A Covenantal Approach to the Song of Songs*
The more I read and study the Song of Songs, the more impressed I am with the biblical theology that structures Solomon’s thoughts. It has not been an easy task to bring together the biblical-theological themes while at the same time doing justice to the text. Here is an attempt to develop these concepts in order to prove the Christology of the greatest of Scripture’s redemptive-historical Songs:
As we look at the unraveling of the covenant promise in Scripture we soon begin to see that there is a sphere in which this promise occurs. What is lost by Adam in the Garden because of his sin is restored to man throughout redemptive history by Christ. The Garden of Eden is the first place where God dwells in communion with man. When man is forced to leave the Garden (representing the breach of communion between the creature and the Creator) he is driven into a world that is ravished by the effects of sin. Thorns and thistles now cover the ground. Fertile places become barren wastelands. Streams dry up and plants whither. When God chooses a people for Himself He brings them into the wilderness (representative of these effects of sin) and there He begins to fulfill His covenant promises to them. He comes to dwell with them, and He becomes like them by dwelling in the same place that they dwell (i.e. in a Tent). The Tabernacle is the first step in the restoration of Eden.
The presence of God is the source of living waters that is meant to make the people of God into a fruitful garden/vineyard. When God finally brings Israel into the promised land (also a partial renewal of Eden–a land flowing with milk and honey) He raises up a king, Solomon, to build a more established place of dwelling in the Temple. The Temple was to be inlaid with cedar. A diversity of botanical images were to be carved around it. The Temple really was a typical stepping stone in the restoration of Eden. Ellen F. Davis explains the significance of the decorative symbolism:
As the lengthy description of the Temple (1 Kings 6-7) shows, the Temple is designed as a Garden. Idealogicaly, it is a second Eden (legend has it that the Temple was built on the spot where the Garden of Eden stood). The cedar paneled walls were carved all about with palm trees, open flowers, and cherubim (1 Kings 6:29). Before the Holy of holies stood ten golden lanpstands shaped like flowers (1 Kings 7:49). In the forecourt were two great bronze pillars (1 Kings 7:18-19, 42), each a stylized tree of life surmounted by a lily shaped capitol. Nearby was a huge bronze basin also shaped like a lily (1 Kings 7:26). Small wash basins rested on stands with cherubim , lions and palm trees (1 Kings 7:36). Pomegranites, lions, palm tress, lilies and cedars. All these are features of the paradise that is both the lover’s landscape and the woman herself. The language of the Song leads us into the locked garden of the Temple precinct.1
The Scriptures teach that all these symbols (i.e. gardens, tents, various aspects of the Temple, and Jerusalem) find a rich fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and consequently in His people. Philip Ryken explains that the door of the physical Temple signified the door to the true heavenly Temple when he says:
The Temple door really was like the gates of Paradise. And for many people the way of access was still denied. Unless they were priests they would never see the golden wonders inside. Only the High Priests would enter that most holy place. Yet however limited it was there was access. You see God was opening back up the way to Paradise. You might think of Solomon’s temple as a kind of spiritual portal. The paradise lost could be regained.2
The covenant promise of the restored presence of God comes to its climax, in that point in redemptive history, in the days of Solomon with the completion of the Temple. A glory cloud came down upon the holy place representing the Divine presence. But Solomon understood, even at that time of fulfilled promises, that there was another temple that God would dwell in. No sooner had the glory cloud descended upon the place where the priests ministered that Solomon said to the people, “Will God indeed dwell on earth? Behold heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less than this house that I have built” (1 Kings 8:27).
