John's Use of the Song of Songs in the Book of Revelation
Quotations, Allusions and Legitimate Theological DependenceAmong the plethora of OT allusions biblical scholars have accepted as underlying the composition of Revelation, sparse attention has been given to themes, characters and citations from the Song. Beale notes several that seem to be clearly drawn out of the Song. In his comments on Rev. 3:20, Beale recognizes a dependence on Song 5:2. He writes:
This is an invitation not for the readers to be converted by to renew themselves in a relationship with Christ that has already begun, as is apparent from v. 19. Of course, it is possible that some in the readership professed to know Christ, but never really had; for them, the call would be to make their profession genuine. The allusion to Canticles 5:2 points to a focus on renewal of a relationship, since the husband knocks on the door of the bedchamber to encourage his wife to continue to express her love to him and let him enter, but she at first hesitates to do so. By analogy, Christ the husband, is doing the same thing with regard to His bride, the church. Similarly, some Jewish commentators understood “open to me” in Cant. 5:2 as a call for Israel’s repentance within the purported context of a covenant relationship with God…”Despite the somewhat cautious manner with which Beale acknowledges Johns’ use of Song 5:2, in the introduction to his commentary he explicitly notes that the Song is to be categorized with those OT books that played a role a role in the composition of the Apocalypse:
There is a general acknowledgement that the Apocalypse contains more OT references than any other NT book, although past attempts to tally the total number have varied because of the different criteria employed to determine the validity of an OT reference and the inclusion by some authors of “echoes” and parallels of a very general nature. The range of the OT usage includes the Pentateuch, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Job, and the major and minor prophets. Roughly, more than half the references are from the Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, and in proportion to its length, Daniel yields the most.Beale draws many of his conclusions from the work of H.B. Swete, who, nearly a century earlier, noted that “the writer of the Apocalypse refers to each of the three great divisions of the canon, and to most of the books He lays under contribution each of the books of the Law, the books of the Judges, the four books of the Kingdoms, the Psalms, the Proverbs, the Song, the book of Job, all the major and seven of the minor prophets.” This line of argumentation is sufficient grounds for a thorough consideration of the apostle’s intentional dependence on Canticles. Nevertheless, one of the most common objections to a Christological interpretation of the Song is the lack of explicit reference in the NT. Neither Jesus, nor the apostles, explicitly quotes a single verse from the Song. The lack of explicit citations does not negate the use of earlier parts of Scripture in intertextual studies. Steve Moyise, in his masterpiece The Old Testament in the Book of Revelation, provides a helpful discussion with regard to this matter. Moving from the use of the OT in the writings of Paul to John’s uses, Moyise notes:
Previous studies of Paul’s use of Scripture have concentrated on his explicit quotations and have therefore been of limited use for students of Revelation. Hays, however, while taking his cue from the quotations, seeks to unearth the ‘unstated or repressed points of resonance’ contained in the text. For Hays, Paul’s faith ‘is one whose articulation is inevitably intertextual in character, and Israel’s Scripture is ‘determinative subtext that plays a constitutive role’ in shaping his literary production…The phrase ‘connotations bleed over’ is a useful one even when we are not specifically dealing with dissimile. By incorporating allusions into his work, John has created a new figuration whereby the old words are given a new context and principally derive their meaning from that.John’s use of the Song in Revelation is not to be found in literary genre or explicit citations; rather, it is seen in words, images and thematic allusions. The connection between love and worship serves as the central link between the Song and Revelation. Within this connection allusions to the Bride and Bridegroom, Virgins, City/Temple/Dwelling Place personification runs throughout both highly symbolic books. The question of John’s allusions to portions of the OT cannot be satisfactorily answered until a definition of allusions is settled. This is, in and of itself, a difficult task on account of the various types of allusions found in the NT. Before settling on a definition of an “allusion,” one must first distinguish between direct and elusive allusions. A direct allusion is a citation of such an obvious nature that it is clearly seen to be such upon a prima facia reading of the text. An example a direct allusion is found in Rev. 2:26-27. In His message to the church of Thyratia, Jesus promised the one who overcomes that he would “be given power over the nations.” Without any formal introduction, the Lord alludes to Psalm 2:? : “He shall rule them with a rod of iron. They shall be dashed to pieces like the potter’s vessels.” In its original context, this Messianic Psalm has direct application to Christ. He is Yahweh’s King who is set on the “holy hill of Zion.” He is the Son that men are commanded to kiss “lest His wrath is kindled.” The Father declared that the Son would dash the nations to pieces like a potters vessel. In Rev. 2:27 the believer is said to dash the nations “to pieces like a potter’s vessel.” While it may be argued that this is a direct quotation from Psalm 2, because of its theological usage, it is more properly a “direct allusion” to the passage. An elusive allusion carries with it “echoes” of an