I have spent a fair amount of time (surprising to me, initially) on this blog dealing with false dilemmas, either or questions that end up being both, or other options besides these that are not even considered. Today in this series on Hebrew logic, we will deal with one of the most controversial books of the Bible, one of only two books not to mention the name of God , the other book being Esther. The Song of Solomon is a book that is seldom studied or read in depth, and very rarely quoted, though (perhaps unsurprisingly, given its content), it has always been a favorite book of mine.
The false dilemma concerning Song of Solomon is a very simple one, but it is also a very profound one. When I first remember reading the Song of Solomon as a teenager I was immediately struck (as just about every reader of the book has) by its immensely passionate sensuality. A book that lovingly describes the breasts of one’s beloved as fawns, or where a young woman boldly proclaims that her breasts are towers, is clearly going to gain the attention of those who need little encouragement to ‘stir up love,’ as it were. I will talk more about this shortly. It is clear that the Song of Solomon is a dramatic poem filled with immense romantic longing for a godly sexuality.
Nonetheless, many Jewish rabbis (who considered the book one that ‘dirtied the hands’ unless one was 25 years old or older) and Christian commentators have been at pains to deny this part of the book, instead insisting that the book was not talking about sexuality but rather the mystical and spiritual union between Israel (or the Church) and God. Many of these people completely denied that there was anything physical about this love poem at all. And so if many religious Jews or Christians have read the Song of Solomon at all, their religious leadership has often steadfastly denied up and down that the book has anything to say about human sexuality when such material is written plainly enough for a teenage boy to read and understand.
So what’s wrong here? Why do some take this poem as being only about human sensuality and others take it as being only about a mystical, spiritual love? Why does it have to be either one or the other? We have to remember that the Bible is more than capable of being read simultaneously on multiple levels at once. When we take off our blinders and see the Bible’s complicated layering (the Book of Revelation is a fantastic example of this, though it can be found everywhere in scripture), we find that seeing the Bible as talking on multiple planes and perspectives at once allows us to better understand the point of the message better than any one perspective alone.
And this perspective is particularly important in a book like Song of Solomon, because the two layers of spiritual and physical love actually provide us with a great deal more depth than either view taken in isolation does. If we simply take the Song of Solomon on the physical level, the rapturous sensuality (that which makes the book so appealing to lovesick teenage boys) may overwhelm the fact that the book over and over and over again is very hostile to promiscuity (the brothers of the Shulammite young woman threaten to lock her up and protect her from herself if she is a door–that is, loose) and repeatedly mentions that one should not stir up passion until it pleases–that is, until one fulfill those desires within marriage. Sadly, this is not a point I sufficiently well understood as a teenager, and I have paid a heavy price for stirring up love (if not exactly very much intimacy) before enjoying marital bliss.
Likewise, those who see the poem as only referring to a spiritual type of love miss a very big point as well that reflects a deeper problem. We know that in the prophets (like Hosea, for example), God refers to himself as a wronged, cuckolded husband pleading for his wayward wife (Israel) to return to Him (see Hosea 3:1-5, among other places). We know that Revelation 19:6-9, among other places, talks about the wedding supper of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, with the Church of God, the Spiritual Israel. Clearly there is a spiritual love between God and Israel/the Church that is being discussed here in the Song of Solomon.
But this spiritual level has meaning because the physical level is also true. We understand the passionate nature of our connection with God in the Family of God because God created us with longings to love and be loved. Lest we forget, one of the first things that God did in the Garden of Eden was make Adam lonely and then create an equal partner for him, and then bring them together in marriage. God did this knowing that He ultimately wanted to bring together mankind in union with him, so that God is no longer lonely Himself. We understand the passionate longing of God for a family because He created within us that same longing so that we might better understand His nature and His motivation for creating us for His family. But we cannot understand that if we only have a cerebral or intellectual understanding of the marriage of Jesus Christ and godly humanity and do not have a deep emotional understanding of that longing for intimacy and love.
And so pitting the physical against the spiritual levels of love is a false dilemma that ultimately attacks at the worth of each level on its own. For it is an understanding of both layers together that gives us insight on the point that Song of Solomon really serves in reminding us of at least two vital truths: God passionately loves humanity, so much so that He is willing to pay a huge price to ransom us back from the slavery to sin, namely by giving His only begotten son, Jesus Christ, as a sacrifice in our place so that we may live and not die as we deserve (see John 3:16). And also, that physical intimacy is, by the standards of the Bible, an immensely spiritual act, making of one flesh what was once separate. So much suffering exists in our world today because people have taken this precious and beautiful act and taken it for granted, taking what was holy letting it be trampled on like pearls before swine.
Indeed, we can recognize just how hurtful idolatry and spiritual unfaithfulness is to God by the pain we feel when people betray us. At times the prophets (like Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, among others) read like a scandalous talk show about cheating lovers because that’s what we have done through our unbelief. We understand the seriousness of the spiritual level by taking the physical level seriously. When we respect physical human beings, and physical institutions like marriage, and avoid sexual immorality and treachery on the physical plane, we have an understanding of the deeper significance of these acts on the spiritual level. If we genuinely love God, we will love each other, because we are all made in the image of God. If we genuinely respect others, we will respect and honor God as the maker of all heaven and earth, and our Father and King. To deny one level or the other is ultimately to make both levels meaningless and to bring great misery upon us as a result of that denial.
And so the Song of Solomon is a vitally important book because it makes the passionate nature of spiritual love and the spiritual nature of human love so plainly obvious, and by making plainly obvious that the sexuality and romantic longing that God has given man is a great gift, but also one that has to be treated with a great deal of respect, so that it is not the cause of immense misery and suffering by being treated as contemptible and worthless. It is because our hearts and emotions are so fragile and so precious that God has made such strict boundaries for our sexuality, and seeks to save us from our own carelessness and stupidity by providing us a safe garden for us to enjoy our God-given sexuality within the confines of a godly marriage, and so that we are not cast out into the wilderness to be desolate, degraded and alone. If only we could take the hints provided by books like the Song of Solomon, we would be vastly better off by recognizing both the spiritual and physical levels of this book and of our own existence.
 Song of Solomon 8:6 uses the term “Yah,” the first part of one of the Hebrew names for God, in an expression usually translated “vehement flame.” This is the only possible mention of God in the Song of Solomon; Esther has no references to God in the MT text, though the Septuagint has numerous additions that do include the name of God.