We began to study the Song of Songs last week, but we didn’t get very far. In fact, last week was really only an introduction to this book and I spent most of our time setting out some of the interpretative challenges we’re faced with when we study this short book. And, in case you weren’t here last week, or in case you’ve forgotten, let me summarise some of those things again briefly.
The title of the book — Song of Songs — which appears in verse 1 of chapter 1, means that this is the best song, the greatest song, the superlative song. So, just as the Holy of Holies was the most holy place in the temple and just as the King of kings is the greatest king, so this Song of Songs is the greatest song. Some songs are good. Other songs are better. But this is the best song.
And we’re told in verse 1 that this is Solomon’s Song of Songs. That might mean that he wrote it. Or it might mean it was written for him or about him or perhaps it was his favourite song. It’s not entirely clear what Solomon’s connection with the song is.
And it’s not entirely clear who the song is about. I explained last week that the headings which appear in most English translations are not part of the original Hebrew text, but have been added by the translators to help us know who is speaking. And the translators have tried to work out when a man or woman or group of people are speaking based on the gender and number of the Hebrew pronouns. So, in verse 2 of chapter 1, the speaker says:
Let him kiss me….
We assume a woman said that, because the speaker says the speaker wants ‘him’ to kiss her. In verse 4, it says:
We rejoice and delight in you….
So, the pronoun ‘we’ means more than one person is speaking. And in verse 9 someone says:
I liken you…
The pronoun ‘you’ is female and therefore we assume a man is speaking. However, it’s not always clear who is speaking and the English translations and the Bible commentators are sometimes divided. And that means that the headings in the NIV may sometimes be wrong.
And I also explained last week that it’s not entirely clear how many main characters there are in this song. The most common view is that there are only two main characters: a man and woman who are in love with one another. Traditionally the man is taken to be Solomon. I think I forgot to mention last week that some who say there are only two characters, suggest that the man is not Solomon. That is, the man and the woman are ordinary people and not royalty. However, on their wedding day a bride and groom are treated like royalty, aren’t they? When a couple are getting married, they sometimes ask me can they have this and can they have that during the service. And I usually reply: ‘It’s your day.’ It’s your day, and therefore, within reason, you can have whatever you want. And so, some commentators suggest the man in the Song of Songs is not Solomon, but Solomon is mentioned because on their wedding day, a bride and groom are treated like royalty and they feel like kings and queens.
But then there are others who suggest that there are not two main characters in this Song, but three. There’s Solomon and the woman and another man, who is a young shepherd who loves the woman. And she loves him. The shepherd is her true love. Solomon doesn’t really love her; he only wants to add this beautiful woman to his harem. In the harem, she’ll live a life of luxury and will be surrounded by riches. However, she’ll only ever be one more concubine among many. So, will she choose that kind of life or will she choose to remain with this young shepherd, who is not rich or famous like Solomon, but who will love and adore her always?
So, are there two main characters or three? It’s not clear. And last week I also said that we also need to work out how to interpret this song. There are several options. Should we treat it as allegory? An allegory — like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress — is a made up story and the characters and places in the story symbolise something else. And that’s how people have treated the Song of Songs. For instance, the relationship between the man and the woman symbolises the relationship between God and Israel or Christ and his church. That seems sensible enough, but the symbolism can easily become far-fetched and fanciful, when, for example, the cooing of the doves in 2:12 is said to symbolise the preaching of the apostles; and the foxes in 2:15 are said to symbolise the sins that spoil the church; and the sachet of myrrh between her breasts in 1:13 is said to symbolise Christ who lies between the Old and New Testaments. The problem with an allegorical interpretation — apart from the fact that there’s no indication in the text that it should be interpreted this way — is that anyone with a creative imagination can interpret the text in any number of ways.
Others say we should give this book a natural interpretation. In that case, this love song is about love between a man and a woman. The book is part of the Bible’s wisdom literature which is all about being wise and living according to God’s wisdom and not according to the wisdom of the world, which is folly. And therefore, God has included the Song of Songs in the Bible to show us how to be wise about love and romance and desire.
