Bible Commentary: Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 4

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Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 4

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Three-Character Drama—the Shepherd Hypothesis

That leads us to the next version of the natural interpretation of the book—the historical three-character drama, which postulates two lovers in the Song with King Solomon as an intrusive third figure (again in addition to a chorus). The driving force behind this proposal is a desire to reconcile the Song with the persistent problem of Solomon’s uncontrollable desire for more and more women—a reasonable motivation. As The New Bible Commentary, which follows this interpretation, explains in its introduction to the Song: “For it is felt, among other things, that Solomon is hardly the best example of true, loyal, single-minded love in the light of his 700 wives and 300 concubines and all the dire consequences for the nation that followed in the train of his many affairs (see 1 Kings11). Moreover, Solomon was no shepherd (see Ct. [Canticles or Song] Song of Solomon 6:2)” (John Balchin, 1970).

The latter point here concerns apparent references in the Song to the lover being a shepherd (Song of Solomon 1:7-8; Song of Solomon 2:16; Song of Solomon 6:2-3)—thus the label “shepherd hypothesis.” However, in the latter two passages here cited, the word “flock” has been assumed in the NKJV and some other translations, whereas the real idea seems to be of the lover himself grazing metaphorically on the charms of the woman. The first passage does mention flocks and shepherds and, though perhaps figurative as well, could refer to actual shepherding work. On this point it should be realized that Solomon, as the probable author of Ecclesiastes, owned many flocks (Song of Solomon 2:7)—but whether he personally tended to them is unknown (though he did have an interest in animals). Furthermore, kings are equated in other scriptural passages as shepherds over flocks of people—and this was a common motif in the ancient world. So shepherd imagery could apply to Solomon in this sense as well. Alternatively, some suggest that the shepherd-and-shepherdess pairing in the first passage is romantic role-playing, which could apply to people of any station, including royals.

Again, the primary argument for the shepherd hypothesis or love-triangle theory is Solomon’s rampant polygamy—especially since many see the problem as concurrent with the story of the Song because of the reference in Song of Solomon 6:8-9 to 60 queens and 80 concubines (though others maintain this is not Solomon’s harem, as explained earlier). In addition, this hypothesis accepts references to King Solomon in the Song as meaning he must be considered a historical character in the drama. That is, he must play a role—and if not the male lover in the relationship of the story, then the interloper.

A good summary of the shepherd hypothesis, though he himself rejects it, is given by Dr. Gledhill in The Message of the Song of Songs. His explanation and evaluation follows in a lengthy quotation (along with alternatives or additional comments in brackets):

“The shepherd hypothesis presupposes three main characters: King Solomon, a country shepherd lad and a young maiden identified as the Shulammite. [Again, some reckon her to be Abishag the Shunammite though most do not.] The girl and the shepherd boy are very much in love, but Solomon by various means tries to woo her affections, but ultimately fails. Thus we have a love triangle, rather than a simple romance between the two young lovers. Since the girl constantly repels the advances of Solomon, so that he finally gives up any claim over her, the message of the Song is seen as the triumph of faithful loyalty of true love, over against the seduction of wealth and flattery. Power and privilege cannot erode the true romance of the simple country lovers.

“There are many slightly different versions of this hypothesis. In all of them, the majority of the girl’s words have to be postulated as musings, dreams, soliloquies, reminiscences or flashbacks [as she is supposedly speaking of or to her absent lover while in the presence of Solomon or in the confines of his harem]. For one very detailed outworking of the plot of the drama, see the annotations of the Amplified Bible (3 volume edition) where the speakers, the addressees, the locales are all precisely identified. The New Bible Commentary also suggests, albeit rather undogmatically, that the shepherd hypothesis is the best framework for the interpretation of the Song, but the details are not always worked out with great precision in the exposition itself.

[Another commentary that follows the shepherd hypothesis, and in a rather dogmatic fashion while focusing on a higher spiritual meaning, is The Believer’s Commentary by James Burton and Thelma Coffman (1993), also known as Coffman’s Commentary, which is available online. E.W. Bullinger, in the notes of his 1909 Companion Bible, adhered to this approach as well. And the annotations of the 1903 Ferrar Fenton translation (The Bible in Modern English) also follow a variant of this theory, wherein the Shulamite is Abishag the Shunammite.]

