Interpretations of the Song of Songs are almost as numerous as
are students of the book. There are perhaps more different interpretations of
this Book than of any other in the Bible, including Revelation! Plainly, this is
a difficult Book to place in historical context, or to present in outline form.
As one student puts it, "At first one feels almost afraid to dissect the Song of
Songs. As when trying to trace the inward beauty of a flower the petals can so
easily be torn and the delightful fragrance diffused and lost, we hesitate lest
our clumsy touch should harm this exquisite product of the mind of God. For like
the rose of Sharon and the spring flowers of Israel's land which decorate this
'Song without compare', it also is His handiwork, and as we stoop with wondering
awe to look, perchance to touch, it is at once the beauty of the living whole
which speaks to us of God's great power and the revelation of His grace" (Roy
There are a number of separate short songs, which are clearly
related but not necessarily sequential in time. Occasionally it is uncertain who
is speaking, and to whom the words are being spoken; also, it is uncertain
whether the person or persons to whom the words are being spoken is/are
physically present or absent at the time. [However, the distinction between
various speakers in the Song is much more evident in the Hebrew than in English
translation, because of the masculine and feminine verb forms. The New English
Bible uses this information to identify the speakers in its text. (This
commentary will generally follow those directions.)]
The author of the Book is not stated (it is not necessarily
Solomon: see Song 1:1n). This in itself allows for any number of possible
These introductory notes include an Outlines section, in which
various scenarios are offered. The reader may find that one or more of these are
perhaps appealing as a framework for study.
Then follows a suggested parable, which may serve as the
"backbone" of the Song of Songs, and this writer's suggestion as to the
historical, or Old Testament, background. This study follows Harry Whittaker's
idea as outlined in "Bible Studies", pp 120-126. He suggests that the Song of
Songs is based on King Hezekiah's attempts (after the defeat of the Northern
Kingdom by the Assyrians) to regather the remnant back to his own Southern
Kingdom. This would include especially his effort to reclaim them for the
worship of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Only a study of the whole book, in some detail, can prove (or
disprove) the reasonableness of this scenario.
Whatever the historical context that first gave rise to the
Song of Songs, it is almost universally accepted that -- in an Old Testament
context -- the underlying theme is the relationship between the God of Israel
and His people (cp Isa 62:4,5; 64:5; Hos 2:16,19). And furthermore that -- in
New Testament terms -- the Book is an allegory about Christ and his Bride, the
church or ecclesia (cp Mat 25:1; Rom 7:4; 2Co 11:2; Eph 5:32; Rev 19:7; 21:2,9).
There is a natural progression and development in these ideas. No matter where
the Song of Songs is placed as to its composition and historical context, these
spiritual truths will surely be recognized as the primary purpose, and most
fulfilling study, of the Book.
These twin themes (of God and Israel, and Christ and the body
of believers) will receive most of the attention in the verse-by-verse notes
that make up the main part of the
First, looking at the Book as a whole, we may discern a broad
and general progression in the relationship between the two main
This answers, generally, to our developing relationship with
- Early acquaintance
- Awakening interest
- Deepening of the
So the basic NT story is as follows:
- Learning the Truth (#s 1-3)
- Baptism (# 4)
- Probation, while Christ
is in heaven (#s 5-7)
- Christ's return and kingdom (#s
- The good shepherd = Christ, in the days of his
- The Shulammite = the church, or
- Their courtship = ministry of Christ;
preaching by apostles.
- Disappearance of shepherd
= Christ's ascension to heaven.
- "Dreams" of
Shulammite about his return = the longing of saints (in all ages since) for a
deeper relationship and -- ultimately -- for the coming of their
- Watchmen's treatment of the Bride =
persecution/tribulations of the church in Christ's
- The shepherd returning as King = Christ
returning in his glory (accompanied by
- Wedding feast = "marriage supper of
This leads in turn to a possible outline narrative:
(a) Song 1:2-6: The end of the story is told first? (This is
the same device as used in Rev, several times, for example.) The bride is
brought by her husband ("Solomon", "prince of peace") into his royal palace. She
speaks with awe of her surroundings, and apologizes for her sun-burnt
complexion. She has gone through many trials, but now (at last) she has reached
her destination: the home of her Beloved.
