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!

 

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Sam Allberry on Sexual Ethics & Moral Intuition

I spent last week in Southern California for the Calvary Global Network (CGN) international conference. There was a great line up speakers, including Ray OrtlandJared C. Wilson, Mark Sayers, and Sam Allberry.

All the messages from the conference are available online here.

Sam’s message, “Gospel Confidence in a Sexually Shifting Culture” (video below) was particularly helpful.

Image result for sam allberrySam is a pastor from Maidenhead, England, who also works with Ravi Zacharias International Ministry (RZIM), Cedarville University, and writes for The Gospel Coalition.

He recently wrote a short and helpful book about Christian sexual ethics, in which he also talks about his own experience of same-sex attraction, titled “Is God anti-gay?”.

 

Key Points from Sam’s Message

In the West, we live in a place where people’s “moral intuitions” have shifted. People are not morally relative, nor are they amoral. Rather, their “intuition” of what defines morality has changed. People now base their determination of morality on these questions:

  1. Is it fair, or does it discriminate?
  2. Is it freeing, or is it oppressive?
  3. Is it harmful, or benign?

Anything seen as limiting freedom is seen as creating an existential conflict.

As a result, whereas biblical sexual ethics in the 1950’s-1980’s, for example, were considered prudish, they are now considered immoral.

What is needed is for us to learn to listen well, show people the goodness of God and provide a true and better narrative.

It’s worth listening to Sam’s entire message. Here is the video of it, as well as a follow-up interview he did afterward.

Poll: “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…”

Starting April 28, the Sunday after Easter, we will be doing a series at White Fields called “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…”, in which we will be addressing some of the common struggles and objections that people have about God, the Bible, and Christianity.

You can help me by taking a second to fill out this quick anonymous poll to let me know what are some of the biggest hurdles to faith that you have experienced yourself or encountered in other people. Thanks!

Please also share this with others; I’d like to get as many responses as possible to get a clear picture of the things people are really struggling with.

(email subscribers can click here to access the poll)

Beauty Out of Ashes – Video

This past weekend I spoke at Calvary Aurora, while Jack Curran, a great brother from our fellowship, taught at White Fields.

I shared a message about Jesus’ genealogy, specifically about the terrible and messy story of Tamar and Judah from Genesis 38, and how it is a surprising picture of redemption.

I’m pretty sure I was their first (and maybe last) guest speaker to teach from a biblical text that included the word “semen”.

Here’s the video of the service:

Bruce “Caitlyn” Jenner and the Quest for a New Start

In the wake of the Vanity Fair cover of a 65 year old Bruce Jenner who has changed his gender and his name to “Caitlyn”, social media has been full of people responding on both sides of the issue. Many are bemoaning where our culture has come to, others celebrating this as progress.

  
To me the most insightful response has been one posted by a friend and a reader of this blog. This friend pointed out that Jenner stated his desire for a new start. Jenner’s son has been quoted as saying that he hopes Caitlyn will be a better father than Bruce was. Others on social media have been commenting on the significance of the name “Caitlyn” – with a C rather than a K: that it is an intentional departure and separation on Jenner’s part from the Kardashians and their names which all begin with K.

It seems clear that, as Jenner has stated, he wants a new start – a new life. He wants to be a new person.
But isn’t that what all of us truly desire deep down in our heart of hearts?

Jenner has experienced success that many people only dream of, but yet he feels such a deep dissatisfaction with himself that he has now undertaken the greatest transformation medically possible. What does this show us if not to confirm the great theological truth that all people have a deep (and correct) sense that something is fundamentally wrong with them. 

Bruce Jenner is not the first person to have a sex change opperation, and surely many others have done it for many of the same reasons: they desire the most extreme form of a new life that modern medicine can manufacture. However, history has shown that people who have gotten these opperations tend to greatly regret it, with a huge and disturbing percentage of them restorting to suicide.

Jenner has been called a “hero” for coming out. When I look at him what I see is a desperately sad and depressed individual who happens to have the money to do whatever he wants – in this case buy himself a “new life”. I’m sure the “new car smell” will wear off with time, the media will move on, and then Jenner will be left with: himself/herself, and the root issue will not have been dealt with. 

Jenner has only affected the surface; he has not actually become a “new person” – as is his desire. There is only one way to truely become new – so new in fact that you need a new name. That happened to many people in history: Jacob became Israel. Simon became Peter. Saul became Paul. They were all truly transformed, not on the outside, but on the inside. That’s what all of us really need and ultimately desire.