While some English Bibles will call this book the ”Song of Solomon,” its Hebrew title is ”Song of Songs.” The grammatical construction of a singular of the plural of the same thing is the way in Hebrew to do the superlative. Thus this is the ”best song” – it is the song of all songs! The book follows Proverbs and Ruth in the traditional Hebrew order suggesting that the woman in the song is another ”worthy woman/wife.” Thus the very placement of the song into this canonical order influences the way that we read the book. This order suggests that the couple did not have a sexual relationship before marriage. After all, Ruth and Boaz did not have such a relationship until after Boaz married her. And we can hardly imagine that the woman in the poem would be a worthy woman (as in Proverbs 31:10 and Ruth 3:11, i.e. that she would make a worthy wife) had she done so.
The traditional assumption has been that we are to read this book as a story of the love of God for Israel or Christ for His church. We also saw with Ruth the book does have a liturgical purpose. Reading the Song on Passover does suggest a message of God’s love for Israel. However, it is possible that the original liturgical purpose was for use in wedding celebrations. There has been a habit of excessive allegorization in the history of its interpretation (i.e. Bernard of Clairvoux’s 8 sermons on 1:2).
Yet, I would suggest that understanding the book is not as simple as saying it is either erotic poetry or it is a love story of God for His people. After all, from the first poem in Genesis 2:23 the marriage relationship has been a parable for the relationship of God and His people. Reading Song of Songs in the larger context of the Hebrew Scriptures suggests then that there is a relationship between the love of the man and woman in the poem to the love of God for His people.
Reading Song of Songs in the context of the ‘Writings’ (the third part of the Hebrew canon) suggests that we are to read the book as wisdom literature. This is reinforced by the mention of Solomon in the first verse. Thus Song of Songs is not just erotic poetry for the sake of erotic poetry but it is instruction for daily living – a helpful guide for living in harmony with the order of creation. This is not instruction aimed exclusively at the intellect, but at the whole person – thus it is poetry.
The book is set in the context of the Megilloth next to Qoheleth, which also has a Solomonic connection. However, there are several persuasive reasons to believe that neither the Song nor Qoheleth were written by Solomon himself. The connection with Solomon influences its placement in the English Bible too. Instead of preceding Ecclesiastes, in English the order is Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. It is for this reason that many who read the books in this English order feel so strongly that Proverbs (except parts added later?), Ecclesiastes, and the Song were all written by Solomon himself. However, the English order makes no sense whatsoever to have the Song followed by Isaiah. The only explanation would simply be that it is the end of the poetry and Isaiah is the beginning of the Prophets.
In the context of the Megilloth, Song of Songs is balanced by Lamentations.
This is appropriate given the contrasting poetical styles – Song of Songs is erotic poetry and Lamentations is sad poetry. These are contrasting emotions.
In the context of the Writings, remember that the first book of the Writings is the Psalms. Song of Songs is a psalter. The major difference between Song of Songs and Psalms is that in the Psalms each one is numbered whereas there are no titles or numbers given to the Song of Songs.
The fact that the book is poetry should lead you to expect that everything that we have said about poetry (especially those poetic devices we discussed when looking at Psalms) applies to this text as well. Thus we will not expect to find rhyming in the Hebrew (rhyming is not a feature of Hebrew poetry), but we will find parallelism, imagery, terseness, and a host of secondary devices we previously explored at length. But remember it is not just poetry, it is a psalter.
Its presence as a psalter also supports a worship setting, especially weddings, and thus its liturgical use as we mentioned earlier. However, the Song of Songs does not have musical directions (like those added to the Psalms) nor does the Hebrew text tell us when the speaker changes. English Bibles attempt to interpret which person is speaking for you, but not all English Bibles will agree about to whom the text is to be read. To be sure the cultural distance (like the different ideas of beauty from the ANE to today) make this book difficult to use in a modern liturgical context. But the lack of clarity for us (likely not a problem back at the time) as to the speaker does make it even harder.
