INTRODUCTION TO THE POETIC AND WISDOM LITERATURE

Poetry is pervasive in the Hebrew Bible—the only books in the OT without any poetry are Leviticus, Ruth, Esther, Haggai, and Malachi (although 1 Kings and Nehemiah could perhaps be added to this list). In order to be a competent reader of Scripture, one must have some understanding of the nature and conventions of OT poetry: What is it? How does it work? Who wrote it?

Even in English it is not always a simple matter to distinguish poetry from prose. Often the reader is simply guided by the layout of the text: in poetry, each line of poetry has its own line of text; in prose, there are no special line breaks. No such convention can be seen in our oldest biblical Hebrew manuscripts, and only with the work of the medieval Jewish scribes were biblical texts presented in a manner that distinguishes prose and poetry.

“POETS” IN ANCIENT ISRAEL?

If the boundary between prose and poetry is sometimes difficult to discern, so too are the traces of poets in the archaeological record of ancient Israel. While the nations of Israel and Judah had functioning bureaucracies and civil servants as well as a temple complex that required administration and accounts, little explicit evidence remains for the education of the people who filled these positions or for the milieu in which they would have matured and flourished. There is enough to know there was a literate scribal class, but not enough to say how they became such.

In biblical literature, the concerns of poetry and scribes come together. In addition to the Psalms, the biblical Wisdom Books are also books of poetry, and the poets and sages who were responsible for them belonged to that scribal class (e.g., see Prov. 25:1). Even if the extrabiblical record of their activity is minimal, their contribution to the writings that became the Scripture of Israel is immense. Wherever poetry is found in the Bible, one finds literary reflection in the service of worship and godly living.

HEBREW TERMS FOR TYPES OF POEMS

CategoryHebrew TermMeaning
generalshirsong
tehillahprayer, song of praise
zamir/zimrahsong
qinahlament, dirge, with a grieving content
wisdom sayingsmashalproverb
khidahriddle
prophetic poetrymassa’oracular utterance, “burden”

WHAT IS HEBREW “POETRY”?

Poetry is commonly recognized by lines exhibiting rhythm and rhyme, readily exemplified by nursery rhymes: even the simple “One, two, buckle my shoe” demonstrates both aspects. This brief snippet exhibits rhythm (óne, twó, [pause] búckle my shóe), terseness, assonance (the resemblance of the vowel sounds in “one” and “buckle”, and “two” and “shoe”), and rhyme—and this sort of wordcraft can also be seen in the work of the ancient Hebrew poets. Apart from rhyme, conventions such as terse expression, freedom in word order, and an absence of typical prose particles also distinguish biblical Hebrew poetry from prose.

One prominent feature of biblical poetry not found in English poems is that of the “seconding sequence”; that is, a line of Hebrew poetry generally has two parts. The poet’s art allows the relationship between those parts to be crafted in manifold ways. Here is Psalm 19:1:

The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Hashamayim mesapperim kebod ’El

Uma‘aseh yadaw maggid haraqia‘

In the opening of Psalm 19, the heavens in the first part finds an echo in the sky above in the second part; likewise, declare parallels proclaims, and the glory of God partners his handiwork. With nearly one-to-one correspondence, it is obvious why such poetic parallelism has often been called “synonymous”—one of three such categories, the others being “antithetical,” where the second part provides the opposite to the first part (e.g., “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother,” Prov. 10:1), and “synthetic,” where the two parts of the line do not display either of these kinds of semantic relationship.

Assigning a line of poetry to one of these simple categories represents only a first small step in discerning the poet’s art. This “parallel” structure offers the poet a surprisingly rich framework for artistic development: the poet is not simply saying the same thing twice in slightly different terms. The parallel line structure provided Hebrew poets with a means of exploiting similarity and difference on the levels of sound, syntax, and semantics to achieve an artistically compelling expression of their vision. Unfortunately, of these three elements, the first two (sound and syntax) usually do not survive translation. In the Hebrew of Psalm 19:1, both parts of the line are roughly 11/12 syllables, with three stresses in the first part, and four in the second. Syntactically, they form a very neat “envelope” structure, of the a-b-c/c′-b′-a′ pattern: subject-verb-object/object-verb-subject. Such symmetry already begins to express the totality of the poet’s vision.

However, semantics—the meanings of words—are observable in translation. Of course, complete overlap of the meanings of words cannot be sustained across languages, so there is still an advantage to those who can enjoy the poetry in its original setting. While the simple matches across the parts of this first line of Psalm 19 were noted above, there is yet more to be observed. The a:a′ pair (“heavens” and “sky above”) are not precise synonyms. “Heavens” is the more generic term, and occurs well over 400 times in the OT; by contrast, “sky above” (Hb. raqia‘) occurs only 17 times, and nine of those are in the creation account of Genesis 1. Even in this apparently simple development, which exploits the seconding pattern of the parallel line structure, the poet moves from the more generic assertion in the first part to the more specific in the second to display God’s glory in his creative acts (“handiwork”). (Confirmation of this allusion to creation comes in Ps. 19:4, which partners “earth” and “world” so thatPs. 19:1 and Ps. 19:4 together allude to the “heavens and earth” of Gen. 1:1.) Something similar could be noted of the verbs: “declare” (Hb. mesapperim) refers to the simple act of rehearsal or recounting; “proclaim” (Hb. maggid) on the other hand brings the nuance of announcement, of revelation, of news. This invitation to savor the wonder of creation’s wordless confession of the glories of God (Ps. 19:1–4a), then, forms a profound counterpart to the famous reflection on the verbal expressions of the will of the Lord found in the law (Ps. 19:7–11).

