Nestled between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) is a rarely studied or discussed book. Too bad, because the Song of Songs is the best book about godly and vibrant romantic relationships in the world. And it is not only about lovers, but about friends and family relationships as well. We all need to read it, know it, and live it.
By Mark Harris
The Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon (SOS), has been interpreted in three basic ways:
- An allegory about the love between and His people Israel.
- An allegory about the love between Christ and the Church.
- A real-life love story between a young man and a young woman.
Of course, none of these are exclusive. While the Church fathers (such as Origen) saw SOS as allegory, modern commentators hold that it is a real love story. Jewish and Church tradition, and internal evidence such as SOS 1:1, holds the author to be King Solomon, son of David. He probably wrote this paean to Abishag the Shunamite (1 Kings 1:3-4). However, there is some evidence in the book that Solomon is not the groom and Abishag not the bride. For example, Solomon is clearly not the protagonist in chapter 8:11-12, and while Abishag came from Shunem southwest of the Sea of Galilee (1 Samuel 28:4), this woman may have come from Lebanon in the north (SOS 3:9, 4:8, 11, 15, 5:15, 7:4). Mentions of En Gedi, Tirzah, and Jerusalem confirm the book’s Jewish nature.
Three factors suggest that SOS is not an allegory, or at least not only an allegory.
- SOS does not read like a story. It has no beginning, problem, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement (end).
- There is nothing in the text that suggests that the author intended to write an allegory.
- The experiences seem real rather than being literary devices.
God’s presence permeates the book, and the name יָהּ Yâhh, yaw, a contraction for the word Jehovah, is found in chapter 8, verse 6. There is widespread mention of the wonders of His creation as well as the constant restraining (and liberating) presence of His moral code. Notably, in the Song of Songs the woman did most of the speaking. It is magnificent poetry with extensive use of olfactory imagery. Remarkably, it never mentioned having children as the purpose for marriage. Romantic love was beautiful and desirable for its own sake.
Pastor John Piper speaks of Christian hedonism, that God is most glorified when we are most satisfied. God is extravagant in blessing His people. He gives us pleasures upon pleasures upon pleasures. SOS is an example.
People have told me not to teach on the Song of Solomon, saying that it makes them uncomfortable and it is not applicable to single people and widows. I would argue that there are three reasons why SOS is relevant to everyone in the Church:
- Given the book’s emphasis on proper romance (one man, one woman), highly valuing others, and purity, it seems indispensable for singles.
- God through Paul commands widows to mentor younger women, so it is difficult to see how Song of Solomon would not apply to older women as well. “Older women likewise are to bereverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored. Titus 2:3-5.
- Most of the lessons here apply to all relationships.
God put SOS in the Bible to illustrate godly human relationships, including their sexual aspects. In a society in which relationships are as arid as the Sahara and as passing as a summer stream, and in which sexual perversions are as common as weeds in a garden, SOS shows us God’s way. How sweet it would be if we learned and followed it.
Song of Songs 1
V1 – The title Song of Solomon also does not mean that Solomon wrote the entire story. He may have edited an existing story, or it may have become famous during his reign. In any case the book is attributed to him. Knowing that Solomon eventually had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3), the passion and ardor for one woman revealed in this tale does not fit Solomon’s personality, unless perhaps it was much later in his reign. If the characters are Solomon and Abishag, Solomon had a political reason for marrying her as well. As his father’s concubine, having her for a wife would cement his claim to the throne. Adonijah recognized that and tried to marry Abishag. It cost him his life (1 Kings 2:13-25).
The maiden speaks.
VV 2-4 – The woman yearned for the presence of her beloved; emotionally and physically. She acknowledged the good reputation of her beloved and was urgent in her desire to be with him. At the same time, her friends rejoiced in the love that she had for her beloved, and him for her.
The very beginning of this book reveals points that need to be relearned and repeated in the twenty-first century.
- Romantic love is between one man and one woman. It is not for same-sex couples or for groups of people, whatever their sexual proclivities and choices. Romantic love is an action more than it is an emotion, although emotion is a happy accompaniment.
