Guidelines to the Song of Songs

WARNING: The following material is intended for mature audiences. While this is a Bible study, the Song of Songs is written with references to sexual themes, intimate textual innuendos, and suggestive figurative language that may not be suitable for some audiences. Viewer discretion is advised. It is recommended that you approach this book from God with pure motives and pray that His will in preserving these song lyrics can be a blessing to you. It is advisable that if you have been enjoying this podcast with young ears present that you refrain from doing so at this time. Wait until you are in a private setting to continue. Thank you for taking this word of caution into consideration as we begin today’s episode.



About the Song of Songs The song of Solomon (Song of Songs) [Shir Ha shirim] is a love song that portrays images of intimacy that occur when fulfilling our God-given drive in finding a life-long companion. This Song celebrates love, beauty, and intimacy. These lyrics have been used by ancient Israel as a song that would be proclaimed at harvest festivals, sometimes accompanied by dancing at village weddings, in the royal palace in Jerusalem, and at family reunions or other sacred gatherings. These lyrics are highly esteemed among the Jewish faith, primarily due to the interpretation, that in the Song, the Israelite sees, not just a human love story, but the story of God's love for Jewish people. By this estimation the Song has been called the Song of Songs because it is the very best. “Song of Songs” gives the same emphasis as saying in superlative, “Vanities of vanities”, “Holy of Holies”, “King of Kings”, “Lord of Lords”, or “heaven of heavens” all of which are Bible terms. It simply emphasizes the greatness by repeating the words back to back. We might say in our modern terms, “this is the most beautiful song, the number one hit on the top of the charts”. While I am in full agreement that this Song is the best song of all time, it is for very different reasons that I arrive at this conclusion. This is the only place in all of Scripture, where beyond commandments to love and cherish our spouse, we have a lyrical demonstration of what love looks like when it is practiced between a man and a woman. While we catch glimpses of love in the Bible, no other book has been solely dedicated to this end. To me, this makes the book absolutely foundational and a must-read for all couples or those pursuing love. The Interpretation of the Song of Songs How do we begin to interpret the Song of Songs? A man by the name of Rabbi Aqiba, who fought for the Song's place in the Canon irrefutably, once wrote, “He who trills his voice in the chanting of the Song of Songs in the banquet halls and treats it as a secular song has no share in the world to come.” For this reason, along with the fact that it has always been included in the Canon of Old Testament Scripture, it must be held in the highest honor. To most Jews, this book is not about married love at all, but about God and Israel. To the Israelite this Song is an allegory. This means that what we read on the surface is not the intended meaning of the words or images, but there is a spiritual symbol that it represents. For the sake of our study we will say it is an analogy and not an allegory. The analogous interpretation means that the Song lyrics although not about two real people can be used as an expression for real application in love relationships today and for all time. We will address this later in our introduction. For now, consider what Hugh J. Schonfield said of the allegorical interpretation, "While such allegorical theories can no longer be entertained as affording an insight into the real meaning and intention of the Song of Songs, there is not the least reason why they should not be cherished. There is a mystery of love in nature, in the relations between God and the universe and God and man, perceived by the mystic and even the scientist, to which the language of human love lends itself as a means of expression" For example in Isaiah 5, a parable is told of a vineyard that had been well cared for by God and this vineyard was symbolic of Israel as we see in the prophecy. Then in Hosea 2, Israel is pictured as an unfaithful spouse that has been adulterous against God with their harlotry in idolatry. Then in the close of the chapter, Israel desires her first love and decides to return and God pursues her and lavishes her with blessings of love. Finally in Revelation 19, a passage more familiar to those who are Christians, we find the betrothed to Christ being called to the marriage of the Lamb. We are dressed in fine linen as those found righteous and the words John was told to write were, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb”. Morris Jastrow stated