Before going into an in depth study, which as far as this book is concerned is about the words of the Song and their meaning and application, it is helpful to set out one’s stall, make general points, state objectives, establish principles of interpretation, etc., although it is easy to over dwell on these things as I did in the past, and as a result fail to get going. Yet there are several relevant or at least helpful points I would like to make before considering the text.
I am working on the premise that the Song was written by King Solomon (971-931 BC) (although I am given to understand most modern scholars question this, and even if they are correct it does not matter all that much) and I have no doubt, along with my ancient forbearers who had to decide on such matters, it is rightly included as part of the Bible, which is the God inspired canon of scriptures, one of 66 quite different books that make it up. While Solomon may have been the wisest man who ever has lived, because God gifted him with wisdom, of the 1005 songs it was said that he had composed, this was his Song of Songs. Therein lies a message that needs to be heard, not merely because of Solomon’s credentials but because it is from God and this short love poem (just 117 verses) was meant for our edification. While the Song may have been written by a man who ended up with 700 wives and 300 concubines (hardly a good advert), it was about true love and its main focus was on two lovers wholly besotted with each another. Not that it matters all that much, but I am going to work on the basis that Solomon was the lover, who initially is disguised as a shepherd, and a simple country girl, the one true love of his life, although some commentators have introduced a love triangle: a powerful would be lover (Solomon the king) wanting to extend his harem, competing with a humble shepherd for the love of the same girl, with the latter being her one and only true love, an interpretation I am not keen on as being too convoluted and incompatible with the plain text.
While the Song may be seen by some as a semi-erotic thriller that has no place in the canon of scripture, as far as God is concerned the love in this Song is good and wholesome and, moreover, parallels something of His love for his human creation. Because the Song is mainly speeches, especially by the woman, with limited narrative, it is not entirely obvious what precisely the story from beginning to end is. The way I see the Song is it is about a developing love relationship, with many of the ups and downs, successes and struggles, challenges and obstacles, as is seen in many a successful marriage, and ends with a hopeful anticipation of what is yet to be. While there are aspects that appear (and are) quite sensual and it is not entirely clear when exactly marriage took place, I sense there is also a sense of due decorum in the way the two interacted and the way the affair was consummated, if indeed it was. Given the Song uses imagery to do with physical love making, it merely underlines that as far as God is concerned sex is good in the right setting, even though this was one aspect ancient commentators often overlooked.
One of the reasons for so many differences in understanding concerning the Song over the years is there have been many interpretations, often to do with the commentators theological and cultural perspectives and preoccupations, including those to do with the natural and spiritual worlds and their importance. Sometimes these have been conflicting, sometimes widely, and has given rise to ludicrously, fanciful interpretations. This is not the place to demolish some and promote others (especially those I happen to agree with) but I should state my position, although no doubt it will become evident when I begin to consider the content. As far as my Brethren teachers were concerned, the Song is about Christ’s love for the church, although later I found there were those who saw it as no more than a human love story with a sexual element, and the reason it is included in the Bible is to teach us the right approach to love, sex and marriage. I also later discovered that Jewish scholars saw it relating to Yahweh and Israel and some saw it in terms of an individuals relationship with the divine. It is interesting when checking out commentators from the second to fourth century Church Fathers and then onto mediaeval times and then comparing with what nineteenth and twentieth century Brethren writers wrote, while they differed widely when it came to understanding the specific imagery (and there is a lot of it) contained in the Song, they also had a surprising amount in common, and this despite a Brethren antipathy frequently detected toward Christian preachers operating between the Apostolic age and the Reformation.
Strangely enough it is on the matter of whether to use an allegorical or literal approach to interpretation, we see the biggest difference in approach to interpreting the Song. While I get that we need to be careful not to overly spiritualise especially when there is an obvious earthly interpretation (a significant factor when comparing Hebrew and Greek world views, which respectively influenced the literal and allegorical schools of thought), I have tended to take the view that while the Song is about real life relationships, specifically involving sex and love between two lovers, there is a deeper spiritual meaning to be gleaned and it is this that I have tended to place more emphasis on. As for using other scriptures to interpret the Song, other than an underlying narrative likening God’s love to Israel with that of a lover to his beloved (e.g. ref. Isaiah 54 and Hosea 2), and one that likens Christ’s love to the Church with that of a bridegroom to his bride (e.g. ref. Ephesians 5 and Revelation 19), the Song is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. Unlike with several Psalms that are quoted at length in the New Testament as relating to aspects of the life of Jesus, meaning these can be simultaneously viewed in two time frames, present and future, relating to present and messianic contexts, it does not happen with the Song and is the reason some modern commentators reject any notion that the Song as anything other than a story with moral overtones.
