Problem: Evangelical Christians defend the literal interpretation of the Bible. They insist that it should be taken in its normal, historical-grammatical sense, not in some hidden, mystical, or allegorical sense. To do so in the Gospels, for example, leads to liberalism, denying the historicity of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. However, many evangelicals do not take the Song of Solomon literally, but give it an allegorical or spiritual meaning. Is this not inconsistent?
Solution: There are three basic interpretations of the Song of Solomon—the literal, the allegorical, and the typical.
First, there is a literal interpretation. According to this view, it is a literal story about King Solomon and his love for his wife and her love for him, although scholars differ over just which of his 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3) this might be. Some say it was “the daughter of Pharaoh” (1 Kings 11:1). Others suggest it was a lowly maiden known as the Shulamite. But all who take it literally insist that it is about the historical King Solomon and a love affair he had with a woman. They insist, then, that the book is intended to extol the beauty, purity, and sanctity of marriage.
Second, others take an allegorical interpretation of the book, shying away from the more sensuously descriptive parts of the story. They prefer to see a deeper meaning, such as Yahweh’s love for His people Israel (cf. Hosea) or, more broadly, God’s love for His people in general.
Third, many Christians opt for a typical interpretation of this canticle, seeing in it the prefiguration or type of Christ and His love for the church (cf. Eph. 5:28–32). This view also denies that the book should be taken in a literal sense, insisting rather on a deeper spiritual meaning.
Whatever application this love story may have to God’s relation to His people, or Christ’s love for His church, it seems better to insist on a literal interpretation of this book for the following two basic reasons. First, it is inconsistent to allegorize this story and insist on taking the Gospels and other parts of Scripture literally. Second, taking it literally does not contradict any other teaching of Scripture. Rather, it complements it in many ways. God instituted marriage (Gen. 2:23–24). God created sex and gave it to humans to enjoy within the bonds of marriage (Gen. 1:27; Prov. 5:17–19). Paul declared that sex should be exercised within a monogamous marriage (1 Cor. 7:1–5). Timothy was informed that sex within marriage should not be forbidden (1 Tim. 4:1–4) and that God “gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). The Song of Solomon is a beautiful example of a real romance between two actual people that extols the biblical view of sex and marriage.
Since a literal marriage does, according to Paul, exemplify the love of Christ for His bride, the church, there is no reason we cannot take this literal love story as a picture of God’s love. However, to claim the story is not literally true, or that it is a type or prediction of Christ’s love for the church goes beyond the meaning of the text.