Where the world comes to study the Bible

The Song of Songs

Introduction214

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine. Your oils have a pleasing fragrance. Your name is like purified oil. Therefore the maidens love you. Draw me after you and let us run together! The king has brought me into his chambers215 (Songs of Songs 1:2-4).

Right from the start, the Song of Songs, or, as some know it, the Song of Solomon, separates itself from the other books in the Bible. The opening words introduce a poetic work whose subject is romantic love and its physical expression in marriage. This is not what one would expect from a book in the Bible, but it is only the beginning of its mysteries. The Song of Songs is easily the most enigmatic book in the Scriptures.

The Song of Songs is enigmatic because it has no unambiguous reference to God, religion, or spiritual things. The closest that any verse comes to mentioning God is Songs 8:6, which reads:

Put me like a seal over your heart,
Like a seal on your arm.
For love is as strong as death,
Jealousy is as severe as Sheol;
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
The very flame of the Lord.

The Hebrew behind “The very flame of the Lord” is not all that clear, and it is the NASB alternate reading, “a vehement flame,” that is probably correct216. The New International Version (NIV) and the New English Translation (NET) use, “a mighty flame.” Thus, the Song of Songs is likely to be the second book in the Bible, Esther being the first, with no reference to God. The absence of God in the Song of Songs is very problematic, because Esther, at least, communicates God’s providential care, and the name YHWH appears acrostically in two places.217 Not so the Song of Songs: it remains first and foremost a book about love, marriage, and its physical expression. Its place in the Scriptures must be understood in light of its message, as it is, and not as we would hope or expect it to be. The subject matter has obviously proved troublesome for many, and through the centuries, there have been grand attempts to make Solomon’s Song to be about something else. Such attempts falter in light of all sound, hermeneutical principles.

The Song of Songs is enigmatic because there is no consensus about many of the book’s elements. Questions having diverse answers abound. Are there two main characters or three? How does one divide the speaking parts? Are the characters peasants or royals? What is the structure of the book? Who wrote it? How many people wrote it? Here is an example of the issues that exist discerning the speaker in Songs 8:12:

As Marvin Pope has said, the implications can be quite opposite depending on whether the girl or the groom speaks the opening words of Song 8:12. Here are the main choices: girl to her other lover; girl to Solomon; girl to brothers; Solomon to girl; Solomon literally of vineyard; another lover to girl; another lover to Solomon.218

So we come to The Song of Songs. It is enigmatic; it is about a subject that makes many Christians and Jews uncomfortable; it does not seem to be a religious book, and making sense out of it is hard and controversial. So why bother with it? Why don’t we just skip over to Isaiah and pretend this little work isn’t there? What would we miss?

First, let’s start with the obvious and obligatory reason for caring. It is in the Canon of Scripture and “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Since the Lord intended the Song of Songs to be part of His message, it is our responsibility to profit by it. Let us note, for example, that modern sexuality is primarily about entertainment and marketing. It is in our movies, our books, and our advertisements. It is certainly out of control.219 The Song’s sexuality is chaste, self-giving, and bonding. It should be understood, taught, and emulated. As far as being difficult, the book is not a quick study, but it is a pleasant one.

Second, the Song of Songs has inspired many to seek and to find a deeper experience with God and a clearer understanding of His love. So even though it does not have an overt spiritual message, it seems to have a covert spiritual effect. This should also be understood, taught, and emulated.

Topics

As an overview of the Song of Songs, this message will present:

1. Different approaches to understanding the book.

2. Various opinions regarding its structure, meaning, and story lines.

3. Advice on how to read the book for enjoyment and understanding.

4. The Song’s lessons for body, soul, and spirit.

Hopefully, at the end, the Song of Songs will have become less of an enigma and more of a spring garden full of surprises and delights.

Approaches

The Allegorical Approach

For centuries, the common wisdom concerning the Song of Songs was to view it strictly as an allegory. The logic that prompted such a view was simple:

All books in the Bible are about God.

The Song of Songs is in the Bible.

Therefore, the Song of Songs is about God.

Consequently, the early church and Jewish rabbis completely allegorized its characters and imagery. At a basic level, Jewish allegory holds that the bridegroom represents God, and the bride represents Israel. Similarly, Christian allegory holds that the bridegroom represents Christ, and the bride represents the Church. The allegorical approach stipulates that the author intended to write an allegory and that a non-allegorical reading is wrong. The following introduction to a Jewish “translation” of Song of Songs illustrates this.

