Reading Song of Songs

    Song 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.


1:1-6 The Lovers Presented  

    Note that, typical within the book, the woman takes the lead role, so that in this opening scene where each is introduced she sets the stage for the rest-her desire for and delight in him, with an invitation to be taken away by him. If "the king" is literal, then Solomon is intended; otherwise it is a metaphor, using royal imagery to evoke love's grandeur.

 1:7-2:7First Scene: The Lovers Together 

    As you read this first scene, note that verse 8 could just as easily be the man,s own response to the beloved's question' That would mean that the whole scene is an exchange between the two lovers. She first searches for him among the shepherds (vv. 7-8), followed by an interchange of description (vv. 9-11,12-14) and of delight in each other (vv. 15-16), before turning to a description of the scene of love (v. 17,a forest). She then evokes the imagery of flowers (2:1-2), while he is an"apple tree" in whose shade she rests and whose fruit she enjoys (vv. 3-6). Her last words are to the daughters of Jerusalem to let love take its own course (v. 7).
 2:8-3:5Second Scene: Hope, Invitation, and Dream
This scene is characterized by longing he is a gazelle leaping across mountains, then gazing through the window (2:8-9). She then recites his words of invitation-it's spring, the time for love (w. 10-13). He calls her out of hiding (vv. 14- 15) and for the "foxes" (those who would oppose their love) to be caught so as not to ruin the "vineyards" (their bodies; cf. 1:6, 14) that are in bloom. With the total mutuality and exclusive fidelity of love (2:16), her lover then "browses among the lilies," but is (apparently) sent away at the close of day (v. 17).That leads to what is probably a dream scene (3:1-4) in which she seeks and finds her lover, concluding again with the admonition to the daughters
 3:6-11Solomon's Wealth and Extravagance
    This enigmatic section may be intended to provide contrast to the woman's lover, since the descriptions of him thus far have been from nature, not from pomp and circumstance; otherwise Solomon is the lover and the section introduces their lovemaking in the next scene. Note that it is the only thing that borders on narration in the entire poem, and the picture educed is one of wealth, power, and opulence (thus echoing 1 Kgs 10: 1 4-11 :6).
4:1-51 Third Scene: Admiration and Invitation 

This is the first scene in which the man takes the lead. He begins with a description of the beloved's body from head to breasts (4:1-5). Picking up her language from 2:17, he will go to the mountain of myrrh (vv. 6-7, echoing 1:13). He then describes her as a lover, a garden of delights and spices (vv. 8- 15). Her response is to invite the winds to enhance her fragrance and thus to invite him into the garden (v. 16), to which his response after love (5: 1) echoes language from the preceding description (myrrh and spice [14:14], honeycomb and honey [14:11], wine [14: 10] and milk [14:11]). To this the daughters of Jerusalem respond by encouraging them to eat and drink their fill (5:1c).
 5:2-6:3Fourth Scene: Dream and Search
    The woman is again in the lead. In what appears to be another dream scene, her lover comes and beckons her and then disappears (5:2-6); again she searches for him, but this time the watchmen abuse her (v. 7). In response to the short dialogue with the daughters of Jerusalem (w. 8-9), she gives her only description of him vv. 10-16), moving from head to legs, but concluding, as at the beginning (1:2) by recalling his kisses. To their second question (6:1), she answers first (v. 2) by echoing language from the preceding rove scene and then (v. 3) by repeating the word of mutuality and exclusive fidelity (cf. 2:16).
6:4-8:4 Fifth Scene: The Delights of Love 

    Note that in this scene the man and woman both speak at length. The scene begins with him in the lead describing the beauty of her head (6:4-7)-in contrast to the king's wives and concubines (vv. 8-9b), who also admire her (w. 9c-10). After an interchange with them (w' 11-13), he then launches into his final description of her body, this time from feet to hair (7:1-6), before returning to her breasts and mouth (w 7 -9a). She then picks up the imagery of her mouth as wine, urging that it go straight to him who desires her, with further invitation to lovemaking (vv. 9b- 13). Her love for him is such that she would gladly express it in public , against all cultural norms (8 :1-2a); her desire again echoes previous language (vv. 2b-3) before she concludes with the refrain to the daughters of Jerusalem (v. 4)
 8:5-14Conclusion(s): Love Strong As Death
    The poem concludes with a series of brief sketches that suggest the unquenchable nature of their love (g:5 -7), despite opposition (w. 8-9,10- 11), concluding with their final interchange of invitation (vv 13-14).

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.