Introduction to Song of Solomon

By James M. Rochford

Picture2This book is also called the “Song of Songs,” because this is the title attributed to it in the Hebrew (Šɩ̂r haš-šɩ̄rɩ̂m). The Latin version titles it the “Canticles” (canticum). English translations render it as “Song of Songs” or “Song of Solomon.”

Authorship

The book attributes authorship to Solomon—the king of Israel (1:1, 5; 3:7, 9, 11; 8:11-12), and we have several reasons for believing this claim:

First, Ecclesiastes uses very similar language to Song of Solomon. If Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes (which seems the most likely: “Introduction to Ecclesiastes”), then this would somewhat support Solomonic authorship of this book as well.

Second, Solomon had a deep love and understanding of botany—a persistent theme of Song of Songs. Solomon was well-versed in botany (1 Kings 4:33), and the author of this book spends a lot of time explaining the plant life (1:14; 2:1). Mark Rooker writes, “No other book is as replete with images of flora, fauna, perfumes, and spices.”[1] In fact, Song of Solomon mentions 21 types of plants and 15 species of animals throughout the book.[2]

Third, Solomon’s massive wealth fits with the author of the book. The author of this book mentions many expensive luxuries of the crown (1:12-13; 3:6, 9).

Fourth, the kingdom of Israel was still united in Song of Solomon. Of course, Solomon led the nation of Israel under a united monarchy, and this didn’t experience division until after Solomon’s reign (930 BC). Archer writes, “The author mentions quite indiscriminately localities to be found in both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms: Engedi, Hermon, Carmel, Lebanon, Heshbon, and Jerusalem. These are spoken of as if they all belonged to the same political realm. Note that Tirzah is mentioned as a city of particular glory and beauty, and that too in the same breath with Jerusalem itself (6:4). If this had been written after the time when Tirzah was chosen as the earliest capital of the breakaway Northern Kingdom in rejection of the authority of the dynasty of David, it is scarcely conceivable that it would have been referred to in such favorable terms. On the other hand, it is highly significant that Samaria, the city founded by Omri sometime between 885 and 874, is never mentioned in the Song of Solomon.”[3]

Canonicity

Some rabbis questioned the canonicity of this book. This wasn’t due to the authorship of the book (which they affirmed), but rather they found it to be too sensual, erotic, and lacking of “religious” value. Philo never cites it, and neither does the New Testament.

However, Geisler and Nix note that this book “is included in the canon of Aquila, and ranked as Scripture by Melito and Tertullian. It is also quoted, with standard formulas for citing Scripture, in the Mishnah (Taanith 4.8; Abodah Zarah 2.5).”[4] Archer notes, “The tradition of divine inspiration was successfully upheld by Rabbi Akiba, who used allegorical interpretation to justify its spiritual value.”[5] Akiba stated, “God forbid!—No man in Israel ever disputed about the Song of Songs … for all the ages are not worthy the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holiest of Holies.”[6]

Beckwith writes that the book has “no direct [Christian] attestation to its canonicity until the second century AD.”[7] Yet it was included in the canon of Aquila, Melito, and Tertullian.[8] Beckwith adds, “It is also quoted, with standard formulas for citing Scripture, in the Mishnah (Taanith 4.8; Abodah Zarah 2.5) and the other tannaitic literature. In this instance (though in this instance alone), we are wholly dependent on indirect attestation for the period up to the first century AD.”[9]

Furthermore, the books was also in Josephus’s 22 book canon and the 24 book canon in 2 Esdras (4 Ezra).[10] Beckwith writes, “If, as we have argued, the standard numbers 24 and 22 for the canonical books go back to the second century BC, the canonicity of the book sin question must go back equally far, for standard numbers would only have been adopted after the identity of the books was settled, thus allowing them to be counted in an agreed way.”[11]

Does the Song of Solomon refer to Christ’s love for the Church?

