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Song of Solomon

SONG OF SOLOMON (שִׁ֥יר הַשִּׁירִ֖ים). This book is the first of the five Megilloth or Rolls which were read at Jewish feasts. It is generally known as the “Song of Songs” from the superlative form sîr hassîrîm in 1:1, which denotes the best or most excellent of songs. In Jewish religious tradition the Song was read at the feast of the Passover. In the Vul. the work was entitled Canticum Canticorum, hence the alternative title of Canticles.


Those who have followed the traditional attribution of the book to Solomon have seen the early monarchy as the background against which the work was composed. The pastoral qualities of the poetic imagery suggest a lengthy interlude of peace in the land during which the sedentary ideals of the Israelites were being realized, and this situation would accord with the “golden age” of David and Solomon very well. The Song contains numerous references to animals and exotic plants, and in view of the tradition which associated botanical lore with Solomon it has been thought that if the work is a genuine Solomonic product it would again point to the early monarchy as the period from which it emerged. The various geographical allusions in the book seem to indicate a phase of Heb. history in which the kingdom had not yet been divided. Canticles speaks of such northern locations as Lebanon (Song of Solomon; 4:8, 11, 15), Hermon (4:8), Tirzah (6:4), Damascus (7:4), and Carmel (7:5), as though, with Jerusalem, they formed one united kingdom. This, however, need mean nothing more than that the poetic flights of the author transcended purely localized considerations. In any event, the book shows clearly that the author was familiar with the geography of the whole of Pal.-Syria area from the mountains of Lebanon to En-gedi near the Dead Sea (1:14). Although Canticles mentioned the exotic commodities of the Far E., there is no internal evidence which would indicate that the material was written against any other than a strictly Palestinian background.



Those critics who have assigned one or two of the poems in Canticles to Solomon have accordingly placed certain sections of the book within his reign (970-930 b.c.). As far as the other sections are concerned, some have been assigned to a northern Israelite origin prior to the fall of Samaria in 722 b.c., while others are thought to have originated in the 5th cent. b.c. As has been shown above, there is no single demonstrable element in Canticles which demands a date after the Solomonic period. The mention of Tirzah (6:4) as though it was the northern counterpart of Jerusalem might point to the comparatively early date of composition of that portion of Canticles. Prior to the reign of Omri (885/884-874/873 b.c.) Tirzah had been the chief city of the northern kingdom, but when Omri came to the throne of Israel he established Samaria as his capital city, constructed numerous buildings in addition to erecting a splendid royal palace, and fortified the site strongly. If Tirzah was being suggested as the chief northern city (6:4) to match Jerusalem in the S, the poetic section concerned could well have dated from the 10th cent. b.c. In general it can be said that the cultural background of the material as a whole points to a prolonged interval of sedentary life in the kingdom, and the ethos of Canticles is much more in accord with the conditions which obtained during the early monarchy than with the rigors of exilic or postexilic life. The presence of Aramaisms in the composition has no bearing at all upon its date, and it may well be that the particular expressions were the result of nothing more than the influence of regional dialects. Unless it can be shown conclusively that the work could not possibly have emanated from the period of Solomon, it seems best to assign the compilation of Canticles to the 10th cent. b.c.


The extant work seems to have formed, or to have been based upon, a collection of rustic love poems of somewhat uncertain provenance. Although this is the most probable explanation of the general origin of Canticles, the book bears recognizable indications of a unity of style and general theme. The repetitions in the work would seem to point to the activities of a single compiler, since they serve to bring about a more marked sense of unity of theme than might be expected from an anthology of lyrics issuing from diverse authors over a fairly lengthy period of time. In view of what appears to be a genuine overall unity of emphasis, namely that of the richness of human love in its variant modes, it would seem that the attempts of those scholars who have fragmentized the book into something like thirty poems are hardly consonant with the emphasis and character of the finished product.

Place of origin.

