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Old Testament: Song of Solomon

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Summary

Solomon, Ingobertus (ca 880)

The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is a unified collection of poetry on the theme of human love, following the relationship of a man and a woman from courtship and onward. This book has frequently been read as an allegory of God's love for Israel (in Jewish communities) or of Christ's love for the church and for individual believers (in Christian communities).

So What?

An allegorical reading of the Song has given it meaning for countless generations of Jews and Christians, which reminds us that the biblical texts function as living word in a variety of times, cultures, and unexpected ways. Still, the best reading today is the literal one, assuming that the book is what it appears to be: poetry celebrating human love and sexuality, which biblical faith regards as good gifts of God in creation. The Song takes unbridled delight in the bonds of love, even while recognizing the pains and turmoil they can bring along the way toward their fulfillment.

Where Do I Find It?

The Song of Solomon is the twenty-third book of the Christian Old Testament. It is the last of the books characterized as the "Writings" and immediately precedes the biblical prophets, beginning with Isaiah.

Who Wrote It?

The Song is ascribed to Solomon the king, but, as with the Psalms and Proverbs, there is no way of verifying its authorship.

When Was It Written?

The language suggests to some that the final form of the Song of Solomon was attained in the fourth or third century B.C.E. Other interpreters have argued, however, that the Song may, indeed, have originated during the Solomonic era.

What's It About?

The Song praises the glories and delights of love between a man and a woman, an element of God's good creation.

How Do I Read It?

The delights of love have always and everywhere found their highest expression in poetry, which is how the Song of Songs must be read. It uses language that is vivid, imaginative, unguarded, and ecstatic in its depiction of the most personal and intimate of human relationships. The book is best read as a euphoric expression of human experience, which in itself reflects the generous gifts of the Creator.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, David Stewart, Director of Library Services

I. The Song of Songs (Song of Solomon 1:1)
In its title, the book identifies itself as a "song of songs" (that is, a superlative song) and points to a relationship between the book and Solomon.

II. The Two Lovers Appear (Song of Solomon 1:2-2:7)
The young woman and young man introduce themselves with descriptions of their longing for one another.

III. Seeking the Beloved (Song of Solomon 2:8-3:5)

The woman is beckoned by the voice of her beloved (2:8-15), and she declares her love and allegiance to him, rising from her bed to seek the one "whom my soul loves" (2:16-3:5).

IV. A Royal Wedding (Song of Solomon 3:6-11)
The woman envisions a royal wedding procession, perhaps fantasizing about her own wedding to come.

V. The Man in Praise of His Lover (Song of Solomon 4:1-5:1)

The man sings the praises of his beloved, describing her in vivid poetic imagery.

VI. Love's Challenges (Song of Solomon 5:2-6:3)
Again, the woman hears the voice of her beloved and goes to seek him, enduring an attack of the city sentinels. She describes her lover to her friends, who wonder where he has gone.

VII. Mutual Longings (Song of Solomon 6:4-13)
The man returns to a loving description of his beloved, his "only one." She, in turn, seeks him in her fantasy.

VIII. Love That Lasts Forever (Song of Solomon 7:1-8:7)
In this dialogue, the man sings of his praise and his longing for the woman (7:1-9), and she declares her love and commitment to him, singing of the fierce and enduring passion of their mutual love.

IX. Concluding Dialogue (Song of Solomon 8:8-14)

The closing verses report the reconciliation of the woman with her brothers and one more announcement of the longing and commitment of the two lovers.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, David Stewart, Director of Library Services

The question of how the Song of Solomon found a place in the biblical canon, for either Jews or Christians, is likely to occur almost immediately to any thoughtful reader. Read on its own terms as love poetry, rather than through the lenses of tradition, it stands as a frankly secular poem, depicting the deepening affections and passions between two very young lovers. There is no mention of God and there are no explicit theological themes.

Many interpreters have found in the Song elements of Egyptian love poetry or themes related to Canaanite fertility religion. Others see it as the product of a time and place where love poetry was written to be performed at banquets by professional singers.

The Song's invocation of Solomon suggests a connection with Israel's wisdom tradition, material that typically deals with issues of human life and conduct in this world.

Within the Christian church, the Song has often been read allegorically, on the conviction that its richest and fullest meaning cannot be found in its literal sense. By this reckoning, the book's value and stature rest upon the fact that it poetically describes and points forward to Christ's love for the church and for individual Christians. Early Christian writers, especially Origen (about 185-254 C.E.), read the Song in this way. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (twelfth century C.E.) composed eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs along these lines.

