Song of Songs (Solomon)
The title of this book, Solomon's Song of Songs, is derived from a literal translation of the first two words. To say in Hebrew "Song of Songs" is to express a superlative, essentially saying that this is the greatest of all songs. Rabbi Akiba was to have said, "All the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies." This would be a measure of its traditional importance and, indeed, it is read during one of the major Jewish Festivals (the eighth day of Passover).
The earliest interpretations of the Song of Songs considered it to be an allegory. The events were not real but are a metaphor intended to convey a particular spiritual truth. The real meaning is not on the surface or in the literal words, but from this celebration of human love is derived a deeper, hidden significance. From a Jewish perspective, the words are about a bridegroom and a bride that signify the relationship of God to Israel. Their love is an allegory of the covenant that binds God and Israel. From a Christian perspective, it is the story of Christ and his church. Some have even identified the "bride" as being the Virgin Mary.
But most modern scholars are less likely to accept such an interpretation, saying that, first of all, there is nothing in the poem to suggest it is an allegory. And if that had been the author's intention, it is devoid of any clues that would aid its interpretation. As a result, each interpreter could find whatever he or she was looking for in the text. Such findings are limited only by one's imaginations -- and have led to amazing claims. Secondly, the place and people references are not used in an allegorical manner. The references are real - names, like Solomon and Jerusalem, not Prince Charming or Mr. World. It is not likely that these are to be used as metaphors, but that they reflect real experiences.
So if it isn't an allegory, what is it? Some have suggested it is a drama. But the little book doesn't really have a clear storyline like a good drama should - at least not one that people can agree on. Scholars can't even agree on the number of speakers. Their guesses range from two to four speakers, each with obviously different scenarios. One suggestion is that it's the story of a simple country girl, smitten by her young shepherd boy, but whisked away by Solomon to his harem. At the end, she returns to her first love and all is well. Needless to say, the drama argument isn't too convincing. Nor is the claim that it reflects ancient marriage rites.
Though some of these strands may be present in the work, most scholars tend toward a literal interpretation. Primarily, the Song of Songs is a collection of love poems. Scholars argue whether it is one continuous dramatic poem or a series of originally independent songs. Either way, they concur that love poetry exists among all the literature of ancient (as well as modern) societies. Some scholars insist that it is describing an ideal marriage and the sexual relationship that is part of that marriage. But, interestingly, it makes no reference to procreation. It only says that sexual love is normal and good and should be pleasurable to both parties, making it an ode to human love. Others point out that it is unlikely that the couple is married. They have to part in the morning and the woman has a lot of trouble with her brothers and guards in the city. Also, most of the action takes place out of doors. These are issues that lovers might have to confront, but not married people. This is not to say that the Song condones or encourages sex outside the bonds of marriage, it just doesn't address it as an issue.
There are some other major omissions as well. For example, there are no direct references to God and, in fact, when the daughters of Jerusalem take an oath, they do so by gazelles and hinds. It does not mention the Torah, God's covenant, or any of His saving acts. These omissions raise the question as to how it became part of the canon. Although the earlier statement by Rabbi Akiba is thought to be a rebuke to those who questioned its inclusion in the canon, there is no actual record of any doubts. And by Jesus' time in the first century, it was accepted without question. (No doubt its Solomonic authorship had something to do with that. The first line claims that it was written by Solomon, but since the first speaker is female, that is not too likely.) In its defense, the book does speak of Jerusalem and kingship -- it even mentions David by name. But had this book been found in some dusty corner, it would probably have been considered a secular book and not much else. Although in antiquity, there was no such distinction between the sacred and the secular. God was simply involved in every aspect of their lives. But the fact remains that The Song of Songs is part of the canon. The words are about human love. But the beauty and mystery of that love stems from the Creator who is the very source of love and is love. From that standpoint, it is rooted in God's words at creation where He decreed everything to be "good."
