GENERAL AUDIENCE OF WEDNESDAY, 23 MAY 
On Wednesday, 23 May, at the general audience held in St Peter's
Square, Pope John Paul II resumed his treatment of the topic of human
love in the divine plan, a topic that had been set aside in favour of a
series of reflections on the Holy Year. Following is a translation of
the Holy Father's address.
1. During the Holy Year I postponed the treatment of the theme of
human love in the divine plan. I would now like to conclude that topic
with some considerations especially about the teaching of Humanae
Vitae, premising some reflections on the Song of Songs and the Book
of Tobit. It seems to me that what I intend to explain in the coming
weeks constitutes the crowning of what I have illustrated.
The theme of marital love which unites man and woman in a certain sense
connects this part of the Bible with the whole tradition of the "great
analogy." Through the writings of the prophets, this flows into the New
Testament and especially into Ephesians (cf. Eph 5:21-33). I interrupted
the explanation of this at the beginning of the Holy Year.
The Song of Songs has become the object of many exegetical studies,
commentaries and hypotheses. With regard to its content, apparently
"profane," the positions have varied. On the one hand its reading has
often been discouraged, and on the other it has been the source from
which the greatest mystical writers have drawn. The verses of the Song
of Songs have been inserted into the Church's liturgy.(1)
In fact, although the analysis of the text of this book obliges us to
situate its content outside the sphere of the great prophetic analogy,
it is not possible to detach it from the reality of the original
sacrament. It is not possible to reread it except along the lines of
what is written in the first chapters of Genesis, as a testimony of the
beginning which Christ referred to in his decisive conversation with the
Pharisees (cf. Mt 19:4).(2) The Song of Songs is certainly found in the
wake of that sacrament in which, through the language of the body, the
visible sign of man and woman's participation in the covenant of grace
and love offered by God to man is constituted. The Song of Songs
demonstrates the richness of this language, whose first expression is
already found in Genesis 2:23-25.
Atmosphere of the Song of Songs
2. Indeed, the first verses of the Song lead us immediately
into the atmosphere of the whole poem, in which the groom and the bride
seem to move in the circle traced by the irradiation of love. The words,
movements and gestures of the spouses correspond to the interior
movement of their hearts. It is possible to understand the language of
the body only through the prism of this movement. In that language there
comes to pass that discovery which the first man gave expression
in front of her who had been created as "a helper like himself" (cf. Gen
2:20, 23). As the biblical text reports, she had been taken from one of
his ribs ("rib" seems to also indicate the heart).
analyzed on the basis of Genesis 2—in
the Song of Songs is invested with all the richness of the language of
human love. What was expressed in the second chapter of Genesis (vv.
23-25) in just a few simple and essential words, is developed here in a
full dialogue, or rather in a duet, in which the groom's words are
interwoven with the bride's and they complement each other. On seeing
the woman created by God, man's first words express wonder and
admiration, even more, the sense of fascination (cf. Gn 2:23). And a
is wonder and admiration—runs
in fuller form through the verses of the Song of Songs. It runs in a
peaceful and homogeneous wave from the beginning to the end of the poem.
3. Even a summary analysis of the text of the Song of Songs allows
the language of the body to be heard expressing itself in that mutual
fascination. The point of departure as well as the point of arrival for
wonder and admiration—are
in fact the bride's femininity and the groom's masculinity, in the
direct experience of their visibility. The words of love uttered by both
of them are therefore concentrated on the body, not only because in
itself it constitutes the source of the mutual fascination. But it is
also, and above all, because on the body there lingers directly and
immediately that attraction toward the other person, toward the
in the interior impulse of the heart generates love.
In addition, love unleashes a special experience of the beautiful,
which focuses on what is visible, but at the same time involves the
entire person. The experience of beauty gives rise to satisfaction,
which is mutual.
"O most beautiful among women..." (Sg 1:8), the groom says, and the
bride's words echo back to him: "I am dark—but
lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem" (Sg 1:5). The words of the spellbound
man are repeated continually. They return in all five stanzas of the
poem, and they are echoed in similar expressions of the bride's.
Use of metaphors
4. It is a question here of metaphors that may surprise us today.
Many of them were borrowed from the life of shepherds; others seem to
indicate the royal status of the groom.(3) The analysis of that poetic
language is left to the experts. The very fact of adopting the metaphor
shows how much, in our case, the language of the body seeks support
and corroboration in the whole visible world. This is without doubt
a language that is reread at one and the same time with the heart and
with the eyes of the groom, in the act of special concentration on the
whole female "I" of the bride. This "I" speaks to him through
every feminine trait, giving rise to that state of mind that can be
defined as fascination, enchantment. This female "I" is expressed almost
without words. Nevertheless, the language of the body, expressed
wordlessly, finds a rich echo in the groom's words, in his speaking that
is full of poetic transport and metaphors, which attest to the
experience of beauty, a love of satisfaction. If the metaphors in the
Song seek an analogy for this beauty in the various things of the
visible world (in this world which is the groom's "own world"), at the
same time they seem to indicate the insufficiency of each of these
things in particular. "You are all-beautiful, my beloved, and
there is no blemish in you" (Sg 4:7):—with
this saying, the groom ends his song, leaving all the metaphors,
in order to address himself to that sole one through which the language
of the body seems to express what is more proper to femininity and the
whole of the person.
We will continue the analysis of the Song of Songs at the next general
1) "The Song is therefore to be taken simply for what it manifestly
is: a song of human love." This sentence of J. Winandy, O.S.B.,
expresses the conviction of growing numbers of exegetes (J. Winandy, Le
Cantique des Cantiques, Poém
de Sagesse [Maredsouse: 1960], p. 26).
