If you grew up Jewish in a certain time, there was a forbidden fruit in your Bible. You knew this book was in there. You whispered about it with your friends. You probably snuck a peek when you were sure dad and Rabbi weren't looking. It was as canonical as any other book. In fact Rabbi Akiba had said, "If all the sacred writings are holy," then this one was "the holy of holies" (Mishnah, Yadayim 3:5). But you wouldn't be allowed to read it out in the open (some sources say) until your thirtieth birthday.
In her Spring 2003 Marriage Partnership article, "In the Mood," Jill Savage tops her list of 19 ways for married couples seeking to "kick up your sexual desires a notch" with this suggestion:
"Read Song of Songs. If your spouse is willing, read it together out loud. … This is God's sex manual!"
The picture is irresistible. Pete and Paula are sitting up in their four-poster together, the family Bible propped on a few pillows. Opening it to the Song of Songs (the book is also known as "Song of Solomon" or, from the Latin for "song," "Canticles"), Pete begins:
Paula picks up the refrain:
OK, granted, it's hard for us to "get into" some of the imagery. But the theme is unmistakable, and it still holds our fascination after all these centuries:
"Your stature is like a palm tree, / And your breasts are like its clusters, / 'I said, "I will climb the palm tree, / I will take hold of its fruit stalks." / Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, / And the fragrance of your breath like apples, / And your mouth like the best wine! / It goes down smoothly for my beloved … '" (7:7-9, NASB)
I recently picked up the proofs of a forthcoming Eerdmans translation and commentary by Judith Ernst: Song of Songs: Erotic Love Poetry. American novelist David James Duncan writes the introduction. As he relates the history of the Song's interpretation, he says what many readers still feel—isn't it something of a miracle that this bodice-ripper is actually still in the biblical canon? I nodded, and read on:
"The survival of these openly erotic and mystical songs in the same text touted by generations of Puritans, Conquistadors, Inquisitors, misogynist priests, and fundamentalist book burners is an outright miracle of fidelity to holy writ."
Here I came to a grinding halt. The Puritans? Song-of-Songs haters?
I don't think so.
First of all, let's please get over this twentieth-century canard about the Puritans being afraid of sex and bent on making sure no one enjoyed it. As the Yale Puritan expert Harry Stout put it, "They certainly did not have sexual hang-ups. They were not prudes. … For husband and wife, sex was important, and Puritan families were routinely large. A spouse could be punished by the authorities for withholding sex from his or her partner. … They were intense lovers."
For these "intense lovers," the Song of Songs was the perfect lens on the church's—and the individual believer's—communion with Christ. Though only one of many ways in which the Song has been interpreted in Christian History, this allegorical one has a long pedigree in the church. The second-century exegete Origen (ca. 185-254) pioneered the view, which identified the song's male lover as God or Christ and its female lover as Israel, the church, or the believer. The Fathers through the medieval period followed Origen's lead, with the mystics emphasizing the personal, subjective side of the interpretation.
John Calvin—knowing that the comparison of man-woman married love to the love of Christ has the highest biblical authority (e.g. Eph. 5:31-32, the book of Hosea, and many passages in the major prophets)—also supported the allegorical interpretation.
And a century later the Calvinist Puritans joined the Catholic mystics in identifying the female lover as the individual believer and using the book as a guide for personal devotions.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the prolific nineteenth-century Baptist preacher who loved to read his Puritans, compiled an annotated list of no fewer than 57 Puritan and contemporary books devoted to the Song of Songs.
Spurgeon lavishes praise on such works as Richard Sibbes's 1639 "Discovery of the Neere and Deere Love, Union and Communion betwixt Christ and the Church" and John Gill's 1728 "Exposition of the Book of Solomon's Song" ("Those who despise it … are incapable of elevated spiritual feelings," said Spurgeon).
Then Spurgeon arrives at a book that, in two hefty volumes, manages to get through an exposition of only the first two chapters of Solomon's Song: John Collinge's 1676 "Intercourses of Divine Love betwixt Christ and his Church, metaphorically expressed by Solomon in Canticles I. And II." We can hear the great preacher's affectionate chuckle and see the shake of his head as he writes, "Nine hundred and nine quarto pages upon one chapter is more than enough. … It would try the constitutions of many modern divines to read what these Puritans found it a pleasure to write. When shall we see their like?"