- Physical affection is a wonderful thing, something to be enjoyed in the proper context.
- The love of another person is precious, more valuable than luxuries.
- It is appropriate for women to pursue love. The woman spoke first rather than waiting for him to speak. The maiden asked her beloved to take her away with him.
The last point bears some explanation. The woman was neither brazen nor diffident. She actively sought her beloved in the fields where he was working but was careful to avoid being seen as a cult prostitute hanging out around the tents of the shepherds looking for customers (c.f. Genesis 38:13-15). Her reputation, and his, were important to her and she took steps to protect them both.
VV 5-7 – The Shulamite knew herself and how she differed from other women. Rather than feeling insecure, however, she rejoiced in herself, in what the Lord had made her to be.
The statement “I am black, but beautiful” and the subsequent text suggests that in ancient Semitic cultures, fairer skin was associated with wealth, nobility, health, youth, and beauty. This seems has been true of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, animist, and Christian-majority cultures throughout history. In Africa and Asia today, for example, 40-80% of women regularly use skin whitening products.
Sun and wind exposure, time, injury, and illness cause age spots, wrinkles, and shape changes in the face and body. Women have taken pains to protect their faces and bodies from the elements. From Assyria and Alaska to Burma and Ethiopia, people (primarily women) used parasols, hats, masks, zinc, and other pastes and potions to keep themselves from the sun and the elements.
Unlike the fair skinned women of wealthy birth who never knew hard labor, the maiden was not born into privilege but labored in her family’s vineyards. Nonetheless, the maiden sees herself as an equal match to her lover. She is not ashamed of her appearance.
Her friends speak.
V8 – The woman’s friends encouraged her to pursue her relationship with her beloved. He was a man of great quality, and they knew it. Further, they wanted the best for her. This is a far cry from the modern day in which people routinely insult and discourage each other. This maiden and her friends did not believe that relationships with men were unnecessary and oppressive. It is not good for man, or woman, to be alone. Perhaps America in 2023 will rediscover that.
The man speaks.
VV 9-11 – For the first time in the Song of Songs we hear the voice of the man, the king, who was the object of the Shulamite’s love. He saw his beloved as a woman of unsurpassed strength and beauty, fit for the most powerful king. Even more, he is as captivated by her as a stallion would be by a mare if they were harnessed together. The reader can only imagine a stallion struggling against his restraints in his desperation to get to the beautiful mare, obviously in heat. He would be able to think of nothing else.
Furthermore, the beloved praised his lover’s efforts to enhance her beauty with beautiful things. More than just appreciating the things that she did to make herself more beautiful, he was captivated by her. As such he would give her the means to do more.
VV 12-14 – The maiden saw herself as a lovely perfume spreading a sweet fragrance to her beloved and his counselors. Her presence was a blessing to all of those around, and she worked to make it so. Further, she saw her beloved as one bringing beautiful fragrance and vibrant color to her life. Myrrh was an expensive and moving fragrance and henna was used to make bright orange and red dye. So in love, the woman kept her beloved close to her heart (1:13-14).
- Man and maiden are both honest about their feelings. They do not play the power struggle game, with the one most in love losing.
- They take time for each other, both being together and composing beautiful poetry to demonstrate their love.
- Each sees their beloved as bringing fragrant aromas and vibrant colors into their lives. The two rejoice in differences rather than resenting or rejecting them.
Dialogue between man and maiden.
V15 – The man exulted in the physical beauty and softness of his beloved. Her beauty was more than physical, and her softness was the tenderness that only strength and confidence can provide, so she appeared to him both magnificent and gentle.
VV 16-17 – The Shulamite spoke fearlessly about the physical attractiveness of the man she loved. The “verdant bed” spoke of the youthfulness and fertility of their relationship.
Song of Songs 2
VV 1-2 – The woman called herself a rose from the fertile Plain of Sharon, a lily in the moist valley. The man took his beloved’s metaphor and expanded it. She was more than just another lily; compared to other women she was a lily among thorns. No one else could even come close.
