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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 27

Lecture V. The Song of Solomon

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Lecture V. The Song of Solomon.

There is something so supremely ridiculous about the allegation that the Song of Solomon was intended to be a spiritual allegory of the tender relation between Christ and the Church, that only the most overwhelming evidence would serve to convince any one that this was seriously maintained. But, maintained it is, as any one knows who is acquainted with the average teaching given from the ordinary pulpits. But the very headings of the chapters suffice; for the translators of the authorised version, assuming with cool audacity or childlike simplicity that the Song did tell the story of the relationship between Christ and the Church, have placed a commentary at the head of every chapter: and these commentaries, when combined, form the following "orthodox" view of the book:—

The church's love unto Christ. She confesseth her deformity, and prayeth to be directed to his flock. Christ directeth her to the shepherds' tents: and shewing his love to her, giveth her gracious promises. The church and Christ congratulate one another. The mutual love of Christ and his church. The hope and calling of the church. Christ's care of the church. The profession of the church, her faith and hope. The church's fight and victory in temptation. The church glorieth in Christ. Christ setteth forth the graces of the church. He shewetth his love to her. The church prayeth to be made fit for his presence. Christ awaketh the church with Iris calling. The church having a taste of Christ's love is sick of love. A description of Christ by his graces. The church professeth her faith in Christ. Christ sheweth the graces of the church, and his love towards her. A further description of the church's graces. The church professeth her faith and desire. The love of the church to Christ, The vehemency of love. The calling of the Gentiles. The church prayeth for Christ's coming.

Matthew Henry, quaintest, shrewdest, and yet most orthodox of commentators, though he solemnly asserts the ordinary orthodox view, confesses that "it seems as hard as any part of Scripture to be made 'a savour of life unto life.' "The Jewish doctors, he says, advised their young people not to read it till they were 30. He admits further, that the name of God is not in it, that it is never quoted in the New Testament, and that it has not in it "any expressions of natural religion or pious devotion." He goes so far as to say that we need to forget that we have bodies in studying it. Ho expresses the opinion, however, that it is a most profound book: "there are depths in it," he says, "in which an elephant may swim." He is right; and he might have added—in which an army of commentators might drown. "It requires some pains," says this commentator," to find out what may probably be the meaning of the Holy Spirit, in the several parts of this book,"—a commentator's way of saying,—It is really very difficult to make anything of it! and yet we are warned that we may" wrest it" to our "destruction." A famous divine, quoted by Matthew Henry, says that if we ridicule this book, i.e., if we do not believe it is an allegory of Christ and the church, we are "guilty of Blasphemy against the page 36 Most High." "Why will you sot God at defiance?" he asks," and add fresh fuel to His wrath?" Now it is perhaps difficult for some people to institute a really free examination of the book, in the face of such fearful threats, but I am going to do it, having long ceased to pay any attention to the threats of theologians. But I shall not" ridicule" this book, I shall only tell part of the truth about it.

First, as to the author. The book is attributed to Solomon—but it is very doubtful whether he wrote a word of it. If he did, it has a suspicious origin. The commentators say that "Solomon's songs were a thousand and five," and the Book of Kings says that he had a thousand wives and concubines. The coincidence is curious: This gives us a lady for every song, with five songs to spare; but, as the Book of Kings also tells us that, in addition to the thousand, he "loved many strange women," the spare songs are easily accounted for. Now, if any one calls that ridiculing the Book, all I can say is,—it is not meant as ridicule: it is mount as a plain statement of fact concerning the very significant and important question of authorship; for when the commentator says "it is not certain when Solomon penned this sawed song," it suggests that if he penned it at all, lie penned it with far more reference to concubines than to Christ; and it sustains me in the assertion that one of the greatest scandals of Christendom is that the passionate, sensuous, and, in some cases, indecent language of a love poem like this should be applied to Christ: for it is only by a treatment of it which is both arbitrary and grotesque that it can be made even passably reputable.

After the point of authorship, comes the question of intention: and here the interest centres. But the intention lies, only too manifestly, on the surface. The book is an unmitigated love poem; and no one would have been more astonished than the author, to hear people gravely putting a religious and mystical meaning into it. A few local and personal references will make this plain:—Chapter i. 5:—

"I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon."

Chapter ii. 7:—

"I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please."

Chapter iii 7-10:—

"Behold his bed, which is Solomon's; threescore valiant men are about it, of the valiant of Israel. They all hold swords, being expert in war: every man hath his sword upon his thigh because of fear in the night. King Solomon made himself a chariot (or, a bed) of the wood of Lebanon. He made the pillars thereof of silver, the bottom thereof of gold, the covering of it of purple, the midst thereof being paved with love, for the daughters of Jerusalem."

Chapter viii. 11-13:—

"Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon; he let out the vineyard unto keepers; every one for the fruit thereof was to bring; a thousand pieces of silver. My vineyard, which is mine, is before me: thou, 0 Solomon, must have a thou- page 37 sand, and those that keep the fruit thereof two hundred. Thou that smallest in the gardens, the companions hearken to thy voice; cause me to hear it."

In addition to these personal and local references that prove intention, the actual narrative and the style of it, are, of course, important evidence. I freely admit that there are a few lovely touches in the poem—as exquisite as anything Thomas Moore ever wrote—but, mixed up with these, are passages of the most questionable" character—contemptible as third class love poetry—frightful as allegorical of Christ and the Church. Take this, for instance. Chapter iv. 1-5:—

"Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes within thy locks: thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead. Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the wishing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren among them. Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a peace of a pomegranate within thy locks. Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men."

