The Song of Solomon is a poetic wisdom composition in the tradition of Solomon (Song 1:1), along with works such as Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. The grammar of the song’s title in Hebrew (“Song of Songs”) is superlative, meaning “the best song,” just like “King of kings” or “Lord of lords.” This superlative designation is exceptionally impressive given that Solomon wrote 1,005 songs (1 Kings 4:32). Apparently, this is the best of the bunch, but the church has struggled to fully appreciate the message of the Song due to its intimate and even sexual content. Here are three things you should know about Solomon’s best song.
1. The key to understanding Song of Solomon comes at the end.
This feature appears in other wisdom compositions in the Old Testament. For example, at the end of Ecclesiastes, the author finally puts everything that preceded in its proper perspective: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13). Similarly, once we read the final chapter of Job, we are then equipped to go back and understand the reason for everything that transpired. The same method of instruction applies to the Song of Solomon.
The key instructional unit in the song is located at Song of Solomon 8:6–10. By way of summary, the song teaches that the covenant of marriage should involve both commitment (Song 8:6a) and intimacy (Song 8:6b). A marriage that is committed to maintaining both realities will better endure hardship (Song 8:7a), resist temptation (Song 8:7b), and promote wholeness (shalom) in the context of that relationship (Song 8:10). The world loves the intimacy part but often repudiates the wholeness of rock-solid commitment. On the other hand, the church enthusiastically affirms lifelong, rock-solid commitment, but it has done little to promote the goodness of sexual intimacy in the context of a Genesis 2 marriage relationship. We should be committed to promoting both.
2. The Song of Solomon describes both marriage and God’s relationship with His people.
The Song of Solomon is not just about commitment and intimacy in the context of marriage; it also speaks to the type of relationship that the Lord desires to have with His people. It is not, however, a fanciful allegory describing the relationship between Yahweh and Israel or Jesus and the church. It is, unashamedly, a wisdom song about commitment and intimacy in the context of marriage. But Scripture does teach that the marriage covenant of Genesis 2 was designed to point beyond itself to the eschatological marriage of Revelation 19–22.
This is Paul’s point at the end of Ephesians 5 when he quotes Genesis 2: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31–32). All the goodness that God has created in marriage will be amplified and perfected in the new heavens and earth. Additionally, all the sorrow and loss in marriage caused by sin will be eradicated. Marriage is an important topic in the Bible. We could even say that it frames the Bible from beginning to end. As such, let the covenant of marriage remind us of the hope that is waiting for us at that end.
3. The Song of Solomon abounds in figurative language.
Poetry employs the artistic use of language more than standard narrative or prose. Figurative expressions in another language and from an ancient culture may not correspond exactly to our own cultural and linguistic context. For example, I would not compliment my wife by saying, “Your hair is like a flock of goats,” (Song 4:1) or “Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate” (Song 4:3). In Song of Solomon 4:2 we read:
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
and not one among them has lost its young.
I have never witnessed such an event, nor do I have much experience with sheep, so it takes some work to understand that the woman described here has white teeth and none of them are missing. Consider the language of Song of Solomon 4:11, where the woman is described as romantically desirable. It reads:
Your lips drip nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
Nectar, honey, milk, and the smell of Lebanon do not correspond to our modern descriptions of desire, but we can appreciate these ancient modes of expression as they correspond to things like red wine, perfume, or rose petals in our own context.
The Song of Solomon also employs metaphor. For example, we read:
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
they made me keeper of the vineyards,
my own vineyard I have not kept! (Song 1:6).
The woman explains that her skin is darkened because her brothers forced her to work the family vineyards, which meant that she did not have time to care for her own vineyard—that is, her body. This same metaphorical arrangement appears again at the end of the Song, where the vineyards of Solomon appear together with the woman’s own vineyard; once again, her body (Song 8:11).
Finally, the Song employs euphemism to slightly veil topics considered delicate or requiring some measure of modesty. For example, the beloved is invited to “come to his garden and eat its choice fruits” as an invitation to sexual intimacy (Song 4:16). Similarly, we read, “I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit” (Song 7:8). An often overlooked euphemism appears in chapter 3 where the sixty warriors around Solomon’s “litter” are described as “wearing swords” (Song 3:8), but the Hebrew text actually reads, “Seized by the sword.” In other words, they were eunuchs. Figurative language in the Song of Solomon is one of the things that makes it the best of songs. Readers will be rewarded by paying special attention to this aspect of the book.
This article is part of the 3 Things You Should Know collection.