Song of Songs, Chapter One

Over the next seven days, my plan (we’ll see how it works out) is to give a commentary on the biblical text called the “Song of Songs,” or sometimes, the “Song of Solomon.” I’ll start this post with a brief introduction and outline of the biblical text, followed by an analysis and commentary on the first chapter. Tomorrow, I hope to continue with the second chapter, and so on.

Brief Introduction to Song of Songs

I. Title

The book is called “Song of Songs” in Hebrew and in most modern English translations (NIV, for instance); in the King James Version, it received the title “Song of Solomon”. The Latin Vulgate called it “Canticles”.

II. Author and Setting

Its Solomonic authorship is widely credited, though the occurrence of some apparent Persian and Greek terms has led some to postulate a post-exilic date. Tradition would argue that since the book lays claim to Solomonic authorship, it is best to assume that is the case. Those who argue for Solomonic authorship point to the reference to Tirzah in Song of Songs 6:4, which was the capital of Jeroboam I and his successors (1 Kings 14:17). They suggest that it would not have been set in parallel with Jerusalem by a poet in either Israel or Judah, after the division of the kingdom. Therefore, traditionalists argue, the latest possible date for the book would be the outbreak of war between Jeroboam and Abijam, c. 915-913 BC (1 Kings 15:7). The reference in 6:8 to sixty queens and eighty concubines contrasts the figures of 1 Kings 11:3, which speaks of Solomon’s “seven hundred wives” and “three hundred concubines.” This is why traditionally it is believed that the Song of Songs composed early in Solomon’s reign: he hadn’t accumulated quite so many women, yet.

Also, traditionalists who favor of Solomonic authorship, point to the use in Song of Songs of the natural imagery and the use of the names of many plants and animals. They suggest this imagery would be consistent with Solomon’s interests according to 1 Kings 4:32.

Most modern scholars, however, do not believe that the book was actually composed by Solomon. Instead, they would argue that it comes much later. They would argue that whoever composed it, therefore, calls it the “Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” because the poem is set during his time, using his reputation with many women as the jumping off point for creating this erotic love poem.

The Song of Songs, more than any other book, has been kept in the dark ages in the thoughts of many interpreters, who continue to insist on the medieval approach of allegorical interpretation — even though they would never approach any other book of the Bible allegorically. The allegorical approach to the Song of Songs results in teaching that the story is figurative, representing Yahweh’s love for Israel, and by extension, Christ’s love for the church. Those who cling to this approach would argue, that if a wholly literalistic approach is taken to the poem, it is impossible to see why the Song of Songs would have been included as part of Scripture.

Like Esther, the Song of Songs never once mentions God. However, only if one takes the odd position that sex is an evil thing, would one find such a book as the Song of Songs inexplicable. As important as male-female relationships and romantic love are to human beings, it should not at all be surprising to discover that there is at least one book in the Bible devoted to the topic.

Therefore, the outline will follow the historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture, and take the Song of Songs at face value — as an erotic love poem.

III. An Outline of Song of Songs

I. Title 1:1
II. First Poem 1:2-2:7
III. Second Poem 2:8-3:5
IV. Third Poem 3:6-5:1
V. Fourth Poem 5:2-6:3
VI. Fifth Poem 6:4-8:7
VII. Sixth Poem 8:8-14

To begin then:

Chapter One:

Solomon’s Song of Songs.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth–
for your love is more delightful than wine.
Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
your name is like perfume poured out.
No wonder the maidens love you!
Take me away with you–
let us hurry!
Let the king bring me into his chambers.
We rejoice and delight in you;
we will praise your love more than wine.
How right they are to adore you! (1:2-4)

In the first verse, the phrase “song of songs” means “greatest song.” In Hebrew, to make something superlative, to mark it as the best, one would express the concept this way. Thus, “holy of holies” means “Holiest” or “Most Holy”; Lord of lords means “highest lord” or “most high lord” and so on.

