The Oberlin Quarterly Review
BY PREST. ASA MAHAN.
"THERE is perhaps no book in the whole Bible," says Prof. Robinson, "which has given rise to such a variety of interpretations, as the Canticles." Of these different modes, hovever, thre are but two that have any extensive currency in the church at the present time. The first is that which has long been current in the christian church. According to this mode of interpretation, the Book is altogether an allegory, the design of which is to illustrate, under the figure of a marriage union, the relations of Christ or Jehovah, to the church, or to each particular member of the same, together with a revelation of the mutual love which connects their hearts together. According to the second mode of interpretation, the Book throughout contains nothing but an inspired description of conjugal earthly love. From both these views we feel constrained after careful reflection, to dissent. In our review of the book, we shall proceed first to present the grounds of this dessent. We will then state what, as we suppose, its real design, as a part of the sacred canon, is.
As preliminary to the attainment of our object, we will notice, in this place, the enquiry pertaining to the authorship of the poem, and the two principal characters presented therein. Of its authorship, there can be but little rational doubt.---Solomon stands at the head of it as its author, and without the highest reasons to the contrary, its authorship should not be referred to any other individual; nor have any such reasons ever been presented. The united testimony of antiquity, Jewish and Christian also, is in favor of the supposition that Solomon is the author of the Book. On this point therefore, we forbear any further remarks.
Equally manifest is the fact, that the principal characters presented in the work, are Solomon himself, as the bridegroom, and the daughter of Pharaoh, as the bride. On this point also, there is an almost universal agreement among commentators of note. That the bride is the daughter of Pharaoh, (the fact that Solomon is the bridegroom, being almost if not quite universally admitted,) is quite evident from many circumstances and allusions which we meet with in different parts of the work itself. For example, in the commencement of the poem, the bride speaks to the daughters of Jerusalem, in language such, as an Egyptian princess, and she, only among the wives of Solomon, would be likely to utter in respect to herself.
There are allusions too in the convcrsation of the bride, wholly Egyptian. In Chap. 6: 12, we have an example of this character. We give the translation of the stanza, from Prof. Stowe in the April number of the Biblical Repository, a translation which anyone who will consult the original will perceive to be the only correct one.
The two words rendered in our translation, " Aminidab," literally mean "my noble people," and cannot properly be made to mean any thing else. Such an allusion clearly marks out the bride, as a princess of a foreign nation, and no less distinctly, as of Egyptian origin.
The bridegroom also, Chap. 1: 9, Compares the bride to the horses of Pharaoh's chariots.
Nothing could be more acceptable and appropriate, than such an allusion, in the estimation of the bride, were she an Egyptian princess, and nothing more out of place, did she belong to another nation. These citations are abundantly sufficient to settle the question, who the bride is. The two-principal characters who appear in the poem, then, are Solomon and his Egyptian bride, the daughter of Pharaoh. If then the poem is, as it is now commonly supposed to be, an allegory, designed to elucidate the mutual love of Christ and his church, the nuptials between a Jewish king and a heathen princess, have been selected for the elucidation of this great truth, the most important and precious truth revealed in the scriptures. Now against such a construction we urge the following, to us, insuperable objections.
1. This is a perfectly arbitrary construction, wholly unauthorized by any thing to be found in the production itself, or in any other part of the Bible in respect to it. If this is its design, why have we not somewhere in the poem itself, or in some other part of the sacred volume, some intimation of the fact? This construction has no other basis whatever, than the mere unauthorized assumptions of commentators. That it was not inserted in the sacred canon without some design, they very properly assume; and as they could conceive of none other but that under consideration, which appeared worthy of inspiration, they have assumed for no other reason, that this was and shall be its meaning. Now against any such mode of interpreting the sacred oracles we enter our solemn protest. If such a principal be admitted as valid in this instance, we see not what valid objections can be brought against the principles of Swedenborg, by which a literal, spititual, and celestial meaning is made to attach to each passage of Holy Writ. Inspiration needs no such expedient as that to vindicate its character before the world.
