The Song of Songs - who is the Bride?
In the first instance, the Song of Songs is a poetic love story. It deals with the relationship between King Solomon and a young lady called the “Shulamite” (6:13). He is a mighty king, and she is a simple shepherd girl who spends most of her time outdoors, being tasked with guarding the vineyards of others. At the outset, she does not seem to know who Solomon really is. Her request “Tell me, thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest thy flock?” (1:7) suggests that, at this point, she still takes him to be a simple shepherd. The book describes how the relationship between Solomon and the Shulamite develops – through ups and downs.
Whilst all this is no doubt true, it can hardly be the whole story. There must be more to this book, the only one of Solomon’s 1005 songs that was inspired – indeed the only one that has been preserved to us to this day (1 Kings 4:32). But what is the right typological interpretation as to who is the bridegroom and who is the bride?
Who is the bridegroom?
Before considering who the bride is, let’s be very clear about the identity of the bridegroom. According to Jewish tradition, the bridegroom is God (which, in one sense, is true) and the bride is Israel (which is only partly correct – more on this later). Only Scripture can provide the correct and precise answer.
In the Old Testament, God is repeatedly presented as husband and Israel as wife (Isa. 54:5). When we come to the New Testament, we learn that the Lord Himself explained in what sense God was the bridegroom: it was none other than Himself, the Word made flesh – a real Man and yet Jehovah of the Old Testament. When the disciples of John the baptist asked the Lord why His disciples – in contrast to themselves as well as the Pharisees – did not fast, He gave this remarkable answer: “Can the sons of the bridechamber mourn so long as the bridegroom is with them?” (Mt. 9:15). This statement settles the question – with divine authority. Christ was the bridegroom. He Himself declared it to be the case.
Remarkably, the Lord does not mention a bride – neither in Matthew 9 where He first declares Himself to be the bridegroom nor in Matthew 25 where you have a bridegroom and ten virgins but no bride. Similarly, John the baptist speaks of the bridegroom but does not mention a bride (John 3:29). The conspicuous absence of a bride is very telling: the bridegroom had arrived, but the bride was not yet ready.
Who is the bride?
But who, then, is the bride? The thoughts of many Christians will immediately turn to the church, who is the bride, the Lamb’s wife (Rev. 21:9; cf. Rev. 21:2 and 22:17). In Ephesians 5, Paul compares the relationship between husband and wife to the relationship between Christ and the church (verses 25-33). And the Corinthians are exhorted on the basis that Paul had “espoused” them “unto one man, to present [them] a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2).
This is all very true. And many types such as Eve and Rebecca illustrate that relationship. But is this the case for the Shulamite, the bride in the Song of Songs? Rather than jump to this conclusion (or assumption), we will proceed as follows:
- What are the characteristics of the Shulamite?
- Who or what has the same characteristics?
- To what extent are these characteristics shared by the church?
There are at least eight clear indications that an application of the Song of songs to the church is problematic, if not impossible. The first seven have to do with specific features of the bride that do not apply to the church – but do apply to another group of redeemed people: the future faithful Jewish remnant (cf. Isa 10:22, 23 and Rom 9:27). The eighth point has to do with the key phrase of the book:
- The bride has a mother (1:6; 3:4; 8:2)
- The bride has a younger sister (8:8)
- The bride initially does not know who Solomon is (1:7)
- She comes to regard Solomon as her king (1:12)
- The bride mentions other “virgins” who also love Solomon (1:3)
- The bride is, at one point, forsaken by the bridegroom (5:6)
- She is black – because the sun has “looked upon” her – but also comely (1:5, 6)
- The Song of Songs contains the following key phrase: “… that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please”. It is repeated three time (2:7, 3:5, 8:4), dividing the book into its four parts.
Even a cursory look at this list (which may not be complete) will make it very clear that anyone trying to apply these characteristics to the church will have a hard time. In applying the type to the Jewish remnant, however, all will fall into place. To see this, let’s consider each item in turn.
1. The bride has a mother (1:6, 3:4, 8:2)
Evidently, the church has no mother (who could this be?). This idea would be entirely foreign to Scripture. In relation to the future Jewish remnant, however, both will be true: they have a mother and a sister. As Ezekiel puts it: “Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother” (Ezek. 23:2). These three women correspond exactly to the mother and the two daughters (sisters) in the Song of Solomon.