As the entire gamut of Talmudic and Rabbinic literature relating to Shir HaShirim220 makes clear, this highly emotional, seemingly sensuous song is an allegory. As such, a literal translation would be misleading - even false - because it would not convey the meaning intended by King Solomon the composer. The ArtScroll translation follows the commentary of Rashi, and a full commentary may be found in the ArtScroll Shir Hashirim by Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz. The following introductory comments are adapted from Rashi’s own introduction:

Solomon foresaw through the Holy Spirit, that Israel is destined to suffer a series of exiles and will lament, nostalgically recalling her former status as God’s chosen beloved. She will say, ‘I will return to my first husband (i.e. to God) for it was better with me then than it is now.’ (Hoshea 2:9) The children of Israel will recall His beneficence and the trespasses which they trespassed (Leviticus 26:40). And they will recall the goodness which He promised for the End of Days.

The prophets frequently likened the relationship between God and Israel to that of a loving husband angered by a straying wife who betrayed him. Solomon composed Shir HaShirim in the form of that same allegory. It is a passionate dialogue between the husband [God] who still loves his estranged wife [Israel], and the wife, a veritable widow of a living husband, who longs for her husband and seeks to endear herself to him once more, as she recalls her youthful love for him and admits her guilt.

God, too, is afflicted by her afflictions (Isaiah 63:9), and He recalls the kindness of her youth, her beauty, and her skillful deeds for which He loved her [Israel] so. He proclaimed that He has not afflicted her capriciously (Lamentations 3:33) nor is she cast away permanently, for she is still His “wife” and He her “husband,” and He will yet return to her.221

And here is the first chapter of that translation. You will find it instructive to compare it verse by verse with your favorite translation.

      1. The song that excels all songs dedicated to God, the King to Who peace belongs.

Israel in exile to God:

      2. Communicate your innermost wisdom to me again in loving closeness, for Your friendship is dearer than all earthly delights.

      3. Like the scent of goodly oils is the spreading fame of your great deeds; Your very name is flowing oil; therefore have nations loved you.

      4. Upon perceiving a mere hint that You wished to draw me, we rushed with perfect faith after You into the wilderness. The King brought me into His cloud-pillared chamber; whatever our travail we shall always be glad and rejoice in Your Torah. We recall Your love more than earthly delights; unrestrainedly do they love you.

Israel to the Nations:

      5. Though I am black with sin, I am comely with virtue, O nations who are destined to ascend to Jerusalem; though sullied as the tents of Kedar, I will be immaculate as the draperies of Him to Whom peace belongs.

      6. Do not view me with contempt despite my swarthiness, for it is but the sun which has glared upon me. The alien children of my mother were incensed with me and made me a keeper of the vineyards of idols, but the vineyard of my own true God I did not keep.

Israel to God:

      7. Tell me, You Whom my soul loves: Where will You graze Your flock? Where will You rest them under the fiercest sun of harshest Exile? Why shall I be like one veiled in mourning among the flocks of Your fellow shepherds?

God responds to Israel:

      8. If you know not where to graze, O fairest of nations, follow the footsteps of the sheep - your forefathers who traced a straight, unswerving path after My Torah. Then you can graze your tender kids even among the dwellings of foreign shepherds.

      9. With My mighty steeds who battled Pharaoh’s riders I revealed that you are My beloved.

      10. Your cheeks are lovely with rows of gems, your neck with necklaces - My gifts to you from the splitting sea, … .

      11. … by inducing Pharaoh to engage in pursuit, to add circlets of gold to your spangles of silver.

Israel to God:

      12. While the King was yet at Sinai my malodorous deed gave forth its scent as my Golden Calf defiled the covenant.

      13. But my Beloved responded with a bundle of myrrh - the fragrant atonement of erecting a Tabernacle where His Presence would dwell amid the Holy Ark’s staves.

      14. Like a cluster of henna in En Gedi vineyards has my Beloved multiplied his forgiveness to me.

      15. He said, ‘I forgive you, My friend, for you are lovely in deed and lovely in resolve. The righteous among you are loyal as a dove.’

      16. It is You Who are lovely, my Beloved, so pleasant that you pardoned my sin enabling our Temple to make me ever fresh,

      17. The beams of our House are cedar, our panels are cypress.222

As comforting as allegorizing the text might be, there is really no internal or external justification for it. The problem with saying that the Song of Songs is “seemingly sensuous” is that unenlightened readers, not knowing any better, will read it as sensuous, and what passage in the Song of Songs, or the Old Testament, or the New Testament will enlighten such readers to Solomon’s real intent? What tools would they have by which to properly decipher Solomon’s symbolism? There are none. An allegory’s only benefit is to explain, to our sensibilities, why Song of Song’s is in the Bible. I submit to you that it is better to admit our discomfort than to seriously consider the allegory. When Solomon wrote, “My beloved is to me a pouch of myrrh which lies all night between my breasts,” could he really mean, “But my Beloved responded with a bundle of myrrh - the fragrant atonement of erecting a Tabernacle where His Presence would dwell amid the Holy Ark’s staves?” Let me tell you, it takes imagination to blaze a trail between the two.

