[K:NWTS 8/2 (Sep 1993) 38-41]

What Should I Read on the Song of Solomon?

James T. Dennison, Jr.

The meaning of the enigmatic Canticle continues to fascinate and elude the church. Since Origen's profound sermons on Solomon's Song (The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, Ancient Christian Writers Series, Paulist Press, 1957), the church has struggled with how to approach this book. Is it narrative; is it allegory; is it drama; is it merely a love poem; does it belong in the canon? In the last twenty years, a flurry of commentaries and studies on Solomon's "sublime song" have expanded our understanding and appreciation for the book. Tragically, it is a book ignored and neglected by the church—either from fear of its candid sexual imagery or from the inability to deal with its difficult structure and development. Numerous methods have been advanced in explanation of the work from the pornographic to the allegorical to the dramatic. In order to assist our readers with the literature, I propose a brief review of the status quaestionis re Canticum canticorum ("state of the question with respect to the Song of Songs").

Interpretive Views

The principle issue in current research is to decide the literary genre of the Canticle, i.e., what kind of book is it? Marcia Falk (1990) provides a survey of the options. The allegorical view has been present in the synagogue and church from an early time. The male figure ("Beloved") is identified with God or Christ; the female figure ("Lover") is identified with Israel or the church. In the church, this view was developed by the Alexandrian school of Origen and dominated the patristic interpretation of the book into the middle ages where it found its supreme expression in the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux. Reformation and Puritan expositors still depended on the allegorical view for application of the book to their readers/hearers. While endorsing grammatical-historical exegesis, 16th and 17th century Protestants nevertheless subtly imported an allegorical application of the contents to their time (Luther regarded the book as a poem of praise for a monarchy in a state of Shalom ["peace"]; Theodore Beza explained the work as a prophetic allegory of the history of the church from the early church fathers to the Reformation). (Note: the history of interpretation of the Song of Solomon is usually surveyed in every commentary. Outstanding treatments are found in: Christian D. Ginsburg, The Song of Songs and Coheleth [New York: KTAV, 1970 reprint], 20-126; H. H. Rowley, "The Interpretation of the Song of Songs," The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays [Oxford: Blackwell, 1965], 195-245; Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs [New York: Doubleday, 1977], 89-229; Roland E. Murphy, The Song of Songs [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990], 11-41. The reader may also consult the standard Old Testament Introductions as well as Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias.)

The dramatic view attempts to discern a narrative or story line in the book centering around two or three characters. Some believe the book recounts the story of Solomon and his Shulammite. Others argue that the book portrays a love-triangle, i.e., Solomon, the Shulammite and the Shulammite's unnamed shepherd lover. This latter view, very popular in the 19th century—the era of romanticism—suggests the following scenario: Solomon takes the Shulammite into his harem, depriving her of her shepherd lover. The Canticle is the record of her pining and longing for her rustic paramour. Since the 19th century, some scholars have portrayed the Song as a cycle or compilation of songs for a wedding celebration. Similar to the current Arabic custom of exchanging songs at a wedding celebration, Canticles is considered a mutual celebration of the male and female lovers.

While there is a wedding celebration at the center of the Song (5:1), the elements of movement in the royal and pastoral milieu suggest a narrative more complex and developed than a mere wedding song-cycle.

With the release of Marvin Pope's massive Anchor Bible commentary on the Song (Song of Songs, Doubleday, 1977), a rather perverse view of the book has been advanced. Pope regards the book as a liturgy from a fertility cult ritual or funeral feast, i.e., the sacred marriage to the gods reenacted cultically. He provides a plethora of obscene poems and pornographic graffiti from the Ancient Near East in support of this dubious thesis. In truth, one learns more about Professor Pope's fantasies than about the content of Solomon's inspired Song. 

The final views of the book are variations on a theme. Most modern scholars now regard the book as a love poem expressive of the passion between a man and a woman. Some regard the two lovers as Solomon and his Shulammite; others regard the names in the book as "idealized." The other view of the work as a love poem regards it as a collage or compilation of numerous love lyrics arising from numerous settings. The difficulty with this latter view is that the unity of the Canticle depends on a very skillful redactor or editor. Why not the skill of a single author?!! 

My own view of the book is that it is a divinely inspired love poem of the affection between Solomon and his Shulammite bride. The sexual imagery of the book is appropriate to a man and his wife experiencing what God gave to that first man and woman in the garden of Eden. We have a canonical poem celebrating marital love after the fall—"and behold it is very good!" Garden imagery in a fresh-blooming world is emblematic of the protological setting for man and woman in their unashamed intimacy. 

Every chapter of the Song is fraught with images that strike our senses—sight (flowers), sounds (animals and birds), smells (perfumes), taste (fruits) and touch (physical attractiveness). Love—marital, sexual love—is the exploration and intoxication of all the senses. Our lovers are delighting in one another as God intended from the beginning. They possess one another, longing and yearning for that union which fittingly consummates their love. They taste something of the mystery which exists at the heart of intimate union—a mystery expressed by Paul as reflected in the union of Christ and his Bride, the Church (Eph.5).

Solomon's Song contains a retrospective, introspective and prospective dimension. It returns us to the garden where we realize how God created our sexuality ("good"). It reminds us that in our marriages, we are invited to experience a union that surges to rise above a fallen creation. It testifies of an eschatological arena where love is perfected in blessed, mystical union with our Heavenly Lover, Jesus Christ.


Recently, there have been four significant attempts to explore the structure of Solomon's Song. The seminal study of Cheryl Exum first appeared in 1973. "A Literary and Structural Analysis of the Song of Songs" (Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 85 [1973]: 47-79) was her attempt at describing the development of the book in six poetic units. William Shea modified her conclusions by proposing a chiastic arrangement of six units ("The Chiastic Structure of the Song of Songs," Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92 [1980]: 378-96). Edwin C. Webster reduced the book to a chiasm of five poetic units ("Pattern in the Song of Songs," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 22 [1982]: 73-93).