M. Dubarle adds: "Catholic exegesis, which sometimes refers to the
obvious meaning of biblical texts for passages of great dogmatic
importance, should not lightly abandon it when it comes to Songs."
Referring to the phrase of G. Gerleman, Dubarle continues: "Songs
celebrates the love of man and woman without adding any mythological
element, but considering it simply on its own level and in its specific
nature. There is implicitly, without didactic insistence, the equivalent
of the Yahwist faith (since sexual powers had not been placed under the
patronage of foreign divinities and had not been attributed to Yahweh
himself who appeared as transcending this sphere.) The poem was
therefore in tacit harmony with the fundamental convictions of the faith
The same open, objective, not expressly religious attitude with
regard to physical beauty and sensual love is found in some collections
of Yahwist documents. These various similarities show that the small
book is not so isolated in the sum total of biblical literature as is
sometimes stated (A. M. Dubarle, "Le Cantique des Cantiques dans l'exégèse
Aux grands carrefours de la Révélation
et de l'exégèse
de l'Ancien Testament, Recherches Bibliques VIII [Louvain: 1967], pp.
2) This evidently does not exclude the possibility of speaking of a
sensus plenior in the Song of Songs.
See, for example: "Lovers in the ecstasy of love seem to occupy and
fill the whole book, as the only protagonists.... Therefore, Paul, in
reading the words of Genesis, 'For this reason a man shall leave his
father and mother, and shall cling to his wife, and the two shall be
made into one' (Eph 5:31), does not deny the real and immediate meaning
of the words that refer to human marriage. However, to this first
meaning he adds another deeper one with an indirect reference: 'I mean
that it refers to Christ and the Church,' confessing that 'this is a
great foreshadowing' (Eph 5:32)....
Some readers of the Song of Songs rush to read immediately in its
words a disembodied love. They have forgotten the lovers, or have
petrified them in fictions, in an intellectual key.... They have
multiplied the minute allegorical relations in every sentence, word or
image.... This is not the right way. Anyone who does not believe in the
human love of the spouses, who must seek forgiveness for the body, does
not have the right to be elevated.... With the affirmation of human love
instead, it is possible to discover in it the revelation of God. (L.
"Cantico dei Cantici—Introduzione,"
La Biblia, Parola di Dio scritti per noi. Official text of the Italian
Episcopal Conference, Vol. II [Torino: Marietti, 1980], pp. 425-427).
3) To explain the inclusion of a love song in the biblical canon,
Jewish exegetes already in the first centuries after Christ saw in the
Song of Songs an allegory of Yahweh's love for Israel, or an allegory of
the history of the Chosen People, in which this love is manifested, and
in the Middle Ages the allegory of divine Wisdom and of man who is in
search of it.
Since the early Fathers, Christian exegesis extended such an idea to
Christ and the Church (cf. Hippolytus and Origen), or to the individual
soul of the Christian (cf. St. Gregory of Nyssa) or to Mary (cf. St.
Ambrose) and also to her Immaculate Conception (cf. Richard of St.
Victor). St. Bernard saw in the Song of Songs a dialogue of the Word of
God with the soul, and this led to St. John of the Cross' concept about
The only exception in this long tradition was Theodore of Mopsuestia,
in the fourth century, who saw in the Song of Songs a poem that
celebrated Solomon's human love for Pharaoh's daughter.
Luther, instead, referred the allegory to Solomon and his kingdom. In
recent centuries new hypotheses have appeared. Some, for example,
consider the Song of Songs as a drama of a bride's fidelity to a
shepherd, despite all the temptations, or as a collection of songs used
during the popular wedding rites or mythical rituals which reflected the
Adonis-Tammuz worship. Finally, there is seen in the Song of Songs the
description of a dream, recalling ancient ideas about the significance
of dreams and also psychoanalysis.
In the 20th century there has been a return to the more ancient
allegorical traditions (cf. Bea), seeing again in the Song of Songs the
history of Israel (cf. Jouon, Ricciotte), and a developed midrash (as
Robert calls it in his commentary, which constitutes a "summary" of the
interpretation of Songs).
Nevertheless, at the same time the book has begun to be read in its
most evident significance as a poem exalting natural human love (cf.
Rowley, Young, Laurin).
Karl Barth was the first to have demonstrated in what way this
significance is linked with the biblical context of chapter two of
Genesis. Dubarle begins with the premise that a faithful and happy human
love reveals to man the attributes of divine love, and Van den Oudenrijn
sees in the Song of Songs the antitype of that typical sense that
appears in Eph 5:23. Excluding every allegorical and metaphorical
explanation, Murphy stresses that human love, created and blessed by
God, can be the theme of an inspired biblical book.
D. Lys notes that the content of the Song of Songs is at the same
time sensual and sacred. When one prescinds from the second
characteristic, the Song comes to be treated as a purely lay erotic
composition, and when the first is ignored, one falls into allegorism.
Only by putting these two aspects together is it possible to read the
book in the right way.
Alongside the works of the above-mentioned authors, and especially
with regard to an outline of the history of the exegesis of the Song of
Songs, see H. H. Rowley, "The Interpretation of the Song of Songs," The
Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament (London:
Lutterworth, 1952), pp. 191-233; A. M. Dubarle, Le Cantique des
Cantiques dans l'exégèse
de l'Ancien Testament, Recherches Bibliques VIII (Louvain: Desclée
de Brouwer, 1967), pp. 139-151; D. Lys, Le plus beau chant de la création—Commentaire
de Cantique des Cantiques. Lectio divina 51. (Paris: Du Cerf, 1968), pp.
31-35; M. H. Pope, "Song of Songs," Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY:
Doubleday, 1977), pp. 113-234.