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Bible Commentary
Song of Songs

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OVERVIEW

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 Waddoup).

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 backgrounds.

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 commentary.

Outlines

First, looking at the Book as a whole, we may discern a broad and general progression in the relationship between the two main characters:

This answers, generally, to our developing relationship with Christ:

So the basic NT story is as follows:

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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 "beauty".

(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 enthusiasm.

(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 warriors?).

(i) Song 7:10 -- Song 8:14: A series of vignettes: pictures of the "honeymoon".

...And so, back to the beginning/end (Song 1:2-6): the king ushers his lovely bride into the royal palace...

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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 – 2:7

(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 – 5:1

(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 6:11–13a)
(5) The dance of Mahanaim -- the "two companies" (Song 6:13b – 8:4)

(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".)

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RW Ask suggests an outline consisting of 12 separate songs:

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".

A Parable

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 (Song 5:7).

[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 early on.]

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. "Yes, come."

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!

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Does such a parable even require any explanation?

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 Book itself...

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 survivors.)

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 interference.

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.

Consider:

  1. 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 Kingdom.
  2. 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.
  3. The "Beloved" is a term that, in Hebrew, very closely echoes "David", thus referring to the royal line of Judah.
  4. Solomon's name is used because he was the last king before Hezekiah to reign over an undivided kingdom.
  5. The "two companies" (Song 6:12,13) suggest northern and southern kingdoms.
  6. Military allusions such as Song 3:8; 6:4,10 suggest a time of war.
  7. The 1,000 and the 200 of Song 8:11,12 are intended to represent the 10 tribes and the 2 tribes.
  8. 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.
  9. The 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.
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 Songs.

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 suggested:

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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
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