Following the identification of the author, or the setting (depending on how you take it) the actual poem begins.

It opens with the woman speaking. I think that is a very important thing to notice; in fact, a remarkable part of the whole poem is the fact that it is told mostly from the woman’s point of view. The poem is a dialogue, but the woman is the primary focus, I believe.

Notice that it is set in a polygamous environment; there are other women involved with him: “no wonder the maidens love you!” and “how right they are to adore you.” Also the use of the plural pronoun “we” seems to fit that notion.

The man in view is portrayed as a king; in the story of the poem, he is Solomon, but the point is, I believe, to illustrate her admiration and how much she adores him. Notice that she is not shy about what she wants; and there is no shame or embarrassment here in what she wants. She wants him to take her away and have sex right now. She adores, rejoices and delights in him and the prospect of being with him. Too many people, women especially, have been brought up to feel ashamed of their own desires; they are taught to be quiet, and in earlier generations in this country at least, though perhaps not so much now, they were taught that sex was at best a duty, and certainly not something to be embraced passionately and enjoyed and celebrated.

So it is an exciting opening, and completely at odds with the notion that women are second class, or that sex is unclean.

So now, another couple verses of Song of Songs:

Dark am I,
yet lovely,
O daughters of Jerusalem,
dark like the tents of Kedar,
like the tent curtains of Solomon.
Do not stare at me because I am dark,
because I am darkened by the sun.
My mother’s sons were angry with me
and made me take care of the vineyards;
my own vineyard I have neglected. (1:5-6)

The only sense of shame that the female protagonist of the poem suffers, is one of class; in the ancient world, the upper classes lived lives of ease, stayed in the shade, and did little physical labor; they tended toward obesity (in fact, the word translated “honor” in the old testament is a word meaning “heavy”, derived from the heavy-set nature of the upper, “honored” classes), because they always had plenty to eat, and their skin (in places like Israel, where the bulk of the Jewish population was essentially white) remained pale. The lower classes worked the fields, and so they were the ones that got the nice tans. Today of course, for the most part things are reversed; a tan indicates that an individual has enough free time to be able to spend it outdoors, either lying by a pool or playing some sport. But essentially, we feel no class sense from a tan; we just like how a tan makes us look; a man or a woman will usually be attracted to someone who is nice and tan. It makes us think “healthy” and “young”. And so the concern that this woman in the poem has for being “dark” is a cultural thing which no longer resonates (to try, as some have, to see some racial thing in this verse is obviously not quite right, though perhaps if we use that to illustrate a class or social stigma attaching to a relationship, then it can work). Oddly enough, in our culture, even the wealthiest of men, if he sees an attractive woman who’s working, say a fast food drive out, he might ask her out on a date, and might even think about developing a serious relationship with her. The fact that she has a crappy job wouldn’t bother him. In contrast, the odds of a wealthy woman asking out a guy working the fast food, thinking in terms of a serious relationship, are not as high. A double standard, that still exists, obviously.

But, in any case, in this poem, we have a class thing going on; she feels, briefly, a sense of “maybe I’m not good enough for him”, but then she overcomes it quickly enough by “explaining” why she looks as she does. And she says, that, despite her “neglected” appearance, she’s really one hot babe, anyhow.

We also, with the phrase “My mother’s sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards; my own vineyard I have neglected” run across the first example of this double entendre, which will become a theme of the poem. She describes herself as a vineyard; it is unlikely that either the vineyard of her mom’s sons, nor her own vineyard have anything to do with actual grapes or wine. Think instead of a Cinderella situation, where she was forced to care for siblings and their needs, working while they primped and made themselves lovely, while she slaved to provide them their leisure. But in the end of this poem, it is this dark one, this “unworthy” one, who will live happily ever after in the prince’s palace.

The story of Cinderella shows up in several forms around the world. It is also a part of the story of this erotic poem.

