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Bible Commentaries
Song of Solomon

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

- Song of Solomon

by Editor - Joseph Exell



The Title of the Book

It is generally believed that the title “Song of Songs” is a superlative expression (like “heaven of heavens”) to indicate the best of songs; though some explain it in the sense of a song made up of different songs, or canticles, all having one subject--love. (James Robertson, D. D.)

The opening words, “The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s,” are of the nature of a title added in later times--an author would hardly call his poem the Song of Songs--and therefore are not conclusive evidence as to the writer. (A. M. Mackay, B. A.)

The Authorship of the Book

Solomon is expressly mentioned in the superscription as the author. Positive arguments for the genuineness of the superscription are--

(a) Its enigmatical and pregnant character, and that mingling of description of the subject and of the author which is very probable and appropriate as emanating from the sacred poet himself, but not as emanating from a later glossarist;

(b) The circumstance, that at the beginning of the poem there would be no mention of its subject if the present superscription be pronounced inaccurate. The evidence in relation to the author, furnished by the superscription, is confirmed by the marked connection of the historical relations and allusious of the book with the age of Solomon. This is most decided and plain in such passages as Song of Solomon 4:8; Song of Solomon 7:5. The age of Solomon is farther suggested by the whole style and character of the work. “The whole feeling, the whole tone of the book, and its manner, which is in part splendid, and in part beautiful and natural, lead us at.once to think of the writer as belonging to the most flourishing period of the Hebrew constitution and history.” (Kleuker.) The account given of itself by the Song of Songs receives further confirmation from the fact that the mental and other peculiar characteristics of Solomon reappear in it, It breathes the high and lofty spirit attributed to Solomon in 1 Kings 5:9 ff; and it could only have been written by a man whose experiences in connection with earthly love had been such as Solomon’s. History testifies to Solomon’s pleasure in gardens (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6). Here we have the natural groundwork of the allegorical description of nature contained in the Song. According to 1 Kings 4:33, Solomon “discoursed concerning trees . . . cattle and birds,” etc. Now there is not a book in the whole of the Scriptures which contains in so brief a space so many allusions to natural objects. Again, Solomon “built houses” (Ecclesiastes 2:4; cp. 1 Kings 6:7.); and his taste for art shows itself in various ways in the Song (Song of Solomon 1:5; Song of Solomon 1:10-11; Song of Solomon 1:17; Song of Solomon 3:10-11; Song of Solomon 5:14-15; Song of Solomon 7:2; Song of Solomon 7:5; Song of Solomon 8:9). The testimony of the superscription to Solomon as the author is also confirmed by the reference to the Song found in the oldest prophets, especially in Hosea; see also Joel 3:3; Isaiah 5:1. A further confirmation is, that Psalms 45:1-17., which belongs to an early period, presupposes the existence of the Song, and is evidently a compendium thereof. (E. W. Hengstenberg, D. D.)

If Solomon was indeed the author, he must have written in the dialect used in the northern part of his country; and not in that with which he was most familiar. That he should have written so strongly in favour of an ideal of love the reverse of that which he adopted in practice is certainly improbable, but not, as Driver says, “out of the question.” Did not Burns, in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” eloquently denounce the cruelty of that licentiousness which was his own besetting sin, and is not all literature full of such inconsistencies? (A. M. Mackay, B. A.)

The view most generally accepted at present is that the Song was the work of a poet in the northern kingdom, composed not long after the separation of the two kingdoms, probably about the middle of the tenth century before Christ. In evidence of its northern birthplace, are the frequent and almost exclusive mention of localities in the north; the author’s strongly expressed dislike of the luxury and expense of Solomon’s court, which necessitated the exactions that so contributed to the schisms between the two kingdoms (1 Kings 12:4, seq.; 2 Chronicles 10:1, seq.); the entire absence of all allusions to the temple and its worship; the exaltation of Tirzah to an equal place with Jerusalem as a type of beauty (Song of Solomon 6:4); dialectical peculiarities, which can only be accounted for on this hypothesis, or on the untenable one of an extremely late composition; the comparison of Hosea, undoubtedly a northern writer, which shows that the two authors “lived in the same circle of images, and that the same expressions were familiar to them.” (Renan.) This fact of a northern origin established, it follows almost inevitably that the date of the poem must be placed somewhere in the middle of the tenth century, for it was only during the period from 975 to 924 b.c. that Tirzah occupied the position of northern capital; and the whole tone and spirit of the book, together with its treatment of Solomon, is what we should expect at a time not far removed from the rupture of the two kingdoms. As yet tradition had not exaggerated the splendour of the Solomonic era: in the references to Solomon’s guard, his harem, and his arsenal, the figures are not extravagant, as in the comparatively late accounts in Kings and Chronicles. A crowd of smaller indications point the same way, e.g. the mention of Heshbon, which had ceased to be an Israelitish town by Isaiah’s time (Isaiah 15:8). The mention of the Tower of David, as still possessing a garrison (Song of Solomon 7:4; Song of Solomon 4:4), the allusion to Pharaoh’s equipages have a similar tendency; while it is almost inconceivable that Solomon himself or any author, while that monarch was alive, and his rule all-powerful, could have represented him and his court in such an unfavourable light as they appear in the Song. But it is exactly the representation we should look for in a poet of the northern kingdom in the early years after it revolted against the tyranny of the Davidic dynasty. (Archdeacon Aglen, D. D.)

