The Song of Songs is a truly beautiful book and one of the most misunderstood books in the Bible. The beauty of this theatrical song is greater than that of the words of Shakespeare. Some parents have jokingly commented about how they want their children to read the Bible except for the Song of Solomon. However, the Song of Songs is not so much about sex as some depict. The book has sexual references, and through this book, God endorses waiting for romantic love for marriage as God created the union. This article provides some critical keys and insight to understand the Song of Songs.
The Song of Songs is a poem like all songs. This song is meant to be read more than once for the reader to contemplate and understand. Inspired poems are always great for reflection between this world and the spiritual. God’s Word acts as a mirror in this way to reflect the hearts of each person for personal observation (cf. 2 Cor 3:18; Jas 1:23–25).
Views of the Song of Songs
Dillard and Longman’s An Introduction to the Old Testament reports four common perspectives of the Song of Songs. Two perspectives are literal and two are figurative that draw from the decisions and wisdom of the young woman who is at the center of this theatrical song. None of these views need to be exclusive of the other with some minor exception to a literal interpretation. The most common view of the book expresses the love of woman, the Shulamite woman, in her courtship and marrying King Solomon. The other interpretation pictures a love triangle between the beloved woman, her beloved shepherd, and the king trying to gain her affection. These two are the most different from each other.
The other figurative interpretations are allegorical perceptions of the book including either the relationship between Israel and God and, or the church and Christ is the meaning of the young woman as God’s people and the king and husband as God. Neither of these views excludes the other nor excludes the message that illustrates waiting for love and the passion of marital love. The reader can accept both the love story as instruction for waiting for marriage and choosing a spouse as well as a parallel to understand God’s people waiting and choosing the love of God.
The one meaning and united interpretation of the Song of Songs is a young woman’s words of love for her “beloved.” This post will focus upon the view of the beloved woman and her beloved shepherd rather than reflect on an allegory of Israel or the church romantically loving the LORD.
Essential Keys to the Song of Songs
One can understand the Songs of Songs by examining what some translations lack. One of the keys of interpretation in any writing is to realize who is speaking to whom. This critical key helps to understand the whole book. In the Hebrew and Greek Old Testament, Solomon’s Song distinguishes characters by singular and plural, and the context reveals whether the speaker is feminine or masculine. This leaves a little ambiguity for the reader to determine if there are one or two masculine characters. Some translations interpret the masculine character to always be Solomon but this is an assumption. The aid at the end of this article can help the reader distinguish characters.
Solomon wrote the Song of Songs about a young woman’s love for her “beloved.” One literal interpretation states that this is a discourse between a young woman betrothed and marrying King Solomon. The other view is that a young woman must choose between King Solomon and her beloved shepherd. To this writer, the first interpretation seems unlikely when one recognizes that the young woman’s beloved is shepherding his flock in contrast to the king. The shepherd and the king are in different places. When the beloved woman is in the presence of the king, Song of Songs 1:7 depicts, “Tell me, O you whom I love, Where you feed your flock, Where you make it rest at noon. For why should I be as one who veils herself By the flocks of your companions?” The Shulamite woman is thinking about her beloved who is not the king but attending to his flock. Later, the beloved woman thinks about her shepherd in her bedroom, Song of Songs 2:16 records, “My beloved is mine, and I am his. He feeds his flock among the lilies.” Again, while the beloved woman is in the presence of the king, Song of Songs 6:2–3 declares, “My beloved has gone to his garden, To the beds of spices, To feed his flock in the gardens, And to gather lilies. I am my beloved’s, And my beloved is mine. He feeds his flock among the lilies.” From this understanding, the Song of Solomon is about a young woman choosing between her beloved shepherd and the King’s charms and proposal. This king has “sixty queens, And eighty concubines, And virgins without number” (6:8). However, the king speaks to this beloved woman, “My dove, my perfect one, Is the only one.” Some may still believe that the Song is about Solomon’s recommitment in marriage to one spouse, and that is for the reader to decide for oneself. However, these points strongly indicate that the King is not the woman’s beloved.
A beautiful poetic story about a young woman choosing between the King and her beloved shepherd is greatly beneficial to everyone especially to adolescent girls, young women, mothers, fathers, mentors, and everyone looking after the integrity of young love and marriage. The lessons in this book are (and there may be more): 1) waiting for love, 2) keeping oneself chaste for your mate, 3) teaching young women and men about what is important about marriage, 4) understanding the affection of your spouse, and 5) remembering when love was fresh. God made marriage good (cf. Gen 2:24). The Song of Solomon is a great approach to teach this message to young women from the perspective of a young woman whose love with wisdom blesses her marriage.