Many lines of Hebrew verse do not offer this kind of parallel correspondence, however. Sometimes simple grammatical dependency binds the parts together (e.g., Ps. 19:3), or the first part asks a question that the second part answers (Ps. 19:12). Sometimes there is a narrative development (Ps. 19:5, 13), sometimes an escalation or intensification of terms (Ps. 19:1, 10). These few examples are drawn from a single psalm with fairly regular features; surveying the entire poetic corpus would add a myriad of possibilities. Consistently, however, the art and craft of the Bible’s poems offers an invitation to read slowly, to have one’s vision broadened, one’s perception deepened—or, as it was put above, to see literary reflection in the service of worship and godly living.

WHERE IS POETRY FOUND IN THE OT?

Poetry is pervasive throughout the OT, in spite of the fact there is no word in biblical Hebrew for “poem.” The medieval Jewish scholars responsible for the accentuation of the Hebrew text of the Bible used a distinct notation for Psalms, Job, and Proverbs (their order in the Hebrew Bible) that marked these books as “poetic.” However, as the chart below shows, Hebrew terms may refer to a particular kind of poem, and thus illustrate their wide diffusion. As this simple (and partial) list demonstrates, poetry is at home in every part of Israelite life.

Songs and prayers of praise and lament most naturally cluster in the book of Psalms, although they can be found elsewhere in the OT as well (e.g., 2 Samuel 22 [and Psalm 18]; 1 Chronicles 16; Habakkuk 3). There is considerable overlap here, with some of the “epic poetry” found in the Pentateuch (e.g.,Genesis 49; Exodus 15; Deuteronomy 32; 33) and beyond (Judges 5). Wisdom and “song” often come together (e.g., Ps. 49:4), and the parallel structure of the Hebrew poetic line was a perfect vehicle for proverbial sayings (Proverbs 10–31). Likewise, the dialogues of the book of Job (Job 3–41) are formed entirely in poetry. The book of Lamentations contains a collection of qinah poems, whose acrostic structure also forges a connection to a “wisdom” form of composition (see further that book’sintroduction). The term massa’ points to a connection with the Hebrew prophets, whose oracles were normally delivered in verse form. The greater part of Isaiah–Malachi is written in poetry: while definitions of a “prophet” may vary, the writing prophets at any rate may at least be said to be poets.

WHAT IS HEBREW “WISDOM”?

Hebrew “wisdom” is readily recognized but difficult to define. Some choose simply to define “wisdom” by the literature that best represents it, so that it becomes a list of books. Since wisdom concerns are scattered widely throughout the Bible, this approach is unhelpfully restrictive. Others choose to define “wisdom” as an outlook, almost a philosophy of life. But different “wisdom” writers have differing emphases, so this approach seems too fragmentary. Further, the wisdom writings are of varied character themselves: there is the instructional or proverbial wisdom of Proverbs (basic instructions in how to live), the contemplative wisdom of Job and Ecclesiastes (pondering the perplexing side of life), and the lyric wisdom of the Song of Solomon (a story celebrating one of God’s best gifts). What the books and outlooks have in common, however, is a keen interest in the way the world works, humanity’s place within it, and how all this operates under God’s creative, sovereign care. Biblical “wisdom,” then, might be defined as skill in the art of godly living, or more fully, that orientation which allows one to live in harmonious accord with God’s ordering of the world. And “Wisdom Literature” consists of those writings that reflect on or inform that orientation.

Unlike psalmody, wisdom does not have an exclusive relationship with poetry. There are wisdom strands throughout the OT. The “court” stories of Joseph, Esther, and Daniel, e.g., all might be said to be “embodied” wisdom. The special connection with the court of Solomon (see esp. 1 Kings 3:1–28; 4:29–34) is well known, and Solomon may be seen as the “patron” of wisdom in the OT (see Prov. 1:1; 10:1; 25:1; Song 1:1; and by implication Eccles. 1:1). Unlike Job and Proverbs, Ecclesiastes’ unique content is communicated in a distinctive style that often defies a simple prose/poetry categorization. By contrast, the lyrical lines of the Song of Solomon’s expressions of love are clearly poetic, but its content stands slightly apart from that typical of the “wisdom” books. Some psalms are devoted to “wisdom” themes (e.g., Psalms 37; 49; 73) and show how keeping the law in joyful response to God’s goodness (e.g., Psalms 1; 19; 119) is the epitome of wise living.

