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41

CHAPTER IV

MYSTICAL INTERPRETATIONS

Thus far we have been considering the bare, literal sense of the text. It cannot be denied that, if only to lead up to the metaphorical significance of the words employed, those words must be approached through their primary physical meanings. This is essential even to the understanding of pure allegory such as that of The Faerie Queen and The Pilgrim's Progress; we must understand the adventures of the Red Cross Knight and the course of Christian's journey before we can learn the moral of Spenser's and Bunyan's elaborate allegories. Similarly it is absolutely necessary for us to have some idea of the movement of the Song of Solomon as a piece of literature, in its external form, even if we are persuaded that beneath this sensuous exterior it contains the most profound ideas, before we can discover any such ideas. In other words, if it is to be considered as a mass of symbolism the symbols must be understood in themselves before their significance can be drawn out of them.

But now we are confronted with the question whether the book has any other meaning than that which meets the eye. The answers to this question are given on three distinct lines:—First, we have the allegorical schemes of interpretation, according to which the poem is not to be taken literally at all, but is to42 be regarded as a purely metaphorical representation of national or Church history, philosophical ideas, or spiritual experiences. In the second place, we meet with various forms of double interpretation, described as typical or mystical, in which a primary meaning is allowed to the book as a sort of drama or idyl, or as a collection of Jewish love-songs, while a secondary signification of an ideal or spiritual character is added. Distinct as these lines of interpretation are in themselves, they tend to blend in practice, because even when two meanings are admitted the symbolical signification is considered to be of so much greater importance than the literal that it virtually occupies the whole field. In the third place there is the purely literal interpretation, that which denies the existence of any symbolical or mystical intention in the poem.

Allegorical interpretations of the Song of Solomon are found among the Jews early in the Christian era. The Aramaic Targum, probably originating about the sixth century A.D., takes the first half of the poem as a symbolical picture of the history of Israel previous to the captivity, and the second as a prophetic picture of the subsequent fortunes of the nation. The recurrence of the expression "the congregation of Israel" in this paraphrase wherever the Shulammite appears, and other similar adaptations, entirely destroy the fine poetic flavour of the work, and convert it into a dreary, dry-as-dust composition.

Symbolical interpretations were very popular among Christian Fathers—though not with universal approval, as the protest of Theodore of Mopsuestia testifies. The great Alexandrian Origen is the founder and patron of this method of interpreting the Song of Solomon in the Church. Jerome was of opinion that43 Origen "surpassed himself" in his commentary on the poem—a commentary to which he devoted ten volumes. According to his view, it was originally an epithalamium celebrating the marriage of Solomon with Pharaoh's daughter; but it has secondary mystical meanings descriptive of the relation of the Redeemer to the Church or the individual soul. Thus "the little foxes that spoil the grapes" are evil thoughts in the individual, or heretics in the Church. Gregory the Great contributes a commentary of no lasting interest. Very different is the work of the great mediæval monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who threw himself into it with all the passion and rapture of his enthusiastic soul, and in the course of eighty-six homilies only reached the beginning of the third chapter in this to him inexhaustible mine of spiritual wealth, when he died, handing on the task to his faithful disciple Gilbert Porretanus, who continued it on the same portentous scale, and also died before he had finished the fifth chapter. Even while reading the old monkish Latin in this late age we cannot fail to feel the glowing devotion that inspires it. Bernard is addressing his monks, to whom he says he need not give the milk for babes, and whom he exhorts to prepare their throats not for this milk but for bread. As a schoolman he cannot escape from metaphysical subtleties—he takes the kiss of the bridegroom as a symbol of the incarnation. But throughout there burns the perfect rapture of love to Jesus Christ which inspires his well-known hymns. Here we are at the secret of the extraordinary popularity of mystical interpretations of the Song of Solomon. It has seemed to many in all ages of the Christian Church to afford the best expression for the deepest spiritual relations of Christ and His people. Nevertheless, the mystical44 method has been widely disputed since the time of the Reformation. Luther complains of the "many wild and monstrous interpretations" that are attached to the Song of Solomon, though even he understands it as symbolical of Solomon and his state. Still, not a few of the most popular hymns of our own day are saturated with ideas and phrases gathered from this book, and fresh expositions of what are considered to be its spiritual lessons may still be met with.