The Purpose and Plan of the Book

There is no doubt that different speakers are introduced, so as to give a dramatic appearance to the book; but they appear so abruptly that it is exceedingly difficult to say who or how many they are; and hence the determination of the purpose and plan of the whole book remains one of the most perplexing problems of Old Testament study.

1. In the original, the distinction of male and female speakers is indicated by the genders of the words. We can thus, so to speak, discriminate the voices, though we cannot clearly discern the features of the characters. In the R.V. a space between the verses denotes a change of speaker.

2. Of the characters of the piece, one can be traced throughout, viz. the “Shulam-mite,” so named in Song of Solomon 6:13 (R.V.)

and generally understood to he a maiden of Shunem (compare 2 Kings 4:12). The “daughters of Jerusalem,” who somewhat resemble the chorus in a Greek play, though subsidiary, are easily recognizable. The main question is whether the Shulammite has two suitors or only one; for according as this question is answered, the division of dialogue must be made and the interpretation of the whole carried out.

(a) On the view that there is only one male speaker, it is the king who falls in love with a rustic maiden, and at length raises her to the position of his bride in the palace. The most of the dialogue on this view consists of the exchange of endearments between the lovers.

(b) The other opinion, which many now hold, is that the Shulammite has been betrothed to a shepherd lover; but she has been noticed by Solomon and his retinue on some royal journey (Song of Solomon 6:10-13), brought to Jerusalem, and there, surrounded by the women of the palace, is plied with entreaties by the king in the hope of winning her affections. On this view it is explained that those speeches of a rustic suitor, which do not befit the character of Solomon (see Song of Solomon 2:8-14), are the words of her absent lover, recalled by the maiden herself to confirm her in her devotion. Towards the close the parted lovers are united (Song of Solomon 8:5-7), and the conclusion of the whole seems to be that true love is unquenchable, and cannot be bought by wealth and position.

3. The conclusion to be drawn as to the purpose of the book depends upon the opinion we form of the characters introduced. On the view that has just been mentioned (b above)

, the book would have an ethical aim--to exhibit the triumph of pure, spontaneous love, over all worldly and unworthy enticements; and, the scene being laid in the time of Solomon (though the book could not thus have come from his hand), the protest would be all the more striking against the loose view of marriage which is associated with his reign. The lesson would be one on the sacredness of human love, which our Lord Himself emphasized (Matthew 19:4-8, etc.). On the other view mentioned (a above)

, while some would regard the book as nothing more than a collection of love-songs, or a composite poem made up of songs such as arc found in other Eastern literature, others think that the marriage of Solomon to Pharaoh’s daughter, or to a Galilean maiden whom he raised’ to the throne, is made typical of a higher and spiritual love. On this ground they suppose the book was taken into the Canon, and has a counterpart in Psalms 45:1-17. This may be called a modification of the earliest known mode of interpreting the book, which was allegorical. This view, found among the Jews as early as the Fourth Book of Esdras (end of the first century (a.d.) and among Christian writers first in Origen (died a.d. 254), regarded the book as teaching symbolically the love of God to the nation of Israel, or to the Church, or to the individual soul; and the literature connected with the Song on this line of interpretation has been most extensive down to modern times. (James Robertson, D. D.)

The mystical sense is false philosophically, but it is true religiously. It corresponds to the great sanctification of love inaugurated by Christianity. (E. Renan.)

The Canonicity of the Book

This was a subject of dispute down to the assembly of Jewish doctors held at Jamnia about 90 a.d., when it was settled, on the authority of Rabbi Akiba, that “no day in the history of the world is worth the day when the Song of Solomon was given to Israel,” and that “the Song of Solomon is a holy of the holies,”--though, indeed, its sanctity was still sometimes questioned in the second century after Christ. (Chambers’s Encyclopaedia.)

Castellio was forced to leave Geneva in 1544 for having demanded its exclusion from the Canon as a mere amatory poem. (Chambers’s Encyclopaedia.)

The story could only seem out of place in Holy Scripture to one who assigns to religion a very narrow sphere indeed, and leaves outside its pale the largest and most important tracts of human life. Consider how large a part love plays in the literature of every nation, how vividly it colours the experience of almost every life, how powerfully for evil or for good it influences character and conduct, and few will fail to appreciate and approve the words of Niebuhr: “I should think there was something wanting in the Bible if we could not find in it any expression for the deepest and strongest sentiment of humanity. To the ancient Jew it must have been a witness for monogamy against polygamy, for true and honest love as against the organized lust which then prevailed in king’s courts. And by the modern Englishman its lessons are not less needed. How much misery and sin is occasioned by marriages made for money, for position, for mere convenience, without that strong affection which can fuse two personalities into one; how often is a legal marriage made a cover for prostitution of the soul! So far from the poem, taken in its primary sense, being unworthy of the Bible, it is to be wished that the Church would take to heart the lessons it teaches, and inculcate them upon its children with growing insistence and earnestness. (A. M. Mackay, B. A.).

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