Introduction to the Song (1)
Andrew Wilson, Brisbane, Australia | Dunstable, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Introduction to the Song
Interpretations of the Song of Solomon are many, but may be broadly divided into two classes. the typical and the literal. The typical approach sees in the Song a picture of divine love, the basic theme of the Bible. Indeed, the Bible often compares God’s love to the most intimate of human loves – that of a man and his bride. In the Old Testament, God’s love for Israel is so described in Jeremiah 2. 1-3, Ezekiel 16 and 23 and Hosea 1-3, whereas Christ’s love for the church is seen in the New Testament using the same metaphor in 2 Corinthians 11. 2, Ephesians 5. 25-32 and Revelation 19. 6-8. Further, adultery is often used to picture spiritual departure from God; it is even used allegorically by Solomon in Proverbs 1-9 to picture the path of the person turning from God’s ways. Significantly, the only other love-song in the Bible, Psalm 45, is quoted in the New Testament and applied to the person of Christ,1 thus showing that such a typical treatment of love is valid.
The interpretation of the Song as allegorical may have ‘often given rise to the most extravagant fancies’,2 yet this has been by far the most common and oldest tradition in the interpretation of the Song. It was because the Rabbinical Schools of Judaism recognized the Song as having a spiritual message that they defended its place in the canon and uttered curses upon those who would treat the Song as secular or sensual literature.
The alternative suggestion is that the Song merely celebrates human love. Those who do not accept such a view are accused of being prudish and guilty of thinking that ‘sexuality is sinful’.3 Accordingly, the Song was inspired to counterbalance such puritanical views. However, this theory throws up the anomaly that while we are regularly reminded that the Bible is not a science or history textbook, yet we are here asked to accept the Song as a love manual. Why God’s people should need a textbook on such a subject but not also need other sorts of earthy information (like biblical books on cooking or agricultural methods), these interpreters do not explain. This view of the book also contradicts the truths of ‘Christ in all the scriptures’, Luke 24. 27; John 5. 39, and the eternal nature of scriptural truth, Ps. 119. 89; Isa 40. 8. My view is that both suggestions are true. The song was based on a real-life love story, but it also contains lessons of spiritual importance.
The Storyline of the Song
Solomon obviously must figure somewhere in the story (he is mentioned 8 times by name and the expression ‘the king’ is mentioned 5 times) and chapter 1 verse 1 identifies him as the author.4 Some commentators see Solomon as the villain of the piece, arguing that the story is of a rural girl who remains faithful to her shepherd-lover despite the attempts of Solomon to seduce her. For psychological improbability this theory takes some beating. It is hard to believe that Solomon would write a song of such ecstatic joy (the ‘song of songs’ – Hebrew idiom for ‘the greatest song of all’) about how his advances were rebuffed. Even according to this view, however, the shepherdlover, whose motives are supposedly holy, uses exactly the same (and even more explicit) language than Solomon, who is accused of being sensual and a picture of worldly enticement, cf. 1. 15 and 4. 1-5. Furthermore, the name given to the bride, ‘the Shulamite’, 6. 13, is the feminine form of ‘Solomon’ – indicating that she had taken his name.5 The idea that the Song is really the story of a lovetriangle groundlessly multiplies characters and reduces the song to a piece of theatre.
As to the identity of the Shulamite, the fact that she is called ‘the Prince’s daughter’, 7. 1, is described as a ‘filly among Pharaoh’s chariots’, 1. 9, has dark skin, 1. 5-6, and is visited by crossing a wilderness, 3. 6; 8. 5ff, suggests that she is Pharaoh’s daughter’,6 Solomon’s queen.
Some commentators treat the Song as a collection of love-poems without any unity, however, the repetition of key phrases like, ‘I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem’, 2. 7; 3. 5; 5. 8; 8. 4, ‘do not stir up nor awaken love’, 2. 7; 3. 5; 8. 4, ‘until the day breaks’, 2. 17; 4. 6, and the theme of separation and longing that is threaded through the song, 2. 17; 3. 1; 5. 6; 6. 1; 8. 14, suggests otherwise.