Now... how did this come about? In answer, we return to the
true beginning of the story, which is...
(b) Song 1:7 -- Song 2:17: The real beginning of the story: a
sequence of courting scenes. The humble "shepherd" whom the maiden loves (Song
1:7,8) is in fact a king (notice how HE speaks in Song 1:9,10,12; although he
appears as a shepherd, the imagery and figures of speech he uses betrays his
true, royal, identity). She imagines their home and their life together (Song
1:16,17). Then they are alternately together/apart/together/apart, etc (Song 2).
(c) Song 3:1-4 and Song 5:2-8: While seeking her "Beloved",
the maiden is mocked and beaten by the "watchmen" (Song 3:3; 5:6,7). She suffers
much because of her love, while the object of that love is absent. (Notice the
repetition and alternating of themes in this sequence.)
(d) Song 4:1-7: The "Beloved" describes her
(e) Song 4:8,9,15,16: He proposes to her, and she accepts.
(f) Song 5:9-16: She is separated (again?), and describes her
"Beloved" to the "daughters of Jerusalem", in terms of unrestrained
(g) Song 3:6-11 and Song 6:11,12: She is almost "surprised"
(when at last she finds him -- or when at last he comes for her) that her
"Beloved" (the "simple" shepherd) has been transformed into the great "Solomon"
(the King of Peace). The lowly shepherd has returned in his true character, as a
great and mighty King!
(h) Song 6:13 -- Song 7:9: The wedding festival, with the
"guests": the friends of the Bride (her companions, the virgins, the "daughters
of Jerusalem") and the friends of the Groom (the angels? the mighty
(i) Song 7:10 -- Song 8:14: A series of vignettes: pictures of
...And so, back to the beginning/end (Song 1:2-6): the king
ushers his lovely bride into the royal palace...
Another possible outline
This outline takes the wedding itself as the backbone of the
book, with various remembrances of, or "flashbacks" to, earlier times (the
courtship, and separations).
1. The beginning of love: Song 1:1 – 5:1
(a) The wedding day (beginning): Song 1:1 –
(1) The Shulammite in the palace (Song 1:1–8)
(2) At the banquet table (Song 1:9–14)
(3) In the bridal chamber (Song 1:15 – 2:7)
(b) Reflections on a courtship: Song 2:8 – 3:5
(1) A springtime visit (Song 2:8–13)
(2) The little foxes (Song 2:14–17)
(3) A dream: on counting the cost (Song 3:1–5)
(c) The wedding day (continued): Song 3:6 –
(1) The wedding procession (Song 3:6–11)
(2) The wedding night (Song 4:1 – 5:1)
2. The development of oneness: Song 5:2 – 8:14
(a) A dream of love refused: Song 5:2 – 8:4
(1) The dream (Song 5:2–8)
(2) A change of attitude (Song 5:9 – 6:3)
(3) The return of Solomon (Song 6:4–10)
(4) The Shulammite in the garden (Song
(5) The dance of Mahanaim -- the "two companies" (Song 6:13b
(b) A vacation in the country: Song 8:5–14
(The outline is followed, in large part, by JS Baxter in
"Explore the Book", and RG Moulton in "Modern Readers' Bible".)
RW Ask suggests an outline consisting of 12 separate
In this he follows Mason Good, Thomas Percy, and Joseph Bush,
and is in turn followed by HP Mansfield. In order to avoid some of the confusion
as to time sequence of the songs, HPM turns the 12 songs into two complete
cycles of six songs each, the first six subtitled "The Bride selected from
Israel", and the last six "The Bride selected from the Gentiles".
