By Barry and Vernon Wilkins.
In the middle of the Bible is this love poem with beautiful imagery of the natural world and focussing on mutual love and intimacy. If it has a proper place in Scripture, it must speak to everyone, to young adults of course, with beautiful bodies such as the lovers in Song, but also to people who are ugly or deformed; to single people, married, divorced, aged, celibate by choice, same‐sex attracted, people who cannot enjoy sex or no longer interested; to all who take the Word of the living God seriously. The sex‐manual approach of some commentators robs such ‘unlovely’ people of this wonderfully evocative part of scripture.
In Song, the ‘story’ itself is of immense importance – it celebrates the wonder, peace, and security of perfect human love. The components of mutual attraction, even body parts or physical details of the natural world, cannot be reduced only to illustrations of spiritual truths. We shall not find Christ there in allegory. The male lover is not Christ. But we dofind Christ in this poem.
All scripture has its place in a trajectory that has its fulfilment in Christ and the gospel. Nothing in scripture is merely incidental. The male lover in Song is an idealised man who has fallen in love with his maiden. Song celebrates this loving relationship culminating in final commitment, a hymn to love, especially intimacy – the love that desires a relationship of perfect peace and security (the Hebrew ‘peace’ word is more than incidentally present). A reader who needs to find uninhibited sex in this poem will do so; but if we lay that desire aside, and read the poem neutrally in this regard, then the ‘intimacy’ paradigm is perfectly satisfactory throughout. Metaphors for this intimacy abound, e.g. 4:9, You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride, and the use of sister and brother in 5:1; 8:1.
But observing a reformation maxim, ‘Christ in all the Scriptures’, we suggest that the reality of two people wanting intimacy in a mutual, permanent, bound relationship anticipates the rightful intimacy with Christ that will characterise Christ’s people, and the eventual ‘marriage’ of bride and groom. In reading Song, we must start with the quasi‐historical event and see what it tells us of intimacy, then apply it additionally through Christ in the light of the gospel. That is, Song is both a love/intimacy poem conveying the wonder of attraction, desire and longing, and as typological, denoting ideal human love as an analogy of Christ and his people.
This Christological typology in Song is reinforced by the Bible’s analogy between human marriage and the marriage of Christ with his church. This is epitomised in Ephesians 5:23‐32, For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour … love …, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her … . Marriage terminology is also used in the Old Testament of God’s relationship with his people – e.g. Isaiah 54:5, For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts …; Jeremiah 2:2, … how as a bride you loved me …; and Ezekiel 16:8, … I spread the corner of my garment over you … and entered into a covenant with you. It is no accident that this marriage metaphor finds its fulfilment in Christ and church. The yearning love of God for his people, and the intimacy that God desires, is written everywhere into scripture. It is perfectly consistent with good Bible interpretation, we suggest, to find it implied, typologically, in Song’s celebration of ideal human love that ‘anticipates’ the love of Christ for the church, and the intimacy he longs for with her. It is real, now, for the company of forgiven sinners; but we await the final consummation of our loving relationship with our saviour in ‘marriage’.
To nurture our relationship with Christ and grow in our love for him, in response to his perfect love, is truly to find peace, safety and security in him, as represented in Song, 8:6, Set me as a seal on your heart, … for love is strong as death, … Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD. Yet we can also see that when time ends, we will be united with Him in eternal rest and peace. Love has its ultimate source in the LORD.
In the very centre of Song in 4:16 and 5:1 the couple are in the garden of love (same Hebrew word as garden of Eden). Song portrays an ideal, intimate relationship as foreseen in Eden in Gen 2:18, … it is not good that the man should be alone …, but though our present relationship with our saviour is flawed by sinfulness, yet we can see in Song of Songs our longing for promised eternal rest and a return to the Eden of perfection, God’s ‘garden of love’.