The Song of Songs
“In the entire world there is nothing to equal the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. All the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.” With those effusive words of praise, the great second-century rabbi, Akiba ben Joseph, described his favorite book in the Hebrew Scriptures (Mishnah, Yadaim 3:5). Jewish appreciation for this book is evidenced by the fact that it is read in the synagogue during Passover every year. The Song of Songs is its own title (1:1); Christians usually refer to it as the Song of Solomon.
Christian estimation of this little book of eight brief chapters is no less praiseworthy. Consider, for example, the comments of C.I. Scofield: “Nowhere is Scripture does the unspiritual mind tread upon ground so mysterious and incomprehensible, while the saintliest men and women of all ages have found in it a source of pure and exquisite delight.”1
While statements of this sort can be read and appreciated, there is still a big problem. The average reader of Scripture often encounters this book and comes away perplexed. What is to be made of the sometimes explicit descriptions of physical love? How can we know who is speaking and responding – a man or a woman? What spiritual value is there in this “song for lovers”?
There is a variety of answers to these questions. Such a variety, in fact, that there are numerous ways of understanding the book. H.H. Rowley has concluded, “There is no book of the Old Testament which has found greater variety of interpretation than the Song of Songs.”2 Is there a way of making sense of the Song of Songs and also deriving spiritual benefit from its contents? I believe that there is, and it is to be found by interpreting the book in the context of Solomon’s life.
According to 1 Kings 4:32, Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs. This song was his best, his “song of songs.” This is the way of expressing the superlative degree in Hebrew (e.g., servant of servants, King of kings, holy of holies). The song also reflects a great knowledge of the fauna and flora of the land of Israel. About 15 species of animals and 21 varieties of plants are mentioned. Consider what is said of Solomon in 1 Kings 4:33: “And he spoke of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall; he spoke also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fish.”
The book also reveals something of Solomon’s “love” life. According to 1 Kings 11:1-8, “Solomon loved many foreign women.” At one time he had 700 wives and 300 concubines! The “song” also reflects this waywardness of Solomon. There are various references to the “daughters of Jerusalem” (1:5; 2:7; 3:5; 8:4), which are most probably descriptions of Solomon’s “harem.” There is also an indication of the large number of women in Solomon’s life at the time of writing: “There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number” (6:8). It is this marital wantonness that provides the key to interpreting the book.
It is not our purpose to review the many interpretations proposed by commentators through the ages. Most of them, however, have one serious flaw. They do not take seriously the question of how to fit Solomon’s infidelity into the “Song.” Consider, for example, the allegorical approach which views the book as describing the spiritual dealing of Christ with His church. How could Solomon allegorically portray Christ when Solomon was such a moral failure? There is absolutely no basis to justify the extremes to which allegorizers have treated this book.
Another popular approach to the book is to see two main characters – Solomon and the Shulamite (6:13). Popularized by H.A. Ironside, this view sees Solomon as disguising himself as a shepherd to woo the affections of a country maiden. She finally submits to his overtures and becomes his bride. While this view attempts to maintain the idea that the book is an expression of true marital love and an example of Solomon as a type of Christ, it has serious problems. How can Solomon be an example of true marital love, and, furthermore, how can he be a type of Christ, in light of his lecherous “love” life? Furthermore, what reason would the mighty king of Israel have to disguise himself as a shepherd to win the affections of a poor peasant girl? Such an approach is artificial and contrived.
In addition, this view does not consider the fact that Solomon is pictured in a bad light at the conclusion of the Song: “Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hammon; he leased the vineyard unto keepers; every one for the fruit of it was to bring a thousand pieces of silver. My vineyard, which is mine, is before me; thou, O Solomon, must have a thousand, and those who keep its fruit two hundred” (8:11-12). The Shulamite informs Solomon in these verses that he can keep all of his possessions – she has her vineyard and doesn’t need what he offers. Earlier in the chapter, the Shulamite remarked, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. If a man would give all the substance of his house for love, he would utterly be rejected” (8:7). Not even Solomon’s wealth could purchase her love.
I would like to suggest that, instead of seeing two main characters in the book, with Solomon as the lover-hero, there are actually three main characters, with Solomon in the role of a villain. The third character is an unnamed shepherd referred to in 1:7: “Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon; for why should I be like one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions?” It is this shepherd who is the “beloved” of the Shulamite. She remains faithful to him, even though she is wooed by the mighty king.
“The principal figure seems to be a Shulamite maiden who is transferred from a pastoral environment to the royal palace of Solomon. As the King woos this attractive country lass, his overtures are rejected. The splendor of the palace and the choral appeal of the court women fail to impress her. She passionately yearns for her former lover. Ultimately her conflict is resolved as she declines the overtures of the King and returns to the shepherd hero.”3
The faithfulness of the Shulamite speaks powerfully to us today about the purity of true marital love despite the temptations of the so-called “greener grass on the other side of the fence.” The book also powerfully speaks of the believer’s faithfulness to Christ in the face of temptation. The shepherd, however, not Solomon, typifies Christ. Solomon is a type of the world which offers allurements to the believer to be unfaithful to his Heavenly Bridegroom.
If this interpretation sounds new and strange, it should be noted that such evangelical stalwarts as Christian David Ginsburg, Frederic Godet, E.W. Bullinger, W. Graham Scroggie, J. Barton Payne, Samuel Schultz, and Walter Kaiser have espoused the so-called “Shepherd Hypothesis.” If the reader would like to trace through the entire book in this manner, I suggest the excellent little commentary Exploring the Song of Solomon by John Phillips (Loizeaux Brothers, 1984).
Whatever interpretation one adopts, one truth is absolutely clear. True love abides while human lust always fails. The words of the Shulamite to her true love speak to all generations. They mean so much to my wife and me that we had the following verse reference engraved inside our wedding rings: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as sheol; its coals are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. If a man would give all the substance of his house for love, he would utterly be rejected” (8:6-7). In these verses, five characteristics of true love are mentioned:
- Love is Permanent (“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm”). True love does not come and then leave; it involves a lasting commitment.
- Love is Possessive (“for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as sheol”). As death and the grave eventually possess us all, so love lays claim to its object.
- Love is Powerful (“its coals are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame” – literally, “a flame of the Lord”). True love is a powerful force that comes only from God.
- Love is Persevering (“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it”). Troubles, trials, temptations, and tests will never destroy true love.
- Love is Priceless (“If a man would give all the substance of his house for love, he would utterly be rejected”). Love cannot be purchased; it is given and received freely.
This is the abiding message of the “Song of Songs.” It is a message that desperately needs to be heard in our age of “trial” marriages, cheap love, and marital infidelity.
- Scofield Reference Bible (Oxford University Press), p. 705.
- H.H. Rowley, The Servant of the Lord (Oxford, 1952), p. 197.
- Samuel Schultz, The Old Testament Speaks (Harper and Row, 1960), p. 295.