CONTEXTS FOR WISDOM AND POETRY

Given the preceding discussion, the social setting of wisdom writing would by definition be among those of the literate class, and this in turn suggests a setting within the social elite. It is no surprise, then, that wisdom literature finds a strong connection to the royal court, or that the hymnic poetry of the Psalms (associated with David, Jerusalem, and the temple) likewise has pronounced royal overtones. On the other hand, many of the proverbs do not require high-status origins; rather, they more naturally can be thought of as “folk wisdom,” which places their social milieu within the home or clan. It is helpful to distinguish here between wisdom writing, which requires scribal education, and wisdom more generally, which could be found at any level of society.

Poetic conventions and wisdom reflections were not unique to Israel in the ancient Near East. The discovery of the Ugaritic texts, found at modern Ras Shamra on the coast of Syria in 1929 and fully deciphered by the end of 1930, revealed a poetic literature dating to the second half of the second millennium b.c. whose diction shared much with the poetry of the Hebrew Bible. Their discovery stimulated renewed study of biblical Hebrew poetry. The literary remains of Israel’s neighbors have also provided striking parallels to the wisdom literature. Egyptian “instruction” literature evokes strong resonances with Proverbs, the best-known being that of The Instruction of Amenemope (c. 13th centuryb.c.), which has marked similarities to Proverbs 22:17–24:22. Cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia stretching back into the third millennium b.c. wrestle with the problem of the “righteous sufferer” in a manner comparable to the book of Job. There are also points of contact with Aramaic wisdom literature, and parallels may even be drawn with later Greek writings. Some students of the Scriptures are bothered by the parallels with extrabiblical literature. What sense does it make to speak in terms of “inspiration,” when much of Psalm 104, e.g., seems to be shared with Egyptian hymnody? Or when the struggles of Job are paralleled in part by Mesopotamian “righteous sufferer” stories? Here it must be remembered that inspiration is not simply a matter of forms, motifs, or structures, but of content that uses various existing forms in a way that accurately reveals the true and living God and his will for his people.

Two advantages in particular are gained by noting such extrabiblical parallels. (1) They demonstrate that the Bible’s inspired authors both inhabit and challenge their contemporary cultural milieu. The questions of ancient Israelites about life were not so very different from the questions of ancient Egyptians, or Sumerians, or Syrians. To that extent, these cross-connections illustrate the degree to which ancient Israel participated in the wider culture of the ancient Near East. Israel and Judah are sometimes portrayed as if they were a “backwater,” tucked away in a corner of their world, but such literary parallels show their high level of cultural integration. (2) On the other hand, the writers of biblical wisdom were no mere imitators, producing derivative echoes of their cosmopolitan neighbors. In terms of scope, originality, and profundity, the biblical writings remain unrivaled. Indeed, one of the small mysteries about them—Job, Psalms, and Proverbs in particular—is just why they are written on such a grand scale. In terms of range and depth of vision, they far transcend their nonbiblical parallels, their outlook reflecting the greatness of the God who informs and indeed shapes them. Awareness of the distinctive contours of biblical poetry and wisdom sharpens our understanding of the insights and concerns of Israel’s poets and sages.

Poetic and wisdom literature tends to resist a straightforward chronological setting. Rightly understanding the Bible’s histories and prophetic literature depends to an extent on taking their historical context into account; such is not normally the case for Israel’s hymns and wisdom. Evidence from the ancient Near East demonstrates that hymnic and wisdom writings are among the most ancient of literary deposits, and likewise some of the Bible’s poetic compositions may be among its oldest. But it is also clear that throughout the histories of Israel and Judah, Hebrew poets and sages were at work—from earliest days, on past the canonical compositions, up through the Hellenistic period in the post-canonical books of Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon and beyond. Their writings often defy a precise historical setting. To take one example at random, a saying like “Whoever plans to do evil will be called a schemer” (Prov. 24:8) requires no precise historical context, nor do we have the evidence to give it one. While particular poems and prayers (e.g., Psalm 137; see notes) may be tied to a given historical circumstance, such cases remain the exception.

UNIFYING THEMES

Each of the books included in this overarching introduction has distinctive content. Still, in these poetic strands of the Bible, whether inclined toward wisdom or hymnody, there are a number of themes that surface repeatedly. Only a few of the most prominent are discussed here. (For more, see the Key Themes sections in the individual books.)

The fear of the Lord provides a pervasive orientation throughout the Psalms and Wisdom Books. The phrase, or one like it, appears about 60 times in these books, but its significance goes beyond its simple frequency. It also sets the framework in which wise living takes place. So in the book of Job it becomes the leading question of the outer frame of the book (Job 1:9). It nearly brackets the entire collection of the Psalms: the first injunction in the Psalms directs rulers to “serve the Lord with fear” (Ps. 2:11); while to fear the Lord gives one pleasure (Ps. 145:19). Proverbs is permeated with this outlook: not only is “the fear of the Lord … the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7), but so too it is “a fountain of life” (Prov. 14:27). Even the apparently skeptical Ecclesiastes joins in, since whatever else may happen, “God is the one you must fear” (Eccles. 5:7; cf. 8:12; 12:13).

