Title and Date of the Poem
The Song of Songs Shir HaShirim in Hebrew is the poem of poems, the song above all other songs, as one says "wonder of wonders", "king of kings", or to describe the feast of Easterthe "solemnity of solemnities", as Israel used to call "Holy of Holies" what was actually the holiest part of the Temple in Jerusalem. Moreover, Origen himself, who, together with Hippolytus, was the first among the Fathers of the Church to comment on the Song, stresses the comparison with the Holy of Holies: "Happy", he writes, "is he who enters the Holy of Holies.... Likewise, happy is he who understands the songs [of the Bible] and sings them .... but happier yet is he who sings the Song of Songs."
When was the Poem written? The style and vocabulary would suggest the fifth or fourth century B.C. It is possible to suggest with some likelihood the date which remains, of course, indicative only but easy to memorize of 444, i.e., the time of Nehemiah, who, together with Ezra, rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple after the exile. The Song would thus have been written shortly after the Book of Job, almost at the same time as the final writing of the Book of Proverbs and of many psalms. It would therefore belong to the great poetic epoch of the Bible. Sophocles was composing Antigone and Oedipus Rex in Greece at about the same time.
In spite of its title The Song of Songs, Which Is Solomon's the book could obviously not have been written by the son of David, who lived during the tenth century, i.e., at least five centuries earlier. Naming Solomon as the author, a practice that was common until the nineteenth century, can be explained by the fact that nothing could have been more fitting than to credit the wisest and most glorious among the kings of Israel, a poet himself (1 K 5:12), with the authorship of a poem seen as the most beautiful of the whole Bible.
Moreover, it is not beyond imagination that, at a certain stage of its composition or in one or another of its parts, the Song of Songs might have originated with Solomon or even before his time. One could think that before it even reached the polished and perfect form in which we know it, the poem had started to evolve slowly and to mature in the hidden heart of Israel. Such a hypothesis is, of course, beyond proof; but don't we already have, for instance, a foreshadowing of the Song in the first verses of Isaiah's famous eighth-century song of the vineyard?
Interpretations of the Song
However, the date of the Song is far from provoking as many discussions as do its interpretations. This very short text, one of the shortest in the Bible (117 verses, 1,251 words, 5,148 letters), probably has been not only the most commented on of all Holy Scripture but also the most passionately disputed. The exegetes follow three main schools:
The Lay and Naturalistic Interpretation
Some of the so-called naturalistic school see the Song as a mere poem, or better yet as a collection of poems, not inspired by religion at all but purely secular if not indeed erotic. "The free sheaf of songs celebrates only one thing: the splendid, radiant and terrifying glory of eros between man and woman.... Eros itself vibrates without any other purpose than natural love.... Eros is sufficient unto itself. The eros of the Song is not the agape of God."  Especially in the celebration of the betrothal and wedding, these verses sing the love between man and woman in terms that though veiled by poetry are nonetheless extremely realistic and quite frequently even very graphic. This thesis of a purely secular Song, held almost only by Theodore of Mopsuestia in all of Christian antiquity, was condemned by the Fifth Council of Constantinople in 553.
The Literal Interpretation
Other authors have a quite different bent: for them the Song has no other purpose at the beginning but love between man and woman, without however its being a secular love. The Song does indeed celebrate human love as the most beautiful gift of the Creator to the heart of man. As the New Jerusalem Bible puts it, in its introduction to the Song of Songs: "[It] is a collection of songs celebrating the loyal and mutual love that leads to marriage. [It] proclaims the lawfulness and exalts the value of human love; and the subject is not only profane, since God has blessed marriage." Extrapolating from the second chapter of Genesis, the Song exalts human love such as God has willed it to be since the beginning, a state of fervor and innocence at the same time, which a couple who is faithful to God should strive to achieve. Thus this book is quite appropriately part of the Bible, and its divine origin is not disputed. There is no difficulty either then in extending to the love of God and man, as many mystical authors did, what can be applied literally only to human love. "The many ecclesial commentators on the Song are at last right again when they interpret [it] in terms of Christ and his bride 'without wrinkle or stain'. " 
We have a rather spirited expression of the literal interpretation in Canon Osty's Bible: "The Song", he writes, "celebrates love, human love, and only human love.... The tons of comments poured over this booklet did not succeed in hiding the truth which is so clear to the eyes of the unprepared reader: in its literal, first and direct meaning, the Song deals with human love uniting man and woman in marriage." 
