The 5 Major Approaches to Interpreting the Song of Songs

1. Erotic Love

  • The Song of Songs is about erotic love between Solomon the bridegroom and his Shulammite bride (literal = marriage context).
  • Theodore of Mopsuestia. Said that Solomon took Pharaoh’s daughter as his wife. Since she had a dark complexion, the Hebrews ridiculed her. Solomon built her a home of precious stones and would chant love songs in her presence to honour her beauty.
  • Emile Osty. “The Song celebrates love, human love, and only human love.”

2. Divine Love

  • The Song of Songs is about the divine love between YHWH the bridegroom (cf. Is 62) and Israel the bride (cf. Is 52) (allegorical = covenant context).
  • Most ancient Jewish intepretation. Josephus grouped Songs among “hymns to God”, 4 Ezra used images from Song to describe relationship between YHWH and Israel, and Rabbi Akiba denounced any erotic or literalistic interpretation: “He who sings the Song of Songs in a banquet hall and makes it into a kind of ditty has no place in the world to come.” Origen said Song in middle of Bible to put forward the great fundamental image throughout the entire Bible – “mankind has become the bride of God.”

3. Messianic

  • Jewish interpretation (ancient Jewish Targums) = future anointed king of Israel and Jerusalem (cf. Is 11, Jer 30-33). The joy of marital union describes longing for messianic age.
  • Christian interpretation (St. Augustine) = Christ and the Church. The joy of marital union describes the already inaugurated love between Christ and His Church.

4. Mystical

  • God = Bridegroom.
  • Soul of an individual person = Bride.
  • Supporters of this include St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and many others.
  • “I have discovered in this book such profound things about the union of the soul with her beloved” (St. Therese of Lisieux).
  • “Your personal journey must be like an original new edition of the famous poem in the Song of Songs” (St. John Paul II).

5. Liturgical

  • God = Bridegroom.
  • Bride = people of Israel as a whole + tabernacle of Moses + temple of Solomon + city of Jerusalem (the author of Songs uses many images from these sources).
  • Love = manifested in sacrificial worship.

Resources Used:

“A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: Old Testament” by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre (pgs. 642-644).

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