The Bible: Exploring the Song of Songs
What’s in a name?
“The song of songs, which is Solomon’s” (KJV) is a translation of the Hebrew name of this book: Shir Hashirim ’asher Lishelomoh. Most English Bibles title the book “Song of Songs” or “Song of Solomon,” although sometimes it is titled “Canticles.” The latter title derives from the Latin Canticum Canticorum, which means “Song of Songs.”
|The landscape above features trees and plants native to the land of the Bible. The frequent use of garden imagery in Song of Songs functions both as erotic symbolism — especially concerning the woman’s charms — and as a suitable metaphor for the paradise of God. Illustration by Glen Edwards|
No definitive outline for this book exists. The text does not even identify who speaks which lines. Marvin H. Pope writes, “In proportion to its size, no book of the Bible has received so much attention and certainly none has had so many divergent interpretations imposed upon its every word” (Song of Songs, The Anchor Bible, vol. 7C, p. 89).
Some scholars view the book as a drama, but their opinions diverge considerably as to the number of participants, the number of acts and the plot of the drama. Others regard the book as several poems formed into a unity, but here, too, opinions diverge as to the number of poems and how they fit together.
How to read this book
Traditional Jewish thought considered this book an allegory of the Lord’s relationship to Israel. Similarly, early Christian interpretations saw it as an allegory of Christ’s relationship to the church. Recently, scholars have emphasized a natural reading of the book as celebrating the love between a man and a woman. This love, however, can be viewed as typifying the relationship between God and his people. Roland E. Murphy writes:
“The primary intention of Canticles deals with human sexual love — the experience of it, its delights, and its power. It is an expansion of the wonder perceived in Prov 30:19, ‘the way of a man with a maiden,’ and expressed also in Prov 5:18-19…. It would be extravagant, however, to claim that the literal historical sense exhausts the meaning of Canticles. The history of interpretation in both Jewish and Christian traditions shows that the communities in which the book was received found other levels of meaning” (Wisdom Literature, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, vol. 13, p. 104).
Articles in “Exploring the Word of God: Books of Poetry and Wisdom”
Learning about God
Although God is not directly mentioned in Song of Songs, we can infer much about him from the book. Behind the couple who exultantly rejoice in each other’s love lies the God who, from the beginning, intended for a man to leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, so that man and woman “become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
We usually remember God as the God of righteousness. But God is also the creator of beauty. God wants us to enjoy his creation, to appreciate beauty, to delight in his gifts for us. And one of God’s most beautiful gifts is that of sexual love in marriage.
- Sexual love: Song of Songs speaks of the power of sexual love: “Love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned” (8:6-7). And this power strengthens the bond between the couple: “My lover is mine and I am his” (2:16).
But above all, sexual love is a precious and beautiful gift: “Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance. Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me” (2:12-13).
What this book means for you
For those who are married, this book has particular, and delightful, meaning: The marriage covenant is not a covenant of unwilling obligation, it is a covenant of unbounded joy. Karl Barth writes, “The Song of Songs is one long description of the rapture, the unquenchable yearning and the restless willingness and readiness, with which both partners in this covenant hasten towards an encounter” (Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, part 1, p. 313). But for all Christians, married or single, Song of Songs illustrates the church’s joyous anticipation of the marriage to the Lamb, Jesus Christ (Revelation 19:7-8).
Author: Jim Herst and Tim Finlay