The Song of Solomon, first and foremost, is a hymn, a beautiful hymn of praise with two young lovers extolling the beauty of each other, and married intimacy. Old Testament scholar, theologian, professor, and author Tremper Longman describes this exquisite poem as ‘The Song ( of ) a lover and his beloved rejoicing in each other's sexuality in a garden. They feel no shame. The Song is as the story of sexuality redeemed.‘ This is likely one of the most apt descriptions of this book, but it also seems to fall somewhat short of demystifying this almost enigmatic book, a book which has a host of commentary about it.
Solomon’s ‘Song of Songs’ tells a story of the love of two lovers, their meetings, aspirations, and finally consummation. Though this is such a story, it does not stand alone. As part of the greater story of Scripture, the ‘meta-narrative’, you might say, the history of Yahweh’s dealings in love with His people, this book must be understood thusly. Firstly, we must understand that, not only is this poetry, it is ancient Near Eastern poetry, written about two young lovers ( a concept with which we are very familiar ) in a land and culture very different from ours, and in a time and language very foreign to us.
As I already said, there has been a host of commentary written about this marvelous little book ( only 8 short chapters ), ranging all over the theological and interpretive spectrum, from a very literal explanation of its explicit nature, to an allegory of the love between the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, and His Church. Many scholars, even from ancient times, have given an allegorical interpretation of this poem, while others think it does harm to the story itself to do so, but, when you think about it, as part of a greater story, though this is ascertainably a historical account, it has an allegorical aspect to it, for it is not just a poem of two young lovers, but it is an encapsulated history of God’s people, Israel..
In the first few verses can be found allusions to the oil of anointing, and while more could doubt doubtless be found pertaining to a cultural connection here; it is plain to see that this poem is not only relating the story of two young lovers, but is telling us part of a greater story, and relaying a deeper spiritual truth!
The whole poem centers, like all of Scripture, especially the Genesis, around a Garden theme, and in particular, the vineyard. One interesting note we might make here, is that, while in verse 6 of chapter 1, the Shulamite laments, ‘I haven’t kept my own vineyard’, but later, in verse 12 of chapter 8, she elates, ‘My own vineyard is before me’, for, said she, ‘I was in his eyes like one who found peace’.
‘The ‘eyes’ have it!’
The Lover, assumedly Solomon, in verse 15 of chapter 1, and again in 2:14, 4:1, 5:2, and 6:9, makes reference to his beloved as a dove, and often recites that ‘Your eyes are doves.’ In His sight, we have peace. Even in this day and age, men still refer to her in whom they have found peace, their ‘dove’. The beloved even, in verse 12 of chapter 5, when extolling the physical attributes of her lover, recites, ‘His eyes are like doves’, while in chapter 6, verse 1, she asks him to avert his eyes, ‘for they have overcome me’.
It has been said that ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’, and this is very true. It is easy to express one’s love with the lips and not really mean it, but it is hard to lie with the eyes!
Apples, Raisins and Figs
Some who have made commentaries on this wonderful little book have mentioned that, while in our culture, we are not used to mentioning our lovers in connection with fruits such as those mentioned above, this was quite common in that Eastern culture from which this document came.
The mention of the trees of the wood, or garden, may immediately take us back to the Garden which Yahweh typically prepared for His people. This garden theme, as mentioned earlier, runs throughout this book, or poem, like a scarlet thread, holding it together!
The Marriage-Hopes, Dreams, Aspirations-Consummation
As discussed briefly earlier, one must read this poem as simply one part of a greater story. This is the story, as some commentators have found, of the meeting, subsequent longing, and finally relief of two young people, in ancient Palestine, likely in the environs of Jerusalem, where Solomon was king, but, as a part of and contingent on, that greater story; a deeper meaning can be sought here, and found.
Beginning in chapter 3, and then again in chapter 5, the Shulamite experiences what some have referred to as ‘dream sequences’. In her first dream, the Shulamite maiden goes in search of her lover, finds him presently, and in the middle-eastern style ( Genesis 24:67 ), marries him. Presumably after this dream, she then notes something like a cloud, or pillar of smoke come from the wilderness. This should be reminiscent of the Pillar of cloud that led the children of Israel through the desert, as discussed in my commentary on Exodus.
The dream in chapter 5, however, had a somewhat different and likely prophetic outcome. In this dream, the lover seeks entrance to his beloved’s most intimate chambers, but the beloved hesitates and the lover is gone. When she seeks, as before, for her lover, several unusual things occur that had not before; she is beaten, bruised (molested ) by those whom she sought help from, and through another set of occurrences, this time more friendly, she finds that he has returned to his garden, most likely to patiently await her.
Between these two ‘sequences’, though; something of interest has occurred. The lover seems to lament that his beloved is ‘a locked up garden…..a locked up spring, a sealed fountain’, though he still delights in the fact that she is ‘a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, flowing streams from Lebanon’. Upon this almost lamentably and seemingly erotic statement of frustrated sexual love, the second dream occurs, and the beloved seems to be somewhat sobered, though her love has obviously not abated.
As the Shulamite, somewhat confused by this course of events, wanders off to her own vineyard and garden ( 6:11 ), she is ensnared, for whatever reason, and is asked to return ( sound familiar ). At this point, the lover speaks up with his own words of ensnarement ( Hosea 2:14 ), and captivates her heart, once again!
Beginning in chapter 8, verse 6; the author seems to launch into a bit of a tirade, having learned from experience that ‘love is strong as death’, and ‘jealousy is as cruel as Sheol’. He next seems to continue with a bit of a wisdom discourse, and realizes that ‘If a man would give all the wealth of his house for love, he would be utterly scorned’. True love, that which Solomon seemed to have found, and that which we have with our Lover, our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, truly is, as our Lord Himself tells in Matthew 13:45 & 46, ‘a pearl of great price’!
In conclusion, then, when the ‘friends’ of the Shulamite speak lamentably ( even scornfully? ) of their little sister , who ‘has no breasts’, we might think of the several passages in the latter prophets ( Jeremiah 3:7-10, Ezekiel 16:44-59 ) in which Yahweh speaks of a certain ‘sister’ like this!
Finally; one cannot stress enough that this book must not, cannot, and will not stand alone! It is part of a greater, more sacred ( is there anything more sacred than marriage? ) love story, the story of Yahweh’s love for His people, His own creation, His ‘precious’!
For the sake of The Story,
Charles Haddon Shank
For the sake of The Story,
Charles Haddon Shank