A commentary on the Song of Solomon
Interpreted for centuries by most Jews and Christians as an allegory about the love of God for His people, modern commentators hold that this is a story about human love, which secondarily reflects the perfect love between God and His people. Though God is never mentioned, His presence permeates the book. 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.
Song of Songs 1
V1 – Some commentators have interpreted this as a love story between King Solomon and Abishag the Shunamite who cared for his father David in the last few weeks of his life. 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 Shunam, this woman may have come from Lebanon in the north..
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 this and it cost him his life (1 Kings 2:13-25).
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.
VV 5-7 – The Shulamite knew herself and how she differed from other women. Rather than feeling insecure, however, she rejoiced in herself. Unlike the fair skinned women of wealthy birth who never knew hard labor, she was not born into privilege but labored in her family’s vineyards.
The woman was not brazen but neither was she 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).
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.
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 to 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 councilors. 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).
V15 – The man exulted in the physical beauty and softness of his beloved. Though her beauty was more than physical and her softness was the tenderness that only strength and confidence can provide, 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.
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. 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 publically 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.
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 of the little foxes themselves; they asked others to help them.
Song of Songs 3
VV 1-5 – The Shulamite lost sleep thinking about him, and possibly 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 commanded 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.
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.
Song of Songs 4
VV 1-7 – During the wedding, the groom paused to himself 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 is foreign 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 of 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.
The groom referred to her as bride, but also as sister, so close and innocent is their friendship, as well as their romance, for one another.
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.
Song of Songs 5
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.
VV 2-6 – Some time later, in what may be another dream, 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.
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 the protection and provision that he gave. 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 early and painful 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.
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.
Song of Songs 6
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.
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.
Songs of Songs 7
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.
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 is the same that Eve had for Adam (Genesis 3:16) and sin had for Cain (Genesis 4:7).
VV 11-13 – The wife invited her husband 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.
Song of Songs 8
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.
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 helping 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.
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.
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.