The Maiden Speaks
VV 3-7 – The maiden saw her beloved as a man greater than other men, one who could both protect and provide. Because of this, she was delighted to rest under her beloved’s protection and provision. The Shulamite was not concerned with being “independent”, as if that were possible for anyone then or now. Neither was she defensive, trying to maintain her dignity before those who would mock her for being too trusting and naïve. The maiden was not ashamed to tell others that she was faint with love and needed to be revived by his care.
Though she was nearly carried away by her passions, she asked her friends to help her not to go too fast (v7). The manifestations of her love needed to come at the proper time. Here was a woman who craved the touch of her beloved and who was not afraid of her feelings. Yet she knew herself well enough to know that she needed others to restrain her in her exuberance. Her love was overwhelming, and yet to move into sex at this time would damage it. It was far better to wait, and she needed friends to help her.
Throughout the narrative, the man and woman were secure in themselves and in each other. They were publicly proud of each other, and there was never a hint of disparagement in public or in private. Also there is no suggestion of inequality between the lovers or dominance of one over the other. The woman needs the protection and provision of the man, but he likewise needs her love and tenderness. At a time in history when women’s opportunities to support themselves economically were limited, the Shulamite, accustomed to years of working in the vineyards, could have been an example of economic independence. Yet she chose to rest on her lover, as he did on her.
- The maiden rested herself in her beloved’s protection and provision. She could only do that if she had confidence in his willingness and ability to care for her fully. Men today must step up their game to provide protection and provision for the women and children in their lives.
- They each preferred each other to anyone else. She allowed herself to become weak with passion.
- They did not berate or otherwise harm one another.
- The man did not push the woman to do more than she was comfortable with, and more than was right in the sight of God. Premarital sex was not an option, and he would enforce their temporary abstinence, so she did not have to.
VV 8-17 – The king came to his beloved and called her to come with him to enjoy the natural beauties of spring. The maiden was thrilled to go; she would go anywhere or do anything with the man that she loved so completely. She spent long hours with him because she was his and he was hers. This couple enjoyed the natural world together, gathering truth and beauty from the flowers even as bees gather pollen. It was a habit that would serve them well in the years ahead.
The couple asked others to help them handle the little things that ruin domestic life. These “little foxes” were no great physical threat to the couple but little by little could destroy their relationship. Note that they did not try to eliminate all the little foxes themselves; they asked others to help them.
- Experiencing the natural world was central in their relationship. They rejoiced in the God’s creation of plants and animals, sea and sky, just as they rejoiced in each other.
- We all have “little foxes” in our relationships. They can be as large as premarital sex, pornography, or the denial of physical intimacy. They can be as small as facial expressions, tones of voice, verbal spites, and passive aggression that kills love with a thousand little cuts.
- What little foxes do you have in your romantic relationships?
- What little foxes do you have in any of your relationships?
Song of Songs 3
The maiden’s first dream.
VV 1-5 – The Shulamite lost sleep thinking about him, and probably in her dreams, actively searched for him, even at risk to herself. Once she found him, the maiden longed to bring him into her bed chamber, as Isaac did with Rebekah (Genesis 24:67), to give herself fully to him. Her passion had grown from a fever to an inferno, but she begged her friends to help her hold herself back. The woman’s commitment to moral purity was even greater than her love for her beloved. She only had to wait a little longer.
- The maiden is ready to give herself totally to her beloved, but it is still too early. In desperation (and even in her dream), she asks her friends to hold her back.
The bridal procession on the couple’s wedding day
VV 6-11 – It seemed an eternity, but her wedding day finally arrived. The Shulamite came in beauty and honor in a magnificent procession. Her friends rejoiced at the splendor of the bridal procession, and in their excitement for her, noted every detail of the carriage, the honor guard, and the precious things. The king was about to join himself with the woman of his dreams. Thus, he spared no expense, sending this procession to pick up the bride and bring her to him. Note that “this” in verse 6 is feminine singular, which means that the woman is in the carriage.
