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Bible Commentaries
Song of Solomon

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

- Song of Solomon

by Thomas Constable

Introduction

TITLE

In the Hebrew Bible the title of this book is "The Song of Songs." It comes from Son_1:1. The Septuagint and Vulgate translators adopted this title. The Latin word for song is canticum from which we get the word Canticles, another title for this book. Some English translations have kept the title "Song of Songs" (e.g., NIV, TNIV), but many have changed it to "Song of Solomon" based on Son_1:1 (e.g., NASB, AV, RSV, NKJV).

WRITER AND DATE

Many references to Solomon throughout the book confirm the claim of Son_1:1 that Solomon wrote this book (cf. Son_1:4-5; Son_1:12; Son_3:7; Son_3:9; Son_3:11; Son_6:12; Son_7:5; Son_8:11-12; 1Ki_4:33). He reigned between 971 and 931 B.C. Richard Hess believed the writer is unknown and could have been anyone, even a woman, and that the female heroine viewed and described her lover as a king, as a Solomon. [Note: Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs, pp. 34-35, 39, 50, 53, 67.]

How could Solomon, who had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1Ki_11:3), be the same faithful lover this book presents? He could be if he became polygamous after the events in this book took place. That seems a more likely explanation than that he was polygamous when these events occurred but just omitted reference to his other loves. Probably he wrote the book before he became polygamous. We do not know how old Solomon was when he married the second time. The history recorded in Kings and Chronicles is not in strict chronological order. The Shulammite was probably not Pharaoh’s daughter in view of references in the book (1Ki_3:1; cf. Son_4:8). One writer contended that she was Pharaoh’s daughter. [Note: Victor Sasson, "King Solomon and the Dark Lady in the Song of Songs," Vetus Testamentum 39:4 (October 1989):407-14.] Another view is that "Shulammite" is simply the feminine form of the name "Solomon." [Note: Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs, p. 192.]

GENRE AND INTERPRETATION

This book has received more varied interpretations than perhaps any other book in the Bible. [Note: H. H. Rowley, "The Interpretation of the Song of Songs," in The Servant of the Lord, p. 197; Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, pp. 3, 4.] Some writers believed it presents the reader with the "greatest hermeneutical challenge" in the Old Testament. [Note: Andre LaCocque, Romance, She Wrote: A Hermeneutical Essay on Song of Songs, p. xi.] One excellent exegete called it "the most obscure book of the Old Testament." [Note: Delitzsch, p. 1.]

"Among the books of the Bible, the Song of Solomon is one of the smallest, most difficult, yet one of the most popular with both Jews and Christians. Over the centuries hundreds of books and commentaries have been written and unnumbered sermons preached on these 117 verses." [Note: G. Lloyd Carr, The Song of Solomon, p. 15.]

Bible students have understood the Song of Solomon as an allegory, an extended type, a drama with either two or three main characters, or a collection of wedding songs. Others have thought it is a collection of pagan fertility cult liturgies or an anthology of songs extolling love, to name only the most common interpretations. [Note: See Dennis F. Kinlaw, "Song of Songs," in Psalms-Song of Songs, vol. 5 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, pp. 1202-5; J. Paul Tanner, "The History of Interpretation of the Song of Songs," Bibliotheca Sacra 154:613 (January-March 1997):23-46; Greg W. Parsons, "Guidelines for Understanding and Utilizing the Song of Songs," Bibliotheca Sacra 156:624 (October-December 1999):399-422; Gordon H. Johnston, "The Enigmatic Genre and Structure of the Song of Songs, Part 2" Bibliotheca Sacra 166:662 (April-June 2009):163-80; and especially Paige Patterson, Song of Solomon, pp. 17-27, for brief but helpful discussions of approaches to interpretation.] Quite clearly it is at least a love poem [Note: J. Cheryl Exum, Song of Songs: A Commentary, p. 1.] or a collection of love poems. [Note: Gordon H. Johnston, "The Enigmatic Genre and Structure of the Song of Songs, Part 3," Bibliotheca Sacra 166:663 (July-September 2009):289-305; Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 292-93.]

"Although the Song is not an allegory, it may be admitted that it lends itself to allegorical interpretation." [Note: Exum, p. 77.]

Those who interpret the book allegorically-the majority of interpreters do-believe that what the writer said is only a symbolic husk for a deeper spiritual meaning that the reader must discover. Jewish interpreters took this deeper revelation to be God’s love for Israel. Christian scholars have frequently seen it as Christ’s love for the church. However, the text itself does not indicate that we should interpret this book differently than any other Bible book. [Note: See Parsons, p. 402; and Longman and Dillard, pp. 293-97.]

