The Song of Songs

This is not a commentary, although it has some similarity (most verses have notes here). I looked at a few commentaries, although the careful reader will see immediately that I found Michael V. Fox’s (The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs) most useful, and generally follow him. This is largely because I am mainly interested in unpacking the natural, historically informed, meaning, without pursuing spiritual implications in this particular approach. Not surprisingly, given this approach, there is a lot more sex here than in most podium-appropriate presentations.
Every once in a while I’ll have a spiritual thought; I am not opposed to them! In those cases I will switch to a light blue font to set those insights apart (and so they don’t get confused with historical reading).

Note: Yellow text items contain notes. Hover the mouse (or whatever the equivalent on your system) to see them. Regarding Bible quotations in these notes: if they come from the Song of Songs, they are JPS. Otherwise they are generally from the NIV, unless otherwise noted.


JPS  Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, 1917 (English translation)
LXX  Septuagint (Greek translation of the Jewish Bible [2nd century, BC(E) to 1st century, CE (AD)]
MT   The Masoretic Text (The traditional Hebrew text of the Bible)
NIV  New International Version (English translation)
NRSV New Revised Standard Version (English translation)

I think it is unlikely that it was written by Solomon, as you probably know if you read my intro articles. The setting is folky and includes behavior unlikely for a king. The girl’s reference to her lover as ‘king’ is a characteristic term of endearment, also seen in the Egyptian love poetry (as are the references to her as his ‘sister’—there is no reason to assume that she was his sibling, or even a relative of some variety).

In the past I have toyed with the idea that the poem was part of a performance at one of Solomon’s many weddings. But the reference to Tirzah in 5.4 (see the note on that verse) makes it virtually impossible that the version we currently have came from Solomon’s lifetime. It is still possible that, like many other books in the Bible, it has a literary history and multiple authors, and if that is the case, some of it could go back that far. That, at least, would explain the dedication in the first line/title.

On the surface, it is never ‘R’ rated. Although technically, neither is The Rolling Stones’ “Brown sugar,” either, although no adult English speaker is likely to miss the meaning. In the Song such language tends to be contained in double-entendres (which allow those who prefer not to hear them to stay in their comfort zone). I will point these moments out, but I am not expecting them to show up in sermons. At least, not directly; sometimes they contain extractable messages.

Who is speaking at any given moment is much clearer in Hebrew than it is in English. ‘You’ is gender specific, unlike English, for example (‘I’ is not), and, of course ‘him’ and ‘her’ are just as in English. Also, the two lovers use different words when calling each other “my beloved,” or “my darling.” This is not the language per se (although his term has gender), just the speaker’s choices. Some translations try to use differing terminology to reflect that (distinguishing “my beloved” (dôdy) for her and “my darling” (ra‘yaty) for him, for example), but unless they tell you, and you are looking for that, you would not likely notice.

But even with the language’s welcome assistance, we can’t always tell except by what is being said. This is usually how we find the interjections of the chorus (girlfriends), for example. There are occasions where different readers will find different speakers (1.4b, 4.15, for example), where the clues are insufficient.

Anticipating that I might have ‘spiritual’ insights, I will tell you what my general approach is to reading this religiously. First, I am a Christian. That will skew my reading to some extent. Second, I am not comfortable with readings that try to see in it some allegory of history—either of God's work in Israel or in the Church. I think the plain meaning of the Song is relational. That relation can be either personal or corporate (God with me, or God with his people [as you define that, I suppose]). I lean toward the personal, but if I see something that works better corporately, I will certainly mention that. Generally, they work well together. Something read personally works just as well corporately (just mentally substitute an ‘us’ for the ‘me’).

In general, however, my impression is that the most important 'spiritual' reading is accessed by allowing the romantic and even erotic nature of the story speak for itself, and the simply allowing ourselves to think of our relationship with God in the same way: longing and partial fulfillment, always leaning forward toward the fuller one to come. Most attempts to firm up the allegory into specifics tend to do more harm than good—like having to explain a poem (or, worse yet, a joke).

So if something jumps out at me, I will express it, but only with hesitation, and I will generally let the text be what it is, and let the reader with ‘ears to hear’ find in it what the Spirit wants them to find.

