Book Overview - Song of Solomon
by John Dummelow
1. Contents. Two points strike every careful reader of the poem: the extreme difficulty of determining its meaning as a whole and deciding as to the class of poetry in which it is to be placed; and the fascinating beauty of its details. The former is evident on a mere glance at the attempts which have been and still are being made to define its scope and character. The Jews admitted it into the Canon on the supposition that it depicts the relations between Jehovah and His people. But for that interpretation the doubts which gathered round it and were not authoritatively discouraged till the Synod of Jamnia (90 a.d.), would never have been dispelled. The Christian Church followed the same general line, explaining the Song as an allegory of the love between Christ and the Church or Christ and the soul In this sense St. Bernard wrote no fewer than eighty-six sermons on the first two chapters. The headings of chapters and Pages in the English Bible express the same idea. In all ages, however, amongst both Jews and Christians, there were thinkers who perceived that the theme is not divine love but human. In course of time the poem came to be regarded by many as a drama. The adherents of this view were divided as to the plot. Some took it to be the story of Solomon's love for a country maiden, whom he raised to the rank of queen, himself for a while adopting a simpler mode of life, and although he eventually reverted to luxury and polygamy the poem remained as a protest against undue self-indulgence. The other and more plausible version of the dramatic theory is that the maiden was carried off to Solomon's harem and exposed to the blandishments of the monarch, who was seconded by the ladies of the court. But she continued faithful to her shepherd-lover, to whom, in the end, the king magnanimously restored her. Another opinion has recently been maintained with much confidence and has found considerable acceptance. According to it we have to do neither with drama, opera, nor unity of any kind, but with a collection of love-ditties, partly composed for, and all suitable for use at, marriage festivals. The title 'king' (Song of Solomon 1:4, Song of Solomon 1:12; Song of Solomon 7:5) is explained by the fact that in Syria bride and bridegroom play the part of queen and king during 'the king's week,' the first week of married life. Seated on a throne which is erected oh the 264 village threshingfloor, they receive the homage of the whole country-side. Nuptial songs and dances are executed by the bridesmen, the chorus of male and female bystanders, and the wedded pair. A plausible account can thus be given of the abrupt transitions, the apparent lack of connexion between the parts of which Canticles is composed. But the whole of the facts are not quite explained. Amidst all the admitted inconcinnity there is an equally undeniable unity. The recurrence of certain expressions (Song of Solomon 2:7; Song of Solomon 3:5; Song of Solomon 8:4; Song of Solomon 2:17; Song of Solomon 4:6; Song of Solomon 8:14) is doubtless meant to mark breaks in what is conceived of as a single poem. The sentiments and style are too similar throughout to have sprung from divers writers. Nor is this to be met by the assertion that we have before us a collection of folk-songs which resemble each other because they all belong to the same period and locality. Canticles reads like the work of an author who composed amatory poems on various occasions and subsequently wove them into a garland of verse. Perhaps some of the shorter pieces have fallen out of the places which he assigned to them: this has been forcibly argued with reference to 811f-813f. But when we remember the irrelevance, from our point of view, of the verses which are often sung in Eastern lands today we shall be slow to deny that the singers and hearers of the Song of Songs understood allusions and perceived a fitness which are hidden from us. We shall be compelled to admit that there is no definite line of advance, no initial simplicity, followed by complication, rounded off by a dramatic dénouement. Matters are as far advanced at Song of Solomon 1:4; Song of Solomon 2:4 as at Song of Solomon 8:4.
