New Book: Song of Songs

by Alys Tarr

Place me like a seal over your heart,
    like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
    its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
    like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
    rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
    all the wealth of one’s house for love,
    it would be utterly scorned.

A staggering 2 billion people heard this very passage of Scripture read over the weekend. It’s not very often that we get to say that. Song of Songs isn’t exactly a surprising choice for a wedding; a whole book dedicated to the pleasure and joy of romantic love and sexual desire lends itself rather nicely to a day celebrating the love and commitment of a couple. Choose carefully though – there are plenty of  passages with vivid erotic metaphors that you might not feel all-too-comfortable being read aloud in front of all your relatives!

So why is this sensuous, poetic, strange book in our bibles? As you read over the next few days you’ll find it shows next to no interest in God, Israel or the covenant. If “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” (2 Timothy 3.16-17) then how does this book teach us, rebuke us, correct us, train us and equip us for being God’s people?

There are two (or three) main schools of thought which it’ll be helpful to bear in mind as you read. Many Jewish and Christian traditions have taken Song of Songs to be an allegorical treatment of the relationship between God and his people/Christ and his Church. The other view takes the book at face value: it’s simply a book celebrating the delights of love, sex, intimacy and commitment. Using metaphors of human love and passion to describe God and his people isn’t without biblical precedent – Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Hosea and Ephesians all draw on this theme – but Song of Songs extends the metaphor, shall we say, quite a bit further. Song of Songs is still read at Jewish Passover celebrations to remind those present that the covenant is not simply rules and laws but a relationship of mutual, passionate love.

Most modern scholars tend towards the ‘face value’ interpretation of the book, that it is most basically a collection of Israelite love poetry. That doesn’t mean that it’s devoid of any theological significance though. While Song of Songs doesn’t explicitly spell it out, the rest of Scripture implores us to acknowledge God as the giver of all good things, including all the things this book celebrates. Whether we’re married or unmarried, single or in a relationship, we acknowledge that love, sex and intimacy are good parts of God’s creation and we honour them appropriately. And even if the book itself isn’t an allegory, we know that marriage and all its faithfulness and intimacy is a gift from God designed to point beyond itself to a greater faithfulness and greater intimacy.

“This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5.32)

So, just one question this week:

  • What do you make of this unusual book?