Solomon’s Song of Songs has been celebrated as the greatest of love songs ever written. And yet it’s notoriously difficult to understand. Commentators throughout the centuries have disagreed over several basic questions of interpretation: Is this a single poem with a coherent plot, or an anthology of multiple, independent love poems? How many main characters are there? What is Solomon’s role in the Song? A particularly significant question for Christian readers is: how do we relate this Song to Christ?

Historically, most Christian and Jewish interpreters favored an ​allegorical ​approach to the Song, seeing the text as symbolically pointing to a deeper, spiritual truth. For many Jewish readers, the Song’s lover and beloved were understood to represent God and his covenant people, Israel. And from at least the time of Origen of Alexandria in the third century, most Christian readers understood the Song as symbolizing Christ’s relationship either to the individual soul or to the church corporately.

With few exceptions, the allegorical approach prevailed until the 19th century. With the rise of modern scholarship came a renewed emphasis on the literal ​meaning of the text, along with a suspicion toward allegorical readings. As a result, many commentators today see the Song as nothing more than an expression of sexual love between a husband and wife. They often argue that an allegorical approach can’t be justified by the text itself, and that such an approach probably says more about the prudishness of traditional Christian readers when it comes to the topic of sex.

But what if we don’t have to pit the traditional and modern readings against each other? What if it’s possible to take the Song both ​as a celebration of marital intimacy ​and ​also as an allegory of Christ and the church? A growing number of evangelicals today, such as ​James Hamilton​ and Alastair Roberts​, have made the case that the Song itself actually invites such an approach.

Wedding the Literal and Allegorical

Here I’d like to offer three pieces of evidence for wedding the literal reading with the allegorical reading.

1. Its Place in a Christ-Centered Canon

Christians recognize that the Bible, though written over the course of many centuries by many different human authors, is inspired by a single divine Author with a single overarching purpose. The Bible is fundamentally a story that points us to Christ. Christ himself treated Scripture in this way. For example, when speaking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus claimed that the entire Old Testament points to him (Luke 24:27; cf. John 5:46). Since the Song of Songs is a part of the canon of Scripture, it’s appropriate for us to ask how this text points to Christ.

We can also consider the ways that the Song is specifically echoed in later New Testament writings. While it’s true that the New Testament doesn’t contain any direct quotations of the Song (with the possible disputed exception of John 7:38 quoting from Song 4:15), there are a number of allusions that strongly point to the Song’s influence. For example, one can compare the lover knocking on the door of his beloved (Song 5:2) with the words of Christ: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Rev. 3:20). The imagery of Christ as a “bridegroom” (Matt. 25:1–13; John 3:29; cf. Rev. 19:6–9) also echoes the Song. Some interpreters have likewise noted close verbal connections between the woman’s use of fragrant nard (Song 1:12) and Mary’s anointing Jesus with fragrant nard (John 12:1–3), and also between the woman seeking her beloved (Song 3:1–5) and Mary Magdalene seeking Christ at the empty tomb (John 20:1–18).

If the New Testament authors understood and applied the themes of the Song in a Christological direction, then it’s right for us to do so as well.

If the New Testament authors understood and applied the themes of the Song in a Christological direction, then it’s right for us to do so as well.

2. Clues Within the Song Itself

James Hamilton identifies three aspects of the Song that point us to Christ: its setting, its plot, and its hero.

The two locations that form the setting are a garden and Jerusalem, the city of David. This parallels the broad storyline of Scripture, which begins in an uncultivated Eden and concludes in the new Jerusalem, displaying humanity’s trajectory as God intended. The Song is also a multisensory book, filled with spices and fruits that immerse the reader in an environment redolent of Eden. In fact, says Hamilton, “The closest we get to being back to the Garden of Eden in the rest of the Bible is in the poetry of the Song of Songs.”

The plot of the Song follows the pursuit and consummation of the love between a husband and wife, and yet their intimacy is wholly uninterrupted by the shame and hostility introduced by the fall.

The hero of the Song is Solomon (or at least an idealized version of Solomon), the son of David, who represents the line through which the blessings promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3) would come to fruition and undo the curses of Genesis 3. All of these aspects of the Song signal a greater fulfillment in Christ, the ultimate Son of David, whose saving work overcomes sin and shame and restores us to loving fellowship with God.

3. Mystery of Marriage Itself

Perhaps the strongest argument for taking the Song allegorically is the symbolic nature of marriage itself. Throughout Scripture, marriage is treated as a metaphor for God’s relationship to his people. The prophet Hosea’s own marriage to faithless Gomer was intended to be a living parable of God’s commitment to faithless Israel (Hos. 1–2). Israel is elsewhere described as God’s “beloved” (Jer. 11:15; 12:7), with whom he enters into a marriage covenant (Ezek. 16:8).

Especially significant are Paul’s words in Ephesians 5, where he instructs wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives. He speaks of the one-flesh union described in Genesis 2:24 and writes, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32).

When a Christian husband faithfully fulfills his role to lead and love his wife, and when a Christian wife fulfills her role to honor and respect her husband, it puts the gospel on display in a way that no other human institution can. Therefore, we’re justified in saying that the Song of Songs is an allegory of Christ and the church, because ​marriage itself ​is designed as an allegory of Christ and the church.

We’re justified in saying that the Song of Songs is an allegory of Christ and the church because ​marriage itself ​is designed as an allegory of Christ and the church.

Enhanced Marriage Manual

When we consider the Song’s canonical context, its own textual clues, and the nature of marriage itself, we’re on solid ground in applying this book to Christ and his bride, the church.

This in no way diminishes what the book has to say about the sexual love between a husband and a wife. If anything, the Christological reading ​enhances ​what it says about marriage, by imbuing marriage with a significance that goes beyond the physical satisfaction that it provides.

The Song of Songs serves as a beautiful reminder that a godly marriage reflects the Lord’s passionate love for his own people.