I dare not read you the amazing description in chapter vii.; but Bishop Patrick says of the highly indecent second verse, that it refers to the baptismal font and to the Lord's Supper. To shew you, however, how the commentators "wrest" the tiling to their "destruction," I will point out how Matthew Henry deals with the passage I just read. The song says that the beloved one's hair" is as a flock of goats"—a most outrageous comparison; but the commentator, nothing daunted, drags in the hair of the Magdalene and the passage,—" the very hairs of your head are all numbered." The song says that her teeth are "like a Hock of sheep, that are even shorn, which came up from the washing:" again an outrageous comparison, but the commentator says that, by teeth,'" ministers" are meant, for, says he," they, as nurses, chew the meat for the babes of Christ,"—an unconsciously true saying; for it is too often the case that ministers treat their hearers as babes, and keep them so, even to the chewing of their intellectual food for them,—to use the commentator's simile. The song says her lips are like a thread of scarlet, and what this means is evident,—that she had pretty bright red thin lips !—but the grave divine sees in the scarlet lips" the blood of Christ" in which, he says, we are to be washed. And so the ridiculous far-fetched allegorising goes on; and the commentator who warned us against wresting the Book to our destruction, wrests it with a vengeance to his own.

A third point is the plot, or the characters that appear in the poem. The popular orthodox view gives us just two characters—Christ and the Church; but this lands us in endless confusion; for no two people, however absurdly in love, ever till lied so incoherently, debated so unreasonably, acted so ridiculously, quarrelled, flirted, and contradicted one another so bewilderingly. In fact, if only two persons form the dramatis persona e or both of them must be insane. The only lucid explanation is that several persons speak during the poem—that, in fact the poem is either a series of a amat- page 38 ory pieces, or a kind of love play. This is the view now held by the very best authorities, who have gone so far as to disentangle the parts of the various characters, and to give us the play in regular dramatic form. The characters are, say, at least six; and the poem or play is divided into about ten acts: so says Sharpe the translator. The characters are,—the Bride, called Shulamite; Solomon; and attendants. Shulamite is only the Hebrew feminine form of Solomon. Solomon and Shulamite, therefore, are similar to our Charles and Charlotte, Henry and Henrietta. It is easy to prove that there are more than the two characters concerned—the Bride and Solomon. Take, for instance, chapter vi. 1-3.—

"Whither is thy beloved gone, O thou fairest among women? whither is thy beloved turned aside? that we may seek him with thee. My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies. I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies."

Who asks that question in verse 1? It is evidently some one who addresses the Bride; and, as she is asked where her beloved is gone, the questioner cannot be the beloved. It must be some third character. Early in the Book, a curious instance of this occurs. Some one (of course the Bride) is made to say," I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon." Spoken by one person, this is the most contradictory incoherence. She is made to say she is "black" (or sunburnt) and yet "comely;" like the dark tents of Kedar and yet like the beautiful curtains of Solomon. The sense is seen for the first time when the verse is treated as a kind of dialogue, or soliloquy and chorus. The Bride laments—" I am suntanned!" then the women-chorus respond,—"but comely." "Like the dark tents of Kedar!" she mourns: "like the lovely curtains of Solomon," they reply. This is genuine love poetry, and is pretty enough in its way. It only becomes grotesque and nonsensical when grave divines take it on their reverend lips, and try to make it serve the purposes of religion.

Thus whether we consider the reputed authorship of the poem; the evident intention of it, gathered from the local and personal references in it and from the character of the narrative and the style; or the characters that appear in the poem, it seems plain that the Book is just what it appears to be,—a love-poem or amatory play, neither better nor worse than a multitude of oriental songs of the same nature.

A detailed examination of the poem would abundantly shew this:—one little illustration must suffice; and I quote this because I can give it to you in the words of an accredited orthodox commentator, the late Dr. Eadie. Explaining the word" Shulamite," (chapter vi. 13,) he says," In the passage, the scene lies in a garden, where the bride was unexpectedly seen by her lover. At once she retires. Her lover exclaims in ardour,—

"Return, return, Shulamith,

Return, return, that I may look upon thou."

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Such being contrary to Oriental manners and etiquette, she promptly and indignantly replies,—

"What! will ye gaze upon Shulamith

As ye would upon a troop of dancing girls?"

In the authorised version, this absurdly reads like a question and answer; "What will ye see in the Shulamite? As it were the company of two armies:"—a marvellously insane reply! But even Dr. Eadie, with his keen eye to the true character of this love-making scene, indulges in the usual orthodox somnambulism, and says that this name Shulamite is" a poetical figurative title of the church personified" !

What lesson then do we learn from this exposure of the vain imaginations of theory-makers,—from this glance at the gross absurdities into which men may fall who once forsake the homely ways of simple common sense? I think the lesson is simply this,—that we should be guided in all things by sober reasoning and solid fact. When we read the Bible, we should read it with our eyes open, and with our ordinary faculties on the alert: we should not seek far-fetched meanings, and give way to loose imaginations; but in all things rely upon common sense, and stick to the plain and obvious interpretation. If what is written is bad, let us frankly say so; if it is foolish or erroneous, let us honestly admit it: for, to be bound by a theory of inspiration that prevents our being reasonable and honest, can neither be right nor good."

Thank God, all this is possible for us who worship here; for we are free to inquire, and to follow out any result of our inquiry; and, above all, we are delivered from the injurious old superstition that acceptance with God depends upon any opinion we come to respecting Church, or creed, or book.