The Biblical Song of Solomon (also called the Song of Songs) has always been read by Christians on two different levels—that is, it has been read on an historical level and on an allegorical one. This is how Christians read the entirety of the Old Testament. Take for example the story of the passage through the Red Sea. Christians have read this on an historical level as narrating the liberation of Israel from the iron furnace of bondage under Pharaoh in Egypt. Israel escaped from Pharaoh’s tyranny on the day of the Passover and sealed their deliverance from him when they passed through the waters of the Red Sea and emerged on the far shore, now safe to continue their journey to the Promised Land. Christians have also read this on an allegorical level as narrating our own liberation from the bondage of Satan in this world. We escaped from the tyranny of death, sin, and condemnation on the day of our baptism (Pascha being the preeminent baptismal day), and when we emerged from the baptismal waters we were safe to continue our journey to the Promised Land of the Kingdom of Heaven.
This two-layered approach was how we read all the Old Testament texts. We did not deny the historicity of the events, but added to it by delving into the text to find a deeper Christological meaning. And Christians were unanimous that although the historical meaning was holy and true, it was the allegorical one that held all the gold. As St. Augustine said, “While [Scripture] might easily be read by all, it reserved the majesty of its mystery within its profounder meaning, offering itself to all by the great plainness of its words, yet demanding intense application of such as are not light of heart” (Confessions, 6,5). In other words, the historical level of meaning could be grasped and appreciated by all readers, but its “profounder meaning”, could only be appreciated by those readers prepared to delve into it at the allegorical level.
This applied to the Song of Solomon as well. On the historical level of plain meaning, the book is a collection of erotic love poetry, celebrating in steamy detail the beauty and glory of sexual love between a man and a woman. In this case, “historical” does not mean “autobiographical”, and one should not read the text as if it were Solomon’s memoirs and try to assign historical components to it such as the identity of the woman (referred to in the text only as “the Shulammite”; 6:13). The text celebrates sexual love between a man and a woman per se—the man is only obliquely identified as King Solomon, and this identity has no real significance in the text. Reading it as an autobiographical memoir results in some spectacular oddities: 8:6-7 extols the glory of a jealous sexual exclusivity (i.e. monogamy), and King Solomon was anything but monogamous (see 1 Kings 11:3). Reading the text historically means that we read it as a series of poems extolling the glory of human sexuality.
Obviously the Church has also read the text on an allegorical level as well, finding in the mutuality of man and woman an image of the mutuality of Christ and His Church. The patristic commentaries focused on this level of meaning with determined focus, almost to the utter neglect of the historical. In the sex-soaked world of pagan Rome perhaps it was felt that the historical level of meaning hardly required any more explication on their parts, and they would therefore spend all their efforts at mining the gold contained in the allegories. They could hardly be blamed for this neglect of the historical, and they were not alone. Jewish exegetes too went straight past the plain and all too explicit meaning of the text to focus upon the allegorical. Rabbi Akiba even famously (and rather testily) said that “he who warbles the Song of Songs in a banquet hall and makes it into a kind of love song has no share in the age to come”. Evidently some were using verses from the Song of Songs as a kind of bawdy tribute to the “attributes” of the new brides at the wedding feasts, and the good Rabbi was most emphatically not amused.
Today however we have come to a new time and face new challenges. The Fathers thought that the historical level of meaning of the Song of Solomon could be more or less taken as given, and said the allegorical was the more important. I suggest that the historical level has now come to have an all new importance. In a day when the binary nature of human sexuality (and with it its allegorical applicability to Christ and His Church) are everywhere in the West under assault, we need more than ever to hearken to the sacred text when it celebrates the glories of sexual love between one man and one woman. Whether the moral equivalency of homosexuality and lesbianism with traditional sexuality, or the increasing normalization of transgenderism, or an acceptance of casual sexual liaisons as normal, or of wedded polyamory as a healthy option, the melody of the Song of Solomon and of traditional sexuality is increasingly pushed to the margins and rejected as narrow, cold-hearted, judgmental, and (of course) fundamentalist. The Song of Solomon therefore represents a (sultry) island of sanity in the vast ocean of western madness. It is a more important Biblical book than we might have thought, and should assume an increasing importance for us as the times grow darker. Like all of Holy Scripture, it gives us light to guide and truth to sustain. We need to hear the lovely strains of Solomon’s Song more than ever.
Note: my commentary on the Song of Solomon can be ordered here.