Chapter 1

Back to main page Chapter 2

Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, 1917

Thoughts on the text

1 The song of songs, which is Solomon’s.
As I mentioned in my (former) Examiner articles, this is unlikely to be an attribution of authorship. It is also most likely a later addition. It uses a different (older, or more formal) relative pronoun than is used in the rest of the poem (’ašer instead of še-). It should perhaps be read as a dedication (the word translated ‘by’ usually means ‘to’ or ‘for’), although it was written long after his death. References to Solomon in the book are not necessarily that complementary (e.g. ‘really rich guy’). Alternatively, remember Rashi’s suggestion that “Shlomo” refers to the reader rather than to Solomon.
The first word ‘song’ is singular, so this was seen as a single work, not a collection. A better translation is “The greatest of songs.”
If it is dedicated to Solomon, it could be, as I mentioned in the introduction, that at least parts of it go back to entertainment at one of his many weddings. But we will see that there are references in this version that only make sense long after the kingdom had been divided (that is, after Solomon was already dead).
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth —
    For thy love is better than wine.
Kisses of the mouth. As I mentioned in one of the notes, this is in contrast to the more common nose-kisses (Eskimo kisses). ‘Kiss’ itself might be a word play on the word for ‘drink’ (the only difference is the doubling of one letter which would not be visible in the consonantal text). The connection between kissing and drinking is clearer in 8.3/2. The use of oral pleasure as a circumlocution for intimate pleasures (although not necessarily coitus) runs through the book.
Love. Anthony Aglen (Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers) points out that the LXX (Greek) and Vulgate (Latin) misread dôday (love) as daday (breasts), leading both to translate, “Your breasts are better than wine,” which lead to some interesting interpretations, made even more interesting by the fact that the speaker is the girl.
In any case, dôday, as we will see later, usually refers to physical expressions of love rather than to the emotion.
Similarly, God's love for his people is not limited to feelings of affection. It is not that he does not love us in that way, but his love is expressed actively, both historically (in Israel's history; on the Cross, etc.) but in present experience. Those who think of God as impersonal and uninvolved are punished, not in some future judgment, but in their own present emptiness.
Better than wine. Actually, sweeter than wine. Under the influence of the French we have learned how to appreciate dryer wines. In the ancient world, sweet was the goal. They sometimes mixed the wine with honey to enhance this. So Pete Seeger & Lee Hays had it right (“Kisses sweeter than wine”).
3 Thine ointments have a goodly fragrance;
    Thy name is as ointment poured forth;
    Therefore do the maidens love thee.
Ointment poured forth Fox prefers “Oil of Turaq.” The traditional translation (oil/ointment poured out) is influenced by the LXX. Since pouring oil does not make it better in any way, Fox thinks it more likely Turaq was a place associated with finer oils (like Egyptian Cotton, Florida Oranges, etc.).
Draw me, we will run after thee;
    The king hath brought me into his chambers;
Draw me, we will run after thee Who's the ‘we’? If it were ‘Draw us’, I would locate this with the chorus in the next two lines (I would still have to separate out the King hath brought me line as hers alone). Alternatively, ‘I will run…’ would make perfect sense. Either I am missing something, or something is wrong here.
King is just a term of endearment, as when he calls her ‘sister’ later on. She is not his sister; he is not royalty.
or Her
We will be glad and rejoice in thee,
    We will find thy love more fragrant than wine!
Some interpreters regard this as the first appearance of the chorus.
Alternatively, the shift in this verse from first person singular to plural may not be the others speaking (they might merely be being referenced). Although it certainly does not mean that she is sharing him. Reading this as her speaking would solve the problem of the ‘we’ in the previous verse, at any rate.
Rejoice in thee. The ‘thee’ here is masculine singular. The chorus is not approving of her; either they, or she, approve(s) of him.
Sincerely do they love thee.
She is here telling him that he is so fine, and she is sure all the girls must be longing to get at him.
5 ‘I am black, but comely,
    O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
As the tents of Kedar,
    As the curtains of Solomon.
I am black but lovely. The meaning is made clear in v. 6. She is sun-tanned. High court ladies would be white, since they didn’t get out much, and were considered the paradigms of beauty. I suppose these days she might say, “I am not made-up and Photoshopped (and I don’t have a staple in my navel).”
Curtains of Solomon. Of course, we don’t actually know what color the curtains of Solomon might have been. But she is saying that she is ruddy, and I doubt that described anything in Solomon’s palace. Fox thinks that this is not ‘Solomon,’ but an Arab tribe known as ‘Salmah’ (same consonantal text as Solomon), and these are not curtains but tents. Who knows?
Kedar is the name of a tribe, and incidentally means, “dark.”
The Christian interpretation of this is clear enough, I suppose. We are all black (in our falling short of God's intentions for us), but God can see past that to a beauty that is sometimes only visible to him. Like the story's heroine, our blackness may not be absolute (most of us compare favorably to Heinrich Himmler or Genghis Khan) but all of us are dark nonetheless. Fortunately, he is ready to forgive, allowing us to come to him and him to receive us.
6 Look not upon me, that I am swarthy,
    That the sun hath tanned me;
My mother’s sons were incensed against me,
    They made me keeper of the vineyards;
    But mine own vineyard have I not kept.’
My mother’s sons (I am convinced that Dad is gone, so they are the masters of the house/business), do not yet see her as ready for courting, so they put her to work. The result is that she could not keep herself properly beautified. This is not an exercise issue—she is obviously getting plenty of that.
Vineyard(s). Fox sees in this a reference to her feminine nature and compares 8.12. The vineyards she assigned to tend are in the natural, but the one she has neglected is herself.
There may be a natural vs. personal dichotomy in the text, but this passage must come alive for many of us who have been given responsibility to care for other's spiritual lives. We are often like the parents who tells the child, “Do as I say, not as I do,” not realizing that what they are actually teaching is what they do much more than what they say. Tend your own garden first, not just because your own children (physical or spiritual) know hypocrisy when they see it, but because what you teach is first and foremost who you are.
7 Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth,
    Where thou feedest,
    where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon;
For why should I be as one that veileth herself
    Beside the flocks of thy companions?
She needs to know where he is so she doesn’t wander around looking for him.
One that veileth herself. E.g. a prostitute, who might have frequented the men out working (compare Tamar & Judah).
If thou know not, O thou fairest among women,
    Go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock
And feed thy kids,
    beside the shepherds’ tents.
He turns her question around. She should know where he ‘feeds’ (sexual circumlocution). If she can’t figure it out, maybe she should take her ‘kids’ (we might say, ‘ladies’—the same word is used in parallel with ‘breasts’ in v. 14) out with the shepherds.
Some interpreters (e.g. NIV) give this verse to the chorus. I am not sure the chorus is that complementary.
9 I have compared thee, O my love,
    To a steed in Pharaoh’s chariots.
She is not really being compared to a horse, per se. Note in vs. 10 that she is all gussied up, like one of Pharaoh’s prize mares. These are not war chariots. Evidence indicates that stallions were used for that (one battle technique was to release an in-heat mare in among the enemy cavalry, creating havoc [mentioned in a description of the battle of Kadesh during the reign of Tutmoses III]). These would be among the finest most beautiful horses in the world.
10 Thy cheeks are comely with circlets,
    Thy neck with beads.
11 We will make thee circlets of gold
    With studs of silver.