Because of the explicit nature of this book, both Jewish and Christian interpreters have offered an allegorical interpretation. Some Jewish interpreters held that the allegory consists of God’s love for Israel (citing Isa. 54:408; Jer. 2:1-2; Ezekiel 16, 23; Hosea 1-3), and some Christian interpreters have held that the allegory refers to Christ’s love for the Church—his bride.[12]

Some interpreters claim that this book symbolizes the love that Christ has with his bride, the church. But we strongly resist such an allegorical interpretation. For one, this book describes a historical couple. Solomon mentions his 80 concubines. Allegorical interpreters refer to this as the 80 heresies in the church! We find this view to stretch our credulity beyond the limit!

Archer takes the couple to be a type of Christ’s love for the church. Remember, in typology, not everything in the type should be attributed to the fulfillment. So, this would explain away the sexual excitement and also the concubines. However, we find nothing in the text itself to tell us that this is a picture of Christ. While Solomon is a type of Christ, not everything that he does should be taken as a type.

One of the major problems with the allegorical method is its lack of hermeneutical restraint. For instance, regarding Song of Songs 1:13, Rooker writes, “Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra said this phrase refers to the tabernacling of God over the ark of the cherubim, while Cyril of Alexandria proposed that the verse referred to the two Testaments. Bernard of Clairvaux believed the verse referred to the crucifixion of Christ, which strengthens the believer in sorrow and joy.”[13] When we lack hermeneutical restraint, the details of the book become lost in wild speculations like these. We refute the allegorical method in fuller detail in our earlier article “Faulty Hermeneutical Systems.”

How could this be written by the guy who had 1,000 wives? (1 Kings 11:3)

Proponents of Solomonic authorship respond by asserting that the Shulamite woman was the one true love of Solomon’s life (and perhaps the first), and that the book may have been written early in Solomon’s life.[14] Rooker writes, “The fact that Solomon himself may not have paid particular heed to his own advice in no way undermines this message.”[15]

Interpreting the Song of Solomon

There are three characters in the book: the man, the woman, and the friends. This becomes difficult to discern who is speaking throughout this book. The different translations will give different speakers.

Song of Solomon 1

(1:2) NET says that this is “lovemaking.” NET notes explain, “On the other, the plural form דּוֹדִים (dodim, “loves”) is used in the Song to refer to multiple expressions of love or multiple acts of lovemaking (e.g., 1:4; 4:10; 5:1; 7:13 [ET 12]). Although it may be understood in the general sense meaning “love” (Song 1:4), the term דּוֹד (dod) normally means “lovemaking” (Prov 7:18; Song 4:10; 7:12[13]; Ezek 16:8; 23:17).”

(1:3-4) She loves him because he has a good reputation among the people. He has a harem of women that love him. This woman doesn’t seem jealous, but sees why her husband is attractive.

(1:5-6) She is dark in complexion. In this culture, a tan woman was considered low class, because it showed that she had to be at work outside. High class women could sit in the shade. Yet, she wasn’t insecure about how she looked, because her man loved her.

(1:7) She wants to be unveiled with her lover.

(1:8-11) He is going to dress her up—even though she is low class. He doesn’t care about this. He wants to provide for her.

(1:13) When she writes, “My beloved is to me a pouch of myrrh which lies all night between my breasts.” Kinlaw writes, “The root דוד (dwd) of the appellation דּוֹדִי (ḏî, “lover”) is a relatively common one in the larger Semitic world and is found in love poetry, fertility rituals, occasionally occurring as a euphemism for the genitals, as an epithet of a god, or perhaps even as the name of a deity.”[16]

(1:15) He isn’t focused on her body. He starts with her eyes.

(1:16-17) The NLT renders this as laying on the grass, and they are looking up at the tree limbs above them.

She explains her attraction for him, and he for her.

Song of Solomon 2

(2:1) This was a fertile area of Israel, where wild flowers grew.

(2:2) She was saying that she’s commonplace (2:1), but he says that she’s the flower among the thorns. He loves her more than any other woman.

(2:3) Apple trees weren’t common, and needed to be imported in Palestine (see NET notes). Thus the man was unique to her.

(2:6) The Hebrew term (khavaq) for “embrace me” (NASB) is rendered “stimulate me” by NET (v.6). HALOT defines this as “embrace or hug” or “to fondle or sexually stimulate a lover.” It is also rendered this way in Proverbs 5:20 of the adulteress. This latter meaning seems to fit better here as well as in 8:3. He is stimulating her sexually as he kisses her.