If the work is to be assigned to the general period of Solomon, as those who support the traditional view have maintained, the book was prob. compiled in Jerusalem at the royal court. The prowess of Solomon as a lyricist is made plain in 1 Kings 4:32, and as has been noted earlier, there are no particular elements which preclude a date in the early kingdom period for the composition of Canticles. However, those writers who have rejected the Solomonic authorship of the book have thought that at least some of the poems may have arisen in the northern kingdom. This view has been maintained partly because the presence of Aramaisms in Canticles was thought to favor a northern Israelite or Syrian place of origin, and also because Tirzah was mentioned in an apparently parallel position to Jerusalem (6:4). If Tirzah was being suggested seriously in the poem as the northern equivalent of Jerusalem, it might indicate that the passage had been written at a time when Tirzah was the chief city in the N, and may even have comprised the place of origin of that section of Canticles. If the book is to be regarded as a unity it might then appear that Solomon pursued his bride into the northern part of his kingdom, a situation which, while unlikely, is by no means impossible. If those scholars who maintain that Canticles is an anthology of poetry independent of Solomonic authorship are correct, the passage in question could well have originated in or near Samaria. Speculation of this kind concerning the place of origin of the various elements of Canticles is hazardous at the best, if only because there is absolutely no discernible provincialism in the book as a whole. Even if Canticles was compiled as an anthology of love lyrics which originated in widely separarated areas of the kingdom, the manner in which they have been arranged makes it virtually impossible for them to be assigned to particular locales. If Canticles was composed at a given point in the Solomonic era, it is still possible for certain familiar poems to have been included as part of the larger work without, however, giving any significant hint as to where they originated. On any basis of compilation, therefore, the place of origin presents certain difficulties, though these are considerably less for those who support the traditional authorship than for those who postulate a non-Solomonic origin.


Any estimate concerning the situation or persons for whom Canticles was written will depend largely on the way in which the material is to be interpreted. In overall terms the work does not seem to have been meant for any people other than the Israelites. If the poems were the work of Solomon they would certainly have been intended for a local audience, and the same would be true if the lyrics originated in connection with Israelite wedding ceremonies. If the poems are compositions which simply extol human love in its various facets, it seems unlikely that they were intended for use outside Israel. In later Arab. times erotic poems known as wasfs were recited in the presence of the bride and groom just before the wedding ceremonies, and it has been supposed that at least some portions of Canticles fulfilled this function in Israel. While a local destination may have been intended in the composition of Canticles, the fact remains that many of the poems in the book do not lend themselves readily to recitation at wedding ceremonies. Although some might correspond to the type of wasfs used by the modern Arabs during the period of courtship, it is unwise to rely too heavily upon late Arab. practices as a means of arriving at conclusions concerning the literary genre or destination of the book.


Precisely what stimulated the composition of Canticles is unknown. If it is merely an anthology of love lyrics of general Solomonic provenance, it could well have arisen in connection with one or more of that monarch’s numerous marriages. If the book represented a less purposeful collection of nuptial songs current in various parts of the kingdom, the occasion need only comprise the stimulus experienced by an unknown ed. to preserve such love lyrics for posterity. The general unity of the theme and form which Canticles exhibits makes it appear probable that some specific occasion underlay the compilation of the work. Estimates as to the nature of this will naturally vary with the date assigned to the extant book, while those scholars who deny the basic unity of authorship of Canticles will be compelled increasingly to look for separate occasions for which the component parts might have been compiled. The very subjectivity of such a process will inevitably leave much to be desired in the conclusions.


Many expositors have found some difficulty in justifying the inclusion of Canticles in the corpus of Heb. Scripture, partly because of its general eroticism. However, the book is actually an extended mashal or proverb which illustrates the richness and beauty of human love, and as such it stands firmly within the gnomic tradition of the Heb. Wisdom lit. Although some of the language and imagery may be unacceptable to western tastes, it must be remembered that the material originated in the Orient, where very different attitudes frequently obtain. The theme of the book is firmly rooted in the beauties of nature, from which it passes into a symbolic representation of the object of desire. The traditions of love to which appeal is made are those of the upper classes, who alone would be able to afford the exotic, expensive substances mentioned in the poems. The outlook of author and reader alike was not inhibited by an attitude toward sexual relationships which regarded them as at best embarrassing, and at worst thoroughly evil, so that there was no difficulty in describing the various aspects of human love in a way which would meet with a sympathetic understanding. The book steers a course between sexual perversion or excess, on the one hand, and a rigid, ascetic denial of normal bodily and emotional needs on the other. It also provides an object lesson in close personal relationships which is badly needed in the western world by showing that spirituality is not inconsistent with spontaneity and a lack of selfconsciousness during moments of greatest physical intimacy. Not merely does the Song of Solomon speak of the purity which can characterize human love, but by its very inclusion in the Heb. Scriptures reminds one, as E. J. Young pointed out, of a love which is purer than our own.


