The opening line of the Song reads as follows: “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” (1:1). Traditionally, it has been argued that this opening line serves as authorial superscription. The opening line would have been read “The Song of Song, which is from Solomon.” However, in Hebrew, as I am sure most of us will remember, adverbs literally look like squiggles. The difference between your copyist’s squiggle and my copyist’s squiggle could literally change the entire meaning of a sentence and, therefore, how an entire book is read. It could be “from Solomon” or it could be “by Solomon” or it even could be “about Solomon.” Or, while we are at it, it could be “for Solomon” or “to Solomon.” The point is that the squiggle is key, yet we are not entirely sure which squiggle has been squiggled.
To complicate matters about whether the Song was written by Solomon, written for Solomon or written about Solomon, there is the undeniable fact that Solomon is only referred to in the third-person in the Song (1:1, 5; 3:7, 9, 11; 8:11-12). If the Song is by Solomon, this is a strange way to attribute authorship. Additionally, how Solomon is referred to deserves some attention. In chapter 3, the couple (He and She, as noted in the NIV) recounts one of Solomon’s weddings—complete with a gold-plated palanquin—as they think about their own wedding (3:6-11). However, in chapter 8, Solomon falls into a villainous role, as he attempts to purchase either the woman’s vineyard or, more likely, the woman herself, which evokes a stinging rebuke (8:11-12). If this is from or by Solomon, there are some serious moral issues that are difficult to explore with the text as it is presented.
The safe position is to accept that this is another, much like the other writings in the Wisdom Literature, anonymous composition. The more important question is how has the Song been understood throughout history.
The traditional Jewish interpretive stance has seen the Song as an allegory about the relationship between God and Israel, with the Man (Loved) standing in for God and the Woman (Beloved) standing in for Israel. This stance was embraced by early Christians, starting most notably with Hippolytus (AD 170-235). So concerned were the Church Fathers about the Song being misinterpreted that over 100 commentaries were written on the Song by AD 1200. Origen (AD 184-253), the Alexandrian Church Father, is the most notable commentator, as he authored 10 alone! Additionally, this stance has been common in Christian preaching. For example, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) preached 86 sermons on the Song but never made it out of chapter 2!
The problem with the allegorical view is that the Man abandons the Woman more than once in the poem. Can we imagine God abandoning us? If we adopt an allegorical view, I recommend the view postulated by Robert Williamson in his book The Lost Books of the Bible: Reverse the roles and see Israel as the Man who lacks fidelity and God as the Woman who both waits at home and searches for the Man when he does not return home.
However, the allegorical stance is not the only major interpretive stance. The editors of Codex Sinaiticus (AD 400) laid out the Song as a dramatized love story, first noting the characters of the Song. Although this stance has always been secondary to the allegorical stance, it was revised by Friedrich Jacobi in the eighteenth century and still finds adherents today (more on this below).
With the advent of text-critical approaches to Biblical study, such as literary and rhetorical study, new stances have popped up in scholarship, many of which offer a more practical interpretation of the Song. For example, Walter Kaiser sees the Song as focusing exclusively on marriage while Roland Murphy argues for understanding the Song as a festival orchestration much like the Songs of Ascent in Psalms.
When it comes to the Song, the question of interpretation comes down to whether one sees it as a drama or a love poem.
How can one understand the Song as a drama? On one hand, we can see the Song as a two-character drama. This is the stance taken by the NIV, as it seeks to ascribe “speaking roles” to the Man/Loved and Woman/Beloved, while making editorial decisions on some of the more problematic passages like 1:8, 5:9, and 6:13, and assigning them to a chorus. On the other hand, we can see the Song as a three-character drama. This is the stance taken by Iain Provan in his commentary, where he sees a third character—a shepherd boy—wooing the Woman away from the Man through the “Solomon” passages mentioned above. As intriguing as this dramatic view is, it is not without some significant problems. First, there are some issues in assigning passages to the roles. Second, drama was not common in the Ancient Near East. Third, the Song shares more commonalities with Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry. And finally, there is the concern over sexualizing the Woman in Provan’s approach, seeing her as potentially and intentionally promiscuous.
How can one understand the Song as a love poem? As mentioned above, there is a commonality, mainly in language and syntax, between the Song and other Ancient Near Eastern love poetry, such as Poem 19 in Papyrus Harris 500, an Egyptian collection discovered in the nineteenth century. Additionally, Marcia Falk conducted an extensive study of the linguistic features of the Song, noting how the Song serves as a collection of short romantic poems held together loosely by a shared vocabulary rather than a narrative plot. Finally, Dave Bland has noted the “consistency” in character development, imagery, and use of refrains, all components more common to poetry than drama (p. 405). Given the linguistic and grammatical similarities between the Song and the other books in the Wisdom Literature, this is the preferred interpretation.
