Overview Song of Solomon

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Overview Song of Solomon
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Overview Song of Solomon

Author: The author is unknown, but traditionally it is attributed to Solomon.

Purpose:

To celebrate the blessing of romantic love between husbands and wives.

Date: Probably 960-931 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • God gave romantic love between a husband and wife as a wondrous gift.
  • Men and women in the bonds of marriage should delight in each other emotionally and physically.

Author:

The traditional view among both Jews and Christians has been that Solomon wrote this entire book (see 1 Kings 4:32). The evidence of the book places it in or near Solomon's reign, but it is not possible to know for certain who actually wrote it. Each evidence in favor of Solomon as author is open to other interpretations. First, the opening verse begins "Solomon's Song of Songs" (Song 1:1), but the Hebrew could also indicate that the Song of Songs was "for" (i.e., dedicated to) Solomon. Second, it is possible that the superscription of Song 1:1 refers not to the entire book, but just to the first portion, as is the case in Proverbs 1:1 (see "Introduction to Proverbs"). Third, Solomon is mentioned a number of times (Song 1:1, 5; 3:7, 9, 11; 8:11-12), but some of these passages seem to treat him from a distance. Ironically, Song of Songs 3:6-11 praises him, while Song of Songs 8:10-12 raises a questionable policy. Fourth, the reference to Tizrah (the first capital of northern Israel during the reign of Jeroboam I [930-909 B.C.]) in parallel with Jerusalem (capital of the Judah) in Song 6:4 has been taken to indicate that the book could not have been written until after the division of Kingdom. Yet, the positive comparison between the cities may actually indicate the time of Solomon, before hostility between north and south led to division. Fifth, attempts to place the book at a much later time on the basis of linguistic evidence have proven unconvincing.

Time and Place of Writing:

In view of the preponderance of evidence, it seems most likely that the book was written in Judah or Jerusalem in the tenth century B.C. during or slightly after Solomon's reign. The subject matter of the book focuses on romantic love in terms appropriate especially for royalty, but it was easily used outside royal circles as well.

Purpose and Distinctives:

The word "Song" in the title (Song 1:1) is the common Hebrew term for any happy melody. It has no special religious connotation. The expression "Song of Songs" means "the greatest of all songs" (cf. the expression "King of kings" in Rev 17:14). It prepares us for a single song of outstanding quality.

Apart from the title, the Song is written entirely in verse. It is love poetry. See "Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Books." The lines are short and rhythmic, and the language is rich in imagery and highly sensual. It deals more with feelings than with objective facts. For example, the song is not concerned with whether or not the woman addressed in Song 6:9 was really "perfect" and "unique" in any demonstrable way. The words were an expression of the young man's deep affection for her - no more and no less. The Song is a rhapsody of love, an outpouring of the words and feelings of people experiencing human love with its concomitant pains, pleasures and sexual impulses. It is a book for those who want to know or remember how God has honored the love between a husband and wife.

There appear to be two leading characters: a country girl (called "the Shulammite" in Song 6:13) and a male shepherd (see Song 1:7; 6:3). Solomon is mentioned apart from the title (Song 1:5; 3:7, 9, 11; 8:11-12), and there are a host of minor figures: mother, brothers, watchmen and women of Jerusalem.

The presence of such characters has led many commentators to conclude that the book is about a relationship between the girl and a shepherd, with Solomon as an intruder. Other commentators, however, find it difficult to see how Solomon could be featured so unfavorably in a book that was either written by him or dedicated to him. Also, many find it difficult to identify a clear story line and to decide which words to assign to Solomon and which to the shepherd-lover.

If the correct reading is that Solomon is an intruder, he likely wrote the book about a woman who declined his marriage proposal. Given that he ultimately had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3), such rejection was probably rare for Solomon. If he wrote later in his life, after increasing his harem so dramatically, the woman's rejection of Solomon in favor of her true love might well have inspired Solomon to write the Song as a reflection on the type of love that he longed for but no longer knew. If Solomon is not an intruder, then it is most likely that he presented himself both as the shepherd and as the king; Christ is both Shepherd and King of his bride, the Church.