The limits of human wisdom form the natural counterpart to the fear of God. To be sure, there is something about “wisdom” that implies a depth of understanding, in particular of how God has ordered the world and how to live in accord with that divine ordering. The characterization of Solomon’s wisdom as being that of a proto-natural scientist (1 Kings 4:33) points in this direction and sheds light on the nature lesson the Lord gave Job (esp. in Job 38–39). This already implies limits to human wisdom, however, and the two strands (fear of God; human limitations) come together powerfully in Job 28. Again this outlook also informs Ecclesiastes. The several “who knows?” texts point in this direction (e.g., Eccles. 3:21; 6:12), as does the reflection on oath taking (Eccles. 5:2). Contrary to modern secular humanist claims, this is no denigration of human dignity: it is rather to recognize the context in which human freedom is most fully realized (cf. Psalm 8; also Ps. 16:1–11; 108:1–6; etc.).

This literature reflects on the righteous and the wicked in relation to God. This is an ancient problem (cf.Gen. 18:23), and lies at the heart of the first psalm’s evocative portrait of the nature and prospects of the “righteous” contrasting with the fate of the “wicked” (Ps. 1:5–6), a contrast worked out in a sustained way in Psalms 37 and 73. The bulk of the dialogues of Job turn on rightly assessing Job’s character and how this places him in relationship to God. Many proverbs observe the behavior of the righteous and wicked, and the outcomes their actions bring; such reflections are especially dense in Proverbs 10–12, as the collection of axioms gets under way following the book’s extended introduction. As the psalmist of Psalm 73 and the “Preacher” (Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes) noted, the simple correlation of God’s rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked does not always seem to hold (cf. Eccles. 7:15), and so a question of justice is raised, and with it the problem of evil—one of the deepest mysteries faced by people of faith.

This leads in turn to the way in which these books grapple with suffering. Naturally, interest here gravitates to the book of Job. Interpreters differ over just what solution the book offers (see the notes on Job for details), but there can be little doubt that a resolution is achieved in the presence of the Creator, the only place where the meaning of human suffering can be understood. But beyond this, many psalms voice a lament (“lament” providing the largest single category of psalm “type”) that gives voice to this crisis before God (e.g., Psalms 3; 4; 6; 10; 13). Even the only subliminally theological Song of Solomon expresses not only the delights of love satisfied but the agonies of love unfulfilled (e.g.,Song 5:6–8; cf. 8:6–7).

Given that the thread of life before God is woven through each of these books, a further common theme is the nature of true piety. The interest of the book of Job in this question was already seen above: is it possible to worship God with integrity (cf. Satan’s question in Job 1:9)? One of the designs of the narrative is to answer this question in the affirmative. Again, virtually the whole of the Psalter quite naturally sings of worship with integrity (e.g., Psalms 25; 26; 31; 84).

AUTHOR AND DATE

The questions of who wrote the Song of Solomon, when it was written, how to read it properly, and what it means as part of Scripture are intertwined, and have occasioned many disagreements.

Jews and Christians have traditionally taken 1:1 (“The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s”) to mean that Solomon, the son and successor to David, wrote the entire Song of Solomon, pointing to 1 Kings 4:32(“his songs were 1,005”) for evidence of Solomon’s authorial work. However, there are several reasons to hesitate on that matter. First, Song of Solomon 1:1 is grammatically ambiguous: it need not mean that Solomon wrote the Song of Solomon, only that it was written in his honor. Second, what is known of Solomon himself from 1 Kings raises problems with the suggestion that Solomon was the author. For example, 1 Kings 2 gives a concise summary of how Solomon’s kingdom was established (cf. 1 Kings 2:46), which is followed immediately by the statement in 1 Kings 3:1 that “Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Pharaoh’s daughter, however, could not have been the country girl (a Shulammite) who is the heroine of the Song of Solomon (though some hold that Solomon might have married the Shulammite before he married Pharaoh’s daughter). Likewise, Solomon’s full harem (1 Kings 11:1–8) makes him a very bad example of married love for Israel (though some have replied that the Song of Solomon reflects Solomon’s wisdom that came from his chastened perspective as he reflected on his own life). Third, the book mentions Solomon (Song 1:5; 3:7, 9, 11; 8:11–12), but generally as a distant, even idealized figure.

If it is not entirely certain that Solomon wrote the book, one can still argue that the book was written during Solomon’s reign (971–931 b.c.). The book mentions him and seems to assume his glorious reign as a known fact. At the same time, the heroine is a young Shulammite woman (6:13); most take this to mean that she comes from the village of Shunem (Josh. 19:18; 2 Kings 4:8), which is in the tribal inheritance of Issachar. Furthermore, the town of Tirzah is mentioned along with Jerusalem in comparisons of beauty (Song 6:4). The towns of Shunem and Tirzah were located in what became the northern kingdom. These features make it likely that the book comes from the time before Israel was divided into the northern and southern kingdoms, which took place just after Solomon’s death (931b.c.).

Thus, the book was probably written sometime between c. 960 b.c. (when Solomon’s reign was well established) and 931, perhaps under Solomon’s oversight.