The Typological Approach

Later on, there came those who acknowledged the sensual elements of Songs while still holding to a strong connection to God. They did this by using the concept of types. They proposed that King Solomon typified Christ, and the bride typified the Church. Just like Jesus Christ came to earth for a bride to take to heaven, so King Solomon found a peasant girl working in a vineyard and brought her into his royal courts. Although potentially more true to the text, the sensual elements were acknowledged and then ignored. Therefore, in practice, the typology, not the sexuality, was the principle purpose of the book’s place in the Scriptures. How else could it be there? The presumed logic of canonicity still prevailed:

All books in the Bible are about God.

The Song of Songs is in the Bible.

Therefore, the Song of Songs is about God.

We must set aside typology for the same reason we set aside the allegorical approach. There is no internal or external evidence for it, and we must acknowledge that the motivation for drawing the types is the same discomfort that motivated allegory: a book in the Bible must somehow be about God. It is not that typology here is wrong, per se. It is that typology is used to dismiss the primary focus of the Song of Songs, which is the celebration of marriage and its physical relationship. Only after we give the book’s message its proper emphasis do we have a chance to catch any hints of a spiritual truth. Also, typology needs to stand on a foundation of generally accepted meaning, which the Song of Songs does not have. It should never be the stimulus for such meaning. The need for a type might well interfere with a correct understanding of the book.

The Natural Approach

The natural approach takes the Song of Songs, at face value, as a poem about marriage and the physical relationship that is part of marriage. This does not immediately answer the question of why the Song of Songs is in the Bible, but maybe the problem has been our preconceptions about what makes a book fit for the Canon. This approach has gained prominence only within the last century, and discoveries of other ancient love poems have shed light on the Song of Songs’ imagery.223

The challenge is still imagery. For the allegorist and the typologist, the challenge was to relate imagery to spiritual meaning. Now, it is to understand how the imagery relates to healthy romance and enduring love. There is a cultural and historical divide between the author and us. Consider these words of the bridegroom: “Your hair is like a flock of goats that have descended from Mount Gilead.” Such words will hardly melt the heart of a young maiden today, but we must assume they were precious words at the time of writing. So, picture a compact herd of goats moving down the switch-backed trails of a mountain. How might this scene look from a distance? Would they seem to move in waves and suggest hair blown by a soft wind? Okay, it might work. Try this one, “Your teeth are like a flock of newly shorn ewes which have come up from their washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them has lost her young.” In the days before modern orthodontics, the young man or young woman would appreciate someone with a complete set (“not one has lost her young”) of straight (“all bear twins”), white (“newly shorn and washed”) teeth.

Agricultural and botanical imagery abounds. The imagery communicates both beauty and a veiled eroticism. This is the genius of the book’s sexual message. The eroticism is as hidden and discrete as is appropriate in marriage. Sexuality is between the husband and the wife and is not for public view. The Song of Songs provides a biblical basis for celebrating this part of life while teaching that discretion preserves its value. The imagery adds dimension to the experience and anchors it to the higher values of chastity, surrender, mutual desire, and committed love. Note these excerpts:

Chastity – On the wedding night’s consummation, the bridegroom says, “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, A rock garden locked, a spring sealed up” (Songs 4:2). The bride is a virgin who has kept her garden for this moment. As you read the next verses, you will see how she opens her garden and invites her husband to enjoy its fruits.

Chastity – The bride remembers how her brothers “watched over” her when she was of tender age. The brothers speak:

We have a little sister, and she has no breasts; what shall we do for our sister on the day when she is spoken for? If she is a wall, we will build on her a battlement of silver; but if she is a door, we will barricade her with planks of cedar (Songs 8:8, 9).

The bride then reflects on her choice and the value it had to her husband, “I was a wall, and my breasts were like towers; then I became in his eyes as one who finds peace” (Songs 8:10). Being “a wall” suggests that the young woman is one not open to the advances of men before marriage. Being “a door” suggests otherwise. In the first case, they give her honor and the means to withstand a siege. In the second case, they do whatever it takes to preserve her honor.

