Old Testament Survey - Lesson 39

Song of Songs

The Song of Songs, is a book rich with imagery and symbolism that explores the nature of love. It begins with an examination of its title, highlighting its significance as the greatest song, possibly associated with Solomon. The lesson reviews different interpretations of the book, including ritual, allegorical, secular, and dramatic interpretations. While the allegorical view predominated historically, the lesson argues for a dramatic interpretation involving three main characters: Solomon, the Shulamite woman, and a shepherd lover. The book is seen as a critique of lust, polygamy, and infidelity, emphasizing true, unquenchable love within a covenant relationship. Despite its seemingly secular tone, the Song of Songs is interpreted as a wisdom text, endorsing the place of physical love within marriage and exploring the mystery and joy of love. 

Daniel Block
Old Testament Survey
Lesson 39
Watching Now
Song of Songs

I. Introduction to the Song of Songs

A. Placement within the Bible

B. Hebrew Title: "Shir Hasharim"

C. Authorship and Interpretation

D. Historical Interpretations

II. Interpretive Approaches

A. Ritual Interpretation

B. Allegorical Interpretation

C. Collection of Secular Love Songs

D. Dramatic Interpretation

III. Dramatic Interpretation

A. Characters and Plot

B. Evaluation of Solomon's Character

C. Interpretation of Scenes

IV. Message and Themes

A. True Love and Its Characteristics

B. Wisdom Text and Canonical Association

C. Reflection on Human Experience

D. Celebration of Covenantal Love

V. Literary Features and Interpretation

A. Figurative Language and Imagery

B. Celebration of Love as a Total Dedication

C. Reflections on Human and Divine Love

D. Vision of an Ideal World through Love

  • Learning about the First Testament's language, geographical, and cultural contexts, and how these factors contribute to its frequent misinterpretation and underappreciation in modern times.
  • Gain insights into the literary and cosmic foundations of grace and glory in the Torah, understanding its role as more than law.
  • Learn that to be made in God's image entails embodying divine qualities and functioning as His representative on Earth, which extends a universal dignity upon all humans and shapes a theological ethic that influences how you treat others.
  • Genesis 1-3 frames human response to divine creation, emphasizing human dignity, work's moral role, free will's consequences, and the persistent grace amid sin.
  • This lesson reviews the Israelite covenant, understanding its stages, implications, and its role in God's redemptive plan.
  • Gain insights into Abraham's covenant with God, exploring his faith and God's promises.
  • Learn how the Exodus from Egypt marked Israel's transformation from a family to a nation under Yahweh.
  • Understand how the covenant at Sinai transforms Israel from slaves into a treasured nation destined for a divine mission, fulfilling God's ancient promises.
  • This lesson covers the covenantal expectations at Sinai. The covenantal agreement provided a constitutional and ethical framework for societal living, focusing on community rights and responsibilities.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into how the tabernacle was both a physical manifestation of God's presence and a profound symbol of His grace, emphasizing the holiness and detailed guidance He provided to the Israelites for worship and daily life.
  • Gain insights into Deuteronomy, recognizing its focus on teaching rather than legislation, and understanding Moses' role as an instructor of Yahweh's will.
  • In this lesson, you explore how to interpret the First Testament's historiographic writings, emphasizing the divine inspiration and literary artistry that guide the selective storytelling and theological themes.
  • Learn how the books of Joshua and Judges illustrate the fulfillment and failure of Israel's covenant with Yahweh, highlighting divine promise, cultural assimilation, and the cyclical nature of faith and apostasy.
  • The Book of Ruth, highlights divine providence, social justice, and personal righteousness while exploring the role of Boaz as a pivotal figure in maintaining the lineage of King David.
  • Samuel had a significant yet complex role in Israel's history; judge, priest, prophet, and crucial figure in establishing monarchy.
  • Learn of David's central role in the Bible, understanding his unique portrayal and the extensive attention he receives compared to other figures.
  • Learn about the Davidic covenant's role in shaping biblical history and theology, emphasizing its eternal impact on Israel and beyond.
  • The books of Kings and Chronicles use historical events to underline theological themes, highlighting the role of scribes in documenting Israel’s history.
  • In this lesson on 1 and 2 Kings, review the downfall of Israel through kings' forgetfulness of God's covenants.