- The man spared no expense for his beloved. He brought his very best, his greatest glory, to honor her. He wanted everyone around to see her and enjoy her gracious beauty.
Song of Songs 4
After the wedding ceremony, the consummation.
VV 1-7 – During the wedding, the groom paused to wonder at the beauty of his bride. Her eyes were as soft as the feathers of a dove. Her hair was black like the goats of Kedar. Her teeth were white and healthy, and in a time of poor oral hygiene, she had all of them. Her lips were bright red and full, and her complexion ruddy like the inside of a pomegranate. The maiden’s neck was long and gave her a stately appearance, and it was adorned in row upon row of costly jewels. The Shulamite woman’s breasts evoked tender grace and beauty like fawns at play. Though the pastoral and natural imagery sounds strange to modern Western ears, this poetry captures the maiden’s body and spirit like prose never could.
VV 8-11 – Lost in his thoughts during the wedding, the groom went on to consider her effect on him. He had figuratively gone all the way to Lebanon to find her and braved the dens of lions and haunts of leopards to retrieve her. So overwhelming was her power over him that a single glance had stolen his heart away. Wine, spices, and honey had no allure compared to his beloved.
Verse 8 is the first time he referred to the maiden as his bride. He referred to her as his sister, so close and innocent is their friendship. He had also referred to her as his beloved, so deep was their romance.
VV 12-15 – More importantly, the Shulamite woman had known no other man. Her sexual treasures, the most intimate physical affection that she had to give, had been shared with no one else; they were his alone. The garden containing her most delicious fruits had been locked tight; the springs of her most intimate fountain had been blocked. Her choicest charms were just beyond his reach, and yet just for a few more moments.
The king, her groom, was not frustrated but rather enthralled by her restraint. He treasured her character as much as her beauty, and the wait would make the consummation ever sweeter.
V16 – After the wedding ceremony, the bride and her groom retired to a place alone. There in the fullness of time she invited her husband to enter her garden, to make love to her, and to enjoy the height and the depth of her delights. She asked the north and south wind to blow softly to make the fragrances more vivid and surround him with her love.
- The maiden was truly a maiden, having never slept with another man. Now she offered herself to him fully, and he responded with abandon.
- They trusted each other completely and did not have to hold anything back.
In 2010, I was the team doctor to the US military women’s soccer team at the World Championships in Cherbourg, France. One young woman was in a new relationship and wanted to “get checked” to see if she had contracted anything. In the course of discussing her medical and psychological history, she mentioned that their relationship was good enough to sleep with him, but not good enough to discuss anything sensitive. She was torn with worry, and perhaps guilt.
- The greatest pleasures of life are infinitely sweeter when we enjoy them in God’s perfect way.
Song of Songs 5
The relationship in day-to-day life
V1 – Some things can best be expressed by understatement, and the way of a man with a maiden is one of them (Proverbs 30:18-19). The king came into his beloved in sexual intercourse on their marriage bed. Had the writer gone into great detail, it only would have cheapened what could never be truly described.
In the second part of verse 1, the bride and groom have emerged the following morning and are eating with friends. The relationship of the couple with those around them has forever changed; once they were individuals but now they are one flesh. Marriage changes not only those marrying, but every relationship around them. In coming together and becoming complete the married couple can enjoy each other and those around them more fully than ever before. They encourage their friends and their friends likewise encourage them.
The maid’s second dream, the waxing and waning of love.
VV 2-6 – Sometime later, in what was probably another dream (“I was asleep”), the bride heard her lover knock at the door of her room. It was common in the past for married couples to sleep in separate rooms. Groggy, washed, and undressed for bed, she hesitated to get up and let him in. When she finally arose to open the door, he was gone. Her slowness, probably occasioned by the inevitable waning of love, or at least passion, cost her.
