Introduction to the Song of Solomon
Table of Contents
- General Info
- Brief Survey
- Key Verses
- Author, Date and Recipients
- Historical Background & Timeline
- Themes, Purpose & Theology
- Interpretation Hints and Challenges
The Song of Solomon is unique amongst the books of the Bible. Although it has been understood allegorically by some readers in some eras of history. it is basically a collection of romantic poems that tells a eloquent love story between a young country girl and a young King Solomon of Israel. In picturesque and sensitive poetic language, the two lovers express intense passion and deep longing for each other. Some of the graphic descriptions and various expressions of human intimacy have led to difficulties amongst some readers, yet it is thoroughly grounded in biblical principles. For example, God established marriage, which included the physical union of a husband and wife (Gen 2:18–25) as corroborated by Jesus (Mt 19:5-6). The poem also confines sexual intimacy to within the context of marriage (SS 2:7).
The various titles for the book all come from the opening words of the Hebrew text “Shir hashirim asher l’sholomo” which translates to English as “Song of Songs of Solomon”, “Song of Songs about Solomon” or “Song of Songs that belong to Solomon”. The Hebrew title is “Shir Hashirim”, translated as “Song of Songs,” meaning “The Best or Ultimate Song” (similar literary construction as “King of Kings” or “Lord of Lords”). Latin translations such as the Vulgate typically translates the Hebrew as Canticum Canticorum, or in English, “Canticles” (Latin for “Songs”). Some Roman Catholic bibles also title the book as “Canticles”. Most English Protestant Bibles title the book as “Song of Songs” or “Song of Solomon”.
In the Hebrew Bible, Solomon’s Song (along with Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations) it is included among the OT books of the Five Megilloth, or “five scrolls.” The reading of each of the scrolls is read during a particular Hebrew festival. The Jews read this song at Pesach (Passover), calling it “the Holy of Holies”. This association may seem a bit strange in our time, but the practice comes from a Rabbinic tradition that interpreted the book to be an allegory of God expressing His love for Israel.
In our modern Christian Bible canons, Songs is the fifth and last book in the Books of Poetry section (following Job, Proverbs, the Psalms, and Ecclesiastes). This section follows the Books of the Law (Genesis – Deuteronomy) and Historical Books (Joshua – Esther), and precedes the Books of the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi). In the Hebrew Bible, Songs and the four other poetic books are located in the third and last section known as the Writings (or Hagiographa), along with Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra–Nehemiah, and Chronicles.
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The Song of Solomon recounts the romance between King Solomon and his cherished bride, who came from a small village in the region of Galilee. Galilee was located in Northern Israel, just south of Lebanon, and its village was quite small, perhaps inhabited by only a few hundred people. Jesus would later choose Galilee as His “home base” for earthly His ministry, and performed many of His first miracles there. Yet, it was also an area in which most of its inhabitants lived in extreme poverty. Since Solomon was the richest king that ever ruled over Israel, we might wonder how he could have met this poor peasant woman. Solomon owned vineyards all over the nation, and one or more was located in the northernmost part of Galilee near the foothills of the mountains of Lebanon. By God’s providence, Solomon met this young woman on one of his visits to this vineyard. Surprisingly, the author never gives us her name, perhaps due to her social status in comparison with the king. She is simply referred to as “the Shulamite”. After their initial meeting, Solomon made periodic visits to her country home to see her until he finally proposed. We might think that a peasant girl would jump at the chance to live in a king’s palace, but she wisely contemplated whether she truly loved Solomon and could be happy married to a king. After much deliberation, she finally accepted Solomon’s proposal.
The first three chapters relate various incidents and conversations during the courtship, and the very elaborate wedding procession from the girl’s home to the celebration upon arrival in Jerusalem. Chapter 4 includes narration regarding the marriage and its consummation. In Chapters 5 and 6, we find the couple’s first disagreement, a brief separation, growing pains. Yet, in chapters 7 and 8, we see descriptions of their deepening and maturing love, leading to continuing growth in their love and continuing commitment to their marriage.
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Solomon’s Song of Songs. She: Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth— for your love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you! Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers. Friends: We rejoice and delight in you; we will praise your love more than wine. She: How right they are to adore you! (1:1-4)
She: I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. He: Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the young women. (2:1-2)
He: My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom. She: My beloved is mine and I am his; he browses among the lilies. Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or like a young stag on the rugged hills. (2:14-17)
She: Who is this coming up from the wilderness like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and incense made from all the spices of the merchant? Look! It is Solomon’s carriage, escorted by sixty warriors, the noblest of Israel, all of them wearing the sword, all experienced in battle, each with his sword at his side, prepared for the terrors of the night. (3:6-8)
She: My beloved is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand. His head is purest gold; his hair is wavy and black as a raven. His eyes are like doves by the water streams, washed in milk, mounted like jewels. (5:10-12)
Friends: Where has your beloved gone, most beautiful of women? Which way did your beloved turn, that we may look for him with you? My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to browse in the gardens and to gather lilies. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he browses among the lilies. (6:1-3)
Friends: Who is this coming up from the wilderness leaning on her beloved? She: Under the apple tree I roused you; there your mother conceived you, there she who was in labor gave you birth. Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for 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 sweep it away. If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned. (8:5-7)
He: You who dwell in the gardens with friends in attendance, let me hear your voice! She: Come away, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or like a young stag on the spice-laden mountains. (8:13-14)
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Author and Date
The vast majority of bible scholars maintain that the author is Solomon King of Israel. The first verse is translated as “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” in the vast majority of the English versions. Some have argued that the title could be a dedication to Solomon rather than a statement of authorship. The most common argument rejecting Solomon is that a king with hundreds of wives and concubines would be incapable of writing such an exquisite story of monogamous love. Although there is certainly some merit to this argument, Solomon could have easily written the book early in his forty-year reign (971-931 BC), before acquiring the additional wives (1Kg 11:1-8). Solomon was a proficient writer, having authored three thousand proverbs and 1005 songs (1Kg 4:32).