Solomon understood that the covenant promises, typified in the Temple that he had built, would be fulfilled in God Himself. Jesus explicitly declares Himself to be the antitype of the Temple. Despite the fact that the Temple He alludes to, at least referentially, in Matthew 12:6 and John 2:19-21 is not the one built by Solomon, it is hard to escape the fact that the redemptive significance of Solomon’s Temple in view as well. In the Gospels, Jesus is said to be the πλειον (greater) Solomon and the μειζων (greater) Temple. The building of the Temple was Solomon’s greatest achievement and it lay at the heart of the Davidic Covenant. Much of the language of the Song comes from the promises of the Davidic covenant and find their significance of the Temple. Though, at this point, we will not consider the role of the King-Shepherd in the Song that also can be demonstrated to be based on the Davidic Covenant.3
This leads us to a few examples from the writings of Jonathan Edwards in association with what has been stated. Edwards is one of the few expositors in church history who was consistent with a grammatical-historical-theological method of biblical interpretation. It could be said that, in a very real sense, that he held to a covenantal view of the Song. This is observable from the comments he makes concerning particular symbols in the Song. Concerning the reference to oil in the Song, Edwards writes:
The excellencies both of bridegroom and bride are compared to spices, chap. 1: 12-14; 4:6, 10, 13, 14, 16; 5:5,13; 8:2, and ointment perfumed with spices, chap. 1:3; 4:10. The same spices were made use of to represent spiritual excellencies in the incense, and anointing oil in the tabernacle and temple, and also in the oil for the light.4
With regard to the symbolism of pomegranates he writes:
The fruits of the spouse are often compared to pomegranates in this song (Chap. 4:3,13; 6:7; 8:2). So the spiritual fruits of the church of God are represented by pomegranates in the tabernacle and temple. The spouse is in this song said to be like the palm-tree (Chap. 7:7,8). So was the church of Israel, whose representation were the seventy elders, typified by seventy palm-trees (Exod. 15:27). So the temple waseverywhere covered with cherubim and palm-trees, representing saints and angels (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 35; 7:36; 2 Chron. 3:5). So in Ezekiel’s temple (Ezekiel 40:16).5
In His comments on Song of Songs 2:14, Edwards suggested that the stairs are an allusion to the stairs of the Temple:
“O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy ountenance, let me hear thy voice.” There is probably respect here to the rock of mount Zion, on which Solomon’s house was built, or of the mountain of the temple, and to the stairs by which they ascended that high rock, to go up to Solomon’s palace. See Neh. 3.15.and 12.37. or the stairs by which theyascended through the narrow courts into the temple; it comes much to the same thing, whether we suppose the rocks and stairs referred to, to be of the mountain of Solomon’s palace or temple, for both were typical of the same thing, and both mountains seemed to have been called by the same name, Mount Zion. Her love to the spiritual Solomon causes her to remain near his house, about the mountain on which his palace stands, watching at his gates, and waiting at the posts of his doors, and by the stairs which he ascends to his house, but yet hides herself as if ashamed, and afraid, and unworthy to appear before him, like the woman that came behind Christ to touch the hem of his garment.6
Concerning the symbolism of the tent and curtain in chapter 1:5, Edwards again makes reference to the redemptive significance of the Tabernacle and Temple:
“As the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.” That the spouse in this song is compared to a tent, and to the curtains of the tabernacle and temple, is an evidence that this song is no ordinary love song, and that by the spouse is not meant any particular woman, but a society, even that holy society, the church of God. It is common in the writings of the Old Testament to represent the church of God by a tent, or tents, and a house and temple, but never a particular person. See Isa. 54:2. Zech. 12:7. Isa. 33:20. Lam. 2:4, 6. Isa. 1:8. And the tabernacle and temple were known types of the church, and the curtains of both had palm-trees embroidered on them, which are abundantly made use of to represent the church. The church of God is called a house, in places too many to be mentioned. The church used to be called the temple of the Lord, as appears by Jer. 7:4. The church is represented by the temple, as is evident by Zech. 4:2-9.7
These are only a few of the examples of a covenantal approach to the Song being worked on in the writings of Jonathan Edwards. Criticisms could certainly be raised at many points and the charge of employing an allegorical method could be leveled against him from time to time. However, based upon the definitions, guidelines, and methods proposed it cannot be said that Edwards had no theological, or for that matter grammatical-historical, grounds for drawing many of these conclusions.