VV 7-8 – Desperate, the wife ran into the street to search for her husband. The watchmen who had been helpful before (3:3) beat her and may have raped her. She had lost her beloved and consequently his protection and provision. The wife was faint with love and begged her friends to help her find her lover.
The response of the watchmen suggests that it was a dream; to have mistreated the wife of the king was to meet an ugly and early death. It is unlikely that they would have done so.
V9 – The Shulamite’s friends were not so quick to assist as they had been before the wedding. She was still beautiful and admired but they demanded to know why they should spend their time searching for her husband.
The Eagles sing After the Thrill is Gone, whose lyrics run like this:
Same dances in the same old shoes
Some habits that you just can’t lose
There’s no telling what a man might use
After the thrill is gone.
The flame rises, but it soon descends
Empty pages and a frozen pen
You’re not quite lovers, and you’re not quite friends
After the thrill is gone, oh
After the thrill is gone.
What can you do when your dreams come true
And it’s not quite like you planned? (oh)
What have you done to be losing the one
You held it so tight in your hand, well.
Time passes and you must move on
Half the distance takes you twice as long
So you keep on singing for the sake of the song
After the thrill is gone.
You’re afraid you might fall out of fashion
And you’re feeling cold and small (oh)
Any kind of love without passion
That ain’t no kind of lovin’ at all, well.
Same dancers in the same old shoes
Get too careful with the steps you choose
You don’t care about winning, but you don’t want to lose
After the thrill is gone.
It is doubtful that love between the man and maid had dwindled quite as far as the Eagles sang, but clearly their ardor had cooled. Equally important, the ardor of others for them and their relationship had nearly vanished. The watchmen in her dream helped her before but now wounded her. Her friends encouraged her before and now discouraged her. The women undermined the relationship that they earlier built up.
- With time, not only you but also those around you will get bored in the relationship. The strong support that friends showed during the courtship of man and maiden (2:7, 3:5) morph into feigned ignorance or even apathy (5:8-9). Eventually, some help her (6:1).
How similar this is to Jesus’ warning to the church in Ephesus when He says that they have left their first love (Revelation 2:4-5)? He told the Ephesians to repent of their sins and do the things they did at first. The maiden did the same.
VV 10-16 – The woman replied by remembering and describing his virtues. It is almost as if she needed to be reminded of them herself. Her description of him is one of strength and power. Notice that her words were not only for herself, but also for her friends. The maid was not shy about her love, did not speak ill of him, and did not participate in others disparaging him. In fact, she rebuked her friends for their words.
- A loss of passion is inevitable, but a loss of love is not. Love is a commitment, an action, and a choice. Feeling are fun but are only an outgrowth of real love.
- We must remember our first love, repent in our relationship (which involves forgiveness) and do the things we did at first. Time and time again, as they did at first, man and maiden went alone together into the beauty of creation to rekindle their love.
Song of Songs 6
Her friends speak.
VV 1-3 – Convinced by the ardor her love, the Shulamite’s friends promised to help her find him. Shortly, however, either they found him or she realized that she knew where he was all along. If this entire section was a dream, verse three would mark the end of it. The king was in the garden.
- Our opinions about those we love make all the difference to others. The Shulamite woman convinced her skeptical friends to help her find her husband. Later, she realized that he wasn’t missing…he was in the garden.
I was in Athens, Greece with Anna a few years ago. We were touring Corinth, split to see different sites, and planned to meet at the temple. I walked a “short cut” to the temple which involved exiting and reentering the site. Unfortunately, I did not have my ticket to reenter. Eventually, Anna found me standing in front of a cranky woman taking tickets, and cranky tourists waiting for this unprepared middle aged American man. Anna chastised me, which I probably deserved. But the attitudes of everyone else towards me got even worse. Her treatment of her father dramatically impacted everyone else’s.
The man speaks.
VV 4-10 – The king still loved his wife passionately, exulted in her beauty, and counted her as greater than the most desirable of women. Whether the story in chapter 5 was a dream or a reality, man and wife were together in rapturous love.