similarly, "Equally fateful for an understanding of the book were the attempts to detect religious teachings of a moral character in the Song of Songs, though we must recognize the service rendered by those who advocated this view, insofar as they helped to bring about the final rejection of the totally misleading allegorical interpretation, and to bring into the foreground the literal interpretation." This literal or analogous view will be the focus of our sessions. Not only must we respect the original purpose of the Song, but we must also remember that God has a message in it for us as a part of His inspired word. Almost central to the 66 books of the Bible is this Song about love from a Divine perspective, written for lovers in the flesh. In this material, while our primary focus of interpretation is not the allegorical view, but rather a true application for biblical love between every man and woman in love and pursuing marriage, I believe at times we can take away beautiful insight into God's love for His people or the love of Christ for His church (spiritual Israel). Paul gave us the license to derive such a mystery of love shared between a husband and wife, when he said in Ephesians 5:32, "This mystery is great but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church." This he said, after giving multiple commands for how a husband is to love his wife and a wife is to respect her husband. We can find nuances of the relationship shared between our Lord and those who are awaiting the marriage supper of the Lamb as we read about marital love. When we have the opportunity to point out these pieces of the mystery, we will share them as a part of our study for consideration. In Isaiah 62:4-5, we find, “It will no longer be said to you, ‘Forsaken,’ nor to your land will it any longer be said, ‘Desolate’; But you will be called, ‘My delight is in her,’ and your land, ‘Married’; for the Lord delights in you and to Him your land will be married. For as a young man marries a virgin, so your sons will marry you; and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you.” These types of thoughts will follow each session as a spiritual application section. There are other interpretive methods employed in the study of the Song of Songs which must also be approached with care. These include the drama theory, the wedding feast theory, the love song theory, and the fertility rite theory. All of these approaches are also addressed in detail in Schonfield's work. We will not address them here. Morris Jastrow Jr. summed up this subject on interpreting the Song of Songs when he said, "There are almost as many theories about its origin and its nature as there have been commentators who have attempted to explain it, from the Rabbis in the Talmud on the one hand and from Origen in the third century of our era on the other, down through the Middle Ages to our own days." While I realize that our efforts here on the podcast, are yet another attempt at explaining the contents of the Song, I have made it my aim to avoid being adamant about any position, allowing that my understanding could be amiss and in need of further study. Nevertheless, I have formed a firm conviction on the interpretive method being employed in expressing that these lyrics are foremost about human love and the pleasures that accompany the experience. Any other parallels that match some type of allegorical aspect of our relationship with God or Jesus are merely coincidental and not intentional in the original context of the Song. Roland Murphy once said, "Nothing indicates that a key is needed for decoding the Song or that anything should be read into it other than the natural meaning of the text: it is a collection of songs celebrating the loyal and mutual love that leads to marriage." The Cycles of the Song of Songs We will be taking the ordering of the book from Tom Gledhill's commentary to add some structure to our study. The style of the book is very repetitious and it is revealed in different cycles of events. We will see certain phrases as “the daughters of Jerusalem”, the “sprouting of the blossoms”, the “neck as a tower”, the “breasts as fawns”, the “eyes as doves” etc. and these are all themes that cycle through the repetitions of the book. In order to understand the lyrics of the Song we must be able to see the cycles found within the chapters of this Song. We will highlight when a cycle ends and a new one begins. I have added when a new song lyric will start and end, based on the breaks that will be announced. Because this is yet another attempt to find some order in our interpretation of the Song, we will approach these breaks with humility and without dogma, allowing that all chapter divisions, textual headings, etc. are merely the additions of those who have made attempts at helping to clarify the Song.


