Song of Solomon
Originally, this song derived its Hebrew title from verse 1, ‘The song of songs’, but later it became identified with its author, the ‘Song of Solomon’. The repetition of ‘song’ in the first verse indicates that Solomon considered this book his most important literary work. What is the topic of the greatest song that Solomon penned? The security and exhilaration of marital love!
At this present time, the divine institution of marriage is under immense attack. Not only are some in our postmodern culture trying to redefine what marriage is, many have concluded that it is an archaic tradition which is no longer relevant. Consequently, a smaller percentage of people are entering into that sacred covenant and, of those who do, fewer are staying married.
God’s original design for marriage was affirmed by the Lord Jesus: one man and one woman committed to each other until death separates them, Matt. 19. 3-8. Unfortunately, Old Testament history shows that divorce had become commonplace among God’s covenant people long before Christ’s earthly sojourn, Mal. 2. 14-16. As evidenced in Solomon’s own life, another departure from God’s marital order was polygamy. In ancient Jewish culture, it was not uncommon for a man to take a second wife, especially if his first wife could not bear him children, 1 Sam. 1.
Reigning kings usually took several wives to ensure a lasting posterity and, hopefully, a long dynasty.
In this song, Solomon is not only acknowledging the importance of the marital commitment, but also the intimate lifetime companionship that God desires a married couple to share. These vibrant realities needed to be rediscovered in Solomon’s day, and we need them reaffirmed today also.
While the main theme of this book centres on the love shared between ‘the beloved’ and the Shulamite maiden, the specific purpose of the book depends on what perspective it is being evaluated from. From a literary standpoint, the entire poem extols marital love. If we analyse it from a dispensational standpoint, the special union between Jehovah and His covenant people, the nation of Israel, is paramount. If interpreted by the fuller work of redemption, as revealed in the New Testament, then we can see the marvellous union between Christ and the church. Lastly, if reading the book from a spiritual standpoint, we understand that communion between the redeemed and the blessed Saviour is to be maintained in purity and faithfulness.
Throughout the song, the ‘beloved’ would either be Solomon or, perhaps, the shepherd-lover, while the Shulamite maiden is his ‘love’. Regardless of which dramatic interpretation one accepts as correct, the following generic outline by Hamilton Smith seems to accommodate the various views of this book:
- The Assurance of Love, 1. 2 – 2. 7.
- The Awakening of Love, 2. 8 – 3. 5.
- The Communion of Love, 3. 6 – 5. 1.
- The Restoration of Love, 5. 2 – 6. 12.
- The Witness of Love, 6. 13 – 8. 4.
- The Triumph of Love, 8. 5-14. 1
If Solomon is the Shulamite’s ‘beloved’, then the progression in the relationship would be: a courtship, 1. 2 – 3. 5; followed by a wedding, 3. 6 – 5. 1; and the maturing of the marital relationship, 5. 2 – 8. 4. If the shepherd-lover is the ‘beloved’, then the Shulamite reminisces, expresses her desire to be with him, tells others about him, or secretly communicates with him, while in Solomon’s court, 1. 2-8; 2. 8 – 3. 5; 4. 7 – 6. 3; during this time Solomon’s attempts to woo her to himself fail, 1. 9 – 2. 6; 3. 6 – 4. 6; 6. 4 – 7. 10; and, finally, she is reunited and married to her shepherd-lover, 7. 11 – 8. 14.
Given Solomon’s marital extravagance, 1 Kgs. 11. 3, we may question why he composed this poem, especially after repeatedly warning his own son not to be overcome with sensual lusting in Proverbs. Clearly, Solomon did not exercise wisdom in this aspect of his life; he plainly ignored Moses’ warning against a king marrying many women, Deut. 17. 17. In the Song of Songs, Solomon apparently wants to set the matter straight; God’s design for marriage is one man and one woman bound by a covenant for life.
Date and historical setting
Since Solomon reigned as Israel’s king from 971 to 932 BC, his literary works would have been composed during that timeframe. Given that the Shulamite is a young maiden, it is suggested that Solomon wrote the Song of Solomon in his early adult years. Proverbs was likely written in his middle years and Ecclesiastes near the end of his life as he reflected on all his experiences.
Analysis of the book
Speaking about the book’s divine inspiration, H. A. Ironside highlights how the Song of Solomon affirms what God’s design for marriage was to be for the nation of Israel:
‘Many of the Jewish teachers thought of it simply as designed of God to give a right apprehension of conjugal love. They thought of it as the glorification of the bliss of wedded life, and if we conceived of it from no higher standpoint than this, it would mean that it had a right to a place in the canon. Wedded life in Israel represented the very highest and fullest and deepest affection at a time when, in the nations surrounding Israel, woman was looked upon as a mere chattel, as a slave, or as the object of man’s pleasure to be discarded when and as he pleased. But it was otherwise in Israel. The Jewish home was a place where love and tenderness reigned, and no doubt this little book had a great deal to do with lifting it to that glorious height’. 4
The Song of Solomon has always been a part of the Hebrew Bible, though a tradition developed among orthodox Jews did not permit a man under thirty years of age to read it because of its descriptive sensual content, e.g.,
1. 12-16. Regardless of its interpretation, this entire poem is a song of enduring devotion and expressed passion between a man and a woman who are unconditionally committed to each other – this upholds God’s original design for marriage, Gen. 2. 24, 25.
