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- Song of Solomon
by Donald C. Fleming
Song of Songs
The intellectual and literary abilities of Solomon earned him recognition as one of Israel’s greatest wisdom teachers and song writers (1 Kings 4:29-34). His accumulation of wives and concubines made him perhaps its most famous lover (1 Kings 11:1-4). Not surprisingly, he was traditionally regarded as the author of the collection of love poems known as the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon. The book names Solomon as its author and makes reference to the splendour of Solomon and his court (Song of Song of Solomon 1:1,Song of Solomon 1:5; Song of Solomon 3:7-11; Song of Solomon 8:11-12).
This does not mean, however, that Solomon is the chief character of the book, or that the poems are concerned with him personally. A poet can write about others besides himself. Readers of the Song of Songs in fact often have difficulty working out who the poems are about, as separate poems can be understood in different ways. In some poems all the words may be from one speaker, but in others they form a dialogue. They may even include the words of additional speakers. Some poems describe actual feelings and events, but others recount dreams. The poems may recall the past, speak of the present or look forward to the future.
Interpretation of the book
Since readers have to work out for themselves who the various speakers are, many interpretations of the book have been suggested. These are reflected in the sub-headings that translators of different versions of the Bible have introduced.
Some interpretations of the book see it as a drama concerning Solomon himself. Among these there are two main viewpoints. The first sees only two main characters, Solomon and a Shulammite girl, who fall in love and marry. (The meaning of ‘Shulammite’ is not clear. The word may have come from the name of the village where the girl lived.) The other view is that there are not two main characters but three - a young shepherd, a Shulammite girl and King Solomon. The shepherd and the girl are deeply in love, but Solomon has taken the girl from her shepherd-lover, put her into his harem and now unsuccessfully tries to win her love.
Other interpretations take the view that the book is not a drama at all and that it is not about Solomon. Rather it is a collection of love poems recounting the exchanges of love between a young man and a young woman. This is the view taken in the commentary below. Only two main characters are involved, an unnamed shepherd-farmer and an unnamed country girl whose love for each other is expressed in a series of poems.
There is a basic unity to the book. Certain features recur throughout, and there is a general development that reflects the maturing relationship between the two lovers. There is a progression from the longing for a distant lover in the opening poem to what appears to be the home-coming of a married couple in the final poem. But the poems are not necessarily in chronological order, and in places it is uncertain whether they have been written before or after marriage.
The following notes will simply deal with the two people as lovers, whether engaged or married. In biblical times people considered engagement to be as binding as marriage, and this meant that love poems may have contained erotic expressions. But this did not give the lovers permission for sexual relations before marriage.
Love between the sexes
In the order that God has laid down for human society, sexual love between a man and a woman has its rightful place. One reason for the inclusion of the Song of Songs in the Scriptures may have been to show God’s approval of sexual love. Always, however, the love is in the context of a relationship where a man and a woman commit themselves to each other in marriage, to the exclusion of all others (Song of Song of Solomon 2:16; Song of Solomon 6:3; Song of Solomon 7:10; Song of Solomon 8:6).
The detailed and unashamed descriptions of love between a man and a woman, though they may embarrass some present-day readers, reflect the purity and pleasure of a love relation between the sexes. Figures of speech that the lovers use may seem strange to people of a different language and culture, but in their original setting they were no doubt regarded as compliments of the highest order. The language of lovers is always extravagant, and in the Song of Songs the beauty and power of the language displays the intensity of human love in a way not found elsewhere in the Bible.
Opening exchanges of praise
Memories and dreams
The strength of true love
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29