The Metaphor or Analogy Usage of the Song of Songs The Song uses metaphors in the Hebrew language that can be very difficult to translate into the English idiom and or poetic/lyrical wordplay. This can be unfortunate at times and in some cases extremely challenging. The words used are not unfortunate in and of themselves, but it saddens a reader to know that the rhyme pattern is lost when the lyrics are translated into English or another language with the same limitations. Some words simply cannot be translated into phrases that capture the poetry in its purest form. Here are some facts about the language employed in the Song for your consideration. There are 117 verses in the Song but yet it contains 1200 words in lyrical stanzas that we get to sing. There are 500 Hebrew words (out of 8,000 in the vocabulary) used in the Song, but 1/3 of them are uncommon in the Hebrew Bible. Most verses contain words or phrases that are not found anywhere else in the Bible. Many of these phrases cause us to wonder whether or not these lovers are really complimenting each other at all. For example, we read such statements as, “Your hair is like a flock of goats”, or “your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn”, while we might be comfortable saying, “your hair is very dark, flowing and beautiful” or “Your teeth are very white and clean”. This metaphorical expression creates some uncomfortable feelings for us, since most of these statements may be a degrading comment, instead of a compliment, if used today. One scholar that spoke at Harvard among a panel of speakers mentioned that this imagery is like a conjuring of the characters in the Song that allows us without an on-stage drama, to watch the scenes unfold, and still permits us to draw a mental image of what the characters in our study may have looked like to their lover. Nicolas Ayo states, "The proportions of the human body amaze us because of the extreme pleasure we take in the human figure. The whole body well-posed suggests the transcendent spirit. In such disclosure one senses the soul-life that animates the body." While these descriptions are not an attempt to make a specific outline of traits, they do give us the way that the character impacted their lover. The features that stood out to them were highlighted for us to view through their eyes. We get then, a textual hologram, created by the exchange of words, that describe the features that enthralled these lovers with one another, no matter how outdated their poetic utterances are when compared with how we would express the same sentiment today. Also, some of the places, flowers, fragrances, fruits, and quite honestly sexual images, are foreign to us and we are left to find appropriate substitutes or total replacements for them in our translation. We will try to point out when this occurs in our study to attempt to rescue the original meaning of the Song and intent of the author. The Metaphorical Lovers in the Song of Songs We would do well to understand and be reminded of how the book uses a metaphor for the lovers in the Song. For example Solomon and Shulammith both mean “peacefulness, wholeness and fulfillment” when translated in the original language being used in the text. The name in Hebrew is from both the masculine and feminine forms of the root word Shalom (Solomon's name being Sholomoh and hers being Shulammith from the word, Shalam, also meaning peace). Some have speculated that she is from an unidentified place called Shulam or perhaps a Shunemite from the land of Shunem and that Solomon falls in love with her while he is away from his royal duty and visiting a piece of land that he purchased. He dresses down in his shepherd robes and leads a flock into a distant land where he finds her also working in the fields nearby. This is mere speculation. The unique features of the Song show us that the word Shalom allows for both characters in the study to be a representative of any man or woman that longs for a peaceful, fulfilling, and whole relationship of love. In other words, since these are song lyrics, the names used are only for poetic value, because they are similar in structure and work well in poetry or song lyrics. But why is this even important to our study? The two lovers in this book are not fully revealed to us as far as their personal character is concerned. All that we are told is how they feel about each other and how they feel about themselves. These are best known as a wasf or when translated, "a description". To this day, in Arab weddings, these kinds of lyrics are written and read aloud to describe the bride and groom at their ceremonies. There have been examples found in ancient love poetry that repeat the same sentiment as our Song. For example, in a scroll found in Qumran Cave 1, called the Genesis Apocryphon, we read regarding Sarah, Abraham's wife, "How splendid and beautiful the form of her face, and how soft the hair of her head; how lovely are her eyes and how pleasant is her nose and all the radiance of her face; how lovely are her breasts and how beautiful is all her whiteness! Her arms, how beautiful! And her hands how perfect! And how attractive all the appearance of her hands! How lovely her palms, and how long and dainty all the fingers of her hands. Her feet, how beautiful! How perfect are her legs! There are no virgins or brides who enter a bridal chamber more beautiful than she. Indeed, her beauty