  • Learn about Solomon's temple's historical and theological significance, its divine design and purpose, and its role in Israelite worship and communal life.
  • Gain insights into the transformation and resilience of the Judean people during their exile in Babylon from 586-539 BC, exploring their struggles and adaptations in a new socio-political and religious context.
  • Learn about Daniel's exemplary life in Babylon, his integrity, and his prophetic visions, which highlight divine sovereignty and the vindication of the faithful amidst calamities.
  • Review the Persian period's impact on the Jewish diaspora, analyze the Book of Esther's literary and theological significance, and reflect on divine providence and cultural identity.
  • Explore the crucial roles of Ezra and Nehemiah in reconstructing the Jewish community and faith post-exile, understanding their historical significance, source materials, and theological insights.
  • Gain insight into the roles and significance of prophets in ancient Israel, learning about their historical context, and their critical function in guiding and correcting the nation through direct communication from Yahweh.
  • Learn about the lives and ministries of prophets Amos and Hosea, their calls for justice and return to divine covenant amidst Israel's political and spiritual turmoil, through prophetic books that blend personal biography with national prophecy.
  • This lesson reviews Jonah's struggle with divine grace and Micah's advocacy for justice and the messianic hope.
  • In this lesson, you learn how Isaiah's vision portrays the Messiah as king, servant, and conqueror, emphasizing his divine roles and global mission.
  • Learn of the political and social contexts of Jeremiah and Ezekiel's exile, including Babylon's rise, Jerusalem's fall, and the crisis of faith portrayed in Lamentations, emphasizing hope amid despair through God's faithfulness.
  • Learn about Jeremiah's life and prophetic ministry, navigating challenges with kings, themes in the Book of Jeremiah, and profound passages on true religion and a future covenant, offering lessons on prophetic burdens, God's faithfulness, and spiritual transformation.
  • Explore Ezekiel's life as a priest in exile, his bizarre actions, and profound messages revealing Yahweh's passion and eternal promises of judgment and restoration.
  • Learn about Nahum and Joel's prophecies on judgment, hope, and Yahweh's character. Explore the day of the Lord and the expansion of the covenant community.
  • Explore Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah's prophecies. Discover themes of judgment, faith, and restoration in God's plan.
  • Gain insight into Haggai's role in motivating temple rebuilding during the Persian rule. His brief yet impactful ministry fosters hope and action amid community disillusionment, recoginizing God's presence and reign.
  • Gain deep insight into Hebrew poetry: its forms, parallelism, acrostics, and emotional depth. Explore its celebration and lamentation of Yahweh's glory.
  • Gain insight into Psalms which reflect diverse emotions and experiences. Structured into five divisions, attributed to various authors, their interpretation involves understanding Torah context, literary devices, and applying timeless principles to life.
  • Explore biblical wisdom's depth: from practical skill to moral insight, rooted in the fear of Yahweh. It contrasts with secular knowledge, emphasizing God's order and universal application.
  • Engage with Proverbs to unravel its diverse wisdom, from aphorisms to discourses. Understand its practical guidance for righteous living and leadership.
  • Discover the Song of Songs, a rich exploration of love's nature. From its allegorical interpretations to its celebration of covenantal love, it examines human relationships with wisdom and depth.
  • The book of Job offers insights into faith and suffering, exploring theological themes and character dynamics. It emphasizes trust in God amid life's most difficult trials.
  • Uncover Ecclesiastes' profound journey from despair to hope. Koheleth's existential ponderings contrast with the narrator's faith, urging a shift from worldly pursuits to finding fulfillment in God's sovereignty.

This Old Testament Survey course offers a deep exploration of the Old Testament's literary structure, divine covenants, and historical context. Lessons cover the Pentateuch, emphasizing its narrative over legalistic interpretations, and extend through key biblical figures like Abraham and Moses. Topics such as the covenant at Sinai, the concept of imago Dei, and the tabernacle rituals highlight the continuity of God's grace and the ethical implications of divine laws. The course critically addresses common misconceptions, the role of the Torah as instruction, and the portrayal of God’s plan, underscoring the relevance and complexity of these ancient texts.