While the king sat at his table,
    My spikenard sent forth its fragrance.
The king sat at his table Better: ‘the king is on his couch.’ The ‘couch,’ as we see in vss. 16f, is a bed of boughs.
My spikenard Of course, this could refer to the scent of her own excitement (they are ‘making out’), but more likely it refers to him. In the next verse she says he is, “a sachet of myrrh.”
13 My beloved is unto me as a bag of myrrh,
    That lieth betwixt my breasts.
Synonymous parallelism. He is myrrh between her breasts, and henna in ‘the vineyards of Ein Gedi.’ The latter may be a reference to the same place, although it could refer to a location lower on her anatomy. Ein Gedi (the geographical place) is a luxurious oasis nestled in a ravine.
In any case, she could be comparing him to an actual spice pack that she wears between her breasts (as a sort of perfume), or simply saying that he will spend the night there. If I am right in thinking they don’t actually get intimate until ch. 7 or 8, the former would be more likely. We have already seen the possible feminine connotation of “vineyard,” and Ein Gedi could also be translated, “the fountain of my good fortune.” I am not inclined to make much of that, but 4.12 where ‘fountain’ can be connected with her sexuality.
The Ein (‘ayn) can mean ‘eye’ or ‘fountain.’ The latter is the more likely intention in the place name, and if the underlying meaning is significant here, I think it is right in this context as well. Gedi (gǝdy) in the place name means ‘a kid’ (young goat), but the consonantal text could take us far afield: (good) fortune, and coriander. I only mention this is this possibility because the author seems quite comfortable with double meanings hidden in linguistic ambiguity.
“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” (2 Cor. 2.15, NIV). His presence in us creates a different nature. The more we wear that nature, the more noticeable it is to those around us. Some appreciate it more than others—just like perfume.
14 My beloved is unto me as a cluster of henna
    In the vineyards of En-gedi.
Behold, thou art fair, my love;
    behold, thou art fair;
    Thine eyes are as doves.
Eyes are (as) doves. E.g. soft and gentle.
Behold, thou art fair, my beloved,
    yea, pleasant;
    Also our couch is leafy.
Also our couch is leafy Literally, “Our bed is fresh.” In Amos 6.4 this is a luxuriant couch on which the wealthy dine. But I think JPS is seeing the metaphor correctly. It is fresh because it is boughs, grass, or moss.
The beams of our houses are cedars,
    And our panels are cypresses.
Cedars…cypresses. Not a description of construction materials, but of where they are: at the edge of, or in, the woods.

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