surpasses that of all women; her beauty is high above all of them. Yet with all this beauty there is much wisdom in her; and whatever she has is lovely." Much of what they share is demonstrated in feelings of love and intimacy in response to the way they desire each other. This is something that every man and woman in love has experienced. It is most likely that the Song is not intended to portray a story about specific people, that has a dramatic unfolding of events, many encounters with a resolution of difficulties, and a grand finale where everyone lives happily ever after, and ride off into the sunset. We are given glimpses behind the curtain when it is drawn momentarily on the excursions of the life of two lyrical lovers that are representative of us. We need to understand that even though there are many uses of metaphors in this book that we cannot discredit the fact that the characters and their feelings that they have for each other are portrayed as real. They are not about Solomon and Shulammith only, but they are about you, in pursuit of love in this life. The fact is that the mystery surrounding these characters only makes the Song more enticing. An artist knows that a veiled human body can be more erotic than the nude because imagination is heightened and curiosity is intensified. When they go about describing each other, we are left to ask for more details. Love is an exploration that is filled with adventures. In our journey we continue to discover new territory and the treasures that our lover holds. Solomon in the Song of Songs Many have questioned the role of Solomon in this Song. A version of Solomon’s name is mentioned 7 times in the Song and there are several references to the “king”. Morris Jastrow points out that, "king" is the designation still given in parts of modern Syria to the 'bride-groom' as the central figure in the wedding festivities. The real Solomon plays no part whatsoever in the book." It is interesting to note that the title of the book (1:1) is literally translated, “The Song of Songs which pertains (lamed used here and means “of” and could also mean “attributed”) to Solomon”. The Hebrew word “lamed” is similar to the word you would find in front of a psalm of (lamed) David. Most of the time we would have no problem maintaining that these psalms belong to David. Interestingly, the Hebrew word “ser” (which) is not used in the other parts of the book where a similar word of this meaning is called for, rather the word “se” is used. This has led many to believe that the first verse as we know it was penned later by someone who wanted to attribute the book to Solomon as the one who would be known as the patron of wisdom. Whether or not this leads us to believe that Solomon authored this book, or that someone, for Solomon, wrote it, is a highly debated subject. We do not need to take either view. Even though we have a record of Solomon writing many songs (I Kings 4:32), we must be careful to simply accept the notion that this must be one of them. It is hard to figure out why Solomon would author a book and then use himself as one of the main characters from a third-person standpoint. Not to mention the fact that he had 1000 women in his life, at one time, and here he appears enamored with only one. Some have speculated that God inspired this Song to capture the original love relationship that led to Solomon's first marriage, and that this was before he entered into any other relationships outside of that first union. This cannot be confirmed. Others have suggested that if this is indeed written by Solomon that it would have been authored after Solomon was older and reflected on his life, much like the book of Ecclesiastes. In this case, the Song of Songs would then be similar in purpose; to lead us to see that a one man and one woman relationship is the ideal, God-ordained way to share love, and not the mess that he had made of his love life by marrying foreign wives that led him into idolatry. Also, if one bases their decision on this subject on references to the “king“, they must also figure out why this young lover is also referred to as a "shepherd". These comments about a king and a shepherd most likely refer metaphorically to the personality and character of the poetic man in this Song. We will take the position for this study that regardless of the authorship of the book, the author has provided a very vivid explanation of love with its beauty and hardship. God gave his stamp of approval by inspiring the work and preserving the lyrics for us in Scripture. The Female Desire in the Song of Songs As we recognize that the majority of the Song is coming from the female voice, this would give rise to questions about Solomonic authorship, and his ability to know her perspective when she speaks and expresses how she feels. Some have also noted the difficulty for Solomon to capture the deep emotional revelations of a woman that is expressed in this book. Sometimes these feelings are so intimate that they can only come from the heart of a woman or directly from God who knows the heart and its longings. This has led some to hold the position that this book was indeed written by a woman. For the sake of our study, we will say that the two young lovers are celebrating their love for one another as they are approaching marriage and the consummation to follow. God is the inspiration of the Song and whether it was written by a man or woman