2. A moment's reflection will convince our readers, that it is absolutely incredible, that such nuptials as those under consideration should be fixed upon by Inspiration for such a purpose, as is here supposed. We put the question to our readers: Is it credible, that Inspiration would fix upon a marriage union between a worshiper of the only living and true God, and a heathen woman, a devotee to one of the worst and most degrading forms of heathenism that ever disgraced humanity, as a proper medium through which to illustrate the most precious truth ever revealed to man, to wit, the union between Christ, or Jehovah and his church? Nothing is more severely condemned and reprobated in the Old Testament than such marriages. Above all others, therefore, would the spirit of inspiration condemn such an act in Solomon, the sovereign of the nation, on account of the resistless influence which his example would exert over the mass of the people. Besides, the union of Solomon with foreign wives is most conspicuously held up, not only as a sin in itself, but as the sole cause of his flagrant apostacy in the latter part of his reign. Neh. 13: 26, "Did not Solomon, king of Israel sin by these things? yet among many nations was there no king like him, who was beloved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel: nevertheless even him did outlandish women [foreign wives] cause to sin." His marriage with the daughter of Pharaoh was the first of the series of sins referred to, and the prominent one which led to all the others, and finally landed him in gross idolatry and open apostacy from the worship of the living God. Can we suppose that Inspiration has fixed upon this first act in the fearful drama that followed—an act on account of its relations to the rest, more to be reprobated than any of the others—as a theme at all fitting to illustrate a union so hallowed, so pure, and sacred as that existing between Christ and his church? Human depravity even, never put things more incongruous together. The spirit of inspiration, we hesitate not to say, has never done any such thing.
3. The manifest relations existing between the bridegroom and the bride in this poem, as far as religion is concerned, is also wholly inconsistent with the construction under consideration. Nuptials which would at all represent the union between Christ and his Church, must have their basis in religion, and be hallowed with religious sentiments. Nothing conceivable can be more unlike such a union, than nuptials from which all religious sentiments and allusions shall be wholly excluded. This is pre-eminently true of the poem before us. The name of God even in any form, or the most distant allusion to any religious sentiment of any kind, cannot be found in it. Nothing is more evident than, that in the marriage between Solomon and the daughter of Pharaoh, there was a perfect compromise, as far as the patties were concerned, between true religion and heathanism. Each was to enjoy his or her own religion without let or hindrance from the other, while in all their intercourse with each other, religion in any form was to have no place. Has the spirit of inspiration fixed upon such it connexion as that, as a fit emblem of the union existing between Christ and his Church? God forbid, that such an idea should be entertained by those who regard the scriptures as given by inrspiration of God.
4. The sentiments existing between the parties, relatively to each other, in this poem, are fundamentally unlike those existing between Christ and his Church. In the scriptures, Christ appears, to be sure, as the husband, but at the same time, as the infinite benefactor, lord, and protector of the church. The church, on the other hand, yields herself to, adores and loves him, as her benefactor, lord, and protector. In this poem the bridegroom as well as, and not less than the bride, appears as a mere adorer, overcome by the charms of the other. The union between Christ and the Church is a rational principle, to which impulse of every kind is held in strict subordination. In the production before us, the parties appear as wholly subjected to the principle of earthly love, the creatures of impulse, in whose conduct the rational principle has no place whatever. The union between Christ and the church, has its basis in benevolence and is consummated exclusively for rational, benevolent ends. The union here presented has its basis in mere personal attachment, and is consummated for mere personal gratification. Internal purity, and moral perfection, mutually perceived, is the bond of union between Christ and the church. External charms are the almost if not quite exclusive bond between the parties in this poem. In all its fundamental features, it is a union wholly unadapted to represent that consummated between Christ and the church.
In our general strictures, we have said nothing of particulair parts of the production which cannot but be regarded as grossly indelicate. Many, and perhaps all, deeply spiritual minds have found much of the language here presented of the bride towards the bridegroom adapted to express their feelings and sentiments towards Christ. But who would not be more than shocked at the conception of Christ using such language towards the church, as the bridegroom is often in this production represented as using towards the bride?— Whether we contemplate the work in reference to its general features, or descend to its particular parts, we find it wholly unadapted to represent the relations of Christ to his church.
