Background

In the Hebrew Bible the book receives its name from the words in the opening verse, “song of songs,” that is, the best of songs. Because the opening verse also ascribes the song to Solomon, the title “Song of Solomon” has been assigned to the book in many English versions.1The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.

Authorship

Internal evidence indicates a single author and a unified book. Consistency of literary style and vocabulary and the chiastic structure (A-B-B-A structure) of the book with refrains are best explained as the work of one person.

The internal evidence in the book also points to Solomon, David’s son and the third king of Israel, as the author. Song of Songs 1:1 is thus traditionally understood as indicating authorship, though it may be translated “to/for/about Solomon.” Several other aspects point to Solomon as the author:

  • The work seems to reflect a time prior to the divided kingdom since mention is made of a variety of geographic names and places as though all were part of the same kingdom (Jerusalem, Carmel, Sharon, Lebanon, Engedi, Harmon, Tirzah, Heshbon).
  • The author’s knowledge of animal and plant life correlates well with Solomon’s vast learning (see 1 Kings 4:33).
  • The mention of horses and Pharaoh’s chariots (SS 1:9) fits well with 1 Kings 10:28 and Solomon’s use of horses from Egypt.

As John Brug also notes, “The literary style and grammar of the Song also harmonize well with Solomonic authorship. The closest poetic parallels to the Song are Egyptian love songs from the last centuries of the Second Millennium B.C. The views on sexuality expressed in the Song are also found in parallel passages in the other books which are attributed to Solomon (Ec 9:9; Pr 5:15-20).”2Brug, John F. Commentary on Song of Songs. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1995. 7. References to Solomon or the “king” in the third person are reminiscent of a number of Davidic psalms prepared for public use and do not necessitate ascribing authorship to someone other than Solomon.

Purpose for Writing

The interpretation of the Song of Songs has stirred many discussions and debates, both ancient and modern. The progression of thought has proven difficult to determine, and there is no plot by normal definition. Because of its use of rare Hebrew words, the difficulties involved in determining when one speaker stops and another starts, and prevailing questions about the theme or purpose of the book, the Song has earned the title of the “most challenging” or “most perplexing” Old Testament book. Its setting and historical background are vague and the characters are somewhat ambiguous. Centuries of intense scrutiny by people of various religious traditions and theological backgrounds have yielded little consensus regarding the interpretation of the Song.

There are some interpretive approaches scholars have suggested but which we do not find compelling. Among these are the following:

  1. The Song is an ancient Hebrew play, comparable to Greek dramatic pieces. The dramatic script was likely prepared for royal entertainment.
  2. The Song is a cultic (or mythological) Hebrew adaptation of a Mesopotamian fertility cult liturgy. [The word “beloved” is a reference to the god Dod, the Syro-Palestinian equivalent of the Mesopotamian Tammuz.] The fertility ritual was somewhat adapted to make it acceptable for Israelite use.
  3. The Song is part of a collection of wedding poems, a series of songs honoring the bride and groom that was eventually formalized into a cycle of recitations at nuptials.

These interpretations downplay religion in general and leave little or no room for special revelation in this particular portion of Scripture.

Some see the Song as a real event that Solomon or some other author composed into a poetic story.  Others see it as a teaching song with a moral.  Others combine these two interpretations.  Some see it as allegorical, symbolizing one of many possibilities: God’s relationship with humankind, God’s love for his people, the love of Christ as bridegroom to his bride the Church, etc.  This allegorical approach is perhaps the oldest and perhaps the most popular approach to the Song in Jewish and Christian traditions, despite the fact that the book nowhere claims to be an allegory.

