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The mystical reading of the Song of Songs (union between God & Soul)
a necessary background for understanding Bachs religious works
examples from BWV 140: Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme

The following few lines about the allegorical explanation of the Song of Songs are totally dependent on the sublime ‘commentary on the Book of Canticles or The Song of Songs’ by Roland E. Murphy, published in a series called: ‘Hermeneia - a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible’, 1990. I wrote it, because I have the feeling that the mystical reading of the bible is closer to 'what the bible is meant for' than the biblicist a-historical reading. There is no such thing as 'plain' reading and 'plain meaning' of any serious text. It is also a personal tribute to two of the greatest 'founding fathers' of the christian church and literature, Origenes and Bernardus of Clairvaux. Both holy man in the Lutheran sense: simul iustus ac peccator.

L.S. Dick Wursten


In the years between 240-245 (C.E.) Origen wrote a ten-volume commentary on the Song of Songs, part of which is written while he stayed in Palestine. Perhaps this profound scholar also knew and discussed the meaning of this little book of love-songs with his rabbinical colleagues and one thing is sure: They would only have disagreed on the application of the allegorisation, not on the principle of allegorisation itself. Rabbi Akiba (d. 135 C.E.) f.i. is famous for his allegorical statements about this book. Many scholars even suggest that it is only because of the rabbinical allegorical interpretation that the Song of Songs, or the Book of Canticles became part of the Old Testament canon. In Jewish tradition the love depicted is the love between Israel and its God, in christian tradition between God/Christ and his 'people', the church (or the individual member of it, the soul). 

Both traditions (testimonies can be found by Akiba and Origen) are well aware, that one can easily read the Song of Songs as a Book of secular marriage-canticles written in the form of a drama (Origen uses the words: epithalamium… and dramatis in modum). In his commentaries Origen even provides us with a ‘historical-sociological’ reconstruction of the settings and circumstances that might have been the original ‘biotope’ of some of these songs, but having provided his readers with all this he writes: “But these things seem to me to afford no profit to the reader as fas as the story goes; nor do they maintain any continuous narrative such as we find in other Scripture stories. it is necessary, therefore, rather to give them all a spiritual meaning”…

By the way: This is a very illuminating sentence on the ‘motive’ of allegorization: It is the lack of logical coherent narrative meaning in a bibletext, that is the indication that the text should be (= is meant to be) interpreted spiritually.

The Greek anthropology (which is dual, not dualistic) is predominant in Origens explanation. Every individual is a combination of two persons, an inner and an outer: soul and body. Of course Origen gives a christian articulation (along neo-platonic lines): The inner person, the soul, is created in the image of God and is immortal; the outer person, his physical body is secondarily fashioned by God from the dust of the earth. Since these two persons are counterparts and coexist in earthly life, Scripture – says Origen – often uses the same terminilogy to descrbie their various attributes and activities. What is said literally about the one person (the outer) can also be applied in a figurative sense to the other person (the inner).

The Song of Songs is very fit to do this exercise. The Germans would say: gefundenes Fressen. But also dangerous. Because the higher and spiritual sense can only be properly understood by a highly spiritual person. A person, who still is too much impressed by the 'flesh' will surely be tempted to be satisfied with the literal meaning of the booklet and then he errs. Because, according to this view, we first have to grasp the litteral meaning in order to proceed an try to ‘see’ the spiritual sense, hidden within. This 'view' is certainly a mental processus, is 'theoria', the contemplative view. With his explanation of The Song of Songs Origen reads the booklet as love-songs which describe the love and longing between Christ and his bride, the Church. In his homilies he normally sticks to this general interpretation, in his commentaries he tries to explain in an allegorical way as many details as possible and he also developes the thought that the bride also can be the Soul of the individual. Gregory the Great (6th century) continues and summarizes Origens thoughts. He also is well aware of the literal sense… To give an example. He writes: In this book are mentioned kisses, breasts, cheeks, thighs…[Nominantur enim in hoc libro oscula, nominantur ubera, nominantur genae, nominantur femora]. But he shows himself a true disciple of Origen in adding that these words of the love that is below (amor qui infra est) are used because the soul has to be moved to love that which is above (amor qui supra est).

And still modern critics state that these men were not able to deal properly with sexuality in general and their own in particular and that allegorisation is a kind of 'denying' and 'sbulimation' in the Freudian sense of these words. Who is the one that is pre-occupied with eroticism, I sometimes wonder ? In any case: I prefer to call it sublime in the way Kant and Lyotard use this epitheton (ornans).

One text which Origen and all the rest linger on is ch. 1: 2a, ("Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth"). In monastic spirituality and contemplation which starts to blossom in the Middle Ages this longing for the lovers' kiss is understood as an image of the spiritual and mystical colloquy between God and the Soul of man. Greogry quotes Numbers 12:6-8, which uses the expression ‘mouth to mouth’ to convey the particular intimacy of God’s conversations with Moses. He says 'God ‘so to speak’ kissed Moses. Returning to Song of Songs 1:2a he comments: To speak mouth to mouth is as it were to kiss, and to touch the mind by inner understanding. Bernardus of Clairvaux expanded this thought extensively in his sermons on the Song of Songs, on which he worked from 1135 – 1153.