However, the most convincing analysis of the Song's structure comes from the pen of David A. Dorsey ("Literary Structuring in the Song of Songs," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 46 [1990]: 81-96). Dorsey focuses on the dramatic element of scene shift and the consistent pattern of the lovers (1) apart from one another, (2) yearning for one another, (3) united with one another. The threefold pattern is a motif found in each of the seven chiastic units of the book (A - 1:2-2:7; B - 2:8-17; C - 3:1-5; D - 3:6-5:1; C' - 5:2-7:10; B' - 7:11-8:4; A' - 8:5-14). In my opinion, future work on the structure of the Canticle must begin with Dorsey's article.

The study of literary structure is not an end in itself. Structure has been divinely inspired to contribute to understanding—theological understanding. Commentaries will increasingly interact with these articles in order to unlock the development of the love relationship in the book and reflect upon its protological and eschatological dimensions.

Commentaries and Special Studies

John G. Snaith has written the most recent commentary on the Song (New Century Bible Commentary: The Song of Songs [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1993]). Unfortunately, Snaith is bound to critical presuppositions which make it impossible for him to discern a theological dimension to the book. His explanations are safe (i.e., critical orthodoxy: the book is not "Solomon's;" it has no discernible literary structure; it is dependent on Egyptian love poetry so that the scholar must use comparative world literature to unpack its meaning) and predictable. While he often catches the correct dimension of the Hebrew text, his conclusions are bland and matter-of-fact. Solomon's book is about human passion. Snaith seems to have little! Most serious is his failure to interact with much of the important literature—his bibliography shows no awareness of Exum's 1973 article, Webster's 1982 piece and Dorsey's l990 article. Though he is aware of conservative Lloyd Carr (The Song of Solomon: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, IVP, 1984), he seems unaware of Craig Glickman's important Song for Lovers (IVP, 1976). Nor does he interact with Timothea Elliott's The Literary Unity of the Canticle (Peter Lang, 1989). All in all, Snaith hasn't done his homework. 

Elliott's work is superb. That a Catholic nun could unlock the imagery of this marital poem is a testimony to her sensitivity and dogged determination to meticulously work over the Hebrew text. Elliott's work is a section-by-section, close reading of the Hebrew original. Her attention to poetic devices—alliteration, onomatopoeia, inclusio, parallelism, etc.—shows her skill with the Hebrew idiom. Though I disagree with her structural outline of the book, her insights are so rich, sane and stimulating, I cannot praise the work enough. My criticism is directed to her publisher who has charged an exorbitant $66.00 for a 383 page paperback, which appears to have been merely photographically reproduced from the sheets of Elliott's doctoral thesis. This volume deserves a publisher who will make it available to pastors and laypersons in a paperback edition reasonably priced. Conservatives will rejoice in this work which endorses the unity of Solomon's love song. Preachers using this volume in combination with Dorsey's structural outline will find a rich source of imagery on the loveliness of the marriage relationship.

Roland E. Murphy's new commentary in the Hermenia Series is a workmanlike production from a moderately critical point of view. Eschewing the eroticism of Pope's Anchor Bible contribution, The Song of Songs (Fortress/Augsburg, 1990) is Murphy's definitive treatment of a book that has occupied much of his scholarly career. The strength of the Hermenia series is its format: fresh translation of the original text; detailed notes on the text; interpretative comments verse-by-verse; summaries which direct the reader to how the pericope may be preached. This commentary is helpful in directing the Christian reader to the theological dimension of the Song. If it is bound by critical assumptions, it is a mark of a scholar bound by his critical context and not more open to the text itself.

Several other works deserve mention. Frances Landy, Paradoxes of Paradise (Almond, 1983) is a detailed examination of the imagery of the work. By directing our attention from the Canticle to the Garden of Eden, Landy points us in a promising theological dimension. But by focusing on the alleged eroticism of the poem, Landy becomes preoccupied with the peripheral. Michael D. Goulder, The Song of Fourteen Songs (JSOT, 1986) suggests that the Canticle is a collection of fourteen love songs. Goulder endorses the unity of the book as a narrative of royal courtship. Theological exegesis is sparse in this small book which concentrates on the erotic. Marcia Falk has contributed a moderately feminist reading of the Song in Song of Songs (Harper and Row, 1990). Falk is the major proponent of the collection view, i.e., the song is composed of different love poems from different speakers assembled in a collage of love poetry. Finally, an interesting and stimulating work: Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press, 1985). Fox presents a reading of Solomon's Song which is informed by comparisons with Egyptian love poems. He provides a verse-by-verse interpretation of the Canticle which is often quite sane and responsible. The relationship between Egyptian and Hebrew love poetry may be over-stressed, but Fox has some rewarding insights worthy of consideration.

One book not directly related to the Song but extremely valuable in working with the Hebrew text is Wilfred G. E. Watson's Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to its Techniques (JSOT, 1984/1986). Watson surveys Hebrew poetic technique throughout the Old Testament. He provides lucid treatment (from biblical examples) of meter, parallelism, imagery, sound and much more. The Scripture index at the back of the book provides access to the treatment of numerous verses from the Song of Solomon. Watson's volume is as valuable as many commentaries in assisting the preacher with the poetic drama of a passage.

The reader will conclude that a rich vein of materials on a neglected book of the canon is currently available. The preacher of the "whole counsel of God" may not neglect a work so problematic as Solomon's Song. The church's understanding of marital sexuality will be enriched and deepened even as she longs to fathom the eschatological love between the Heavenly Lover and His Beloved.

Escondido, California