From rabbinic sources it is evident that Canticles did not gain either an immediate or a ready acceptance into the Heb. canon of Scripture. The Talmudic authorities (Bab. Bath. 15a) went so far as to assign its composition to Hezekiah and his company of scribes, an opinion which may have been based on the activities of this group in connection with the editing of other apparently Solomonic material (cf. Prov 25:1). The Mishnah (Yadaim iii, 5) indicates that the Song was not accepted into the canon without some dispute at or about the time of the supposed consultation at Jamnia (c. a.d. 95). Following an affirmative verdict in the matter by Rabbi Judah and a negative vote by Rabbi Jose, the assembled scholars heard Rabbi Aqiba deliver his famous dictum: “In the whole world there is nothing to equal the day in which the Song of Songs was given to Israel: all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.” The fact that such a strongly worded statement should have been necessary at all indicates that in the days of Rabbi Aqiba there were some doubts about the origin and propriety of the book. Without question, the opposition which arose to its inclusion in the Heb. canon was prompted by the erotic nature of the contents. In the end this objection seems to have been outweighed by the traditions which associated its composition with Solomon, as well as by the allegorical interpretations current in both Christian and Jewish circles, which tended to elevate the poems above a purely erotic and carnal level. In order to preserve a modicum of propriety with respect to Canticles, Rabbi Aqiba is also said to have pronounced a curse on those who sang portions of the Song of Solomon at banquets or similar festive occasions: “He who trills his voice in the chanting of the Song of Songs in the banquet halls, and treats it as a secular song, has no sh are in the world to come” (Toseph. Sanhed. xii, 10). This prohibition may well have been directed at the bawdy or lewd allusions which might be expected to result from those singers who had been drinking copiously. Certainly the best means of protecting the canonical status of the Song would be to assign to the work an esoteric religious meaning, and this doubtless gave impetus to the allegorizing of Canticles in rabbinic circles.


Content and outline.

a. The bride expresses her longing for the bridegroom and sings his praises (1:1-2:7).

b. As their affection for one another deepens, the bride heaps further praise on her beloved, using exquisite figures from nature (2:8-3:5).

c. This passage contains the praises of King Solomon, the praise of the bride, and the espousal (3:6-5:1).

d. The bridegroom is absent for a time, during which the bride longs for his return and continues to praise him (5:2-6:9).

e. A series of descriptive passages narrating the beauty of the bride (6:10-8:4).

f. A concluding section dealing with the durability of true love (8:5-14).


The cultic interpretation has been favored by some scholars in the light of those Near Eastern liturgies which commemorated the death and resurrection of a god. According to this view, the lover of Canticles was the dying and rising god, while the beloved was either his sister or his mother, who lamented his decease and went about searching frantically for his remains. Such Near Eastern mythical pairs familiar to the Israelites were the Canaanite Baal and Anat, the Babylonian Tammuz and Ishtar, and the Egyp. Isis and Osiris. According to this interpretation the pagan liturgy was accommodated by the Israelites to the spring and autumn festivals as part of the New Year cultic observances. Adherents of this view adduced as external evidence the fact that Canticles was read liturgically at the Passover festival in the medieval period, and pointed to a reference in the Mishnah (Ta’anith iv, 8) which spoke of the maidens of Jerusalem dancing and singing at a festival in the vineyards on the 15th day of Ab and following the Day of Atonement. Internal evidence for the theory was seen in the male and female figures which dominated the narrative, the vanishing lover and the bride searching in anguish, the exotic imagery, and the references to rare plants and spices, all of which were held to characterize the Tammuz liturgies. Attractive as this theory may appear, it raises great difficulties in the way of acceptance. Four other canonical compositions, none of which has the slightest claim to a purely cultic origin, were also read at festive occasions. Furthermore, Canticles contains no specifically liturgical terms, and there can be no doubt that had it constituted a modified form of pagan mythology it would never have been admitted into the Heb. canon. In addition, while there may well have been harvest festivals in Israel, as elsewhere in the ancient Near E, there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that rituals connected with the death and resurrection of a god were ever a part of such celebrations. It can only be concluded that the cultic approach to the meaning of Canticles places a forced interpretation upon the narratives as a whole.