Verse 4 provides the names of the sisters: “And the names of them were Aholah the elder, and Aholibah her sister: and they were mine, and they bare sons and daughters. Thus were their names; Samaria is Aholah, and Jerusalem Aholibah”. Hence the two sisters (daughters) are Samaria (the ten tribes) and Jerusalem (standing for the two tribes). Clearly, the “mother”, then, is Israel (the twelve tribes) out of whom the two kingdoms originated.
2. The bride has a younger sister (8:8)
Having already identified the two sisters, we can focus on the question as to why Judah (or Jerusalem) is regarded as the older sister and Samaria as the younger. From history, one might have expected the opposite order: Samaria was first in being led into captivity (2 Kings 17) and Judah later (2 Kings 25). This is also the order in Ezekiel 23: Aholah is called the “elder”, she commits adultery first and she is given into the hands of her “lovers” first. Aholibah (Jerusalem) observes all this – and yet follows suit, only worse than the northern kingdom.
However, the theme of the Song of Solomon is not the past of these two sisters but their future. It contemplates the restoration of that relationship once damaged to the core. And in the future events it will be Judah who will repent and receive the Lord first. He will deliver them (and Jerusalem in particular) from the Assyrian onslaught. Then He will reign in Zion and then the ten tribes will return to the land. This is the sequence in Isaiah 11 – first the kingdom set up (v. 1-10) and then the return of the ten tribes (v. 11-16). Hence there will be a moment when the older sister (Judah) is in a relationship with Solomon whilst the younger sister is not yet ready for a relationship (8:8).
3. The bride initially does not know who Solomon is (1:7)
In the first chapter the bride asks the question: “Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon: for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions?” This suggests that, whilst expressing a desire to be with Solomon, she mistakes him for a simple shepherd. There is absolutely no way in which this can be applied to the church as a whole (although it could be true of an individual Christian). But the church is never considered as ignorant of who Christ really is. She knows Christ as Head and she knows herself to be in an established love relationship with Him (Eph. 5:25).
The remnant, however, will be in exactly this situation: they will seek Christ, they will know He has died and risen but they will not know whether He has forgiven (or will forgive) them. They will be like Joseph’s brethren, conscious of their need, making their way to Joseph – before they finally discover who he really is. It is only when true repentance has been brought about in their hearts that Joseph reveals his identity to them: “I am Joseph” (Gen. 45:4).
4. She comes to regard Solomon as her king (1:12)
Later in chapter 1, the bride speaks of the table of the king and her spikenard (perfume) spreading its wonderful odour there (v. 12). This corresponds exactly to the relationship in which the Jewish remnant will know Christ: the King, Messiah.
The church is in a far closer relationship to Christ, as His body (Eph. 1:23) and His bride (Rev. 21:9). We never read of the church – or even of Christians – addressing the Lord or referring to Him as their king.
5. The bride mentions other “virgins” who also love Solomon (1:3)
Suppose for a moment, the bride were to represent the church. If so, who, then, would be “the virgins” who also love Solomon (1:3)? During the time of the church there are no believers outside the church. Whether of Jewish or heathen backgrounds, all have been joined together to form that one new man and to compose the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12; Eph. 2:14-16).
With the Jewish remnant (and the part of the remnant that will remain in Jerusalem, in particular) things are quite different: they will know that there are others who love Christ and wait for His salvation, not only the faithful ones in Jerusalem. The city of the great King, Jerusalem, is seen as the bride and other cities, primarily in Judah, are seen as the bride’s friends (cf. Ps. 45:9, 14).
6. The bride is, at one point, forsaken by the bridegroom (5:6)
The Song of Songs relates a number of experiences that are not applicable to the church, for instance the situation in chapter 5 where the bride finally decides to open the door for her bridegroom, only to find that he is gone. Just consider verse 6: “I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer”. How could this possibly be a description of the relationship between Christ and the church? Will He ever be “gone”, or “withdrawn” or give “no answer”? Surely not.