- The Bride in the King's chambers (1:2-8)
- The Bridegroom and the Bride
in a garden retreat (1:9--2:7)
- The Bridegroom's call and her response
- The Bride's midnight search for her beloved (3:1-5)
- A state
visit to the Bride -- in which he praises her beauty (3:6--4:7)
- The Bride is
compared to a lovely garden (4:8--5:1)
- The Bride's portrait of her Beloved
and his reply (5:2--6:10)
- She is overtaken by a sudden impulse to hide
- The Virgins describe the Bride (7:1-9)
- The Bride's
invitation to the Bridegroom (7:10-8:4)
- Love unquenchable
- Conclusion (8:8-14)
Now there may be detected -- as the "backbone", so to speak,
of the Book -- a little story, of romance, and longing, with a surprise ending.
This story may be constructed from the clues and hints provided in the Song
itself. Whether the story had any basis in fact cannot be known for sure -- it
may have only been a parable. Yet it would be helpful to have a grasp of this
"parable" in order to understand the spiritual lessons grafted upon it. The
story goes something like this:
In the northern part of the land of Israel, at Baal Hamon in
the hill country of Ephraim, there was a vineyard owned by the king in Jerusalem
(we shall call him "Solomon") -- it was rented out to tenants (Song 8:11). It
appears as though the husband and father of this tenant family was dead, but
there was a mother and at least two sons (Song 1:6). And then there were two
daughters, two sisters, a little girl, as yet undeveloped (Song 8:8), and her
older sister (we shall call her "the Shulammite").
It looks like this older one was the "ugly duckling" -- the
"Cinderella" of the family. Her brothers did not appreciate her: they bullied
her, and gave her all the menial tasks they could, denying her the privileges
that a young woman might have expected in a Jewish home. Instead, she labored in
the vineyards long and hard, scaring away the birds, pruning the vines (Song
1:6), and setting the traps to catch the little foxes that spoiled them (Song
2:15). She also had to watch the lambs and the kids of the flock, and find
suitable pasture for them (Song 1:8).
All day, every day, she worked outdoors in the blazing sun,
her skin growing dark and burned, and dry (Song 1:5) -- she had no time to care
for herself and her own appearance ("my own vineyard I have neglected": Song
1:6). She probably had no ointments or perfumes to use on herself. Yet when she
had occasion to observe her own countenance -- reflected in a woodland stream,
perhaps -- she knew that, underneath the rough exterior, she had a pleasant
face, and she could -- with a little care and attention -- be quite a lovely
girl (Song 1:5). If only she had the opportunity to demonstrate it...
One day, as she was caring for her flock, she looked up, and
to her embarrassment there stood a tall and handsome stranger -- a shepherd, one
she had never seen before. He was gazing intently upon her. She was embarrassed,
and exclaimed, "Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by
the sun" (Song 1:6).
But the mysterious shepherd replied, "No, not at all -- you
are the most beautiful of women" (Song 1:8). And before long, as these things
go, he was calling her "my darling" (Song 1:9), and extolling her beauty in
every particular. Affection was giving way to love, and finally this shepherd
had won the heart of the shepherdess.
Then he went away, but not before telling her, "Some day I am
coming for you, and I am going to make you my bride." And she believed him.
Probably no one else did. Her brothers did not believe him -- had they even met
him? The people in the hill country thought she was a poor simple country girl
who had been deceived by a strange man (Song 5:8,9). They even mocked her and
her longings (Song 6:1). Some men of the village thought she was mad -- always
going about and searching for her lost lover -- and they abused her and beat her
[Or, alternatively: did they actually marry before he went
away, in a sort of private and informal ceremony? This, to be followed later, by
a very formal and official ceremony upon his return? Such a view might make us
more comfortable with the obviously sexual nature of their relationship -- even
Her lover was gone a long time. Sometimes she dreamed of him
and could almost feel his presence with her, but then she would realize it was
only a dream (Song 3:1-3; 5:2-8). But still she trusted his promise. She knew he
would return for her.
Then one day there was a great cloud of dust on the road, and
the country folk ran to see what it meant. Here came a glorious procession.
There was the king's bodyguard and the king himself, and then they stopped at
the vineyard (Song 3:6-11). To the amazement of the shepherdess, his servants
came to her and announced, "The king has sent for you." "For me?" she asked.
And in obedience she went, and when she looked into the face
of the king, behold, the king was the shepherd who had won her heart, now
returned in all his glory to claim her as his bride!
And she said, "I am my beloved's, and he is mine!"
