Reading the Song of Songs as Allegory with the Protestant Reformers
There is very little in the history of Christianity about which one may find unbroken consensus. And yet for at least fifteen hundred years, Christians agreed almost without exception that the Song of Songs spoke principally not of love between human beings but of the relationship between God and God’s people. At first blush, such a reading seems strained to some modern readers; nowhere, after all, does the book mention God by name. The book appears to be a rather straightforward set of love songs between two human beings and thus a celebration of human love, desire, and sexuality.
It is tempting for modern readers to dismiss the older, allegorical way of interpreting the Song as old-fashioned and even prudish. Protestant readers may feel a special reluctance toward reading the Song as an allegory of divine love, given Protestantism’s historical commitment to the literal sense of the Scripture. But early generations of Protestant Reformers felt no such hesitations. They warmly embraced the enigmatic allegories of the Song. The Song, according to Reformers, was indispensable when it came to strengthening Christian faith in the reality of Christ’s love for humanity and no less valuable in stirring up love toward Christ in return. A comparison of modern attitudes toward the Song with historical attitudes raises questions about what is lost when the allegorical interpretation is left behind.
Modern Attitudes toward the Song of Songs
Contemporary readers have tended to assume that earlier generations of Christians read the Song as a celebration of divine love because they were skittish about human sexuality. Compelled by their prudishness, these earlier interpreters supposedly resorted to allegorical interpretations in order to make the Song speak of much more appropriate subject matter. According to Marvin Pope’s Anchor Bible commentary on the Song, for example, centuries of interpreters simply refused to see the patently obvious subject matter of the Song: human physical love. Pope’s assertion is not only that the Song is about human sexuality or desire, but that it is plainly or obviously so:
The barrier has been a psychological aversion to the obvious, somewhat like the Emperor’s New Clothes. The trouble has been that interpreters who dared acknowledge the plain sense of the Song were assailed as enemies of truth and decency. The allegorical charade thus persisted for centuries with only sporadic protests.
However, the idea that the Song is a celebration of human sexuality is relatively novel. Indeed, for centuries Christian readers were explicitly warned away from this reading. Most scholars locate the beginning of the modern way of reading the Song with Johann Gottfried von Herder, a German poet, theologian, and critic. In 1778, Herder argued that the Song was a collection of human love poetry, a view that grew in popularity through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, until it gained consensus among biblical interpreters.
Biblical scholars continue to debate the contours of the Song’s genre and what the text may have originally been intended to convey. It is, as Pope aptly says in the same commentary quoted above, “a vexed question.” A few scholars continue to argue that the text was from the beginning intended to signify the love of God for God’s people, while most draw attention to the similarities between the Song and other ancient genres, whether drama, cultic marriage text, or ancient Near Eastern love poetry. What can be said confidently, however, is that the Song was included—and preserved—in the Christian canon because of the belief that it spoke not principally of human love but of divine love, or, more broadly, of the nature of God’s ongoing relationship with God’s people.
The assumption that the Song speaks principally—and self-evidently—of human love holds only if the Song is considered in isolation, as a book unto itself. On the other hand, considered in light of the canon of Christian Scriptures and as one strand in a tapestry of metaphors, allusions, and intertextual references, a reading of the Song that stresses divine love seems not only plausible but just.
The Scriptures frequently use the metaphor of the bride and the bridegroom to limn the relationship between God and God’s people. These references begin in the Hebrew Bible, with passages in the Psalms and Prophets that compare God’s covenant with Israel to the covenant between a bride and bridegroom. They continue in the Gospels with references to Christ as a bridegroom. The Pauline Epistles use the relationship of the husband and wife to make sense of the relationship between Christ and the church, and vice versa. The references continue into Revelation, with the marriage supper of the Lamb and Jerusalem as bride of the Lamb. Indeed, the Scriptures culminate with a vision in which John sees “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2 NRSV).
By the principle of analogia scripturae (Scripture interpreting Scripture), or even the principles of interpretation taught in any first-year literature class, it is no great interpretive leap for Christian readers to imagine that, in light of the biblical canon, the bride of the Song is also the bride of the Lamb—that is, the people of God, both individually and corporately.
The Song of Songs in the Middle Ages
While in many contemporary churches the Song is primarily a text to be quoted at wedding services, in the Middle Ages perhaps no other book besides the Psalms had as profound an influence on Christian spirituality. One medieval commentator, William of Saint-Thierry, expressed medieval Christians’ esteem for the book when he wrote that the Song surpassed “all the ancient songs of the patriarchs and prophets.”
