1. Title. The book is commonly known as the Song of Solomon. Its Latin name is Canticum Canticorum, from which is derived the title “Canticles,” abbreviated below as Cant. In the Hebrew it is called Shir Hashshirim, “the song of songs,” perhaps idiomatic for “the best of Solomon’s many songs,” in the same sense that “the King of kings” means, “the supreme King.”
Solomon “spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five” (1 Kings 4:32). A book of his Proverbs has been preserved in the Hebrew Old Testament canon, but the Song of Solomon seems to have been the only one of his songs to be included in the Hebrew canon.
2. Authorship. Both the title and tradition are in favor of the Solomonic authorship. It would seem strange if not even one of the many songs that Solomon wrote (1 Kings 4:32) should have been preserved for us. Some assign Ps. 72 and 127 to Solomon. See the Introduction to each of these psalms.
Four main points sum up the internal evidence in favor of a Solomonic authorship:
a. The knowledge displayed of plants, animals, and other productions of nature, is in accordance with what is said about Solomon in 1 Kings 4:33.
b. The evidence of wide acquaintance with foreign products such as were imported in the time of Solomon.
c. Similarity of the Song of Solomon with certain parts of the book of Proverbs (Cant. 4:5, cf. Prov. 5:19; Cant. 4:11, cf. Prov. 5:3; Cant. 4:14, cf. Prov. 7:17; Cant. 4:15, cf. Prov. 5:15; Cant. 5:6, cf. Prov. 1:28; Cant. 6:9, cf. Prov. 31:28; Cant. 8:6, 7, cf. Prov. 6:34, 35).
d. The language of Canticles is such as one would expect from the time of Solomon. It belongs to the flourishing period of the Hebrew tongue. Highly poetical, vigorous and fresh, it has no traces of the decay that became evident in the declining period when Israel and Judah were divided.
None of these indications is in itself conclusive, but together they point strongly to Solomon as the author (see MB 79).
3. Historical Setting. The song has its setting in the golden age of the Hebrew monarchy. It appears that the king wrote of his own love. The question naturally arises, Concerning which of his many wives did he compose this love song? Solomon loved many strange women (1 Kings 11:1), including 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). The number given us in Cant. 6:8 is decidedly less—only 60 queens and 80 concubines. Assuming that Solomon’s song is a unity and that the marriage that it celebrates is his own marriage, it would thus seem that he wrote the song in his youthful days. The bride is described as a Shulamite country girl. An attachment to one of this class would be a real “love marriage,” with no political or other reason of expediency, as was the case with many of Solomon’s marriages. This type of relationship would make this story of Solomon’s marriage a more appropriate illustration of the relationship between Christ and the church, since parts of the song, at least, have been considered illustrative of such an association (see Ed 261; MB 100; 7T 69).
Shulamite (Cant. 6:13) should probably be Shunammite (see Kings 1:3) as suggested by the LXX. If so the maiden was from Shunem, a town in the territory of Issachar (see Joshua 19:18), about 7 mi. (11.2 km.) east of Megiddo. Shunem was the scene of the touching story recorded in 2 Kings 4:8–37, in which the prophet Elisha raised to life the son of his Shunammite benefactress. The modern village of SoЖlem stands on the ancient site.
4. Theme. The Song of Solomon is a beautiful song of ideal Eastern love written in the style of idyl poetry rather than in the more elegant style of the epic, lyric, and dramatic forms of literature. Some regard the book as an anthology of love songs, perhaps by different authors, rather than a work with a unified plan, because of the difficulty of finding the proper connection between the different parts of the poem. Others contend for its unity. In favor of the latter view are the following considerations: (1) The name Solomon is prominent throughout (chs. 1:1, 5; 3:7, 9, 11; 8:11, 12); (2) there are recurrences of similar words, illustrations, and figures throughout (ch. 2:16, cf. ch. 6:3; ch. 2:5, cf. ch. 5:8); (3) the references to the family of the bride are consistent; the mother and brothers only are mentioned, never the father (see chs. 1:6; 3:4; 8:2).
As to the exact plan or progress of the narrative, there is much difference of opinion, and any system adopted is at best artificial (see further on outline).
While the whole song is apparently a love story of Solomon and a country girl of northern Palestine whom King Solomon married only for love, the story itself serves as a beautiful illustration of the love of Christ for the church as a whole, and also for each individual member of the church. Both the Old and the New Testament Scriptures illustrate the tender union between God and His people by the relationship of a husband to his bride (see Isa. 54:4, 5; Jer. 3:14; 2 Cor. 11:2; MB 100).
