Perhaps when you read the Song of Songs you feel as perplexed as the Ethiopian eunuch did with Isaiah. If asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" (Acts 8:30b), you can only reply, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" (Acts 8:31a).
If so, you are not alone in your quest for clarity. Saadia, a ninth-century Jewish rabbi, likened the Song to "a lock for which the key had been lost."1 Franz Delitzsch, a nineteenth-century German Lutheran Hebraist, wrote, "The Song is the most obscure book of the Old Testament. Whatever principle of interpretation one may adopt, there always remains a number of inexplicable passages. . . ."2 More recently, Marvin Pope comments, "[N]o composition of comparable size in world literature has provoked and inspired such a volume and variety of comment and interpretation as the biblical Song of Songs."3 Daniel Estes adds, "Scholars vary widely on nearly every part of its interpretation. . . . Virtually every verse presents challenges in text, philology, image, grammar or structure."4
My favorite example of perspicuity angst comes from Christopher W. Mitchell, who begins his commentary, published in 2003, by reviewing the history of his study of the Song: "My fascination with the Songs of Songs began in 1978 . . . when I took a graduate class on its Hebrew text at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That fascination grew under the tutelage of my doctoral advisor, Professor Michael V. Fox." Mitchell goes on to talk about how he has read commentaries and articles, preached and taught, and since 1992 worked earnestly on his 1,300 (!) page commentary on the Song. He has worked almost thirty years on the Song, but then he writes in his preface about his desire to spend another decade to "delve more deeply into . . . this most difficult book of sacred Scripture."5
Scholars who disagree on much of the Song all agree it is a tough text. Thus, we need a guide to uncoil its complexities, solve its riddles, and find that lost key to unlock its door. In this article, I seek to offer some basic directions to help us, especially those of us who preach, to navigate through the often dark (but ah so beautiful!) waters of Solomon's Song. By means of setting four guideposts in place, I hope to open God's Word, as Philip did, and "beginning with this Scripture," teach you "the good news about Jesus" (Acts 8:35), revealing to you something of the meaning of the mystery of marriage (Eph 5:32).
1. Guidepost One: This Is a Song
We start with the first guidepost: This is a song.
Our text begins, "The Song" (Song 1:1a).6 The significance of this simple observation is that it identifies the genre. This is not a letter, gospel, law book, prophecy, or an apocalyptic revelation. This is a song. And a song (this is what I've learned after many years of study) is written to be sung. (Aren't you glad I'm your guide?)
Perhaps this Song was originally written to be sung during the seven-day marriage festival.7 We know that Israelite wedding celebrations lasted this long from Gen 29:27, Judg 14:12, and extra-biblical Jewish history. And we know from Jer 7:34 that singing was part of these festivities: "the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride."8
Thus, following the lead of Duane Garrett,9 I envision the following scenario. Just as there were professional singers and musicians for temple worship (e.g., 2 Chr 29:28), so I envision professional singers and musicians poised to sing and play for these week-long weddings. And each day, as the bride and groom come out of their chambers, the wine is served, the music begins, and the singers sing. The soprano starts, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine" (Song 1:2). Then, over sweet strum of the strings, the tenor softly serenades, "Behold, you are beautiful, my love" (1:15). And throughout the song, as the soprano and tenor call back and forth, from time to time other voices join in-like a chorus in a Greek play or a choir in an Oratorio. These voices are comprised of the young maidens, "the daughters of Jerusalem" as our text calls them.
That is what I envision day after day for seven days, a perfect celebration of the new creation of man and wife as one. Whether or not you envision it precisely that way, however, what matters most is that you see the Song as a song.
Furthermore, when you think "song," you must think "poem" or lyric poetry. "This is a song" is the same as saying "this is a poem set to music." This is obvious everywhere, even in the first verse. Our song begins with a poetic device called consonance: "The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's" ( shir hashirim asher lishlomoh).10 In Hebrew, we hear the repeated "sh"-sound, and even the English translation gives a repeated "s"-sound.
Herein the potential danger lies. We can read and teach the Song, forgetting or neglecting its poetry and quickly run from alliterations to applications. The cry for practical propositions beckons the preacher. It is important that we learn real-life lessons from each poetic pericope. But it is likewise important (nay, necessary!) to first understand and feel the power and play of words, what only poetry can do to the human heart and imagination. For there is a difference between saying,
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.11
A woman in a black dress with shiny beads looked pretty when she walked by.