“In general [among proponents], the plot follows some such sequence as that outlined below. The initial scene (1:1–2:7) occurs in the apartments of the royal palace [or in the royal caravan tents before returning to Jerusalem], where there are scores of Solomon’s beautiful concubines waiting around for the king to enter and choose one of them for the night. The Shulammite girl is amongst them, having been forcibly abducted by the king or his servants when he was on one of his inspection tours of the countryside. In Song of Solomon 1:2, either one of the harem is voicing her desire to be selected by the king or else the Shulammite is soliloquizing about her absent shepherd lover in the countryside. Song of Solomon 1:4 is sometimes represented as a chorus from the harem, or as a continuation of the Shulammite’s yearning for her lover. The girl is self-conscious about her dark, sun-tanned complexion, in contrast to the painted ladies of the harem, and defends herself against their hostile stares. She cries out (Song of Solomon 1:7) asking to know the whereabouts of her lover, and the harem beauties tell her rather brusquely to go out and find him herself. She feels trapped like a bird in a golden cage. The king enters, spies the newcomer, and praises her beauty in Song of Solomon 1:9-11. The girl meanwhile is dreaming of a rendezvous with her lover in a forest glade, while the king has gone for his meal (Song of Solomon 1:12) [though some claim she actually meets up with her lover at this point], and in Song of Solomon 2:7 she tells the ladies of the harem not to try to arouse the king’s attentions by artificial means [or not to stir up her desires for her lover until he can come and rescue her]. In Song of Solomon 2:8 the girl tells how her lover came to her with an invitation to go away with him and asks him (in Song of Solomon 2:16-17) to return again at the end of the day (that is, she did not immediately accede to his request [though some say she did leave with him initially and that verses 16-17 are a request that he return after his workday]). When he did not return she became anxious and restless and went out into the night to seek him (Song of Solomon 3:1-4).

“At some stage the girl manages to get away from the city completely and returns home. Perhaps Solomon has sent her back. But he never gives up. In 3:6–4:7 [or 4:6 or 4:8] he appears in pomp and splendour, arriving at the girl’s home in the country, in his royal carriage, in an attempt to encapture the girl’s affections. He describes and praises the girl in conventional flattering tones; but no actual marriage takes place. [Others see the girl being returned to Jerusalem and Solomon marrying another while making advances toward her.] In 4:8 [or 4:7]–5:1 the girl hears the appeal of her shepherd lover urging her to escape from the seductive words of the king. The situation is urgent and he doesn’t waste time greeting her or praising her. [Some, however, see Song of Solomon 4:8 as the conclusion of Solomon’s appeal.] She then dreams of his praises (Song of Solomon 4:9-15), and anticipates the consummation of their love on their own future wedding day. [Some, though, believe they are already married, given the use of the word spouse—her brothers having wrongly annulled their marriage—and that they actually become intimate here.] In Song of Solomon 5:2-8 the Shulammite relates to the harem another troubling dream she had, and in reply to their mocking question [of what makes her lover special, which seems odd if her lover were Solomon, whom they would well know], she gives an impassioned description of him in Song of Solomon 5:10-16. The king enters in Song of Solomon 6:4 and praises her extravagantly, and tells her that even queens and concubines [typically the other women of his harem in this view] have praised her, using the words of Song of Solomon 6:10. The girl interrupts this flow of praise and explains how she was abducted in the royal chariot [prior to the beginning of the story] to be taken away to the harem in the palace (Song of Solomon 6:11-12). All the harem have missed her at the palace, and they beg her to return so that they might admire her beauty. (This involves a change of attitude to her on their part.) The king again praises her in Song of Solomon 7:1-9, but the girl makes a further refusal.

“Song of Solomon 7:10 is a reaffirmation of her love for the young shepherd. Solomon realizes that his pursuit has been futile and lets her go. She calls for her shepherd lover in Song of Solomon 7:11 and waits for him, dreaming of her relationship with him [or she actually joins up with him and speaks to him]. Song of Solomon 8:5 then records her return to the village on the arm of her beloved. The girl (in Song of Solomon 8:8) recalls her former state as a young girl and her brothers’ discussion about her future. Song of Solomon 8:11-12 represent the girl’s final repudiation of Solomon in the presence of her lover, family and friends. In Song of Solomon 8:13, the shepherd lad says, ‘Your companions in the harem have been listening to your voice; now let me hear it.’ The girl responds (Song of Solomon 8:14) with an urgent call to her lover to take her to their home on the mountain slopes.