It is not easy to discover any justification for the rabbinical explanation of the Song of Solomon as a representation of successive events in the history of Israel, an explanation which Jewish scholars have abandoned in favour of simple literalism. But the mystical view, according to which the poem sets forth spiritual ideas, has pleas urged in its favour that demand some consideration. We are reminded of the analogy of Oriental literature, which delights in parable to an extent unknown in the West. Works of a kindred nature are produced in which an allegorical signification is plainly intended. Thus the Hindoo Gilagovinda celebrates the loves of Chrishna and Radha in verses that bear a remarkable resemblance to the Song of Solomon. Arabian poets sing of the love of Joseph for Zuleikha, which mystics take as the love of God towards the soul that longs for union with Him. There is a Turkish mystical commentary on the Song of Hafiz.

The bible itself furnishes us with suggestive analogies. Throughout the Old Testament the idea of a marriage union between God and His people occurs repeatedly, and the most frequent metaphor for religious apostasy is drawn from the crime of adultery.7878   E.g. Exod. xxxiv. 15, 16; Numb. xv. 39; Psalm lxxiii. 27; Ezek. xvi. 23, etc. This symbolism45 is especially prominent in the writings of Jeremiah7979   E.g. Jer. iii. 1-11. and Hosea.8080   Hosea ii. 2.; iii. 3. The forty-fifth psalm is an epithalamium commonly read with a Messianic signification. John the Baptist describes the coming Messiah as the Bridegroom,8181   John iii. 29. and Jesus Christ accepts the title for Himself.8282   Mark. ii. 19. Our Lord illustrates the blessedness of the Kingdom of Heaven in a parable of a wedding feast.8383   Matt. xxii. 1-14. With St. Paul the union of husband and wife is an earthly copy of the union of Christ and his Church.8484   Eph. v. 22-33. The marriage of the Lamb is a prominent feature in the Book of the Revelation.8585   Rev. xxi. 9.

Further, it may be maintained that the experience of Christians has demonstrated the aptness of the expression of the deepest spiritual truths in the imagery of the Song of Solomon. Sad hearts disappointed in their earthly hopes have found in the religious reading of this poem as a picture of their relation to their Saviour the satisfaction for which they have hungered, and which the world could never give them. Devout Christians have read in it the very echo of their own emotions. Samuel Rutherford's Letters, for example, are in perfect harmony with the religious interpretation of the Song of Solomon; and these letters stand in the first rank of devotional works. There is certainly some force in the argument that a key which seems to fit the lock so well must have been designed to do so.

On the other hand, the objections to a mystical, religious interpretation are very strong. In the first place, we can quite account for its appearance apart from any justification of it in the original intention of46 the author. Allegory was in the air at the time when, as far as we know, secondary meanings were first attached to the ideas of the Song of Solomon. They sprang from Alexandria, the home of allegory. Origen, who was the first Christian writer to work out a mystical explanation of this book, treated other books of the Old Testament in exactly the same way; but we never dream of following him in his fantastical interpretations of those works. There is no indication that the poem was understood allegorically or mystically as early as the first century of the Christian era. Philo is the prince of allegorists; but while he explains the narratives of the Pentateuch according to his favourite method, he never applies that method to this very tempting book, and never even mentions the work or makes any reference to its contents. The Song of Solomon is not once mentioned or even alluded to in the slightest way by any writer of the New Testament. Since it is never noticed by Christ or the Apostles, of course we cannot appeal to their authority for reading it mystically; and yet it was undoubtedly known to them as one of the books in the canon of the sacred Scriptures to which they were in the habit of appealing repeatedly. Consider the grave significance of this fact. All secondary interpretations of which we know anything, and, as far as we can tell, all that ever existed, had their origin in post-apostolic times. If we would justify this method by authority it is to the Fathers that we must go, not to Christ and or his apostles, not to the sacred Scriptures. It is a noteworthy fact, too, that the word Eros, the Greek name for the love of man and woman, as distinguished from Agape, which stands for love in the widest sense of the word, is first applied to our Lord by Ignatius. Here we have the47 faint beginning of the stream of erotic religious fancies which sometimes manifests itself most objectionably in subsequent Church history. There is not a trace of it in the New Testament.

