How Should We Understand the Song of Solomon?

photo of couple facing each other during golden hour

Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

I have big trouble with The Song of Solomon. It’s often used for looking at marital intimacy, but I’m always thinking: ‘Which wife is Solomon talking about?’ He had so many. And it seems as if having all these wives was just a way of committing adultery (legally). So then I don’t understand why people use these verses to look at the loveliness of marriage?

I referred to the Song of Solomon this past Sunday in my sermon titled: “I Could Never Believe in a God Who Does Not Affirm Some People’s Sexuality”, which was the final installment in our series called “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…”.

The Song of Solomon is important theologically because it extols marital intimacy, showing romantic love as being for the purpose of enjoyment and the binding of spouses together, not only for the purpose of procreation. This stands in contrast to many ancient (and modern) views on sexuality which extol asceticism (the denial of pleasure) and eschew physical pleasure.

What We Know

According to the first verse of Song of Solomon, this is a song written by Solomon. This would make it one of the 1005 songs that Solomon wrote (1 Kings 4:32), but the title “Song of Songs” (S.o.S. 1:1) is a superlative, meaning that this is the best of all his songs.

Based on 1 Kings 4:32, it is assumed this song was written early in Solomon’s reign.

It is a lyrical poem, and the main character is a “Shulamite woman”. Shulamite simply means “from Jerusalem” – so this woman is from Jerusalem. This is important, because the first marriage of Solomon’s that we’re told about in 1 Kings 3:1 is his marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh, whom he brought to his palace in Jerusalem.

So the big question is this: Who is the Shulamite woman? Several suggestions have been made, as I will outline in the next section.

Four Possible Interpretations

It has been said that “perhaps no book in the biblical canon has had a greater diversity of interpretative strategies.”[1] Here are the four most popular:

1. Allegorical Interpretation

This view sees the sensuous descriptions of love as a picture of the love between God and his people, and then between Christ and his bride (either the church or the individual soul). This view was very common in the Middle Ages. Its weakness is that it runs the risk of diminishing the book’s endorsement of marital intimacy. Virtually all scholarly interpreters today see the book primarily as a celebration of love and the gift of sexual intimacy, many would say that it also sheds light on the intensity of the spiritual love-relationship between God and his people (see Eph. 5:22–33).

2. Anthology Interpretation

This interpretation views the Song of Solomon as a collection of poems or lyrics, arranged around the common theme of intimate love between a man and a woman—celebrating love’s longing, ecstasy, joy, beauty, and exclusivity. This understanding rejects the idea that the book contains a narrative plot.

3. The Shepherd Hypothesis

This is an interesting hypothesis which became popular in the 1800’s. It says that the Shulamite woman and the shepherd boy are two peasants who are in love, and King Solomon is seeking to win the woman’s into his harem. The woman ultimately resists Solomon’s flattery and returns home to marry the shepherd.

Several evangelical interpreters advocate this interpretation, because it accounts for what we know about Solomon having many wives later in life, but its weakness is that it does not give us any way of knowing when the shepherd is speaking and when Solomon is speaking. In fact, the speech patterns of the main characters (e.g., the descriptive titles they use for each other) favor the idea that there are only two lovers. Also, it would mean that Solomon wrote this song, in which he portrayed himself as the bad guy, and praised the love of this couple. While that’s not impossible, it does seem unlikely.

The following outline shows how the Shepherd Hypothesis understands the structure of the book:

  1. Solomon Meets the Shulammite in His Palace (1:2–2:7)
  2. The Beloved Visits and the Shulammite Searches for Him in the Night (2:8–3:5)
  3. Solomon Displays His Wealth and Sings of His Love (3:6–5:1)
  4. The Shulammite Yearns for the Beloved (5:2–6:3)
  5. The King Fails in His Pursuit of the Shulammite (6:4–8:14)

4. The Solomon-Shulamite Interpretation

The most common interpretation today is that the Song of Solomon a story about King Solomon and the Shulammite woman. Here is the outline:

  1. The Lovers Yearn for Each Other (1:2–3:5)
  2. The Wedding (3:6–5:1)
  3. Temporary Separation and Reunion (5:2–6:3)
  4. Delight in Each Other (6:4–8:4)
  5. Final Affirmations of Love (8:5–14)

The only problem with this view, is that we don’t know who this Shulamite woman is. It is possible, that Solomon is singing this about the daughter of Pharaoh, whom he dubs a “Shulamite”, since he has brought her to Jerusalem. Another suggestion is that prior to his wedding with the daughter of Pharaoh in 1 Kings 3:1, Solomon was married to another woman from Jerusalem, which 1 Kings never tells us about, and this song is a poetic retelling of that relationship.

What About Solomon’s Many Wives?

According to 1 Kings, it was only later in life that Solomon abandoned the monogamous standard of Scripture and started accumulating many wives. So it is entirely possible that at the time he wrote this song, his romantic interests were not yet tainted, and what we read about in this book is indeed the portrayal of something pure and beautiful.

