Bible Commentary: Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 10

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Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 10

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The Song as Didactic Wisdom Literature

The verses cited above from Proverbs 5 are important for us in considering the scriptural purpose of the Song of Solomon, for they use some of the same imagery the Song does. And the book of Proverbs is also stated to be the work of King Solomon (Proverbs 1:1). Scholars appropriately classify Proverbs as wisdom literature along with Job, Ecclesiastes and a few of the Psalms—all these, it should be observed, being within the Writings division of the Old Testament. Wisdom literature is meant to be didactic—teaching. Indeed Proverbs, with its many instructive principles, is the epitome of wisdom literature—compiled by Solomon, the great patron of wisdom. And many have suggested that the Song of Solomon should also fall into this category.

The New American Commentary states: “The Song of Songs does not teach or explore wisdom after the fashion of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes but celebrates human love. On the other hand, it has affinities to wisdom literature that should not be overlooked. The very ascription to Solomon is…strong indication that it belongs to wisdom…. Other wisdom material uses sexual language (Prov 7:6ff.; 9:1ff.). The Israelites also made a closer connection between singers of songs and ‘wisdom’ than modern Occidentals [i.e., Westerners] do [e.g., Jeremiah 9:16 calling professional singers of dirges ‘wise women’].

“Most important, the function and purpose of wisdom literature must be related to the Song of Songs. Wisdom in the Bible is meant to teach the reader how to live in the world. For this reason politics, personal morality, economics, social behavior, and many other areas of life all come under its teaching. And certainly courtship, sensual love, and marriage cannot be excluded since these areas are among the most basic universals of human experience. The Song of Songs celebrates love, but it also teaches love; in this respect it must be counted as wisdom literature. Nevertheless, among the books of biblical wisdom, it is in a class by itself” (pp. 366-367).

The New International Commentary notes in this regard: “Wisdom is the application of God’s will to the nitty-gritty of life…. By describing a love that is intense, exclusive, and faithful in spite of obstacles, the Song indirectly but passionately reveals God’s will for that special relationship between a man and a woman…. J.M. Munro [in Spikenard and Saffron: A Study in the Poetic Language of the Song of Songs, 1995, pp. 146-147] may be on the right track when she notices a wisdom connection in the relationship between the young woman and the chorus, composed of other young women, whom she is instructing in the ways of love” (p. 49). This refers to the woman repeatedly charging the “daughters of Jerusalem” with what appears to be a directive to not stir up love until the time is acceptable (see Song of Solomon 2:7; Song of Solomon 3:5; Song of Solomon 8:4). Though the meaning is disputed, one such as this could well be intended as a message to young women in the audience—as is probably the case. The Nelson Study Bible comments: “While the Book of Proverbs frequently exhorts young men to live in sexual purity (see Proverbs 7), the Song of Solomon frequently addresses its warnings to young women” (note on 2:7).

As wisdom literature, “it has been suggested that just as Job explores the riddle of suffering, and Ecclesiastes the riddle of existence, so the Song explores the riddle of love” (Gledhill, p. 35). In fact, some have considered the Song an explication, as it were, of the thought expressed in Proverbs 30:18-19, the last item there obviously being the focus: “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden” (NIV). Human love is very mysterious—and the Song seems to reflect that mystery.

Further evidence of the instructive nature of the Song as well as its mystery comes in Song of Solomon 8:6-7, the beginning of which we touched on earlier. Here, in a high point of the Song, rather than just elements of a story or mere mutual praise of the lovers we are given an abstract point about love in general that seems also to be communicated to the audience: “For love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; nor can the floods drown it. If a man would give for love all the wealth of his house, it [or he] would be utterly scorned” (compare NIV, NKJV).

There’s a lot in these verses. First a note about the word “love” here. It is translated from 'ahaba (or 'ahava), the main word for love in Hebrew. Occurring in its different forms 17 times in the Song, this word is used in Scripture to denote all varieties of love, including sexual desire, family affection, close loyal friendship, altruistic, outgoing concern, and committed devotion, such as that rendered to God or to a spouse—just as our English word love can convey all these things. In the Song we find all the various types of love. Although there is a big focus on sexual love in the Song, this is not in isolation from the other types.

The love in verses 6-7 is probably multifaceted, including the attraction, emotion and commitment that bind two people together in a mutual, exclusive relationship. The force of this love, true love, is very powerful—as unrelenting as death, the lovers holding as fiercely, jealously to one another as the grave holds on to the dead. And this love is compared to a blazing fire that cannot be put out by floods of waters. True love, we are told, cannot be bought. But from where does such love arise? It could be described as the way of things. Yet who is responsible for that? Here we may be getting at the roots of the mystery.