If the choice spiritual ideas which some people think they see in the Song of Solomon are not imported by the reader, but form part of the genuine contents of the book, how comes it that this fact was not recognised by one of the inspired writers of the New Testament? or, if privately recognised, that it was never utilised? In the hands of the mystical interpreter this work is about the most valuable part of the Old Testament. He finds it to be an inexhaustible mine of the most precious treasures. Why, then, was such a remunerative lode never worked by the first authorities in Christian teaching? It may be replied that we cannon prove much from a bare negative. The apostles may have had their own perfectly sufficient reasons for leaving to the Church of later ages the discovery of this valuable spiritual store. Possibly the converts of their day were not ripe for the comprehension of the mysteries here expounded. Be that as it may, clearly the onus probandi rests with those people of a later age who introduce a method of interpretation for which no sanction can be found in Scripture.

Now the analogies that have been referred to are not sufficient to establish any proof. In the case of the other poems mentioned above there are distinct indications of symbolical intentions. Thus in the Gitagovinda the hero is a divinity whose incarnations are acknowledged in Hindoo mythology; and the concluding verse of that poem points the moral by a direct assertion of the religious meaning of the whole composition. This is not the case with the Song of48 Solomon. We must not be misled by the chapter-headings in our English Bibles, which of course are not to be found in the original Hebrew text. From the first line to the last there is not the slightest hint in the poem itself that it was intended to be read in any mystical sense. This is contrary to the analogy of all allegories. The parable may be difficult to interpret, but at all events it must suggest that it is a parable; otherwise it defeats its own object. If the writer never drops any hint that he has wrapped up spiritual ideas in the sensuous imagery of his poetry, what right has he to expect that anybody will find them there, so long as his poem admits of a perfectly adequate explanation in a literal sense? We need not be so dense as to require the allegorist to say to us in so many words: "This is a parable." But we may justly expect him to furnish us with some hint that his utterance is of such a character. Æsop's fables carry their lessons on the surface of them, so that we can often anticipate the concluding morals that are attached to them. When Tennyson announced that the Idyls of the King constituted an allegory most people were taken by surprise; and yet the analogy of The Faerie Queen, and the lofty ethical ideas with which the poems are inspired, might have prepared us for the revelation. But we have no similar indications in the case of the Song of Solomon. If somebody were to propound a new theory of The Vicar of Wakefield, which should turn that exquisite tale into a parable of the Fall, it would not be enough for him to exercise his ingenuity in pointing out resemblances between the eighteenth-century romance and the ancient narrative of the serpent's doings in the Garden of Eden. Since he could not shew that Goldsmith had the slightest49 intention of teaching anything of the kind, his exploit could be regarded as nothing but a piece of literary trifling.

The Biblical analogies already cited, in which the marriage relation between God or Christ and the Church or the soul are referred to, will not bear the strain that is put upon them when they are brought forward in order to justify a mystical interpretation of the Song of Solomon. At best they simply account for the emergence of this view of the book at a later time, or indicate that such a notion might be maintained if there were good reasons for adopting it. They cannot prove that in the present case it should be adopted. Moreover, they differ from it on two important points. First, in harmony with all genuine allegories and metaphors, they carry their own evidence of a symbolical meaning, which as we have seen the Song of Solomon fails to do. Second, they are not elaborate compositions of a dramatic or idyllic character in which the passion of love is vividly illustrated. Regarded in its entirety, the Song of Solomon is quite without parallel in Scripture. It may be replied that we cannot disprove the allegorical intention of the book. But this is not the question. That intention requires to be proved; and until it is proved, or at least until some very good reasons are urged for adopting it, no statement of bare possibilities counts for anything.