1 Kings 11 makes it clear that Solomon turned away from the Lord in his heart, and the Lord was not pleased with what Solomon did. Many times, especially in the Old Testament, the Bible “reports the news” and leaves it to us to determine if what they did was good or not, based on what we know about God’s character and standards. Clearly, what Solomon did with his many wives was sin, and not an example for us to follow.

For more on this topic, check out: Does the Bible Ever Actually Prohibit Sex Before Marriage? What about Polygamy?

Solomon is a classic example of someone who started well, but did not finish well. Whereas his early life is an inspiration, his later life is a warning.

It has been said, “The last mile is the least crowded.” May we be those who finish well in this life of faith!

 

Advertisements

When God Says “No”

One of the things we’ve been doing at White Fields Church is giving people the opportunity to text or tweet us questions during the sermon.

Yesterday morning I taught 2 Samuel ch 7, which is the time when David had a desire to build a house for the Lord, but God said “No!”  That has some interesting implications, because what David wanted to do was a good thing, and it was a biblical thing – yet God said “no”.

This question was texted in during that sermon:

This morning in the sermon, you discussed having a desire to be a missionary, pastor, etc. If we have that desire in our hearts, didn’t God put that there? So why would He close The door if He put that desire there?

That is a great question!  The first question is a particularly important one: Did God put that desire there?  I believe that as we get closer to the heart of God – delighting ourselves in the Lord, as David said (Psalm 37:4) – that our desires are changed and become more aligned with His desires. 

In the story we studied yesterday in 2 Samuel 7: David had a desire. It was a good, noble desire – it was even a Biblical desire. Did God put that desire there? Maybe! Or maybe not. We don’t know for sure. There is a way in which we could argue that God did put that desire in David’s heart – but that David’s role in fulfilling that was not to be directly involved in the building of the temple, but indirectly – as we saw, how David got the ball rolling with the building of the temple and had all of the items made which would be used in the temple.

Let me share an example from my own life: I gave my life to the Lord when I was 16, and almost immediately I developed a desire to minister to the people of the former Soviet Union, specifically Ukraine, where my family had immigrated from. When I was 18, I was invited to go on a ministry trip to Budapest, Hungary – to a conference for Calvary Chapel churches from Hungary and Ukraine. It was the Ukrainian part which I was interested in, and I went there with the hope that I could connect with some ministries in Ukraine. I was able to do that, but interestingly all of the “doors of opportunity” for me to serve in Ukraine seemed closed, however there was an incredible open door and an invitation for me to serve in Debrecen, Hungary – the pastor there told me he had been praying for someone exactly like me to come and work with them. I had no real desire to go to Hungary, my desire was to serve the Lord in Ukraine – but I prayed about it and came to the conviction that this is what God had for me at that point, and after serving there for a little while I could move to Ukraine, where I really desired to be. I committed to go to Debrecen, Hungary for 8 months. During those 8 months, I prayed for Ukraine constantly, I even tried to go to Ukraine to work with some of the people I had met the year before at the conference in Budapest, but once again all the doors of opportunity were closed!  My feeling was: God, why did you give me this desire to serve you in Ukraine, and then close all the doors before me?!  Yet, in the meantime, I had become very proficient in Hungarian and was involved in some very exciting and fruitful ministry in Hungary. I came to see that perhaps God had given me that desire to serve Him in Ukraine in order to get me to pray and to get me to Hungary – which hadn’t even been on my radar, but which ended up being the “land of blessing” for me, where I met my future wife, where I became a pastor, where my 3 kids were born, where I was involved in years of fruitful and wonderful ministry. Was it God who put that desire to serve Him in Ukraine in my heart? I’m not sure. But He certainly used that desire in my life to lead me to where He wanted me to be.

My desire to serve the Lord in Ukraine never went away; I still have it. But I have come to rest in believing that God gave me that desire not in order to move me to Ukraine, but so that I would carry the people of that country on my heart and pray for them, and support what God is doing through other people there – which is exactly what I strive to do! This desire to serve the Lord in Ukraine led me to start taking teams from our church in Eger up to a Hungarian-speaking region of Ukraine, where we would do evangelism and support ministries in that region. I also had the opportunity to take extended trips to Ukraine and teach in a Bible school there. Who knows what God has for the future, but I very much can relate to David – who, although he was not allowed to be directly involved in the building of the temple, found a way to still be involved in it in a signifiant and meaningful way, indirectly.

So, to the question: If you have a desire to be a pastor, missionary, etc. – did God put it there? If so, why would he then shut the door?    I think that 2 Samuel 7 shows us that even if God is the one who put that noble desire in your heart to serve the Lord in a particular way, perhaps the fulfillment of that desire is not found in you fulfilling the role you specifically have in mind – perhaps the fulfillment of that desire will come in a way that is completely from God, and has a greater impact, even in your own life, than you could have ever imagined.