There is also a noticeable development in the relationship throughout the song. This is seen in the evolving expressions, ‘My beloved is mine and I am his’, 2. 16 – her joy in having won him, ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine’, 6. 3 – her delight in belonging to him, and finally, simply ‘I am my beloved’s’, 7. 10 – she is all for him, with no thought of herself.
An Outline of the Song
Outlines of the Song are many and varied, but we shall divide it into a series of scenes, most of which conclude with the structural device of one of the repetitive phrases already mentioned. Most scenes also start with the coming of one of the lovers, see 1. 2-4; 2. 8; 3. 6; 5. 2; 8. 5, or an invitation to ‘come’ or to ‘rise up’ or ‘awake’, see 2. 10; 3. 2; 4. 8; 5. 2; 7. 11; 8. 5.
- 1. 1-2. 7 – The Visit to Jerusalem
- 2. 8-2. 17 – Springtime in the Land
- 3. 1-3. 5 – The First Dream
- 3. 6-4. 6 – The King’s Visit
- 4. 7-5. 1 – In the Mountains and the Gardens
- 5. 2-5. 8 – The Second Dream
- 5. 9-6. 3 – A Conversation with the Daughters of Jerusalem
- 6. 4-7. 10 – A Conversation with Each Other
- 7. 11-8. 4 – Harvest Time in the Land
- 8. 5-8. 14 – The Shulamite in her Family Home
1) The Visit to Jerusalem, 1. 2–2. 7
The great lesson of this first scene is the importance of fellowship.
Verses 2-3. The Shulamite talks to herself, as someone in love may do, ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth’. She is drunk with love. ‘For your love is better than wine’. She was not content however, with being intoxicated with his love; she wanted ‘the expressions and assurances of his love’ NEWBERRY. Her fervent ‘first love’ poses questions of our love for the Lord, Rev. 2. 4. She recalls the ‘fragrance of his good ointments’; she associated its sweetness with the loveliness of his personality. Likewise, his name was beautiful to her. ‘Your name is as ointment poured forth’ – encapsulating his graces.
Verse 4. Whereas some translations render the first part of verse 4 in a disjointed way (‘Draw me away! We will run after you’, interpreting the second part as an interjection of the daughters of Jerusalem), other Bibles, following LUTHER, render the entire phrase as coming from the lips of the Shulamite. ‘Take (or, draw) me away with you – let us hurry (or, run)!’ NIV, NASB, ESV. She wants to be taken away so that she might spend time with the king alone. Some Bibles also render the next part of verse 4 as a desire. ‘Let the king bring me into his chambers’ NIV, instead of ‘the king has brought’. Whichever way we understand the verse, the point is the desirability of private communion with the king, which desire should mark all those who love the Lord and desire fellowship with Him.
Most Bibles and commentators interpret the second part of verse 4 to be spoken by the daughters of Jerusalem, perhaps the palace servant girls. They are enjoying the lovematch. ‘We will be glad and rejoice in you7 (the king). We will remember your (the Shulamite’s) love more than wine’. She responds to their encouragement by saying that her beloved was worthy of their praise, ‘Rightly do they love you (the king)’.
Verses 5-6. By contrast, she downplays her worthiness in these verses. She is dark, but lovely, like the black goats-hair tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon. No doubt the tents of Kedar were unattractive, but the curtains of Solomon would have been most beautiful. There is, she admits, strangeness about her beauty. As a foreign princess; at first her beauty is unusual, but on closer acquaintance attractive. In verse 6, she speaks further of her lack of self-confidence. Her brothers thought little of her and forced her to work outdoors. She had not indulged in the world’s normal beauty treatments. ‘Do not look on me, because I am dark, because the sun has tanned me. My mother’s sons were angry with (lit. ‘burned upon’) me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept’. The king had obviously seen a beauty in her that her own brothers, who had treated her heartlessly, had not.