VV 11-13 – The woman was temporarily away but her friends in Jerusalem called her back. They admired her, even if she was not sure why. Her friends were loyal to her, and she to them.
- People admire loyalty, even if they think it is misplaced.
Songs of Songs 7
The man speaks.
VV 1-9 – Even after the wedding, the groom still spoke with love and admiration for the beauty and honor of his wife. This description is similar to those found in 4:1-7, 5:10-16, and 6:4-10.
The problem with desire.
VV 9-10 – The wife reflected on how she belonged to her lover, and he had a powerful and almost uncontrollable desire for her. The word for desire (תְּשׁוּקָה tᵉshûwqâh (tesh-oo-kaw) in verse 10 is the same that Eve had for Adam (Genesis 3:16) and sin had for Cain (Genesis 4:7). This Hebrew word is only found in these three places, as the more innocent word for desire is חָפֵץ châphêts. The author could intend this to mean that her lover had an unhealthy, possessive, controlling sort of love for her, as sin did for Eve and Cain did for Abel. Less likely, it could refer to an innocent but nearly uncontrollable desire.
VV 11-13 – Perhaps realizing the trouble with her husband’s desire, the wife invited him to leave the city and its worries and go to the countryside together. They would enjoy the natural world as they had done during their courtship and relish each other in love. They would “do the things they did at first.”
- The lovers enjoyed the natural world and used it for peace and healing.
Song of Songs 8
Life together, and training the next generation
VV 1-4 – In public married couples are required to behave with restraint. In the ancient world, brothers and sisters could show more affection for each other in the eyes of others than husband and wife could. This frustrated the wife, wanting often to throw herself into her husband’s arms regardless of propriety. Nonetheless, as she had so many times before, she asked her friends to help her restrain her passion and exuberance until the proper time.
Notice that this wife still had godly friends who could help her do what she needed to do. She did not abandon her female friendships when she married and did not try to find all of her support in her husband. Friends of her own sex were still important. It is not stated explicitly, but the man would have done the same in that culture.
- The couple behaved with restraint in public, which only made their abandon in private all the sweeter.
- Husband and wife needed and cultivated same sex friends. They did not try to get all their interpersonal needs met by their spouse.
VV 5-7 – Assuming that the couple took their trip outside the city, they now returned. The onlookers saw them come back with the wife leaning on her husband. However, the couple saw only each other. The phrase “love is as strong as death” may be the origin of the modern “till death do us part.” The idea that love is the most precious thing in the universe is found in full force as no man, no matter how wealthy or powerful, can buy it.
VV 8-9 – The wife had an underage sister who was coming into maturity. She and her husband committed themselves to help this sister make the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood and marriage. If her sister was virtuous and kept herself sexually pure (was a “wall”), they would protect her and adorn her with greater beauty (“towers of silver”). If she gave herself wantonly to men (was a “door”), they would close her off, protecting her in a way that she would not protect herself.
- Earlier generations are responsible to teach morality to later generations, as well as enforcing it. We hold our children accountable to do what is right, and do not encourage or permit them to do what is wrong.
V10 – Before her marriage, the wife had been a wall, refusing to let any man come into her garden. Only in the bonds of marriage did she admit her husband at the proper time. It was obviously difficult for her, but with the help of her friends, she prevailed. Interestingly, no mention is made of the husband’s struggles to remain sexually pure. If the man was Solomon, he probably had many wives before her. If not, perhaps his efforts were not recorded. Regardless, the Torah requires men and women to be sexually pure.
VV 11-12 – This section suggests that King Solomon is not the main character in the Song of Songs. Writing in the third person, the author contrasted Solomon’s large and splendid vineyard with the smaller vineyard of the couple in the story. Though theirs was smaller, it was enough. They had everything that they needed.
VV 13-14 – The book closed with the woman calling to her friends in Jerusalem, possibly to say goodbye, and then going away yet again with her lover, her husband, to unknown delights ahead.
 Frank E Gaebelein et al., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: With the New International Version of the Holy Bible, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1991), 1203.