1. “The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s,” so designated by its most ancient (Hebrew) title, holds a unique position in sacred literature. It may be said to be the enigma of the Old Testament, just as the Apocalypse (Revelation) is of the New Testament.
The Song was regarded as an integral and venerated portion of the Hebrew canon before the commencement of the Christian era, and passed as such into the canon of the primitive church. It has been always held both by the church and by the synagogue in the highest and most reverent estimation.
One or two allusions have been found in the Song to at least one older canonical book (Genesis); and a few references to it occur in books of later composition (Proverbs, Isaiah, Hosea); while two or three doubtful allusions have been thought to be made to it by writers of the New Testament. These references are sufficient to establish the recognition of the Song as a part of Holy Scripture by some among the canonical writers.
2. The difficulties of the interpreter of the Song are unusually great. One lies in the special form of composition. The Song of Songs might be called a lyrico-dramatic poem, but it is not a drama in the sense that it was either intended or adapted for representation.
Though the Song is a well-organized poetical whole, its unity is made up of various parts and sections, of which several have so much independence and individuality as to have been not inaptly called Idylls, i. e. short poetic pieces of various forms containing each a distinct subject of representation. These shorter pieces are all, however, so closely linked by a common purpose, as to form, when viewed in their right connection, constituent parts of a larger and complete poem.
The earliest Jewish expositor of the Song as a whole, the author of the so-called Chaldee Targum, divides it in his historico-prophetic interpretation into two nearly equal halves at Son 5:1. All that precedes the close of that verse he makes refer to the times of the Exodus and of the first temple, and all that follows to times subsequent to the deportation to Babylon down to the final restoration of Israel and the glories of the latter day. Whatever we may think of this allegorical interpretation, the division itself may, with other divisions - suggested by refrains and recurrent phrases, used it would seem of set purpose to indicate the commencement or the close of various sections - prove a valuable clue to the true significance of the whole.
The two most important of these refrains are, first, the bride’s three-fold adjuration to the chorus Son 2:7; Son 3:5; Son 8:4, marking at each place, as most interpreters agree, the close of one division of the poem; secondly, the question asked three times by a chorus on as many distinct appearances of the bride Son 3:6; Son 6:10; Son 8:5, marking, in like manner, a fresh commencement. These two refrains enable us to divide each half of the Song into three parts of nearly equal length, and make the whole poem consist of six parts; an arrangement which, in its main features, has obtained a majority of suffrages among modern interpreters.
The Song is throughout so far dramatic in form that it consists entirely of dialogue or monologue, the writer nowhere speaking in his own person; and the dialogue is connected with the development of a certain action. There are, we believe, only three chief speakers, “the bride,” “the beloved,” and a chorus of “virgins” or “daughters of Jerusalem,” having each their own manner and peculiar words and phrases, and these so carefully adhered to as to help us, in some cases of doubt, to determine the particular speaker (see Son 1:8 note)
If in other Scriptures are found words of indignation and wrath and terrible threatenings, the characteristics of this book are sweetness, cheerfulness, and joy, characteristics somewhat at variance with “the hypothesis” so-called “of the shepherd lover.” According to the view taken in this commentary, there is only one lover in the Song, and one object of his affection, without rival or disturbing influence on either side. The beloved of the bride is in truth a king, and if she occasionally speaks of him as a shepherd, she intimates Son 6:2-3 that she is speaking figuratively. Being herself a rustic maiden of comparatively lowly station she, by such an appellation, seeks to draw down him “whom her soul loveth” Son 1:7; Son 3:1-4, though he be the king of Israel, within her narrower circle of thoughts and aspirations. And, therefore, while the whole poem breathes of almost more than regal splendor and magnificence, the bride is nowhere represented as dwelling with any pride or satisfaction on the riches or grandeur of her beloved, but only on what he is to her in his own person as” chiefest among ten thousand” and “altogether lovely” (Son 5:10, note; Son 5:16, note).
3. Most recent critics have agreed in assigning to the Song an early date.
The diction of the Song (on the character of which several critics have insisted when arguing for a later date) is unquestionably peculiar. The poem is written in pure Hebrew of the best age, but with a large sprinkling of uncommon idioms and some very remarkable and apparently foreign words. Diction apart, most of the references and allusions in the Song would lead us to assign it, in accordance with its title, to the age of Solomon, nor does there seem to be sufficient reason for departing from the traditional belief that Solomon was himself the author; unless it be considered a panegyric composed in his honor by a prophet or poet of the king’s own circle. In that case some of the peculiarities of diction and phraseology might be accounted for by assuming the author to have been a native of the northern part of Solomon’s dominions.
One striking characteristic of the writer of the Song is a love of natural scenes and objects, and familiarity with them as they would be presented, in the wide area of the Hebrew monarchy, to an observant eye in the age of Solomon. Thus, it has been observed that this short poem contains 18 names of plants and 13 of animals. No less delight is exhibited in the enumeration of those works of human art and labor and those articles of commerce, which in the time of Solomon so largely ministered to royal pomp and luxury.
The time in which the Song was written was unquestionably one of peace and general prosperity, such as occurred but very rarely in the chequered history of Israel. All the indications named above concur with this in fixing that time as the age of Solomon.
4. The interpretation of the Song of Songs followed in this commentary proceeds on the assumption that the primary subject and occasion of the poem was a real historical event, of which we have here the only record, the marriage union of Solomon with a shepherd-maiden of northern Palestine, by whose beauty and nobility of soul the great king had been captivated. Starting from this historical basis, the Song of Songs is in its essential character an ideal representation of human love in the relation of marriage Son 8:6-7.