5. We now come to our last and most conclusive argument. If the construction we are combatting is the true one, the Canticles occupy a place in the sacred canon altogether peculiar, a place however no less important than that assigned to any other book of the Old or New Testament. Of its design, all the prophets, and especially Christ and the apostles must have been fully aware, and to that high purpose they must have been all alive. Now on the supposition that the design of the production was to illustrate the union between Christ and the church, how can we account for the fict that no prophet, (all of whom wrote subsequently to the writing of this book) nor Christ himself, nor any of the writers of the New Testament ever make any citations from the book, nor any allusions to it, in any form whatever, either direct or indirect? In our judgment such facts can never be reconciled with the construction under considcration. A more unauthorized construction, one more manifestly contrary to reason and palpable facts, we venture to affirm, was never given to any production, inspired or uninspired.
The objections adduced against the allegorical construction of this poem, lie in general, with all their weight, against the supposition that it is an inspired elucidation of conjugal love. We freely admit, that this is a theme in itself by no means unworthy of the pen of inspiration. If inspiration, however were devoted to such a theme, it would elucidate it in a form in which it ought to exist, if it exist at all, a union cemented by piety and consummated for a holy and benevolent end. This is, in all respects, the reverse of the form of the principle presented in this book. It is a form of union which inspiration most strongly condemns and reprobates, a union in which piety and benevolence have no place, and the exclusive all-controlling principle of which is, mere worldly impulse. Inspiration surely has never fixed upon such a union, as a proper medium through which to elucidate conjugal love. Nothing more, therefore, needs to be added on this part of our subject.
We have now stated our main objections to the two distinct and opposite expositions given by different classes of commentators, of the poem before us. These expositions have been adopted, because Biblical critics have rightly assumed, that it was not inserted in the sacred canon without a reason, and as they were unable to discover any other than one of those above specified, they have, each class, for itself, adopted one or the other as the only true exposition. As we dissent, and as we judge for reasons abundantly sufficient, from each of these modes, our readers may very properly require us to present some other and more satisfitctory exposition. This we will now attempt to accomplish. If we should fail, however, the objections above adduced to the common expositions will remain, in all their force, and we should simply be left in a state of ignorance of the design of the insertion of the production in the canon of inspired writings. We hope that our readers will not be left in this painful condition, but that a satisfactory explanation will be given of the design of the book, an explanation which will reveal a design altogether worthy of the high purposes of Inspiration. In accomplishing this object, we remark,
1. That the poem contains a real revelation of the attitude of Solomon's mind, and that of his royal bride in relation to each other. In their early union at least, they loved each other to absolute idolatry, and this production reveals the fact in all its naked deformity, just as it is. As such a revelation, it answers the purpose of any other veritable record of an important historical fact.
2. The state of mind here revealed, constituted the first great sin of Solomon's recorded life, and that which led to all the other melancholy and gross abominations which characterized his old age. He sinned, first, in the selection, contrary to the express teachings of inspiration, of a heathen wife, and then in surrendering himself to an idolatrous worship of the woman he had thus unlawfully taken to his bosom. Here also was the "breaking forth of waters" which desolated the latter part of his reign. Hence we remark,
3. That the manifest design of inspiration, in the insertion of the poem into the sacred canon, was to give to the world a revelation of this state of mind, constituting as it did the first great sin of Solomon's reign, the sin which was the basis and cause of his subsequent apostacy into the grossest abominations of heathenism. Solomon had written a poem in which he had himself given a full and glowing representation of this state of mind just as it was. Inspiration directed its insertion in the sacred canon, as a revelation of that state. There are three great eras in the recorded life of this individual—the period of his wisdom and piety—the period in which he lost his wisdom and piety both, in his love and adoration of "outlandish women"—and that of his open apostacy consequent on those sinful alliances. Proverbs represent the operations of his mind in the fist era: Canticles those in the second, and Ecclcsiastes those in the last.---Such, as we suppose, is the true exposition of the spirit and design of Solomons Song, the true exposition of which has been a subject of so much embarrassment. We have been led to the adoption of this construction for the following reasons, among others.
1. Objections absolutely insuperable lie against all other principles of exposition hitherto proposed. This has been abundantly shown in the preceding part of this article.