There's a difference between saying,
Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.
If the pea pudding has been in the pot for nine days, no thanks, I'll pass.
If you turn that simple nursery rhyme into a statement, it loses its punch. Take away the poetic structure (8 syllables, 9 syllables, 8 syllables, 9 syllables) and poetic devices such as alliteration (the p-words), assonance (the o-sound), and the rhyme scheme (hot/pot . . . cold/old), and you take away the point of the poem: to make you laugh.
The Song is a song. Thus each time you read and teach a poetic section, you should ask yourself, "What is the poetry doing?" You should try to feel the poetry before you act upon its message.12 You should, in a sense (and with your senses), smell the myrrh, frankincense, and aloes, touch the polished ivory, taste the wine and apples, hear the flowing streams, see the gazelles leaping over the mountains . . . yes feel the flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD.
That is the first guidepost: This is a song.
2. Guidepost Two: About Human Love
Here is the second guidepost: This is a song about human love set in the context of marriage.
We will deal with the second part of that sentence first. We have already noted that this is a wedding song. Let me now defend that claim. We know it is a wedding song from the cultural context. (The sexual revolution of the 1960's hadn't yet reached Jerusalem in 960 b.c.) In that place and time, there were only two kinds of love: "free love" between a man and a woman in marriage, and sexual slavery, which is found in adultery and fornication.13
So we know that this is a wedding song from the cultural context (i.e., in Israel only sex within marriage was celebrated), but also from the language of the Song itself.14 After the word "wedding" is used in 3:11 (as the wedding day of Solomon is used as a foil), the word "bride" is used of the young woman six times in the next seventeen verses (chs. 4-5). This is the heart of the Song, the section that undoubtedly describes sexual relations. Further support for this marriage-song thesis is found in the language of a permanent pledge, such as "set me as a seal upon your heart" (8:6) or "my beloved is mine, and I am his" (2:16a; cf. 7:5; 8:4).15
Thus, this is a wedding song that is naturally about what weddings celebrate: human love. On the back cover of Tom Gledhill's excellent commentary are these words:
At first reading the Song of Songs appears to be an unabashed celebration of the deeply rooted urges of physical attraction, mutual love and sexual consummation between a man and a woman. Tom Gledhill maintains that the Song of Songs is in fact just that-a literary, poetic exploration of human love that strongly affirms loyalty, beauty and sexuality in all their variety.16
If you didn't know and weren't influenced by the history of the interpretation of the Song, and simply read the Song as is, you would likely surmise-with phrases like, "kiss me," "his right hand embraces me," "your two breasts are like two fawns," and so on-that this is erotic poetry set within the ethical limits of the marriage bed.17 However, the near consensus of both Jewish and Christian interpretation for at least 1600 years was that the Song is not about human love at all, but only divine love. That is, it sings of God's love for Israel and/or Christ's love for the church or the individual Christian soul.18
The reason for this seems to be the presupposition that human sexual love is an inappropriate topic for Scripture. Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1349) could speak of the love between a bride and groom as "proper" but not the proper subject of Scripture and thus the Song. Such fleshly love even within marriage has, in his words, "a certain dishonorable and improper quality about it."19 Similarly, Theodoret of Cyrus (c. 393-c. 457) wrote that those who give the Song a "corporeal interpretation" have committed an "awful blasphemy."20
This explains why-from Origen of Alexandria to Charles Spurgeon of London, from the medieval mystics to the American Puritans-Christians allegorized every jot and tittle of the Song, each thigh and breast and kiss and consummation. For example, one commentator says that the phrase "while the king was on his couch" (1:12) refers to "the gestation period of Christ in the womb of Mary," and the "sachet of myrrh that lies between [the bride's] breasts" (1:13) symbolizes "Christ in the soul of the believer, who lies between the great commands to love God and one's neighbor."21 Those allegories are orthodox (and certainly Christ-centered and thus edifying), but they are also exegetically absurd22 and potentially theologically dangerous.
It is dangerous when Christian commentators, theologians, and pastors think there is a radical dichotomy between the sacred and the secular-praying is sacred; kissing is secular. When we believe that sexuality is the antithesis of spirituality and that there is a great chasm between eros and agape,23 we are in danger of losing not only our witness to the world ("What? Your religion has nothing to say about sex except that it is bad?"),24 but also vital tenets of the Christian faith: the incarnation (John 1:1, 14), the bodily resurrection (1 Cor 6:12-20; 15), and the new heavens and new earth (2 Pet 3:13).