"All things are possible to those who allegorize-and what they come up with is usually heretical." [Note: Warren W. Wiersbe, "Song of Solomon," in The Bible Exposition Commentary/Wisdom and Poetry, p. 542.]

Another interpretive issue is whether the main characters were real people or composite figures, types of lovers rather than specific individuals. The book presents them as real people, and even most of those who view them as types admit that the characters "seem to take on distinct personalities as we get to know them." [Note: Exum, p. 8.] It has seemed to many interpreters, including me, that the book presents the Shulammite and Solomon as real people.

Most conservative interpreters who view the book as an extended type believe the events recorded really took place, in contrast to the allegorical interpreters, but their primary significance lies in their illustrative value. [Note: E.g., J. Hudson Taylor, Union and Communion; and Andrew Miller, Meditations on the Song of Solomon.]

"The shepherd is a picture of Christ, that great Shepherd of the sheep. The Shulamite mirrors the Church or the individual believer devoted to Him. Solomon represents the prince of this world armed with all worldly pomp, power, and magnificence. The court women are those who admire him and who look askance at those who turn their backs upon the world, its system, and all that it has to offer in favor of an absent and, to them, unknown Beloved." [Note: John Phillips, Exploring the Song of Solomon, p. 9.]

The basic teaching such Christian interpreters see is Christ’s love for the church. Yet again the text itself does not indicate that this book requires a different interpretation than the other books of the Bible.

"This view differs from the allegorical in that it tries to do justice to the actual language of the Song without seeking a special meaning in every phrase, as the allegorical view does." [Note: Sierd Woudstra, "The Song of Solomon," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 595.]

A careful analysis of the text has convinced most scholars that the Song of Solomon was not a Hebrew drama, [Note: See Parsons, pp. 403-4.] though some have defended this view. [Note: E.g., Delitzsch, p. 9; and Marvin Pope, Song of Songs.] There is no evidence that the Hebrews had dramas of this type in Solomon’s day. [Note: G. Lloyd Carr, "Is the Song of Songs a ’Sacred Marriage’ Drama?" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22:2 (June 1979):103-114.] One writer believed in form the book is a drama, and in genre it is most likely an analogy, "an earthly model of heavenly love." [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, in The Old Testament Explorer, pp. 511, 512-13.]

Some interpreters believe three main characters are in view, namely, Solomon, the Shulammite girl, and her shepherd lover. [Note: E.g., F. Godet, "The Interpretation of the Song of Songs," in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, pp. 151-75; W. Graham Scroggie, Know Your Bible, 1:119; Phillips, p. 8; et al.] However, what some scholars have attributed to the shepherd lover can just as easily refer to Solomon. It was not uncommon in ancient Near Eastern literature to refer to kings as shepherds since they served a pastoral function in relation to their people. Furthermore, many of them did own many flocks (cf. Son_2:7).

Probably the Song of Solomon was a single love poem made up of several strophes (segments) that the writer designed to deal primarily with the subject of human love and marriage. This was the viewpoint of many ancient Jewish rabbis. [Note: See David A. Hubbard, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, p. 256.] This is also the conclusion most conservative commentators have come to who have sought to interpret this book in the same way they interpret other Bible books (i.e., literally, historically, and grammatically). It is also the conclusion of some liberal scholars who have analyzed the structure of the book. [Note: E.g., J. Cheryl Exum, "A Literary and Structural Analysis of the Song of Songs," Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 85 (1973):47-79; and William Shea, "The Chiastic Structure of the Song of Songs," Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92 (1980):378-96. See Gordon H. Johnston, "The Enigmatic Genre and Structure of the Song of Songs, Part 1," Bibliotheca Sacra 166:661 (January-March 2009):36-52, for further discussion of the genre and structure of the Song.] Love is an important subject of special revelation, and human love in particular is a central feature of it as well (cf. Lev_19:18; Mat_22:36-39; Joh_13:34-35). Consequently it should not seem incredible that God gave us this book to help us understand this subject better. [Note: For a summary of the doctrine of man in the Song of Solomon, see Roy B. Zuck, "A Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Songs," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 254-55. For a study of "love," see Carr, The Song . . ., pp. 60-63.]

However, it seems clear that this book also has spiritual value, specifically to clarify divine-human love. [Note: Hess, in his commentary, included a section of theological implications after his interpretation of each canticle.]

". . . it is widely acknowledged that the Bible is a book of faith and theology, and there is no place in the canon for atheological literature. . . .

