Reading Song of Songs
OVERVIEW OF SONG OF SONGSSong of Songs is a unique biblical book. Without mention of God and written in marvelous poetry, full of evocative and vivid images, it is a celebration of sexual love-and marital fidelity-between a woman and a man. Although it may have originated as several separate love poems, its title, Song of Songs (singular), indicates that in its canonical form it is intended to be read as several episodes/scenes of one poem, thus a "narrative" only in the sense that such poetry is trying to create a picture.
Crucial for a good reading of the Song is to recognize that it comes to us basically in three voices: the woman, who plays the leading role throughout; the man, who especially celebrates the beauty of and his love for, the woman; and the woman's companions, called the "daughters of Jerusalem." (The NIV headings "Lover" [the man], "Beloved" [the woman], and "Friends" [the woman's companions] are not in the Hebrew text; they are an attempt to help you see when there is a change of speakers.) Other characters are present basically as helpful props (the shepherds, 1:7-8; the city watchmen, 3:3; 5:7; the woman's brothers, 1:6;8:8-9).
What is most difficult to determine is the role of Solomon. While it' is possible to read 3:6-11 as suggesting that the man in the poem is Solomon himself and that this paragraph presents him as the bridegroom, it is not necessary to hold this view to appreciate the message of the Song. Indeed there is little else that supports such a view, other; than the possibility that "Shulammite," the woman's title in 6:13, means something like "Mrs. Solomon." The superscription (1:1) is quite ambiguous in Hebrew, since the preposition I could be either possessive (as NIV) or a form of dedication to Solomon as the original commissioner of the Song for one of his weddings-but with the intention ; that it could be used to encourage pure love in any marriage. At the same time 3:6-11 is unique to the poem-a third-person description of a named person-and the allusion to his harem in 6:8 and 8:11-12 ; looks like an intentional contrast between Solomon's "vineyard" being let out to tenants (8:11) while the woman's "vineyard" is her own to give (8:12).
This ambiguity has created several different readings of the text; the ; one offered here assumes an intended contrast, suggesting that the Song was never intended to apply only to Solomon, but to make every married couple who share pure love each other's "king" and "queen." That ' is, the "Lover" in most of the Song is not specifically Solomon, who as, an oriental king might not invite love but take it as the privilege of position-and it is harder to imagine the primary role of the woman as taking place if she were part of his harem. On the other hand, such factors as the explicit association with Solomon and the proverbial nature of the conclusion (8:6-7) brought about its inclusion in the Jewish Wisdom tradition.
The constant shift of speakers and the richness of the poetry can make the structure difficult to discern. The clues seem to lie with some repeated refrains that conclude several of the scenes (e.g., the charge to the daughters of Jerusalem, 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). The poetry itself is full of rich and powerful images intended to evoke the imagination. They cover a large range of human activity-the world of nature (gardens, mountains, forests, animals, plants, spices, etc.), architecture (towers, walls, cities, etc.), clothing/jewelry, and warfare. The woman, whose body and love are described three times as the lover speaks to her (4:1-15; 6:4-7; 7: 1 -9), is especially seen in terms of a garden and vineyard full of , precious spices and wine for the man's pleasure. The man's body is, described but once-by the woman to the daughters of Jerusalem with a whole range of images (5: 10- 16).
The forthrightness and evocative nature of these descriptions has historically been a point of difficulty for many, especially male readers/interpreters, both Jewish and christian. The result has usually been to allegorize it-so much so that an early church council (A.D. 550) forbade any interpretation that was not allegorical! But such a reading seems to be a capitulation to human fallenness and to the way sexual love has often been twisted so as to become exploitative, manipulative, and destructive-up to the present day. This poem should be read in light of Genesis 1 and 2. Following the command to "be fruitful and increase in number" (Gen 1:28), God plants a garden (2:8) in which he placed the man and woman he created in his own image. The narrative concludes with the words: "A man will . . . be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame" (2:24-25, emphasis added). The picture of sexual love in this book recaptures that scene, where the woman and the man take utter delight and pleasure in each other's bodies and do so without shame. This is thus God's way of recapturing both the fidelity and the unity and intimacy of marriage, which the enemy has tried to take away from God,s people by making it seem either titillating outside of marriage or something shameful and unmentionable within marriage. This inspired author has a different view.
Song of Songs fits into God's story as a reminder that the sexual love he created is good and should be embraced with godly fidelity and delight.