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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Song of Songs

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SONG OF SONGS (or CANTICLES)

1. Place in the Canon, interpretation, structure . ( a ) The Song of Songs is one of the Kethûbîm, Hagiographa , or Writings, the third of the three classes into which the Jewish Canon was divided. Printed copies of the Heb. OT follow the arrangement of the German and French MSS in placing it at the head of the five Megillôth or Rolls the short books which are read at the great annual solemnities of Passover, Pentecost, the 9th Ab, Feast of Booths, Purim. Probably it owes its premier position to the fact that Passover is the earliest festival of the year. But there is reason for believing that a more ancient order survives in the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] , where it stands by the side of Prov. and Eccles., the two other works to which Solomon’s name was attached.

Grave doubts were long entertained by the Rabbis respecting the canonicity of Canticles (a common name of the book, from Vulg. [Note: Vulgate.] Canticum Canticorum ).

The Synod of Jamnia (a.d. 90 100), after some discussion, decided in favour of its reception, and Rabbi Akiba († a.d. 135) lent to this conclusion the weight of his great influence: ‘All the Hagiographa are holy, but the Song of Songs is the most holy, and the whole world is not of such importance as the day in which it was given.’ The opening words of the Targum are equally strong: ‘Songs and praises which Solomon the prophet, the king of Israel, spake by the Holy Spirit before Jahweh, the Lord of the whole world. Ten songs were sung in that day, but this song was more to be praised than they all.’ The Midrash asserts that ‘Canticles is the most excellent of songs, dedicated to Him who one day will cause the Holy Ghost to rest on us; it is that song in which God praises us and we Him.’

( b ) It was evidently admitted into the OT because it was supposed to treat of a religious theme. This is implied by its title in the Syriac Version: ‘Wisdom of Wisdoms, which is Solomon’s: the book which is called in Hebrew Shirath Shirim ( i.e. “Song of Songs”).’ The theme was supposed to be the reciprocal love of Jahweh and Israel, and the story of that love in the history of the Chosen People. This was here enshrined in an allegory somewhat analogous to Hosea 1:1-11; Hosea 2:1-23; Hosea 3:1-5 and Ezekiel 16:1-63 . The Church adopted this line of interpretation from the Synagogue: Christ is the bridegroom, the Church or the soul is the bride.

The rubrics prefixed to many verses in Cod. Amiatinus of the Vulgate illustrate the manner in which this was worked out:’ ‘Voice of the Synagogue,’ ‘Voice of the Church,’ ‘Voice of Christ,’ ‘Voice of Mary Magdalene to the Church,’ ‘Christ calls together the nations.’ To some writers the Virgin Mary was the bride, and Canticles told the story of the incarnation. Luther read here Solomon’s thanksgivings for the blessings bestowed on his kingdom. The school of allegorists has lost ground considerably in modern times, but is not yet extinct. There were, however, almost from the beginning, exegetes who saw that the subject really treated of in Ca. is the mutual love of man and woman. In the early Church the great name of Theodore of Mopsuestia stands out on this side, and among the Jews that of Ibn Ezra. Castellio was driven out of Geneva by Calvin for asserting it, and Luis de Leon was thrown into prison by the Inquisition for the same cause.

( c ) The question of form is closely connected with that of subject. Origen was the first to point out its affinity to the drama , but the earliest attempt to work this out thoroughly was made as late as 1722 by a German, G. Wachter. He has found many followers. Solomon and a country maiden were supposed to be the two leading characters. He married her, and his love for her led him to adopt a simpler mode of life. But is there not a third important character in the play? Later students answered in the affirmative. The revised explanation was that Solomon carried off ‘ the Shulammite ’ to his harem, and, abetted by the women already there, the ‘daughters of Jerusalem,’ sought to divert her affections from her shepherd-lover: failing in this, he at last magnanimously resigned her to the shepherd. Leaving aside all detailed objections, the consideration which is fatal to these and all conceivable forms of the theory is that the drama has no place in Semitic literature. If Ca. had been an exception to the rule, how is it that there is not a single stage-direction, not a note of any kind to identify the speaker or regulate the action?