Medieval allegorical interpretations of the Song fell into three interrelated categories: the bride as a figure of the church, the bride as a figure of each individual Christian soul, and the bride as a figure of the Virgin Mary. These interpretations inspired new ways of talking about God, new theologies and spiritualities, and new genres of spiritual literature. Medieval mystics were especially drawn to the Song. The thirteenth-century mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg left behind a spiritual work in which the soul and God sing songs of love to each other. The soul says to God, “Ah, Lord, love me fiercely and love me often and long.” God says back to the soul, “That I love you often comes from my nature, because I am love itself.” Mystics like Mechthild found in the Song biblical precedent for a dialogue of mutual love between the soul and God, in which it is not just the soul who expresses her love to God but also God who says to the soul, “I love you back.”
Medieval Christians tended to write their commentaries on the Song toward the end of their life, seemingly saving the task for the period of greatest spiritual and literary maturity. Perhaps the best-known medieval commentator on the Song is Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian abbot, mystic, and reformer who wrote eighty-six sermons on the Song, arriving at only the third chapter before his death in 1153. The project was taken up by other Cistercian theologians: Gilbert of Hoyland added another forty-seven sermons to Bernard’s, reaching the fifth chapter before he died in 1171. John of Ford had the happy task of completing the project without dying first: he reached the end, adding 120 sermons.
Not all interpreters were as interested in what the Song had to say about the Christian’s spirituality or interiority. The Song was also read as an allegory of the history of the church, as well as used to support various programs of political, monastic, and ecclesial reform. Early medieval exegetes especially “nearly always had a strong interest in monastic or church reform and in the purity of the heavenly bride.”
Medieval interpretations of the Song thus took up themes that ranged from the theological and devotional to the ecclesial and political. One nineteenth-century scholar objected that through allegory the Song could be made to “say anything,” and while that objection is not a just one, it is true that medieval interpretations of the Song often reflected the spiritual themes that were most dear to its readers.
The Song of Songs and Protestant Allegory
While it comes as no surprise that medieval Christians were drawn to allegory, modern readers may be surprised to learn that Protestant interpreters were equally drawn to allegorical interpretations of the Song. The magisterial Reformers were known for a turn toward the plain sense of Scripture. They also desired to correct what they saw as misguided and overwrought allegories of the Scriptures. Yet Protestant interpreters continued to produce allegorical interpretations of the Song. They did not see their reasoning as discordant with their hermeneutical principles: to allegorize a passage that was meant to be read literally was obviously an error, but some biblical passages were themselves allegories and were therefore meant to be read as allegories. The Song was one of those passages.
One way to see how Protestant Reformers approached the Song is by looking at how they prepared the biblical text for publication. In 1538, Pierre Robert Olivétan published an edition of the three books of Solomon (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs), translated from Hebrew into French. Olivétan was a biblical scholar whose work drew from the work of the great humanist biblical scholar Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples. (Olivétan was also the first to translate the Hebrew and Greek text of the Bible into French, a translation that had been published in 1535 with an introduction written by Calvin himself, who was a relative of Olivétan’s.) Olivétan’s Books of Solomon contained not just a translation of the books but also a series of interpretive aids designed to help readers understand these enigmatic books for themselves.
From the title page for the Song of Songs, readers are guided toward an allegorical interpretation. A decorative banner atop the title reads, “My beloved (the Lord) is mine, and I am his.” The parenthetical gloss leaves no doubt about the identity of the bridegroom. Below the title appears a quotation from Mark 12:30–31 and Deuteronomy 6:4–5: “Hear, Israel, the Lord our God is one God. And you will love your Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your understanding and with all your strength.” Here, by using Scripture to interpret Scripture, readers are led to understand that the book they are about to read concerns divine, not human, love.
Lest these hints be lost on readers, the next page contains the heading “About the spiritual love between God and his faithful people, discussed in this divine Song.” Then follows a list of verses from both testaments, showing the variety and frequency of bridal metaphors found in the Christian Scriptures: “God is love and whoever remains in love remains in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16); “I will betroth you to myself forever” (Hos. 2:19); “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will God rejoice over you” (Isa. 62:5); and so forth. When readers arrive at the French translation of the text of the Song of Songs, they are guided by marginal glosses: the title is glossed with the note, “A mystical dialogue of spiritual and divine love between the Lord as bridegroom and the church as bride”; the verse “Draw me, we will run after you” (Song of Songs 1:4) is glossed, “God draws us to faith”; and the daughters of Jerusalem are identified as “lovers of God.” Everywhere the reader is led to believe that the Song speaks naturally, biblically, and beautifully about the love between God and God’s people.