"The literal approaches of Dillow, Glickman, and others are much more faithful to the intent of the book [than other approaches]. The limitations of these strictly literal approaches are the tendency to see sexuality as a more prominent feature of the Song than is justified by the text and the propensity to overreact to the absurdities of the allegorical method to the extent of missing justifiable [spiritual] analogy." [Note: Patterson, p. 25.]

"The Song fills a necessary vacuum in the Scriptures because it endorses sex and celebrates it beyond all expectation. Although abuse is possible and to be avoided, sex is not inherently evil, nor is it limited to a procreative function. Instead, sex enables an experience of love whose intensity has no parallel in this cosmos and serves as a signpost to point to the greater love that lies beyond it." [Note: Hess, p. 35.]

Evidence of unity within the book argues against its being only a collection of poems that had general similarity to one another that the writer later assembled into one song. [Note: Robert Gordis, The Songs of Songs and Lamentations, among others advocated this collection of love songs view. For a fuller discussion of the complex history of the interpretation of this book, see S. Craig Glickman, A Song for Lovers, pp. 173-88. The Bible encyclopedias and the Old Testament Introductions also have information on this subject. See also other sources listed in the bibliography of these notes.]

PURPOSE

Probably God’s primary purpose in inspiring this book of the Bible was to give us revelation concerning the way love between a man and a woman should look. [Note: See Robert B. Laurin, "The Life of True Love: The Song of Songs and Its Modern Message," Christianity Today, August 3, 1962, pp. 10-11; ] The characters in the book usually behave toward one another the way men and women in love should conduct themselves in attitudes and activities.

"Solomon was a man of many lovers, and the Song of Songs is a record of one of the relationships that stood out above all others. . . .

"The Song of Songs hearkens back to God’s prototypical design in the Garden of Eden of one man and one woman, in marriage, a relationship God designed to be mutually exclusive. This book, then, presents a most relevant and urgent message for today." [Note: J. Paul Tanner, "The Message of the Song of Songs," Bibliotheca Sacra 154:614 (April-June 1997):160, 161.]

"The prospect of children is not necessary to justify sexual love in marriage. Significantly, the Song of Solomon makes no reference to procreation. It must be remembered that the book was written in a world where a high premium was placed on offspring and a woman’s worth was often measured in terms of the number of her children. Sex was often seen with reference to procreation; yet there is not a trace of that here. The song is a song in praise of love for love’s sake and for love’s sake alone. This relationship needs no justification beyond itself." [Note: Kinlaw, p. 1207.]

The love relationship between a man and a woman is an illustration of the love relationship within the Godhead and between God and Israel and between Christ and the church (cf. Hos_3:1; Eph_5:32). Therefore part of the purpose of this book seems to be the revelation of those more basic love relationships for application by the reader.

"The purpose of the book . . . is to describe and extol human marital love. . . . The love that exists between them also portrays love at the higher and more perfect level, that between God and the objects of His grace." [Note: Merrill, p. 512.]

"The use of the marriage metaphor to describe the relationship of God to his people is almost universal in Scripture. . . .

"Human love is thus a good pedagogical device to cast light on divine love." [Note: Kinlaw, p. 1208. See also Longman and Dillard, p. 300.]

"In creating man-male and female-in his own image and joining them together so that they become one flesh, God makes us copies both of himself in his trinitarian unity and distinction as one God and three persons and of himself in relation to the people of his gracious election. Analogically, what is between Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and what ought to be and is and shall be between God and Israel and Christ and the Church, is also what is meant to be in the relation of man and woman and more specifically of husband and wife. Neither the intratrinitarian relationship nor the union between the heavenly bridegroom and his bride is a good copy of a bad original. Earthly marriage as it is now lived out is a bad copy of a good original." [Note: Geoffrey W. Bromiley, God and Marriage, p. 77.]

"There is something proleptic and eschatological in human passion. We deal with symbols that image eternal realities here. Little wonder that this little book is in the canon." [Note: Kinlaw, p. 1209.]

CANONICITY

There have been three primary reasons that some scholars have thought this book does not deserve to be in the Bible. First, it does not contain the name of God. However, God’s name may appear in Son_8:6. Furthermore, what makes a book theological or religious is not just the presence of the divine name. God’s name does not appear in the books of Esther or Ecclesiastes either.

Second, the presence of frank language describing physical intimacies seems inappropriate in the Bible to some people. Yet the Bible presents marriage as sacred, including its physical aspects.

Third, the difficulty of interpretation has caused some readers to reject it as non-canonical. This criticism fails to recognize that finite and fallen human beings may not easily comprehend the revelations of an infinite and omniscient God.

