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Bible Commentaries
Song of Solomon

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Song of Solomon

by Charles John Ellicott


The Song of Solomon.



THE “Song of Songs”—from its Latin name, “canticum canticorum,” known generally as Canticles—holds, without question, the first place among the puzzles of literature. Such uncertainty attaches to its subject, its purpose, its authorship, and even its form, that it would have occupied in any literature a place similar to that of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in our own. Born on the sacred soil of Palestine, and appearing among the Holy Scriptures, it offers the greater difficulty of explaining its position. The history of the interpretation of the book from the earliest times has been a long apology to account for its place in the sacred Canon.

For from beginning to end there is not a single word in it which suggests any connection with religion. It presents itself as a page of secular literature that has become bound up with sacred. Of the rest of the Bible the forty-fifth Psalm is most naturally compared with it, since it has marriage for its theme, and is called in the inscription “A Song of Loves.” But there in the space of seven verses the name of God occurs four times. Here it is not found at all. The word “Jah” indeed appears in the Hebrew (Song of Solomon 8:6), but only in its proverbial use as an expression of greatness. The forty-fifth Psalm, on the contrary, though on a secular subject, is as deeply religious in tone as any of those destined for Temple use. In the true Hebrew spirit everything is made subordinate to the master feelings of loyalty to the God Jehovah and reliance upon Him. In the Song of Songs not a trace of this feeling shows itself. There is not a single religious or spiritual sentiment of any kind, nor is there even the most distant allusion to any sacred rite or ordinance whatever. It is. only by the cabalistic method of the Rabbis that reference to the Mosaic system can be forced into the book. The Law, the Temple, the Sacrifices, are unknown. There is not the faintest echo of the worship of the sanctuary. The priest and Levite are silent, and the voice of the prophet is not heard.

Yet the absence of direct religious allusion is not the only, is not the principal, distinction which sets the Canticles in contrast with other parts of the Old Testament. Rather it is the absence of the religious intention which everywhere else controls Hebrew poetry. The poem stands alone as an instance of what Hebrew poetic genius could do when released from the religious purpose. Nature is no longer, as in the rest of sacred song, the veil of the Divine, admired and loved as the vesture, the dwelling of the Most High. The breath of spring, the flowers of the valley, the woods and hills, are here loved for their own sake. The universe is not now filled with the angels of Jehovah, “fulfilling His word.” The winds blowing from the north or the south, the streams flowing from the mountains, the lightning flash, “all are but ministers of love, and feed his sacred flame” (Song of Solomon 4:15-16; Song of Solomon 8:6). The lessons of the lily, so dear to this poet, are not those of the Sermon on the Mount—it is to him only what the daisy was to Chaucer, a sweet emblem of the “truth of womanhede.” The grass is a verdant couch for him (Song of Solomon 1:16), not, as to the author of Psalms 104, a suggestion of a wide and beneficent providence, or, as to Isaiah, an emblem of human frailty. It is not because God has planted them that he recalls the cedars of Lebanon, nor because their majestic beauty humbles human pride, but because their branches form a shady bower for meetings with his love. Had we the whole literature of Palestine, doubtless there would be found among it many other specimens of poetry which in distinction from that which is directly religious in tone we call profane. Israel must have given birth to “bards of passion and of mirth.” Love and wine no doubt had their praises sung in the gathering of the vintage and at the harvest festivals. The strangeness lies in the fact of the admission of a specimen of amatory poetry into the sacred collection. How did the vigilance of those who watched the formation of the Canon allow it?

The allegorical and typical methods of interpretation which began with the Talmud, and have continued in favour till comparatively recent times, supply one answer to this question. Modern criticism for the most part substitutes a profound moral purpose for a concealed sacred meaning, as the raison d’être of the poem. This introduction will only set forth the plan and purpose of the book as it can be gathered, without hypothesis, from itself.