THEME, TITLE, AND INTERPRETATION

The Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs (1:1), contains beautiful and sensuous poetry expressing romantic love between a young man (a shepherd, 1:7) and a young woman (a shepherdess, 1:8) in ancient Israel. On this point there is general agreement; but agreement ends once the discussion moves to how the Song of Solomon works to convey its theme. The Song of Solomon has in fact been subject to a broader range of interpretation probably than any other book in the Bible. Thus the Song of Solomon was first understood by early Jewish interpreters as an allegory of God’s love for Israel; and then, through many centuries of Christian interpretation, as primarily an allegory of Christ’s love for the church, or as Christ’s love for the soul. In contrast to this, most Christian interpreters since the nineteenth century have understood the Song of Solomon as a beautifully crafted love poem describing either: (1) the relationship between King Solomon and his Shulammite bride, or (2) the relationship between a simple shepherd and the Shulammite shepherdess, or (3) a three-character relationship involving Solomon, a shepherd boy, and the Shulammite shepherdess. Still many others, since the beginning of the twentieth century, have understood the Song of Solomon as simply a collection of sensuous love poems on a common theme, rather than the unfolding of a single poetic love story. Given this wide range of interpretative diversity, it has seemed best in these notes to focus mainly on a single cohesive interpretation of the Song of Solomon, while at the same time acknowledging that other interpretations are also commonly held among Bible-believing Christian interpreters (see Alternative Interpretations).

Reading the Song of Solomon. These notes recognize that one needs a strategy for reading this book, and to follow one reading means that one does not follow others. The issue is especially acute in the Song of Solomon: the book reads very differently under the different reading strategies that scholars have offered, and there is no clear consensus among them as to which is the right one. The approach taken in these notes, then, is to show why one particular strategy commends itself, and to mention briefly some other common strategies.

One may organize the interpretative disagreements among the scholars around the questions of coherence, characters, and consummation.

Coherence: Is there a single plot line from beginning to end? Traditional interpretations have said yes, the plot describes the love between the shepherd and his betrothed. Starting in the twentieth century, however, it became common for some scholars to deny that there is a coherent story, understanding the Song of Solomon as a collection of love songs. By this scheme, the title of the book means that it is a song composed of multiple songs. The commentary here, however, will argue that there is indeed coherence: first, because one can follow the story of a romantic love from the initial longing right through to the marital enjoyment; and second, because the characters have consistent patterns in how they speak to and about one another. Hence, it is better to see the title “Song of Songs” (Song 1:1) as describing this as the best of songs (just as “King of kings and Lord of lords” refers to the best king and lord), rather than as a collection.

Characters: How many are there, and who are they? In the Song of Solomon there are four main characters: a young woman (She in the esv headings); the shepherd boy whom she loves (He); King Solomon; and a chorus-like group (Others). (As the esv footnote at 1:2 indicates, it is generally possible to identify the speakers and addressees based on the gender [masculine or feminine] and number [singular or plural] of the Hebrew words.) Traditional interpretations have seen Solomon and the shepherd boy as the same person, but in light of 1 Kings 3:1 and the way that the rest of 1 Kings portrays Solomon, this assumption seems to raise significant difficulties (see Author and Date).

Consummation: When does the couple engage in sexual relations? Traditional readings have seen the couple’s love leading to marriage, and only after that to sexual relations, in accord with biblical standards. Thus traditional readings have understood the wedding procession and wedding day (cf.Song 3:11) to be described in 3:6 through 4:16a, with the sexual consummation of the marriage being reflected in 4:16b and 5:1. However, some studies now suggest that the Song of Solomon is simply a collection of love songs that do not address the question of marriage, and that sexual relations are implied at a number of places in the Song of Solomon. In contrast to the collection interpretation, the understanding represented in the following notes views all of 3:1–6:3 as a dream in anticipation of the marriage and its consummation. Therefore, on this understanding, 5:2–8 is part of the dream (“I slept, but my heart was awake,” 5:2), and chapter 7 is an eager anticipation of the enjoyment the couple will have once they are married (in ch. 8). In any case, the fact that the Song of Solomon is in the canon of Scripture, and the fact that it harmonizes with Proverbs 5:15–19 in commending sexual delight within marriage, lends further support to the conclusion that the consummation occurs only after the couple is married. The reading adopted in these notes, then, is that the actual marital consummation is reflected in Song of Solomon 8:5. This is supported by the consistent refrain urging restraint—i.e., not to “stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (cf. 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). Thus, immediately following the last occurrence of the refrain (see 8:4), in 8:5 the woman declares, “Under the apple tree I awakened you”—which is the only place where she is said to have (sexually) awakened her lover.

PURPOSE, OCCASION, AND BACKGROUND

As has been indicated, it is preferable to read the Song of Solomon as a single literary whole (rather than a collection of love poems) telling the story of two betrothed Israelites who look forward to their marriage and the pleasure of their union.