"Like other portions of the Word of God, this book has its difficulties. But so have all the works of God. Is not the fact that they surpass our unaided powers of comprehension and research a ’sign-manual’ of divinity? Can feeble man expect to grasp divine power, or to understand and interpret the works or the providences of the All-wise? And if not, is it surprising that His Word also needs superhuman wisdom for its interpretation? Thanks be to God, the illumination of the Holy Ghost is promised to all who seek for it: what more can we desire?" [Note: Taylor, p. 2.]

TEXT

The Hebrew text of the Song is sound, but the book is very difficult to translate. Words that occur only in this book (hapax legomena) comprise 9.2 percent of its vocabulary, and 11.3 percent of the words are unique to this book. [Note: Exum, Song of . . ., p. 29. Longman, pp. 1-70, provided good discussion of many introductory subjects.]

OUTLINE

I.    The superscription Son_1:1

II.    The courtship Son_1:2 to Son_3:5

A.    The beginning of love Son_1:2-11

1.    Longing for the boyfriend Son_1:2-4

2.    The girl’s insecurity Son_1:5-8

3.    Solomon’s praise Son_1:9-11

B.    The growth of love Son_1:12 to Son_3:5

1.    Mutual admiration Son_1:12 to Son_2:7

2.    Increased longing Son_2:8-17

3.    The pain of separation Son_3:1-5

III.    The wedding Son_3:6 to Son_5:1

A.    The procession Son_3:6-11

B.    The consummation Son_4:1 to Son_5:1

1.    The bride’s beauty Son_4:1-7

2.    The groom’s request Son_4:8

3.    The bride’s love Son_4:9-11

4.    The bride’s purity Son_4:12-15

5.    The bride’s surrender Son_4:16 to Son_5:1

IV.    The maturing process Son_5:2 to Son_8:4

A.    The problem of apathy Son_5:2 to Son_6:13

1.    Indifference and withdrawal Son_5:2-8

2.    Renewed affection Son_5:9-16

3.    Steps toward reconciliation Son_6:1-3

4.    Restoration of intimacy Son_6:4-13

B.    Communicating affection Son_7:1-10

1.    The wife’s charms Son_7:1-6

2.    The husband’s desires Son_7:7-9

3.    The ultimate unity Son_7:10

C.    The wife’s initiative Son_7:11-13

D.    Increased intimacy Son_8:1-4

V.    The conclusion Son_8:5-7

VI.    The epilogue Son_8:8-14

A.    The past Son_8:8-12

B.    The present Son_8:13-14

Conclusion

The primary purpose of the book seems to be to present an example of the proper pre-marital, marital, and post-marital relationship of a man and a woman. This example includes illustrations of the solutions to common problems that couples face in these phases of their relationship.

The book reveals several facts about sex. Sex is a proper part of marital love, but we should reserve it for marriage (Son_2:7; Son_3:5), and we should practice it only with our marriage partner (Son_6:3; Son_7:10; Son_8:12; cf. Gen_2:24).

In a day when the "sexual revolution" has led multitudes of people away from God’s revelation concerning what is best in this area of our lives, we need to expound this book. It can be very helpful if we explain it tastefully in public and use it as a private guide for marriage preparation and enrichment. [Note: Tom Nelson’s series of sermons "Love Song: From Attraction to Faithfulness" is one example of effective popular exposition of the book, though he makes few applications to the believer’s relationship with Christ. For guidelines for utilizing the Song of Solomon, see Hubbard, pp. 260-61; and Parsons, pp. 419-22.]

"In a world awash with the debris of broken homes, crushed spirits, and fractured dreams, God’s people need the message of the Song of Solomon as never before. The Song is a righteous antidote to a licentious society that has prostituted the sacred nature of human love. Hope exudes from its pages. If ever a book was written with a message more salient for a later generation, Solomon’s ode is that book." [Note: Patterson, p. 9.]

 

Hebrew poetry generally contains many figures of speech, and the Song of Solomon in particular contains an unusually large number of them. It is therefore often difficult to know whether we should interpret a particular statement literally or whether it is a poetic description of something else. These judgments require skill in interpretation.

"In no other book of the Hebrew Bible does the imagery figure so prominently as it does in the Song of Songs." [Note: Carol Meyers, "Gender Imagery in the Song of Songs," Hebrew Annual Review 10 (1986):209.]

As we continue to read the text and the comments of others who have studied it, we need to ask God to open our minds so that we will understand the Scriptures (Luk_24:45). Biblical interpretation is an art that any Christian can perfect, though it requires much practice as well as divine enablement.

Bibliography

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