Yet the following brief analysis shows that the book falls into what may fairly be called seven cantos. Canto I, Song of Solomon 1:2 to Song of Solomon 2:7 : A rural bride declares her ardent affection for her husband, deprecates the townswomen's criticism of her beauty, desires to know where she may find her beloved. The lovers praise each other. Canto II, Song of Solomon 2:8-17 : She relates a visit he once paid her and the invitation he addressed to her. Canto III, Song of Solomon 3:1-11 : Her thoughts of him and search for him by night. An interlude. Canto IV, Song of Solomon 4:1 to Song of Solomon 5:1 : He depicts and eulogises her charms. He is ready to escort her through the most dangerous regions. Her invitation and his response. Canto V, Song of Solomon 5:2 to Song of Solomon 6:9 : A waking dream, with painful ending. She describes her lover. He has entered his garden. Once more he dilates on her loveliness, which surpasses that of the ladies belonging to the royal harem. Canto VI, Song of Solomon 6:10 to Song of Solomon 8:4 : A short dialogue betwixt these ladies and her. Again he praises her and she replies in terms of love and desire. Canto VII, Song of Solomon 8:5-14 : An inquiry. The bride reminds her husband of their early experiences, celebrates the might and spontaneity of love, remembers how carefully her brothers guarded her. He sets forth her preciousness in figurative language. Then he begs her to sing. She closes the poem with a repetition of Song of Solomon 2:17.
2. Value. At the first blush we are surprised to find in the Bible a poem on human love. But we must remember that the mutual attraction of the sexes is of God's ordaining. So far from being intrinsically evil, it contains for both parties an immeasurable possibility of blessing. And the love which is here sung is ordered, regulated, legitimate. The imagery is too suggestive, and the description of physical charms too minute, for our taste, but it was produced by an Oriental for Orientals. More reticence does not necessarily imply truer purity. No doubt we should have welcomed a clear recognition of the intellectual, ideal, and spiritual side of marriage, but it would be a mistake to argue that the poet was a stranger to this better part. And such love as Song of Solomon 8:7 describes is based on broader foundations than those supplied by mere sensuous charms alone.
Again, whilst it is admitted that the poem was not meant to be understood either typically or allegorically, all true human love is, in the Apostle's sense of the word, a mystery (Ephesians 5:28-33) which carries the Christian's mind upward to the union of the soul with Christ. Sensuous thoughts and images are never to hold us prisoners. The earthly is a steppingstone to the heavenly. Spenser tells us that, having in the green time of his youth composed two Hymns in praise of Love and Beauty, 'and finding that the same too much pleased those of the like age and disposition, which being too vehemently caried with that kind of affection, do rather sucke out poyson to their strong passion, then hony to their honest delight,' he afterwards resolved, 'by way of retractation, to reforme them, making, in stead of those two Hymnes of earthly or naturall love and beautie, two others of heavenly and celestiall.' In this he is a safe guide—
'All the glory and the grace of things,
Witchcraft of loveliness, wonder of flesh,
Fair symmetry of forms, deep harmonies
Of line and limb—are but as shadows cast
From hidden light of Beauty and of Love.'
It would be a dull eye that missed the beauty of the poem. Its author responded immediately to every charm of Nature or of Art. Above all was his soul attuned to Nature. He carries us along with him into the open air, to the vineyards, the villages, the mountains. He awakes us at daybreak to catch the scent of the forest trees, to gather the apples and the pomegranates, to listen to the grateful plash of falling waters. How he loved the flocks of wild pigeons, the crocuses, the fields embroidered with lilies: His verse is fragrant with the breath of spring. And the soul of artistry within him was moved by the pomp of the court, the magnificence of a royal litter, the glittering whiteness of an ivory tower, the proud display of warriors' shields, the ornaments and costly dress of women. No other poem in the Bible can be compared with this. It still merits the title, prefixed by the men who inserted it in the Canon, 'The Song of Songs,' the most beautiful, the one that most nearly corresponds with the ideal of its class.
3. Authorship. But whilst we admit that the title is a fitting one, we must remember that it has no authority to determine date or authorship (see Song of Solomon 1:1). The internal evidence is conclusive against Canticles having been written by Solomon, and points to a date subsequent to the exile, not earlier than the 4th cent. b.c. The language alone suffices to prove these points: it is of the very latest strain of biblical Hebrew.