Dr. Daniel Block 
Old Testament Survey
Song of Songs
Lesson Transcript


Responding personally to the grace and glory of God with godly fear and righteous living, the Song of Songs. The book of Proverbs is separated from the Song of Songs by Ecclesiastes in our Bibles. However, I will consider this song before Ecclesiastes because, like Proverbs, this song for the most part expresses normative Israelite perspectives, specifically on love in this case.

Indeed, one may interpret the song as a celebration of the joy of love as it is encouraged in Proverbs 5, 15 to 23, and then the mystery of love as announced in Proverbs 30, 18 to 19. Second, Ecclesiastes belongs with Job more than Proverbs since it raises questions about the order in the universe and the truthfulness of the saying, the fear of the Lord is the first principle of wisdom. Here we see, in a sense, wisdom in revolts, people protesting, but that's not the case in the book of Proverbs, which is normative wisdom, and in this book, which takes a small but vital slice of life and shows what wisdom looks like.

We need to begin by talking about the name of the book. The Hebrew title, Shir Hasharim, translates literally, The Song of Songs. Like holy of holies, king of kings, God of gods, Lord of the universe, this is a superlative expression.

It expresses the greatest song. English, Song of Solomon, represents a telescoping of verse one. The Song of Songs that belongs to Solomon or is associated with Solomon or involves Solomon, we're not quite sure, but it is this English Song of Solomon telescopes that into that sort of phrase, changes it slightly.

In Hebrew, it's the greatest song, the most beautiful song. The connection with Solomon probably comes from the tradition of this king as a great lover. Now, I am not using the lover, the word lover, in its proper sense, but in its improper sense.

While it has been traditional to view Solomon as the author of this book, the opening title may also be interpreted to mean this is a song about Solomon, and that's how I interpret it. The Lamed, the L in the title, to Solomon, for Solomon, about Solomon, could point to authorship. However, like the psalm titles, it could also point to Solomon as the one to whom it is dedicated or as the character whom it portrays as, shall we say, the great lover, the Don Juan, the lustful king of Israel.

How should we interpret this book? Few First Testament texts have been interpreted as differently and occasioned as much debate as the Song of Songs. You have, first of all, the ritual interpretation. Some interpret the book as a ritual text modeled after Sumerian poems celebrating the love between Inanna, the goddess, and Dumuzi, the god who is her lover.

Unfortunately for this interpretation, there is no hint in the song that we should interpret it in connection with any myth. There's nothing mythological here. In any case, it would hardly have been canonized if this had been the case, at least canonized in our scriptures.

Second, the allegorical interpretation. We do not know for certain how the book was interpreted when it was first composed. I wish we had a commentary from the author of the book.

But long before the coming of Christ, the rabbis were interpreting the book as an allegorical portrayal of the love between God and Israel. We have this in II Esdras 524 and following, and then in 726. This is especially the case in the Talmudic text, the Talmud, Sanhedrin 101a, which notes, whoever recites a verse of the Song of Songs and treats it as a secular air, whoever recites a verse at a banqueting table unseasonably brings evil upon the world.

That's grounded in the view that this is a sacred text. The allegorical interpretation is fully developed in the Aramaic Targum and has predominated in Christian interpretation until recent times. Origen interpreted Solomon's marriage as a lesson on Christ and the church.

Luther saw in the song an allegory of the relationship between Jesus and the souls. This interpretation still prevails among mystical and pietistic evangelicals. C.I. Schofield wrote in the Schofield Reference Bible, primarily the book is the expression of pure marital love as ordained by God in creation, and the vindication of that love against both asceticism and lust, the two profanations of the holiness and marriage.

The secondary and larger interpretation is of Christ, the Son, and his heavenly Bride, the church, as we see it in 2 Corinthians 11 1-4. The major weakness of the allegorical interpretation is its subjectivity. It's in the eye of the reader, or the ear of the hearer.