It is common to group the Song of Solomon with the Wisdom Literature of the Bible (see Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Literature), and this finds support in the connection with Solomon (seeAuthor and Date) and in the parallels with Proverbs 5:15–19 (see Theme, Title, and Interpretation). Like other Wisdom Literature, the Song of Solomon assumes that the covenant God of Israel (“the Lord,”Song 8:6) is the one true God, Maker of heaven and earth. The purpose of the redemptive covenants is to restore fallen, damaged creatures (mankind) to the proper functioning of their humanity. Therefore obedience to the Lord’s commands is the right way to enjoy the world God made, and it also displays to the rest of the world how refreshingly attractive it is to know the true God. The picture of the two lovers in the Song of Solomon is an ideal one, as are the character portraits in Proverbs: the picture provides the pattern into which God wishes to shape his faithful people, which is also the pattern toward which they will freely give themselves to be shaped. Indeed, one function of wisdom literature is to make that pattern attractive, as the Song of Solomon does in full measure.

KEY THEMES

  1. God’s covenant, which commands sexual purity, provides just the right framework (marriage) within which his people may properly enjoy the gift of sexual intimacy (cf. Gen. 2:23–24). Thus God’s people honor him and commend him to the world when they demonstrate with their lives that obedience in such matters brings genuine delight.
  2. Marriage is a gift of God, and is to be founded on loyalty and commitment (see Gen. 2:24, “hold fast”), which allows delight to flourish. As such, it is a fitting image for God’s relationship with his people, in both the OT and the NT.

HISTORY OF SALVATION SUMMARY

The fall of mankind damaged every aspect of human lives, and God’s work of redemption aims to restore every aspect to its proper functioning. God’s goal is that romantic love, with all its potential pain and degradation, should be an arena of enjoyment for his redeemed people. (For an explanation of the “History of Salvation,” see the Overview of the Bible. See also History of Salvation in the Old Testament: Preparing the Way for Christ.)

LITERARY FEATURES AND STRUCTURE

The best label that can be assigned to the book is love poetry, in which the lovers are shepherd and shepherdess and the setting is a flowery and fruitful rural landscape (of which a vineyard is the prime example). If a love poem celebrates the occasion of a specific wedding, it is called an epithalamion, and that is what takes place here.

The Song of Solomon is most remembered for its extravagant comparisons—for example, the woman is compared to a horse in Pharaoh’s court (1:9), and her hair to a flock of goats (4:1). The conventions within which the ancient poet wrote yield these ground rules for interpreting the comparisons: (1) the primary correspondence is not visual, and often there is no visual correspondence at all; (2) the comparisons are figurative rather than literal; (3) what the beloved has in common with what he or she is compared to is a certain quality—usually the quality of excellence, or of being the best of its kind; and (4) the carryover is the value of the two things that are compared (in 1:9, e.g., the woman is like a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots in being the best that it is possible to be).

The author has presented the Song of Solomon as a series of exchanges, mostly between the shepherdess and the shepherd, with the chorus-like “others” sprinkled in. These others usually pick up items from the lovers’ speeches and urge the two forward in love. There is also a refrain, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, … that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (2:7; 3:5; 8:4; variation in 5:8), spoken by the shepherdess, which is understood as her urging the other women not to push this love too fast, in order to let it reach its consummation at the right time (the marriage bed, which seems to begin in 8:5).

According to the reading followed here, the middle section of the book (3:1–6:3) describes the shepherdess’s dream, anticipating the consummation of their love. This is suggested by 3:1 (“On my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves”) and 5:2 (“I slept, but my heart was awake”). The content is what one expects in such a dream: sexual longings, fears of loss, nightmarish scenes (5:7), and an imaginative transformation of the beloved into a Solomon figure (3:6–11). The dream expresses the eager erotic desires that the young man and woman have for each other; within the context of biblical morality, this longing is a part of God’s good gift, looking forward to the consummation of their love.

The lovers speak in different ways, reflecting the difference between how a man and a woman experience being in love. The man’s speech focuses entirely on the woman: he does not address anyone else in the Song of Solomon; he frequently addresses the woman directly, praising her admirable qualities; and though he does occasionally speak about himself (e.g., 5:1; 7:8; 8:13), readers learn only how fully his thoughts about the woman have taken over his imagination.

The woman is not nearly as exclusive in her speech, addressing “the daughters of Jerusalem” as well as the man. Of course, that does not make her distant: when she speaks to others, it is often about her beloved (e.g., 2:8–9), his admirable qualities (5:10–16), and her desire for him (2:5; 5:2–8). She describes what her beloved means to her (1:13–14), and her desire to be with him and give herself to him (7:12–13). She finds pleasure in the way her beloved desires her (7:10). The Song of Solomon portrays the young woman with sympathy and subtlety; she is perhaps the most clearly drawn female character in the Bible.

ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATIONS

As noted above, perhaps no book in the biblical canon has had a greater diversity of interpretative strategies. In the interest of completeness, it will be helpful to describe briefly the following four diverse approaches that other interpreters have commonly taken.

