Song of Songs Bible Study (Instructions For Romantic Love)

Introducing The Book (Song of Songs 1:1)

What do you know about the Song of Songs? Many people have not studied the book nor have the heard the book taught publicly at church. Some try to read the Song of Songs on their own and find the material very confusing. Who is talking? What are they talking about? Who are they talking to? Most translations try to help this out by including “he” and “she” notations throughout the book. But these are not original to the manuscripts but an attempt to clarify to the reader who seems to be the speaker. This is an inspired book that is in our Bibles and must not be ignored. “All Scripture is berated out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The book begins by calling itself “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” “Song of Songs” is a Hebrew idiom to describe this song as the very best song. Think about the tabernacle and how the inner sanctuary was called the “Holy of Holies.” This meant that it was the most holy place, the highest of holiness. So this is what we are told about this song: it is the greatest of all songs. There are some unusual features to this song. The most notable feature is that the woman is the main character and main speaker in the book. I consider that just as the book of Proverbs was written primarily to instruct the young man how to live in life that the Song of Songs was written primarily to young women to know God’s teaching concerning love. Both genders have much to learn from both of these wisdom books. But it seems women are given particular attention in this Song.

Method of Interpretation

Unfortunately, it seems there are hundreds of interpretations for the Song of Songs. As I prepared to teach this material I was shocked to learn how varied the interpretations were. Perhaps the most popular interpretation has been the allegorical approach. This view declares that the Song of Songs is not teaching about human love at all, but depicts either Christ and his love for the church or God and his love for Israel. People have gravitated to this interpretation because of the highly suggestive language of love and romance that is found in the book.

But there are significant problems with an allegorical interpretation. First, where does this Song ever suggest that it is not to be read at face value but should be understood as an allegory? There is no indication in the text to clue the reader into thinking that this song is speaking about anything other than the love between a man and a woman. It is totally unnatural to read this book as God loving Israel or Christ loving the church. Second, how could this book be about Christ and the church when it was written in the days of the reign of Solomon? No one reading would have a concept of the church to be able to read this book in that way. Third, the love that is described in this book is explicit. It is not only unnatural, but uncomfortable, to use this kind of romantic language in reference to Christ and the church. While the scriptures paint God’s love for Israel and Christ’s love for the church as a marriage, these relationships are never described in terms of sexual relations. Fourth, the allegorical approach leads to some extremely ridiculous interpretations. For example, notice 1:13.

My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh that lies between my breasts.

The allegorical interpretation teaches that this is a reference to Christ between to two testaments (the old and new covenants). One can see that this is a complete reach and an unnatural explanation. Finally, we must reject the allegorical approach because it is an improper way to study any book of the scriptures. We cannot begin with what we think the book says and then force the book to read that way. The only time we can know if something is an allegory is when the scriptures tell us it is an allegory, like in Galatians 4:24. We must let the book speak for itself and base our interpretation from what it says, not impose our interpretation over the text. We cannot start with an interpretation, like this book is about Christ and the church, and force the text to match what we think.

Further, the sexual language in the book should not bother us just because it is in the scriptures. First, God is the creator of sex. He is the one who created these desires. He further commands his creation to engage in sexual relations in marriage and calls it sin if sex is avoided in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1-6). Further, there are many places where we see this kind of language in the scriptures outside of the Song of Songs. Listen to the Proverbs:

15 Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. 16 Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? 17 Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you. 18 Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, 19 a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. 20 Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? (Proverbs 5:15–20 ESV)

Sex is not to be our god, which is where our society is at today. But in overreaction, some well-meaning Christians teach their children that sex is gross or sinful. I believe there is a terrible thing that has been taught to children through the years that sex is something that is gross, dirty, nasty, vile, evil, and wrong that should be saved for the one you love. I have had to counsel too many young married women who were having issues in the bedroom because they were taught all their childhood that sex is wrong and sinful. Now they are married and can’t get past that idea. We must teach that sex is a gift of God which is a blessing and joy of marriage. Sex is only sinful when it is outside of the context of marriage. In fact, God commands sexual relations and condemns marriages where sex does not exist (1 Corinthians 7). This is what we should proclaim.

We should not be surprised that topic is in the scriptures. God created sex, romance, and love. Should not the creator of these things also instruct his creation about what is right and good about them? This is the nature of the wisdom books in the scriptures. The wisdom books deal with practical matters that are not directly or overtly God-glorifying (like the Proverbs describing a nagging wife is like a dripping faucet and warning not praise your neighbor early in the morning or he will consider it a curse). The location of the Song of Songs is in the wisdom books. So what we are going to read are to be practical teachings for life. Our interpretation should be to read the book looking for how this information will help us to have a good life now being pleasing to God.

Understanding Poetry

The Song of Songs begins by telling us that it is a song. It is poetry. Songs are a beautiful way to communicate God’s word. Just read the emotions of the Psalms and we quickly can see this beauty. Songs and poems have a way communicating to our minds and emotions in a greater way than plain information can. Consider the following difference:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies. (Lord Byron)

or:

A woman in a black dress with shiny beads looked pretty when she walked by.

We could certainly say the second thing about a pretty woman in a dress. But we recognize the beauty of the poetry which awakens our senses beyond imparting information. We should consider that this is a beautiful way for the Lord to speak about human love and romance.

There are differences in speaking about love and sex using clinical language, crude language, and poetic language. God could speak like a doctor would speak to you, talking about increased heart rates and perspiration. But this would miss the beauty of love. But we also see that God does not use locker room language about love. The language is not crude or crass. The Song of Songs speaks about love and romance that heightens the senses. Consider that we do the same thing even in our day when we speak about romance. We do not speak about perspiration and heart rates when we speak about love but you make my heart “go pitter patter.” Why do we use pet names, like “honey” or “dear” or whatever you use? This is how we talk about romantic love. We use language like “the birds and bees” when speaking about sex. We should read these words as beautiful, romantic language and not turn this into a crass, pornographic poem.

