Until fairly recently, any interpretation of the Song of Solomon has focused on rescuing an apparently erotic and secular text from the condemnation of being “purely sensuous.” This goal led the rabbis to read the Song as an allegory of God’s love for Israel, and most Christian interpreters for two millennia noted a picture of the love between Christ and his church, Christ and the believer, or the relationship between God and Mary. Within the past generation, however, another perspective has emerged. The Song, accordingly, is regarded as love poetry that celebrates the intimate relationship between a man and a woman. Within this broadly literal approach, the book has been mined as a divinely inspired manual of sexual technique, a paean to love (whether married or illicit), or as outline of the biblical pattern for courtship, love, and marriage.
Before addressing its interpretation further, however, we need to be careful that our greater understanding of the nature and role of genre in biblical interpretation does not mislead us into mocking the allegorical view. In God’s providence that view was the human reason for its preservation and inclusion in the canon and was offered by interpreters who sincerely wanted to find in Scripture the “wisdom that leads to the salvation that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). In fact, there is some biblical basis for the allegorical approach, since marriage is a prominent image of the relationship between God and his own people, especially in the prophets (for example, Hos. 1-3, Ezek. 23), in the epistles (Eph. 5:22ff), and in Revelation (19:9).
Having said this, we must admit that not only does the Song embody love poetry-as even the most rabid allegorists have recognized-it also celebrates love between a woman and a man. For many Christians, however, this does not solve the problem of its role in the canon. And our culture’s saturation with sex (can anything be sold without a virile man or a nubile woman?), its degradation of relationships into conflict, insult, and titillation, and its perversion of sex into technique, selfishness, and vulgar comedy, also makes it extremely difficult to read about breasts and thighs, especially in the Bible.
Furthermore, many who try to read the Song find it simply bewildering. Why is a lover called a garden, hair a flock of goats, and a neck a tower? Here, cultural distance and our general ignorance of how poetry works-especially when it lacks any context (in contrast to, for example, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 or the Song of Deborah in Judges 5), plot, progression, or outline-stand between the text and us.
How then should we read the Song of Solomon?
Organization and Purpose
A glance at any three or four study Bibles, versions, or commentaries reveals a text divided into as few as six or as many as thirty poems or sections. The textual basis of the divisions and structure of its individual poems remains invisible at our linguistic and cultural distance, as the variety of analysis shows. This general fogginess doesn’t mean that we can’t tell when we have passed from one section to the next, but rather that the precise boundaries are often fuzzy.
The Hebrew text is less ambiguous, since Hebrew pronouns and verbal forms indicate whether one or more man or woman is being addressed. Even Hebrew grammar, however, cannot assign every verse to a particular poem or to a certain speaker or group (again, compare the labels used in any two or three versions of 8:10-14).
The Song’s relative formlessness implies that defining or interpreting it section-by-section is not as important as when studying, for example, individual psalms. It further implies that the Song was written to be read through, as a literary work, rather than in segments. We can identify and study poetic units (just as we can analyze subunits of any literary work), but the Song was composed as a single poetic text bound together by consistent imagery and expression as well as by features of the Hebrew text which are invisible in translation. It is not an anthology or song cycle and certainly not a random bunch of concatenated poems. And, at only 117 verses, it is short enough to be read through at one time, even aloud (the best way to read any poetry).
Its apparent ascription to Solomon (1:1), which may be dedicatory (“for Solomon”), or even “in the style of Solomon,” causes many readers to puzzle over how to relate the Song to his polygamy (1 Kings 11:3). The Song, however, is imaginative lyric poetry, and the man and woman are literary figures, invented by the poet to explore the theme of marital affection, not actual people (just as any good author can describe things that he or she has not experienced).