The song contains no internal hints that this is how the composer intended readers to interpret it, which leads then to a third view. This is a collection of secular love songs. While some have interpreted the book as a collection of wedding party songs sung in honor of the bride and the groom at their wedding, like Syrian wots, a special expression for this, recent interpreters have been less certain about its actual connection with a wedding.

Some see it as a collection of 30-plus love songs of varying types, songs of teasing, admiration, boasting, yearning, dreaming of experiences, which should not necessarily be interpreted as linked to tell a story or develop a plot. It's simply a collection. Others read the book as a unified love poem, but it was composed for entertainment and intended to be sung at festivals.

Accordingly, the key to its canonation seems to have been its early association with religious festivals. But there is one additional approach we should consider, and that is a dramatic interpretation. In their present literary context, the love poems, plural, that have been combined seem to have been combined in an order and modified so as to tell a story and actually to develop a plot.

Indeed, the book may be read as a drama in which the words of the characters invite the reader to reflect on the nature of love. The dramatic interpretation takes on several forms. The scholar Dalich in the 1800s saw in the song a drama between Solomon the shepherd and a Shulamite shepherdess.

Falling in love with her, the king takes her from her homeland and marries her on Zion. In the process, his love is lifted from mere physical attraction to pure love. But in my mind, this portrayal of Solomon is unlikely for several reasons.

One, the portrayal of Solomon as a rustic shepherd is quite incongruous. The truth is he never was a shepherd. He grew up in the royal court.

What does he know about that? Second, with the king as the groom, to have the closing scene take place in the village of the bride, that's culturally improbable. He's the king. It would happen in his house.

Third, if Solomon is the male main character, the favorable comparison of the Shulamite to the royal harem in 6, 8 to 9, that's really tough. That seems unlikely to me. But fourth, most problematic of all, in the light of the record of Solomon's multiple wives and his vast harem as reported in 1 Kings, it is difficult to imagine him as a model of loyal, single-minded love.

That's not Solomon we find in 1 Kings 10 and 11. So from my perspective, it's preferable to interpret the song as a three-character, not a two-character drama involving Solomon, the Shulamite, and a shepherd lover. It portrays the triumph of genuine love between the and the Shulamite over top-down royal lust.

The dramatist has portrayed Solomon as an exploitative king who captures the maiden for his own harem and then attempts to win her affections through artificial means, 2-7-3-5-8-4. Now, I agree that the Song of Songs represents a collection of secular love poems that may have been composed independently and that have been secondarily gathered and arranged in their present form. But even so, the present arrangement of the poems in the book invites us to interpret all of these as an implicit critique on Solomon, like the book of Ecclesiastes.

So here's how I interpret the book. After the introduction in 1-1, in the first scene, 1-2-2-7, Solomon meets the Shulamite woman in his palace. It opens with the harem's sensuous words.

This is the chorus in this drama, verses 2-3. Then the Shulamite speaks in verse 4a. She yearns for her shepherd lover.

The king has abducted her. Then in 1-4b, the harem speaks. And in 5-7, the Shulamite offers her apology in the face of contempt from the rest of the harem.

In verse 8, the harem give their ironic response. Go back to your sheep, they say. And then in verses 9-11, Solomon speaks for the first time, his first attention to the peasant girl.

This is his first attention to the peasant girl, offering her the allurements of city and royalty. In verses 12-14, her response, she describes feelings towards her shepherd lover. And Solomon responds with flattery in verse 15.

But she comes back, 1-16-2-1, her thoughts remain on her lover from the country. In 2-2, Solomon replies, picking up her imagery. Then in 2-3-7, the Shulamite's response of devotion.

Verse 7 seems to be addressed to the harem. Do not stimulate love artificially. Let it be natural.

The second part, 2-8-3-5, the beloved's visit and the Shulamite's night search. It opens with the Shulamite, verses 8-9. She thinks longingly of her husband.

Suddenly she hears him and recalls his invitation. The shepherd speaks in verses 10-14. He invites her to come away with him.

The Shulamite responds, 14-17. She wants all that would spoil love to be removed. Sensing danger, she tells him to leave until evening, when it will be safer.

Verses 1-5, the Shulamite speaks. She searches for her lover, probably a dream that keeps recurring. The third section, Solomon's procession and songs, 3-6-5-1.

