Bible Commentary: Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 2

You are here

Bible Commentary

Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 2

Login or Create an Account

With a account you will be able to save items to read and study later!

Sign In | Sign Up


A Difficult Book To Comprehend

This brings us to the issue of how we are to understand the Song of Songs. Let it be said up front that this is not a simple matter. Indeed, though short, this may well be the most inscrutable book in the entire Bible. It is hard to know who the characters are, who is speaking (the notes to that regard in modern Bible versions are not in the original), what is being said (translations are sometimes uncertain), what the plot is (if there is a plot), how to interpret the book (whether as precise historical narrative or drama, evocative semi-fictional love poetry, allegorical or typologically prophetic illustration of the relationship between God and Israel or Christ and the Church, or a combination of such perspectives), and just what the underlying message of the book is. Let’s consider these issues further.

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary states in its introductory comments on the book: “Several problems confront the modern reader in the study of the text of the Song of Songs that make certainty in understanding and interpretation difficult to achieve. One of these is the matter of language. Ancient Hebrew is a primitive tongue. The syntax is quite different from ours. Verb tenses are different so that time sequences are more difficult to establish. Word order can raise problems. There is an economy of language that can be tantalizing. And then it is poetry. There is a succinctness of style that makes it almost telegraphic. The result is that the text is often more suggestive than delineative, more impressionistic than really pictorial. Much is left to the imagination of the reader rather than spelled out for the curious modern, who wants to know the specific meaning of every detail. Added to the preceding problems is that of vocabulary” (Dr. Dennis Kinlaw, 1990).

Regarding the last item here, Dr. Lloyd Carr (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) explains: “Although the Song is a relatively short book of only 117 verses, it has an unusually large number of uncommon words. Of the approximately 470 different Hebrew words it contains—a very high number for such a small book—47 occur only in the Song (some only once) and nowhere else in the Old Testament. Of the words which do appear in other parts of the Old Testament, 51 occur five times or less, 45 occur between six and ten times, and an additional 27 between eleven and twenty times, leaving about 300 common words in the Song. There is wide distribution of these [170] less common words. All but eighteen verses scattered through the Song have at least one of these unusual words; several have six or seven such words. Fifty verses contain at least one word not used outside the Song, and an additional twelve verses contain words which occur not more than three times in the whole Old Testament. In other words, more than one third of the words in the Song occur so infrequently [in the Old Testament] that there is little context from which accurate meanings can be deduced, and two thirds of the [Song’s] verses have uncommon words. Hence, many of the proposals made in the various translations and commentaries are, at best, educated guesses; particularly in the case of those words which are unique to the Song, they may well be incorrect” (p. 41).

A further difficulty lies in the Song being full of similes and metaphors. As Expositor’s goes on to explain: “Another problem is that the imagery used was a normal part of a culture that is very different from our modern world. The scene is pastoral and Middle Eastern. So the references to nature, birds, animals, spices, perfumes, jewelry, and places are not the normal vocabulary of the modern love story. The associations that an ancient culture gives to its vocabulary are difficult, if not impossible, for us to recapture. The list of plants and animals is illustrative: figs, apples, lilies, pomegranates, raisins, wheat, brambles, nuts, cedar, palms, vines, doves, ravens, ewes, sheep, fawns, gazelles, goats, lions, and leopards. So is that of spices and perfumes: oils, saffron, myrrh, nard, cinnamon, henna, frankincense, and aloes. The place names carried connotations some of which are undoubtedly lost to us: Jerusalem, Damascus, Tirzah, En Gedi, Carmel, Sharon, Gilead, Senir, and Heshbon. We understand the overtones of ‘bedroom,’ but when the lover refers to ‘the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside’ (Song of Solomon 2:14), to gardens, parks, fields, orchards, vineyards, or valleys, we are aware that the places of rendezvous were different for lovers in that world than in ours.

“The terms of endearment cause us problems. The metaphors used are often alien. When the lover likens his beloved to a mare in the chariot of Pharaoh (Song of Solomon 1:9), we are surprised. ‘Darling among the maidens’ (Song of Solomon 2:2) or even ‘dove’ (Song of Solomon 2:14; Song of Solomon 5:2; Song of Solomon 6:9) is understandable, or ‘a rose of Sharon’ (Song of Solomon 2:1). ‘A garden locked up’ (Song of Solomon 4:12), ‘a sealed fountain’ (Song of Solomon 4:12), ‘a wall’ (Song of Solomon 8:9-10), ‘a door’ (Song of Solomon 8:9), ‘ Tirzah’ (Song of Solomon 6:4), and ‘lovely as Jerusalem’ (Song of Solomon 6:4) are not our normal metaphors of love. Nor are our heroine’s references to her lover as ‘an apple tree’ (Song of Solomon 2:3), ‘a gazelle’ (Song of Solomon 2:9, Song of Solomon 2:17), ‘a young stag’ (Song of Solomon 2:9, Song of Solomon 2:17), or ‘a cluster of henna’ (Song of Solomon 1:14).”