Nor does the Song contain a story, despite many attempts to discover one, and despite the use of pronouns (I, you, etc.), which suggest actual conversations. The wide divergence of suggested plots (two or three main characters, a satire or serious romance, etc.) and the complete failure of any one story to convince more than a minority suggest that this attempt scrutinizes the Song through the wrong lens. It does not narrate the course of true love but explores and expresses the feelings of love itself. The Song is a poet’s “example of virtue,” a picture of redeemed intimacy.
The strangest passages of the Song-and those most usually mocked-are the sections in which the two lovers praise each other (4:1-6, 11-15; 5:10-16; 6:4-9; 7:1-9). Some of the images sound strange merely because we seldom consider our own metaphors. For example, a common endearment in our culture is “hon” (“honey”). Calling one’s love a food (not to mention less common terms such as “sweetheart,” “sugar,” “cookie”) seems fairly close to referring to a lover as filled with [the delights of] “pomegranates, fruits, nard, saffron, cinnamon, frankincense” (4:13-14).
Somewhat stranger are the agricultural metaphors-hair like goats, teeth like shorn ewes, breasts like fawns-which probably refer, respectively, to texture or color and delicacy. But the most unusual images are architectural (necks and noses like towers; Song 4:4; 7:4). Apart from insults such as “built like the broad side of a barn,” we don’t usually use architectural metaphors to describe someone’s appearance. But why not? What if a husband said to his wife, “When I saw the Washington Monument in the Reflecting Pool, I thought of your posture-straight and tall-and how you stand out in my eyes.”
Probably your response to reading that sentence would be to call it corny, romantic mush. Perhaps, but if nothing else, the poet’s variety of images encourages us to reflect creatively about those whom we love, rather than mouth the handiest cultural term. The imagery suggests further that lovers think about the other’s person, and consider how best to honor him or her. The gift here is not cash, gift certificates, or jewelry, but the time and energy required by reflective thought, which will be revealed by the most appropriate word, spoken in its time.
Unpacking a Metaphor
There are three basic steps to unpacking any metaphor, including those in the Song. First, understand the cultural referents-what the poet is comparing. For example, a dominant image in the Song is that the woman is a garden (cf. Song 4:12-15). A garden in ancient Israel was not public, a flowerbed by the road for any passerby to admire, but walled and private, accessible only to its owner (cf. Song 4:12).
The second step requires interpreting the image. What do the two things have in common that enables the poet to say, in this case, that the woman is a garden? One common element is privacy; their expressions of intimacy were not public. It also suggests that the husband’s primary source of refreshment, rest, and relaxation is his relationship with his wife, just as the garden that he describes is filled with delightful sounds (flowing water), scents (cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, aloes), and flavors (pomegranates, fruits).
The third step, asking what the image means today, leads us to conclude that husbands should not seek refreshment, delight, or consolation in other women or relationships. It also implies that intimacy is a private, personal affair, so that modesty and restraint typify relationships in public. It does not, of course, forbid public displays of affection, merely those that ought to be private.
Here, incidentally, is where we must read the text carefully and interpret what it says. The poet does not say that the woman’s body is a garden but that she is a garden. In other words, this metaphor refers to the entire range of their relationship, not just to sex. The Song is about sex, but it is not only about sex. The Song is about intimacy, one aspect of which is sexual.
It is this flood of metaphors that gives the Song its atmosphere of delicacy and modesty, even when those metaphors are far more direct than has often been recognized. Here are no four-letter Anglo-Saxon words, no slang, no Latin anatomical terms, but language borrowed from the world of creation and agriculture. Their way of speaking rebukes both our culture’s brashness and the Church’s tendency toward prudery, and encourages thoughtful reflection on the person of the beloved.
Poetry from other ancient Near Eastern cultures, especially the love poems from Egypt, sheds light on some of these images as well. In those poems, for example, lovers call each other “sister” and “brother” (4:9, 10, 12; 5:1, 2), showing us that these terms are not incestuous but describe close relationships (as in Song 8:1).