is of little, to no importance. This love story is being told by God. Whether this is written of one of Solomon’s marriages, or not, we can find application in our own life from each stanza. We could very comfortably say that this picture in the Song of Songs is of every man and every woman experiencing love and intimacy in their lives. The Love Triangle Theory in the Song of Songs There is a hypothesis that suggests that Solomon is indeed the character in the story that is referred to as a king, and in dealing with the reference to the shepherd, they introduce another man. In essence, it is suggested that we see a conflicting love triangle, which was foreign to the people of this time, without serious consequences. Hebrews had a very strict moral code. Premarital sexual relations were prohibited. If fornication occurred, the two were required to marry, with the man paying the full dowry of the woman to her father. Also, adultery had the penalty of death. If a man was betrothed to a woman, to step out on the engagement, was the same as being unfaithful. To get out of a betrothal required a divorce, which God hates. For the sake of our study we will be viewing the Song as a story of one man and one woman. There is no love triangle, although the book will warn of infidelity and creating such unlawful contemptible relationships. Some suggest that the girl of our Song is in love with the shepherd boy and yet Solomon continues to try to win her away from the shepherd. He would then take her into his harem of wives so that she can live as royalty instead of continuing to love her shepherd boy and remain in the field as a country maiden, who serves out her days in the hot burning sun, keeping the vineyards. Solomon is then attempting to rescue her and give her a posh lifestyle. While some passages can be interpreted in a way that would allow for this plot, the overwhelming evidence in the text suggests this is a Song about one man and one woman and the only triangular piece of the love Song is that God is the third party. The Morality of the Song of Songs The morality of the Song is also a needed topic of introduction. In this song we will find romantic love, courtship, beauty, passion, and mutual commitment. We will also see that the exchanges of these lovers are not merely vocal. These lovers kiss, fondle, embrace, sleep together, and consummate their love in full physical union. Some of the intimacy is real, while at other times it is part of a daydream in the imagination of the desires of the mind or in real dreams that are experienced at night, during regular sleep. The reason we must mention this at the outset of our efforts in studying this Song is that this fact has been a stumbling block to some while being an embarrassment to many other readers and commentators. Most people that come to the book for the first time are shocked and say, "Breasts, Bellies, and Bounding, O My". Michael Pearl is his book, "Holy Sex" states about being embarrassed, "It may be embarrassing to you, but not to most of the world - certainly not to this author. I will ask you a question: Why avoid discussing the most important subject to mankind? Wouldn't that be strange, as if God were embarrassed to address that which He had created? Should we surrender this glorious part of God's creation to the devil's dirty domain? Although it is true that Christian ministers and writers tend to avoid this subject, it is time to take back this lost sacred ground. Erotic pleasure came from the brilliant, creative, and pure mind of a holy God. God created us for his pleasure and he created sex for our pleasure. Some guilty soul with a twisted religious mind has said that sex is only for procreation and not for pleasure. If that were the case, what was God's purpose when He installed this powerful drive in His creation? Surely, He could have made reproduction a lot less complicated. With no pleasure or passion involved, there would never be any fornication, unwed mothers, or broken marriages. When a couple wanted children, they could have burdened themselves to perform some dull fertilization ritual with cold deliberation and forethought." The reality is that we see invitations to sexual intimacy and mutual fulfillment between lovers in the Bible that do not involve conception but simply being ravished by one another. In Proverbs 5:15-19, for example, we see that a lover is described love a refreshing spring that we must keep for ourselves, “Drink water from your own cistern And fresh water from your own well. Should your springs be dispersed abroad, Streams of water in the streets? Let them be yours alone And not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, And rejoice in the wife of your youth. [As] a loving hind and a graceful doe, Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; Be exhilarated always with her love.” Let it be clear that countless readers have immediately questioned the place of the Song of Songs in the Canon off of the sole fact that it has illicit sexual references that are only blurry because of the symbolism used to describe them. I really love what Carey Ellen Walsh had to say in regards to this concept. She said, “The silence in historical scholarship about the dreams, fears, and desires of an ancient culture can be deafening and sad. It gives the impression that these ancient people did not really live in the sense that we mean it, but they did.” She