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The Song of Songs

The title is the Hebrew way of saying "the best of songs". There has been speculation that it might have been written by a woman[1 p.105]. It was probably written in the 5th or 4th century B.C.E. but attributed to Solomon[1 p.111]. It concerns physical and emotional love between a man and a woman. (See comment on Proverbs 14:30 concerning emotion.) Some see five collections comprising 31 poems in all; others see ten incidents which might occur in a single day, as the king and a concubine desire each other but are unwilling to let a forbidden relationship destroy their places in society[5]. There are five plausible ways to interpret it:

  1. as a simple erotic love poem (but why is such a thing in the Bible?);
  2. as an allegory (or is that just a way of excusing its presence in the Bible?);
  3. as an interaction between mythical creatures or deities;
  4. as an explanation of why Abishag (King David's nurse) declined to marry Solomon, implying she preferred another lover;
  5. to illustrate the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, as implied by the frequent use of pasages from this book in the Revised Common Lectionary around Easter in Year A.

Steve Aisthorpe argues for the first option above, saying that it is placed with the Wisdom literature so that scripture celebrates "two of the Lord's most precious gifts"[4]. Reynolds prefers the second option, but adds that the book does not encourage such an interpretation, so it should be understood at face value first[5].

The book has always been controversial yet curiously influential. John of the Cross (a Christian mystic) based almost all of his theology on the Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs). It shows how the Jewish faith is grounded in physical reality rather than Greek denial of the physical as relevant to the eternal and spiritual. Also it seems to contain no reference to God, so Esther is not alone!

The reader should certainly look for allegorical meaning to some extent. One who takes the view that the book is purely allegorical (No.2 above) would look for allegory only. Someone who sees the book as an erotic love poem (No.1 above) would, in seeking a reason why the Bible includes the book, have to consider how human sexuality expresses truth about God, (for example, developing ideas about human sexuality being modelled on some deep truth about God) so the allegorical question arises again. A reader seeking information about deities (No.3 above) would need to seek a connection between the sexual imagery and the observeable world, because otherwise the book's content is irrelevant to us. And lastly, a reader looking for concealed historical information must assume that the meaning is coded somehow, because it is not apparent.

Commentary

1:1

This might mean that Solomon was the author; or Solomon wrote similar material; or the song is about Solomon; or the song was addressed to Solomon (probably fiction that was designed to fit his situation).[2 p.550]

2:14

cf. Exodus 33:18–23, 1 Kings 19:9f.

4:6

In some ancient texts the mountains and hills are singular, others plural.[3 p.115]

7:1

The anatomical terms have been "toned down" to suit sensitive audiences. Some of the references are to the beloved's private parts.

7:13

Mandrakes, while mentioned here only for their smell, have strong associations with fertility; see Genesis 30:14–16.

8:6

"I claimed you as my own; I'll never let you go; nothing stands in the way of our love" cf. 2 Corinthians 1:22.

References:

  1. Coggins, R Introducing the Old Testament Oxford University Press, 2nd edition 2001
  2. Gottwald, Norman K The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction paperback edition 1987, Fortress, Philadelphia
  3. Campbell, Gordon Bible—​The Story of the King James Version Oxford: OUP 2010
  4. Aisthorpe, Steve, writing in New Daylight 24 March 2017
  5. Reynolds, Stefan Gillow "The Wisdom of Love in the Song of Songs" (Hikari Press 2018), reviewed by Anthony Phillips in Church Times 7 December 2018 p.22

© David Billin 2002–2021