Two separate issues concern the Song’s relationship to the rest of the Bible. The first is how its presence in the canon influences our interpretation of the Song; the second is the Song’s contribution to the whole of biblical revelation.
Since the Song is in the canon, the intimacy it expresses is between a husband and wife. The physical consummation of their relationship is clearly described in 5:1 (for example), and Scripture consistently condemns illicit relationships.
Another result of its presence in the canon is that although we affirm loudly that the Song is love poetry, we must deny that it is secular love poetry, as many (even some evangelicals) claim. It is true that it does not mention God, Israel, or their history, but the Song is no more secular than is the book of Esther. The covenant, for example, is unmentioned because it is assumed-does even the most consistently reformed person writes “d.v.” or “God willing” after every item in his or her daily planner? Cultural assumptions are normally unexpressed, and few assumptions would have been more basic in ancient Israel than their covenantal relationship with Yhwh.
The Song brings to the canon a strong, if implicit, rebuke of the theological dualism that reduces the body and its functions to a lower level of creation, or sees those functions as less than spiritual, so that sexual relations, for example, exist merely for propagation (as many in the medieval church said). Its message, therefore, parallels the implicit message of the Incarnation.
On the other hand, the Song is not merely about the physical act of lovemaking. It is primarily about redeemed intimacy, so that it celebrates that joyful, even playful intimacy that delights in the other’s company, appearance, and body. The sexual expression of their intimacy is just that-it expresses what pervades their entire relationship, so that they enjoy going for walks together, talking with each other, eating meals together, and having sex. Sex is part of intimacy, but sex is only part of intimacy. And, in the Song, intimacy is pursued with equal ardour by both the wife and the husband. In fact, as many have pointed out, the woman is the leader in much of the book, and speaks just as frankly and forcefully as her husband. This is not a passive-aggressive relationship, but one of equals, jointly pursuing all aspects of their relationship and life together.
In an added twist to the biblical worldview, the Song celebrates sexual delight as primarily relational, not as merely procreational. Fertility and reproduction are not part of the Song, despite the metaphor of the woman as a garden. It thus stands apart from the consistent value placed on childbearing (for example, Sarai/Sarah, Tamar, Hannah; Ps. 113:9), and suggests that infertility should not bring guilt into marital sex, since sex was not created solely to bring forth children.
This also supports the idea that the author was writing poetic reflections on the relationship described in Genesis 2:25, that is, on the state of marital love and affection in an unfallen world. Reproduction is certainly in view in Genesis 1:28, but there is no hint of childrearing in Genesis 2:18-25. This does not mean that it was not part of the reason for the woman’s creation or one of the anticipated outcomes of the first marriage (the curse only increases the woman’s pain in childbirth; Genesis 3:16). It was not, however, the-or even a-point of the story of the woman’s creation.
What does this intimacy look like? The Song describes lovers who are honest, vulnerable (naked) before each other, yet unashamed, confident, and secure in each other’s love. They find in each other the source of their refreshment, delight, and pleasure, so that separation is misery. Furthermore, their expressions of intimacy are private, reserved for one another, not for display. The Song thus reminds us that the pursuit of intimacy-in all aspects of the marital relationship-also pursues the order of a creation created and redeemed by Christ.
A final word of caution: In a culture that uses sex to sell everything, and which is therefore unaware of the true unifying power of sexuality, it is possible that some readers of the Bible have only begun to overcome or escape enslavement or addiction to pornography or other sexual sins. Do not allow the Song to become a source of titillation. The fault lies not in the Scripture, of course, but in our fallen tendency to abuse it, deliberately or through our own naiveté;. As Jesus says, the fault lies not in the right hand, but in the heart that controls it, so that it would be better never to have read this book than to find in it an occasion of sin (Matthew 5:27-30).
Overall, this reading of the Song encourages us as believers to examine our relationships and how we view others, especially those of the opposite sex, and most especially our spouses, and points us toward relationships that are redeemed by Christ, in which we discover and grow into God’s good purposes.