continues, "One wonders what the Israelites did for fun when they weren't dutifully procreating, sowing grain, battling, offering sacrifices, and just overall being so earnestly biblical about their lives. Understanding the biblical culture also means understanding the pleasures and joys of these past lives" Finally, Carey shares, "Spirituality, sexuality, and work are not viewed as far apart in the Bible, for the same fire, human desire, fuels them…Desire can both intoxicate and ignite the human soul and take it on a lifelong search, a yearning quelled only by death…Desire has content, and therefore a pain to it, in the acute knowledge of just what is missing...Desire is not something to be suppressed, discarded, or channeled strictly into religious devotion, but is presented as simply a facet of human life.” Nicholas Ayo added, "In its physical details sex can seem ridiculous and in its overall impact on body and soul quite awesome…Sexuality creates both the pursuit of happiness and the happiness of pursuit." Indecency or Vulgarity in the Song of Songs It is important that you understand that this book is not vulgar or indecent when we say that it is filled with romance, sexuality and lovemaking. It brings feelings of embarrassment only because we see scenes unfolding that, to us, are meant to be private. In reality, this only demonstrates the true vigor of the God-given joys of love in a romantic relationship. It is Scriptural and safe voyeurism! It is not illegal or indecent, where we are somehow watching the lovers in the Song for sexual arousal, but rather, learning how to love through what we see. We are not peeping Tom's, but instead we are being invited to be onlookers so that God can reveal the way that a man and woman can and should interact with one another. In Proverbs 30:18-19 we hear the writer proclaim, “ There are three things which are too wonderful for me, Four which I do not understand: The way of an eagle in the sky, The way of a serpent on a rock, The way of a ship in the middle of the sea, And the way of a man with a maid.” There is a difference between the indecency of pornography and the beauty of a God-appointed love relationship penned in song lyrics. Nicolas Ayo put it this way, "There is a considerable difference between erotic poetry and pornographic literature...Erotic imagination depends on sexual attraction, but it appreciates the body rather than demeans it. Pornography, however, objectifies the human body and dulls the sensitivity of the viewer" He called it a visual rape and cited Matthew 5:28 where to look on a woman to lust after her, is considered adultery in the heart. Pornography seeks to get to sexual acts as quickly as possible and then repeat variations or scenes of the sexual act itself for guilty pleasure and lustful fulfillment. True love has a build that will spend the majority of its time truly making love, which includes all that leads to the act of sexual fulfillment. In the latter scenario, the plot and the points at which we interact are the heightening or foreplay which tend to be as enjoyable as the finale. This Song is not verbal pornography but is solely erotic (eros) scenes that demonstrate the wants and desires of human love. The pursuit of pleasure is erotic but is never for selfish fleshly fulfillment. For in the search we are wooing and winning the heart of the other party in our passionate run. Crossing the finish line in sexual intimacy is not the end of the race, but we then plan for the next lap around the track. Matthew Fox states that we are not solving love but "heightening the wonder". We should not feel the need to turn away as this couple engages one another. We are asked to focus on and capture the details of each moment that they share. It would be a shame if a book like the Song of Songs was not in the Canon of Scripture. God asked us to love deeply the wife of our youth and without this Song, there are really no other texts in the Bible to show us how to do this shamelessly. We have many passages that command and instruct this kind of love, but none actually demonstrates the intimacy involved in the process of love in the making. It is safe to assume that the couple in our Song is betrothed to marry from the outset and they are trying to find the real love that comes through committing themselves to each other in marriage. This is far from vulgar but is a fulfillment of God-ordained desire. There is nothing indecent to be found here, but instead we are given a decent prescription for how to cure the lovesickness that can overcome us in our own deep longings for intimacy. Certainly this couple in our Song is not violating the law and crossing the boundaries of their limitations before God. The sexual union must be preserved and it is solely reserved for the marriage bed. While several of the scenes in this Song are passionate, at other times they show their love in calm gestures and compelling words. Some of the scenes are desires expressed but not fulfilled. Some are visions or dreams, while others are very real. Again, let me remind you that this is a Song. These are lyrics and not an actual couple that we are somehow violating by sneaking a peek into their real-life lovemaking.


We have covered enough ground today and I hope this has been helpful. We will have one more episode that will cover a portion of the introductory material.

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