The Song of Solomon — A Love Poem in Four “Acts”
Although liberal scholars insist it was composed by some unknown author after the exile, Jewish tradition assigns this final book of Old Testament Wisdom Literature to King Solomon. Most likely it was composed for Abishag the Shunemite [called the “Shulemite” in this poem] early in his reign, before Solomon multiplied wives and concubines for political gain and lustful indulgence.
Probably the most famous of the 1,005 songs composed during the king’s lifetime (See 1 Kings 4:32), The Song of Solomon is a beautiful picture of romantic love and marriage, pregnant with sensual imagery typical of his day. There are four main voices in the poem: the king, his bride, her brothers and a chorus of “daughters of Jerusalem.” Its eight chapters are divided into four main parts, like the acts of a play:
- Song of Solomon 1:1-3:5 discuss the courtship of the two lovers.
- Their marriage and the consummation of their love are the topic of Song 3:6-5:1.
- A brief struggle in their marriage is described in the rest of chapter 5.
- The strengthening of their love occupies the final chapters of the book.
Underlying the symbolism is a beautiful picture, not only of romantic love in marriage, but also of YHWH’s commitment to Israel and Christ’s love for the Church. It should be a reminder to every believer of how precious we are to our God and Savior.
Song of Solomon Chapter 1
The first verse of this chapter introduces the entire book as “The song of songs, which is Solomon’s” (Song 1:1). We are also immediately introduced to the players in this little drama within its first few verses.
First is “The Shulemite” most likely referring to Abishag the Shunammite, for whom Solomon seems to have held deep affection at the beginning of his reign (1 Kings 1:1-4 & 2:1-25). Shunem, the name of the town where the beautiful young virgin was from, meant “double resting place.” Shulamite means “the perfect,” or “the peaceful.” That second meaning is a play on both her hometown and Solomon’s name, which means “peace.” Next, we have “The Daughters of Jerusalem”—an unidentified chorus of young women, who interact with the heroine and hero of this song. Finally, we have “The Beloved,” identified as King Solomon. Later we meet the brothers of the bride.
The Shulamite opens the first scene, eager to kiss her beloved’s mouth, “For your love is better than wine” and the fragrance of the king’s ointments was tantalizing to every woman present (Song 1:2-3). She was eager to be drawn away by her beloved, and the young women of Jerusalem were ready to go with her (v. 4).
The Shulamite admitted she was more dark-complected than most women, because her brothers were angry and put her to work in the family vineyards (5-6). Still, she was lovely and hoped people wouldn’t stare too much at her tan. Then she asked her Beloved where he rested his flocks at noon, so they could be alone together (7).
The Beloved replied, “If you do not know, O fairest among women, follow in the footsteps of the flock, and feed your little goats beside the shepherds’ tents” (8). He compared her to a filly among Pharaoh’s chariots (9)—perhaps suggesting she was a spirited woman. Then he noted how lovely her cheeks were with the jewelry she wore (10). The Daughters of Jerusalem said they’d make her more ornaments of gold and silver (11).
Sitting with the king at his banqueting table, the Shulamite mentioned her own perfume and compared Solomon to a bundle of myrrh “that lies all night between my breasts” or “a cluster of henna blooms in the vineyards of En Gedi” (12-14). What a delightful way of describing her lover’s tantalizing scent!
The Beloved, in turn remarked about her beauty, saying she had “doves’ eyes” (15). This was a reference not only to the soft, openness of these gentle birds, but also to the fact that they mate for life.
She replied, “you are handsome, my beloved! Yes, pleasant!” (16). She then mentioned the green of their bed and the fragrant cedar and fir beams in their bedroom (17). In these suggestive lines, Solomon expressed every man’s fantasy: to find a beautiful young lady as eager to sleep with him as he is to be with her!
Song of Solomon Chapter 2
Confident of her own beauty, the Shulamite stated, “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys” (Song 2:1). Her Beloved agreed, calling her “a lily among thorns,” compared to the other young ladies in the city (v. 2). She reciprocated by calling him an apple tree among the other trees, and saying both his shade and his fruit were sweet (3).
To her companions, the young woman said, “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love” (5). She was lovesick and longed to be fed with raisins and apples (6). After telling her girlfriends how he cradled her with one hand and embraced her with the other, the Shulamite urged them not to “stir up nor awaken love until it pleases”—assumedly she meant not to arouse a man until the time is right (6-7).
Her lover was just as eager to move into a deeper relationship as she was. She described him bounding to her window like a gazelle or young stag leaping on the hills and mountains (8-9). Then he called for her to come away with him and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of springtime (10-13). He also wanted to take her to a secret cave somewhere and hear her sweet voice and look into her lovely face (14).