Tell me, you whom I love,
where you graze your flock
and where you rest your sheep at midday.
Why should I be like a veiled woman
beside the flocks of your friends?

If you do not know, most beautiful of women,
follow the tracks of the sheep
and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds.
I liken you, my darling,
to a mare harnessed to one of the chariots of Pharaoh.
Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings,
your neck with strings of jewels.

We will make you earrings of gold,
studded with silver.

(1:7-11)

The woman wants to know where she can find him, where he might “graze his flock”; given that she follows this line with the question, “why should I be like a veiled woman”, she is not likely talking about where he’s keeping furry animals that go “baaaaaa”. A “veiled woman” was a prostitute; it is an idiom, like our “street walker” and she is concerned, I think, that she be more than a simple one night stand for him. Hence, the next few lines, which are placed in the mouth of the man she has the hots for: he is essentially telling her that “of course I’ll respect you in the morning”; so he tells her she is beautiful, and that the beauty of her cheeks deserves to be enhanced by earrings danging from her lobes, and that her lovely neck deserves the added beauty of a necklace. The women around him (remember the polygamous setting) are agreeable, and suggest that “we” will do this for you. So the willingness of the man to give her some jewelry, and for his other paramours to participate, is again designed as reassurance to her that she’ll get more from him than just a single night of pleasure. She’s looking for actual love, not just a momentary release of some tension.

The shepherd and sheep imagery will repeat periodically through the poem, together with the garden imagery; all of it is sexually oriented and is being used to romantic and erotic intent. I don’t think that actual shepherding and farming are ever the point in this poem. Heh.

While the king was at his table,
my perfume spread its fragrance.
My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh
resting between my breasts.
My lover is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
from the vineyards of En Gedi. (1:12-14)

The woman is speaking, of course; there is more than one word for breast in Hebrew; this is the one with the most obviously erotic connotation; of course, that’s apparent even in English translation.

As is the norm in Hebrew poetry, the first two lines of this section introduce the concept, which will then be expanded upon in what follows. The point is seduction. Her “perfume” goes out, grabs her intended, and draws him close to her; she links herself so closely to him, that he becomes the seduction itself, or perhaps, she feels seduced by him as much and as strongly as she attempts to seduce him; the two become inextricably mixed, and inseparable. She and he are both perfume to one another.

Again, notice the imagery of a vineyard appearing. It should also be noted the important part that scent will play in this poem, as well as the visual images. Actually, all the senses are appealed to in this poem: visual, tactile, taste, smell, sound. All are, or will be, aroused to erotic effect.

The first chapter of the Song of Songs ends as follows:

How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh, how beautiful!
Your eyes are doves.

How handsome you are, my lover!
Oh, how charming!
And our bed is verdant.
The beams of our house are cedars;
our rafters are firs. (1:15-17)

The first three lines are spoken by the man, the last five by the woman; again, this is not hard to tell in Hebrew, thanks to the gender specific nature of that language. The man expresses how beautiful she is; her response then is to praise his appearance; the word translated beautiful and handsome are both the same word in Hebrew, only the gender is different; the first is feminine, the second masculine. But we generally don’t refer to guys as beautiful or pretty (didn’t we just have this discussion?), hence the way the translation has been made.

Now, I’ve been using the NIV translation for this commentary/lesson for you, but the last three lines just don’t quite have what it takes, so here’s a better way of putting it:

Our couch is grass,
we are shaded by cedar trees for a roof
and spreading firs for a ceiling.

The point being, we have a continuation of the garden theme; and she is very ready and willing for him to have sex with her, any time, anywhere. They’re under these trees; that’s good enough for her; all he needs to do is ask. She adores him; the setting doesn’t matter much. Of course, in some sense you get a double entendre here, too, since he and she are presented in terms of a garden, especially later in the poem. So in some sense the couch of grass may also be her, while the cedar and fir above the grass are him.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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