Certain important MSS of the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] show how keenly this defect was felt; to each longer or shorter section they prefix ‘The Bridegroom,’ ‘The Bride,’ ‘A second time the Bride adjures the maidens,’ or the like, and one MS (23) runs to the following length, before Song of Solomon 5:7 , ‘Not having found the bridegroom, the bride went out, and, as one found by the city-watchmen in the night, she is wounded and the keepers of the wall take her veil.’

And how is it that there is, within the poem itself, no movement towards a climax, no knot united or cut, no dénouement? Matters are as far advanced at Song of Solomon 1:4; Song of Solomon 2:4 as at Song of Solomon 8:5 .

Even during the period when the drama-theory was most vigorously maintained, some distinguished scholars held that Ca. is made up of a number of originally detached pieces, which were eventually brought together because they all treat of Love. Wetzstein’s Die Syrische Dreschtafet (1873) furnished a strong reinforcement of this opinion. He had observed, whilst resident in Syria, that the peasant bridegroom and bride are entitled king and queen for the first week of married life [a contemporary Arabic epithalamium has since then been cited ( ZATW [Note: ATW Zeitschrift far die Alttest. Wissenschaft.] xxiv. p. 42) in which the man actually bears the name of the reigning Sultan, Abd il-Hamîd]; they are attended by a vizier, have their throne on the threshing-floor, and receive the homage of the whole countryside. Songs and dances are executed by the ‘friends of the bridegroom,’ the bystanders, and the newly married pair. Some of these ditties, especially those which enumerate the charms of the bride, ate of exactly the same character as certain sections of Canticles, and Song of Solomon 7:1 ff. corresponds precisely with the wasf (‘description’) which the bride sings as she goes through the sword-dance on the wedding night. These facts have induced a large number of expositors to believe that Ca. is a collection of love-songs, composed expressly for, or at any rate suitable for use at, marriage festivals.

Budde, who strongly advocates this view, admits that the book is not without marks of unity, but holds that these are sufficiently accounted for on the supposition that all these folk-songs originated in a single district and period. Haupt entirely rejects the idea of a unity, and, looking on the book in its present state as a disorganized mass, re-arranges it into twelve poems. The extent to which he carries the liberty of re-casting may be seen in his No. 3, ‘Brothers of the Bride,’ which is made up of Song of Solomon 6:3 , Song of Solomon 7:11 , Song of Solomon 2:1 , Song of Solomon 1:5-6 , Song of Solomon 8:8-10 , Song of Solomon 8:1-2 . Even Budde’s less drastic treatment ecarcely does justice to the tokens of plan and unity which the book presents. The recurrence of certain phrases ( Song of Solomon 2:7 , Song of Solomon 3:6 , Song of Solomon 8:4; Song of Solomon 2:17 , Song of Solomon 4:6 , Song of Solomon 8:14 ) is meant to indicate connexions and transitions of thought, and there is no overwhelming reason against our ascribing them to the original writer.

The sentiments and the style are so similar throughout as to justify our thinking of a single author who composed erotic and nuptial pieces for several occasions, and afterwards wove them into a garland of verse (cf. Song of Solomon 2:5 , Song of Solomon 5:8; Song of Solomon 1:16 , Song of Solomon 4:1; Song of Solomon 4:2 , Song of Solomon 6:6; Song of Solomon 2:16 , Song of Solomon 6:3; Song of Solomon 6:4 , Song of Solomon 6:10; Song of Solomon 2:9 , Song of Solomon 8:14 ). A few of the smaller parts have probably been removed from their intended place, and it hardly admits of doubt that Song of Solomon 4:8 is a belated fragment, unintelligible where it now stands. But when we remember the apparent irrelevance of the occasional verses sung in Palestine to-day, we shall be slow to deny that the singers and auditors of Ca. grasped allusions and perceived a fitness which we fail to apprehend. And in studying the song from this point of view it is well to bear in mind the facts collected by Dalman ( Paläst. Divan , p. xii.). He points out that the wasf is not limited to wedding festivities, but is sung by the tent-fire, in the village inn, in the coffee-house where townsmen gather at night; that it is usually brief when descriptive of the beauty of bride or bridegroom; that in Palestine itself however true Wetzstein’s account of Damascus and the Hauran there are but scanty traces of the temporary royalty of the bridal pair, and none of the threshing-sledge throne.