Her brothers chimed in with the admonishment to catch “the little foxes that spoil the vines” with their tender grapes—no doubt warning the couple not to get too carried away (15). The Shulamite replied, “My beloved is mine, and I am his. He feeds his flock among the lilies” (16). Did she mean by that he was nibbling at her earlobes? She urged him to hurry away before daylight came and they were caught together (17).
Song of Solomon Chapter 3
Later the young woman wished she had her sweetheart with her (Song 3:1). She actually got out of bed and went searching throughout the city for him, even asking the night watchmen if they had spotted her Beloved anywhere (vv. 2-3). When she did find him, she hugged him close and led him to the same room where she had been conceived by her mother (4). But then she again urged the other girls to wait to stir up love until the time is right (5)!
Finally her Bridegroom came to get the Shulamite, enveloped in fragrant perfumes, riding on a royal litter surrounded by 60 armed guards (6-8). His enclosed chair was lavishly fashioned of the finest wood, decked with gold, silver and purple by the daughters of Jerusalem (9-10). Enamored with such royal splendor, the Shulamite urged her maidens,
Go forth, O daughters of Zion,
And see King Solomon with the crown
With which his mother crowned him
On the day of his wedding,
The day of the gladness of his heart.” (11).
Song of Solomon Chapter 4
Married and alone at last, the happy couple enjoyed each other as fully as only newlyweds can. Assumedly undressing his bride for the first time, the king started with the Shulamite’s eyes and worked his way down, comparing each of her physical features to something especially beautiful from their agrarian society (Song 4:1-5):
- “Dove’s eyes” behind her veil
- Hair like a flock of goats coming down Mount Gilead
- Teeth like freshly washed and shorn sheep, each with a twin
- Lips like strands of scarlet
- Temples like a slice of pomegranate
- Her neck like the tower of David adorned with the shields of his mighty men
- Breasts like twin fawns of a gazelle feeding among lilies
He wanted to spend the entire night on his “mountain of myrrh” and “the hill of frankincense” (v. 6)—perhaps referring to her abdomen or their bed? He found absolutely no flaw in his bride and wanted to whisk her away to some mountain retreat (7-8). Calling her both sister and spouse, the king told his bride, “You have ravished my heart with one look of your eyes” (9). He said her love was more intoxicating than wine, her scent sweeter than any spices (10). Her kisses tasted as delicious as honey and milk, and her clothes smelled like the fragrance of Lebanon (11). He compared her to a spring-fed garden kept enclosed just for him to enjoy its fruits and spices (12-15). Responding with delight to his sweet-talk, she invoked the winds to spread her fragrance to his nostrils and invited him to taste all her fruits and spices (16).
Song of Solomon Chapter 5
By the first verse of chapter 5, the couple had concluded their love-making. The Beloved said he had come to his garden and sampled its delights (Song 5:1). The chorus encouraged them to drink deeply of each other’s love.
But then the song takes an unexpected turn. The Shulamite told of being in bed when her husband came knocking, asking her to let him into her room (v. 2). She told him she had already undressed and washed her feet, and didn’t care to get up to let him in (3). When she saw his hand on the door latch, she changed her mind and decided she wanted to be with him after all (4). But by the time she reached the door, he had gone, leaving behind the fragrant oil he’d had on his fingers (5).
When she went out looking for her Beloved, she couldn’t find him, and the night watchmen abused her (6-7). She appealed to her friends to let the king know she was lovesick for him, should they happen to see him (8).
They asked, “What is your beloved more than another beloved, O fairest among women?” (9). In other words, what made Solomon so special that someone as beautiful as Abishag would desire him so desperately?
So the Shulamite set about describing her Beloved to the others (10-16):
- White and ruddy, chief among 10,000
- His head like finest gold
- Wavy hair, “black as a raven”
- “His eyes are like doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set.” (blue, perhaps, or bluish-green?)
- Cheeks like beds of spices and banks of aromatic herbs
- Lips like lilies, dripping liquid myrrh
- Arms of gold, body of carved ivory, inlaid with beryl and sapphires
- Legs like fine marble in gold settings
- A face like cedar trees
- His mouth was sweet
In exasperation, she said, “Yes, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem!” (16).
Song of Solomon Chapter 6
Convinced, the girls asked the Shulamite where her Beloved had gone, so they could help her search for him (Song 6:1). Vaguely, she replied, “My beloved has gone to his garden, to the beds of spices, to feed his flock in the gardens, and to gather lilies” (v. 2). Some help that is! Placing her stamp of ownership upon him, she added, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (3).
