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Canticle of Canticles

One of the three books of Solomon in the Old Testament

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Canticle of Canticles (Heb. SYR HSYRYM, Gr. Aisma asmaton, Canticum canticorum), one of the three books of Solomon, contained in the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Christian Canon of the Scriptures. According to the general interpretation the name signifies “most excellent, best song”. (Cf. the similar forms of expression in Ex., xxvi, 33; Ezech., xvi, 7; Dan., viii, 25, used throughout the Bible to denote the highest and best of its kind.) Some commentators, because they have failed to grasp the homogeneousness of the book, regard it as a series or chain of songs.

CONTENTS AND EXPOSITION. The book describes the love for each other of Solomon and the Sulamitess (SVLTYT) in lyrico-dramatic scenes and reciprocal songs. One part of the composition (iii, 6-v, 1) is clearly a description of the wedding-day. Here the two chief personages approach each other in stately procession, and the day is expressly called the wedding-day. Moreover the bridal wreath and the bridal bed are referred to, and six times in this section of the song, although never before or after, the word spouse is used. All that has preceded is now seen to be preparatory to the marriage, while in what follows the Sulamitess is the queen and her garden is the garden of the king (v, 1-vi, 7 sq.), although such expressions as “friend”, “beloved”, and “dove”, are common. Along with the assurances of love for each other, there is a continually progressive action that represents the development of the warm friendship and affection of the pair, then the bridal union and the married life of the royal couple. The bride, however, is exhibited as a simple shepherdess, consequently, when the king takes her, she has to undergo a training for the position of queen; in the course of this training occur various trials and sorrows (iii, 1; v, 5 sqq.; vi, 11—Heb., 12).

Various meanings have been attributed to the contents of the song. Before the sixteenth century tradition gave an allegorical or symbolical meaning to the love of Solomon for the Sulamitess. The view held by the Jewish Synagogue was expressed by Akiba and Abell Ezra; that held by the Church, by Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Jerome. An opinion opposed to these found only isolated expression. Akiba (first century after Christ) speaks severely of those who would strike the book from the Sacred Canon, while St. Philastrius (fourth century) refers to others who regarded it not as the work of the Holy Ghost but as the composition of a purely sensuous poet. Theodore of Mopsuestia aroused much indignation by declaring the Canticle of Canticles to be a lovesong of Solomon‘s, and his contemptuous treatment of it gave great offense (Mansi, Coll. Conc., IX, 244 sqq.; Migne, P.G., LXVI, 699 sqq.). At the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (553), Theodore’s view was rejected as heretical, and his own pupil, Theodoret, brought forward against him the unanimous testimony of the Fathers (Migne, P.G., LXXXI, 62). Theodore’s opinion was not revived until the sixteenth century, when the Calvinist Sebastien Castalion (Castalio), and also Johannes Clericus, made use of it. The Anabaptists became partisans of this view; later adherents of the same opinion were Michaelis, Teller, Herder, and Eichhorn. A middle position is taken by the “typical” exposition of the book. For the first and immediate sense the typical interpretation holds firmly to the historical and secular meaning, which has always been regarded by the Church as heretical; this interpretation gives, however, to the “Song of Love“, a second and higher sense. As, namely, the figure of Solomon was a type of Christ, so is the actual love of Solomon for a shepherdess, or for the daughter of Pharaoh, intended as a symbol of the love of Christ for His Church. Honorius of Autun and Luis of Leon (Aloysius Legionensis) did not actually teach this view, although their method of expression might be misleading (cf. Cornelius a Lapide, Prol. in Canticum, c. i). In earlier times reference was often made to a first and literal meaning of the words of a text, which meaning, however, was not the real sense of the context as intended by the author, but was held to be only its external covering or “husk”. Entirely dissimilar to this method is the typical exposition of modern times, which accepts an actual double meaning of the text, the two senses being connected and intended by the author. Bossuet and Calmet may, perhaps, be regarded as holding this view; it is unmistakably held by the Protestant commentators Delitzsch and Zockler, as also by Kingsbury (in The Speaker’s Commentary) and Kossowicz. A few others hold to this view, but the number does not include Lowth (cf. De sacra poesi Hebr. pra’l., 31): Grotius makes it evident, not so much in words as in the method of exposition, that he is opposed to a higher interpretation. At the present day most non-Catholics are strongly opposed to such an exposition; on the other hand most Catholics accept the allegorical interpretation of the book.

