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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