“A number of points need to be made in regard to this hypothesis. Firstly, since this interpretation casts Solomon in the role of villain, it can hardly take the title of 1:1 as a statement of Solomonic authorship [that is, unless Solomon wrote the Song while repentant at the end of his life]. Secondly, it takes the role of Solomon, in the supposed narrative plot, seriously. It makes sense of Solomon’s rejection in Song of Solomon 8:12 [if that is what this disputed verse means]. It takes the rural/city contrast literally. However, a number of severe criticisms may be levelled against the hypothesis. There are no examples elsewhere in the literature of the Ancient Near-East of any kind of love triangles. Also the schema of the narrative plot requires an ingenious series of dream sequences, musings and reveries, which effectively amounts to a reordering of the text. Some of the scenarios seem so contrived as to be unbelievable: for example, the shepherd boy coming into the palace and whispering to the Shulammite through the lattice window of the quarters of the harem [which would have been strictly guarded]. A more serious objection is that the hypothesis requires the text to be interpreted against the natural flow of the dialogue. For example, the verses [of] Song of Solomon 1:9-11 are interpreted as being the gross coarse compliments of a carnal flatterer, whilst Song of Solomon 1:13-14 [without reaction to the former] are the beautiful sincere words of the girl’s compliments directed toward her absent lover, even though Solomon is supposedly present. It is much more natural to suppose that in these verses two lovers are praising each other in a direct verbal exchange, rather than a dialogue at cross purposes. It takes a very great leap of mental ingenuity to describe as flattery and sincere praise two sets of verses written in identical styles.

“However, it has to be admitted that once the hypothesis has become firmly embedded in the mind, it is very difficult to eradicate its influence when trying to read the text from any other perspective. In my opinion, the hypothesis, while taking seriously the carnality of King Solomon, is nothing more than an artificial edifice ingeniously superimposed on an enigmatic text, and ultimately is unconvincing” (pp. 25-26). Yet Gledhill then goes on to reject a unifying plot in the Song altogether, which itself seems to be a mistake, based on the overall structure of the Song, as explained earlier.

There are further problems with the shepherd hypothesis as generally presented that should be taken into consideration. One is the arbitrary nature in some cases of the shift in speaker or addressee to “make it all fit.” We will illustrate some of these as we go through the book. Another related problem is the minimized role of grammatical gender and the lovers’ endearment terms for each other as indicative of who is speaking. That is, male pronouns and adjectives in this case could refer to either Solomon or the lover, and in this view both the lover and Solomon refer to the woman as ra‘yati, “my love/companion” (e.g., see Song of Solomon 1:15; Song of Solomon 2:10; Song of Solomon 4:1; Song of Solomon 6:4)—which is problematic besides making the story all the more confusing. Another difficulty is the question of why Solomon’s lustful flattery would be set as beautiful lyrical poetry in the Song in the same manner as the wholesome, loving descriptions from the shepherd. We could perhaps imagine some short statements about Solomon trying to win the woman illustrated with a few of his words. But why set quite lengthy lustful and seductive discourses from him to poetry and song to be sung?

Yet another problem concerns the overarching poetic structure of the Song mentioned above. It is hard to see how the three-character drama fits with the Song’s symmetry around the central pivot of Song 4:16–5:1. There have been proposed arrangements that do not take these verses as the hinge point. Dr. Bullinger, for instance, in following a variant of the shepherd hypothesis, presented the following symmetrical structure in his introduction to the Song in The Companion Bible:

THE STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK AS A WHOLE* (Introversion and Alteration.)  


The central shift in the poetic structure here occurs between Song 3:5 and 3:6. Again, however, 4:16–5:1 is more clearly the actual central pivot, given, as we earlier saw, both the symmetrical pattern of specific words and phrases throughout the Song and the equal number of poetic lines before and after this point. So while the above outline bears a symmetrical appearance, it would seem to contradict the true symmetry of the Song. Moreover, Bullinger’s outline here is dependent on critical assumptions about the identities of the characters of the Song rather than on the subject matter of the sections of the Song. Thus it is a far less reliable schema.