Perhaps leaping out to gather her in a surprise embrace, Solomon said, “O my love, you are as beautiful as Tirzah, lovely as Jerusalem, awesome as an army with banners! Turn your eyes away from me, for they have overcome me” (4-5). His wife had the same awe-inspiring power to captivate Solomon’s heart as a mighty army has to inspire fear in those against whom they marched to war! In verses 5-7 he described her hair, teeth and temples in the same terms which he had used in chapter 4. Surprisingly, Solomon mentioned 60 queens, 80 concubines “and virgins without number”—whether his, his dad’s or both, we are not told (8). Yet he indicated the Shulamite was the only daughter of her mother, praised by all the other women in his court (9). He asked, “Who is she who looks forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, awesome as an army with banners?” (10).
The Shulamite replied that she had gone down to the garden to see what was growing (11). Before she knew it, she was carried away (12). Yet her friends wanted her to come back, so they could gaze on her beauty (13). She apparently didn’t understand what all the fuss was about (14).
Song of Solomon Chapter 7
This time, Solomon worked his way up from the Shulamite’s feet to her head. He said, “How beautiful are your feet in sandals, O prince’s daughter!” (Song 7:1). This would seem to indicate she had some noble blood. He again took up his comparisons of her physical features to things of beauty (vv. 2-5):
- Thighs like jewels carved by skilled workmen
- Her navel like a rounded goblet filled with mixed drinks
- A waist like a shock of wheat, adorned with lilies
- Neck like an ivory tower
- Eyes like the pools in Heshbon
- Nose like the tower of Lebanon (I’m not sure that’s a flattering analogy!)
- Head like Mount Carmel
- Hair like fine purple fabric that captured the king in its tresses
He burst out, “How fair and how pleasant you are, O love, with your delights!” (6). Comparing her to a date palm and her breasts as its clusters, Solomon lustily declared his determination to climb her and take hold of her fruits (7-8)! He also compared her breasts to grape clusters, her breath to apples and her palate to wine (8-9).
Reveling in his affection, she hoped that her wine would go down smoothly past his lips and teeth (10). She asserted, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me.” Then she extended an invitation to her husband to spend some time in the country, checking early in the morning to see what might be blooming in the vineyards (11-12). “There I will give you my love,” she added, mentioning the ancient fertility drug, mandrakes, and other delights she had laid up for his enjoyment (12-13).
Song of Solomon Chapter 8
In the final chapter, the Shulamite wished Solomon was her brother, so she could kiss him in public and no one would notice (Song 8:1). She would bring him into her mother’s house and treat him with spiced wine and fruit (v. 2).
Again the Shulamite described Solomon’s embrace and charged her friends not to stir up love too soon (3-4). An onlooker asked, “Who is this coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?” (5).
Apparently, Solomon and his bride had spent the night under the apple tree where the Shulamite was born. She told her Beloved,
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is as strong as death,
Jealousy as cruel as the grave;
Its flames are flames of fire,
A most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
Nor can the floods drown it.
If a man would give for love
All the wealth of his house,
It would be utterly despised. (6-7)
She was letting him know in poetic terms that she did not want him to forsake her for another, that her love was so strong that any unfaithfulness on his part would devastate her, and nothing could take his place in her heart.
In an odd choice of words, the woman’s brothers talk about a little sister who had not yet developed breasts and asked what they should do when she was spoken for (8). They apparently wanted to wall her up and protect her as long as possible (9).
The Shulamite replied that she was a wall, with breasts like towers (10). “Then I became in his eyes as one who found peace.” This, of course is a play on Solomon’s name. The Shulamite had found him, “peace,” when he found satisfaction in her. Oddly she referred to a vineyard which Solomon leased out to keepers for 1,000 silver coins (11). But then she said something about having her own vineyard, of which Solomon could take the largest share, but its keepers could have some, too (12). Who knows what this is all about?
The song concludes with the Beloved asking to hear her voice (13). To which the bride responded with another invitation to love-making: “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices” (14).
Talk about erotica! Jewish rabbis used to forbid the reading of this book until a man was married. It definitely gives instruction in how a man and woman should respond to one another in the bonds of matrimony.
But how does this love poem relate to God and Israel or Jesus and the Church? Quite simply, it expresses the deep affection our Lord has for His people. His attraction to us (not sexually, of course, but the way he values us and cherishes us) is clearly evident. The exclusivity of our relationship to Him is emphasized. We also see how the Bridegroom, Jesus, initiates the relationship and how we, His Bride should respond. It shows how He unconditionally returns to us, even when we shut him out. Like the Shulamite, we can say with confidence, “I am my Beloved’s and He is mine.”
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.