1. Allegorical interpretation. The sensuous descriptions in this book have provided motivation to read the Song of Solomon as an allegory, namely, as an extended picture of the love between Israel’s God and his people, and then between Christ and his bride (either the church or the individual soul). This approach, in fact, dominated exposition of the book until the nineteenth century. The limitation of such an approach, however, is that it runs the risk of diminishing the wisdom character of the Song of Solomon and its endorsement of God’s good work of creation as evidenced in marital love. But even though virtually all scholarly interpreters today see the book primarily as a celebration of love and the gift of sexual intimacy, some would add that the Song of Solomon—by showing the pure and passionate love of the man and the woman in the story—can also enable believers to appreciate more deeply the intensity of the spiritual love-relationship between God and his people (as, e.g., this is further reflected in the picture of marriage depicted by Paul in Eph. 5:22–33).

2. Anthology interpretation. This interpretation views the Song of Solomon as a collection or anthology of interrelated love poems or lyrics, arranged around a common theme of intimate love between a man and a woman—in celebration of love’s longing, ecstasy, joy, beauty, and exclusivity. This understanding, adopted by many interpreters beginning in the twentieth century, rejects the idea (advocated here) that the book contains a narrative plot. For criticisms of this approach, see Theme, Title, and Interpretation.

3. The Shepherd Hypothesis. In the nineteenth century the “Shepherd Hypothesis” became popular, whereby the young woman and the shepherd boy are two simple country folk in love, and King Solomon seeks to win the woman’s consent to become part of his harem. The woman resists all his flattery and returns home to marry the shepherd. A number of evangelical interpreters now advocate this interpretation. Although this approach might be edifying, and could account for the problem of fitting the song with Solomon’s known shortcomings, its weakness is that it does not supply any way for the reader to know when the shepherd speaks and when Solomon does. In fact, the speech patterns of the main characters (e.g., the descriptive titles they use for each other, the grammar by which they speak, and what they talk about) favor the conclusion that there are only two lovers, the woman and the shepherd. Another weakness of the Shepherd Hypothesis is that it seems unlikely that Solomon the king would be treated as an interloper in a work that is dedicated to Solomon himself. According to the interpretative strategy adopted in the notes below, Solomon is understood not as an intruder but as a somewhat distant figure, whom the woman brings into her dreams as her idealization of the young man she loves.

The following outline shows how advocates for the Shepherd Hypothesis might understand the structure of the book:

  1. Title: The Best of Songs (1:1)
  2. Solomon Meets the Shulammite in His Palace (1:2–2:7)
  3. The Beloved Visits and the Shulammite Searches for Him in the Night (2:8–3:5)
  4. Solomon Displays His Wealth and Sings of His Love (3:6–5:1)
  5. The Shulammite Yearns for the Beloved (5:2–6:3)
  6. The King Fails in His Pursuit of the Shulammite (6:4–8:14)

4. The Solomon-Shulammite interpretation. Another common interpretation also views the Song of Solomon as a unified love poem with a two-character plot, the two primary characters being King Solomon and the unnamed young Shulammite woman. Following this line of interpretation, chapters 1–2 lead up to the wedding; 3:1–5 is a dream; 3:6–11 recounts the wedding procession; chapter 4praises the bride’s beauty; and the consummation of the marriage is reflected in 4:16–5:1, possibly followed by another dream in 5:2–8. The rest of the book is understood, then, as recounting first a period of separation and marital difficulty (5:2–6:3); which is then resolved, resulting in the reaffirmation of their love for each other (6:4–8:4); followed by a brief concluding section of reflections and affirmations (8:5–14). Following this understanding, the structure of the book may be outlined as follows:

  1. Title: The Best of Songs (1:1)
  2. The Lovers Yearn for Each Other (1:2–3:5)
  3. The Wedding (3:6–5:1)
  4. Temporary Separation and Reunion (5:2–6:3)
  5. Delight in Each Other (6:4–8:4)
  6. Final Affirmations of Love (8:5–14)

Although 1 Kings 3:1 seems to indicate that Solomon married Pharaoh’s daughter immediately after he established his kingdom (see 1 Kings 2:46), some advocates of the Solomon-Shulammite interpretation suggest that the Song of Solomon is a poetic retelling of the courtship and early days of Solomon’s first marriage—after which, of course, Solomon abandoned the monogamous standard of Scripture, with grave consequences. In light of the way in which the rest of 1 Kings portrays Solomon, however, the assumption of an earlier marriage to the Shulammite seems to raise significant difficulties.

OUTLINE

The following outline corresponds to the arguments presented in the introduction above and provides the structure for the interpretative strategy followed in the notes below:

  1. Title: The Best of Songs (1:1)
  2. The Lovers Yearn for Each Other (1:2–2:17)
  3. The Shepherdess Dreams (3:1–6:3)
  4. The Lovers Yearn for Each Other Again (6:4–8:4)
  5. The Lovers Join in Marriage (8:5–14)

FACTS

Vineyards, fields, and palm trees. The Song of Solomon takes place in a rural setting, and the lovers describe each other using images drawn from this context. The man is a shepherd, and the woman works in her family’s vineyard.

The woman addresses the daughters of Jerusalem four times throughout this book, creating a refrain that ties her “songs” together (2:7; 3:5; 5:8; 8:4). She urges them not to “stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” In other words, they should wait until the appropriate time to enjoy romantic love.

Purple cloth was associated with royalty because the purple dye was very difficult to produce in large quantities. Most of the purple dye came from a shellfish called the murex. It took more than 8,000 murex shellfish to extract one gram of dye.