Broadly speaking, the Protestant Reformers shared in the consensus that the Song was an allegory of divine love. Two exceptions are of interest. The first is Martin Luther. Luther had an appreciation for the bridal metaphor and made use of it, for example, in On the Freedom of a Christian to signify the relationship between Christ and the Christian soul. (This is the famous “happy exchange” in which, having been united in marriage, Christ accepts the sin, death, and condemnation of the human soul and exchanges them for his own grace and salvation.) Yet Luther’s lectures on the Song of Songs, published in 1539, were decidedly idiosyncratic. Luther agreed that the bridegroom was God and that the bride was God’s people. But he rejected older interpretations of the book, advancing instead a highly original interpretation of his own. Luther took the subject of the Song to be the nature of happy and peaceful governments that keep the Word of God and whose citizens respect divinely ordained political powers. Although Luther’s interpretation was novel, he did not depart from the consensus view that the Song spoke in figurative terms about the relation between God and God’s people. (As far as I am aware, only one later interpreter followed Luther’s path, the German Reformer Johannes Brenz; otherwise, Luther’s interpretation failed to have any significant influence on later exegesis.)
The second exception, which truly does underscore the rule, concerns a much more dramatic departure from traditional interpretations of the Song and can be found in the famous conflict between Calvin and the French Reformer Sebastian Castellio. Castellio, who had been appointed to lead the Collège de Rive in 1542, was searching for new employment as a pastor, but Calvin opposed him over his views about the Song, as well as his views on Christ’s descent into hell. According to documents of the time—documents that admittedly tell only one side of the story—Castellio judged the Song to be “a lascivious and obscene song in which Solomon described his immodest loves.” Against Castellio, Calvin maintained that it was the unbroken consensus of the church that the Song was canonical and ought to be read as a holy text. Calvin’s view was representative of the broad agreement among the Reformers: the Song was canonical and holy, and it used figurative or allegorical terms to speak of God’s relationship to God’s people.
Rather than being embarrassed by the allegorical nature of the Song of Songs, Protestants embraced it. In 1587, John Harmar, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, called the Song of Songs “the most heavenly and excellent ditty, concluded in terms and phrases of speech altogether enigmatic and allegorical, and containing the great mystery, as the Apostle calls it, of our salvation, the mystical union of Christ with the faithful, his members.” Despite the difficulty of the Song’s enigmatic images, Harmar was confident that a sound interpretation of the text would give comfort and consolation to every Christian, peace and tranquility to afflicted minds and consciences, and joy to the hearts of the believing. For Harmar, the Song was a declaration of “the ground of our holy assurance of the favor and love of God towards us.” It spoke in poetic and allegorical terms of the greatest mysteries of salvation.
According to Theodore Beza, the French Reformer who was Calvin’s friend and successor in Geneva, the Song’s poetic images help readers understand the incomprehensible. God’s character, God’s love, the mysteries of salvation—no human mind can encompass these in their entirety. But the human mind could begin to grasp these realities by means of the suggestive power of images and poetic similitudes. Beza explained,
The Holy Spirit wishing to represent to us what is in itself incomprehensible to us, namely, the most intimate spiritual bond of Jesus Christ with the faithful soul . . . could not choose a more suitable similitude, nor a more vivid pattern and model, of this union.
For Beza, the Song’s allegories were not a stumbling block or a point of embarrassment for Protestants; rather, they were part of the way that God accommodates himself to his people, revealing himself in manners suited to their intellectual, psychological, and spiritual capacities. To speak of God as a bridegroom who willingly enters into a union with his bride is somehow to say or suggest something about God that couldn’t be expressed otherwise.
The idea that images, metaphors, and biblical allegories might communicate divine realities as well as literal speech comes as a surprise to those who are used to thinking of literal, predicative speech as closest to truth. For those used to placing value on the literal truth, the idea of nonliteral truth seems like a paradox. But such is the power of metaphors, images, and poetry: the moment a rich or evocative image is used, a nexus of associated properties, concepts, and images is summoned as well, offering the possibility that a strong image may communicate reality more faithfully than a literal predication.
Most Christians have an experiential knowledge of the power. When Christians pray Our Father, they use a divinely revealed image (father, fatherhood) that names God. This image not only communicates particular characteristics of God—provision, protection, love—but it also produces particular attitudes and forms of attention in the one who prays. When one prays Our Father, one prays with a different set of emotions and thoughts than if one were to begin the prayer Your Honor. To address God as Our Father is both to say something true and to do something important.
Imagining God as a Bridegroom
Protestant Reformers’ attachment to the Song as an allegory of divine love invites us to ask what is at stake in the image of God as bridegroom—what concepts, attitudes, and forms of attention does it summon? To begin to answer this question, we turn again to Beza.
