Is The Song of Solomon about God's Love or Human Love? (Song of Solomon 1)
This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine;
3 your anointing oils are fragrant;
your name is oil poured out;
therefore virgins love you.
4 Draw me after you; let us run.
The king has brought me into his chambers.
We will exult and rejoice in you;
we will extol your love more than wine;
rightly do they love you.
—Song of Solomon 1:2–4
Introduction to the Song
We hear a provocative plea. A woman speaks.1 What does she want? Now is her time to arouse and awaken love. Who is her man? We do not know. She calls him “the king” (Song 1:4; cf. Song 1:12; 7:5). This, however, is not a reference to King Solomon, who plays only a minor role in the drama and overall a negative one. Rather, this reference to royalty is metaphorical. Her husband (whom she will describe in the next scene as a shepherd; Song 1:7) is a king to her. He is her king. What is their story? We do not yet know. Even as the Song unfolds, we receive only bits and pieces of the details of their courtship, wedding, and marriage. The vagueness is likely intentional, for the application is universal: they represent every couple in love. What provokes such a plea? His “love” (Song 1:2) and his “name” (Song 1:3). What a wonderful blend of chemistry and character!
ESV Expository Commentary
Four Old Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the text of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary.
His love is described as being “better than wine” (Song 1:2). To her, his love is tactile—it is something she can touch, taste, and smell. Like wine, it is sweet, aromatic, its overall effect intoxicating. Put simply, his love is pleasurable, for wine in the Bible often symbolizes the greatest of earthly delights (Judg. 9:13; Ps. 104:15; cf. Jesus’ wedding miracle in John 2:1–11 of turning ordinary water into quality wine). His character (“name,” Hb. shem) is described as “oil poured out” (Song 1:3). As the oils from his body and the oils from a perfume (used to mask body odor) blend to produce his unique smell, that very fragrance arouses her as much as it affirms his character. And his bedroom (it might be lit. outdoors in the pasture, Song 1:12, 16–17; 2:4; or in their respective family homes, Song 3:4; 8:2) is like the most amazing boudoir. It is like the presidential suite or the king’s palatial chambers.
Beyond the royal metaphors, a less subtle poetic detail further enhances the intimacy of the scene. The woman has moved from addressing her man in the third person (“him”/“his”) in Song of Solomon 1:2a, to the second person (“you”/“your”) in verses 2b–3, and to the first-person plural (“let us run”) in part of verse 4. While she quickly returns to the third person (“his chambers”), this slight grammatical alteration is symbolic of two becoming one. The couple is not merely “him” or “her” but “us.”
The bride is not alone in her assessment of the groom’s fine reputation and noble character. The “virgins” (perhaps her bridesmaids or, more broadly speaking, other single women of marriageable age) agree. They “love” him (Song 1:3; i.e., they affirm her choice) and her (“rightly do they love you”; v. 4). This introductory poem ends with their announcement of approval. The voices of the virgins hover above the ideal wedding night. They boast in the bride’s blessing; they exalt in her godly ecstasies.
Eros or Allegory?
When it comes to the Song, intelligibility angst abounds! Comments such as “The Song is the most obscure book of the Old Testament” (Franz Delitzsch), “[It is the] most difficult book of sacred Scripture” (Christopher W. Mitchell), and “No composition of comparable size in world literature has provoked and inspired such a volume and variety of comment and interpretation as the biblical Song of Songs” (Marvin Pope) are commonplace. Disagreements over the translation of abstruse words, the unraveling of odd images, the flow of the drama, the person speaking, and the interpretation of the imagery meet us at every turn.
The first major challenge is to determine whether the Song is an allegory about God’s love for his people or an erotic poem about human love set in the context of marriage. Our view strongly favors the second.
We know that this is a wedding song from the cultural context (i.e., in Israel only sex within marriage was celebrated), as well as from the language of the Song itself. After the word “wedding” is used in Song 3:11 (as the wedding day of Solomon is used as a foil), the word “bride” is used of the young woman six times in the next section (Song 4:1–5:1), a poem which undoubtedly describes sexual relations. Further support for this marriage-song thesis is found in the language of a permanent pledge, such as “Set me as a seal upon your heart” (Song 8:6) and “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (Song 2:16; cf. Song 6:3; 7:10).
If readers were not influenced by the history of the interpretation of the Song but simply read the text as is, they would likely surmise—with phrases such as “Kiss me,” “His right hand embraces me,” and so on—that this is erotic poetry (“Your rounded thighs are . . . the work of a master hand”) set within the ethical limits of the marriage bed (“my bride”). However, the near consensus of both Jewish and Christian interpretation for at least sixteen hundred years was that the Song is about not human but divine love. That is, it sings of God’s love for Israel and/or Christ’s love for the church or for the individual Christian soul. From Origen of Alexandria to Charles Spurgeon of London, Christians allegorized each thigh and breast and kiss and consummation. While their allegories were usually orthodox, edifying, and Christ-exalting, they were often exegetically absurd (e.g., the phrase in Song 1:12—“while the king was on his couch”—refers to “the gestation period of Christ in the womb of Mary”).