Another approach is the typological interpretation. When someone or something in the Old Testament points forward to and is fulfilled by something in the New Testament, we say that that person or thing is a type. It points beyond itself to something better. So, the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were types of Christ who is the true sacrifice for sins. Kings in the Old Testament were types of Christ who is the true King. Allegory and typology may appear to be similar, but an allegory is a made up story, whereas types were real and they had a real purpose and meaning in the days of the Old Testament, even though they pointed beyond themselves to something better to come. And so, while Songs of Songs is about human love, perhaps their love for one another points beyond themselves to the love which exists between Christ and his church.
And then there’s the eschatological interpretation. Eschatology is to do with the last things: to the time when Christ returns and all things will be made new. And the last things are anticipated by the first things. So, what we read in Genesis about the creation anticipates what we read in Revelation about the new creation. And so, some of the commentators note the garden imagery of the Song of Songs and how a lot of the action takes place in a garden. And it’s an idyllic setting which recalls the Garden of Eden before the Fall, when Adam and Eve loved each other and knew no shame. And so, perhaps this love song recalls what was lost because of the Fall, but it also points beyond itself to the new heavens and earth, where we will be made perfect, and where all of God’s people will enjoy perfect peace and rest; and where we won’t be married, but we won’t be single either, because all of God’s people will be united forever with Christ our Bridegroom, who loved us and gave his life for us. And I mentioned last week that the Song of Songs ends with the woman calling the man to come to her. But the Bible ends with the Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus, calling his bride, the church, to come to him and to live with him forever.
So, there are a lot of interpretative challenges in this Song of Songs. In terms of how many main characters there are, I think I’m going to stick with the traditional two-person interpretation, because I think it’s more straightforward than the three-person approach.
And I usually take an eschatological approach to interpreting the Bible, which is also known as the redemptive-historical approach, because it’s about seeing how each text fits in with the whole history of redemption from beginning to end. So, how does the Song of Songs relate to the beginning of the Bible and to the beginning of God’s plan for our salvation; and how does it relate to the end of the Bible and to the consummation of God’s plan for our salvation?
Having said that, there are things we can learn from each of the interpretative approaches, with the exception perhaps of the allegorical approach. And so I’ll rely on the natural and typological approach when appropriate.
I’ll also assume that the main male character is Solomon, who was a king. And therefore the man and woman in the Song of Songs recall Adam and Eve, who were created to be king and queen over God’s creation in the beginning. And the man and the woman in the Song of Songs point forward to Christ the King and his bride, the church, who will live together in the new heavens and earth.
In terms of what we’ll do today, we’re going to study the first main part of the Song which runs from verse 2 of chapter 1 to verse 7 of chapter 2. Verse 7 is repeated in two other places in the song as a kind of refrain which marks the end of a section.
Verses 2 to 4
And so, it begins with the woman describing how she longs for the man.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth —
for your love is more delightful than wine.
When she refers to ‘your love’ in the second line, most of the commentators take it that she’s referring to the things he does which express his love. So, it would include his kisses and caresses, the way he holds and hugs her. These things delight her and fill her with joy and happiness. And so, it’s made absolutely clear, right at the beginning, that this woman is in love with this man. This is not a cold, distant, loveless relationship, but it’s one where they love each other deeply and passionately.
She then refers to fragrance and perfume:
Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
your name is like perfume poured out.
In the Bible, a person’s name signifies the person. And so, while the king’s scent is no doubt pleasing, because he will have been washed and anointed with all kinds of oils and fragrances and soaps, she’s probably also saying that everything about him is pleasing to her and enticing. A bad small causes us to recoil from it. Well, there’s nothing about this man which makes her want to recoil from him. Just the opposite: she wants to come close to him and to be with him.
And she then adds:
No wonder his maidens love you.
So, she’s not the only one who loves and admires this man. All the maidens or the young women do. They love and admire him, of course, because he’s the king, and everyone looks up to the king. Everyone is impressed by him. Those who adopt the three-person interpretation assume that she’s referring to the other concubines in Solomon’s harem. And therefore, the woman are in competition with one other for the affection of the king. However, I don’t think we have to interpret the words that way. I don’t think these maidens are competing with the woman. The meaning of this line is simply to make the point that the king is loved and admired by all.
And then she says to him:
Take me away with you — let us hurry!
Let the king bring me into his chambers.
