Why was it written?
If it appeared anyplace else, you’d know why the Song of Solomon was written: it’s a love poem. An erotic love poem. An erotic love poem that describes the physical joys of love in graphic detail.
What has puzzled the experts for thousands of years, however, is the fact that the Song of Solomon appears in the Bible. And there, it seems out of place as out of place as a passionate kiss during a communion service.
And so, over the centuries, the experts have come up with at least three explanations of why the Song of Solomon was written – three theories, each of which has its own way of interpreting the book.
One of the oldest explanations is that the Song of Solomon (also known as the Songs of Songs or the Canticle of Canticles) is an allegory of God’s love for His people. Everything in this book stands for something else – Solomon stands for God, the woman for Israel (or the church or the human soul), her teeth represent pure doctrine, her hair the Gentile nations, her breasts are symbols of the Old and New Testaments, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Though it’s still popular, this approach has been getting a lot of criticism lately. It’s true, say the experts, that God’s love for us is like that of a groom for his bride. To push the book’s symbolism beyond that, however, can get you in trouble. It can lead you to interpretations that are arbitrary, fanciful, and even just plain silly.
For these and other reasons, some experts say the book is not an allegory, but a drama. The book, they say, has not two main characters, but three: a humble shepherd, his beautiful Shulammite lover, and the wicked king who unsuccessfully tries to lure her away. Read this way, the book is a powerful argument in favor of monogamy, and a powerful indictment of Solomon a king famous for his many wives and concubines.
But other experts disagree. Drama, they point out, was unknown in ancient Israel. What’s more, the book lacks many of the elements you’d expect to find in a theatrical production – like a plot, for instance.
Because of this, the consensus today is that the Song of Solomon is nothing more than it claims to be: a love song. (Or even a collection of love songs – perhaps as many as 30.) Parts of it may have been sung during spring festivals, such as Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles. Others may have been sung at weddings. But always the intent is to praise the love of a man and a woman for each other – the love that “is as strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:6, NIV).
What you’ll learn in this book:
Somehow the idea has grown that God’s followers should be a grim and cheerless lot. Strict. Austere. Even priggish. And that God is vexed whenever someone, somewhere, somehow manages to enjoy the physical
pleasures of life.
As the Song of Solomon reminds us, God created our bodies; God created sex. God knew what He was doing when He made it possible for us to enjoy the physical act of love.
And the Song of Solomon portrays this enjoyment in terms that can only be described as sensual, lush, and exotic. It is not a book for modest people. It is not a book for prudes. It is a book that hearkens back to the time before sin, when “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25, NRSV).
To be sure, the Song of Solomon makes it clear that love alone will not remove all difficulties or prevent all misunderstandings. Then too, the love described in this book is a love based upon commitment. It is not
promiscuous. It is not a matter of whim or feeling. It is a love that lasts – a love that expresses itself in dedication and devotion and faithfulness to one another.
But once these conditions have been met, says the Song of Solomon, then almost anything goes…
Just as God intended.
Words you’ll need to know:
Many of the words that appear in the Song of Solomon appear no place else in Scripture; many apparently refer to places, plants, or animals. Moreover, many of the phrases seem to be euphemisms. For these reasons, it is difficult to know precisely what the author meant in parts of this book.
Experts are fairly sure, however, about the meaning of the following words:
* aloes: a perfume. Most experts feel this is a product of the eaglewood tree of southeast Asia, which reached heights of 100 to 120 feet.
* Amana: the Anti-Lebanon mountains of what is now Syria; alabaster was quarried there.
* Bath-rabbim: one of Heshbon’s gates.
* calamus: a sweet-smelling reed or grass – possibly gingergrass or sweet sedge.
* En-gedi: A hot spring on the western shore of the Dead Sea provides the water for the vineyards and orchards of this beautiful oasis.
* Gilead: Located across the Jordan River from Jerusalem, this 20 by 70- mile mountainous region was heavily wooded and used for grazing cattle.
* hennah: a tropical shrub that grows up to 12 feet tall and bears sweet-smelling, yellow-and-white flowers. It was used to make a reddish brown cosmetic dye.
* Heshbon: a city whose strategic position allowed it control of the lower Jordan valley.
* Hermon: the southern portion of Syria’s Anti-Lebanon mountains.
* Kedar: a nomadic people of the Syrian desert, famous for their flocks.
* lattice: Since window glass did not exist, windows were covered with a wooden grill.
* mandrakes: The fruit of this plant looks like a cross between a tomato and an apple; it was believed to be an aphrodisiac.
* myrrh: resin of Balsomodendron myrrha, a tree; used as an ingredient in some perfumes.
* nard: also called spikenard. An incredibly expensive perfume, imported from the Himalayas.
* palanquin: a chair or bed carried by poles on the shoulders of two or more men.
* saffron: probably the saffron crocus – a source of perfume.
* Senir: another name for Hermon.
* Sharon: most likely the gently rolling plain near the northern coast of Israel.
* Shulammite: a native of Shulem, also known as Shunem, a town about 50 miles north of Jerusalem.
* Solomon: David’s son and king of Israel. He was famous for his wisdom, his wealth, his military power, and his many wives and concubines. The high taxes and forced labor needed to support his policies, however, made many people unhappy and led to the breakup of his kingdom after his death.
* Tirzah: Famous for its beauty, this city is about 25 miles north of Jerusalem. When Israel broke up after Solomon’s death, Tirzah served for a time as capital of the northern kingdom.
A good commentary is essential if you hope to understand the numerous euphemisms, metaphors, and allusions of this book. Try G. Lloyd Carr’s Song of Solomon in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series ($9 from InterVarsity Press) for a good verse-by-verse explanation. Or, if you prefer your answers in narrative form, try Robert Davidson’s Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon ($9 from Westminster).
Braver souls may wish to try the Anchor Bible Series’ Song of Songs, by Marvin Pope (Doubleday). Only $40 gets you this eye-opening account of the parallels between Solomon’s book and the other love poems of that day. Invaluable – but this is one Bible commentary you’ll want to keep on the top shelf, where your kids can’t find it.
You’ll find it in the Song of Solomon:
“He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love” (2:4, NKJV).
“Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (2:10-12, NRSV).
“Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its fragrance be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits” (4:16, RSV).
“Who is this that looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?” (6:10, NRSV).
“I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you stir not up nor awaken love until it please'” (8:4, RSV).
“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned” (8:6,7).
(The above material appeared in the October 1992 issue of Signs of the Times.)
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