It is worth mentioning that The Broadman Bible Commentary follows the three-character drama but with a wildly different spin—portraying the Shulamite’s example as a bad one of illicit love. This seems rather unlikely, but it is illustrative of just how pliable the three-person plotline can be—unrestricted as it is without the natural constraints of the two-person progression. The story follows this way: “The maiden was reared in a village household with several brothers (Song of Solomon 2:9; Song of Solomon 1:6; Song of Solomon 6:9). As she rapidly approached puberty she, as well as her brothers, protected her chastity (Song of Solomon 8:9). But when she achieved womanly maturity, she fell in love with a shepherd and gave herself to him (Song of Solomon 8:10; Song of Solomon 7:2-12). Despite her brothers’ anger and community disapproval, she continued the relationship (Song of Solomon 1:6; Song of Solomon 8:1). Clandestine meetings were effected (Song of Solomon 1:16-17; Song of Solomon 8:2-4; Song of Solomon 5:2-7) despite efforts at separation. The exceeding beauty of the maiden came to the attention of Solomon, who desired her for his harem…. An agreement was reached, one most profitable to the family, and the maiden went into the harem of Solomon (Song of Solomon 1:4; Song of Solomon 3:6-11). Discounting lavish court inducements she scorned the position of harem favorite (Song of Solomon 8:11-12) and continued to have furtive meetings with her lover (Song of Solomon 1:12; Song of Solomon 8:13). She longed for her shepherd lover knowing that she possessed an impossible love, one which could never be truly fulfilled (Song of Solomon 8:6-7). The maiden’s pitiful laments rend the heart (Song of Solomon 1:7; Song of Solomon 2:6-7; Song of Solomon 3:1, Song of Solomon 3:5; Song of Solomon 5:6a, Song of Solomon 5:8; Song of Solomon 8:1, Song of Solomon 8:3-4). Her longing, despair, and destructive jealousy make this book a hauntingly tragic work” (John Bunn, 1971).

This, of course, has all the typical problems of the three-person drama—and then some. In this case, a few scattered verses are taken a certain way to paint an overall picture, which everything else is then forced into. We will address some of these points as we come to them in the book.

Still, despite the significant problems we have noted, it is possible that the shepherd hypothesis is correct. One way to make it a seemingly more reasonable proposition would be to understand King Solomon as a silent character in the story—so that all the lines attributed to him under the shepherd hypothesis, as it is commonly conceived, would instead be spoken by the shepherd lover. That is, all male speech in the Song (except for the possible male chorus lines) would come from the lover—but none from Solomon. Furthermore, no speech of the woman would be addressed to Solomon until the very end in Song of Solomon 8:12, when she refers to him by name (though even this could be soliloquy rather than actual address). The story would then conform in its speech to the more natural two-character progression though in its overall setting to the three-character drama—that is, the woman having been brought to Solomon’s harem against her will (explaining the references to the king). Solomon’s wedding procession in Song of Solomon 3:6-11 would be the distracting goings on at court while the lovers slipped away to be together (in 4:1–5:1). The central focus of 4:16–5:1 could perhaps conceivably be explained by this marking not the initial consummation of marriage but the joyous intimate reunion of an already-married couple (though not the end of their ordeal). One point against this, however, would be if 1:7–2:7 and Song of Solomon 2:8-17 represent earlier clandestine meetings between the lovers—though the first passage might be a duet of longing soliloquies and the second a recollection of their time together before her abduction. The statement about the king being held captive by the woman’s tresses in Song of Solomon 7:5 would be the lover’s use of this fact as an element of praise—that is to say, “Even the king has fallen for your beauty.” Such an approach could fit within the symmetrical pattern of the Song—for this approach is essentially a two-character one.

Yet problems remain. Chief among them is the fact that it is nowhere stated that the woman was abducted into Solomon’s harem, despite some reading Song of Solomon 6:11-12 this way. Furthermore, the multiple mentions of the word “spouse” or “bride” in chapter 4 following a wedding procession at the end of chapter 3 gives the strong appearance of the wedding being that of the lovers. In a natural reading of the Song, there seems nothing preventing the male lover and the king from being one and the same. Again, it is the issue of Solomon’s polygamy that pushes for another explanation.

In any event, the shepherd hypothesis, whether in its usual form or pared down, is clearly debatable, and no version of the idea should be embraced without proper consideration of its attendant difficulties.

The next section of introductory comments will cover other character theories within this book.