Some of the commentators are worried by the morality of these two lines and similar lines in the Song. Are these two people married? If not, what should we make of a line like this where she says she wants to be alone with the king in his chambers? In fact, the last line should be translated:
The king has brought me into his chambers.
So, it’s not that she wants to be taken into his bedroom, but he’s already taken her in.
One of the problems is that we tend to think everything in the song happens in chronological order and we don’t read about their wedding until chapter 3. And, if that’s the case, if it’s all in chronological order, then they’re not married in chapter 1. However, we need to remember that this is a song, not a narrative. It’s not following chronological order. And so, I think we can take it that this man and woman are either already married or they’re describing their wedding day and night. In any case, there’s no hint anywhere that what they’re doing is wrong. Quite the opposite: it’s an idyllic scene which recalls life in the Garden of Eden before the Fall and before there was any sin or shame.
And then we have these other people speaking in the next part of verse 4. The NIV describes them as ‘friends’. These are perhaps the maidens, or, as they’re called later, the daughters of Jerusalem. They function in the song as a kind of choir, singing a chorus. And this is what they say:
We rejoice and delight in you;
we will praise your love more than wine.
They’re addressing the king. The woman has just said that the maidens love and admire him. And so, here they are, praising him. And she responds and says:
How right they are to adore you!
We can imagine her turning to the king, and smiling at him, and saying that she agrees with them, because his love delights her more than wine ever could. She is captivated by him.
Verses 5 to 7
And then she sings a little about herself and we discover something about her appearance and her background. She says about herself in verse 5 that she is dark, but lovely. She appears to be talking to the maidens, the daughters of Jerusalem. In fact, she asks them in verse 6 not to stare at her because of her darkness. And she explains that the reason her skin is dark is because it’s been tanned by the sun. She refers to her mother’s sons. That is, her brothers. She doesn’t mention her father, so the commentators think he has died. And for some unknown reason, her brothers were angry with her and they sent her out to look after their vineyards. So, every day, she was outside, working in the sun, taking care of these vines for her angry brothers. And because she’d been so busy with that task, she did not have time to take care of her own vineyard. She probably means that she’s neglected herself and her appearance. Instead of a life of leisure, pampering herself with oils and fragrances and soaps, as the king was able to do, she had to work hard in the sun. And so, her skin turned dark. And the maidens in Jerusalem began to stare at her. But nevertheless, even though she was dark, she was lovely. Her beauty shone through.
And in verse 7 she wants the king to tell her where she’ll be able to find him:
Tell me, you whom I love, where you graze your flock
and where you rest your sheep at midday.
This is an important verse for those who favour the three-person interpretation, because it seems as if she’s asking where she can go to meet her shepherd-lover. It’s also important for those who say the main male character is not the king, but a shepherd. After all, who ever heard of a king minding sheep? However, kings of Israel were often compared to shepherds, because just as a shepherd cared for his sheep, so the king was to care for the people. And so, it’s fitting for the woman to refer to Solomon as a shepherd. And she’s expressing her desire to go and be with him.
And then the maidens respond and tell her to follow the tracks of the sheep. They’re encouraging her to go and be with him. Remember this is a song, a poem, and not a narrative. It’s using images and metaphors and pictures to describe the relationship between this man and this woman. So, he’s not a shepherd. But that doesn’t matter. They talking about how they want to see one another, because they love one another.
1:9 to 2:6
And then, at last, the man speaks. ‘I liken you to a mare’, he says in verse 9. Most of the commentators say that women today don’t want to be compared to a horse. And that’s probably true, but horses can be beautiful, can’t they? When we lived in Naas, I would walk down by the canal which was next to a stud farm. And some of the horses ran across the field with such grace and beauty. And they were tall and slender and majestic. So, perhaps it’s not a bad comparison. And he refers to her cheeks and her neck and either the king, or the maidens, say that they’ll make her ear-rings of gold and silver.
And then she speaks in verse 12 and it’s as if she’s thinking to herself that while the king was at the table, her perfume spread its fragrance. Her longing for him is like a fragrance which spreads out from her towards him. And he’s like a sachet of myrrh, resting between her breasts. She’s conveying again how pleasant she finds him and she compares him to henna blossoms from the vineyards of En Gedi. When you see some flowers, you lean forward to smell them. And she wants to lean forward and to move closer to him, because he delights her.