The imagery is clear then: God is the male lover, the bridegroom and the bride can be (and here we find different accents and likings): The soul of the individual christian, the unblemished church and since Bernardus of Clairvaux (although he was not the first to suggest the possibility. Ambrose already mentioned it!) Mother Mary also is a candidate. These different strata of various but intertwined senses explain why the hermeneutical texture of the Song of Solomon is so complex and rich in meaning. Many centuries of bible-interpretation have contributed to it, woven this text(ure). Monumental are esp. the oeuvres of Origen and Bernardus of Clairvaux. In his famous sermons (4 vols of his Oopera Omnia) the last constructs a complete universe of meaning around the Song. At the same time he realizes that what he is doing is not objective, scientific exegesis, but a spiritual walk in the gardens of Divine meaning. It is no exegesis but lectio divina. His aim is to affect the souls of his listeners (monks) and readers (they were published soon), to influence hearts and to fill them with the longing for and the love of Christ, he believes the core issue of faith... He states somewhere: I didnot try to give an explanation of het Gospel, but I found an occasion in the Gospel to say what gives joy to the heart. Mystical theology does not argue... It has to do with 'tasting' the goodness of the Lord.

It is not possible to linger on the changes and continuity (more continuity than changes BTW) in the reformation period. The historical setting is better grasped, but the interpretation always returns to an allegorical (sometimes despite of the explicit condemnation of it). The Song of Songs doesn't consist of secular love-poetry but is a poetical prophecy of the marriage between Christ and the church, this last phrase being from Calvins pen. 
Luther tries hard to be original and literal, but always the male protagonist is a figure of 'God' or 'the Word', whose chosen spouse is the populace of the Solomonic kingdom. This seems a historization, but it isn't, because the chosen people of Solomons kingdom represent at least proleptically the church and Gods Word is Christ. Occasionally with Luther the woman can be the individual soul, though otherwise he does reject this interpretation. His knowledge and love for the tradition is apparently so strong, that his pen can't resist the thought. In the calvinist tradition (enormously promoted by Calvins protégé and succesor, the poet-theologian Théodore de Bèze (Beza) a great love for the Song of Songs as an intellectual exegetical challenge is discernable until the present day. The 'woman' always being the 'true church'. A complete rhymed (and singable!) allegorical rendition of the Song of Songs in Dutch was already published by Jacobus Revius in the early 17th century.

intermezzo: The explanation of psalm 45 (the royal wedding) is also traditionally considered to be a poetical prophecy. The second grand hymn of Ph. Nicolai,  'Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern' is presented to us as an extended meditation on this psalm ! For the Dutch: H.F. Kohlbrugge, the dissident reformed preacher, defended exactly this explanation of psalm 45 in his dissertation in the 19th century...

Now to Bach: 

In 18th century in Germany the Lutheran tradition is completely imbedded in the hermeneutical tradition of the past centuries. Of course the Marian explanation and application is rejected, but the other two (church, soul) are normal, wellknown and firmly established. This explains partly the many mystical love-dialogues between Jesus and the Soul, which can be found in the scripts of Bachs cantatas. This way of believing (faith) and reading of Scripture was still omnipresent in devotional literature and in the sunday sermons. The bride being the church was the official exegesis, but I am sure that under the influence of the growing individualism of that era [which is also very present in the anti-modern (but oh so modern !) pietism with its heavy accent on individual piety, stressing the personal experience which belongs to it.] will have made the application Soul – Jesus predominant.

Theological research also has made clear that the imagery of mystical longing for the unity with Christ was very popular in the context of the Eucharist. This shows again that the Lutheran tradition is firmly embedded in the old catholic tradition: Eating and drinking bread and wine unites the soul not symbolically but really with the living Christ. Also typical Lutheran is a strong accent on the belief that the living Christ is omnipresent not only with his spirit, but also bodily, that is: You can experience his spirit and his gifts also in a physical way.... You can feel it, tast it. This real experience (I mean: physically felt, experienced) of the unity with Christ is a typical aspect of Lutheran piety in the 17th and 18th century. Read Nicolais songs (both Wachet auf and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern) with this in mind and you will immediately see what I mean. The song of Songs provides ritual texts and mystical language which is appropriate to express this experience in.

 The fact that modern research has long shown that the Song of Songs is about sexual fulfillment, fervently sought and consummated in reciprocal love between woman and man (with parallels in the Arabic ritual matrimonial songs), for me does not mean that we should dismiss the whole allegorical interpretation of this little book. That whould be very presumptuous and a sign of disrespect for our forefathers. I think we should be open to the possibility that our predecessors, despite their exaggerations and follies, may have caught a glimpse of a theological reality that is not exhausted with the literal and historical sense of Scripture. Their way of reading is so creative in the field of meaning that as a professional exegete I sometimes feel enslaved (and handicapped) by a kind of methodological correctness. They challenge me to broaden my scope as a theologian towards a more intricate intertwinement of human knowledge and knowledge of God, of experiencing God and experiencing life: Interrelationship is the keyword. Among the many ways this is preached in Scripture the recognition that human love and divine love mirror each other.

Finally: The basic formula of the bible of the relationship between God and man is - when you think of it - that of a marriagevow: “I will be your God and you shall be my people”. The Jewish wedding vow is very similar I understand. Hosea and other prophets don’t hesitate to depict JHWH as Israels proper spouse and often scorn the lack of longing an love on man’s side. Not only in Hosea but also in Isaiah (54: 4-7; 62:4-5) even an abandoned and betrayed love is overcome by gods pursuing love, which is coloured with compassion and so becomes 'caritas'. In this imagery the Song of Songs expresses the bride’s response, her memories of the divine love that had first claimed her, and her longing to experience all day the joys of the lover’s sublime presence.

To state things a little simpler: What links the literal sense to the visions of synagogue and church is the insight that love is a gift of Gods own self and that it is this gift of God which sustains the whole creation. And this gift is powerful… not stronger than death, but as strong as death (8:6). And we humans should cherish this wonderous gift and enjoy it gratefully and not throw it carelessly away. (5:1b)

Eat, friends, drink !
Drink deeply of love!

 Dick Wursten


Dick Wursten (dick@wursten.be)