Over the next few weeks I plan to provide an overview of Song of Songs. The aim is a practical exposition which helps with the sticky questions of courtships and relationships before and during marriage. I guess in my mind that it’s aimed specifically at young people (after all, most of the events described seem to happen when Solomon and the Shulamite woman were quite young). Today, I’ll just give you an introduction.
For those not familiar with it, Song of Songs is a series of poems that tell the story of two lovers: Solomon, and a lady we call the Shulamite woman. The book is almost entirely their own words, though just occassionally a few others add their own thoughts. It was written by Solomon, and the events described took place around 965BC, nearly 3,000 years ago.
If you have an old translation of the Bible (particularly an AV), then Song of Songs is going to be very hard to read. Not because of the old-fashioned language, but because it will be very hard to work out who is saying what to whom. When the text said “Let him kiss me”, then we know that it must be the woman who is speaking (because she says ‘him’). But what about the next verse? “Your name is like perfume poured out”. In English it’s impossible to tell (though we can guess). But because the Hebrew language is more precise when it comes to gender, the original readers would be able to tell. That’s how modern translations are able to add these nice headings that explain who is speaking and make everything much clearer. The headings are not inspired though, so occassionally they could be wrong.
How to read Song of Songs
When some people look at Song of Songs, they believe that the story of human love is just an allegory of the love that God has for his people. For them, the first and only point of application is about Jesus Christ and His church. So Solomon becomes Jesus, the Shulamite woman, the church.
This creates all sorts of problems! One huge problem is that much of the Song is about physical love as well as emotional love. Another problem is that allegorisers end up desperately trying to work out what on earth “Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them is alone” means in the context of the church! (Does a church have teeth? What would be the problem if it only had some of it’s teeth? Perhaps the teeth mean the people in the church, and this verse tells us people must work together.)
Song of Songs simply doesn’t make sense when it is read in this way.
Song of Songs is not an allegory. Those who try and read it in that way tie themselves in knots trying to find a spiritual meaning for every single allusion and turn of phrase which the book contains. The task is impossible, and those who attempt it have to resort to boundless ingenuity and inventiveness, rather than to solid principles of biblical interpretation. (Stuart Olyott, A life worth living)
Instead, we need to understand that Song of Songs is a story about two lovers. It tells of us their courtship, marriage and later life. It tells us a little of their problems and hardships. But most of all it tells us about their love. And because it tells us about this great love a husband had for his wife, and because husbands should love their wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25), and because Christ is in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27), then looking at Song of Songs will inevitably teach us of the way that Christ loves us.
But we won’t be tied to find a hidden meaning to every camel and tent and plant. We’ll just let the book tell it’s own story, and use the rest of the Bible to open the truths of Solomon’s happy relationship, applying the truths to both our human relationships and our heavenly one.
For now, let me leave you with the outline of the Song, because when you understand that the Song of Songs follows a story line, it makes a lot more sense. The story goes something like this:
- Scene 1: Wooing, waiting and winning (1:1–3:5)
- Scene 2: Wedding day glory (3:6–11)
- Scene 3: Wedding night bliss (4:1–5:1)
- Scene 4: Weariness and worry (5:2–6:3)
- Scene 5: Working things out (6:4–8:4)
- Scene 6: Weary, but not worn out (8:1–14)
Why not read the Song in advance, as over the coming weeks we’ll go through each scene one by one.