What’s Love Got To Do With It? The Song of Songs, Sexual Intimacy, and Healthy Discipleship
This series was designed with a congregation that has a variety of age groupings in mind. It is not aimed so much at specifically an urban or rural congregation, or even one located near a college campus. It is one where the age spectrum is well-represented.
The purpose of the series is to engage in conversations regarding healthy approaches to relational intimacy and discipleship, as relational intimacy (whether that is marriage or singleness) is a facet of Christian discipleship. A proposed outcome is that this series would serve as scaffolding for an accompanying small group Bible study curriculum.
Series Big Idea: Our love for God is reflected in how we love one another.
Text: Song of Solomon 1:1-17
Title: What’s Love Got to Do with It?
Exegetical Idea: The Woman (Beloved) speaks earnestly about her desire for her husband (the Man/Loved).
Big Idea: We desire to be loved by another.
Text: Song of Solomon 2:1-17
Title: Make You Feel My Love
Exegetical Idea: The Woman’s love blossoms as time progresses.
Big Idea: Our love for one another should grow and mature.
Text: Song of Solomon 3:1-5
Title: It Must Have Been Love
Exegetical Idea: The Woman searches for the Man when she finds him missing after a conflict. As a result, she is placed in danger when she finds him in another’s company.
Big Idea: Our love for one another will face difficult times.
Text: Song of Solomon 3:6-11
Title: Endless Love
Exegetical Idea: The Man and Woman recount one of Solomon’s weddings, comparing it to their own wedding.
Big Idea: Our love for one another should evoke fond memories.
Text: Song of Solomon 4:1-5:1
Title: All You Need Is Love
Exegetical Idea: The Man describes the Woman in exquisite detail.
Big Idea: Our love for one another should refine how we see and engage one another.
Text: Song of Solomon 5:2-8
Title: Love Me Tender
Exegetical Idea: The Woman fantasizes about the Man but finds that he has abandoned her again, once again placing her in danger as she searches for him.
Big Idea: Our love for one another should cherish and protect the other person in our relationship.
Text: Song of Solomon 5:9-6:3
Title: I Will Always Love You
Exegetical Idea: The Woman again describes the Man in exquisite detail as she searches for him a second time.
Big Idea: Our love for one another should not lead us to abandon the one we love.
Text: Song of Solomon 6:4-13
Title: Crazy Love
Exegetical Idea: The Man returns and again describes the Woman in exquisite detail, leading to a rendezvous that unites the loves more deeply.
Big Idea: Our love for one another should bring us together in an intentionally intimate relationship.
Text: Song of Solomon 7:1-8:5
Title: When a Man Loves a Woman
Exegetical Idea: The Man describes the Woman in exquisite detail one final time, this time emphasizing her entire created being.
Big Idea: Our love for one another should help us see one another as equals created in God’s image.
Text: Song of Solomon 8:6-14
Title: That’s the Power of Love
Exegetical Idea: The Woman (it seems) speaks about the nature of love that is more action-oriented than romantic.
Big Idea: Our love for one another should translate into action rather than remain only emotional.
I can see your smile. It is okay. Go ahead and let out that muffled chuckle that you are holding back in. It is okay. The Song is in the Bible after all. It must have something useful to say to persons of faith. If not, why include it?
Our culture has taught us to be open about sexuality, to flaunt it if we have it. Except in the gathered community of faith. No, not there. It is now acceptable—even demanded—that we talk about politics. But sex? Are you crazy? Do we really need to talk about this? There may have been a time when, or when we deluded ourselves to think that, “purity culture” would rule the day among Christian communities simply because of its existence. Virginity and celibacy were assumed practices. There would be occasional youth group lessons on the subject of sexuality, however they always seemed to be caged in the rhetoric of sex being bad, naughty, or sinful—even in the context of the marriage relationship. “Love and Marriage” may have been a chart-topper for Sinatra, but it has no place in the preaching, liturgy, or witness of the Christian community.
Yet, history and experience have demonstrated otherwise. Sex is enjoyable, which is why it sells so well. However, intimacy remains one of the leading symptoms for unhealthy marriages and one of the leading causes for divorce. Relational intimacy, which encompasses much more than sexual intercourse, has become such a concern that an entire field of psychological study has developed. We desire connection, relationship, intimacy. And, yet, something keeps getting in the way amidst the first and most intimate of all human relationships—the one between husband and wife.