Surrender – On the wedding night’s consummation, the bride says:

Awake, O north wind, And come, wind of the south; Make my garden breathe out fragrance, Let its spices be wafted abroad. May my beloved come into his garden and eat its choice fruits! (Songs 4:16)

Mutual Desire – The bride says, “His mouth is full of sweetness. And he is wholly desirable. This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem,” (Songs 5:16) and again “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me” (Songs 7:10).

Committed Love – The focal verse of the entire book is Songs 8:6, 7:

Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, jealousy is as severe as Sheol; its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, nor will rivers overflow it; if a man were to give all the riches of his house for love, it would be utterly despised.

In our day, we need to understand, teach, and emulate this aspect of the Song of Songs. As I see it, it is a book intended for our time.

Story Lines

Does the Song of Songs tell a story? If so, who are the characters? How does our understanding of the message and themes change as our perception of the story elements change? These questions are the subject of this section. One of the enigmatic aspects of the Song of Songs is that there are so many viewpoints that have merit.

Song of Songs as an Anthology

The first story line is, in fact, not a story line at all. There are many who read the Song of Songs, then note how disconnected the material seems to be and conclude that the work is a loosely organized collection of love songs. Each of the songs may, therefore, be about different characters and even have different authors.

Whereas, there is much to commend this viewpoint, it is not totally satisfactory. Although it attempts to explain how disconnected the book seems, paradoxically (dare I say, enigmatically), it does not explain how connected the book seems to be. For example, there is the recurring refrain, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you do not arouse or awaken my love until she pleases” (Songs 2:7; 3:5; 8:4 and note 8:5b). Of course, this could all be a matter of editorial arrangement, but pretty soon the arrangement almost seems to tell a story. Still the notion that the book is an anthology of love songs is worth considering.

Song of Songs as a Royal Love Story:

King Solomon and the Shulammite Vinedresser

This is the generally accepted story line. The tale of King Solomon and the Shulammite goes like this: King Solomon notices a chaste and attractive young vinedresser in one of his vineyards. He falls in love with her, marries her, and brings her into his court.

There are two interesting variations of this story line, both of which have to do with the dream sequences and other signs of trouble in the relationship.

The first and most popular variation regards the bride as being shy and not fully comfortable with this king who is suddenly showing such attention and affection to her. Evidences of her reticence include her hiding in a rocky cleft (Songs 2:14) and her reluctance to open the door to her husband/lover (Songs 5:2, 3). The imagery also lends itself to the allegorists and typologists, since Jesus would be the faithful seeker of the unsure bride. When she is not fully open to Him, she gets herself into difficult and even dangerous situations.

The second variation views the bride as being devoted, but struggling with the relationship she has with a polygamous king. Those who propose this variation come the closest to drawing a coherent teaching purpose for the Song of Songs.224 Here we have a young peasant bride whose heart and body have been kept for her husband, King Solomon. She is unsure of her status within the harem (Songs 1:5, 6), and the very presence of the harem is demeaning (Songs 6:8-10). Her speech and thoughts include both physical and emotional aspects of their relationship, but he talks primarily of her beauty. Her dreams are symptomatic of one who is adjusting to a troubling relationship. There is a call for an ideal of monogamous marriage when the bride asks her husband, “Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, jealousy is as severe as Sheol; its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord” (Songs 8:6). Here she calls for the same heart and dedication from her husband that she has shown for him.

Either variation of this story line would be strong, were it not that some story elements make difficult the identification of the bridegroom as a king. Why, for example, would the young woman want to know, “where do you pasture your flocks, where do you lie down at noon?” (Songs 1:7). This seems to indicate that the woman’s lover is a shepherd and not a king. This leads us to a third story line.

Songs of Songs as a Love Triangle:

King Solomon, the Shulammite Vinedresser, and the Shepherd

To state it simply, King Solomon falls in love with a young, virtuous vinedresser and marries her, but she really loves a shepherd. If Song of Songs doesn’t have enough trouble accounting for its place in the Scriptures, this viewpoint compounds it. This story line is only useful for explaining the ambiguous references to the bridegroom as a king, and it suggests some really bad outcomes. Although the book opens in the court, it ends in the country. Does the girl leave Solomon and escape to her shepherd lover? Does she finally get fed up and run away at Songs 6:13, which reads, “Come back, come back O Shulammite.”

