by Rev. David A. Moffat
The title of this book of the Bible could easily be translated “the greatest song”. As often happens in the Bible, repetition expresses high esteem. We are used to the phrase “King of kings”, which is used both to refer to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar (Ezekiel 26:7, Daniel 2:37) and the Lord Himself (Revelation 17:14, 19:16). Notice that this title comes from the first verse of the book itself, “The song of songs, which is Solomon’s.” (1:1 NKJV). Again, taking the title from the first words of the text is common practice in the Old Testament. But doesn’t it seem somewhat boastful for the author to call his own work the “greatest song”? The other possibility is that this actually reflects the author’s esteem of his subject matter: in other words, the love of which he speaks is the “greatest song”, the loftiest of themes.
As suggested by verse 1, the book is commonly attributed to King Solomon and although there’s some debate about this, there’s nothing really to be gained from academic discussions about the identity of the author. Song of Songs is grouped among the “Wisdom literature”, which includes other of the books we regard as Solomon’s: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. Two of the Psalms are also labeled as Solomon’s (Psalm 72 and 127).
It is fairly easy to look at Song of Songs as though it were a religious perspective on the marriage relationship, and that is how I’ve heard it most often treated. However, it is also widely recognised as an allegory for the relationship between Christ and the church, or of the Divine and the human soul. Matthew Henry’s Commentary is an excellent example of this, which treats of the entire book in an allegorical manner. Here is his summary of chapter 1: “The title ([verse] 1). The church confessed her deformity (2-6). The church beseeched Christ to lead her to the resting-place of his people (7-8). Christ’s commendation of the church and her esteem for him (9-17).”
Is this allegorical treatment really justified? Yes. There are two bodies of Scriptural references we can look at which support this idea. Firstly, the other writings of Solomon make this same connection, preeminently the book of Proverbs, which spends its first nine chapters (as well as its last) comparing wisdom and folly to two women differently characterised and contrasted. Secondly, we can look to the use of marriage imagery in the rest of Scripture, where we find multiple examples in which the relationship between Israel (or the church) and the Lord is compared to marriage. In the Old Testament, have a look at Psalm 45, Isaiah 54:5-6, 62:5, Jeremiah 2:2, 3:1, and the whole book of Hosea. In the New Testament, Matthew 9:15 (Christ calls himself the “bridegroom”, see also Mark 2:19, Luke 5:34) John 3:29 (words of John the Baptist) and Revelation 21;2,9.
So although it is usually treated in a literal manner, Song of Song helpfully points us to a deeper understanding of all Scripture than we are commonly accustomed to, and this may be one of its primary purposes for us.
Emanuel Swedenborg writes, “it is written in the ancient style, and is full both of things with spiritual meanings that were gathered together from the books of the Ancient Church, and also of many things which in the Ancient Church meant celestial and spiritual love, especially conjugial love.” (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 3942, section 2)
Perhaps it is easier for us to see and relate to the book’s deeper meaning because of this imitation of the ancient style of Scripture. This imitation could then lead us to see the realities to be found in other Scriptures where that meaning is less easily identified.
As you read the book (it’s brief enough to do so in a single sitting), you will notice the repetition of certain words and phrases: “Dove’s eyes”, “Your hair is like a flock of goats, going down from Mount Gilead” (I really quite like that image: I can picture a flock of mountain goats racing, fleet-footed, downhill), teeth are compared to shorn sheep, breasts to fawns of a gazelle – all of the above occur at the beginning of chapter 4, as well as other places. There are many references to lilies in one way or another. The author often advises, “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.”
One other curiosity is the use of the word, “Dudaim” (chapter 7, verse 13 – if you use a concordance and lexicon it is given Strong’s number 1736). Swedenborg notes that the translators of his own day did not know what these were, other than either a type of flower or fruit (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 3942). There appears to be no such uncertainty among modern scholars, at least, none that I can find. The New King James Version renders the word, “mandrakes” as does the New International Version, whereas my Interlinear Bible uses “Love apples”. You can find another reference to it in Genesis 30:14 – part of an argument between Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel. There appears to be an association with fertility, which makes sense in the current context.
In summary, Song of Songs is understood to contain symbolism deeper than its surface meaning, although it is not often spoken of in symbolic terms outside of academic commentaries. It contains some lovely imagery and can lead the open-minded reader to a deeper appreciation of the whole of Scripture.