(2:7) To “awaken my love” is also sexual love (cf. Song 2:4, 5, 7; 3:5; 5:4; 8:4, 6, 7). The Hebrew ha’ahavah is used in a sexual context throughout the OT (Gen 29:20; 2 Sam 1:26; 13:4, 15; Prov 5:19–20; 7:18; Jer 2:33; Song 2:4, 5, 7; 3:5; 5:4; 8:4, 6, 7). It seems that she is saying that he shouldn’t get her sexually aroused until there is time to make love (get married??).

(2:8-9) He is virile like a young gazelle. He’s excited to come see her, and he’s looking for her (v.9).

(2:14) A major part of godly love is talking to each other.

(2:15) Like “little foxes” that ruin a vineyard, there are things that can ruin a good night with your spouse. She asks him to look out for these things and take care of them. This implies that he is proactively thinking about their time together. He isn’t just plopping down to make love to her. He’s thinking about how to provide and make it a good night.

(2:16-17) She wants him to herself all night long. She calls herself the lilies in 2:1.

Application

Solomon respects his lover’s boundaries. He might respect her, because she sets boundaries for herself (2:7).

The woman respects him because of his reputation. His reputation is like a pleasant smell in a room that everyone responds to.

Solomon is selective in who he picks—like a lily among the thorns.

She has dark skin and unattractive in this culture. She brings this up to him, but he never brings this up to her.

Song of Solomon 3

(3:1) She thinks about him when he isn’t there.

(3:7) Solomon provides for her and protects her.

(3:11) His wedding day was the happiest day of his life.

Song of Solomon 4

(4:1) He admires her beauty.

(4:2) He likes her teeth. At least she has teeth… (The standards were different back then!)

(4:4) She has a regal neck.

(4:5) He admires her breasts after he admires all of these other parts of her body.

(4:9) Does this passage support incest? (cf. 4:10, 5:1)

Song of Solomon 5

(5:1) They are supposed to enjoy each other physically.

(5:2) He doesn’t force his way. He wants her to open up to him.

(5:4) He encourages her to have feelings for him.

(5:6) He gives her space. Distance makes the heart grow fonder.

(5:7) She was abused because he wasn’t there to protect her!

(5:10) She loves him because he is “ruddy” or “manly” (see NET notes).

(5:11-16) She admires his body. It’s interesting to note the parts of his body that she admires.

Song of Solomon 6

(6:3) They are devoted to each other.

(6:4) She inspires him.

(6:8) She is greater than queens.

(6:13) They want to stare at each other.

Song of Solomon 7

(7:1) He admires her legs.

(7:2) He wants to do a belly shot!

(7:6) He admires her beauty.

(7:12) They make plans for where they can be intimate with each other.

Song of Solomon 8

(8:1) This is the language of simile (“like a brother”). The rest of this section is not necessarily still simile.

(8:1) Does this passage support incest? (cf. 4:10, 5:1)

They have passion and love for each other.

(8:5) Here is the full cycle of life to love. Why do they return to the place his parents had sex?! Maybe she is connecting the passion of love and the passion of giving birth.

(8:7) You can’t buy love like this.

(8:9) A woman should keep herself for her husband. This was one of the keys to the success in her relationship (v.10).

(8:10) She sounds like Xena princess warrior.

[1] Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 550.

[2] Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 547.

[3] Archer, Gleason. A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed.). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 539-540.

[4] Geisler, Norman & Nix, William. A General Introduction to the Bible: Revised and Expanded. Chicago, IL. Moody Press. 1986. 258.

[5] Archer, Gleason. A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed.). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 540-541.

[6] Cited in Lightfoot, Neil R. How We Got the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963. 49.

[7] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 321.

[8] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 322.

[9] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 322.

[10] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 322.

[11] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 322.

[12] Rooker notes that Origen, Jerome, Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin argued that the Song of Songs conveyed the love between Christ and His church. Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 548.

[13] Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 548.

[14] Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 548.

[15] Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 552.

[16] Kinlaw, D. F. Song of Songs. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Vol. 5). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1991. 1221.