As to who is saying what, Expositor’s continues: “To further complicate matters, it is not always certain who is speaking. One of the most difficult tasks is to determine who the speaker is in each verse. It is not even completely clear as to how many speakers there are. Our best clues are grammatical. Fortunately, pronominal references in Hebrew commonly reflect gender and number. In some cases, however, the masculine and the feminine forms are the same.” Of course, English translations do not show all these grammatical distinctions. The King James Version does not note changes in speakers, which makes it difficult to follow. The New King James Version and many other modern versions do include notations as to who is supposedly speaking, though they may be in error in some cases.

Regarding the characters themselves, there are major questions as to whether there are two lovers (the man and the woman), whether these are Solomon and his bride or another couple, or if there are three principle characters involved in a love triangle, as some maintain (the woman, the man, often seen as a shepherd, and Solomon as the antagonist trying to woo the woman away from the shepherd). Some even think completely different couples are represented in different parts of the Song, the idea being that these segments were originally disconnected poems—an unlikely proposition, as we will see. There is evidently a female chorus singing as the “daughters of Jerusalem”—some deeming them Solomon’s harem and others viewing them more generally. And there may be a male chorus as well. We will later examine the possible characters and consider the pros and cons of the various views.

Expositor’s further notes: “Nor are we fully comfortable with the literary genre of the whole or the parts. Is Song of Songs a single composition from a common source, or is it a collection of songs that originally circulated independently? Is there a progression of a story line in the material? Is it a drama? All these questions affect interpretation. Some of the text seems to be ‘stream of consciousness’ material where the dialogue takes place as it might in dreamlike material. Or is it all to be taken as actually occurring in normal consciousness? We do not know enough about Hebrew literature in the second millennium to answer all these questions dogmatically. For this writer the Song does contain an inherent unity that causes him to see it as a body of material from a single source. There is a bit of a story line. In chapter 4 the lover begins to speak of his beloved as his bride. In ten verses (4:8–5:1) he calls her his bride six different times. This is climaxed in Song of Solomon 5:1, which seems clearly to be a euphemistic account of the physical culmination of the relationship. It seems, furthermore, that much of the material represents the world of wonder in the imagination of the maiden rather than actual happenings. Thus a time line on the progress of the relationship is very difficult. But it all fits together to make a whole. The passages starting at Song of Solomon 3:1 and Song of Solomon 5:2 may represent dream sequences. No theory answers all the questions.”

Unity and Poetic Framework of the Song

As to the question—due to apparent lack of direction and clear storyline—of the Song being a collection of originally independent songs, this seems most unlikely. Commentators Michael V. Fox (The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, 1985) and Roland Murphy (Hermeneia Commentaries) “demonstrate the weakness of arguments that the Song is an anthology and make compelling cases for the unity of the Song. Fox, for example, points to the high number of repetitious and associative sequences, as well as to the consistent character portrayal, as evidence for the unity of the whole. Murphy, similarly, notes the existence of common refrains, common themes, and common words and phrases” (NAC, p. 375).

To quote commentator Jack Deere in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (with two additions): “Several arguments speak for the book’s unity: (1) The same characters are seen throughout the book (the beloved maiden, the lover, and the daughters of Jerusalem). (2) Similar expressions and figures of speech are used throughout the book. Examples are: love more delightful than wine (Song of Solomon 1:2; Song of Solomon 4:10), fragrant perfumes (Song of Solomon 1:3, Song of Solomon 1:12; Song of Solomon 3:6; Song of Solomon 4:10), the beloved’s cheeks (Song of Solomon 1:10; Song of Solomon 5:13), her eyes like doves (Song of Solomon 1:15; Song of Solomon 4:1), her teeth like sheep (Song of Solomon 4:2; Song of Solomon 6:6), [she being fairest among women (Song of Solomons 1:8; Song of Solomon 5:9; Song of Solomon 6:1),] her charge to the daughters of Jerusalem (Song of Solomon 2:7; Song of Solomon 3:5; Song of Solomon 8:4), the lover like a gazelle (Song of Solomon 2:9, Song of Solomon 2:17; Song of Solomon 8:14), [him grazing among the lilies (Song of Solomon 2:16; Song of Solomon 4:5; Song of Solomon 6:2-3),] Lebanon (Song of Solomon 3:9; Song of Solomon 4:8, Song of Solomon 4:11, Song of Solomon 4:15; Song of Solomon 7:4), and numerous references to nature. (3) Hebrew grammatical peculiarities found only in this book suggest a single author. (4) The progression in the subject matter points to a single work, not an anthology. As [Deere maintains]…the book moves logically from the courtship (1:2–3:5) to the wedding night (3:6–5:1) to maturation in marriage (5:2–8:4)” (introduction to Song of Songs).