For the Jewish remnant, however, things will be different. The true Joseph will have to “make himself strange” and to “speak roughly” to them (cf. Gen. 42:7) until there is true repentance. He will expend much care; He will speak to their heart until the valley of Achor (the place of tribulation and repentance) will become a door of hope unto them (Josh. 7:24-26; Hos. 2:15).
7. She is black – because the sun has “looked upon” her – but also comely (1:5, 6).
The bride says of herself: “Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me” (1:6). Again (while there is no possible application to the church) the application to the remnant is very pertinent. The remnant will confess that they are marked by the traces of the heat of the sun, that has beaten down on them during the trial of the tribulation period, the “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7), indeed “a time of trouble” for Daniel’s people, “such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time” (Dan 12:1).
At the same time, the remnant will say in faith: “but [I am] comely” and they will be confirmed in the thought that the true King sees and appreciates beauty in them. This indeed we hear from the lips of the bridegroom throughout the book (1:15, 4:1, 6:4).
8. A three-fold warning not to awaken her love prematurely
The Song of Songs is divided into four parts by a statement repeated three times: “that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please” (2:7, 3:5, 8:4). Can this phrase be applied to the church? Impossible! Christ loves the church, the church knows itself loved by Christ, and the church loves Christ. Even if this is not said explicitly, it is implied in her wish that the Lord might come (Rev. 22:17). Who could conceive of a warning to the church not to stir up or awake love too early? This is the more striking as the phrase is repeated and central to the book.
Considering the true bride and her sister, however, all becomes clear. Now is not the time (while the church is on earth and Israel is “Lo-Ammi” – see Hosea 1:9), not even for Judah or Jerusalem. But the time will come (after the rapture) when the true Solomon will speak to the heart of Israel (Judah at first) – see Hosea 2:16, 17.
At that time (during the tribulation period) it will still be too early for the ten tribes who, as we have seen, will be restored to the land at the beginning of the millennial reign of Christ. Everything will have to occur according to the divine plan and timing.
Other things that suddenly become clear
Once it is understood who the bride represents, a number of other things suddenly “fall into place”:
- She begins: The dialogue between bride and groom is opened by the bride (1:2) – whereas one might have expected the contrary. But the Lord will indeed wait for the voice of the bride. This is exactly what He announced when on earth: “Behold, your house is left unto you; and I say unto you, that ye shall not see me until it come that ye say, Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord” (Lk. 13:34). When the remnant’s voice is heard and they are, by grace, led to address the Lord as “blessed”, He will not fail to answer and to display His love for them that has never ceased.
- City of the great King: Jerusalem is called “the city of the great King” (Ps. 48:2; Mt. 5:35). This peculiar description shines in a new light once it is seen that the city of Jerusalem stands for the remnant who will be in that city and who will be the bride of the “great King”.
Once the characteristics of the bride in the Song of Songs are considered it becomes very clear that the bride is not the church but the future Jewish remnant who will be in Jerusalem. Some have objected to this interpretation on the basis that Christ cannot have two brides. But this fails to do justice to the prophetic word and to Christ whose love is so great that it cannot be confined to the church, the heavenly bride, but also encompasses the Jewish remnant who will be accepted as “all Israel” (Rom 11:26), His earthly bride.
The distinction is extremely important because to interpret the bride in the Song of Songs as the church would lead to erroneous conclusions, especially with regard to the church’s standing and assurance. The church is in a settled and firm relationship: her standing is ever unchanging although her state is not always what it should be. With the earthly bride, the converse is true: her standing, her acceptance, depends on her state. Only as she is gradually led on to true and deep repentance is her standing established.
Faith marvels – and rejoices – in both: the wonderful and firm established place of love that belongs to the church today as well as the Lord’s ways with His earthly bride who, when the right time is come, will be restored to earthly blessing.
 This remnant will be formed of Jews who – not having known the gospel of grace – will come to believe after the church has been raptured to heaven. The thoughts and experiences of this remnant are the subject of many Psalms. In addition, almost every Old Testament prophet provides information on this remnant and many types (such as Joseph’s brethren) foreshadow it. In the New Testament the remnant is especially mentioned (apart from Romans 9:27 quoted above) in Matthew 24 and in Revelation 6–13 (those experiencing the great tribulation). For a detailed presentation see “Who are the saints in the tribulation?” (manuscript).