Exposition of the Allegory.—The reasons for this interpretation are to be found not only in tradition and the decision of the Church, but also in the song itself. As long as the effort is made to follow the thread of an ordinary lovesong, so long will it be impossible to give a coherent exposition, and many despair of ever obtaining a successful interpretation. In the commentary of the present writer, “Comment. in Eccl. et Canticum Canticorum” (Paris, 1890), a number of examples are given of the typical and of the purely secular interpretations, and besides these, in treating of each of the larger divisions, the varying methods of exposition are carefully investigated. The proper connection of scenes and parts can only be found in the realm of the ideal, in allegory. In no other way can the dignity and sanctity befitting the Scriptures be preserved and the striking title, “Song of Songs”, receive a satisfactory explanation. The allegory, however, can be shown as possible and obvious by means of numerous passages in the Old and the New Testament, in which the relation of God to the Synagogue and of Christ to the Church or to the adoring soul is represented under the symbol of marriage or betrothal (Jer., ii, 2; Ps. xliv; Heb., xlv; Osee, ii, 19 sqq.; Ezech., xvi, 8 sqq.; Matth., xxv, 1 sqq.; II Cor., xi, 2; Eph., v, 23 sqq.; Apoc., xix, 7 sq., etc.). A similar manner of speaking occurs frequently in Christian literature, nor does it appear forced or artificial. The testimony of Theodoret to the teaching of the Early Church is very important. He names Eusebius in Palestine, Origen in Egypt, Cyprian in Carthage, and “the Elders who stood close to the Apostles“, consequently, Basil, the two Gregorys, Diodorus, and Chrysostom, “and all in agreement with one another”. To these may be added Ambrose (Migne, P.L., XIII, 1855, 1911), Philastrius (Migne, P.L.,) (II, 1267), Jerome (Migne, P.L., XXII 547, 395; XXIII, 263), and Augustine (Migne, P.L., XXXIV, 372, 925; XLI, 556). It follows from this, that the typical interpretation, also, contradicts tradition, even if it does not come within the decree pronounced against Theodore of Mopsuestia. This method of exposition has, moreover, very few adherents, because the typical can only be applied to separate individuals or things, and cannot be used for the interpretation of a connected text which contains only one genuine and proper meaning. The foundation of the typical interpretation is destroyed at once when the historical explanation is held to be indefensible.

In the allegorical interpretation of the song, it makes no essential difference whether the bride is taken as a symbol of the Synagogue, that is, of the congregation of the Old Covenant or of the Church of God of the New Covenant. In truth, the song turns aside from both; by the spouse should be understood human nature as elected (electa, elevata, sc. natura humana) and received by God. This is embodied, above all, in the great Church of God upon earth, which God takes to Himself with the love of a bridegroom, makes the crowning point of all His external works, and adorns with the bridal ornament of supernatural grace. In the song the bride is not reproached with sins and guilt but, on the contrary, her good qualities and beauty receive high praise; consequently, the chosen community of God appears here under that form which is, according to the Apostle, without spot or blemish (Eph., v, 27). It is plain that the Canticle of Canticles finds its most evident application to the most holy Humanity of Jesus Christ, which is united in the most intimate bond of love with the Godhead, and is absolutely spotless and essentially sanctified; after this to the most holy Mother of God as the most beautiful flower of the Church of God. (In regard to a twofold sense of this kind in the Scriptures, of “Zeitschrift fur katholische Theologie, 1903, p. 381.) The soul that has been purified by grace is also in a more remote yet real sense a worthy bride of the Lord. The actual meaning of Canticles is not, however, to be limited to any one of these applications, but is to be appropriated to the elected “bride of God in her relation of devotion to God“.