5. According to this literal and historical interpretation, Parts I - III constitute the first half or one main division of the poem, which may be called: the bride and her espousals with the king Cant. 1:2–5:1. The three parts represent each a different scene and distinct action.
Part I. The Bride in the King’s Chambers
Cant. 1:2–2:7 subdivisible into four sections, corresponding to so many pauses in the action or dialogue.
The scene is laid apparently in a wooded district of northern Palestine near the bride’s home, where the king is spending part of the summer season in tents. The three chief speakers of the poem are now introduced in succession: first, a female chorus (the “daughters of Jerusalem”) commence by singing a short ode of two stanzas in praise of the absent king Son 1:2-4. The next speaker, the Shulamite maiden (“the bride”), appears to have been recently brought from her country home to the king’s pavilion, to be there affianced to him. A brief dialogue ensues between her and the chorus Son 1:5-7. The king himself appears, in the third place, and commending the beauty of the bride, receives from her in return words of praise and affection Son 1:16; Son 2:7. Throughout this part the bride is represented as of inferior rank to him whom she calls her “beloved,” shrinking at times from the splendors of the royal station that awaits her. She speaks of him both as a shepherd and as a king; but, in either character, as of one in whose favor and society she finds supreme satisfaction and entire rest. It is a day of early love, but not that of their first meeting.
Part II. Monologues of the Bride
Cant. 2:8–3:5, comprising two sections.
This part carries us back to an earlier period than the former, and affords a glance at the previous history of the Shulamite in her relations to the king. She describes to the chorus in two monologues how the beloved had visited her on a spring morning, and how she had afterward dreamed of him at night.
Part III. Royal Espousals
Cant. 3:6–5:1, subdivisible into three sections.
The scene changes to Jerusalem, where the bride is brought in royal state to be united to the king in marriage.
Parts IV - VI. The Bride, the King’s Wife
Cant. 5:2–7:1. The once lowly Shulamite, though now sharing with her beloved the high places of Israel, yet retains that sweetness, humility, and devoted affection, which in other scenes and circumstances had gained his heart. She invites him to revisit with her rural scenes, and share once more their simple pleasures Son 7:11-13.
Part IV. Seeking and Finding
Cant. 5:2–6:9 may be divided into three sections.
The scene of this part is still Jerusalem. The bride after relating to the chorus a second dream concerning her beloved, pours forth a stream of richest fancies in his praise, who, as she complains, has departed from her. The Chorus offering to aid her in her search of him, suddenly the beloved reappears and gives in his turn the noblest commendations to the bride.
Part V. Homeward Thoughts
Cant. 6:10–8:4, subdivisible into four sections.
The scene is still Jerusalem, or a palace-garden in the neighborhood; but the bride’s thoughts are now reverting to her northern home. She relates how in early spring she had first met the king in a walnut-garden in her own country. The chorus ask her to perform a sacred dance seemingly well known to the bride and her country-folk. The bride complies, and while she is dancing and the chorus are singing some stanzas in her praise, the king himself appears. The bride invites him to return with her into the country and to her mother’s house.
Part VI. The Return Home
Son 8:5-14, containing three very brief sections.
The scene changes to the bride’s birthplace, to which she has now returned with the king. The bride commends her brothers to the good graces of the king, and ends, at his request, by charming his ear with one last song, recalling to his memory a strain of other days (see Son 8:14 note).
The history, which forms its groundwork is, however, throughout the poem, contemplated from an ideal point of view; and the fundamental idea expressed and illustrated is the awful all-constraining, the at once leveling and elevating power of the mightiest and most universal of human affections. The refrains and phrases, to which allusion has been already made, give expression at regular intervals to this idea.
The ideal character of the whole poem is further evidenced by the way in which the chief points whereon the action turns are indicated; and it will be found that the two halves, or main divisions of the Song have numerous well-balanced contrasts and correspondences throughout.
These and other peculiarities, which impart to the Song of Songs its unique and enigmatical character, seem chiefly due to its idealizing treatment of an actual history felt at the time, and especially by the writer, to be profoundly interesting and significant.
Further, that the history thus idealized and the form in which it is presented have meanings beyond themselves and point to something higher, has ever been a deep-seated conviction in the mind both of the church and of the synagogue.
The two axes, so to speak, on which the main action of the poem appears alternately to revolve, may be found in the king’s invitation to the bride on bringing her to Jerusalem Son 4:8, and in the bride’s to the king in recalling him to Shunem Son 7:11-13; Son 8:2; in these two invitations and their immediate consequences - the willing obedience of the bride and the ready condescension of the king, the first surrender on her part and the final vow on his - the writer of the Song seems to have intended to exhibit the two-fold energy, both for elevation and abasement, of that affection, to the delineation of which his work is dedicated. The omnipotent, transforming, and yet conserving power of faithful love is here seen in like yet diverse operation in the two personalities through whom it is exhibited. In the case of the bride we see the lowly rejoicing in unforeseen elevation without loss of virginal simplicity, in that of the beloved the highest is made happy through self-abasement without compromise of kingly honor.
It is then no mere fancy, which for so many ages past has been accustomed to find in the pictures and melodies of the Song of Songs types and echoes of the actings and emotions of the highest love - of Love Divine - in its relations to humanity. Christians may trace in the noble and gentle history thus presented foreshadowings of the infinite condescensions of Incarnate Love; - that Love which, first stooping in human form to visit us in our low estate in order to seek out and win its object Psa 136:23, and then raising along with itself a sanctified humanity to the heavenly places Eph 2:6, is finally awaiting there an invitation from the mystic Bride to return to earth once more and seal the union for eternity Rev 22:17.