Following Marvin Pope’s analogy, we liken the history of interpretation to Hans Christian Andersen’s children’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. Just as the emperor’s ministers and subjects affirm that he is indeed wearing clothes (when he is not), so interpreters kept telling their readers that the Song was solely about spiritual love (when it is not). But just as a child sees the reality of the situation—the emperor is naked!—so do we see that the characters in the Song are naked. They are also unashamed. And we today should share their lack of shame. For the Song is a song Adam could have sung in the garden when Eve was created from his side; and it remains a song we can and should sing in the bedroom, the church, and the marketplace of ideas. The Song guides us to see with scriptural sensibilities that the earth is “crammed with heaven” (Elizabeth Browning, “Aurora Leigh,” line 61), the way of a man with a woman is “too wonderful” (Prov. 30:18–19), and marriage is not simply a concession to the necessity of procreation but an affirmation of the beauty, chastity, and sacredness of human love. As the ancient commentaries duly noted, however, it does, of course, reveal to us something of the meaning of the mystery of marriage (i.e., “Christ and the church”; Eph. 5:32) and that, “beginning with [even!] this Scripture,” we can discover eye-opening nuances regarding the “good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35).
The Song is a song Adam could have sung in the garden when Eve was created from his side; and it remains a song we can and should sing in the bedroom, the church, and the marketplace of ideas.
Redeeming Sexual Intimacy
Although we are fallen and our sexual desires can easily be distorted and debased, there is still something “very good” (Gen. 1:31) about the desire for physical intimacy. Within the marriage “chambers” (Song 1:4), such passion is to be expressed (Song 1:2) and such love exalted and rejoiced in (Song 1:4). Along with all of God’s good gifts, kisses and caresses within marriage should be “received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4).
Within the canon of Scripture, one should not think of marriage (even spousal sexual expression) without thinking of Christ, for marriage was always intended to point to him (Eph. 5:32). Even our sexual desires are a reflection of what should be our ultimate “desire,” that is, “to depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). As we agree with Jesus that there ought to be no greater love than love for him (cf. Matt. 10:37; cf. also 1 Cor. 16:22), we should join with Bernard of Clairvaux in singing, “Jesus, the very thought of thee with sweetness fills the breast; but sweeter far thy face to see, and in thy presence rest.” Just as our desire for physical intimacy with our spouse is a reliable indicator of marital health, so our desire for daily (and eschatological) intimacy with Christ is a reliable indicator of our spiritual health.
In our study of the Song it is foundational that we view our exegesis through a canonical and Christological lens. Therefore, to read 1:2–4 as being about the expressions and actions of human love does not mean there are no connections to God’s love for us or our love for God. We must remember that this is not an English poem scribbled on the New York City subway. Rather, it is a Hebrew poem found in the Hebrew Scriptures, one that borrows heavily from the rest of the canon. Therefore we should expect connections with themes found elsewhere in the canon; for instance, the wife’s intoxicating love in Song of Solomon 1:2 aptly reminds us of a husband’s delightful duty in Proverbs 5:19 to be “intoxicated always in [his wife’s] love.”
Moreover, we should make appropriate Christological connections. Literary merit and guileless veneration of human sexuality are not the chief reasons why we find love’s soft and idyllic voice between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah. While the Song is a song about human love set in the context of marriage, it is also found in the Bible, and the Bible has as its ultimate reference point Jesus—his birth, life, teachings, miracles, sufferings, death, resurrection, ascension, mediation, and return. Therefore, whether there are two or twenty allusions to the Song in the NT,2 we must read it in light of the person and work of Jesus, the very compass of the Christian canon. The love celebrated in the Song has as its source and ultimate illustration Jesus Christ; the loyalty, beauty, and intimacy of human love depicted in this Song points to “that Love that undergirds all of reality and in whose Presence alone all longing can be satisfied.”3
- The ESV places “She” above 1:2–4a because a woman is speaking. We know this from the pronouns of her plea (“Let him kiss me . . . his mouth”) as well as from the feminine adjectives in verse 5.
- According to UBS4 there are no quotations or allusions to the Song in the NT; The Greek New Testament, ed. Kurt Aland et al. (4th rev. ed.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 887–901. Conversely, Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg claims, “The New Testament is pervaded by references to the Songs of Songs. . . . Proportionally no book of the Old Testament is so frequently referred to, implicitly or explicitly.” Hengstenberg, “Prolegomena to the Song of Solomon,” in Commentary on Ecclesiastes: With Other Treatises, trans. D. W. Simon (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1860), 297. While Hengstenberg was a great scholar, his maximalist view is exaggerated (he lists only fourteen NT connections), and most of them are overly allegorical (e.g., Herod equals the “fox”).
- Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 254.
This article is by Douglas Sean O'Donnell and is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Psalms–Song of Solomon (Volume 5) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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