The many segments of the book can be divided into five main categories. Each category shows how the poem functions. One category is labeled description, wherein a variety of images are used to describe physical beauty. One Arabic type (the wasf) describes parts of the body from top to bottom using architectural, military, or nature images. Encounter poems describe the sexual meetings of the lovers. These might be current or past. These sexual encounters are often illustrated through images of eating or drinking. Seeking poems portray the lovers looking for each other both inside and outside the city. Sometimes they find each other; sometimes they don't. Closely related to this are the beckoning poems, where desire is expressed. And lastly, there are poems of affirmation, oftentimes in the presence of barriers or obstacles to their love. These challenges can come in the form of family interference as well as societal. Despite these confrontations, the lovers insist on their right to have a relationship. 1
In the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs is in the third section, known as the Writings. It is one of a group of books known as the Five Scrolls (the other four being Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther) that are read in public at annual festivals. In the Septuagint and the Vulgate, it is part of the Solomonic works.
Scholars do not agree on any specific divisions.
Title of bulleted list
- A woman's yearnings for her lover
- Self-awareness of her features
- She is dark, yet lovely
- The man's response
- She is the most beautiful among women
- He uses comparisons to affirm her attractiveness
- He will adorn her with jewelry of silver and gold
- The woman responds with admiration
- Her thought of him produces real sensations, especially aromatic ones
- A lover's dialogue
- They compliment each other
- The fruits (literally) of love
- Just being in his company delights her
- She is ready for more
- Dreams of love
- She imagines him coming to her
- The world bursts forth as though it is springtime
- With the break of dawn, her lover must leave
- Now she must seek him
- She roams the streets late at night
- When she finds him, she will not let him go
- Reference to Solomon and his wedding
- There are many interpretations on this section
- It is perhaps a wedding procession, possibly Solomon's
- Or the young lovers are imagining their own
- A wasf - Praise of her physical beauty
- Speaker is male, describing his lover
- (Your eyes are doves; your hair is like a flock of goats!)
- He issues an invitation to her
- Basically he wants her to flee with him
- Somewhere where they can be alone with their love
- A disturbing dream and her search for him
- She dreams her lover is outside her door
- She teases him by not opening the door
- By the time she does, he is gone
- She runs throughout the city looking for him, is assaulted by the night watchmen
- She asks her friends for help
- They ask what is so special about him
- Another wasf
- This time she describes him
- (His eyes are like doves; his legs are alabaster columns!)
- Her friends inquire where he is
- She says he's "in the gardens"
- Her lover responds
- Almost a repeat of 4:1-3
- She is awesome, more so than queens or concubines
- Seeking and finding
- The verses are very confusing. The speaker is unknown
- Either way they suggest a high state of sexual anticipation
- Another wasf spoken by the man
- (Your belly is a heap of wheat; your nose is like a tower of Lebanon!)
- Comparison to a palm tree loaded with fruit
- The man expects to enjoy his possession
- She responds with equal desire and joy
- She is ready to go with him
- Expresses her enthusiasm and expectations
- Only one regret
- She wishes she could tell the world about their love
- Their private love longs for public recognition
- She wishes to take him to her mother's house
- There, they could continue exploring their love
- Her friends see them together
- The couple only has eyes for each other
- They have exchanged seals (or she is wearing his seal)
- (Sounds like an exchange of rings?)
- They defy anyone to keep them apart
- Response from her family is less than positive, but they accept it
- She no longer needs their protection because she has a lover
- A boasting song
- The man boasts that his "vineyard" surpasses all of Solomon's
- They mutually pledge their love for all to hear All's well that ends well
Thus ends the Song of Songs. Those uncomfortable with its raw eroticism will find solace in exploring its deeper meanings. Nonetheless, the little book stands as a tribute to human love, the expression of love that is a reflection of God's love for us. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is its placement immediately following Ecclesiastes - the book about skepticism and the meaninglessness of life. Could there be two books more different? One claims all is vanity; the other speaks deeply about loving another. One is haunted by death; the other explores life to the fullest. One is cynical about women; the other celebrates womanhood and gives voice to her deepest desires. These two books, side by side, are a tribute to the complexity and the diversity of the biblical message. The Bible truly speaks to every human condition.
Davidson, Robert. "Ecclesiastes and The Song of Solomon." Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1986.
Fuerst, Wesley. "The Books of Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Lamentations." The Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge, Great Britain: University Press, 1973.
Murphy, Roland. "The Song of Songs." Hermeneia. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 1990.
Murphy, R and E Huwiler. "Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.