I have thought long and hard about how best to commentate on the Song, realizing whatever conclusions I draw will relate to my understanding. I would concur with the traditional understanding that the Song is about God’s/Christ’s love to Israel/the Church/an individual who seeks Him. But I also accept there is a story involving real people that celebrate many aspects of love, sex and marriage. Who the two lovers were, we can’t be sure, but I am happy to work on the basis it was a young King Solomon, possibly on vacation on one of his country estates, who in the guise of a shepherd successfully woos a simple, humble country girl, who to start with is oblivious of his true identity and, as they get to know each other, so their love deepens. Besides talk of siblings, royal entourages and city watchmen, often mentioned in passing, the only other characters of note were what I might describe as the chorus and referred to in the Song as the “Daughters of Jerusalem”. They knew a lot about the lover and could comment and ask and answer questions to/from the beloved but did not have the intimate relationship with the lover the beloved had, leading me to think that there are many like that and what the Song urges on us is the need to pursue love and not be a mere bystander, having pure intimacy with our lover (earthly and heavenly) and fired up for the Lord.
The Song touches on all sorts of important themes as we will see. It also alludes to something that is incredibly important, and that is the relationship of a man with his spouse. Its complementary nature is important as it particularly mirrors how the divine and human may interact. This relationship has always come under attack, especially today, e.g. through divorce, sex outside of marriage, pornography and now same sex marriage. These topics need to be treated sensitively but my reading of the Song is the relationship being entered into was permanent, exclusive and complementary. While there are many needs around us, the need for strong, healthy marriages is among the greatest. Moreover, marriage mirrors how things were meant to be with God and His creation and one day will be. My point is we can both spiritualize the Song and touch on nitty gritty stuff like how to make love to one’s spouse being attentive to the other’s needs. The Song may well be about sexual ethics but it is this higher yearning for God that I see as even more significant and is what has thrilled and led me to making a lifetime study of the Song. We need to have a rich, balanced understanding of the Song, but all these things must be kept in mind. While some of the great themes of scripture are better dealt with elsewhere in the Bible, one of the wonderful discoveries over the years is that the Song touches on many of them, in a sublime and profound way that perfectly complements what we can read about elsewhere in scripture.
Regarding the chapters of this commentary which is to follow, there is a chapter dedicated to each chapter of the Song, considering the text verse by verse and trying to throw light on what is said, realizing that to a good extent, chapter divisions and verses are arbitrary and sub plots cross chapter boundaries. I sympathise with those who discern in the Song random looking backwards and forwards pivoted around the wedding procession in chapter 3 but, as I see it, it is about a maturing love with a glorious anticipation finale of the best that is yet to come. My final chapter is about tying up loose ends and looking again at the bigger picture and some of the stuff that could have been considered but wasn’t. This work represents fifty years of work in progress and it will remain so unto my dying day but afterwards I really will understand what is true love, that love which is stronger than death, the love that many waters cannot quench, the love that cannot be brought, ignored and contrived. It is the love that relates as much to the spiritual world as to the natural one and is a love that focusses on giving rather than getting, the sort we need more of, the absence of which prevents the Church being the glorious Bride alluded to in scripture.
When it comes to understanding what each phrase means and drawing applications for the present, I confess my approach may appear to be rather hit and miss and this despite having referred to many commentaries and dictionaries in order to understand better. There are several reasons for this, e.g. I may miss something important (even the best commentators do that), I don’t get the significance of the imagery used and have to confess my ignorance, and I would rather focus on those things where I know I can encourage others knowing there will be others to pick up on what I have missed. I realise I could spend many years contemplating the imagery, language, historical context, theology of the Song and there are literally thousands of commentaries I could turn to. But that would be missing the point. On one hand I want to give a true and faithful account of what is in the Song but I also want to point out the Song is meant for simple, unlearned folk as much as the sophisticated and wise. I would venture to suggest this is a song for lovers who want to love, those who love their human partner (although there are some who don’t have an earthly partner to love), but also it is for those who love the divine (which could be all of us), and for such there are rich pickings to be found beyond one’s wildest dreams, for the secret of understanding, if that is what it is, is theirs.
While there is tremendous scope when trying to discern and then apply the message of the Song, I am convinced that for those who are intent on pursuing this journey of love, the secret of having understanding will be theirs should they wish it. When surveying the Bible, beginning to end, Genesis to Revelation, the reoccurring theme is God wanting to relate to man, that relationship being broken and finally restored. In some ways and at its height the Song portrays that relationship, the one God always intended for you and for me. Finally, I should state that I will be quoting from the King James Version of the Bible because it is what I am used to and I think the translation of what is essentially poetry comes over better in the KJV than in all other versions, for besides containing lessons to be learned there is also poetry to be enjoyed, and like a lot of poetry there are hidden depths to be delved, and just as “deep calls unto deep at the noise of your waterfall” Psalm 42:7, there is more to be revealed in heaven’s store. As an entrée to wet appetites, I quote from three of many who have something insightful to share:
“Heaven forbid that any man in Israel ever disputed that the Song of Songs is holy. For the whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy and the Song of Songs is holy of holies.” Rabbi Akiba
“To spouses who ‘have become impatient on the way’ and who succumb to the dangerous temptation of discouragement, infidelity, weakness, abandonment… To them too, God the Father gives his Son Jesus, not to condemn them, but to save them: if they entrust themselves to him, he will bring them healing by the merciful love which pours forth from the Cross”. Pope Francis
“Pope Benedict XVI‘s encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) of 2006 refers to the Song of Songs in both its literal and allegorical meaning, stating that erotic love (eros) and self-donating love (agape) is shown there as the two halves of true love, which is both giving and receiving.” Wikipedia on Song of Solomon