Presenting Love As “the Very Flame of the Lord”

As has been stated, there are no unambiguous references to God in the Song of Songs. Yet this constitutes more than mere absence. For it appears that a deliberate, conscious effort was made to avoid mentioning Him. Consider the oath formula in the charge to the daughters of Jerusalem in Song of Solomon 2:7 and Song of Solomon 3:5. They are adjured not by God, as is the common conception in oath formulas, but “by the gazelles or by the does of the field.” We will give further consideration to this when we come to these verses in our reading of the Song, but it should be pointed out here that some see in the Hebrew phrase from which these words are translated one that sounds similar to the use of divine names, indicating intent.

Another place where interpreters have seen the presence of God in the Song is in the climactic point of consummation in 4:16–5:1. It ends in 5:1b with someone, probably the chorus, saying to the lovers in their lovemaking (as they seem to be the addressees here despite other arguments), “Eat, O friends! Drink, yes, drink deeply, O beloved ones!” The idea is that the only person who would be a witness to their private intimacy is God. Yet there could be an argument for affirmation by the wedding guests outside. Still, at this climax of the Song, the encouragement, even if coming from others, at least seems a divine approval.

Back, then, to Song of Solomon 8:6-7. The phrase describing the flames of love at the end of verse 6—“a mighty flame” (NIV) or “a most vehement flame” (NKJV)—is by some translated as “the very flame of the Lord” (NASB). Yet the wording here is unclear. The Hebrew used is shalhebetyah. Some would take the yah at the end (yh in consonantal form) as a separate word, in which case the rendering would be “flame of Yah”—Yah being the shortened form of divine name Yhwh. Yet it appears that yh can also be applied to words as a more general intensifying suffix. “E.g. Jeremiah 2:31, ‘great darkness’ (‘gloom of Yah’); Psalm 118:5, AV, ‘a wide place’ (‘wideness of Yah’); Jonah 3:3, ‘a very important city’ (‘Great with respect to God’); Psalm 80:11, ‘mighty cedars’ (‘Cedars of God’)” (Gledhill, p. 233 footnote). And even if Yah here does mean God, the term flame of God could simply signify lightning, as a fire from the sky, as is comparable to other passages.

Yet it seems more than a coincidence that in this high, abstract point of the Song, in the very place we would expect a mention of God if there is going to be one, a term is introduced that may well refer to Him, at least indirectly. This may reflect more of the intentional ambiguity of the Song—hinting at the presence of God but not saying so directly. Moreover, there is no doubt about who is ultimately responsible for the love between man and woman. This mighty flame truly is from His hand—the hand of the Creator God. Indeed, God is the real Author here—not merely of the Song through inspiration, but of the very subject matter of the Song through creation.

In this regard we should consider the background of the natural world in the Song—as it is all from the hand of God. Love is to be appreciated and enjoyed as part of His creation. As Murphy notes, the Song, in line with the culture it was composed in, “paid homage to God’s design of creation: It acknowledged that human beings, as male and female, were expected to participate joyfully in the ordained sacral order of life. Hence the intensely heightened awareness of nature’s delights, so abundant in the Song’s metaphorical portraits of the two lovers and their love-making, should not be described as indicative of merely ‘naturalistic,’ ‘secular,’ or ‘profane’ interests. Ancient Israel perceived the wonders of human sexuality, fulfilled in marital love, to be a divine blessing” (pp. 98-99).

Commenting on the important role of nature, the created realm, in describing the love in the Song, Murphy further states: “Every sense is involved, indeed highlighted, in this rapturous portrait of love’s delights…. The intensely sensual fascination of the lovers with each other finds poetic expression through the use of natural imagery: colors, perfumes and spices, flowers and fruits, fields, budding vineyards, and luxuriant gardens. Yet the experience of love not only draws upon the textures of nature for its metaphors, it opens the eyes of the lovers themselves to the beauty of the world around them—to its varied terrain and places of human abode (Song of Solomon 1:5, Song of Solomon 1:16-17; Song of Solomon 2:8; Song of Solomon 3:6; Song of Solomon 4:8; Song of Solomon 6:4, Song of Solomon 6:11; Song of Solomon 8:5), to its seasons and the natural forces of wind and water that shape it (Song of Solomon 2:11; Song of Solomon 4:15-16), and to other animate creatures that inhabit it with them (Song of Solomon 2:7-8; Song of Solomon 4:1-2, Song of Solomon 4:8; Song of Solomon 8:14). In passion’s true embrace the world is not recreated but reexperienced with heightened senses” (pp. 102-103).

In this light, we should understand the instructive nature of the Song to be not one of listing principles or moralizing, but of creating an impression on the mind through beautiful imagery.