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The Song of Solomon is a love-dialogue between a distressed wife, grieving over an apparently lost husband, and the faithful, persevering husband himself.

Christian understanding of this book has been affected by fashions in the reading of the Bible. The church of the Middle Ages was content to find allegory in any part of scripture. In this case, the classic interpreter is Bernard of Clairvaux, who explains “black but beautiful” as a description of the Christian church and of the Christian soul, sin-stained but redeemed. Protestantism reacted against the over-use of allegory by insisting on a return to more strictly literal interpretations of scripture. Unfortunately this may lead us into rejecting allegory even when the writer cannot have intended anything else. I have heard people call the Song of Solomon a “merely human” love-story. I have heard them suggest that the book does not rightly belong in a religious canon at all.

We need to remind ourselves why the Old Testament came together. Nobody was intending to make a collection of “Hebrew literature”. Every genre that we find there has been adapted for the purpose of saying something about Israel’s God. We find origin legends, law, history, collections of proverbs. None of these books come without a message of some kind about the nature of God. Why would the Song of Solomon be an exception?

In fact the Song is not an exception. It belongs to the genre of “love poetry” to the same extent that Kings and Chronicles belong to the genre of “history”, or Proverbs belongs to the genre “collection of proverbs and wise sayings”. In each case the literary genre has been given a spiritual dimension. It is easy to see that the “historical” books are not just pure secular history, but have been used to say something about the relation between God and his people. The same can be said for the collections of law. We find in Proverbs not just secular wisdom, but warnings against different kinds of unrighteousness. Similarly the writer of the Song of Solomon has taken the genre of “love-poetry” and adapted it to the well-established prophetic theme of the marriage relationship between God and his people Israel.

Specifically, it is a more encouraging and optimistic version of the wrathful allegories of Ezekiel ch16, and ch23, touching on Israel’s faults but focussing on the promise of restoration. Like Ezekiel’s allegory, the Song of Solomon is a response to the catastrophe of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, and the state of exile which followed.

The first part of the book dwells on the blissful relationship of the past, in the ideal state symbolised by nostalgic memories of Solomon’s kingdom. This idyll is interrupted by the devastating scene in which the wife “loses” her husband, reflecting the fears of exiled Israel about the end of the special relationship.

The rest of the book is occupied by two parallel themes. On the one hand, the wife yearning for her “absent” husband. On the other hand, that same husband pouring out reassurances about his continuing love and continuing presence by her side. His task is made more difficult because, of course, she cannot see him. She will not be convinced until she learns, once more, how to recognise his voice.

The above post is an extract from the foreword of a new book (my own, under the name Stephen Disraeli).