Song of Songs as a Peasant Love Story:

A Shepherd and a Vinedresser

Perhaps the two lovers in Song of Songs are not royals at all, just peasants. In their mutual admiration and young love, they refer to each other using royal terms. He is as King Solomon in her eyes, and she is as a princess in his. The young newly-weds playfully pretend to be part of the court life. However, they soon see the shortcomings of palace life and settle down in their pastoral setting. This view frames Songs 8:7 in high relief, “if a man were to give all the riches of his house for love, it would be utterly despised.” I am reminded of the song with the lines, “Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you, honey.”225 Love is just something money cannot buy.

Making the Song of Songs Your Own

Having made the case for the difficulties of the book, I must now make the case for your making it your own. Difficulties aside, Song of Songs is a refreshing book that grows on you. Discovery builds on discovery, and a distinct beauty emerges from its chapters and verses. Let me start you off with the most important clue to understanding it: The Song of Songs is told from the bride’s point of view. It is a feminine book and, like a woman, she only reveals her secrets to those who love her and listen with their heart. Here is a second important clue: The book defies western-style logic; it must be understood holistically – not as a collection of parts.

To make this book your own requires three things:

1. You need to know who is speaking (or thinking).

2. You need to put on historical lenses.

3. You need to discern its structure.

All the diverse story lines come from different conclusions about these three items, but do not let that discourage you. Rather let it give you the freedom to explore your own ideas.

Know Who is Speaking (or Thinking)

The Song of Songs is told from the bride’s point of view. Indeed, one could view it as a “stream of consciousness” monologue wherein the young girl’s thoughts flit from immediate experience to memories to hopes. Although I have not read anyone else who makes this claim, I actually ascribe much of the book to her private thoughts. When I read, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” I feel as if I have been given access to the thoughts and feelings of a young girl in love. I would not even know to whom she would be speaking.

Most translations provide help with speaking assignments. In some cases, the translation identifies the speaker in the marginal notes. Others identify the speaker in a heading above the text. My own taste is to have the speaker identification close by in order to get a better feel for the exchange. To this end, I have actually copied the book into a word processor and color coded the text and made other changes to the fonts. In this, my private version, I made the bride’s words pink, the bridegroom’s words blue, and all others black. When I guessed that the bride was thinking rather than speaking, I used pink italics. The effect was quite dramatic.226 One advantage of having the text in a word processor and using colors to identify the speakers is immediacy. There is no looking back to the heading or over to the margins to reconnect with the speaker.

Some places where the NASB, NET, and NIV differ in speaker assignments demonstrate how the meaning of the book subtly changes. Let’s take the recurring refrain again, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you do not arouse or awaken my love until she pleases” (Songs 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). The NET and NASB ascribe all three to the bride, but the NIV ascribes the first two to the lover and the last to the beloved. I prefer the NET and NASB rendering and believe that it foreshadows and adds dimension to the bride’s words, “Beneath the apple tree I awakened you;” (Songs 8:5b). The drama of 8:5b does not exist in the NIV.

Put on Historical Lenses

I have already covered this a little, but it is worth repeating: the language and imagery within the Song of Songs comes from another place and time. Some of the imagery carries well, such as, “Your lips are like a scarlet thread, and your mouth is lovely” (Songs 4:3a). Other imagery is not so clear, “Your temples are like a slice of pomegranate behind your veil” (Songs 4:3b). To appreciate this book, we must stretch our imaginations and relate the images to love and romance. In others words, we need to visualize the imagery from different angles until something romantic, or even erotic, emerges. One of the delights of this book is the “a-ha” experience when a sudden insight reveals the meaning of a puzzling phrase.

Discern Its Structure

The Song of Songs is not western literature, which has a strong sense of sequential flow, time, and logic. Hebrew literature is not so fascinated with time ordered sequences and prefers more exotic arrangements. Time, in the Song of Songs, is all over the clock and calendar.

Before I go further with the structure of the Song of Songs, I want to show the structure of a section in Daniel. This will set the stage for a similar arrangement in Songs. Daniel 2:4–7:28 is written in Aramaic227 and has this structure:

A. Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream

B. Condemnation and Rescue (The Fiery Furnace)

C. A King is Humbled (Belshazzar loses the kingdom)

C’. A King is Humbled (Nebuchadnezzar goes insane)

B’. Condemnation and Rescue (The Lion's Den)

A’. Daniel’s Dream

Daniel’s material is not ordered by time. The two center sections, C and C’, are in reverse chronological sequence, and so are A’ and B’. Instead of time providing the structural underpinning, Daniel uses an inverted parallelism, known as a “chiasm.” The structure exists to invite comparison among the parallel parts: A to A’, B to B’, and C to C’.