As a matter of fact, the spiritual interpretation of the song has proved a rich source for mystical theology and asceticism. It is only necessary to call to mind the best of the old commentaries and interpretations of the book. There are still in existence fifteen homilies by St. Gregory of Nyssa on the first six chapters (Migne, P.G., XLI, 755 sqq.). The commentary of Theodoret (Migne, P.G., LXXXI, 27 sqq.) is rich in suggestion. In the eleventh century Psellus compiled a “Catena” from the writings of Nilus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus (Auctar. bibl. Patr., II, 681 sqq.). Among the Latins Ambrose made such frequent use of the Canticle of Canticles that a whole commentary may be developed from the many applications, rich in piety, that he made of it (Migne, P.L., XV, 1851 sqq.). Three commentaries are to be found in the works of Gregory the Great (Migne, P.L., LXXIX, 471 sqq., 905; CLXXX, 441 sqq.). Apponius wrote a very comprehensive commentary which, even as late as 1843, was republished at Rome. The Venerable Bede prepared the matter for a number of smaller commentaries. The elaborate exposition by Honorius of Autun of the book in its historical, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical meanings deserves special mention. The eighty-six homilies left by St. Bernard are universally known. Gilbert of Hoyland added to this number forty-eight more. The greatest of the saints enkindled their love for God on the tender expressions of affection of Christ and His bride, the Church, in the Canticle of Canticles. Even in Old Testament times it must have greatly consoled the Hebrews to read of the eternal covenant of love between God and His faithful people.

Within certain limits the application to the relation between God and the individual soul adorned with supernatural grace is self-evident and an aid to virtuous living. The bride is first raised by the bridegroom to a relation of complete affection, afterwards betrothed or married (iii 6-v, 1), and, finally, after a successful activity (vii, 12 sq.; viii, 11 sq.), is received into the heavenly dwellings. A life of contemplation and activity bound up with painful trials is the way there. In the Breviary and Missal the Church has repeatedly applied the song to the Mother of God (see B. Schafer in Komment., p. 255 sqq.). In truth the bride adorned with the beauty of spotless purity and deep affection is a figure most appropriate to the Mother of God. This is the reason why St. Ambrose in his book, “De virginibus”, so repeatedly and especially quotes Canticles. Finally, the application of the song to the history of the life of Christ and of the Church offers pious thought rich material for contemplation. In doing this the natural course of the song can, in some measure, be followed. At His entrance into life, and especially at the time of His public activity as a teacher, the Savior sought the Church, His bride, and she came lovingly towards Him. He united Himself with her at the Cross (iii, 11); the Church itself makes use of this thought in a number of offices. The affectionate conversations with the bride (to ch. v, 1) take place after the Resurrection. What follows may be referred to the later history of the Church. A distinction should be made in such methods of interpretation, however, between what may be accepted as certain or probable in the context and what pious contemplation has, more or less arbitrarily, added. For this reason it is important to ascertain more exactly than was done in earlier times the genuine and true sense of the text.

LITERARY FORM OF THE SONG.—Both the traditional poetic accentuation and the language used to express the thoughts show the book to be a genuine poem. The attempt has been made in various ways to prove the existence of a definite metre in the Hebrew text. The opinion of the present writer is that a six-syllable trochaic metre may be applied to the original Hebrew version (De re metric’ Hebraeorum, Freiburg, Baden, 1880). The essentially lyrical character of the song is unmistakable. But as various voices and scenes appear, neither should the dramatic character of the poem fail of recognition; it is, however, evident that the development of an external action is not so much the intention as the unfolding of the lyrical expression of feeling under varying circumstances. The cantata form of composition is suggested by the presence of a chorus of the “daughters of Jerusalem” though the text does not indicate clearly how the words are divided among the various characters. This accounts for the theory put forward at times that there are different personages who, as bride and bridegroom, or as lovers, talk with, or of, each other. Stickel in his commentary assigns three different persons to the role of the bridegroom, and two to that of the bride. But such arbitrary treatment is the result of the attempt to make the Canticle of Canticles into a drama suitable for the stage.