1. The subject of the book is the sentiment of love.
2. The language is like that of all love poetry, passionate, sensuous, voluptuous, in some cases with Oriental licence passing the bounds of the Western standards of sobriety and propriety.
3. The lovers whose mutual passion is sung are wedded. This is evident, not alone from the use of the word khallah—see note, Song of Solomon 4:8—which, though its common employment is to designate a wife, might possibly in the language of love be employed (as sister in the same verse) as a term of strong endearment, but by quite a sufficient number of indications which, combined, leave no doubt on the point. (1) The deliberations of the heroine’s family as to what shall be done with her when at a marriageable age are introduced in his own manner by the poet in one of the reminiscences of which the book is composed (Song of Solomon 8:8 seq., with note), and such a turn given as to show beyond question that she married the man of her choice. (2) There is impressed on the whole poem a feeling of the superiority of wedded love over concubinage, and of monogamy over polygamy. (3) The glowing pictures of Solomon’s marriage (Song of Solomon 3:6 seq.) are introduced evidently either as a foil, to set off the simpler yet greater happiness of the poet, or because this very marriage is the actual subject of the poem. (4) Lastly, the only class of literature with which the poem can be naturally compared is the epithalamium. Many points of analogy with compositions of this class are noticed in the notes, and the one conjecture which is almost irresistible is that first started by Bossuet, that it was actually composed for such a purpose, and was a specimen of a species of literature common in Palestine.

4. Certain obstacles that lay in the way of this union, and which constancy and devotion succeeded in surmounting, furnish the incidents of the piece.
5. There is a kind of unity in the book. The lovers are the same throughout, but the unity is of feeling, not of form. The poem has the appearance of a collection of scattered pieces. Certain marks of division are self-evident; e.g., at Song of Solomon 2:7; Song of Solomon 3:5; Song of Solomon 4:7; Song of Solomon 5:1, and Song of Solomon 8:4. No commentator makes less than five breaks.

6. The poem does not consist of one continuous narrative, nor exhibit a plot progressively developed, but the same story of courtship is repeated again and again in different forms, with the same conclusion.[23] In one case the actual form is repeated with expansions (comp. Song of Solomon 3:1 seq. with Song of Solomon 5:2 seq.). Descriptions, images, phrases, refrains, repeat themselves.

[23] This may seem an arbitrary assumption in the face of the attempts of so many eminent scholars to present the poem as a regular drama, but the unsatisfactory nature of all such attempts is a sufficient testimony to the fact that they have overlooked the plain indications given by the book itself.

7. The story is varied by the use of dialogue. Different speakers can be plainly recognised; e.g., a bridegroom in the character of a shepherd (whether real or assumed, as in so much pastoral poetry, is uncertain), a bride, the Shulamite, as a shepherdess, various maidens, the brothers of the bride. Others are conjectured, and the poem has frequently been arranged as a drama, with regular acts and scenes. All that is certain is that the author, as a matter of form, puts his sentiments into the mouth of different persons, instead of writing in his own person, and that his work is thoroughly dramatic in feeling.