Because of problems like these some interpreters in recent years have suggested that the book is an anthology of love poems with common themes, rather than a tightly knit single drama. But such a division of the book into separate poems is unnecessary and unhelpful. Apart from the title, there are clear indications within the text itself that it is indeed a single work. A refrain occurs in almost identical form at three points in the Song (Song 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). It is addressed to the women of Jerusalem, and its essence is this: "Don't try to force love. Let it take its natural course. The consummation will come at its proper time." This refrain creates movement and suspense. The couple experienced separation, hostility and interference, but the refrain anticipates that their relationship was nevertheless moving steadily toward consummation. At the end of the book there is indeed a sense of fulfillment as the couple, at last united and at ease together in public, walked arm in arm to the home of the parents, the place where their relationship had begun (Song 8:5). Following this, some general, summarizing remarks are given about the nature of love (Song 8:6-7). This is the climax of the Song, but not quite the end. After the climax a postscript appears (Song 8:8-14) that quietly reviews some of the key elements of the work and brings it to a close.

Between the expressions of longing at the beginning and the consummation at the end, there is a dream sequence (Song 3:1; 5:2) in chapters 3-6. This central section records the girl's dreams about her wedding and the lovemaking that would follow. There is everything that we might expect here: erotic reveries, nightmares, fears of loss and deeply romantic experiences.

In many respects, the book is realistic about love. The author knew how hard it can be to wait for marriage. He knew about erotic dreams, meddling relatives and the struggle that occurs when a couple attempts to establish a relationship in the face of separation and hostility. He understood that humans no longer live in the Garden of Eden, but in a fallen world where love, too, has its pain.

But there is also idealism here. The overwhelming impression the book leaves with the reader is that love is a beautiful thing in which one may find deep satisfaction and contentment. The shepherd is portrayed as the archetypal lover, and the Song shows us a world in which he and a country girl may be as happy and fulfilled as the king upon his throne (Song 8:11-12). In so doing the Song puts wealth and power in their place.

Concerns over the unconcealed sensuality of the Song have led many interpreters to regard it merely as an allegory of God's love for Israel or for the Church (see "Introduction: Christ in Song of Songs"). The mention of Solomon in the title (Song 1:1), however, links the book with Biblical Wisdom Literature, which focuses much on the common spheres of everyday human relationships. The book of Proverbs, in fact, uses language similar to that of the Song of Songs in talking about marital love (e.g., Prov. 5:15-18). The beauty and worth of the sexual love that this book celebrates is rooted in the ordinances established when God created human beings, male and female, in his image (Gen. 1:27; cf. 2:19-25). Sexual love is at the heart of God's ideal order for the world and for the human race.

Christ in Song of Solomon:

There has been a long tradition of relating this book to Christ by drawing analogies between the experiences of the two lovers and the experience of Christ and his Church. In fact, the image of God as the husband and of his covenant people as his wife is also found in the Old Testament (e.g., Jer. 2:2; Hos. 2:14-20). Because Christ claims the Church as his bride (cf. Eph. 5:22-33), one legitimate application of Song of Songs is to realize that the love described in the book is in many ways similar to the love that Jesus has for the Church (e.g. this is the predominant use of the Song of Songs in the Westminster Standards). At least three central dimensions instruct modern readers about the nature of this love: self giving, desire, and commitment. Jesus delights in us and gives himself to us in love. He desires us wholly for himself, and he feels deeply both the pain and pleasure of his relationship with us. Christ gave his very life for the Church and even now devotes himself to her good as a loving husband. The Church looks to Christ for protection and affection; she honors him for his wondrous care and seeks his glory every day. Both Christ and the Church long for the day of their final union, the day of the great wedding feast at Christ's return (Rev. 19:7, 9).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Books

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).