erotic intensity, and with no certain dramatic or conceptual progression of the whole, compels the commentator to say the same thing about passage after passage. And the location of the most theologically packed poem (8:6-7) only at the very end of the book compels postponement of central matters. Readers should not expect a conceptually sequential exposition.
Do not read the commentary on any poem before you have read the poem itself, more than once and preferably aloud. And should you wish to join the church’s long engagement with the Song, let all be done with prayer for the love the Song praises. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote: in this book “it is everywhere love that speaks. If anyone hopes to grasp the sense of what he reads, let him love. Whereas someone who does not love will hear or read this song of love in vain” (Bernard, 79, 1).