4. The following are improvements on the Authorised Version:—
4. RV 'Make mention of,' for remember. RV 'Rightly do they love Thee,' for the upright, etc.
6. RV Swarthy,' for black.
7. RM 'Wandereth,' for turneth aside.
9. RV 'A steed' (better still,' a mare'), for a company of horses.
13. RM 'Bag,' for bundle. 'That lieth,' for he shall lie.
14. RV 'Henna-flowers,' for camphire.
1. RM 'Autumn crocus,' for rose.
4. Lit. 'House of wine,' for banqueting house.
5. RM 'Cakes of raisins,' for flagons.
7. RM 'Gazelles,' for roes.
RV 'Awaken love, until it please,' for awake my love, till he please.
9. The sense requires that she gaze forth at him, not he at her.
13. RV 'Ripeneth,' for putteth forth.
RV 'The vines are in blossom, they give forth their fragrance,' for the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.
14. RV 'Covert of the steep place,' for secret places of the stairs.
15. RV 'Vineyards are in blossom,' for vines have tender grapes.
16. RV 'Feedeth his flock,' for feedeth.
6. 'What' is better than Who.
7. RV 'It is the litter of Solomon,' for his bed, which is Solomon's.
9. RV 'Palanquin,' for chariot.
10. 'Inlaid with ebony from,' for paved with love for.
1. RV 'Thine eyes are as doves behind thy veil,' for Thou hast doves'eyes within thy locks.
RV 'Lie along,' for appear.
2. RV 'Ewes that are newly,' for sheep that are even.
RM 'Are all of them in pairs,' for every one bear twins. RV 'Bereaved,' for barren.
3. RV 'Mouth.. behind thy veil,' for speech.. within thy locks.
4. RM 'With turrets,' for for an armoury.
6. RV 'Be cool,' for break.
9. RM 'One look from,' for one of.
12. RM 'Barred,' for inclosed. 'Garden,' for spring.
13. RM 'Paradise,' for orchard.
RV 'Henna,' for camphire.
15. RV supplies 'Thou art.'
1. RM 'Of love,' for O beloved.
2. RV 'I was asleep,' for I sleep.
3. 'Tunic,' for coat.
5. RV 'Bolt,' for lock.
7. 'Wrapper,' for veil.
12. RM 'Sitting by full streams,' for fitly set
14. RM 'Topaz,' for beryl.
'Lapis lazuli,' for sapphires.
16. RM 'Speech,' for mouth.
4. 'Awe-inspiring as bannered hosts,' for terrible as an army with banners.
10. RM 'Pure,' for clear.
11. RV 'Green plants,' for fruits. RV 'Budded,' for flourished.
12. RV 'Set me among, for made me like.
13. RV 'The dance of Mahanaim,' for the company of two armies.
1. RM 'Steps,' for feet; 'in sandals,' for with shoes. 'The turnings' or 'windings,' for the joints.
2. RV 'Mingled wine,' for liquor.
5. RV 'Held captive in the tresses thereof,' for held in the galleries.
8. RV 'Breath,' for nose.
12. RV 'Whether the vine hath budded, and its blossoms be open,' for if the vine flourish, whether the tender grape appear.
13. RV 'Doors,' for gates.
1. RV 'And none would despise me,' for Yea, I should not be despised.
2. RV 'Spiced wine, Of,' for spiced wine of.
5. RV 'I awakened,' for I raised.
6. RM 'Hard,' for cruel; 'Sheol,' for the grave. RV 'Flashes,' for coals; 'a very flame of the Lord,' for a most vehement flame.
7. 'Would any man despise him,' for it would utterly be contemned.
9. RM 'Battlement,' for palace.
10. RV 'Peace,' for favour.
12. RV 'Shall,' for must.
13. RV 'For,' for to.
the Third Sunday after Epiphany