Besides having an unfamiliar structure, the Song of Songs consists of Hebrew poetry, whose elements are the relationship of themes and ideas instead of rhythm and rhyme. Some of the poetic elements that you will notice as you read are:

  • Parallelism
  • Simile
  • Stair case progressions
  • Chiasmus
  • Thematic connections that are chapters apart

Many of these elements are illustrated in the following passages:

Parallelism

I am the rose of Sharon,
The lily of the valleys (Songs 2:1).

Simile

Like a lily among the thorns,
So is my darling among the maidens (Songs 2:2).

Stair Case Progression

I am the rose of Sharon,
The lily of the valleys.
Like a lily among the thorns,
So is my darling among the maidens.
Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest,
So is my beloved among the young men.
In his shade I took great delight and sat down (Songs 2:1-3).

Notice how the imagery flows from “rose” to “lily” to “like a lily” to “like a tree” to “in his shade.” The literary intent seems to be to have an associative link that ties one phrase to the next while seeing how far from the original you can get.

Thematic Connection

Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest,
So is my beloved among the young men.
In his shade I took great delight and sat down (Songs 2:3).
Beneath the apple tree I awakened you;
There your mother was in labor with you,
There she was in labor
And gave you birth (Songs 8:5b).

Like Daniel, the Song of Songs has a chiastic structure, but one that is freer and looser. By this I mean that it is hard to draw an unambiguous line separating the parts. You can step back and see it, but when you get close, it almost disappears. What you see from a distance is this:

A. Home in the king’s court

B. Developing love

C. Dream Sequence

D. Consummation

C’. Dream Sequence

B’. Developing love

A’. Home in the country

As with Daniel, the nested segments invite comparisons. There are several themes in the first and last chapters that are clearly parallel, and the chiasm gives us good reason to compare them. Consider these phrases: “My mothers sons were angry with me” (Songs 1:6), and “We have a little sister … ” (Songs 8:8). Note the references to “vineyard” in the two sections. We can surmise, therefore, that the two sections tell the same childhood events from different points of view. The first is from the bride’s viewpoint, and the second is from her brothers’ viewpoint. In the first, the girl “suffered” under brothers who made her work in the fields. In the second, the brothers look after the same girl’s future interests.

So, as you read the Song of Songs:

  • Don’t worry about a time sequence; let each section be what it is, and do not worry about when.
  • Look for repeating themes and phrases. When you find them, compare them for sameness and differences. It does not matter if they are near or far from each other.
  • Seek to understand the poetic allusions.

After awhile, you will find a story emerging.

Lessons for Body, Soul, and Spirit

Lessons for the Body

So why is the Song of Songs in the Bible? What is it that makes it “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness?”

There are two errors people have had regarding sexuality, and the Song of Songs corrects both. The first says that sex is for making children and any other use is carnal and at best tolerated. The second says that sex is a recreational activity that should have limited restraints.

The view that sexual intercourse in marriage is solely to conceive children was put forth by Saint Augustine in his work, “On Marriage and Concupiscence” in which he writes:

The union, then, of male and female for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage. But he makes a bad use of this good who uses it bestially, so that his intention is on the gratification of lust, instead of the desire of offspring.228

The Song of Songs clearly teaches that Saint Augustine was wrong. On their wedding night, the lovers are told, “Eat, friends; Drink and imbibe deeply, O lovers.” The Song of Songs has explicit passages wherein the lovers delight in the features of the other. There is no hint anywhere that the delight of the young married couple is in the seeking of children. Rather, we see the bonding effect that the physical union creates between them.

But in our day, we have no worries about Saint Augustine’s error taking root. Sex is entertainment, and sex education seems to consider abstinence among young people to be impossible. But the lovers in the Song of Songs rejoice in their chastity. After her brothers talk about their “little sister” and whether she is a virtuous wall or a loose door, the young woman tells us, “I was a wall, and my breasts were like towers; Then I became in his eyes as one who finds peace” (Songs 8:10). She tells us that she was both virtuous and sexually attractive. Both pleased her husband, who could trust her to be faithful to him.

Songs 8:6,7 proclaims love’s desire to be the only one in the eyes of the other:

Put me like a seal over your heart,
Like a seal on your arm.
For love is as strong as death,
Jealousy is as severe as Sheol;
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
The very flame of the Lord.
Many waters cannot quench love,
Nor will rivers overflow it;
If a man were to give all the riches of his house for love,
It would be utterly despised.