Now she was dressed in lovely robes, and she danced in front
of the company of all the king's courtiers -- who vied with one another to extol
her great beauty (Song 6:11 -- 7:5). They all seem to be asking, 'Can this be
the same lowly, sunburnt "maidservant" we once knew?'
Then she was exchanging vows with her beloved (Song 8:6,7),
and at last they were truly married.
The vineyard where she had labored as the ill-favored daughter
of tenants, was now hers -- a gift from her husband (Song 8:12). Now she was a
woman of property!
And thus she returned with her husband to his lovely palace in
Jerusalem (Song 1:4).
AND SO THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER!
Does such a parable even require any
Old Testament Background: One Possible View
This parable may, in turn, introduce the lesson that was first
intended by the Song -- assuming a Hezekiah authorship and background to the
Hezekiah inaugurated a great religious reformation: The temple
was cleansed and rehabilitated; idolatry was swept away. He sent messengers
throughout all twelve tribes inviting them to renew their allegiance to Yahweh
and to come to Jerusalem for the Passover (2Ch 30:5-12,18,21). His intention was
no doubt to reunite the nation politically as well as religiously. (The Northern
Kingdom was in turmoil from the devastations of the Assyrians, and the two and a
half tribes east of the Jordan had already been taken captive: 1Ch 5:25,26. So
this appeal of Hezekiah's would strike a chord with many of the
This master plan was thwarted, however, by the invasion of
Sennacherib. Only Jerusalem escaped. But the enemy host was overthrown, and
there ensued a 15-year period of unmatched peace and prosperity. During this
time Hezekiah's wooing of the northern tribes would undoubtedly be resumed
(although Scripture does not mention this) -- this time without fear of Assyrian
The first purpose of the Song of Songs, then, may have been
these worthy attempts to unite at least the faithful remnant of the North with
the God-given religion and kingship centered in Jerusalem. Thus the name
"Shulammite" would suggest the northern tribes, and "betrothal" would suggest
Hezekiah's great Passover. In this scenario, the shepherd's disappearance and
the woman's resultant nightmares, fears, and separations would symbolize the
Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom and the continuing attempts thereafter
to unite the nation.
GL Carr, in the "Tyndale OT Commentary", refers to an ancient
tradition preserved in the Mishna, that "Hezekiah and his company... wrote the
Song of Songs." (This would match what is known about Hezekiah's work in
compiling the Proverbs: Pro 25:1.) He adds, however, that this may be understood
in terms of editorial work done on an already existing body of material. So
perhaps Hezekiah reworded or amplified one or more of Solomon's original songs
(see 1Ki 4:32) -- under inspiration, of course -- to produce this final Song of
- The parallel of the two capital cities -- Jerusalem in the south and Tirzah
(the first capital of Israel: 1Ki 14:17) in the north (Song 6:4) -- point to
some relationship between the Southern Kingdom and the Northern
- Almost all geographical allusions in the Book that in some way
describe the Bride are to places in the north. By contrast, En-gedi (in the
south) refers to the Bridegroom.
- The "Beloved" is a term that, in Hebrew,
very closely echoes "David", thus referring to the royal line of
- Solomon's name is used because he was the last king before Hezekiah
to reign over an undivided kingdom.
- The "two companies" (Song 6:12,13)
suggest northern and southern kingdoms.
- Military allusions such as Song 3:8;
6:4,10 suggest a time of war.
- The 1,000 and the 200 of Song 8:11,12 are
intended to represent the 10 tribes and the 2 tribes.
- The mountains of
"division" (Song 2:17n), at the beginning, become at the end the mountains of
"spices" (Song 8:14n). This uses the word for the anointing oil of the High
Priest (cp Psa 133:2,3) -- implying unity and peace. In short, that which was
divided in the beginning of the story has become united by the end.
description of the shepherd/king, the "Beloved", sounds very much like a
description of the Temple at Jerusalem (Song 5:10-16), to which the northern
remnant is being invited to worship.