And then they begin to praise one another. How beautiful you are. How handsome you are. I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys, she said. You’re like a lily among thorns, he replies. Compared to you, every other woman is a thorn. You’re like an apple tree to me, she says. I love to sit in your shade and everything about you is pleasant to me.
And she describes how he has taken her into the banquet hall. And his banner over me is love. One of the commentators explains that a banner is meant to be seen. And so, she’s saying that everyone can see how he loves her. She faints with love, but he strengthens her. And he embraces her with his arms.
And the first section ends with this chorus, addressed to the maidens, the daughters of Jerusalem. The woman has found love. It’s deeply satisfying: to love someone deeply; and to be loved deeply in return. It’s wonderful. However, there’s a warning to the maidens:
Do not arouse or awaken love
until it so desires.
Don’t rush it. Don’t force it. Let it come in its own time.
I said at the beginning that the Song of Songs is part of the Bible’s wisdom literature. And therefore, young people should take note of this piece of wisdom: Do not rush love. Let it come in its own time, because a young person does not want to end up with the wrong person.
But did you notice the garden imagery in this passage? Obviously there are the references to flowers. And the man is compared to a shepherd, who is minding his sheep outdoors, and who stops for a rest at noon. But look at verse 16 where the woman said that their bed is verdant. That is, our bed is green or grassy. And he responds in verse 17 by saying that the beams of their house are cedars and firs. And so, while she refers to the king’s table and banqueting hall, and to the daughters of Jerusalem, which gives the impression that they’re in Jerusalem, there are also these garden images. They’re lying down on the green grass and they’re looking up at the cedar and fir trees, which are growing around them.
So, they’re in a garden. And it’s this perfect scene — isn’t it? — because they love one another deeply and passionately. They’re besotted with one another. If she has any flaws, he doesn’t see them. If he has any weaknesses, she doesn’t notice them. And so, it recalls the Garden of Eden and the way things must have been before the Fall, when God saw that it wasn’t good for Adam to be on his own. And so, he made Eve for him. And they were both naked and felt no shame. And they felt no shame, because there was no sin. Everything was still very good.
But, then they disobeyed the Lord and everything was spoiled. And now, we don’t love one another the way that we should. Husbands and wives don’t love one another the way that they should. None of us loves one another the way that we should. Though God commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves, we are selfish and self-seeking. And we hurt one another and we make one another weep. And so, we read this Song of Songs and it seems like a fantasy, doesn’t it? Life in this world is never like this.
And so, we long for something better. We long for a world where we’re loved perfectly and where we will be able to love others perfectly. We long for a world where we are praised and admired and not criticised and condemned; and where there is no rivalry, but where we take delight in each other’s joy. And the good news of the gospel is that God the Father loved us and he sent his Son to save us from our sin and misery to give us the hope of a new life in a new and better world. As I said at the beginning, in that new world, we won’t be married, because there’s no marriage in the world to come. But we won’t be single, because every believer will be united with Christ our Bridegroom, who loved us and gave his life for us. And he’ll love us for ever and for ever and we will love him for ever and for ever.
And so, we long for the new creation, where everything will be perfect. And we know that, because of Christ, one day will enter that perfect world.
And, of course, the new creation has already begun, hasn’t it? Whenever we believe in Christ, we are made new. And God sends his Spirit into our hearts to renew us inwardly. Outwardly, we’re wasting away, but inwardly we’re been renewed. And so, we have the help of the Holy Spirit to love one another as we should. And so, if your marriage is not what it should be, if your other relationships are not what they should be, you can look to God for the help of the Holy Spirit to change you in the inside and to enable you to love the people around you. When a couple are married in the church, I say as part of the marriage ceremony:
Marriage is enriched by God for all who have faith in the gospel, for by the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, husband and wife may love one another as Christ loves them.
That is true for marriage, and it’s true for all our relationships, because we can rely on the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to love one another as Christ loved us.
And finally, the love between this king and his bride speaks to us of Christ the King and his love for the church and how from heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride; and with his own blood he bought her and for her life he died. And so, as we come to church on Sunday, and gather around the King’s table, we’re reminded of the greatness of his love and how his body was broken for you and how his blood was shed for you and for the complete forgiveness of all your sins and for the hope of eternal life in that new and better world to come.