It must be admitted that such a stance, quite common today among the exegetes, does not seem at first sight to lack impressive arguments. Here is a book that has a feature unique in the entire Bible: God never intervenes in it. There is not even the slightest reference to him. God is not even named except once in passing and in a quite ambiguous way.
Moreover, properly speaking, there is not a single expression of religious feeling in the whole Song. There is apparently no concern for theology, apologetics, teaching or morality, contrary to all the other books of the Bible and especially the Wisdom books, among which it is ordinarily included. Moreover, the tone of the Song is so passionate, even so daring here and there, and it makes such an appeal to the senses (to all the senses), that it is difficult to see how it could be suitable to the expression of God's love. The love of the Bridegroom and his Bride is that of beings made of flesh and blood.
Lastly, is it not strange that there is not a single quotation from the Song, not even a reference to one verse or another, in all of the New Testament? Neither Jesus nor Paul seems to know it. As to the parallels that people thought might be drawn with passages in the Old Testament, they can also be found in the same ingenious way in the universal literature of love. Interesting studies have been made for a long time that show, in particular, strong similarities between the Song and poems of that era from the Near and Middle East, especially from Egypt.
The Allegorical Interpretation
However, the arguments that have just been presented in favor of a purely literal interpretation are quite far from being generally accepted. Traditional Judaism and the Christian churches were quasi-unanimous almost until the nineteenth century in giving a very different fundamental explanation of the Song. Rather than making a celebration of human love, which would then be permitted to extend to the love of God, the first and literal meaning, this third school of interpretation on the contrary sees the love of God as the first and direct object of the sacred author of the Song, making it then legitimately applicable to love between man and woman because, as Paul explains to the Ephesians, marriage's vocation is to signify the union between Christ and the Church. 
We are naturally always more inclined to think that human love comes first. "Therefore, when one reproaches mysticism", writes Bergson in an admirable passage of Deux sources, "for expressing itself in the manner of a loving passion, one forgets that it was love that plagiarized mysticism and borrowed from it all its fervor, drive and ecstasy." 
In any event, it is striking that even though love expresses itself in the freest way, nothing ever made Israel change her view of the Song as the holiest of her books. "If all the Scriptures are indeed holy," the celebrated Rabbi Aqiba said in the second century, "the Song, for its part, is very holy to the extent that the whole world is not worth the day when the Song was given to Israel." Would Rabbi Aqiba have spoken in such a way had he not had the conviction, shared by all the pious men of Israel, that the Poem of Poems celebrated not human love no matter how wonderful and holy it may be but the very love of God for his people and for mankind; if he had not recognized, in the Song, the same language of tenderness already spoken by God to his bride, Israel: "Your time had come, the time for love.... I bound myself by oath, I made a covenant with you it is the Lord Yahweh who speaks and you became mine" (Ezk 16:8)?