Take the incarnation, for example. Our creed is undermined if the "truly man" part of the "truly God and truly man" is not truly human flesh (1 John 4:2-3; cf. 1:1). How could satisfaction for sins be made if Jesus is not both God and man (cf. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo)? Yet notions that the body is "the tomb of the soul," as Orpheus taught and some Christians embraced,25 or "Brother Ass," as St. Francis famously phrased it (a useful but infuriating beast), isn't far removed from Matthew Henry's hermeneutic, which says, "When we apply ourselves to the study of this book [i.e., the Song] we must not only, with Moses and Joshua, put off our shoe from off our foot [we are on holy ground, but we must also] . . . forget that we have bodies."26 Really?! Why should we forget that we have bodies when the Bible contains no separation between godly purity and physical passion? Why should we forget that we have bodies when there are four poems in the Song about delighting in seeing, touching, and tasting (!) the human body? Why should we forget that we have bodies, when for our salvation "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:14)?
Following Marvin Pope's analogy, I liken the history of interpretation to Hans Christian Andersen's children's tale, The Emperor's New Clothes.27 Like the Emperor's ministers and subjects affirmed that he was indeed wearing clothes (when he was not), so interpreters kept telling themselves and their readers that the Song is solely about spiritual love (when it's not). But just as a child saw the reality of the situation-the emperor is naked!-so do we see that the characters in the Song are naked. They are naked and unashamed. And we today should share their lack of shame. For the Song is a song that Adam could have sung in the Garden when Eve arose miraculously from his side, and it remains a song that we can and should sing in the bedroom, the church, and the marketplace of ideas.
Don't get me wrong here. The lyrics here about seeing, touching, and tasting are "candid but not crude."28 They are not prudish, but neither are they immodest. They are far removed from the sexual anarchy and idiocy of our Top 40 music, as well as the crass love poetry of the ancient Near East. The Song has a beautiful balance: it has adult content, but it is adolescent-appropriate. It is not X-rated, but rated PG: parental (and pastoral) guidance recommended. This Song guides us to see with scriptural sensibilities that the earth is crammed with heaven,29 that the way of a man with a woman is "too wonderful" (Prov 30:18-19), and that marriage is not simply a concession to the necessity of procreation, but an affirmation of the beauty, chastity, and sacredness of human love.
This is a song about human love set in the context of marriage. I hope I have pounded that second (sadly necessary) guidepost soundly into place.
3. Guidepost Three: Found in the Bible
With our second guidepost in place, let me quickly add the third lest we get off course. Just because the Song is about human love does not mean that we must think a-theologically about it, namely, that it has nothing to say about God's love for us or our love for God.
This is not an English poem scribbled on the New York City subway. It is a Hebrew poem, and there is no Hebrew literature of this era that is non-religious. The Song is constructed of imagery that borrows heavily from the rest of the OT. For example, when we read the garden imagery in 4:12-5:1, it is right and natural for us to think about Eden; or when we read on the theme of intoxicating love in 1:2, the command of Prov 5:19 to be "intoxicated always in her [i.e., a wife's] love" ought to come to mind. This Song of Scripture is saturated with other scriptural language.
The Song uses Hebrew words, Hebrew names, Hebrew places, Hebrew poetic devices, and has a Hebrew author: "This is the Song of Songs which is Solomon's" (1:1). That last word-"Solomon's"-sets this Song within an historical and theological context. So here is the third guidepost: this is a song about human love set in the context of marriage that is found in the Bible. The Song of Songs cannot be read properly if it is read outside of its canonical context.30 We must read its positive marriage imagery in contrast to Israel's unfaithfulness as depicted in the prophets. While God rejoices over his people as "a bridegroom rejoices over his bride" (Isa 62:4), Israel spoils the honeymoon with their spiritual promiscuity and adultery.31 And whether we think there are no allusions or a thousand allusions to the Song in the NT,32 we must read it in light of the person and work of Jesus, the very compass of the Christian canon. John the Baptist calls Jesus "the bridegroom" (John 3:28; cf. Matt 9:14-15), and Paul calls him our "one husband" (2 Cor 11:2). Jesus' kingdom and consummation is like "a wedding banquet" (Matt 22:2; Rev 19:7). The Song is a song about human love set in the context of marriage, which is found in the Bible, and the Bible's ultimate reference point is Jesus: his birth, life, teachings, miracles, sufferings, death, resurrection, ascension, mediation, and return.
