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May 31, 2017

On the Proper Reading of the Song of Songs by Solomon

The Song of Songs can be seen as a sublime wedding song, written by Solomon in his infinite wisdom, that portrays the love of a bride and a bridegroom, and from this perspective it has no corporeal or fleshly meaning. The bride is the Church and the bridegroom is Christ, and this book is an expression of the mutual divine eros between them. It is spiritual, not literal, or as Augustine writes, "it is a rapture veiled in allegory." Spiritually it is also a story of the individual soul with the Word of God.

Gregory of Nyssa says that Christ used Solomon as an instrument to speak to us through his voice first in Proverbs, then in Ecclesiastes, and lastly in the Song of Songs. By these three books Solomon reveals the ascent to perfection in an orderly fashion. Proverbs leads us through purification by helping to cleanse us of our passions, Ecclesiastes illumines us to see everything in the world as it is after we have been purified, and the Song of Songs is an expression of our subsequent sacred union and secret intercourse with Christ after our purification and illumination, which is our glorification. Each subsequent book is loftier than the other.

Dionysius the Areopagite says the Song of Songs uses profane language of passionate longing to boldly represent that which is hidden about God and bring it out into the open, and through its beauty show that what is hidden is truly mysterious and filled with a truly lofty and luminous theology. Thus "breasts" are symbolic of love or the heart, and a "kiss" expresses divine pleasure. Meanwhile "wives" are symbolic of the virtues perfected, while "concubines" are the virtues not yet perfected. It is a book full of profound symbolism, and some verses provide great difficulty even for the most seasoned interpreter. This is one reason it is one of the most studied texts of the Old Testament by the Church Fathers, and a basic precondition for its interpretation is our purification and illumination.

In his lengthy introduction to the Song of Songs, Gregory the Dialogist writes the following:

'We must transcend this language that is typical of the passions so as to realize that virtuous state in which we are unable to be influenced by the passions. As the sacred writings employ words and meanings, so a picture employs colors and subject matter; it is excessively foolish to cling to the colors of the picture in such a way that the subject painted is ignored. Now if we embrace the words that are expressed in exterior terms and ignore their deeper meanings, it is like ignoring the subject depicted while focusing upon the colors alone...

When we listen to language belonging to the human way of life, we must distance ourselves from ordinary men lest by listening to what is said in a human way, we perceive nothing about the divinity that we ought to be hearing. Paul did not desire his disciples to be ordinary men when he said to them, "For when envy and contention are among you, are you not ordinary men?" (1 Cor 3:3-4) The Lord as well did not consider his disciples to be ordinary men when he said, "Who do men say that the Son of Man is?" (Mt 16:13) When they told him what ordinary men had said, he immediately added, "Who do you say that I am?" (Mt 16:15) Now by saying "men" first and then adding "you," he distinguished between ordinary men and his disciples; to be sure, by teaching them divine things he was making them superior to ordinary men. The apostle states, "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away." (2 Cor 5:17) We are aware that in our resurrection the body is joined to the spirit in such a way that everything which was controlled by the passions is taken up into the power of the spirit. And so it is fitting for someone who follows God to imitate his own resurrection every day. At the time of anyone's resurrection there will be nothing that is able to be influenced by the passions in his body. And so, let such a one at the present time have nothing that is able to be influenced by the passions in his heart. Let such a one also be a new creation according to the interior man and trample whatever is uttered from the past, examining the language of former times solely for the fuel of his renewal.'

As an example of a patristic interpretation of the Song of Songs, free of the passions, Ambrose of Milan interprets the following verses (Song of Songs 2:10-12) in the light of Christ's Resurrection:

"Arise, my dearest one,
my beautiful one, and come with me.

See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.

Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of pruning has come,
the singing of doves
is heard in our land."

'“Arise, my dearest one.” that is, arise from the pleasures of the world, arise from earthly things and come to me, you who still labor and are burdened, because you are anxious about worldly things.

Come over from the world, come to me, because I have overcome the world. Come near, for now you are fair with the beauty of eternal life, now you are a dove, that is, you are gentle and mild, now you are filled entirely with spiritual grace...

“Winter is past”; that is, [Pascha] has come, pardon has come, the forgiveness of sins has arrived, temptation has ceased, the rain is gone, the storm is gone, and the affliction. Before the coming of Christ it is winter. After his coming there are flowers. On this account he says, “flowers appear on earth.” Where before there were thorns, now flowers are there. “The season of pruning has come.” Where before there was desert, the harvest is there. “The singing of doves is heard in our land.”'