2. Contents . These fall into what we may call seven cantos. I. ( Song of Solomon 1:2 to Song of Solomon 2:7 ): in Song of Solomon 1:2-4 the bride declares her affection; In Song of Solomon 1:6 f. deprecates unfavourable criticism; in Song of Solomon 1:7 f. inquires for her beloved. In Song of Solomon 1:9 to Song of Solomon 2:8 we have their praise of each other; in Song of Solomon 2:4-7 her experience of love. II. ( Song of Solomon 2:8 to Song of Solomon 2:17 ): Song of Solomon 2:8-14 a spring visit, Song of Solomon 2:16 the foxes, Song of Solomon 2:16 f. close of the canto. III. ( Song of Solomon 3:1 to Song of Solomon 3:11 ): Song of Solomon 3:1-5 a dream, Song of Solomon 3:6-11 interlude. IV. ( Song of Solomon 4:1 to Song of Solomon 5:1 ): in Song of Solomon 4:1-7 he sets forth her charms; Song of Solomon 4:8 a fragment, Song of Solomon 4:9-11 his ecstasy of love, Song of Solomon 4:12 to Song of Solomon 5:1 a ‘garden.’ V. ( Song of Solomon 5:2 to Song of Solomon 6:9 ): Song of Solomon 5:2-8 a dream, Song of Solomon 5:8 to Song of Solomon 6:8 wasf sung by bride; Song of Solomon 5:4-9 his praise of her. VI. ( Song of Solomon 6:10 to Song of Solomon 8:4 ): Song of Solomon 6:10 inquiry by women, Song of Solomon 6:11 f. her rapture, Song of Solomon 6:13 to Song of Solomon 7:10 wasf sung during sword-dance (‘dance of camps,’ Song of Solomon 7:1 ), Song of Solomon 7:11 to Song of Solomon 8:4 songs of the bride. VII. ( Song of Solomon 8:5-14 ): Song of Solomon 8:6 a reminiscence, Song of Solomon 8:6 f. the power of love, Song of Solomon 8:8-10 the solicitude of the brothers, Song of Solomon 8:11 f. an apologue, Song of Solomon 8:13 f. conclusion.

We cannot regret that these canticles of human love have been preserved for us in the OT. The mutual attraction of the sexes is Divinely ordained. The love which finds expression in Ca. Is regulated by marriage. The imagery is too luscious and the detail too complete for our taste, but they were produced by an Oriental for Orientals. More reticence does not necessarily mean more genuine purity. We should indeed have been glad to find some recognition of the loftier side of marriage, or something to remind us of Proverbs 31:1-31 . But the occasions for which these verses were composed and a comparison of the effusions which are still current on like occasions effectually disarm criticism. Dalman ( Pal. Divan , p. xiii.) remarks justly concerning the folk-songs which he has brought together: ‘The fact that the poems dwell only on the physical excellences of the beloved corresponds with the degree of civilization to which the Palestinian populace has attained. It does not follow that the Oriental ascribes no value to a woman’s excellences of disposition and character.’

3. Authorship and date . The title ( Song of Solomon 1:1 ), according to which Solomon was the poet, is entirely destitute of authority. Its late and artificial origin is betrayed by the absence of the full form of the relative pronoun, which occurs nowhere in the poems themselves. The ascription of the authorship to the famous king is due partly to his being mentioned in Song of Solomon 1:5 , Song of Solomon 8:12 ( Song of Solomon 3:7; Song of Solomon 3:11 are doubtful), and partly to his reputation as the typically wise man, the composer of songs a thousand and five ( 1 Kings 4:32 ). But the canonicity of the book would not have remained an open question until the 1st cent. of the Christian era if it had then been extant a thousand years as an acknowledged product of his hand. Moreover, the language in which it is written belongs to the very latest stratum of Biblical Hebrew. The exclusive use of the abbreviated pronoun occurs in no early document, and cannot be explained as a peculiarity of the northern dialect. And there is no proof that the writer was specially connected with the North; if he mentions Lebanon, Amana, Shenir, Hermon, Tirzah, he also knows En-gedi, Heshbon, the wilderness (of Judah), the ‘daughters of Jerusalem.’ Considering the brevity of the book, there is a very considerable number of words which are seldom or never found elsewhere, or are employed here in place of more common ones, or are to be seen only in late writings. One of them pardçs , is Zend; another, ’Ä•gôz , is Persian; ’appiryôn may be the Gr. phoreion; several are Aramaic. We should not look for these phenomena earlier than the period when Hebrew was yielding place to Aramaic, and if the exact age cannot be determined, the 3rd cent. b.c. is at least approximately correct.