A word of caution should be added. According to one commentator the Song of Solomon has been the “happy hunting ground” of allegorists for many centuries. The introduction of the allegorization of Scriptures into the Christian church can be traced back to the Alexandrian school in Egypt and particularly to Origen (c. a.d. 184–c. 254) as the first great exponent of this method. The system grew out of a fusion between Greek philosophy and Christianity. The method has persisted with varying degrees of virility ever since. As an illustration of the extreme lengths to which such methods tend are the following examples drawn from various allegorical interpreters of the Song of Solomon: the kiss of Christ—the incarnation; the cheeks of the bride—outward Christianity and good works; her golden chains—faith; spikenard—redeemed humanity; the hair of the bride like a flock of goats—the nations converted to Christianity; the 80 wives of Solomon—the admission of the Gentile nations to Christianity; the navel of the Shulamite—the cup from which the church refreshes those that thirst for salvation; the two breasts—the Old and New Testaments.
The folly of such a method is that it assumes a license for figurative interpretations without providing criteria to control it. It offers as the validity of an interpretation only the imagination of its exponent. True, there may be a general attempt to make conclusions conform to the analogy of Scripture, but the attempt is too weak to hold the interpreter’s imagination in check.
A safe rule of exegesis is to allow only inspired writers to interpret the symbolisms of prophecy, the features of a parable, the spiritual import of historical incidents, and the spiritual significance of visual aids in teaching, such as the sanctuary and its services. Only when a Bible writer or the Spirit of prophecy specifically points out the significance of a symbol can we know with certainty its meaning. All other interpretations should be held with the qualification that they are private interpretations with no “Thus saith the Lord.”
As a parable requires many details to complete the narrative, details that have no direct bearing on the spiritual interpretation, so does a historical incident. The narrative is given in a complete, coherent form so as to present a consistent whole. But only certain features of it may be intended to be illustrative. Which features are thus intended can be known only by the confirmation of inspiration.
That the love between Solomon and the Shulamite is intended to illustrate the love between Christ and His people has already been observed. To what degree the various historical incidents in connection with the song are intended to have special significance when applied to divine love we can know only to the extent that inspiration reveals such a significance. A guide to such confirmation is found in the Ellen G. White comments, the sources for which are given at the end of each chapter. Beyond these comments we have no definite confirmation, since the Song of Solomon is nowhere quoted in the NT.
In harmony with these principles this commentary has adopted a working formula that will call attention to significant inspired comments where such have been made. In other areas only a philological, historical, and literary exposition will be given. The reader is left free in these areas to make his own spiritual applications in harmony with sound exegetical procedures. A number of interesting analogies will suggest themselves.
The song is an Eastern poem, with much of its imagery strange to the Occidental mind. This should ever be borne in mind in a study of the song. We should also keep in mind that the poem was written in an ancient, Oriental world, where men spoke more forthrightly on many intimate matters than do we in our modern, Occidental world.
5. Outline. The following outline given exhibits only one of many possible arrangements based on the assumption that there is an intended harmony between the various parts of the song. That such a harmony does exist cannot definitely be proved. The outline does not claim superiority over other outlines that have been devised. It is simply set forth as one of many possible working patterns. It is necessary to have a structure on which to build an exegesis. The outline is based on the assumption that there are only two principal characters in the poem, Solomon and the Shulamite maid.
Most modern critics and commentators adopt an outline that has three principal characters, Solomon, the Shulamite maid, and her shepherd lover. According to this plot, Solomon brought the Shulamite maid to his court to woo her love; but in this he was entirely unsuccessful, the Shulamite remaining true to her country lover and resisting all efforts to steal her heart. Such an outline, though it lends itself to a literal interpretation of the song, does not provide a suitable pattern for an illustration of Christ’s love for the church.
I. Title, 1:1.
II. The Marriage of Solomon to the Shulamite Maid, 1:2 to 2:7.
A. A dialogue: The Shulamite maid expresses her admiration for the bride-groom. The ladies of the court respond, 1:2–8.
B. Solomon enters. He and the bride exchange mutual expressions of love, 1:9 to 2:7.
III. Recollections of Fond Associations, 2:8 to 3:5.
A. A delightsome rendezvous in the springtime, 2:8–17.
B. The bride recounts a joyful dream, 3:1–5.
IV. Recollections of Betrothal and Marriage, 3:6 to 5:1.
A. The royal procession, 3:6–11.
B. Solomon makes an offer of marriage; the Shulamite accepts, 4:1 to 5:1.
V. Love lost and Regained, 5:2 to 6:9.
A. The bride harassed by an unhappy dream, 5:2 to 6:3.
B. Love recovered; Solomon idolizes his bride, 6:4-9.
VI. The Bride’s Beauty Is Extolled, 6:10 to 8:4.
A. Dialogue between the Shulamite and the daughters of Jerusalem, 6:10 to 7:5.
B. Solomon enraptured by the beauty of his bride, 7:6–9.
VII. The Visit to the Bride’s Home in Lebanon, 7:10 to 8:14.
A. The Shulamite’s yearning to visit her parental home, 7:10 to 8:4.
B. The arrival of the royal pair, 8:5–7.
C. Dialogue between the bride, the brothers, and the king, 8:8–14.
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