OT text or theological concept. According to John Pauline, an “echo” is “a live symbol” that “has become divorced from its original context. One of the clearest examples of an “allusive allusion” (i.e. an “echo”) is John’s reference to the “virgins” in Revelation 14:1. The OT is replete with references to “virgins.” In Rev. 14, the “virgins” are those who “follow the Lamb wherever He goes.” If they were sexually and morally pure, why would they need to follow the Lamb (signifying the saving work of the One who was slain for sinners)? Because they are following Christ, who died for their sins, they are made spiritually faithful (and in that sense can be called “virgins”), in contrast to being spiritual adulterers (see Matt. 12:39; and 16:4). The allusion is taken directly out of Psalm 45:14, Song 1:3; and 6:8, but must be understood to be an elusive allusion, or “echo,” based on the fact that the meaning of the name virgins, in these places, is bound up with the original context, as well as with the contrasting meaning of the term “adulterous,” and “adulteresses,” as it is used in such places as Matt. 12:39; 16:4, and James 4:4. Paulien further explains the difference between the two forms of inter-textual adaptation when he suggests:
The author may use a source directly and consciously with its original context in mind. Such an allusion is "willed into being." The author is fully conscious of the source as well as of its relevance to his composition. He/she is assuming the reader's knowledge of the source and of his/her intention to refer to that source. On the other hand, an author may "echo" ideas, the origin of which he/she is unaware. In an echo, the author does not point the reader to a particular background source, but merely utilizes a "live symbol" that would be generally understood in his original situation.Dismissing the arbitrary nature of Paulien’s political correctness with regard to the gender of biblical writers, and his suggestion concerning the biblical authors’ unconscious knowledge of the source of the “echoes,” we must draw upon his suggestion that there are both allusions and echoes used in the composition of the Apocalypse. The allusions would be, as he has noted, the use of “ a source directly and consciously with its original context in mind.” The echo would function, in accord with his definition, as a “live symbol” that the author made use of, albeit, consciously from an earlier portion of the canon, in order to help his readers understand better the spiritual relationship between what was taught in the earlier and later portions of Scripture. It is my contention that John used the entire background of the love/worship imagery of the Song as an echo in the Apocalypse. The identification of OT citations in the book of Revelation becomes all the more difficult when entering into the discussion of which version of the OT the apostle used. The interpreter cannot proceed with a study of allusions prior to coming to a settled conclusion concerning what version of the OT John relied on. Was H.B. Swete correct when he suggested that John depended upon the LXX (i.e. the “Alexandrian version” of the HB)? Or did he, as more recent scholars have been apt to conclude, rely primarily on his knowledge of the Hebrew version of the OT? Swete concluded: “The Apocalyptist generally availed himself of the Alexandrian version of the Old Testament. The familiar phraseology of the LXX meets us everywhere, and here and there were observe its peculiar renderings…On the other hand many of the references depart widely from the LXX. In particular words where the writer of the Apocalypse has either rendered independently, or has used another version, or possibly a text of the LXX different from that found in our manuscript.” Beale’s conclusions are radically different than those of Swete. He suggests that “the majority of commentators have not followed Swete’s assessment that John depended mainly on the LXX and have apparently followed Charles’ conclusion that John was influenced more by the Hebrew than the Greek OT, a conclusion based mainly on the observation that John’s allusions depart from the wording of the LXX. But the wording also departs from the Hebrew at significant points. The likelihood is that John draws from both Semitic and Greek biblical sources and often modifies both.” It seems that even Swete himself made a concession with regard to any exclusive dependence upon the LXX. As is true of the book of Revelation, one of the principle obstacles to the interpretation of the Song is the highly symbolic nature of the book. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a “symbol” as “something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; especially: a visible sign of something invisible.” Whether or not one chooses to use the language of “symbol,” with regard to the poetic language of the Song, it is clear that the language points away from itself to some other referent. There must be a referent to which the description finds its counterpart. When the brothers of the Shulamite say of her, “We have a little sister, and she has no breasts. What shall we do for our sister in the day when she is spoken for? If she is a wall, we will build upon her a battlement of silver; and if she is a door, we will enclose her with boards of cedar,” the reader is forced to interpret the symbolism of the language. In other words, what is meant when the brothers say that their sister has no breasts? Is that to be taken literally? Are they poking fun at her? Or do they mean to teach some other physical or spiritual characteristic of their sister? What do they mean when they say, “If she is a wall, we will build upon her a battlement of silver?” Surely that cannot be taken in a literalistic manner. What does the reference to a “door” mean, and what would be the significance of it being made of “cedar”? Many and varied have been the attempts to answer these questions. In the history of interpretation on the Song, there has tended to be two schools of thought with regard to the interpretation of the symbolism. The first approaches the Song with the presupposition that it is merely a human love poem in which the beauty of erotic love is described and encouraged in the context of marriage. Tremper Longman, one of the leading proponents of this view, commenting on Song 8:8-9 notes:
The brothers are in the role of the protectors and they ask, “What shall we do?” They want to know what they can do to take care of their sister….They express this in terms of her physical maturity—“her breasts are small.” They want to protect their immature sister…In this context of sexuality and relationship, it is most probably that the day they have in mind is her future wedding day. With regard to the language of “wall,” door,” and “cedar,” Longman explains:
They speak metaphorically of her as a wall (homa) and then as a door (delet). This architectural imagary denotes her sexual activity, or, so they hope, the lack of it. The image of the door is clearer, and so we will begin with that explanation. A door is an opening into a room, building, or city. The second colon describes the brothers intended reaction, if the women is (sexually) opened to others, i.e. promiscuous. Use of the door image has an Ancient Near Eastern background, as illustrated in the Gilgamesh epic…However, if the woman prove to be a door, then they will watch over her with a cedar board. In other words, they will plug up her opening.In contrast to Longman’s erotica interpretation of the Song, Jonathan Edwards noted that the image of doors of cedar come directly from the account of the building of the Kings’ house and the Temple. Solomon’s involvement is evident. Instead of trying to interpret the symbol from a strictly sexual standpoint, the interpretation would fit with the biblical theology of the symbolism of the Temple. The difference is enormous. The Temple was an archetype of Christ and the Church. The Song employs Temple language to speak of the relationship between the Bridegroom and the Bride. The Book of Revelation also draws together the language/symbolism from the Temple, and the theme of the love that exists between the Bridegroom and the Bride. The principal way in which older expositors, such as John Owen and Jonathan Edwards, sought to interpret these symbols was in light of other symbolic analogies within the canon. One of the best example of this principle is seen in the way that Owen interprets Song 5:10-16 in light of Rev. 1:12-16. Owen draws a connection between the description of the Beloved in Song 5:10-16 and the symbolic description of Christ in Revelation 1:12-16. While the genre of the books and the symbols are different, they are both symbolic descriptions used to portray the glories of the Bridegroom. Interestingly, they both use imagery from the Temple. The Beloved’s legs are likened to pillars. There were two famous pillars in the OT—Jachin and Boaz—the pillars in the Temple. In Rev. 1, Christ is depicted as being dressed like the High Priest who is standing in the midst of the lampstands—an obvious allusion to the Holy Place of the Temple.
Reformation/Post-Reformation HermenueticsIn the history of Reformation and Post-Reformation scholarship, intertextual dependence was a fundamental hermeneutical principle. Thematic, typological and systematic associations were frequently made in communion sermons preached by the Puritans. The greater part of modern scholars have either rejected or simply ignored historical conclusions on account of what they consider to be an “hermeneutical imprecision” with which Christological conclusions were reached. Expositions of the Song, prior to the Enlightenment, reveal an common intertextual, thematic association. The love of God and the worship of God, culminating in communion between the believer and God, proved to be, time and time again, the common thematic footing upon which most theologians approached the book. This was true of both Jewish and Christian interpretations. Unlike Jewish interpreters, the Reformers and Puritans were not satisfied with a mere Theistic interpretation. They grounded their reading of Scripture upon a distinctively Christian Theism, insisting on the Christological interpretation of the Song. Keeping the Song in canonical perspective, the Puritans made intertextual associations where they believed the principle of “comparing Scripture with Scripture” necessitated such a relationship. Psalm 45 and Isaiah 5 became important guides for the identification of “the Beloved,” and the book of Hosea helped establish the analogy between human love and Divine worship. On account of similar language and themes they often drew connections between the symbols found in the Canticles and those of the book of Revelation. The extraordinary, experiential nature of these books led them to seek what benefit could be derived as it related to Christ and the believer. While other Puritan pastors and theologians drew connections between the Song and Revelation, none were so reflective as that of John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. Owen’s Communion with the Triune God is arguably the most impressive Puritan expressions of a Christological interpretation of the Song. Jonathan Edwards’ expositions of the Song, while scattered throughout his writing, is unparalleled in regard to its rich biblical-theological substance and grammatical-historical methodology. Despite criticisms that have been leveled at Owen, it is evident that both he and Edwards both sought to ground their interpretations in a coherent grammatical-historical-theological methodology. While these two texts do not share literary genre or etymological dependence, the similarity in symbolism—only found in these two parts of Scripture—considered in light of the theme of love and glory, is reason enough for closer consideration.