A son of the chosen people, André Chouraqui, says that today he reads the Song like Rabbi Aqiba and all the long line of his ancestors as well as like his own contemporaries: "I was born in a Jewish family faithful to the traditions of Israel. Since early childhood, I heard the Song of Songs chanted on the ancient rhythms that inspired the Gregorian. While I was a child, I was imbued, every Friday night, with the fervor that filled our beautiful synagogue of Ain-Temounchent during the evening office as it started with the recitation of the Poem introducing the liturgies of the Sabbath. Men, women, children were singing this text or listening to it as if in ecstasy. It was indeed a sacred text, a transcendent song. Nobody ever imagined that there could be in it anything obscene, trivial or even carnal.... All sang lovingly this Poem of love, and it never occurred to anybody to censure or expurgate it.... In all my life, I have never heard from the mouth of those who live in the intimacy of the Poem a single complaisant innuendo about its content. Being transparent, it was welcomed in the transparency of pure hearts. It was understood in reference to the Bible, to the love of Adonai for creation, for his people, for each one of his creatures. We were too carried away by the great and powerful current of Hebrew thought to see in the poem anything but the song of absolute love, on the heights of the loftiest revelations. Strange as it is, it remains true that for over two thousand years, the Jews never saw in the Shulamite anything but a symbol, that of Israel; in the King, anything but a reference to God; in the love uniting them, anything but the revelation of the mystery of divine love." 
The Witnessing of the Fathers of the Church and the Mystics
For centuries, the vast majority of the Christians did not read the Song otherwise. Very early, the Fathers of the Church developed what will be called the allegorical interpretation or spiritual significance of the Song. "This little book is understood from beginning to end as expressing the heart of the revelation diffused in all of Scripture: it celebrates symbolically the great mystery of love, the union of God and man, foreshadowed in Israel and achieved through the Incarnation of the Word." 
Origen, in the third century, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, Ambrose in the fourth century, as well as Saint Augustine at a later date and Gregory the Great in the seventh century, can be described as unanimous in perceiving in the Song the poem of the marriage of God with his people, of God with the Church, of God with any soul intent on loving him." 'The mystical preaching' of this 'divine book' is understood by all [the Fathers] in the same way when it comes to its essentials.'  They will not be quoted here because the book is replete with their commentaries. We can only mention one name, as we did earlier: Theodore of Mopsuestia, who deviated from their opinion in the fifth century.
How can we also not admire the fact that, in the wake of the Fathers of the Church, mystics of all times were always attracted and fascinated, as it were, by the Song, discovering in these burning verses the most personal expression of their love? There is no inhibition, not the slightest reticence, among the purest and most transparent of them when they address God with the images and words apparently overloaded with human passion of the Song. This can be seen in Ruysbroeck, Tauler, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross but we would have to quote almost all of them. Francis de Sales was only seventeen years old in 1584, when he took a course in Paris with Génébrard on the Song of Songs. He was dazzled. "The Song of Songs", says Henri Bremond, "became his favorite book. No one perhaps has 'lived' it as he did."  His Traité de l'amour de Dieu bears witness to this in almost all its pages.
Such a love for the Song of Songs is characteristic not only of the contemplatives who have left the world. Marie de l'Incarnation, an Ursuline sister from Tours, who can be seen as one of the greatest figures of the missionary epic and whom John Paul II, in his beatification speech, was to call "the mother of the Canadian Church", had no dearer book for her private prayers. "In the words of the Song which she read in its entirety in 1631 or 1632 [i.e., during her novitiate], she recognized, as is pointed out by Dom Oury, her excellent biographer, a description of her personal experience.... And from then on, the book of the Song was to be the most often quoted by her when writing about her inner life.... Dom Claude Martin [her son] even states that in her conversations 'the words of Scripture that were heard the most frequently in her mouth came from the Song of Songs.' Submistress of the novices, she suggested to them topics that came generally from Holy Scripture and especially from the Song of Songs." 
It was very daring; and we find this again in Thérèse of the Child Jesus, proclaimed patron saint of all the missions by Pius XI. She too was submistress of the novitiate when she was about twenty years old, and we know from the testimony of Mary of the Trinity at the beatification trial that she had wished at her age, to novices, and in those days! to explain the Song of Songs. "If I had the time," she confides, "I would like to comment on the Song of Songs. I have discovered in this book such profound things about the union of the soul with her beloved." Father Hans Urs von Balthasar was able to say from the pulpit of Notre Dame that "the Song of Songs, which for thousands of years has been, as it were, a secret sanctuary for the Church, stands at the center of Thérèse's spirituality."