Perhaps an illustration will help. If you were to read C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and did not know that Lewis was a Christian and uses Christian symbolism and parts of the plot of the Bible, then you might never see Aslan, who dies and rises and rules, as a Christ-figure. You might just think he is a lion who talks, a neat character in a nice children's tale. But those who know something about the author and his intentions see more of what he wanted his readers to see: the story beneath the story. The story of Jesus opens our eyes to the subtle details of those Narnian adventures.
Similarly, knowing the story of Jesus opens our eyes to the story of the Song. The love celebrated here has as its source and ultimate illustration Jesus Christ; the loyalty, beauty, and intimacy of human love depicted in this Song points to "that Love that undergirds all of reality and in whose Presence alone all longing can be satisfied."33
Therefore, with this third guidepost in place, throughout our reading and teaching of the Song, we should seek, without exaggerating analogies, to be exegetically accurate, thoroughly canonical, and thus "boldly Christological."34 Literary merit and guileless veneration of human sexuality are not the reasons that love's soft and idyllic voice appears between Ecclesiastics and Isaiah.
4. Guidepost Four: Written to Give Us Wisdom
Our fourth and final guidepost is about wisdom. This is a song (guidepost one) about human love (guidepost two) found in the Bible (guidepost three) written to give us wisdom (guidepost four).
I say "wisdom" because we can rightly categorize the Song of Songs as Wisdom Literature, thus fitting in with the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. The most obvious reason is 1:1: "The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's." This is Solomon, the king of Israel, but also the wisest of men, the supreme sage of the Bible's Wisdom Literature.
In the Christian canon, the order goes Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Proverbs begins, "The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel" (1:1).35 Ecclesiastes begins, "The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1:1) = Solomon?36 Finally, the Song starts, "The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's" (1:1). The part translated "which is Solomon's" could indicate:
- Dedication: to or for Solomon
- Subject Matter: about Solomon
- Affinity: in the Solomonic literary tradition
- Authorship: by Solomon.37
I take the traditional view,38 the most natural linguistic view,39 that Solomon was the author.40 I take this Song as one of Solomon's 1,005 songs (see 1 Kgs 4:32). As the superlative superscription states, the "song of (all) the songs,"41 it is the very best of all of his prolific songwriting labors.42
I also side with the medieval Jewish scholar Rashi that Solomon wrote this Song not in his youth but in his old age43 and that he did so as an act of contrition. In other words, in view of his idolatrous, polygamous relationships that led his heart away from the Lord (1 Kgs 1-11) and away from sexual purity and marital intimacy, he sets himself up as the foil in this Song.44 Thus, he writes this greatest of his songs in a distant "self-deprecating tone"45 to say to his first readers and to us, "Listen, on this matter of marriage, do as I say, not as I did."46 Put differently, he says, "Don't emulate my love life. Emulate theirs-this imaginary (or real?) couple. Emulate their simple, monogamous, faithful, passionate love for each other."
Whether one holds this particular view or not,47 it is important to see the Song as part of the wisdom corpus,48 based partly on its association with Solomon, but also on the wisdom admonition that functions as a refrain throughout the Song: "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem . . . do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases." That refrain is first found in 2:7 and then also in 3:5 and 8:4. Besides that wisdom admonition, there is another subtle refrain, what we may call a wisdom admission: "My beloved is mine, and I am his." This is found in various forms in 2:16, 6:3, and 7:10. These two refrains function as a double-edged key that helps unlock the front door of the Song. They highlight that this is a unified poem, not a collection of random poems pasted together; and they direct us to the wisdom Solomon seeks to give two different groups: the married and the unmarried.
The primary target audience is the unmarried, specifically single young women, "the daughters of Jerusalem." Thrice the refrain begins, "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem." These "daughters" are the "virgins" mentioned in 1:3 or the "young women" in 2:2.49 They might be viewed as "bridesmaids,"50 but they certainly should be understood as young Israelite women (of Jerusalem-Israel's city girls and "local lasses").51 It addresses women of marriageable age,52 whose bodies are ripe for sexual love,53 who desire marital intimacy, but are still unmarried.
