Four things puzzle Agur the son of Jakeh, elusive author of Proverbs 30: eagles in the sky, serpents on rocks, ships on the sea, and “the way of a man with a maid” (v. 19). Agur is thinking of the mysteries of attraction and passion.
There are plenty of puzzles in that arena of our experience. “How did he end up with her?” we wonder. “What does she see in him?” In the end we have to throw up our hands, as Agur did: This is a thing “too wonderful for me” (30:18).
But that is not all that Agur had in mind, I suspect, and I’m not alone in my suspicion. Throughout church history, preachers, monks, and scholars have poured over the love lyrics of the Song of Songs on the assumption that the Song would reveal something more than the mystery of sexual or romantic love. Jews suspected the same. Solomon’s Song is about the wonders of the way of a man with a maid, but that mysterious way points to the even more mysterious ways of Yahweh with His people, of the man Jesus Christ with His church.
If we read the Song from that angle, we arrive at some surprising, not to say alarming, conclusions. For instance, Solomon has a persistent tendency to describe his bride using language associated with scandalous women, prostitutes and such.
The bride has a mouth like a scarlet thread (Song of Songs 4:3). While scarlet is one of the colors in the threads of the tabernacle curtains (Exodus 25:4; 26:1, 31, 36; etc.), it is also prominent in the stories of Tamar (Genesis 38) and Rahab (Joshua 2). The latter was a harlot, and the former played one. And of course, the last references to scarlet in the Bible occur in passages about the harlot, the harlot city of Revelation, who is clothed in (temple) scarlet and, for good measure, rides a scarlet beast (17:3-4; 18:12, 16).
And this is not the only connection of the bride of the Song with the bad girls of the Bible. The bride is veiled (Song of Songs 4:1), which reminds us again of Tamar playing prostitute (Genesis 38:15). When she finds that her beloved is missing in the middle of the night, she doesn’t wait for him to come back or check his cell phone. She charges out into the “streets and squares” calling his name and seeking the one her soul loves (Song of Songs 3:1-3; 5:2-8). Her desperate pursuit looks a lot like Lady Folly prowling the streets at midnight looking for men to devour (Proverbs 7:9-23).The bride resembles Ruth in this, a Moabitess who seems to imitate the incestuous plots of the mother of Moab, Lot’s daughter (compare Genesis 19:30-38 with Ruth 3!).
What are we to make of this? Allegory helps out here. If the bride of the Song is a symbol of the church, her resemblance to a prostitute is hardly surprising. The gospel, after all, is not the story of a good girl who earns the hero’s love. Scripture instead tells the story of a woman in scarlet re-garbed in white, of a harlot made over into the bride.
But there’s something more to say too. After all, the Bridegroom of the Song loves the bride for her scarlet mouth. It’s beautiful to him. The bride’s apparent mimicry of harlots reveals an unsettling aspect of the church’s love for Christ. When Jesus came filled with the zeal of His Father’s Spirit, people thought Him mad. The bride of the Song is filled with the same madness: Twice she says that she is sick with love (2:5; 5:8). Allegorically, this means that the church, filled with the Spirit and zeal of Jesus, is driven made by her love and longing.
Christians err in being too quick to bow to middle class propriety. Jesus didn’t. He corrected and even insulted hosts during dinner. He turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple. Jesus wasn’t easy to have a round. He was what we would call a problem. Jesus was a handful.
I’m not encouraging anyone to flout convention for the sake of flouting convention, much less endorsing sexual promiscuity or prostitution. But Scripture does urge us to be consumed with zeal for the house of the Lord, to love Jesus with the same mad love with which He loves His Father. Scandalous as it sounds, it would be a sign of vitality if the church were more often mistaken for a lusty harlot than a shriveled spinster.