Unity of the Canticle.—The commentator just mentioned and other exegetes start from the natural conviction that the poem, simply called the Song of Songs and handed down to posterity as a book, must be regarded as a homogeneous whole. It is evident that the three clearly distinguished roles of bridegroom, bride, and chorus maintain their plainly defined characters from beginning to end; in the same way certain other designations, as “beloved”, “friend”, etc., and certain refrains keep recurring. Moreover, several parts apparently repeat one another, and a peculiar phraseology is found throughout the book. The attempt has however been made to resolve the poem into separate songs (some twenty in all); this has been tried by Herder, Eichhorn, Goethe, Reuss, Stade, Budde, and Siegfried. But it has been found exceedingly difficult to separate these songs from one another, and to give to each lyric a meaning distinctly its own. Goethe believed this impossible, and it is necessary to resort to a working over of the songs by the person who collected them. But in this every-thing would depend on a vague, personal impression. It is true that a mutual dependence of all the parts cannot be maintained in the secular (historical) interpretation. For, even in the historical hypothesis, the attempt to obtain a flawless drama is successful only when arbitrary additions are made which permit the transition from one scene to another; but these interpolations have no foundation in the text itself. Tradition also knows nothing of genuine dramatic poetry among the Hebrews, nor is the Semitic race more than slightly acquainted with this form of poetry. Driven by necessity, Kampf and others even invent double roles, so that at times other personages appear along with Solomon and the Sulamitess; yet it cannot be said that any one of these hypotheses has produced a probable interpretation of the entire so

DIFFICULTIES OF INTERPRETATION.—Allegorical.—All the hypotheses of the above-mentioned kind owe their origin to the prevalent dislike of allegory and symbolism. It is well known how extremely distasteful poetic allegory is to our age. Nevertheless allegory has been employed at times by the greatest poets of all ages. Its use was widespread in the Middle Ages, and it was always a preliminary condition in the interpretation of the Scriptures by the Fathers. There are many passages in the Old and New Testaments which it is simply impossible to understand without allegory. It is true that the allegorical method of interpretation has been greatly misused. Yet the Canticle of Canticles can be proved to be a flawlessly consecutive poem by the employment of rules for poetical allegory and its interpretation which are fixed and according to the canons of art. The proof of the correctness of the interpretation lies in such a combination of all the parts of the song into a homogeneous whole. The dramatic form, as far as it can be plainly seen in the traditional text, is not destroyed by this method of elucidation; indeed a number (four to seven) of more or less independent scenes must be recognized. In separating these scenes from one another the Jewish or Syrian bridal customs may be taken into consideration, as has been done, especially, by Budde and Siegfried, if the result is the simplifying of the explanation and not the distortion of the scenes, or other acts of caprice. An attempt has been made in the commentary (p. 388 sqq.) of the present writer to give in detail the determinative rules for a sound allegorical interpretation.

Historical.—According to Wetzstein, whom Budde and others follow, the book should be regarded as a collection of short songs such as are still used by the bedouins of Syria in the “threshing-board”. The features of similarity are the appearance of the bridal pair for seven days as king and queen, the immoderate praise of the two, and the dance of the queen, during which she swings a sword to the accompaniment of a song by the chorus. Bruston and Rothstein have, however, expressed doubts as to this theory. In Solomon‘s song the bride, in reality, does not appear as a queen and does not swing a sword; the other traces of similarity are of so general a character that they probably belong to the wedding festivities of many nations. But the worst is that the essential songs avowedly do not stand in the proper order. Consequently it is presupposed that the order of succession is accidental. This opens wide once more the door to caprice. Thus, as what is said does not fit this theory, it is claimed that a collector, or later redactor, who misunderstood various matters, must have made small additions with which it is impossible now to do anything. Others, as Rothstein in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, presuppose that the collector, or rather the redactor, or even the author, had a dramatic end in view, as life and motion and action are, taken all together, unmistakable.