But we may push the case further. There is a positive improbability of the highest order that the spiritual ideas read into the Song of Solomon by some of its Christian admirers should have been originally there. This would involve the most tremendous anachronism in all literature. The Song of Solomon is dated among the earlier works of the Old Testament.50 But the religious ideas now associated with it represent what is regarded as the fruit of the most advanced saintliness ever attained in the Christian Church. Here we have a flat contradiction to the growth of revelation manifested throughout the whole course of Scripture history. We might as well ascribe the Sistine Madonna to the fresco-painters of the catacombs; or, what is more to the point, our Lord's discourse with his disciples at the paschal meal to Solomon or some other Jew of his age.

No doubt the devoted follower of the mystical method will not be troubled by considerations such as these. To him the supposed fitness of the poem to convey his religious ideas is the one sufficient proof of an original design that it should serve that end. So long as the question is approached in this way, the absence of clear evidence only delights the prejudiced commentator with the opportunity it affords for the exercise of his ingenuity. To a certain school of readers the very obscurity of a book is its fascination. The less obvious a meaning is, the more eagerly do they set themselves to expound and defend it. We could leave them to what might be considered a very harmless diversion if it were not for other considerations. But we cannot forget that it is just this ingenious way of interpreting the Bible in accordance with preconceived opinions that has encouraged the quotation of the Sacred Volume in favour of absolutely contradictory propositions, an abuse which in its turn has provoked an inevitable reaction leading to contempt for the Bible as an obscure book which speaks with no certain voice.

Still, it may be contended, the analogy between the words of this poem and the spiritual experience of51 Christians is in itself an indication of intentional connection. Swedenborg has shewn that there are correspondences between the natural and the spiritual, and this truth is illustrated by the metaphorical references to marriage in the Bible which have been adduced for comparison with the Song of Solomon. But their very existence shows that analogies between religious experience and the love story of the Shulammite may be traced out by the reader without any design on the part of the author to present them. If they are natural they are universal, and any love song will serve our purpose. On this principle, if the Song of Solomon admits of mystical adaptation, so do Mrs. Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese.

We have no alternative, then, but to conclude that the mystical interpretation of this work is based on a delusion. Moreover, it must be added that the delusion is a mischievous one. No doubt to many it has been as meat and drink. They have found in their reading of the Song of Solomon real spiritual refreshment, or they believe they have found it. But there is another side. The poem has been used to minister to a morbid, sentimental type of religion. More than any other influence, the mystical interpretation of this book has imported an effeminate element into the notion of the love of Christ, not one trace of which can be detected in the New Testament. The Catholic legend of the marriage of St. Catherine is somewhat redeemed by the high ascetic tone that pervades it; and yet it indicates a decline from the standpoint of the apostles. Not a few unquestionable revelations of immorality in convents have shed a ghastly light on the abuse of erotic religious fervour. Among Protestants it cannot be said that the most wholesome hymns are those52 which are composed on the model of the Song of Solomon. In some cases the religious use of this book is perfectly nauseous, indicating nothing less than a disease of religion. When—as sometimes happens—frightful excesses of sensuality follow close on seasons of what has been regarded as the revival of religion, the common explanation of these horrors is that in some mysterious way spiritual emotion lies very near to sensual appetite, so that an excitement of the one tends to rouse the other. A more revolting hypothesis, or one more insulting to religion, cannot be imagined. The truth is, the two regions are separate as the poles. The explanation of the phenomena of their apparent conjunction is to be found in quite another direction. It is that their victims have substituted for religion a sensuous excitement which is as little religious as the elation that follows indulgence in alcoholism. There is no more deadly temptation of the devil than that which hoodwinks deluded fanatics into making this terrible mistake. But it can scarcely be denied that the mystical reading of the Song of Solomon by unspiritual persons, or even by any persons who are not completely fortified against the danger, may tend in this fatal direction.


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