2. This exposition is perfectly obvious and natural. The book does, as a matter of fact, contain a revelation of Solomon's idolatrous love of "outlandish women." This exposition makes the work a revelation of that melancholy fact. In other words, it explains the production just as it is, what all other and different principles of exposition have totally failed to do.
3. In this exposition we have a reason worthy of inspiration for the insertion of the production in the Sacred canon. The sin of Solomon, in thus yielding to such unhallowed indulgences, was a crime in itself of infinite aggravation. Its influence, as developed in his own, and the subsequent history of the nation over which he was appointed of God to rule, was no less fearful. How important that the world should possess a revelation of that sin, just as it was. How becoming the spirit of Inspiration to direct the insertion of the book containing that revelation in the Sacred canon.
4. This exposition, while it is in itself perfectly natural, is also wholly free from those fundamental objections to which other modes of exposition are subject. Much, that is found therein may, it is true, be applied to express and elucidate the love of the believer to Christ, as well as the nature of conjugal love in its appropriate forms. Very much that is found in the production, however, every one is shocked at applying to the elucidation of such sacred subjects. In our explication both classes of passages have their appropriate place. A mind such as Solomon's never gives utterance to its thoughts on any subject, without adopting many forms of speech in themselves exceedingly beautiful and proper. At the same time, the attiude of his mind towards the objects of his unhallowed attachments was such, that he would not fail to express thoughts and adopt forms of speech perfectly revolting to any pure mind, when applied to the elucidation of subjects sacred and important. All such thoughts and forms of expression have their appropriate place according to the exposition which we have given. Indeed the book is, in all respects what we should conceive it to be, were the design of its insertion in the Sacred cannon what our exposition supposes. The common exposition makes I nspiration directly responsible, for the truth and intrinsic propriety of all that is found therein. According to the exposition before us, Inspiration is responsible for no such things. The passion, the unhallowed attachment therein developed, it holds up only as an object of reprobation, just as it does most of what is found in the book of Ecciesiastes. This is just what every pure mind, whatever its theory pertaining to the book may be; cannot but feel ought to be the case.
5. Solomon's Song, we remark finally, has a very important moral attached to it, according to this exposition. Instead of teaching us, as the common exposition makes it, what that love which constitutes the basis of the marriage union, ought to be, it teaches us precisely the opposite lesson. It teaches us what it cannot be, without a loss of the Divine favor. By our Saviour we are taught, that if we love husband or wife, or any finite object more than Him, we cannot be his disciples. Let any one read Solomon's Song in the presence of those solemn declarations, and he will have distinctly revealed to him a state of mind, into which he cannot come in respect to any creature or finite object, without having other gods before Jehovah.
A question demanding a passing notice natura1ly arises in view of the exposition under consideration, to wit, was Solomon inspired when writing this Song? For ourselves we think not. We suppose he wrote it for his own gratification, and that of the inmates of his harem, particularly that of the daughter of Pharaoh. Inspiration performs no work of supererrogation. Solomon's natural powers, and state of mind being given, is all that is requisite to account for the existence of the Song. But as it revealed a great fact in the history of its author, a fact which the world needed to understand as it was, Inspiration directed its insertion in the Sacred canon, to preserve the record for the instruction and warning of mankind.
Such, as we suppose, is the design of the Canticles, together with the lesson which it teaches. If this exposition together with that given of Ecclesiastcs in former numbers be received as the true one, then, as we have said above, we have a clear understandipg of the relation of the recorded writings of Solomon, to his eventful, and in many respects, melancholy history. In Proverbs we have a revelation of the operations of his mind in the days of his purity and peace: in Canticles, when the love of God was supplanted in his heart by the love of "outlandish women:" and in Ecclesiastcs, when the evil was consummated in open apostacy from the worship of the true God.
Before closing this article, we have one request to present to all our readers. It is this, that they ponder maturely what has been written, before dissenting from its truth. "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." We are not at all insensible to the surpassing beauty of much that is found in this poem. It does not fall in with our present design, however, to descend to an elucidation of particular passages. All that we now propes is to put our readers in full possession of what we suppose to be the true idea in the light of which the whole book is to be explained.