These seven indications are clear and apparently beyond conjecture. Whether the writer had a concealed purpose beyond that of telling his story, whether it is his own passion which he paints so feelingly, or only an ideal representation of love, whether the scenes described are actual or imaginary, the characters historical or fictitious, all this will continue to be a matter of dispute; but it will never be questioned that there is in the Song of Solomon the delineation of a true and passionate love, a constancy tempted and tried, but triumphant over all obstacles, and proof against all seduction, “strong as death, inexorable as Hades,” and that the representation is given in verse of such exquisite melody and poetry of such blended sweetness and power, that it must, apart from all other merits, rank by these alone among the highest lyric attempts of the world.
But it has assumed a place far higher. Not only has it a place in the sacred canon, but it has, in the mystic sense attached to it, been regarded as the most sacred book there. Its first commentator, R. Akiba, who lived in the first century of our era, said of it, “The whole world is not worthy of the day in which this sublime song was given to Israel; for all the Scriptures are holy, but this sublime Song is most holy.” On the other hand, a recent commentator, E. Reuss (Le Cantique des Cantiques dit de Salomon, Paris, 1879), hesitates to include it in his commentary on the Bible, lest his readers should be shocked at a book so totally different from all the rest of Scripture, and conceived in a spirit, if not anti-religious, yet positively strange to all religious sentiments. It was no doubt the shock experienced by pious minds that first suggested the allegorical method of interpretation, which in spite of the uncompromising verdict of criticism will probably continue to keep its hold on the book. As Renan says, “the mystical sense is false philosophically, but it is true religiously. It corresponds to the great sanctification of love inaugurated by Christianity.” Association consecrates no less than dedication. Words, though in themselves indifferent, when set to sublime music partake of its inspiration. So the Canticles can never, under any interpretation, altogether lose the sacred power impressed upon them by generations of pious minds. But apart from an assumed religious character, the poem has its proper place in the Bible. The passion of love is ennobling according as it partakes of the moral sentiment. There have been writers on the Song who have been unable to discover any trace of this controlling influence, “but from beginning to end only marks of folly, vanity, and looseness” (Whiston). Such a view loses sight of the Eastern origin of the poem, and neglects the undoubted contrast displayed throughout between the meretricious manners of the harem and the purity of a constant passion, between the evils of polygamy and the blessings attending the unalterable attachment of two loving souls. It is not a taint of voluptuousness that can rob of its principal worth such a representation of love as culminates in the magnificent description in Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 of chapter 8, and this representation is alone enough to justify the admission of the Song into the Canon; for, in the language of Bunsen, “There would be something wanting in the Bible, if there was not found there an expression of the deepest and the strongest of all human feelings.”


THE title and Rabbinical tradition are in favour of the Solomonic Authorship. But the value of the evidence of the title is not greater than that of the titles of the Psalms, which need the confirmation of internal evidence before they are accepted as authority. Beyond this there is no external evidence whatever.

INTERNAL EVIDENCE:—I. For the Solomonic Authorship.

(1) The knowledge displayed of plants and animals, and other productions of nature, which is in accordance with 1 Kings 4:33.

(2) The evidence of wide acquaintance with foreign things, products of the East, &c, such as we know Solomon possessed; add to this the decidedly secular tone and feeling, a tone and feeling belonging only to this age.

(3) Similarity with certain parts of the Book of Proverbs. Comp. Song of Solomon 5:6, with Proverbs 1:28Song of Solomon 4:12, with Proverbs 5:15Song of Solomon 4:5, with Proverbs 5:19Song of Solomon 8:7, with Proverbs 6:34-35Song of Solomon 6:9, with Proverbs 31:28; also for analogies of diction comp. in the Hebrew, Song of Solomon 4:9, with Proverbs 1:9Song of Solomon 4:11, with Proverbs 5:3Song of Solomon 1:2, with Proverbs 27:6Song of Solomon 7:2, with Proverbs 25:12Song of Solomon 4:14, with Proverbs 7:17.

(4) The language is such as we should expect from the Solomonic age. It belongs to the flourishing period of the Hebrew tongue. Highly poetical, vigorous and fresh, it has no traces of the decay which manifested itself in the declining period of Israel and Judah. All the Aramean colouring it has can be explained by the hypothesis of a northern origin (see below).
No one of these indications is conclusive, and all together amount to no more than a strong probability in favour of a date not far removed from the Solomonic era. They certainly make against the extreme view of Grätz, who finding, as he thinks, in the book, a number of words of Greek origin, brings its date down to the third or second century before our era. Others, also on linguistic grounds, have referred it to the post-exile times.
II. The view most generally accepted at present is that the poem was the work of a poet in the northern kingdom, composed not long after the separation of the two kingdoms, probably about the middle of the tenth century before Christ.
The following are among the chief reasons for accepting such a view.