At the age of sixty, dying of a painful ailment, the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet wrote a poem, "As weary pilgrim," looking forward to the final consummation of her relationship with her beloved Lord. At the poem's peak, she reached into the language of the Song of Songs: "Lord make me ready for that day; then, Come deare bridgrome [bridegroom]. Come away." (See Charles Hambrick-Stowe, Practice of Piety [UNC Press, 1982].)
The great eighteenth-century Puritan Jonathan Edwards (watch for our issue, mailing this month, celebrating his 300th birthday), looking back to the late-teenage period that marked his conversion, remembered:
"Those words in Song of Songs 2:1 used to be abundantly with me, I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. The words seemed to me sweetly to represent the loveliness and beauty of Jesus Christ. The whole book of Song of Songs used to be pleasant to me, and I used to be much in reading it, about that time; and found from time to time an inward sweetness, that would carry me away in my contemplations. … Far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in God. The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart, an ardor of soul, that I know not how to express."
In short, there has never been a group of Christians more in love with the Song of Songs than the Puritans. Deep, strong, passionate, the love for Christ that they expressed and experienced in reading this book carried them far beyond the realm of Valentine's Day platitudes. Stout's "intense lovers" found themselves willing to use Solomon's erotic language to express their desire for their Lord.
Like the Puritans, many devout readers through the church's history have discovered this symbolically rich fruit that hangs, no longer forbidden, in the middle of their Bibles, and have found its expressions perfectly fitted to meditation on the amazing intimacy God has condescended to have with his people. In an age when so much distracts us from that intimacy, maybe the time has come for us to sit up in bed, open this book, and "kick it up a notch" in our passion for our Lord.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net.Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
For the Puritan commentator that Spurgeon identified as the best of his list of 57 writers on the Song of Songs, see the Commentary on the Song of Solomon of the Scottish minister James Durham (1622-1658).
Drawing on the tradition of interpretation represented by Durham and bringing the Song's cadences into the modern hymnal with many a "love song to Jesus" was the Victorian songwriter Frances Jane ("Fanny") Crosby. Born into a family of strong Puritan ancestry in New York on March 24, 1820 and later struck blind, Crosby memorized much of Scripture in her youth, including the whole of Solomon's Song.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Iraq's Christians Caught in the Middle, Again | If the looming war breaks out, 350,000 Iraqi Christians will be caught in a West-East conflict eerily similar to 4th-century events. (Feb. 7, 2003)
Finding God in a Box | Have archaeological discoveries like the James ossuary served or obscured the quest to verify the Bible? (Jan. 31, 2003)
Sex, Politics, and the Bible | Some words just don't mean what they used to (Jan. 24, 2003)
Caveat Gyrator (Elvis Priestly, Part II) | So you've got an evangelistic pop-culture act ready for prime time. Here's a historical pause for reflection. (Jan. 17, 2003)
From Oratorios to Elvis | Pop culture has been coming to a church near you for hundreds of years (Jan. 10, 2003)
The Christian DNA of Modern Genetics | Though open to frightening ethical abuse, genetics has been a Christian vocation since Gregor Mendel did his famous pea-plant experiments in the mid-nineteenth century (Jan. 3, 2003)
I'm Dreaming of a Victorian Christmas | An ageless story reminds us of the values the Victorians can still teach us. (Dec. 23, 2002)
No Humbug | A Christmas Carol remains the quintessential holiday story, but why? (Dec. 20, 2002)
'Tell Billy Graham the Jesus People Love Him.' | How evangelism's senior statesman helped the hippies "tune in, turn on to God." (Dec. 13, 2002)
Advent—Close Encounters of a Liturgical Kind | 'Tis the season when even the free-ranging revivalist pulls up a chair to the table of historic liturgy. (Dec. 6, 2002)
Dig that Billy Graham Cat! | How the grand old man of evangelism helped create Christian youth culture in the zoot-suit era. (Nov. 22, 2002)
From Swamped Creatures to Separated Brethren | Non-Catholics' spiritual status improved dramatically from Unam Sanctam to Vatican II, but where are we now? (Nov. 15, 2002)
An 'Ordinary Saint' in Wartime | William Wilberforce saw two long charitable campaigns through, even in war's distracting shadow. (Nov. 8, 2002)
Just War, Just Nation? | World War II preacher points America back to the nation's soul. (Nov. 1, 2002)