Cap Ehlke offers this suggestion: “Rather than trying to categorize it, it seems best to let the book speak for itself in the light of the rest of Scripture. The book speaks of love and marriage. At the same time it is impossible to speak of these subjects without reference to Christ, the heavenly bridegroom, and his love for us. For Christians, these are not unrelated subjects.”3Ehlke, Roland Cap. Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1988. 141. John Brug also reminds us, “Choosing between these two poles of interpretation [i.e., the literal and the allegorical] or finding the proper balance between them is the major challenge which confronts every interpreter of the Song. Neither approach is without problems. Each offers insight.”4Brug, John F. Commentary on Song of Songs. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1995. 16. Brug’s concluding words on this subject are also worthy of thought:

Neither a purely sexual nor a purely spiritual approach to the Song accounts for all its depths and all its details. Neither interpretation eliminates all the problems and difficulties. Because of this tension the interpreter would be wise to present the insights and applications of both of these approaches to the Song. This is the way we generally proceed whenever we encounter a legitimate exegetical question in a text. We state both possibilities, give the evidence for each, show that both interpretations are scriptural, and perhaps state our preference in this case…

The Song declares that human sexual love is good. It must be, if it serves as a type of divine love. In one sense, human marriage is the original point of reference in the Song. But in another, more profound sense, God’s love for his people is the original point of reference. Divine love is the pattern for human love, both our love for God and our love for others…The Song causes us to celebrate the mystery and beauty of love between man and woman, but it also raises our eyes to behold the love of God for his people and their love for him.”5Brug, John F. Commentary on Song of Songs. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1995. 91-92.

Date of Writing

Since Song of Songs is assumed to have been written by Solomon, its composition would be dated sometime between 970 and 930 BC, the beginning and end of his reign.

Christ Connection

This song talks about the love of a man and woman in marriage. It can also serve as a picture of God’s love for us. Jesus is our Bridegroom and the Church is his Beloved (Mt 9:15; Jn 3:28-29; Rev 19:6-9). “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Notable Passages

  • Song of Songs 1:2
  • Song of Songs 2:4
  • Song of Songs 8:6

Outline

Traditionally, those who have attempted to analyze the Song’s structure have ended up frustrated and willing to admit that the task was difficult indeed. Part of the problem is the difficulty in determining who is speaking at a particular time in the love poetry. Varied interpretations of the contents of the book are also contributing factors. Readers favoring three rather than two primary characters, for example, will suggest outlines that reflect that position. Briefly stated, there are three basic theories about the Song’s structure:

  1. The Song is not a unified composition but a collection of love poems (hence a “song of songs,” that is, a composite song made up of many smaller ones).
  2. The Song is a poetic narrative, telling a romantic story that has a progression (for example, initial meeting, disagreements, reconciliation, marriage, more disagreements and ultimately reconciliation and a happy ending).
  3. The Song is a carefully crafted yet complex composition that speaks of love, but not with a chronologically progressive story. It is more of a “mood piece” centering in emotions viewed from various perspectives, with the material presented cyclically.

The Song of Songs is a chiasm (has an A-B-B-A structure), but with corresponding sections of unequal length. “At the midpoint of the book, the echoing cries of the lovers mark the turning point of the chiastic structure” (SS 4:16, 5:1).6Brug, John F. Commentary on Song of Songs. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1995. 1.

Here is an outline that assumes three main characters in the drama:

  1. The Shulammite Maiden in Solomon’s Harem (SS 1:1-3:5)
  2. Solomon Woos the Shulammite Maiden (SS 3:6-7:9)
  3. The Shulammite Maiden Rejects King Solomon (SS 7:10-8:4)
  4. The Shulammite Maiden and her Shepherd-Lover are Reunited (SS 8:5-14)7Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament.

Here is an outline based on the viewpoint that there are two main characters:

  1. Mutual affection between the lovers (SS 1:1-2:7)
  2. Mutual seeking & finding of the lovers (SS 2:8-3:5)
  3. Fetching of the Bride & the Marriage (SS 3:6-5:1)
  4. Love scorned but won again (SS 5:2-6:9)
  5. The Shulammite as an attractive, humble princess (SS 6:10-8:4)
  6. Ratification of the love covenant in her home (SS 8:5-14)8Keil, C. F., and F. Delitzsch. Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament. 1857-1878.

References   [ + ]

1. The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.
2. Brug, John F. Commentary on Song of Songs. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1995. 7.
3. Ehlke, Roland Cap. Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1988. 141.
4. Brug, John F. Commentary on Song of Songs. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1995. 16.
5. Brug, John F. Commentary on Song of Songs. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1995. 91-92.
6. Brug, John F. Commentary on Song of Songs. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1995. 1.
7. Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament.
8. Keil, C. F., and F. Delitzsch. Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament. 1857-1878.