His sermons on the Song of Songs, published in 1586, cover the first three chapters of the Song of Songs and span over six hundred pages in the original French. Many of those pages were preoccupied with polemic aimed at Roman Catholics, and modern readers and scholars have not generally flocked to the work in great numbers. But the early sermons especially reveal something about how the bridal metaphor of the Song might inform the Christian’s understanding of God and his relationship with his people.
In his first sermon, Beza asks what exactly a marriage is and why it is a particularly fitting image (“similitude”) for God’s relationship to his people. Beza compares marriage to other forms of human contractual relationships. He observes that other contracts exist for the sake of acquiring goods and possessions, and in such contracts each party is ready to disadvantage the other if necessary. On the contrary, in marriage the parties are bound in an indissoluble and mutual obligation in which neither seeks to disadvantage the other, since they have become as one. It is this reciprocal and lasting nature of the bond of marriage that makes it a fitting image of God’s covenant with his people.
Beza thus helps to show that when Christians “think with” the metaphor of God as bridegroom, it conditions their thinking in the same way that calling God Father conditions Christian thought and prayer. This is the power of a strong image: it spills over into other categories, shaping the way one thinks of God in all sorts of ways. A father is supposed to love, protect, and provide for his children; to say that God is father is to say that God’s actions are bent toward those ends. What then does it mean to say that God is a bridegroom?
We can see what a difference it makes to think of God as bridegroom by comparing Beza’s sermons on the Song of Songs to one of his other works. In 1555, Beza published his Tabula praedestinationis (Table of Predestination), a polemical tract that includes an (in)famous diagram of the order of salvation that many readers have found off-putting. The work has fed the belief that Beza’s understanding of salvation was coldly logical and overly deterministic, a malformed scholasticization of Calvin’s doctrine. Although recent Beza scholarship has moved in a much more nuanced direction, even those who are sympathetic to Beza and his teachings on predestination may find in the Tabula a rather stern and unforgiving presentation of familiar doctrines.
Beza presents some of these same doctrines in his sermons on the Song, but there the doctrines are conditioned by the image of God as bridegroom. In the second sermon, Beza “thinks with” the image of God as bridegroom to reflect on the doctrine of election. Taking up the opening verse of the Song—“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”—Beza considers what this passage reveals about the union between God and human beings. He cautions his readers that although the bride is the first to speak in the Song, the desire for union does not originate with her: “It is the Bridegroom who spoke to her first, and who disposed her inwardly to seek him.” Here, the portrait of predestination is not one of a stern God in heaven arbitrarily dividing human beings into saved and damned but of a Lover who approaches his beloved and wins her over. This is how God acts with us—not like an angry judge or a remote deity, but like a lover. Beza continues teasing out the details of the image, asking why the Song says “kisses of the mouth” when all kisses are from the mouth. He concludes that it is a reference to preaching, which is carried out by means of the mouth and is “the ordinary means by which God joins himself to his church, and his church to him.” Here again, thinking with the bridal metaphor offers a new way to see a familiar reality. Preaching in Beza’s depiction is a kiss from God, a moment of union between God and God’s people, when the love between them is made known.
Next, Beza considers the “kisses” themselves. According to Beza, a kiss is an indication of union, an indication that one is ready to give one’s entire soul to another. There is no moment in salvation more indicative of this kind of union than the incarnation, when God joined himself to humanity in Christ. “For truly it can and must be said that the Son of God kissed us—indeed, more than kissed—when he so closely joined himself to our nature.” The incarnation, a divine-human kiss, is a moment in which a Lover gives all that is his to his beloved.
The picture of election in these two sermons on the Song of Songs is profoundly shaped by the bridal metaphor. There is no hint of determinism, no idea of God as a cosmic “sorting hat.” Rather, Beza’s God is a suitor, a lover who has chosen a bride and wants to bind himself to her and so live with her forever as one.
There is a reason that reading the Song as an allegory of divine love was so cherished for hundreds of years. “Thinking with” the image of God as a bridegroom grounds all of God’s actions toward human beings in love, in divine desire for humanity. Luther thought of the gospel in precisely such terms when he wrote that the gospel is “a word of salvation, a word of grace, a word of comfort, a word of joy, a voice of the bridegroom and the bride, a good word, a word of peace.” When the Song is read only as a text about human love, something is lost. A way of thinking about God and of interpreting God’s actions toward human beings is lost.