And so it was already at the core of the spirituality of her father, John of the Cross, of whom it is said that at the point of death "he interrupted the prior of the Carmelites who had started to read the prayers of recommendation for the soul. 'Tell me about the Song of Songs (los Cantares!); this other thing is of no use to me', he gently implored. And when the verses of the Song were read to him, he commented as if in a dream: 'Oh, what precious pearls!'" 
Would it be possible that the Holy Spirit had thus let entire generations of mystics err in good faith, by permitting them to take as a word of his love what was in fact a wholly human passion? That he could have allowed to such a degree in their hearts, aflame with the sole love of God, a song that would have been born of nothing but love between man and woman and would have no other object? That he communicated interiorly to his friends, in order to draw them to himself, such a spontaneous and deep taste for stanzas composed for the intentions of newlyweds at their marriage feast? Was it then through such a detour that the beloved of God were going to him, without being aware of it? But how could the mystics themselves, these beings who are so sensitized to what comes from God and so instinctively aware of what is not from him, not have discerned that they were being duped when they spoke so lovingly to God in the language of the Song?
Let us suppose now that they did not already have this strong instinct: their familiarity with God's Word would have been enough to strengthen them in their conviction that by reading the Song they were reading the love letter of God to his people. The countless links between the Poem and the other books of the Bible do indeed testify all the time that, under the rich apparel of the symbols and the fantastic poetical incantation, it is the very Word of God that is heard. The Song is not an isolated poem in Scripture. From this viewpoint, the parallels that were quite suggestively drawn between the Song and the love songs of the Near and Middle East, especially those of ancient Egypt, are not by far as compelling as those that definitely tie it with prophetic literature.
First, with the Book of Hosea, Henri Cazelles points this out quite objectively: "The Song", he writes, "belongs in fact to the theological thinking of the prophet Hosea, who was the first to compare the relationships between Yahweh and his people to those that obtain between a man and his wife."  "It is also now my personal conviction", writes Father Tournay, "that it is impossible to account for the complete text [of the Song] if one does not see it as a lyrical transposition, full of fantasy to be sure, of the traditional prophetical theme of the wedding between Yahweh and Israel. And only the nuptial allegory as it appears in Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the second and third parts of Isaiah can give a normal and homogeneous meaning to all the parts of the Song." Which enables André Robert to say for his part and without the slightest exaggeration: "The Song is superlatively biblical." In the same vein, did not Origen already point out that "located in the middle of the Bible, the Song lifts to its height the great fundamental image, going from the first chapters of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation: mankind has become the bride of God"? And it is indeed because he reads the Song with the eyes of all the Fathers of the Church and her mystics that Pope John Paul II, while talking to French women Religious on May 30, 1980, was able to tell them so clearly: "Your personal journey must be like an original new edition of the famous poem in the Song of Songs."
Flesh and Spirit
However, even though they were convinced that the Song, in its first and literal meaning, is the poem above all others of the wedding of God and man, the Fathers of the Church and mystics throughout the centuries were always conscious of the serious problem posed by the Song for the unprepared reader. "Such passages," writes Saint John of the Cross, "if they are not read in the simplicity of the spirit of love and of intelligence that fills them, might seem to be rather extravagant and not a sensible discourse; as can be seen in the Songs of Solomon and other treatises of Holy Scripture in which the Holy Spirit, not being able to express a deep meaning in common and vulgar words, uses veiled terms with images and strange similitudes." 
The risk is in fact so great that if the eyes are not sufficiently purified, one can be trapped by the sensual aspect of the images and words.
It is after all possible to read the Song at a very human and even gross level. It is unavoidable for those who still live under the sway of the senses. Teresa of Avila deemed it necessary to warn her Carmelites: "It will seem to you that in these Songs certain things might have another style. Our stupidity is such that this would not surprise me. I heard certain people say that they would rather avoid listening to them. Merciful God, how great is our stupidity!" 