4. Style . It would be a dull eye that should miss the beauty of these poems. The verse moves lightly and gracefully, the imagery is charming. Our poet was deeply susceptible to the loveliness of nature, and fully capable of appreciating the art of his time. He carries us with him into the open air, to the vineyards, the villages, the mountains. He is awake at daybreak, to inhale the scent of the forest trees, to gather the apples and the pomegranates, to listen to the tinkle of the rills. Flocks of wild pigeons, timid and swift gazelles, fields embroidered with lilies, the breath of spring all appeal to him. On the other hand, he is stirred by the pomp of a court, the magnificence of a royal litter, the glittering whiteness of an ivory tower, martial trophies, the rich attire of women, their jewels and perfumes. As a poem there is nothing else in the Bible to compare with this. Had it indeed been Solomon’s, it would have been, as the title asserts, his Song of Songs, the fine fleur of his poetry.

5. Text. This is not in a satisfactory state, but the critic should proceed with much caution. There are many passages where our view of the interpretation suggests alterations ( Song of Solomon 1:2; Song of Solomon 1:4; Song of Solomon 1:8-9; Song of Solomon 2:9; Song of Solomon 3:10; Song of Solomon 4:14; Song of Solomon 4:16; Song of Solomon 5:1; Song of Solomon 5:6; Song of Solomon 6:2; Song of Solomon 6:6; Song of Solomon 6:8; Song of Solomon 7:8; Song of Solomon 7:8; Song of Solomon 7:13 ), but it is obviously easy to allow ourselves too much licence. Bearing in mind what might be advanced on both sides, who shall determine whether Nergal is to be substituted for nidhgaloth (‘banners’) at Song of Solomon 6:10 ? The Versions, especially LXX [Note: Septuagint.] and Syr., supply a few better readings ( Song of Solomon 1:3-4; Song of Solomon 1:7; Song of Solomon 1:10 , Song of Solomon 2:17 , Song of Solomon 3:1; Song of Solomon 3:6; Song of Solomon 3:10 , Song of Solomon 4:8; Song of Solomon 4:12 , Song of Solomon 5:11; Song of Solomon 5:13 , Song of Solomon 6:6 , Song of Solomon 7:1 , Song of Solomon 8:2 ). There are obvious errors of transcription: nard should not follow nards ( Song of Solomon 4:13 f.). Emendations suggested by the metre deserve attention ( Song of Solomon 1:15 , Song of Solomon 3:9; Song of Solomon 3:11 , Song of Solomon 7:8 ), but this has been carried much too far, not only by Bickell, but also in Kittel’s edition of the Heb. Bible. Littmann ( ZATW [Note: ATW Zeitschrift far die Alttest. Wissenschaft.] xxiv. p. 43) pertinently remarks that in many of the popular Arabic poems which he has collected there is an absence of definite verse-measure, and considers that ‘in the OT also, verses of that kind, without definite metre, are at least possible.’ There has been also a little too much readiness to delete verses, sentences, or words, on the ground that they occur in other parts of the poem in more suitable contexts. Martineau would omit Song of Solomon 3:1-5 because of its resemblance to Song of Solomon 5:2 ff. We must not forget that catchwords and refrains are characteristic of this class of poetry.

J. Taylor.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Song of Songs'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/s/song-of-songs.html. 1909.

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