Verses 7-8. She appeals to her beloved, desiring fellowship with him while he rests at noon from his administrative work, shepherding the flock, ‘Tell me, O you whom I love, where you feed your flock, where you make it rest at noon?’ She is not content with a distant relationship nor to be one of the many standing around the king. ‘Why should I be as one who veils herself by the flocks of your companions?’ The shepherd-king replies, first of all assuring her that he finds her beautiful, ‘O fairest among women’, then he tells her that if she would find him she must ‘follow in the footsteps of the flock’. The spiritual lesson here is pretty obvious. To find fellowship with Christ, we must first follow in His footsteps and ways, and not only His, but also of His flock. Young Christians should follow only those spiritual examples of the Lord’s people who themselves walk in the ways of the Master, cf. 1 Cor. 11. 1. She herself is to imitate her beloved in shepherding others. ‘Feed your little goats beside the shepherds’ tents’ – ‘the undershepherds appointed by Christ’ NEWBERRY.
Verse 9-11. Here the imagery switches from sheep to horses. She is a ‘filly among Pharaoh’s chariots’. Solomon was ‘a Philip, i.e., a lover of horses’ DELITZSCH. Noted for their grace, strength, friendship and beauty, Egyptian horses were the best, 2 Chr. 9. 28, and here was the best of all, fit for Pharaoh’s chariots. The king praises the beauty of the Shulamite’s ornaments. So, too, we should be known for our good works, Titus 2. 7, 14; and ‘righteous acts’, Rev. 19. 8, thus to ‘adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things’, Titus 2. 10. The king promises that he will add yet more gifts of gold and silver to the Shulamite, a New Testament parallel of which is found in the believer’s promised rewards.
Verse 12-14. The Shulamite is now seen enjoying fellowship with the king at his table. Whereas before, in verse 3, the king’s ointments were mentioned, here we have the fragrance of the Shulamite’s highly expensive spikenard, v. 12, myrrh v. 13, and henna blossoms8 v. 14. All of these fragrances draw the Shulamite closer to her beloved in different ways. The spikenard ‘sends forth its fragrance’ to the king at the table; similarly the prayers of the saints are incense ascending to God, Rev. 5. 8. The bitter/sweet myrrh9 sachet hanging from her neck reminds her of her beloved during the night, ‘to the believer a most fitting reminder of the sufferings of Christ’.10 Finally, the ‘henna in the vineyards of En Gedi’ is a metaphor of the attractiveness of her beloved, conveying the idea of something beautiful in an oasis in the desert.11 All these are rich pictures for our fellowship with and feelings for Christ.
Verses 15 – 2. 3. The King and the Shulamite here playfully seek to outdo each other in praise, speaking alternately, eventually leading into the Shulamite’s speech which closes the scene. The king addresses her first, ‘Behold, you are fair, my love’; he then repeats himself (as lovers do), before saying, ‘You have doves’ eyes’. Her eyes, a window into her soul, are seen as tender, faithful and affectionate. She replies in verse 15, saying that it is rather he who is beautiful. ‘Behold, you are handsome, my beloved, yes, pleasant!’ She goes on to ‘play house’, describing a garden scene in which the lovers’ house has green grass for a bed (or couch, for they are still at the king’s banquet in reality – see 2. 4) and tree branches above for rafters. The garden theme runs throughout the Song and one important point to be noticed is that the word ‘orchard’ (Heb. pardees) in 4. 13 is literally ‘paradise’12 (see DARBY’S translation), which is where the bride sees herself in this speech.
She can only describe herself, however, as the lowly ‘rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys’, 2. 1. These words are often used in hymns of Christ in His lowliness, but the reply of the king in the next verse shows that it is the Shulamite who considered herself to be unimportant. The king corrects her in 2. 2 with, ‘Like a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters’. She replies in verse 3 by saying that her beloved was ‘like an apple tree among the trees of the woods’. The identification of the ‘apple’ tree (like the flowers of 2. 1.) is uncertain, but the point is clear – he brings shelter and sweetness, ‘I sat down in his shade with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste’.
Verses 4-5. The Shulamite’s mind returns to the king’s banquet at which she sits. ‘He brought me to the banqueting house (lit. house of wine) and his banner over me is love’. Here she rejoices (a) that the king has received her, (b) that he has publicly declared – as with a large banner – his love for her at this banquet, and (c) of course, the fact that he loves her. She is overwhelmed. ‘Sustain me with cakes of raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am lovesick’, v. 5.