What is the seal in this refrain? According to some, it is a cylinder seal worn around the neck or a stamp seal worn on the wrist.229 Since the seal uniquely belongs to and identifies its owner, the seal imagery is a request to uniquely belong to and identify the beloved. Alternatively, the seal could be an imprint on the heart made as one would make by rolling a cylinder on wet clay. This speaks of the desire to be a permanent impression on the heart. Either way, Songs 8:6 is about permanent love in a relationship, the reality of jealousy, and the fact that love cannot be bought. Such a picture is gone from today’s cultural message. Perhaps the frankness of the Song of Songs could bring it back.

As I stated previously, the language of the Song of Songs is discrete. As we read, we know what is going on, but the privacy of the young couple is preserved. We share in their joy and their feelings, but we are not assaulted with graphic images. The discretion is achieved by the artistic use of images and double entendre.

So the lessons for the body are to honor chastity and virtue, to enjoy the physical union in marriage, to be devoted exclusively to one another, and to be discrete. As such, the Song of Songs could be very useful in pre-marriage counseling and maybe college and young singles classes.

Lessons for the Soul

The Song of Songs is good for the soul because the poetry it contains is beautiful, and beauty is good for the soul. Much of evangelical Christianity has promoted left-brained rationalism over right-brained artistry. Daniel Wallace writes in his excellent paper, “The Uneasy Conscience of a Non-Charismatic Evangelical”:

The Holy Spirit does not work just on the left brain. He also works on the right brain: he sparks our imagination, causes us to rejoice, laugh, sing, and create. Few Christians are engaged and fully committed to the arts today. Where are the hymn writers? Where are the novelists? Painters? Playwrights? A very high-powered editor of a Christian magazine told me two weeks ago that he knows of only one exceptional Christian fiction writer. What are our seminaries doing to encourage these right brainers? What is the Church doing to encourage them?230

The Song of Songs is a completely right-brained book and is, therefore, good for the development of the right brain. It will be the right brain that will comprehend the book’s poetic images. It will be the right brain that will delight in the language. Take the following picture of spring:

My beloved responded and said to me:
“Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come along.
For behold, the winter is past,

The rain is over and gone.

The flowers have already appeared in the land;
The time has arrived for pruning the vines,
And the voice of the turtledove has been heard in our land.
The fig tree has ripened its figs,
And the vines in blossom have given forth their fragrance.
Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come along!” (Songs 2:10-13).

This is food for the soul as one feels no longer the cold wet of the winter rains, sees the fields colored with the flowers, hears the sound of the turtledove, tastes a ripe fig, and smells the fragrance as one walks with a loved one. All five senses plus the emotions of young love are alive here. What I am saying is simply this: the Song of Songs is to be enjoyed.

Food for the Spirit

Must we conclude that the Song of Songs has nothing to say about God and spiritual matters? Not necessarily, but we will not find it in the simple meaning of the text. Nevertheless, I have noticed that as people read the book, they seem to experience the love of God in a special way. I think the difference is that they come into contact with the phileo love of God for them. We do not often hear about such a thing. We talk of the agape love of God, how He loves us unconditionally and how it is a higher love. We talk about loving our spouses with unconditional agape love. But phileo love between friends, that which finds value in the other, is also important. Agape love may be all that is needed for a marriage to survive, but it is when it is combined with phileo love that it is its most satisfying. Many read the Song of Songs and note how the bridegroom and bride rejoice over each other, and they begin to think about their heavenly Bridegroom. They see Him rejoicing over His bride and, by extension, to them personally. Think of the purity, joy, excitement, discovery, intimacy, promise, and beauty shared between the lovers in the Song of Songs. It is preposterous, in this light, to imagine a stoic Bridegroom on the day of our salvation and the day of our wedding banquet. There is a hint here of something truly marvelous and precious. Consider what Isaiah says:

You will also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
And a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
It will no longer be said to you, “Forsaken,”
Nor to your land will it any longer be said, “Desolate”;
But you will be called, “My delight is in her,”
And your land, “Married”;
For the Lord delights in you,
And to Him your land will be married.
For as a young man marries a virgin,
So your sons will marry you;
And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
So your God will rejoice over you (Isaiah 62:3-5).

Whereas there is not sufficient presence in the Song of Songs to develop a formal typology, there is a hint of the love that Jesus Christ has for His bride. Isaiah tells us that He will rejoice, and the Song of Songs gives us the language of that rejoicing.

For this reason, composers have felt free to “borrow” verses to communicate God’s love to us. A favorite seems to be Songs 2:4. One well-known song goes like this:

He’s brought me to his banqueting table; His banner over me is love (3x).
His banner – Over me – Is love.