Serving as a guidebook for relational intimacy is not why the Song is in Scripture. It is not a textbook on sexual intercourse nor is it a counseling curriculum for marriage and family therapy. It is, however, about love and intimacy and, ultimately, our connection to God. As has often been pointed out, it contains no references to God. And while it appears to be set against the backdrop of a festive occasion, there are no overt references to Israel’s religious tradition. And, yet, it is part of both the Jewish and Christian canons.
Finding theology in the Song is incredibly difficult, especially if by theology we mean teachings about God, Jesus, the Spirit, the church, Scripture, or mission. Yet, is not love a theological topic? Does John not say “God is love” (1 John 4:6)? We are created to love and be loved by others because we are created by a God who defines and is defined by love. If discipleship is supposed to be a loving relationship between us and God, then perhaps we should be asking ourselves what love has to do with being a Christian.
The Song is viewed by some as being “overtly untheological” (Birch, Brueggemann, Fretheim and Petersen, p. 440). But it is in Scripture. It may be difficult to discern, given the almost humanistic quality inherent in the text of the Song, yet here are three clear theological themes.
The ‘Incomparable … Joy” of Sexual Intimacy Between Married Couples (Davis, p. 235)
I love this phrase from Ellen Davis’ commentary. Intimacy is about so much more than sex. It is about fidelity and connection. Every married couple wants that feeling of looking at the other and simply being content without even needing to say a word—let alone steal a kiss. Although that last part is not bad either.
We do not see sex in the Song; we see intimacy. We see two lovers who, despite a conflict that borders on abandonment, are totally enamored with one another by the end of the poem. Their love is in process, as is every healthy relationship. The Song, then, reminds us that we were created to “become one flesh” (Gen. 2:25).
Promotion of an Egalitarian View of Marital Relationships that can Be Applied to all Human Relationships Through an Intertextual Reading of Scripture.
Aside from the creation passages in Genesis, the Song presents us the best demonstration of our shared equality as beings created in God’s image. As the last and greatest act of creation, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). From the very beginning, men and women were meant to be seen as equals, sharing in life together and drawing strength from one another. Equality does not mean sameness, as diversity is a divine quality. The Song provides clarity and nuance to the lens through which we read Scripture and how we apply it to all of our relationships.
The ‘Longing for Intimacy with God Is Necessary’ for Healthy Discipleship (Davis, p. 235)
This is another great line from Davis’ commentary because it reminds us that we cannot understand true intimacy with one another until we develop intimacy with God. God desires us deeply and knows us as well, whether we know God or not. The psalmist writes, “You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways” (Ps. 139:3). Thus, we should seek after God with passionate intent, asking God to “Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind” so that God’s “steadfast love is before [our] eyes” as we “walk in faithfulness to you” (Ps. 26:2-3).
My Encounter with the Song of Solomon
Full confession: I chose to write this article so that I would have an excuse to study the Song. Much of the awkwardness that has surfaced in this essay regarding how to read the Song has come from my own experience. And, if I were a betting man, I imagine that your experience has been similar. My worshipping tradition has long claimed to be a “66 book” tradition, meaning we honored each book of the Bible equally. And, yet, I cannot think of a single time when I heard the Song even referenced in a sermon, outside of maybe a passing reference in a wedding sermon.
I was exposed to the Song for about a week in seminary, as I took a course on Psalms and Wisdom Literature. But even then, the instructor focused mostly on the forced interpretations of the God-Israel or Christ-church allegories just so he could get through it.
And, as my love for and interest in studying the Wisdom Literature has grown over the years since seminary, I have been appalled at the dearth of material on the Song. I own five commentaries that include the Song and it is the shortest entry in each commentary, and sometimes not even fully covered. I own six Wisdom Literature introductions and only one—one—includes a chapter on the Song (and it is only about 12 pages). In regards to homiletic material, I have been able to find one academic article, one chapter each in three separate books (two of which are fairly new) and one paragraph in another book. Are we really that afraid of this book?
Yet, why am I complaining? Aside from one reference in my wedding sermon template, I have only just begun engaging the Song. It first came as I was developing a graduate course on preaching from the Wisdom Literature. My lamenting above was the fruit of developing that course. I decided that I would write something, then this essay came along. As I write this essay, I am in the middle of teaching the Song in an undergraduate Bible course on the Wisdom Literature. I find much of the same hesitancy that colored my early experience, which is only convicting me to engage the Song that much more.
Dave Bland, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin: College Press Publishing Co., 2002).
Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).
Daniel J. Estes, Handbook on the Wisdom Book and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), pp. 393-444.
Rob O’Lynn teaches preaching at Kentucky Christian University, Johnson University, and Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a minister in Ashland, Kentucky.