Verses 6-7. Here we come to the concluding refrain of this first scene of the Song. He is embracing her, v. 6, and she in verse 7 charges the daughters of Jerusalem not to ‘stir up nor awaken love until it pleases’. Some commentators take this to mean, ‘Do not wake me from this dream of love, because like the gazelles or . . . the does, it is easily disturbed’; alternatively, it could be a warning against love being aroused any further. ‘It is sin which causes physical love to be expressed at the wrong time and in the wrong place with the wrong person’.13
2) Springtime in the Land, 2. 8–17
This springtime scene is a picture of their relationship, starting to blossom and bear fruit.
Verses 8-13. In contrast with the first scene, here Solomon visits the Shulamite. He is described, not as the king, but as a gazelle or young stag upon the mountains, these animals picturing the swiftness of His coming, the mountains describing the uplands of Judea where he lives. He looks through the windows, calling her to ‘rise up’, ‘come away’, vv. 10, 13, from her home and spend time with him. It is the call to fellowship with Christ again, but this scene introduces another element – fruitfulness. The winter and the rainy season of separation are past, v. 11. Instead, nature is awaking with the sights, songs and smells of spring, vv. 12-13. This springtime scene is a picture of their relationship, starting to blossom and bear fruit despite the strain of separation. Christ, our heavenly Lover, likewise calls to all those who have fallen in love with Him to ‘come away’ for fellowship with Himself.
Verses 14-15. He brings her up into the ‘clefts of the rock’, ‘the secret places of the cliff’ – places of shelter and privacy in the mountains. He asks to see her face and hear her voice, v. 14. Then he warns against ‘the little foxes that spoil the vines’ and their ‘tender grapes’, v. 15 – the little things that can ruin a relationship. We need to deal with problems that produce fruitlessness in our lives.
Verses 16-17. This scene ends with two of the key phrases of the song. Firstly, ‘My beloved is mine and I am his. He feeds his flock among the lilies’, v. 16 – the theme of love. Secondly, ‘Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of Bether (lit. ‘separation’) – the theme of separation.
To be continued
- Hebrews 1. 8-9 quotes Psalm 45. 6-7.
- J. A. MOTYER, commending Hudson Taylor’s allegorical approach in the Foreword to Union and Communion. (Christian Focus Publications, 1996).
- G. LLOYD CARR, The Song of Solomon, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, p. 34.
- Some would argue that 1. 1 (‘the song of songs, which is Solomon’s’) should be understood to mean ‘the song about Solomon’. However, the more natural understanding of this expression is that Solomon is the author.
- Others argue that ‘Shulamite’ could really mean ‘Shunemite’, an inhabitant of Shunem in northern Israel. Thus, they argue that the bride was really a Galilean peasant. However, the text actually says ‘Shulamite’ here, not Shunemite; this emendation is based on ‘sheer speculation’ (CARR, ibid, p. 154).
- THOMAS NEWBERRY says ‘undoubtedly Pharaoh’s daughter’ (The Song of Solomon, John Ritchie, p. 14). Others are less certain than NEWBERRY and argue that the Shulamite is a country maiden (DELITZSCH, etc.), however this is to mistake figures of speech for facts. Solomon is not a shepherd in the literal sense, but in the sense that kings (as also Christ, Matt. 2. 6) shepherd their people; the bride is pictured as a garden and a ripening vineyard in the same sense that the church is so described in the New Testament – figuratively, 1 Cor. 3. 6-9; John 15.
- Hebrew second person singular pronouns have gender, enabling us to identify whether the person being spoken to is male or female.
- Spikenard is an ointment derived from a Himalayan plant, myrrh is a gum from an Arabian tree and henna is a Palestinian shrub with fragrant flowers.
- J. M. FLANIGAN, Song of Solomon, Ritchie Old Testament Commentaries, p. 29.
- FLANIGAN, ibid, pp.29-30.
- The word ‘henna’ (Hebrew, kofer) literally means ‘a cover’ and is related to the Old Testament words for atonement and ransom.
- ‘Paradise’ was a Persian loan-word meaning the gardens of a king.
- J. A. BALCHIN, New Bible Commentary, IVP, p. 622.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Commended by the assembly at Bexley, Sydney, Australia, in 1994, and together with his wife, Gillian, has sought to serve the Lord in New South Wales, Australia, and then London, UK. Involved in evangelistic, children's and Bible teaching ministries. He now resides in Brisbane, Australia.