(1) In evidence of its northern birthplace, are the frequent and almost exclusive mention of localities in the north; the author’s strongly expressed dislike of the luxury and expense of Solomon’s court, which necessitated the exactions that so contributed to the schisms between the two kingdoms (1 Kings 12:4, seq.; 2 Chronicles 10:1, seq.); the entire absence of all allusions to the temple and its worship; the exaltation of Tirzah to an equal place with Jerusalem as a typo of beauty (6:4); dialectical peculiarities, which can only be accounted for on this hypothesis, or on the untenable one of an extremely late composition; the comparison with Hosea, undoubtedly a northern writer, which shows that the two authors “lived in the same circle of images, and that the same expressions were familiar to them” (Renan, Le Cantique des Cantiques, p. 112, referring to Hitzig, Das Hohelied, pp. 9, 10).

This fact of a northern origin established, it follows almost inevitably that the date of the poem must be placed somewhere in the middle of the tenth century, for it was only during the period from 975 to 924 B.C. that Tirzah occupied the position of northern capital (see Note ad loc.); and the whole tone and spirit of the book, together with its treatment of Solomon, is what we should expect at a time not far removed from the rupture of the two kingdoms. As yet tradition had not exaggerated the splendour of the Solomonic era: in the references to Solomon’s guard, his harem, and his arsenal, the figures are not extravagant, as in the comparatively late accounts in Kings and Chronicles. A crowd of smaller indications point the same way, e.g., the mention of Heshbon, which had ceased to be an Israelitish town by Isaiah’s time (Isaiah 15:8). The mention of the Tower of David, as still possessing a garrison (Song of Solomon 7:4, and Song of Solomon 4:4), the allusion to Pharaoh’s equipages have a similar tendency; while it is almost inconceivable that Solomon himself or any author, while that monarch was alive, and his rule all-powerful, could have represented him and his court in such an unfavourable light as they appear in the song. But it is exactly the representation we should look for in a poet of the northern kingdom in the early years after it revolted against the tyranny of the Davidic dynasty.


The dramatic feeling was not altogether strange to the Hebrews, as we see from the Book of Job, the sixty-third chapter of Isaiah the concluding chapters of Micah, and certain of the Psalms. And there is undoubtedly a great deal of the dramatic element in the “Song of Songs.” Two characters at least speak, a bride and a bridegroom, and as early as the Alexandrian codex of the LXX. translation the dramatic character was recognised, the words “bride” and “bridegroom” being in many instances prefixed to denote the persons speaking. Following out the suggestions thus given by the poem itself, a great many commentators have arranged it as a regular drama, and suppose that it may actually have been put on the stage, but this hypothesis can only be supported by a long succession of other hypotheses. M. Renan, for example, thinks that all the actors must have been present on the stage at once, but always unobservant of what was going on outside their own rôle. And in fact the almost infinite diversity of conjecture hazarded in support of the dramatic theory and the tremendous liberties taken with the text by its advocates go far to disprove it altogether. But it is not necessary, on the other hand, to have recourse to a theory like Herder’s, that the Song is a collection of different love-poems selected and arranged by Solomon. The pieces have a certain unity of subject and style. This is now generally admitted, but they are so loosely connected that they might easily be detached, and a new arrangement made without altering the sense and purpose. Indeed various suggestions of such alterations have at times been made.
The division we accept gives the following lyrical pieces, which we regard not, strictly speaking, as separate poems, but as stanzas of the same poem, somewhat loosely strung together, and not arranged after any definite artistic method.



Song of Solomon 1:2-8.


Song of Solomon 1:9 to Song of Solomon 2:7.


Song of Solomon 2:8-17.


Song of Solomon 3:1-5.


Song of Solomon 3:6-11.



Song of Solomon 4:1-7.


Song of Solomon 4:8-11.


Song of Solomon 4:12 to Song of Solomon 5:1.


Song of Solomon 5:2 to Song of Solomon 6:3.


Song of Solomon 6:4-9.


Song of Solomon 6:10-13.


Song of Solomon 7:1-10.