It is accepted (at least for the present form of the poem) that the book presents a pastoral poem in dramatic or, at least, melodramatic form. The poem, according to this theory, shows how a beautiful shepherdess keeps her betrothal vow to her lover of the same rank in life notwithstanding the allurements and acts of violence of a king. But this shepherd has to be interpolated into the text, and not much can be said for the imaginary faith kept with the distant lover, as the Sulamitess, in the middle section of the Song of Solomon, gives herself willingly to the king, and no reason is apparent in the text why her boundless praise should not be intended for the present king and not for an absent lover. Stickel overcomes the great difficulties which still remain in a very arbitrary manner. He allows a second pair of lovers to come suddenly forward; these know nothing of the chief personages and are employed by the poet merely as an interlude. Stickel gives this pair three short passages, namely: i, 7 sq.; i, 15-ii, 4; iv, 7-v, 1. Moreover in these hypotheses appears the difficulty which is ever connected with the historical interpretation, that is, the lowering of the song which is so highly prized by the Church. The historical interpretation transforms it into ordinary love-scenes, in various moments of which, moreover, a fiery, sensuous love breaks forth. For the same expressions which, when referred allegorically to Christ and the Church, announce the strength of the love of God, are under ordinary conditions the utterances of a repellent passion.

AGE AND AUTHOR OF THE CANTICLE.—Tradition, in harmony with the superscription, attributes the song to Solomon. Even in modern times quite a number of exegetes have held this opinion: among Protestants, for example, Hengstenberg, Delitzsch, Zockler, and Keil. De Wette says: “The entire series of pictures and relationships and the freshness of the life connect these songs with the age of Solomon.” The song evidences the love of Solomon for nature (it contains twenty-one names of plants and fifteen of animals), for beauty and art, and for regal splendor; bound up with this latter is an ideal simplicity suitable to the type of character of the royal poet. There is also evident a strain of the most tender feeling and a love of peace which are well in keeping with the reputation of Solomon. The somewhat unusual language in connection with the skillful and brilliant style point to a well-practiced writer. If some Aramaic or foreign expressions are to be found in the song, in relation to Solomon, such cannot cause surprise. It is remarkable that in Proverbs the fuller form of the relative is always used, while in Canticles the shorter form is employed, the one used earlier in the song of Debbora (es). But in the same way Jeremias used the ordinary form in his prophecies, while in the Lamentations he repeatedly employed the shorter. The point is raised that Tirzah (vi, 4-Heb.) is mentioned along with Jerusalem as the capital of the Kingdom of the Ten Tribes. The comparison, though, is made only as to beauty, and Tirzah had, above all, a reputation for loveliness. Many other commentators, as Bottcher, Ewald, Hitzig, and Kampf, put the composition of the book in the time directly after Solomon. They assert that the action of the poem takes place in the northern part of Palestine, that the author is especially well acquainted with this section of the country, and writes in the form of the language used there. It is further said that Tirzah could only be compared with Jerusalem at the time when it was the capital of the Kingdom of the Ten Tribes, that is, after the age of Solomon but before the time when Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom. All these reasons, however, have more subjective than objective value. No more convincing, finally, are the reasons that cause others to place the book in post-Exilic times; among such exegetes may be mentioned: Stade, Kautzsch, Cornill, Gratz, Budde, and Siegfried. They support their theory by reference to many peculiarities of language and believe they even find traces of Greek influence in the song; but for all this there is a lack of clear proof.

Condition of the Hebrew Text.—Gratz, Bickell, Budde, and Cheyne believe that they have been able to prove the existence of various mistakes and changes in the text. The passages referred to are: vi, 12; vii, 1; iii, 6-11; for alterations of the text see chapters vi and vii.


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