Some merely see the Song of Solomon as a collection of detached romantic poetry, which lacks a central storyline. So, while portions of the book might be fitting for a wedding ceremony, there is no literal meaning or application to be derived from the composition. The fact that the same characters, figures of speech, and expressions are present throughout the entire book defies this conclusion. On the contrary, conservative scholars observe a central narrative involving two or possibly three main participants depending on how it is understood.
There are two main dramatic understandings. First, Solomon, likely disguised as a lowly shepherd, interacts with a young, beautiful Shulamite maiden, and develops a relationship with her. He later reveals his identity in a surprise visit and whisks her away to the palace to be his bride, thus fulfilling his promise to her. Second, the Shulamite maiden has already committed herself to a shepherd-lover, but Solomon sequesters her in his palace against her will. Solomon’s repeated attempts to woo her fail, and she is eventually reunited with her beloved, whom she then marries. In this view, the Shulamite bride is the heroine of the poem, and Solomon, the author, is the villain. This author prefers the former and less awkward viewpoint.
Whether the Shulamite’s beloved is actually Solomon, or a shepherd-lover cannot be proven. The latter interpretation suggests that Solomon was a kidnapper; such a perspective taints the marital theme of the book. Furthermore, all the Shulamite’s romantic expectations seem fulfilled by Solomon’s surprise appearance at her home and then their departure in the royal chariot to his Jerusalem palace, 3. 1-10; 6. 12. Why would Solomon say to her, ‘Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away’, if they did not share a mutual affection, 2. 13 NKJV? With that opinion stated, the author readily agrees with Jack Deere’s assessment, ‘Probably no other book of the Bible has such a variegated tapestry of interpretation’. 5 It is doubtful that Bible students will agree on the interpretation of the Song of Solomon on this side of heaven, but what is asserted is that marriage, as God designed it, is a lifetime covenant of companionship which is characterized by intimacy and unwavering commitment.
There are three main thematic interpretations of the Song of Solomon: allegorical, literal, and prophetic. Because of the vivid sensual language, many ancient scholars viewed the entire book as an allegory, tracing the history of the Jewish nation from its conception to the coming of the Messiah, their Beloved. This type of allegorical meaning is represented in other portions of scripture, such as Ezekiel chapter 16.
As already discussed, the literal interpretation suggests that the book is an actual love story, which confirms God’s design for marriage. Commentator Roy Zuck holds this position:
‘Some Bible teachers view the Song of Songs as an extended allegory to depict God’s relationship to Israel, or Christ’s relationship to the church. However, since there is no indication in the book that this is the case, it is preferable to view the book as extolling human love and marriage’. 6
Yet, nearly all of the prophetic books in the Old Testament foretell of a future day when the Messiah will come and restore the nation of Israel to Himself. From this prophetic viewpoint, Jehovah is the faithful husband waiting for the restoration of His unfaithful wife, Israel, Jer. 3. 8; Hos. 3. But beyond this fact, there also seems to be a prophetic application for the church, which Paul states was a mysterious truth not clearly revealed in Solomon’s day, Eph. 3. 1-11. From this vantage point, the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ in the song represent the Jewish nation, which is presently spiritually estranged from Jehovah, while the church is the spotless bride patiently waiting to be united with her Beloved, the Lord Jesus Christ, Eph. 1. 6. Like the Shulamite, the church is also waiting for a surprise visit of her Bridegroom to snatch her away to His superb palace! This interpretation would agree with the teachings of the Lord Jesus concerning future events involving the church, the bride returning to the earth with Christ at the end of the tribulation period, Rev. 19, and the refined Jewish nation who receive the Holy Spirit, the virgins with oil, who are patiently waiting to receive Him also, Matt. 25. 1-13. The marriage feast is then enjoyed by all believers.
The Song of Solomon is a marital expression of the devotion and commitment between a husband and his Shulamite bride. As already mentioned, several interpretations of the main characters and thematic viewpoint are possible. However, it seems most fitting to assume a literal explanation of King Solomon and a young Shulamite woman being mutually consenting lovers who maintained moral purity in their relationship before and after they were married.
1 Hamilton Smith, The Song of Songs, STEM Publishing: http://stempublishing.com/authors/smith/canticls.html.
2 Ch. 1. 5; 3. 7, 9, 11; 8. 11.
3 Ch. 1. 4, 12; 3. 9, 11; 7. 5.
4 H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the Song of Solomon, Loizeaux Brothers, 1950, ch. 1.
5 Jack Deere, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, edited by J. F. Walvoord and Roy Zuck, Victor Books, 1986, pg. 1009.
6 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, Cook Communications, 1991.