The dramatic understanding of the Song of Solomon arose when interest in the allegorical approach began to decline at the beginning of the 19th cent. In its earliest form, however, it went back to Origen, and it also found expression in the thought of Milton. As developed from 1800, it assumed two principal forms. One of these, expounded by F. Delitzsch, saw in Canticles two main characters: Solomon and a country maiden described as the Shulammite (Song of Solomon 6:13), about whom Canticles wove a story. In essence, the book narrated the way in which King Solomon found this girl in her rustic surroundings and took her from her village to Jerusalem. There as his wife he learned to love her with a depth of affection which transcended purely physical attraction. The other form of dramatic interpretation was advanced by Ewald, who introduced a third principal figure into the narrative. According to Ewald, the story of Canticles revolved around King Solomon, the Shulammite maiden, and the newly designated figure of her lover, a shepherd from the countryside. Ewald suggested that the king, having become enamored of the physical attractions of the Shulammite, carried her off by force to his harem in Jerusalem. When she consistently resisted his advances, however, he reluctantly allowed her to return to the locale of her rustic lover. This theory, which became known as the “shepherd hypothesis,” proved quite acceptable in liberal circles, though some scholars added to the dramatic aspect of the theory by emphasizing the presence of a chorus of maidens somewhat after the fashion of classical Gr. plays. The shepherd hypothesis was an advance in certain areas over the suggestions of Delitzsch in that it explained the reason for the lover being depicted as a shepherd (1:7, 8), and also accounted for the termination of the poem in a northern setting rather than in Jerusalem. However, there are certain features of the view which might be extremely difficult to sustain for various reasons. In the first instance, the shepherd hypothesis introduces into the narrative a central figure for whose existence there is no real textual evidence at all. Furthermore, it assumes without warrant that the maiden resisted the advances of her lover, whereas in point of fact the narratives make it clear that she was possessed of a very different frame of mind. Again, whereas the views of Delitzsch propounded the joys of conjugal union as illustrated in the heroic King Solomon, those of Ewald depicted something closely approaching attempted seduction by the king. In this way Solomon became the villain of the drama, not the hero, an attitude which is foreign to other OT traditions concerning the renowned king. In addition, any dramatic interpretation of Canticles has to face the great difficulty raised by the scarcity of evidence for dramatic lit. among the Semites, and not the least in Israel. Another admission of the weakness of the evidence adduced in support of the dramatic interpretation is that some of those who held to this view thought that Canticles was more a dramatic reading than a “staged” production. It ought to be observed that for scholars to assume that the maiden mentioned in the poems can be identified with Abishag the Shunammite is entirely gratuitous. Again, the association of the “daughters of Jerusalem” with either the harem of Solomon or with some sort of professional chorus is purely conjectural. The fact is that the allegedly dramatic nature of the song is so little in evidence that it is impossible to delineate any concurring development of the plot. While it is true that the intensely personal speeches of Canticles fall into the two broad categories of dialogue and soliloquy, they defy analysis into such forms as scenes, acts, mimes, and the like, which are of the essence of a dramatic work.