Solomon wrote the Song of Songs in a theatrical style. Scholars agree that this song was originally composed for singers to perform before an audience. Since it is called a song, some describe the song as an ancient musical. The reader must distinguish parts of this song by gender and number and to whom one speaks by gender and number.
The Scenes of the Song of Songs
Scene 1 takes place in the King’s inner rooms (1:4). Here the young woman is thinking about her beloved shepherd. The text depicts, “The king has brought me into his chambers” (Song 1:4). The young woman imagines her beloved coming to her in 2:8–10 saying,
The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes Leaping upon the mountains, Skipping upon the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Behold, he stands behind our wall; He is looking through the windows, Gazing through the lattice. My beloved spoke, and said to me: “Rise up, my love, my fair one, And come away.”
Though in the king’s inner rooms, the woman thinks about her beloved’s place and she describes, “Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly delightful. Our couch is shady [green]; the beams of our house are cedar; our rafters are pine” (Song 1:16–17). The young woman recognizes to whom she is beautiful and proclaims this before the king, “I am a flower of the plain, and a lily of the valleys” (Song 2:1).
Scene 2 starts in chapter 3 on the young woman’s bed that is in her mother’s house (3:1). In this scene, she dreams of looking for her beloved in the city streets at night. She searches asking the city guards for her beloved.
Scene 3 presents Solomon’s entrance into Jerusalem (3:11). Here the chorus describes Solomon to “the daughters of Jerusalem” speaking in 3:6–11,
Who is this coming out of the wilderness Like pillars of smoke, Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, With all the merchant’s fragrant powders? Behold, it is Solomon’s couch, With sixty valiant men around it, Of the valiant of Israel. They all hold swords, Being expert in war. Every man has his sword on his thigh Because of fear in the night. Of the wood of Lebanon Solomon the King made himself a palanquin: He made its pillars of silver, Its support of gold, Its seat of purple, Its interior paved with love By the daughters of Jerusalem. Go forth, O daughters of Zion, And see King Solomon with the crown With which his mother crowned him On the day of his wedding, The day of the gladness of his heart.
Then in chapter 4, Solomon speaks to the young woman praising her body, and the young woman rejects him. She expresses, “Until the day breaks And the shadows flee away, I will go my way to the mountain of myrrh And to the hill of frankincense” (Song 4:6). Then the beloved shepherd speaks to the young woman about their love, and the young woman accepts him. She desires, “Awake, O north wind, And come, O south! Blow upon my garden, That its spices may flow out. Let my beloved come to his garden And eat its pleasant fruits” (Song 4:16). The charming words of Solomon do not work, but the words of the beloved shepherd do.
Scene 4 presents the woman dreaming of her anticipating her marriage (Song 5). She dreams of her beloved coming to the door, but she hesitates yet she goes to the door but her beloved shepherd is gone. Again, she goes and looks for him in her dreams. This time she asks the guards again, but they beat her. She no longer has favor with them. Even the daughters of Jerusalem do not care.
In scene 5, the king tries to persuade the young woman (Song 6–7). They speak to the woman to come to them (6:4–13). This is where she receives the name Shulamite, “Return, return, O Shulamite; Return, return, that we may look upon you!” The young woman replied, “What shall you see in the Shulamite? She comes as a company of the camps” (6:13; 7:1). She is not one of Solomon’s brides. After this, Solomon tries to charm her again.
In scene 6, the young woman comes with her beloved to the country town in chapter 8. The village sees that she has returned with her beloved and not the king. The chorus says, “Who is this coming up from the wilderness, Leaning upon her beloved?” (Song 8:5a). The young woman gives advice to the village about raising their daughters. Then she and her beloved go away together.
The Application of the Song of Songs
1. The Song of Songs is about waiting for love. A clear message taught on three different occasions throughout the text is from the mouth of the young woman concerning her conviction and wisdom about love. She urged in Song 2:7, “I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, By the gazelles or by the does of the field, Do not stir up nor awaken love Until it pleases” and in similar words in Song of Songs 3:5 and 8:4. One should wait for love. The “Daughters of Jerusalem” must not rush to the wealthy man or go to the man who flatters by praising her body. They are to wait for love meant for marriage.