Song of Solomon 7:11 to Song of Solomon 8:4.


Song of Solomon 8:5-7.


Song of Solomon 8:8-10.


Song of Solomon 8:11-12.


Song of Solomon 8:13-14.

The break at the end of II., IV., and XIII. is marked by the formula, “I charge thee,” &c; at the end of III. and VI. by another formula, expressing the return of night, “until the day breaks,” &c, properly “until the day cools,” i.e., the evening. Similarly the emphatic declaration, “I am my beloved’s,” &c, which ends the pieces IX. and XII. An abrupt change of situation sometimes indicates the beginning of a new stanza, as at end of I., VI., and XIV., or a question marks a new departure, as at the beginning of V. and XI. Some of the pieces, as indicated by the brackets, are more closely related than others. But in every case, without exception, there is described, or at least implied, under figures transparent enough, the complete union of the wedded pair. In fact each piece has exactly, whether short or long, whether more or less elaborate, the same general character and dénoûment. Each tells from one or other point of view the story of a courtship, ending in the complete and happy union of the lovers. The book is a series of love-poems, written, or supposed to be written, by a husband for or to his own wife, to recall to her, in the midst of their perfect union, the difficulties their love had encountered, the obstacles thrown in its way, its devoted constancy on both sides, and ultimate conquest over every hindrance.

There is a further conjecture which the form of the poem suggests, it is that these love-poems, by whomsoever originally composed, were arranged and adapted for the celebration of marriages, since, as pointed out in the Notes, maidens and young men vie in praising, these the bridegroom’s beauty, those the bride’s. But whether arranged for any one particular marriage or to be used at such events generally, there is no indication. The daughters of Jerusalem and the friends of the bridegroom may actually have been introduced to sing these praises, or they may have only been present in fancy; we have no positive indication to guide us. Bossuet is really to be credited with this suggestion, though his division into seven portions to suit a period of seven days, the ordinary duration of an Eastern wedding, is somewhat too arbitrary. His conjecture in its general outline is accepted by Renan as well as by our own scholar Lowth; the former even finds confirmation of the Epithalamium hypothesis in the expression of Jeremiah 7:34; Jeremiah 25:10, “the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.” The analogy of modern Eastern weddings is a still stronger confirmation of this conjecture, that the Song was employed as an Epithalamium, if not composed in that character. It also helps to explain what else would seem extravagant in the poem and bordering on the licentious. The manners of many countries allow at weddings a relaxation of the ordinary rules of propriety. It was so in Palestine. “The evening feast was one of boisterous merriment, almost amounting to rioting. There were regular joke-makers; anything however false might be said of the bride, and to make the gravest Rabbi, even the President of the Sanhedrim, sing or dance, seemed a special object of delight” (“Marriage among the Ancient Hebrews,” by the Rev. Dr. Edersheim, Bible Educator, Vol. IV., p. 270). In the remarks on the Song of Songs, by Dr. J. J. Wetstein, given by Delitsch in an Appendix to his Commentary, many illustrations of the poem are adduced from modern Bedouin customs, among others, that of the Wasf, or a description of the personal perfections and beauty of the young couple, of which a specimen is actually given, very analogous in character and imagery to Song of Solomon 7:2-6. But it is not only the East which offers analogy. Love and its language are necessarily the same all the world over. Spenser’s famous Epithalamium helps us to understand the Song of Solomon.

As to the versification of the Song of Songs, it contains examples of almost all the different forms of parallelism, the name given to indicate that balance of clause against clause, either in regard to construction or sense, which constitutes the chief element of Hebrew rhythm. But the greater part of it is free even of the very lax rules which seem to have guided the poets of Israel. We may compare them to those irregular measures in which so many modern poets love to express their sweet and wayward fancies, in which the ear alone is the metrical law. Had the Song but the completeness given by rhyme, it would want no. thing of the richness of sound of the finest pieces of Tennyson’s Maud. (See Bible Educator, Vol. III., p. 48.)

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