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Poetry in the Bible

MY NOTE: Because there are so many different interpretations of the Song of Songs, we are providing a different viewpoint, as found in the Holman Bible Handbook, published by Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee.

The full name of this book is "The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's". Often called Song of Solomon or, after the Latin, Canticles, it is best to call it Song of Songs. But we should note that the Hebrew idiom Song of Songs actually means the best song.

Date and Authorship: The title probably implies that Solomon wrote it, but it could be taken to mean that it was simply part of Solomon's collection and was written perhaps by a court singer. Still, many scholars believe that the Song was written late in Israelite history (500-100 B.C.) and therefore could not possible have been written by Solomon or his contemporaries (961-922 B.C.). It is important, therefore, to see what evidence there is for dating the book.

Most scholars who regard the Song as a late work do so primarily because some of the vocabulary found in it appears to be incompatible with the earlier date. For example, many argue that the Hebrew word for "orchard" in 4:13, pardes, is derived either from the Persian word pairidesa or the Greek word paradeisos [compare the English paradise]. It is difficult to see how Hebrew could have borrowed a word from either Persian or Greek as early as Solomon's day.

Some scholars believe that the Song has several Aramaic words. Many Jews spoke this language during the intertestamental and New Testament periods. Finally, the Song frequently uses the Hebrew pronoun she (meaning which, what, or who) instead of the more common asher (which has the same meaning). The Hebrew pronoun she is relatively rare in the Bible but became common in postbiblical Hebrew. For these reasons, many are convinced that the Song must have been composed very late in Jewish history.

These arguments are not as convincing as they first appear. The word parades ("orchard") may come from a Sanskrit root word that is far older than either Persian or Greek. In addition, many words once asserted to be from a late Aramaic background have been found to be more ancient than originally supposed. Also the use of the Hebrew word she is not as significant as once was thought. Similar relative pronouns have been found in some ancient Semitic languages, such as Akkadian and Ugaritic. This implies that the use of Hebrew she is not an exclusively late phenomenon. In short, the vocabulary of the Song does not prove that it is a late work.

Geographical Evidence: The Song of Songs mentions locations from all over ancient Palestine. These include places both in northern Israel (Sharon, Lebanon, Hermon, and Carmel) and in the southern territory of Judah (Jerusalem and Engedi). The Song also mentions the Transjordan territories of Heshbon and Gilead. This geographic outlook reflects a time when all Israel was unified and even territories in the Transjordan were under Israelite dominion. These conditions never prevailed after the death of Solomon.

Song 6:4 sets the city of Tirzah in parallel with Jerusalem. This implies that at the time of writing, Tirzah was considered the major city of the north and was comparable to Jerusalem in the south. When the kingdom split early in the reign of Rehoboam of Judah (931-913 B.C.), Tirzah immediately became the capital of the Northern Kingdom. But Omri of Israel (reigned 886-874 B.C.) made Samaria the capital of the Northern Kingdom, and from that time forward Tirzah never was prominent again. Song 6:4, therefore, implies that it was written before Omri's time.

Cultural Evidence: The poetic imagery of Song of Songs reflects an age of great prosperity. This also lends support to the belief that it was written in Solomon's day. Only then did Jerusalem possess the spices, perfumes, and luxuries mentioned in the book as well as great quantities of gold, marble, and precious jewels (Song 5:14-15; see I Ki. 10:14-22).

Of course, one can argue that these are only similies and do not prove that the writer actually lived in an age when such things were common. But it is doubtful that a poet would use imagery, described in such detail, that was outside his own frame of reference and experience.

Literary Evidence:The poetry we see in Song of Songs is not quite unique in the ancient world. From Egypt, in the period of approximately 1300 to 1100 B.C., come a number of love songs which are remarkably like Song of Songs. Many of the motifs and ideas that appear in the Song are also found in the Egyptian poetry. Outside of this ancient body of literature, however, it is difficult to find any writings comparable to Song of Songs.

What is the reason for this unusual parallel between a book of the Bible and Egyptian poetry? Solomon made an alliance with the Egyptian Pharaoh and married his daughter (I Ki. 3:1). The court of Solomon and Egypt doubtless had extensive contacts. Solomon also had contact with wise men - and thus their literature - from all over the world (I Ki. 4:29-34).

Solomon likely would have become familiar with the love poetry that had appeared within the previous three hundred years in Egypt. This would explain how the Song has so much in common with its Egyptian counterparts. Solomon, after all, was cosmopolitan in his learning and tastes.

Difficult to explain, however, is why the Song and the Egyptian love poetry have so much in common if the Song were written some 650 years after Solomon. An obscure Jewish songwriter, working a millennium after this kind of love poetry was produced in Egypt, could not have written by accident a work so much like the Egyptian poetry. Nor is it reasonable to argue that he would have known and deliberately imitated an ancient, foreign, and by then probably forgotten art form.

The poetry of Song of Songs reflects Solomon's age better than any other of Israelite history. It is thus best to assume it was written in that period.

Interpretation: No other book of the Bible (except perhaps Revelation) suffers under so many radically different interpretations as the Song of Songs. The major approaches are as follows:

Allegorical Interpretation. From early times both Christians and Jews have allegorized the Song of Songs. Jews have taken it to picture the love between the LORD and Israel, and Christians have regarded it as a song of the love between Christ and the church. (Traditional Roman Catholic interpreters have often identified the woman with the virgin Mary.) The allegorical approach was standard from the medieval period through the Reformation, but it has few adherents now.