Modern ScholarshipWhile the majority of modern interpreters have rejected a Christological interpretation of the Song, a few scholars have suggested a dependence on the Song in the composition of the book of Revelation. Depending on the context, an apostolic use of the Song in the NT could help establish a Christological interpretation of the Song. In regard to those places of Revelation, in which allusions to the Song have been acknowledged, an experiential element exists in the context. This lends support to the conclusion that the substance of the Song and the book of Revelation. The experiential nature of these two books is marked by the idea of love/longing, as it is seen against the background of absence/presence. Both begin with a declaration of the Bridegroom’s love. Both conclude with an expressed longing for the Bridegroom to appear. Both books center on the dwelling of the Bridegroom with his Bride. Geographical locations are used symbolically in both books. The spatial nomenclatures that are applied to the characters of the Song serve to reveal the archetypal fulfillment of the prototypes. For instance, both books employ Garden-Temple-City language to describe the lovers. The identification of the Church as Garden-City in the Apocalypse is set fort in its eschatological fulfillment. Nothing less should be expected from the apex of covenantal revelation. The Song, on account of its historical location in the canon, leaves the symbolic language to stand on its own apart from the clear interpretation that can only be ascertained from the fuller revelation of the NT. This is not to say that the Christological interpretation of the Song could not be ascertained before the completion of the canon. The apostolic assimilation of these theologically significant locales, provides a conclusive hermeneutical key for the understanding of the references to these themes in the OT. One noteworthy exception to this modern rejection of a canonical reading of the Song stands out. Ellen Davis has written a commentary on the Song which, while it is not explicitly Christological, gives a biblical theological approach similar to that outlined above. Davis has many valuable insights in the Garden/City/Temple symbols in the Song.
John’s Use of the Song in the Fourth GospelThe fourth Gospel has been subject to some investigation into possible allusions to the Song. There are, several places in the fourth Gospel that seem to draw from themes and characters of the Song to explain the relationship between Christ and the believer. In Ann Windsor’s fascinating work A King is Bound in the Tresses and Michel Raffaterri’s Simiotics of Poetry careful consideration is given to the possibility of allusions to the Song in John 12:1-6 and John 20:1-17. the basis of as the place where we would expect to find allusions to the Song in the writings of the Apostle John. Jack Lundmon draws out an interesting comparison between the Song and the fourth Gospel. He suggests that there is probably a literary dependence on Song 3:1-5 on the part of the apostle John in the composition of the record of Mary Magdelene at the tomb of Jesus (John 20:1-17). Lundmon suggests that it is “possible that the account of Mary's Easter morning experience in John 20 may deliberately have been shaped against the background of the woman singing her song and dreaming her dream in Song of Songs 3:1-4.” Even a cursory reading of Song 3:1-5 and John 20:1-17 leads the reader to marvel at the similarity in the experiences outlines in these two chronologically distanced texts. If there an express a relationship exists between the two, it must be that the apostle John, often hailed the apostle of love, was so immersed in the theology of the Song of Songs that his historical record is, without historical compromise, shaped by the experiential nature of the Song. In other words, John, under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit, brought the historical and theological significance of the events surrounding the incarnation of the Son of God together in such a way that that the reader would could see the OT background as the necessary preparation for the reception of Israel’s Messiah. Consider the following parallels between the two passages:
A. All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves; I looked for him but did not find him.
B. I will get up now and go about the city, through its streets and squares; I will search for the one my heart loves. So I looked for him but did not find him.
C. The watchmen found me as they made their rounds in the city. “Have you seen the one my heart loves?
D. Scarcely had I passed them when I found the one my heart loves. I held him and would not let him go till I had brought him to my mother’s house, to the room of the one who conceived me.
E. Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.
A. Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head….but Mary stood outside the tomb crying.
B. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him."
C. At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. "Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?"
D. Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."
E. Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'
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