It opens with a chorus, a description of Solomon's procession intended to impress the Shulamite, verses 6-11. In verses 1-7, we have Solomon's love song, 4-1-7, we have Solomon's love song, a typical oriental description of the beauty of the body. Verses 8-15, the shepherd's love song, as it is perhaps remembered by the Shulamite.

In verse 16, the Shulamite speaks an invitation to her lover to possess his garden. That is the shepherd. And then in 5-1, his enthusiastic response.

In 5-2-6-3, we have the fourth scene, a missed opportunity. In verses 2-8, she seems to be dreaming of her lover, the shepherd. She gives lame excuses for not responding, only to find that when she's ready, he's gone.

She may be teasing or just drowsy and slothful, but then she rushes out to find him, only to run into brutal guards who stop her. Verse 9 of chapter 5, this seems to be a mocking response by the harem who hear her. Verses 10-16, a detailed description by the Shulamite of her true lover.

After another mocking response, retort from the harem in 6-1, in verses 2-3, we have her honest and confident response. Scene 5, the king's failure to win the Shulamite, 6-4-8-4. In verses 4-10, the king's wooing is met with uncompromising constancy.

Verses 11-12 give the Shulamite's response. She reminisces about her capture, how he caught her. Then in verse 13a, you have another mocking interlude from the harem to which the Shulamite responds, unconscious of her own beauty.

It doesn't matter to her. And the harem responds again with flattery, so that she will come back and join them. In chapter 7, verses 6-9, we have Solomon.

This is the king's last attempt to win her with flattery, and her speech has intoxicated him. Verses 10-13, this is the high point of the book. Her love for her lover, the shepherd, will not be deflected.

She will not get sucked in by the allurements of the palace. And it ends with the Shulamite in 8-1-4. This is her soliloquy.

She desires freedom to express love openly. We come then to scene 7, the reunion of the lovers, 8-5-14. The villagers see her returning with the shepherd, 8-5-A, and then the shepherd recalls how he first aroused her love in her own home circumstances.

Contrast this with the artificiality of the court. And then in verses 6-7, we have a moving description from the Shulamite of true love. In 8-10, she recalls the attitudes of her brothers when she was young.

If she in her innocence responds too easily to overtures of love, they will protect her. In maturity, she was firm. She did not give in to Solomon, but she found security in relationship to her husband after she had been earlier finding security in her family, her brothers.

In 8-11-12, the Shulamite reflects on love, which cannot be bought. The shepherd in 8-13 requests the bride to speak so he and friends may hear her voice. And her response is, come to me quickly.

And with that, the book ends. Well, what is the message of this book? This is an imaginative interpretation, but I am not sure what else we should do with it. This seems to make the most sense.

What shall we do about the point? Whatever the proper approach to the book, the canonical association of the song with the wisdom writings of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes invites us to read it as a wisdom text. The involvement of Solomon as one of the characters in the composition reinforces this conviction. As another literary cartoon, it caricatures in my mind the love life of Solomon.

This song teaches that true love needs no stimuli, no artificial awakening like Solomon tries. It resists all the false sensual allurements of the world. The book, then, is a censure of lust, of polygamy and infidelity.

It highlights a love that is unquenchable and cannot be bought, 8-6-7, a love that is exclusive and absorbing, 4-12. In so doing, it endorses the place of physical love within a legitimate covenant relationship. As such, it explores the theme of the mystery of love, a common theme in the wisdom writings.

We see this in Proverbs 5-7, Proverbs 30, 18-19, Ecclesiastes 9-9. It invites us to reflect on why a woman would resist the allurements of royal love in favor of the love of a shepherd boy from the hills. Well, why would this? So, that's the first reflection on this book.

It highlights love that is unquenchable. What else can we say? Well, first, this text represents a reflection on the nature of a common human experience. It's not a literal historical document.

The author is reflecting on love. The function of wisdom is essentially didactic, not philosophical, and here he is learning lessons or teaching lessons on love. Second, in spite of its apparently secular tone, this cannot be treated as a secular song.