In addition, the songs and poetry used by Solomon was very similar to songs and other bodies of literature coming out of Egypt before and during the reign of Solomon. There was also much trading between Egypt and Israel at the time. Solomon would even marry the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh (1Kg 3:1-2), so Solomon would be very familiar with Egyptian customs and literary styles that had been prevalent for about three centuries (1Kg 4:29-34).
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Historical Background and Timeline
While the Songs of Solomon was written early in his reign, the story and applications are timeless. The references to a garden (4:12-5:1, 6:1-3) are reminiscent of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2) back in the beginning. This serves as a reminder that love and sex within the marriage covenant were originally good gifts to be used according to God’s original design and purposes (Eph 5:21-33).
Although they are meant to be of benefit for readers of all generations, they were written during the reign of King Solomon of Israel from 971-931 BC. See 1Kings chapters 1-11 and 1Chronicles 29 through 2Chronicles 9 for the biblical history of Solomon’s reign. The book also provides over a dozen mentions of various geographical locations Lebanon and Syria in the north to Egypt in the south. The bride is identified as a “Shulamite” which likely means that her home may have been in the town of Shunem, located southwest of the Sea of Galilee in the tribal area originally give to the Israeli tribe of Issachar.
|David becomes King of Judah
|David becomes King of United Israel and Judah
|Solomon becomes King of United Israel and Judah
|Solomon writes Song of Songs (aka Song of Solomon)
|Solomon writes his two Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, and in his old age, the Book of Ecclesiastes
|Division of the Northern (Israel) and Southern (Judah) Kingdoms
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Themes, Purpose and Theology
Themes and Theology
The main theme centers around God’s ordained plan for marriage and for intimate relationships between husbands and wives. The song also makes clear that sexual intimacy is to be confined to relationships within the marriage covenant (SS 2:7) as echoed in the New Testament (NT) by Hebrews 13:4.
As we noted earlier, God established marriage, which included the physical union of a husband and wife (Gen 2:18–25) as corroborated by Jesus (Mt 19:5-6), and with sexual intimacy confined to within the context of marriage (SS 2:7). Thus, God also redeems and re-emphasizes the original purpose of marriage by identifying the institute with the His Creation.
While many other books of the Bible address the issues of marriage, divorce, adultery, and sexual immorality, there is little said about the sexual component in a romantic relationship. Should married couples have sex for pure enjoyment or for procreation only? On the Songs answers the question, affirming that married couples can indeed enjoy the amorous and physical components of their relationship as a part of God’s gift of marriage. Some have even referred to the book of Songs as “The Bible’s Romance Guide for Marriage”.
Although not likely an intended purpose by the author, we could acknowledge that the book may also serve the purpose of picturing the love of God for His church.
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Interpretation Hints and Challenges
Similar to the other four wisdom books of the Bible, the interpretation of the Songs is closely tied to its literary genre. Through much of history, it was popular to interpret the book allegorically, primarily as a picture of the relationship between God and His church (the invisible or true church). Yet in the nineteen century, archeologists made tremendous discoveries that led to a much greater understanding of the ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In particular to our topic, a large quantity of manuscripts were found, similar to the Songs, that that could only be understood and characterized as human love poetry. In addition, it would be highly inappropriate to use some of the language in the book for worshipping Christ, or for Jesus to describe His church in terms such as Songs 7:1-9. Finally, the NT contains many passages that speak of the bride of Christ, but there is no mention of the Songs. This is of course, an argument from silence, but it really appears odd that the NT would be silent if the inspired writers believed that an entire OT book was actually devoted to the subject. As a result, the vast consensus today, even among Jewish scholars, is that the Song celebrates God’s wisdom on the subject of love and sexuality within the institute of marriage.
Although the entire book is one poem, it consists of a dozen or more
individual poems. The majority are spoken from the woman’s point of view
as she looks back at the various events leading to the courtship, the wedding
early years of marriage. It is also sometimes difficult to determine where on poem and the next one begins. We can even find disagreements between the various bible translations and commentaries. In addition, the individual poems are not all in chronological order. We also find flashbacks, transitions, and occasions interruptions by an unnamed narrator. Yet, these features not detract from the overall message or important themes.
There has been some debate regarding the identity of the woman. Some Roman Catholics have suggested that she should be identified as the virgin Mary, but this was based on the now discredited allegorical version. The Shulamite maiden (6:13) remains unnamed. She most likely hailed from the village of Shunem, located about three miles north of Jezreel in Galilee. Some have suggested that she was Pharaoh's daughter, but the language of the poem, and her description as a “Shulamite maiden” would appear to eliminate this option. Solomon would later marry a daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh (1Kg 3:1), but this likely happened later, as he began to collect foreign wives.
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Whether this is a picture of husband and wife, and /or Jesus and His Church, the three phase outline of Honeymoon, Wedding, and Growing Together in Life is certainly appropriate.
|1:1 - 3:5
|Courtship of the Bride and Groom; Falling in Love
|3:6 - 4:16
|The Wedding and Honeymoon
|5:1 - 6:3
|First Challenges and Struggles
|6:4 - 7:13
|8:1 - 8:14
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