The search for relevance makes allegorists of us all

We are shortly to start a preaching series on Song of Songs. I have been dipping into the commentaries and trying to get a handle on the book. In so doing, I came across this from Iain Duguid in his Tyndale Old Testament Commentary:

I have come to the conclusion that it is more helpful to retain two broad categories, we we may call the ‘spiritual’ approach and the ‘natural’ approach. The ‘spiritual’ approach encompasses all of the allegorical and typological interpretations; what binds them together is the common conviction that the primary meaning of the text is in terms of the spiritual relationship between God and his people as a whole, or God and believers as individuals. The ‘natural’ approach, on the other hand, includes all of those interpretations that see the primary signification of the text as describing human relationships.

This twofold division into spiritual and natural interpretations enables us to recognize that both of these broad categories cover a wide spectrum of approaches to the book that range from responsible attempts at biblical interpretation to the kind of free association of ideas that people often link with allegory. In other words, ‘allegory’ is not just a facet of the ‘spiritual’ approach, but of the ‘natural’ approach as well. The contemporary Christian relationship manuals that take Song of Songs as the departure point for their lessons on courtship and marriage are simply the modern equivalent of the ancient allegorists. Both use the scriptures to lend a veil of authority to their (often helpful) teachings, but neither is well grounded in a proper understanding of the text itself.

Some examples may illustrate this point. From the ‘spiritual’ side, Richard Brooks makes the following comment about Song of Songs 6:11 (‘I went down into the garden of nuts to see the fruits of the valley, and to see whether the vine flourished, and the pomegranates budded’, KJV):

“Why is the church described now as a ‘garden of nuts’ (NIV: grove of nut-trees)? The garden is already a familiar picture in the Song where the church is concerned (for example, 4:12). The nut in question is probably the walnut, having as hard shell with a sweet kernel. This would be suitable as a figurative expression of the church in its relationship both to Christ and the world, going through many tribulations in entering the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). The life of the believer is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people (Ps. 125:2).
(Brookes 1999:161)

Notice that the text of the Song doesn’t say that the church is like a nut, or even that Israel is like a nut; merely that the lover went down to a garden of nuts to see whether there was any evidence of new growth and fruitfulness. There seems no obvious reason why that thought should be connected with hard shells and sweet kernels, or with believers being ‘hidden with Christ in God’. In fact, I can think of some churches that might aptly be described as ‘a garden of nuts’, while using the image in an entirely different sense!

Yet this kind of free association of ideas is not limited by any means to the ‘spiritual interpretation’ approach. On the ‘natural interpretation’ side, Tommy Nelson says this about 5:10-12 (‘My beloved is white and ruddy, chief among ten thousand. His head is like the finest gold; his locks are wavy, and black as a raven. his eyes are like doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set’, NKJV):

“He was pure in his motives and behaviors toward her. Repeatedly she referred to him as white… his head (in this case his mind) was filled with wisdom more valuable than gold. He was respected even though he was youthful. His hair was black with no evidence of the weakness of age. Sin is often pictured in the Bible as the weakness of aging (see Hos 7:9). He was gentle; his eyes were soft and tender toward her. He was sober. The whites of his eyes were white, not reddened by alcochol of debauched living.”
(Nelson 1998: 125)

These may be excellent attributes to affirm in a husband – there is much practical advice in Nelson’s book, just as there is much spiritual truth in Brooks – but none of the connections that Nelson makes grows out of a solid understanding of the text. The word for ‘white’ (sah) used in describing the beloved here may better be translated ‘radiant’ (NIV; ESV), and is not used elsewhere in the Old Testament to describe purity; the Hebrews would never have equated the head with the mind, and the fact that the whites of the man’s eyes were, well, ‘white’ has nothing to do with his avoidance of debauched living.

Now the kind of free association that Richard Brooks and Tommy Nelson are engaged in is, of course, precisely the problem with allegorical interpretation. Given enough imagination, radically different messages can be drawn out of the same passage: the Song can relate to Yahweh and Israel, God and the church, wisdom and the individual soul, or an ordinary husband and a wife. Instead of the text controlling the interpretation, the text becomes a flexible vessel in the hands of the interpreter, a container into which meaning may be memorably imported. Positively, of course, this uncontrolled subjectivism – whether of the spiritual or natural variety – generally flow from a conviction of the importance of the pastoral relevance of scripture. As a result, when faced with a text that is hard to understand, the interpreter defaults to making it support doctrines and truths that he or she believes to be true and important. Like a mirror, allegorical exegesis tells us much more about the interpreter than it does about the biblical text. The difference in interpretation of the Song between Brooks and Nelson flows more out of a different evaluation of what is relevant to their respective hearers than from any essential difference in method. The modern prevalence of therapeutic interpretations of the Song of Songs in preference to older Christ-centred allegories may thus tell us something significant about the functional priorities of the church in our day and age, but it doesn’t help us to understand the text.

The fundamental twofold division of views on the interpretation of the Song can therefore help to identify a danger to which any interpreter may be prone: the desire for relevant application of the biblical text can make allegorists of us all. Claiming an attachment to the ‘literal’ and ‘natural’ sense of the text does not automatically free an interpreter from the temptation to wild speculation, as anyone who has ever read end-times prophetic fiction will understand. The danger of misreading the Song is present whichever view is adopted, and the only way to avoid that danger is by careful, patient and disciplined study of the text in its original context, against a proper and Ancient Near Eastern background.

Duguid 2015: pp. 28-30