Another issue is the expectation that the Song will tell us a story. We would think that the Song will tell us a short story that somehow fits into the big story of God’s redemption of His people. It is the assumption that Song of Songs is telling a short story leads to a few interpretive mistakes. For example, there is clearly some activity that would be inappropriate between a man and a woman who were not yet married before chapter 3. Yet it is in chapter 3 that we see a wedding. This has lead many modern liberal scholars to assume that the couple was having intercourse before they got married. The problem is that these interpreters have failed to not only interpret the book within its canonical context but they have also failed to read the book in light of its genre. The book is an anthology of songs or poems. The characters stay the same throughout the anthology, but they are not arranged in order to tell a story. We often look for a story because that is what we expect to see, but there is no story there.
Tremper Longman gives a helpful overview of these issues of genre in his commentary that I read some years ago. He also compares the Song to other ANE love poetry (including Egyptian love poetry). He is not suggesting that the Song borrows from the literature of these cultures, just that this is the world into which the Song was written and that the author was likely familiar with such literature.
The people of Israel recognized the canonical status of the Song, but like others among the Writings it was a book that would lead some to wonder. The primary objection to the Song as Scripture would be the fact that it is erotic poetry and as such is inappropriate for inclusion in the Scriptures. In other words, some would exclude the book because they had preconcieved notions about what kind of literature God would want to include. Rabbi Aqiba apparently said, ”God forbid! – no man in Israel ever disputed about the Song of Songs [that he should say] that it does not render the hands unclean, for all the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (as quoted in Longman’s commentary). The context was a disagreement about the canonical status of the book where Rabbi Yose was doing what Rabbi Aqiba says ”God forbid!” To render the hands unclean is an expression indicating that the book was the word of God. It would render the hands unclean if it is Scripture because touching it required a ceremonial washing in Jewish tradition.
The problem for us is that while we do recognize that the Song is God’s Word such that you will find it in any English Bible, yet (as Gerald Bray has noted) its lack of use would suggest that it does not function as canonical in much of the church. In other words, the question is whether the book will continue to function as Scripture in the life of the church. The most natural way for it to do so, of course, would be in the liturgy for weddings, but perhaps it also should be read on Sunday mornings and also at least periodically be the text preached. Yet we run into the same problem that people have always had with the book…people think it is inappropriate to talk about those things. While I myself have not preached through the whole book, most recently I preached from the Song on Christmas Eve.
Longman says, ”The Song of Songs has a large, but often neglected, contribution to make to the religious community and to society. In the first place, it affirms love, sex, and, if read properly within the context of the canon, marriage. Second, it warns readers that such an intense emotion has its dangers.” He also notes the following about reading the book within its canonical context: ”Human sexuality is part of the story of the creation, fall, and redemption of human relationships. God created marriage (Genesis 2), but that relationship was harmed by sin (Genesis 3). Yet the Song holds out the promise of healing, though complete harmony in relationships awaits the eschaton.” This is especially fitting given the function of wisdom literature that we noted earlier.
The shape of the Hebrew Scriptures is such that we have the Torah where Moses spoke with God face to face, the Prophets who received revelation in dreams and visions, and then the Writings – the least direct form of inspiration of the three. Therefore, the Writings told Israel how to live during a period when prophecy had ceased. Seeing that we too live during a time when prophecy has ceased – when the canon is even closed, it should serve a similar function for us today.
Marriage is such an important human relationship that God has given us this book in order to mold and form us – male and female – into His image. Thus this book is practical wisdom – wisdom that is not just thinking but doing – wisdom that shapes the whole person. We might even say that it is sacramental wisdom. I do not mean that the book is about the sacraments of the Old or New Testaments, even though the tradition would develop of reading it on Passover. I mean it in the way that I was recently reading in Steven Garber’s forthcoming book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. Somehow the Song connects this wisdom about living in sync with the created order on earth to heaven. Marriage and intimacy in that union somehow is even an everyday signpost pointing to the new heavens and earth. Thinking of the book as sacramental explains both the impulse to read it on Passover and the impulse to read it allegorically as about a relationship between God and Israel. Yet it also allows us to think of the book as first and foremost as practical wisdom for life.
No doubt some unaware of the traditional Hebrew order of the Scriptures will still reach this level of understanding, it is just much easier to get there the way we have laid it out.