Today, the Song is generally read, as it should be, on its own terms as a beautiful poetic love song; yet, we can also hear in it-properly, no doubt-ancient and medieval overtones of an erotic interpretation of the relationship between humans and God.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, David Stewart, Director of Library Services

Allegorical interpretation. The Song of Solomon has sometimes offended readers by its frank portrayal of erotic love, but, read allegorically, it became very attractive to Christian readers throughout history who found in the book an extended metaphor of Christ's love for the church. Sometimes the allegorical reading has suppressed the plain meaning of the text, but it need not do so. The book's description of romantic, passionate, and erotic love between a young woman and man celebrates and appreciates this aspect of God's good creation, while the allegorical approach adds its own dimension. Properly understood, this reading does not deny the joys and wonders of human love, but rather incorporates these elements into the human experience of God. Especially in the church's early and medieval history, mystics and theologians were willing to embrace such notions of the divine-human relationship-one as close as the erotic relation of human lovers.

Relation to Solomon. The mention of Solomon in the book's title (and, in a literary inclusion, also at the end) has frequently been taken to mean Solomonic authorship. It is probably better, however, to see the traditional relation between the Wisdom literature (including the Song) and Solomon as similar to the relation between the Psalms and David. Just as David was the paradigmatic singer of Israel, so Solomon was the paradigmatic wisdom teacher. David was seen as the patron of the psalms, Solomon as the patron of the wisdom tradition. Solomon's glory is invoked also in the depiction of the royal wedding in 3:6-11. The issue here, as often in biblical royal language, is not monarchic rule and hierarchy, but rather the pomp and grandeur of the royal court that serves as a small reminder of the glorious kingship of God.

Wisdom tradition. The Song of Solomon has been seen throughout history as part of the Bible's Wisdom literature. Wisdom's chief concern is the conduct of human life in the created order under God, rather than the direct theological exploration of God's redemptive work in history. Despite the Song's lack of any direct mention of God, its association with Solomon shows that it understands itself to be a part of Israel's life and history, marking even its explicit portrayal of human love and sexuality as part of God's good creation to be used wisely, respected, and enjoyed.

"Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon." Few modern, young women would be flattered by this comparison (7:4), not to mention the observation that "your hair is like a flock of goats" (4:1) and "your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes" (4:2)! These and other poetic images in the Song are, of course, specific to a particular time and culture and do not always translate well into another era. The point is to compare the beloved to objects of beauty, value, and desire in the world of the text. These verses show clearly the necessary cross-cultural considerations in an attempted translation and application of biblical texts, especially of biblical poetry.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, David Stewart, Director of Library Services

Creation, love, sexuality, and God. Although the Song of Solomon nowhere speaks directly of God, its inclusion as part of the Bible's Wisdom literature makes clear that it understands human love and sexuality as gifts of the Creator to be enjoyed by God's human creatures. Twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth describes vividly the Bible's surprising delight in "the eros for which there is no…shame," both in Genesis 2 and in the Song:

"The Song of Songs is one long description of the rapture, the unquenchable yearning and the restless willingness and readiness, with which both partners in this covenant [their relationship with God the Creator] hasten towards an encounter….God the Lord and sexual eros…are brought into close relationship….The authors of Gen. 2 and the Song of Songs speak of man and woman as they do because they know that the broken covenant is still for God the unbroken covenant, intact and fulfilled on both sides" (Church Dogmatics III/1, pages 313-315).

In other words, in its daring and provocative praise of love and sexuality, the Song of Solomon celebrates the relationship between man and woman under God as God intends it and as God still sees it: as pure and innocent, even in all its full physical sensuality--a sense that, despite all difficulties, human lovers can still sometimes experience and enjoy.

Garden. The Song's frequent use of images from nature, including several explicit references to a "garden," is bound to remind readers of the Genesis story of the garden of Eden. The poet wants to transport the audience back to a time of innocence: a world of harmony among man and woman and God, a time of sexuality without shame.

Love and death. According to the Song, "love is strong as death" (8:6). That is, love, like death, is an elemental force beyond human control, a power that humans cannot escape. Human language gets something right when it speaks of "falling" in love. That does not mean, of course, that love and death are outside the realm of divine concern or of human ethics; but it does give readers pause in any attempt to trivialize or to "master" too easily the human experience of love and sexuality.

Marriage, human and divine. The Bible uses marriage frequently and vividly as a metaphor to describe the divine-human relationship (Isaiah 54:5; 62:5; Romans 7:4; Ephesians 5:22-23; Revelation 19:7-9; etc.). The themes of delight and celebration of love that course through the Song of Solomon do not require allegory to be read as reflecting the love of God for God's people.

Sexuality and intimacy. In recent years, similarities or parallels have been noted between the harmony between man and woman in Eden (Genesis 2) and in the Song of Songs. The closely related themes of intimacy and exclusivity also come into play in this book--intimacy between human lovers and in the tenderness of God's love towards humanity; exclusivity as possessiveness, anger, and jealousy when vows or promises are broken.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, David Stewart, Director of Library Services