In this "Hezekiah" scenario, "Solomon" does not refer to the
real person of that name, but is a designation of spiritual significance -- a
royal prototype (see, for example, Ezekiel's use of "David" in Eze 34:23,24;
37:24,25). Here "Solomon" refers to a righteous son of Solomon, and hence son of
David -- one who is keenly interested in Israel's worship at the temple built by
his ancestor Solomon.
Other Hezekiah connections
Psalm 45 is the portion of Scripture that most closely
resembles the Song of Songs. For various reasons, the authorship of Psalm 45 may
also be attributed to Hezekiah -- and the bride there described could have been,
in the first instance, Hephzibah (for more on this point, see GB's "Psalms
Studies"). From that, we quote the following:
"Psalm 45 is a 'miniature Song of Songs'. Both Scriptures
describe the marriage of a great 'king' to a special 'bride'. The righteous King
(vv 2,7), taken from among his fellows (v 7), but now elevated above all them to
sit on God's throne (v 6), celebrates a great marriage (vv 9-11). This is none
other than 'the marriage of the Lamb' (Rev 19:7-9), with a 'Bride' out of the
Gentiles (vv 11,12)! This King is also a great High Priest (cp Isa 61:1,2,10: a
'bridegroom who decketh himself as a priest'), for (as in the Song of Songs) he
is described in imagery reminiscent of the temple and its services. It is
because of the surpassing sacrifice that the King-Priest has offered that his
prospective Bride has been cleansed, and prepared for him (Eph 5:25-27, citing
Song 4:7; cp Song 6:8,9)."
Other Possible Historical Backgrounds
Other possible historical backgrounds have been
- The Song of Songs is taken by some to be the
story of one of king Solomon's romances, this one with a young girl of
non-Jewish ancestry. In one form or another, this is probably the most common
assumption about the book. (Some scholars, such as HL Ginsberg, take this to be
the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh: cp the imagery of Song 1:9 and 1Ki 3:1;
7:8. HP Mansfield follows this idea. However, it is difficult to see how the
Shulammite, who seems to be a poor girl well-acquainted with labor, could be the
daughter of a great king.)
- The Song is taken to
be a sort of romantic "triangle", where the king and some obscure shepherd vie
for the affections of the young girl. Exponents of this viewpoint allege a
distinction, in the songs, between two men, one a "king" (who would be Solomon,
of course) and the other the "beloved" (who would be the shepherd). [This view
is held by HGA Ewald, and by EW Bullinger, and is outlined in "The Companion
- In another view, the Shulammite is
Abishag the Shunammite, the beautiful young virgin who cared for the aged king
David (1Ki 1:2,4). It is supposed that after his death she is wooed by his son
Solomon -- but her love remains only for the father, even though he is now
deceased, rather than for his less righteous
- RW Ask and some others suggest that the Song
is "pure allegory" -- that, although written by Solomon, it bears no relation to
any transaction between himself and any of his wives, but is solely an
expression of spiritual love, first between God and Israel, and secondly between
Christ and the church.
- Some commentators suppose
that the Song of Songs is a compilation of several different love songs (the
number most often used is seven), songs that are unrelated to one another. But
evidence of unity within the book argues against its being a collection of poems
that have merely a general similarity to one
The historical background of the Song of Songs may be
distinguished from the Old Testament theme. The underlying theme of the Book, in
OT terms, is the great love of the God of Israel for His people -- even when
they were forgetful of Him. It is noteworthy that the Song was traditionally
read at the time of Passover -- because that feast commemorated the purest
expression of God's covenant love. This love was expressed in the promises to
Abraham and the fathers, when He delivered His children out of slavery in Egypt,
and solemnly "betrothed" them to Himself at Sinai. (Hosea 1-3 corroborates this
picture -- there, plainly, the relationship of a real man and his wife is made
to describe, typically, the relationship between God Himself and His people
Israel. Throughout the Old Testament the idea of a marriage union between God
and His people occurs repeatedly, and the most frequent metaphor for religious
apostasy is drawn from the crime of adultery: cp Exo 34:15,16; Num 15:39; Psa
73:27; Eze 16:23; Jer 3:11.)
See Lesson, Song of songs, NT theme
See Lesson, Song of songs, erotic element