The man in this love story compared his beloved to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots (1:9). Only the best and most handsome of mares would have been chosen for important processions, and they would have been well-adorned with jewels and ornaments. This was the man’s way of saying that his beloved’s beauty is incomparable.


THE SONG OF SOLOMON

CHAPTER 1

1 The song of songs, which is Solomon’s.

2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.

3 Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee.

4 Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee.

5 I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.

6 Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.

7 Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon: for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions?

8 ¶ If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherds’ tents.

9 I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh’s chariots.

10 Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with chains of gold.

11 We will make thee borders of gold with studs of silver.

12 ¶ While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof.

13 A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.

14 My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of En-gedi.

15 Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes.

16 Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our bed is green.

17 The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.

CHAPTER 2

1 I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.

2 As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.

3 As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.

4 He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.

5 Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.

6 His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.

7 I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.

8 ¶ The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.

9 My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.

10 My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

11 For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

13 The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

14 ¶ O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.

15 Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.

16 ¶ My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.

17 Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.

CHAPTER 3

1 By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.

2 I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.

3 The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?

4 It was but a little that I passed from them, but I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.

5 I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.

6 ¶ Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?

7 Behold his bed, which is Solomon’s; threescore valiant men are about it, of the valiant of Israel.

8 They all hold swords, being expert in war: every man hath his sword upon his thigh because of fear in the night.

9 King Solomon made himself a chariot of the wood of Lebanon.

10 He made the pillars thereof of silver, the bottom thereof of gold, the covering of it of purple, the midst thereof being paved with love, for the daughters of Jerusalem.

11 Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and behold king Solomon with the crown wherewith his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals, and in the day of the gladness of his heart.

CHAPTER 4

1 Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes within thy locks: thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead.

2 Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren among them.

3 Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks.

4 Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men.

5 Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.

6 Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.

7 Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.

8 ¶ Come with me from Lebanon, my spouse, with me from Lebanon: look from the top of Amana, from the top of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions’ dens, from the mountains of the leopards.

9 Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck.

10 How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices!

11 Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.

12 A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.

13 Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard,

14 Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices:

15 A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.

16 ¶ Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.

CHAPTER 5

1 I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.

2 ¶ I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.

3 I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?

4 My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.

5 I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.

6 I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.

7 The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.

8 I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love.

9 ¶ What is thy beloved more than another beloved, O thou fairest among women? what is thy beloved more than another beloved, that thou dost so charge us?

10 My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.

11 His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven.

12 His eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set.

13 His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh.

14 His hands are as gold rings set with the beryl: his belly is as bright ivory overlaid with sapphires.

15 His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold: his countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.

16 His mouth is most sweet: yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.

CHAPTER 6

1 Whither is thy beloved gone, O thou fairest among women? whither is thy beloved turned aside? that we may seek him with thee.

2 My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies.

3 I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies.

4 ¶ Thou art beautiful, O my love, as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners.

5 Turn away thine eyes from me, for they have overcome me: thy hair is as a flock of goats that appear from Gilead.

6 Thy teeth are as a flock of sheep which go up from the washing, whereof every one beareth twins, and there is not one barren among them.

7 As a piece of a pomegranate are thy temples within thy locks.

8 There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number.

9 My dove, my undefiled is but one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the choice one of her that bare her. The daughters saw her, and blessed her; yea, the queens and the concubines, and they praised her.

10 ¶ Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?

11 I went down into the garden of nuts to see the fruits of the valley, and to see whether the vine flourished, and the pomegranates budded.

12 Or ever I was aware, my soul made me like the chariots of Amminadib.

13 Return, return, O Shulamite; return, return, that we may look upon thee. What will ye see in the Shulamite? As it were the company of two armies.

CHAPTER 7

1 How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.

2 Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.

3 Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.

4 Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.

5 Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple; the king is held in the galleries.

6 How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!

7 This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.

8 I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples;

9 And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.

10 ¶ I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me.

11 Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages.

12 Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth: there will I give thee my loves.

13 The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.

CHAPTER 8

1 O that thou wert as my brother, that sucked the breasts of my mother! when I should find thee without, I would kiss thee; yea, I should not be despised.

2 I would lead thee, and bring thee into my mother’s house, who would instruct me: I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate.

3 His left hand should be under my head, and his right hand should embrace me.

4 I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, until he please.

5 Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? I raised thee up under the apple tree: there thy mother brought thee forth: there she brought thee forth that bare thee.

6 ¶ Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.

7 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.

8 ¶ We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts: what shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for?

9 If she be a wall, we will build upon her a palace of silver: and if she be a door, we will inclose her with boards of cedar.

10 I am a wall, and my breasts like towers: then was I in his eyes as one that found favour.

11 Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon; he let out the vineyard unto keepers; every one for the fruit thereof was to bring a thousand pieces of silver.

12 My vineyard, which is mine, is before me: thou, O Solomon, must have a thousand, and those that keep the fruit thereof two hundred.

13 Thou that dwellest in the gardens, the companions hearken to thy voice: cause me to hear it.

14 ¶ Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices.

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