Common allegorical identifications are that the man is Christ and the woman is the church, his kisses (1:2) are the Word of GOD, the girl's dark skin (1:5) is sin, her breasts (7:7) are the church's nurturing doctrine , her two lips (4:11) are law and gospel, and the "troops with banners" (6:4) is the church as the enemy of Satan. Advocates of this approach claim that the New Testament supports their case, since Ephesians 5:22-23 and other texts describe the church as Christ's bride.

But the New Testament never gives the Song an allegorical interpretation. New Testament passages that do speak of the bride of Christ do not refer to Song of Songs. The material of Song of Songs is grossly inappropriate for worship. It is impossible to imagine a Christian praising Christ in the terms of 1:2,16; or 5:10-16. It is equally bizarre to think of Jesus Christ describing His church in the terms of 7:1-9. This ancient interpretation has rightly been abandoned.

Dramatic Interpretation. For the past two hundred years, many interpreters have argued that the Song is a dramatic story. Some say it is a two-character drama in which Solomon and the girl are the main actors. Others take it as a three-character drama in which Solomon, the girl, and a shepherd boy are the main actors.

In the two-character interpretation, the Song tells the story of the romance between Solomon and the one girl he truly loved. The three-character interpretation is altogether different. It says the story tells how Solomon attempted to seduce a beautiful girl but failed because of her faithfulness to her true love, the shepherd boy.

Neither approach is convincing. A romantic drama of this kind was altogether unknown in the ancient Near East. Also both interpretations are at many points forced and unnatural. Considering the size of Solomon's harem and in light of I Kings 11:1-6, it is pointless to follow the two-character theory and assert he had one woman toward whom he was exclusively devoted (see Song 2:2; 7:10).

The three-character theory is equally artificial. According to that approach, for example, chapter 7 describes an attempt by Solomon to seduce the girl and her rebuff of his advances. This would mean that the poetry of 7:1-9a, spoken by the man, was not genuine love but cheap enticement. The girl, moreover, in saying "Come, my lover, let us go to the countryside" (7:11), was not speaking to the man with her but to an absent lover. This can hardly be the intended meaning.

Wedding Song Interpretation. Some have argued that Song of Songs is a wedding song. Some scholars have studied Near Eastern wedding ceremonies and have pointed out similarities between those rituals and the lyrics of the Song. Even so, it is difficult to read Song of Songs as an order of service for a wedding. But even though the Song is not the text of a wedding ceremony, it indicates that the young lovers were marrying each other.

Love Song Interpretation. The best interpretation is the most simple and obvious. Song of Songs is a love song in three parts - a man, a woman, and a chorus of women. It has no secret allegories or identifications. It tells no story and has no plot. It is a lyrical expression of romantic love between a couple who are in the process of marrying. Its language and imagery, which go from royal pomp and majesty to the rustic, pastoral setting of the meadow, is meant to convey all the grandeur and glory as well as the simplicity and natural beauty of love.

Meaning and Message: One reason for the rise of the allegorical interpretation of the Song is that many felt that a simple love song had no place in the Bible and that, unless it was allegorized, no theological message could be found in it. This concern, however, is misguided. Song of Songs conveys important meaning if left as it is, a love song, and not turned into something it is not.

First, as the Bible is meant to serve as a guide in every aspect of life, so the Song deals with one universal aspect of human life - love, marriage, and sexuality. People need direction and teaching in the matter of how to nurture love for a spouse just as they need guidance in every other matter. The song teaches that this love relationship is to be both physical and verbal. Again and again the two lovers speak of their desire for and joy in each other. For many couples the inability to express love is a profound problem. Second, although the Song teaches by example and not by decree, its message is clear. The love the couple shared was exclusive and binding (7:10). By implication this ideal portrait excludes extramarital sex as well as all perversions and abuses of sexuality, such as promiscuity and homosexuality.

Third, Song of Songs celebrates love between man and woman as something that is valid and beautiful even in a fallen and sinful world. In this way Song of Songs testifies in a significant way to the grace of GOD. Although we are sinners, GOD tells us that the love relationship is a thing to be cherished and enjoyed. If the Bible said nothing in this area beyond prohibitions and warnings, we might suppose that all sexuality is innately evil and is to be suppressed entirely except for procreation. But because the Song is in the Bible, we understand that it is not sexuality but the misuse and abuse of sex that is wrong. In the Song we see that genuine love between man and woman, and the physical affection that follows, is a good and tender thing.

Fourth, the Song of Songs is unlike its ancient Near Eastern counterparts in one significant respect: it does not turn sexuality into a sacred ritual. In the ancient world fertility cults and religious prostitution abounded. The sexual act was thought to have religious meaning. Not only that, but desperate souls often used incantations and love charms to win the affection of another person. None of this is found in Song of Songs. The romantic love between man and woman is a joy, but it is exclusively a joy of this world.

In this way the Bible avoids the two pitfalls of human religion. It neither condemns sexual love as innately evil and dangerous (as do legalistic cults) nor elevates it to the status of religious act (as do sensual cults and religions).

The Song of Songs, therefore, should be taken as it stands. It is a song of love and an affirmation of the value of the bond between a man and a woman. In this way is adds greatly to our appreciation of GOD's creation.

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Hebrew Poetry in the Bible

The Music and Instruments of the Bible

King Solomon


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