Another very strong indicator of the Song being a unified whole is the poetic symmetrical arrangement pervading it—which surely could not have been overlaid onto independent poems without such poems being completely rewritten (in which case the whole would still be a singular creation in its own right).

In discerning this poetic structure, it helps to first understand a key feature of Hebrew poetry: “There is general agreement that the basic nature of Hebrew, and ancient Near Eastern poetry generally, is what is termed parallelism and that the main distinguishing feature of this poetry is some regular pattern of accented syllables in any given pair of lines. Parallelism can be considered as ‘thought rhyme’ rather than ‘word rhyme’. This thought rhyme may involve the repetition of an idea (e.g. Song of Solomon 2:8b, ‘leaping upon the mountains,/bounding over the hills’); the reversal or antithesis of an idea in a consecutive line (e.g. Song of Solomon 1:6c, ‘they made me keeper of the vineyards;/but my own vineyard I have not kept!’); or the addition of a derived idea in the second part (e.g., Song of Solomon 2:6, ‘O that his left hand were under my head,/and that his right hand embraced me!’). There are many variations on these basic patterns, but the essential elements are present throughout” (Carr, pp. 36-37).

We should consider particularly here the idea of reverse parallelism and realize that parallelism may be spread more broadly than in just a pair of lines. As Dr. Craig Glickman states in Solomon’s Song of Love: “The Song of Songs displays artistic balance and symmetry in the arrangement of its lyrics. The most common element of the design is a pattern that introduces a series of topics and then reintroduces those topics in reverse order. The literary term for this pattern is chiasm [named after the Greek letter chi, or X, representing crossed lines showing correspondence between elements at opposite corners as well as a central pivot]. Sometimes this pattern appears in short sentences, like…‘Let me see your form; let me hear your voice; for your voice is pleasing, and your form is lovely’ (2.14). The lyric introduces first ‘form,’ then ‘voice,’ and then in reverse order, ‘voice, form.’ It is an abb′a′ sequence.

“This pattern can also appear in a series of sentences that make up a paragraph, like Shulamith’s account of rising in the night to find [her lover, whom Glickman believes to be] Solomon (3.1-4). She is (a) separated from him (3.1); (b) leaves home to find him (3.2); (c) is found by guards (3.3a); (d) asks for help (3.3b); (c′) finds Solomon (3.4a); (b′) returns home with him (3.4b); and (a′) is reunited with him (3.4b). This is an abcdc′b′a′ sequence. It is also an example of the pattern with a central point of emphasis: The d is not repeated. When you compare the corresponding sentences, you see the balance. She begins separated and ends united with him (aa′). She leaves the house alone but returns with him (bb′). The guards find her but she finds Solomon (cc′). And at the center of the account is an emotional peak: ‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’ (d).

“The pattern can also govern several units or paragraphs…. Frequently, the first series of topics in the pattern is about the same length as the corresponding series introduced in reverse order. But sometimes the lengths are not the same. The subjects are treated more expansively in either the first introduction of them or in the second treatment of them in reverse order. This balance of topics, but not of length, is common in ancient literature” (2004, pp. 231-232).

This device can also be seen in the specific lyrics of the Song. Commentator Dr. Robert Alden “detects not a chiastic structure in the poems of the Song but an arrangement of certain key words and phrases [spanning the whole song] in a chiastic fashion (see chart below). This pattern supports the unity of the Song. More importantly, the center of the chiasmus in 4:16–5:1a, which poetically describes the moment of sexual union between the man and woman, implies that the entire Song, as it were, revolves around this event” (NAC, p. 375).

Indeed, it is surely no coincidence that these same two verses also form the center of the Song in a quantitative sense. Carr points out: “The third major division of the Song comes to a climax with these two verses. They form the exact middle of the Hebrew text, with 111 lines (60 verses, plus the title, 1:1) from 1:2 to 4:15, and 111 lines (55 verses) from 5:2 to 8:14. These two verses contain five lines of text, but they also contain the climax of the thought of the poem. Everything thus far has been moving towards this consummation. From this point on, everything moves towards the consolidation and confirmation of what has been pledged here” (p. 127, note on 4:16–5:1).

Indeed, the poetic structure of the Song can aid us in sorting out a possible coherent plotline, even though we can’t be certain of it in various respects. We will later look at Glickman’s suggested outline of the Song based on his understanding of the chiastic pattern of themes and circumstances spanning the entire work. As he is careful to note: “The literary design of the Song should not prevent the reader from tracing words or themes through all sections, not just those that correspond in the symmetry of the Song. The parallels in the design simply draw attention to special correspondences and serve to place certain lyrics and sections in a broader context” (p. 241)—the overall story, for instance. Of course, any storyline is also necessarily interdependent with who the characters are and who is speaking—as well as the intended interpretive approach to understanding the Song.

The next section of introductory comments will cover two of critics' natural interpretations of Song of Solomon.