The fourth principal approach to the understanding of Canticles, the lyrical, was one which tended to take the narratives at something like face value and assign the simplest form of interpretation to them. Accordingly, those who hold to this view recognize in Canticles the presence of a collection of love lyrics or songs which had no necessary connection either with wedding festivities or other specific occasions. Nor were they to be regarded either as celebrating in terms of the malefemale relationship the higher values of divine love, or as having emerged from a pagan cultic background in which the death and resurrection of some deity was being commemorated. Some adherents of this school of thought have associated the love poems in a rather general manner with the Solomonic tradition (cf. Song of Solomon 3:6-11), but at the same time have denied unity of authorship to them, thinking of them principally as an anthology of native Israelite material issuing from diverse periods of history. The description in 1873 by J. G. Wetzstein of Syrian marriage customs prompted K. Budde to advance a special form of the lyrical interpretation in 1893. His view understood Canticles as a collection of nuptial songs similar to those used in the seven-day marriage feast in which the bride and groom are crowned as king and queen, and at which the wasfs were offered also. Aside from the hazards involved in employing modern Syrian customs to illustrate ancient Palestinian practices, this view is weak, for the Shulammite is nowhere designated in Canticles as “queen.” There would hardly be sufficient material in the extant composition for a week-long celebration, and there are certain other elements of modern Syrian practice which are lacking in the Song, such as the war chants which honored the prowess of the bridegroom. The chief virtue of the general lyrical interpretation is that it avoids the difficulties inherent in the allegor ical, cultic, and dramatic understanding of Canticles.

There is another approach to the interpretation of the Song of Songs which is closely related to the allegorical method, and one which has been favored by certain conservative scholars. This is known as the typical interpretation, and possesses the undoubted advantage of preserving the obvious sense of the poems while at the same time discerning a more elevated and spiritual meaning in contrast to the purely sensuous or erotic. The typical method manages to avoid the excesses which have so often arisen in the more detailed examples of interpretation as provided by the allegorical school, and in stressing the themes of love and devotion which are so evident in Canticles it expounds the story in terms of the relationship of love existing between Christ and His faithful followers. This approach has been justified on the ground that many of the Arab. love poems have esoteric meanings, and also by an appeal to the Biblical analogies of human marriage (Hos 1-3; Ezek 16:6ff.; Eph 5:22ff.; etc.). The use which Christ made of the narrative of Jonah (Matt 12:40), as well as the reference to the serpent in the wilderness (John 3:14) has also been adduced as compatible with this general method of interpretation.


Canticles stands virtually alone in the Heb. Canon in that it contains no explicit theology. Those who argue for the origin of the material in terms of a number of folk lyrics see this as being entirely consistent with the absence of a settled situation in life. The theological position of the composition must therefore be ascertained inferentially, and on such a basis there can be no doubt that Canticles firmly enshrines the Heb. religious tradition of monotheism. In this celebration of the joys of human love there are no traces whatever of the magical influences or the polytheistic beliefs which are to be found in parallel material from ancient Egypt. Although Canticles supplies very little actual information about Heb. marriage institutions, it seems to be grounded in a basic ethos of monogamy, a situation which has not gone unnoticed by those who have argued against Solomonic authorship. Although the poetic images are almost completely alien to modern tastes, the composition is never lewd or obscene, even by the standards of western civilization. In fact, Canticles reflects the traditional canons of sexual morality contained in the Mosaic law, and never countenances anything which could be described on such a basis as immorality. It reflects the traditions of Genesis 2:24 which maintain that in marriage the male and female constitute a psycho-physical unity, and its discussion of the whole range of the emotions of lovers is conducted at a high level of sensitivity and morality. The purity and beauty of human love as a divine gift is the dominant theme of the book. By contrast with the Gr. lyricists and some modern authors, the work exhibits no self-consciousness regarding the natural relationship between male and female in marriage, and indicates that the richness of human love is a microcosm of the larger love of God.


C. D. Ginsburg, The Song of Songs (1857); W. H. Schoff (ed.), The Song of Songs: A Symposium (1924); L. Waterman, The Song of Songs (1948); W. Pouget and J. Guitton, Canticle of Canticles (1948); D. Buzy, Le Cantique des Cantiques (1949); H. H. Rowley, The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays (1952), 189-234; R. Gordis, The Song of Songs (1954); T. J. Meek, IB, V (1956), 91-148; H. Ringgren, Das Hohe Lied (1958); R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (1969), 1049-1058.

See also

  • Song of Songs