And, I have a friend who has written an oratorio based on the Song of Songs. His use of Songs 2:4 goes like this:

There’s a table laid before you,
There’s a banquet hall in laud.
Here the calling of His able,
Hear the calling of their God.
There’s a banquet hall in heaven
Go there slowly close your eyes.
You’re the only one attending,
Will you come?231

Both songs take the verse out of context, because it is not plausible that Solomon wrote about the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9). On the other hand, someone who knows about the wedding feast can read Songs 2:4 and, by association, think about that wedding feast. It is exactly the kind of thought we would have on that day. Why not sing about it now? What I submit for your consideration is that the Song of Songs provides us with the love language that we need to express our relationship with our heavenly Bridegroom. J. Sidlow Baxter writes:

To some it may seem that the language of Solomon’s Song is too intimate or extravagant to express the communion of the saints with the heavenly Bridegroom; yet it is a fact that the most ardent lovers of the Lord have here found a relief of expression such as could be found nowhere else. There is a rapture of communion with Christ which no ordinary phraseology can utter.232

The Song of Songs vividly and brightly tells us how the bridegroom and the bride rejoice over each other and delight in each other. On the day of our salvation, our Lord and Savior and now Bridegroom will rejoice and delight over us and we in Him. This is what resonates in our spirit as we read the Song of Songs. What makes this different from typology is that we are not actually making identification between the Song of Song’s bridegroom and Jesus. The Song of Songs just helps us to know His heart.

Conclusion

So, start on your adventure with this book. Perhaps I should pass on the admonishment of the Jewish rabbis that no one under thirty should be so engaged, but it’s probably too late for that. Study this book over a period of time, and you will discover this: Although it has no mention of God, it is, nevertheless, a Holy Book.


214 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Donald E. Curtis at Community Bible Chapel, on April 29, 2001. Don is an elder at Cobb Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Kennesaw, Georgia. You can e-mail comments and questions to http://bible.org/user/69/contact

215 Unless noted otherwise, All Scripture is taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE.

216 For more information, see the translation notes for Songs 8:6 in the NET Bible [Available Online.

217 The first acrostic appears in Esther 5:4 <((oYh^ /m*h*w+ El#m#h^ aoby which means “may the king and Haman come this day.” You can see the covenant name of God, hwhy, as an acrostic of the first letter in each word reading right to left. The second acrostic appears in Esther 5:13, yl! ho#v oNnya@ hz#-lk*w which means “Yet all of this does not satisfy.” Here, the acrostic is on the final letters in the word reading left to right. I have little doubt that the acrostics are deliberate. In the first acrostic, Esther is the speaker and one might say that the Lord is moving, behind the scenes, on her behalf. In the second, the speaker is Haman and his hatred for Mordecai has reached the point where it will mean his undoing. The double reversal, i.e., the final letters and reverse spelling, communicates that the Lord is working, behind the scenes, against him.

218 Robert L. Alden., “Songs of Songs 8:12a: Who Said It?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 1988, 277.

219 See the Independent Women’s Forum research study, “Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right—College Women on Dating and Mating Today,” Online: http://www.iwf.org/news/010727.shtml.

220 This is the Hebrew title for the Song of Songs.

221 Siddur Eitz Chaim / The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Brooklyn, NY; Mesorah Publications, ltd.; 1985) 328, 329.

222 Ibid. 328, 329.

223 J. Paul Tanner, “The History of Interpretation of the Song of Songs,” Bibleotheca Sacra, January-March 1997.

224 J. Paul Tanner, “The Message of the Song of Songs,” Bibleotheca Sacra, April-June 1997.

225 Kenny Loggins, “Danny’s Song.”

226 The complete colorized text is available online at http://personal.atl.bellsouth.net/~nbchesed. (Editors note: this is no longer available on that link. Consider using the Bible.org contact form to contact the author to locate this item.) 

227 The rest of Daniel is written in Hebrew.

228 Saint Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence, Book 1, Chapter 5, Online: http://www.fordham.edu/
halsall/source/aug-marr.html
.

229 Greg W. Parsons, “Guidelines for Understanding and Utilizing the Song of Songs,” Bibleotheca Sacra, October-December 1999.

230 Daniel B. Wallace, “The Uneasy Conscience of a Non-Charasmatic Evangelical,” Online: /docs/soapbox/estsw.htm.

231 Richard Woods, “Your Kiss is My Desire,” Copyright 2000, Unpublished.

232 J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book, 1978 Zondervan Publishing House, Volume 3, p. 176.