Among "certain people", there was probably a place of honor for Father Diego de Yanguas, who was so shocked by Teresa's "thoughts" about the Song that he wrote immediately to her: "Throw this into the fire! It is not decent for a woman to write about the Song."' 
God is the one who, in his desire to touch the heart of man, does not hesitate to use the language that is the most accessible to his sensibilities. "He stooped", Saint Gregory of Nyssa says, "to the language of our weakness."  Just as the Word had one day to empty itself in our flesh and to take on the lowliness of our condition, he did from the start of his revelation empty himself in his written word, committing himself to our words and carnal images. "In order to inflame our hearts to his sacred love," as Saint Gregory the Great states in his magnificent style, "he goes as far as using the language of our crude love, and, stooping thus in his words, he raises up our under standing; indeed, it is through the language of this love that we learn how strongly we must burn with divine love."  If God had not dared to speak the most human and ardent language of love, would we have had the audacity to believe in the passion his Heart contains for us? This is also why, far from being reserved to certain privileged souls, "the Song is a book for all people, a book that makes us rediscover and walk the way of love's journey." 
We must however be warned about this pedagogy; we must not at the beginning of the score of divine music change the key indecently; we must not come to the wedding without wearing "a wedding garment" (Mt 22:12). If, consequently, as Gregory of Nyssa puts it, "the soul of certain people is not ready to listen [to the Song], let them listen to Moses admonishing us not to dare start the climb on the spiritual mountain.... We must," Gregory adds, "when we want to devote ourselves to contemplation [of the Song], forget thoughts related to marriage ... so that, having extinguished all carnal appetites, it will be only through the spirit that our intelligence will simmer lovingly, warmed by the fire that the Lord has come to bring on earth. "  Then, as Origen had already affirmed, "one will not run the risk of being scandalized by images depicting and representing the love of the Bride for the heavenly Bridegroom." 
After these serious warnings about the Song, we are quite startled, not to say discouraged, when we read Saint Bernard reiterating them while addressing his monks. Here is how he opens his preaching on the Song before his brothers at Clairvaux: "Saint Paul says: 'We preach wisdom to the perfect'; I would like to believe that you are perfect! . . . One cannot start reading this book [the Song] unless he has reached a certain degree of purity. Any other reading would be unworthy if the flesh had not been tamed, if it had not yet been submitted to the spirit by an exacting discipline.... Light is useless to the eyes of a blind man, and the animal in man does not perceive what comes from the Spirit of God."  How could such words not affect us? If monks might not be pure enough to receive the Song worthily, how could we be ready to approach it?
It seems to us, though, that in the back of one of the last stalls of the abbey choir, while Bernard is speaking, a small Cistercian novice, still callow and poorly initiated in the Word of Wisdom, quite new to the science of love, is however listening to the words of his abbot with delight. He does not bother to ask himself whether he has reached the necessary degree of purity and maturity. Quite simply: he is happy. And when he hears Brother Bernard exclaim at the end, "Who will break the bread of the Word? Here is the father of the family! Recognize him who is breaking the bread; it is the Lord!", the little monk has no hesitation: it is for him, above all for the smallest among them, that the father of the family has broken the wonderful bread.
With the same daring trust and the same avidity, we in turn would like to receive even a few crumbs of this bread since we are still very imperfect children, but also loving ones.
Note: This introduction did not touch upon the composition of the Song of Songs. Does it make any sense in this case to talk about composition? Many exegetes believe that there is no order to be sought. Rather than one Poem, the Song would be only a collection of poems of various origins, an "anthology of songs" (Dhorme), grouped together only because of their common inspiration and beauty. Still, we will attempt to show in the following pages that the division into five poems, preceded by a Prologue and followed by a Conclusion as adopted by André Robertis fully justified.
Blaise Arminjon, S.J. was for many years the
provincial of the Jesuits of the Lyon province where he oversaw the formation
of young Jesuits and was a renowned master of the Spiritual Exercises
of St. Ignatius, giving them to religious and laity alike throughout Europe.
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