The Disney movie, Bambi, can help us understand the Song. The mating time is in the spring. Thumper says they all got “twitter-pated.” Spring is the season for love. Setting a season in beautiful language and imagery. There is a setting for love and romance. Consider that a red rose symbolizes love and romance, more so than any other flower. We use nature as a means to speak in a careful, yet romantic way about love. Movies today do this with fine dining, wine, red roses, fire in the fireplace, etc.

Therefore our challenge is to know the meaning of these images in the original context of ancient near eastern love poetry. When the Song speaks about deer and gardens, it is up to us to consider what those images meant to the readers at that time, just as cultures in the future will have to learn what a red rose meant to us in our culture. While the sexual and romantic language of the book perhaps is shocking to us, the language is remarkably similar to ancient near eastern love poetry. The Song uses the same kind of love imagery that is found in Egyptian poetry and other ancient near eastern poetry. It is not unique in its images. What is unusual about the Song of Songs is that it has no cultic reference (no love/sex with pagan sacrifices) and it glorifies marital love rather than fornication. Proper romance and purity of the relationship is glorified rather than sexual immorality.

How To Read Song of Songs

Read the following poem and think about how one is to understand the writing.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

Robert Frost

Is there really a physical road? No. The reader of the poem is not to wonder where the author was when he wrote this. The point is not to try to find these two paths at some geographical location. These paths are metaphors. They are not to be taken literally. Each path represents something else. One path is the way everyone goes, making the same life decisions as everyone else. But there is another path that is rarely traveled and that is the better life path. We need to see that we are called upon to stop and reflect on the message of the poem. We are to see the level of symbolism and interpretive license that is allowed to the reader.

Therefore we need to have this kind of thinking in mind when we read the Song. This Song is poetry. The Song of Songs in no way implies that some historical event is being preserved. It is poetry. It is a song. We need to think of it as a song. Think of it being sung. Think of the artistry. Think of the beautiful imagery. The Song has highly figurative language. By the author telling us it is a song allows us to interpret the book metaphorically and poetically. Poetry is the art of being highly expressive in a minimal amount of word usage, using words that invokes the senses of the mind and heart. Even the songs we sing in our songbooks use highly figurative and metaphorical language (e.g. Streets paved with gold, mansion over the hilltop, kneel at the cross, I’ll fly away, and many more). We understand the meaning of these metaphors from the song. We must do the same thing as we study the Song of Songs.

Further, there does not have to be a story in poetry, necessarily. There can be just a singular point, like Frost’s poem. So we do not need to read this Song as if we are reading about two actual individuals. Just as Frost’s poem is not about an actual event, the Song gives no indication that these are real people or that these events actually happened (we will address the use of Solomon’s name in the Song later in our study).

Preparing For Study

The Song of Songs is needed now more than ever. Marriages are crumbling. People are looking for love in the wrong ways. Sexual immorality is on the rise. Love and sex have been ripped away from marriage. People often do not know what to look for in love and marriage. Rather than fearing this book and being uncomfortable with the subject matter, this book needs to be taught and shared in our society.

As we proceed in this study, I am going to take the most naturally sounding picture of the poetry as the means of interpretation. There are so many interpretations that we can get lost in explaining every option. I will proceed as I did when we studied through the book of Revelation. We will read the text and take the most natural picture presented, considering what the image meant in that day and time.

When I taught Song of Songs before, I taught it as a three person view. This means that I saw that there was a story of a woman who was deciding between Solomon and a shepherd. The Song then shows her struggle to decide who she loves and true love is compared with false love. However, I have changed my mind away from this interpretation for a number of reasons. The first major reason is that scholars tell us that ancient near eastern poetry did not write about love triangles. There is no poetry that shows a woman deciding between two men. These are dramas that came along later with Greek plays (some 600 years later). The second major objection to the three person interpretation is that no one until the 1800s suggested that there are three main characters. All Jewish literature and interpretations always saw only two characters in the story, not three. Finally, I reject the third person view because it is not the most natural way to read the Song. The three person view requires the reader to impose an interpretation over the Song, the very thing we condemned the allegorical approach for doing. The three person view requires us to assume that she is thinking or dreaming about a third person and is not speaking to the person who is talking to her. The view makes too many assumptions and is not a natural understanding of the Song. Therefore, I will present a two person view because this seems to be the most natural way to read the Song. I will make notes as to what the three person view declares and why I reject it at certain points throughout the study.

Finally, we must address one other question: How could Solomon teach on a book of love when he was a polygamist and fell away? There are a number of options for an answer. First, “Which is Solomon’s” does not necessarily mean he wrote the Song but that the Song is about him. I personally do not think this is the case. I believe he wrote the Song, but it is worth noting that some take this option. Second, the third person view is popular because it makes Solomon to be the villain of the story. But is this the only way to deal with Solomon as the author of a love song? I submit to you that there are many more option. Consider that Solomon wrote Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Should those books be rejected because Solomon fell away? Should his counsel about love in the Proverbs be rejected because he had so many wives? I do not think so. Further, it is possible that he wrote this Song early in his reign. It is just as possible that he is writing later in his reign, drawing from his own experiences after learning from his own errors. Can we not instruct others based on the mistakes we make in our own lives? I do not believe that Solomon is discredited for writing about love. He was given the greatest wisdom ever by God and has every ability to express those godly truths by the Holy Spirit even though his life did not meet God’s standards.

So read the Song of Songs. See the beauty of God’s words as he pictures the beauty of human love.

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