In addition to the Tabernacle/Temple imagery, there is a litany of other covenantal and redemptive-historical allusions and symbols in the Song. For instance, in Song of Songs 2:14 the author makes an allusion to the cleft of the rock. In redemptive-history the Lord hid Moses in the cleft of the rock when Moses prayed to see His glory. Many theologians throughout church history have understood the cleft of the rock to be a typological reference to Christ. In the same way that the shadow of God’s wing and the secret place of the Most High are used in the Psalms. All of these are taken up as metaphors to describe the safety of being “in Christ.” Matthew Henry concluded as much when he commented on the use of the phrase in Song 2:14: “Christ is the rock, to whom she flies for shelter and in whom alone she can think herself safe and find herself easy, as a dove in the hole of a rock, when struck at by the birds of prey, Jer. 48:28.” In the Song, it is interesting to note that instead of the church asking the Lord to see His face (as Moses did), it is the Beloved who says to the believer, “O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, In the secret places of the cliff, Let me see your face, Let me hear your voice; For your voice is sweet, And your face is lovely.” There is a very strong inverted relationship to the allusion from Exodus 33. In this way we understand the mutual communication of love and fellowship to be expressed through the vehicle of a redemptive historical allusion. There are many such allusions scattered throughout the Song of Songs. In each case, the covenantal structure of Scripture allows the writer of the Song to employ these allusions. While it will be no means make interpreting the Song easy, those who are most familiar with the Old Covenant Scriptures will be able to glean the most from this superlative redemptive-historical Song.
1. Ellen F. Davis Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2000) p. 270
2. This except was taken from a sermon on 1 Kings 6:37-38. It was preached on September 9, 2007 at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA. http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=91107228406
3. The finest explanation and defense of the Davidic Covenant as being the interpretive key to the Song is found in Iain D. Campbell’s, “The Song of David’s Son: Interpreting The Song of Solomon in the Light of The Davidic Covenant.”
4. Jonathan Edwards Notes on the Bible p. 359
5. Ibid., p. 359
6. Ibid. p. 359
*This post was originally written in 2007. It has been slightly modified and edited.
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Excellent post! I am new the site and this is the first posting I’ve read — I must say, this is not only extremely helpful in preparation for an upcoming series of sermons on the Song of Songs but it is furthermore a personal edification to continue to pursue faithfully sound orthodoxy in regards to the supremacy of Christ in Scriptures!
Thank you and I look forward to reading your other posts!
Thank you again – what a sweet series. For me one that is very timely. I am about to complete a full year with The Song close to me. Maybe reading it 100’s of times. memorizing it, singing it, falling asleep reciting it only to awaken in the morning picking up right where I left off.
Long convinced that this Song concerns Christ and his Bride first, I realized though I think that way, I’ve never really made a study of it. So hoping to read it every day for 30 days, I found my appetite increase for more and more of this wonderful Song of All Songs, until I finally had to have it, had to make my own, to memorize and internalize. I’ve felt more than studied out that the entire message of the bible is contained in the Song. That’s an overstatement I imagine yet it really does tie in with so much of scripture and I think like you describe in this article, biblical theology. Over time noting especially Gospel of John, the Psalms, revelation, and that one great Marriage Union between Christ and the Church. He is King, He is the Shepherd, He is the Husband of His bride, he is altogether lovely, there is mutual delight in communion. And so much of redemption and salvation, “thou are all fair, my love, there is no spot in thee.”
Enjoyed this, sharing it, will read through your article many more times as I consider how this will help me further understand this great book, this wonderful Song.
Have you ever looked at Ralph Erskine’s “A Paraphrase or Large Explicatory Poem on the Song of Solomon.” You can find it in Google Books for free (works nice on an adroid tablet), and I was able to order a reprint through Amazon, $17.35. It is a really a wonderful commentary, written entirely in poem.
Hope this series continues. Much needed and may prove a help in exposing a new generation to the Christology of the Song of ALL Songs.
Thanks for adding “Song of Songs” to the labels at the end of this article. Was missing that in the previous two. Found a couple of great helps in previous articles you’ve on this and was even able to download an audio.
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