2. The Song of Solomon is about keeping oneself chaste for your mate. The reader should recognize how the beloved shepherd describes his young woman. He praises her purity and chastity saying Song of Songs 4:12, “A garden enclosed Is my sister, my spouse, A spring shut up, A fountain sealed.” He also sees her as fruitful and life-giving saying, “A fountain of gardens, A well of living waters, And streams from Lebanon” (4:15). She is refreshing to him. The young woman is loyal and loves unto death (4:6). Though the king could provide luxury, the shepherd is able to provide something without price.
3. Solomon’s Song is about teaching young women and men about deciding whom to marry. Parents, siblings, and young married women need to teach. The village as the chorus asks the young woman for advice saying in Song of Solomon 8:8, “What shall we do for our sister In the day when she is spoken for?” The woman replies in Song of Songs 8:9, “If she is a wall, We will build upon her A battlement of silver; And if she is a door, We will enclose her With boards of cedar.” In other words, the young woman encourages the family that they should strengthen their sister’s defenses and her commitment to do what is right and remain chaste. She must wait for true love and not be fooled. The young woman taught the daughters of Jerusalem, “Do not stir up nor awaken love Until it pleases.”
The young woman expresses his love and his desire for her love is overwhelming and will not end in Song of Solomon 8:6–7,
Set me as a seal upon your heart, As a seal upon your arm; For love is as strong as death, Zeal as cruel as the grave; Its flames are flames of fire, A most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, Nor can the floods drown it. If a man would give for love All the wealth of his house, It would be utterly despised.
Their love is like flames that are covered in water that could not be quenched, and no one can put a price on this kind of love. What would happen if everyone felt this way about love for one’s spouse?
4. The Song of Songs is about understanding the affection of your spouse. As many couples can relate to the woman’s dream in Song of Songs 5:2–6,
I sleep, but my heart is awake; It is the voice of my beloved! He knocks, saying, ‘Open for me, my sister, my love, My dove, my perfect one; For my head is covered with dew, My locks with the drops of the night.’ [She says] I have taken off my robe; How can I put it on again? I have washed my feet; How can I defile them? My beloved put his hand By the latch of the door, And my heart yearned for him. I arose to open for my beloved, And my hands dripped with myrrh, My fingers with liquid myrrh, On the handles of the lock. I opened for my beloved, But my beloved had turned away and was gone. My heart leaped up when he spoke. I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
The beloved woman is dreaming of her beloved coming to her to be her husband. In the dream, the beloved woman is inconvenienced by her impatient beloved who is not around when she is ready. Some may see the same tension of waiting for marriage that may still exist in marriage. In 1 Corinthians 7:2–4, Paul instructed,
Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
5. The Song is about remembering the stirring and beauty of love. God made marital love beautiful. The whole book reflects youthful love unlike those whose love has grown cold. The woman expresses her love in Song of Songs 3:1–2,
By night on my bed I sought the one I love; I sought him, but I did not find him. “I will rise now,” I said, “And go about the city; In the streets and in the squares I will seek the one I love.” I sought him, but I did not find him.
She dreams about her beloved and her desire for him. This is all according to God’s will. In Genesis 2:18, the LORD spoke, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” The love between man and woman is by God’s design and by his blessing. Proverb 18:22 declares, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, And obtains favor from the LORD.” May God bless everyone who studies the Song of Songs.
Who Is Speaking in the Song of Songs?
The Song of Songs is a theatrical song consisting of a number of parts determined in the original by the number of those speaking and the context’s presentation of gender. The singular feminine is always the young woman while the masculine singular is either the king or the shepherd determined by the speech and context. The chorus includes either the daughters of Jerusalem, the wives and concubines of the king, or the young woman’s village.
Scene 1 – The King’s Palace
1:1 title line
1:2–1:4a young woman (ends with the word “chambers”)
1:5–7 young woman
1:12–14 young woman
1:16–2:1 young woman
2:3–7 young woman
Scene 2 – Young Woman’s Bedroom
2:8–17 young woman
3:1–5 young woman
Scene 3 – King’s Entrance
Scene 4 – Young Woman’s Bedroom
4:16b young woman
Scene 5 – Presence of the King
5:2–8 young woman
5:10–16 young woman
6:2–3 young woman
6:11–12 young woman
6:13a chorus (ends with “among you.”)
6:13b young woman
7:9b–13 young woman
Scene 6 – In the Country
8:1–7 young woman
8:8–9 chorus (brothers)
8:10–12 young woman
8:14 young woman