The dichotomy of the sacred and the secular is alien to Hebrew thought. The absence of references to Israel's law, Israel's cult, Israel's theology is characteristic of Israelite wisdom, but this does not mean it is secular in its origin. The approach we have taken cautions against misinterpretation

Both the allegorical and the cultic interpretation impose on it religious notions that are alien to the text. And fourth, as a wisdom text, it reflects on the joyful and mysterious nature of love within marriage and or that leads to marriage. This song is a mashal, a proverb, a literary statement on the rich wonders of love, itself a gift of God's love.

In fact, the paradisiacal imagery, imagery from paradise, and the numerous echoes of Genesis 2 suggest a celebration of the kind of love that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. The Song of Songs consists of a series of songs. That is, as a unity together, they provide a beautiful literary portrayal of true and natural love.

The praise songs in the book are interesting, but they're entirely metaphorical. The figures of speech employed in the song are strange to the modern Western ear. I mean, if a man would tell his wife or the person he's engaged to, your belly is a heap of wheat, she'd slap him.

It doesn't work in our culture. But we must interpret this in the light of how the ancient Orientals spoke about these matters. Whoever wrote this was quite familiar with ancient Near Eastern patterns, and it is in light of this cultural context that they must be interpreted.

In fact, we now have literature like this from Egypt that helps us interpret this. Although most referents have some feature in common with a metaphor, your neck, her neck is a tower, or the whiteness of washed sheep, to speak about the teeth, the intention of the comparisons is not to depict sensory correspondence between images and referents. In fact, sometimes the incongruity between the image and what he's actually talking about is so great that it almost loses us, the modern readers, and we may never get around to recognizing the harmony between the image of the tower and the nose.

Your nose is a tower, and so the reader must quickly abandon efforts to create pictures of lovers as sums of the image they use to describe each other. I have seen images, efforts people have taken to interpret this literally, and they are grotesque. Try drawing the image of the woman as it is pictured here.

It is grotesque. But this song is not erotic. It is not preoccupied with genitalia.

The poet never dwells on any part of the body. The reader's attention is diffused, scattered, spread throughout the body and projected onto the world beyond. In the song, love is not a composite of two principles, masculine and feminine sexuality.

The lover's love for one another is one in intensity and one in quality. There is no stereotyped picture of an aggressive male and a coy mistress who must be seduced. Each reaches out to the other.

Each comes to the other. Each awaits the other in a mutuality and egalitarianism that reflects the metaphysics of love, not the realities of society. For the author of the Song of Songs, Canticles, love is more than a feeling.

It is the confluence of souls expressed by tightly coherent dialogue and the medium of praise. Love looks outward with a vision so broad as to create its own world. The song prevents a way of seeing, of creating a perfect world, an idyllic universe.

As Michael Fox observes after comparing the Song of Songs with ancient Egyptian love literature, he says, Here the world blossoms in a perpetual spring. Birds sing and bathe in milk. Spices give forth their fragrance.

Springs flow with clear water. Fruits and wines offer their sweetness. Heaps of wheat are surrounded by lilies.

Yews, white and clean, bear twins and never miscarry. Goats stream gently down the mountainside. Proud and ornate towers stand tall above the landscape.

Nor are there lacking silver and gold, precious stones and objects of art. This is a rich and blessed world. This is not only the background of the expression of love.

Through it we see the lover's view of the world through the eyes of the poet. In fact, the imagery shows not how lovers look, what do they look like, but how they see. A lover looks at his beloved and through the prism of her beauty sees an ever-present arcady.

This is a world created by love, which comes into being only through the lover's vision of each other. So, Michael Fox. This is a song of songs.

The song of songs does not intend primarily to exalt the joy of sex, nor even the pleasure of love. It is a celebration of commitment summed up in, I am my beloved's and he is mine. This is total dedication and permanent obligation.

The book represents a glorious celebration of our humanity, male and female, created as God's image for mutual support and enjoyment. But this is not sex for sex's sake, nor for recreational reasons, nor is this casual sex. It is the celebration of covenantal love, covenantal commitment.

In this context, love needs no artificial stimuli. At the same time, it is strong enough to withstand the most severe challenges from without. This is love according to the song of songs.