These girls are admonished to wait for sexual intimacy. Their bodies are saying "yes." Their instincts for intimacy are saying "yes." Their suitors might even be saying "yes" (or at least "please"). But they are admonished to say, "no." The wisdom message to these young women is to wait. Virgins, stay virgins (!) . . . not forever, but for now. Wait for marriage. That is wisdom. That is the simple wisdom in this complex book.
Now notice how Solomon artistically does this. The admonition does not come through the voice of a celibate prophet, a learned rabbi, a stern sage, or even a father or mother (as common in the Wisdom Literature), but through the voice of a newlywed-the bride, a former daughter of Jerusalem herself, one of their peers. This is a book about peer pressure at its biblical best! Yes, the protagonist in this poem is a young bride.54 And this newly married woman comes out of her wedding chamber, love scene after love scene, to tell the young ladies, "Wait for this-what I'm enjoying. It's worth it. Cool your passions now, and arouse them later, when it's time." The daughters of Jerusalem who hover around this "poetic drama" (they seem never to leave the scene) are the key to understanding the purpose of this whole wisdom poem.55
Setting the Song alongside Proverbs, another Wisdom book, sheds further light on the feminine-focus of the Song. The book of Proverbs can be called "a book for boys." The word "son" is used forty-four times; the word "daughter" is never used. "My son, stay away from that kind of girl, and don't marry this kind of girl. But marry and save yourself for that girl-Prov 31:10-31."56 That's how the book ends, quite intentionally, for Proverbs is a book for boys. The Song of Songs is a book for girls. And its message to girls is "patience then passion" or "uncompromised purity now; unquenchable passion then." Or put another way: In Proverbs the young lad is told to take a cold shower. In the Song the young lassie is told to take a cold shower.
However, also in the Song the married couples-the newlyweds and not so newlyweds-are told to take a warm shower . . . together. I mean it. God's Word means it. The shower part is optional, the passion part is not. There are two refrains to the Song: one is to the unmarried (young women especially); the other is to the married. That second refrain goes like this: "My beloved is mine, and I am his." This is the second side of the double-edged key. It opens to us the wisdom admission of mutual compatibility and absolute intimacy: two becoming one.
In an indirect and impressionistic manner, the second refrain functions as an invitation to intimacy. In Titus 2:3-4, Paul instructs the older women to "train the young women to love their husbands." Here in the Song, the young woman (the bride) trains the older women to love their husbands. That is, the Song is a like a splash of fresh water that some of us old lovers need thrown on our faces. Or to change metaphors and borrow one from the Song itself, it is like the wind that rekindles a flame that is dying out: "Awake, O north wind . . . come O south wind! Blow" (4:16) . . . blow this fizzling spark into a forest fire.
So the Song asks the Christian husband and wife, "How's your love life? Is your wedding bed dead or alive? Is it as cold as a frozen pond in February or as hot as the Florida sand in August?" Reading, studying, listening to, and feeling the Song of Songs is like attending a wedding and witnessing the ripeness and rightness of young love. This Song is God's provision to sustain loving marriages and renew loveless ones. It is his provision for increased intimacy that reflects the intimacy of Christ's love for the church, an intimacy that makes the world turn its head to view our marriages and say, "So, that's the gospel. What must I do to be made wise unto salvation?"
5. "Understandest Thou What Thou Readest?"
It is no easy task to navigate through the deep waters of Solomon's Song. When we read from its opening scene
Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses! (Song 1:2a)57
We will indeed rejoice and be happy for you.
We will indeed recall your lovemaking more than wine. (Song 1:4b)58
we scratch our heads, only after we blush. We not only wonder how the two things that we will do our best to teach our young daughters to avoid-kissing boys and comparing such kissing to alcoholic consumption-made it into God's Holy Word, but we also wonder how to explain to our congregations how such erotic poetry is appropriate and edifying for the church gathered. The four guideposts presented in this article- this is a song (guidepost one) about human love (guidepost two) found in the Bible (guidepost three) written to give us wisdom (guidepost four)- cannot explain every image or solve every philological, grammatical, and structural riddle, but hopefully they can give us greater confidence to read and teach this holy book that is wholly applicable today.