Far from rejecting or being embarrassed by allegorical readings of the Song of Songs, early Protestant interpreters embraced them. They found something of irreplaceable value in the Song, and they used the image of God as bridegroom to ponder their doctrines and to teach them. It was of the utmost importance that Scripture should include a dialogue in which God and the church expressed their mutual love, desire, and enjoyment. In the Scriptures, God is father, judge, shepherd, and king—but he is also a bridegroom who comes to his beloved, delighting in her, and moving heaven and earth so that he can be with her forever.
Erin Risch Zoutendam (PhD candidate, Duke University) is a church historian whose research considers the way biblical hermeneutics shaped mystical and devotional texts in the later Middle Ages and the early modern period.
Footnotes:1. I draw this particular language from Lucas Osiander the Elder, Esdras, Nehemias, Esther, Iob, Psalterium, Proverbia Salomonis, Ecclesiastes, et Canticum Canticorum... (Tübingen: G. Gruppenbach, 1576), 1246.
2. Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible 7C (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977), 17.
3. Pope, Song of Songs, 34.
4. Arthur Holder, “Christian Reception of the Song of Songs Since 1800,” in A Companion to the Song of Songs in the History of Spirituality, ed. Timothy H. Robinson (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 359–60.
5. Cf. Ps. 45; Isa. 49:18; 54:4–8, 62:4–5; Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1–3.
6. Cf. Matt. 9:15; 25:1–13; Mark 2:19–20; Luke 5:34–35; John 3:29.
7. Cf. 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:21–33.
8. Cf. Rev. 19:7–9; 21:2, 9; 22:17.
9. William of Saint-Thierry, Exposé sur le Cantique des Cantiques, ed. J.-M. Déchanet, Sources Chrétiennes 82 (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1962), Pro. 6. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.
10. Mechthild of Magdeburg, Das fließende Licht der Gottheit, 1.23–24. The translation is my own, but an English translation can be found in Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, trans. Frank Tobin (New York: Paulist Press, 1998).
11. Max Engammare, Qu’il me baise des baisiers de sa bouche. Le Cantique des Cantiques à la Renaissance. Étude et bibliographie, Travaux d’Humanisme et Renaissance 277 (Geneva: Libraire Droz, 1993), 154.
12. Hannah W. Matis, “The Song of Songs in the Early Middle Ages: From Gregory the Great to the Gregorian Reform,” in A Companion to the Song of Songs in the History of Spirituality, ed. Timothy H. Robinson (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 71. Matis has explored these dimensions in greater depth in a very learned monograph; see Hannah W. Matis, The Song of Songs in the Early Middle Ages, Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 191 (Leiden: Brill, 2019).
13. Frederic W. Farrar, History of Interpretation: Eight Lectures Preached Before the University of Oxford in the Year MDCCCLXXXV on the Foundation of the Late Rev. John Bampton (London: Macmillan, 1886), 32.
14. The two works that principally inform the following passage are Engammare, Qu’il me baise; and George L. Scheper, “Reformation Attitudes toward Allegory and the Song of Songs,” PMLA 89, no. 3 (May 1974): 551–62. Another study that may interest readers of this journal can be found in Timothy H. Robinson, “The Banquet of Love: The Song of Songs in Reformed Sacramental Piety: 1586–1729,” in A Companion to the Song of Songs in the History of Spirituality, ed. Timothy H. Robinson (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 327–57.
15. Pierre Robert Olivétan, Les Livres de Salomoh. Lés Proverbes, L’Ecclesiastes, Le Cantique dés cantiques. Translatez d’Ebrieu en Francoys (Geneva: Jehan Girard, 1538).
16. CO 11.675.
17. John Harmar, “The Epistle Dedicatory,” in Master Bezaes Sermons Upon the Three First Chapters of the Canticle of Canticles (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1587), ii. I have lightly modernized the spelling and language of Harmar’s work to make it more comprehensible for a modern audience.
18. Harmar, “The Epistle Dedicatory,” ii.
19. Theodore Beza, Sermons sur les trois premiers chapitres du Cantique des Cantiques, de Salomon (Geneva: Jehan le Preux, 1586), 10. The translations from French are my own, but an early modern English translation can be found in John Harmar, trans., Master Bezaes Sermons Upon the Three First Chapters of the Canticle of Canticles (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1587), available at https://archive.org/details/masterserm00bzet/page/n7/mode/2upc.
20. This passage, and indeed the essay more broadly, are profoundly indebted to Janet Martin Soskice’s Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985).
21. Beza, Cant., 8–9.
22. Beza, Cant., 29.
23. Beza, Cant., 35.
24. Beza, Cant., 33–34.
25. Beza, Cant., 37.
26. Martin Luther, Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses, trans. Carl W. Folkemer, LW 31:231/WA 1:616.21–23 (emphasis added).