“She loves me, yeah, yeah, yeah…”“Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer…”“She’s my, brown-eyed girl, sha la la la la… la ti da”
I know you heard a melody. Maybe you wanted to hum it. Just a little bit.
These are famous lines from well-known love songs of the modern western world. If you could spend a day in ancient Jerusalem, you would have heard people humming lines like these:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine.
Or maybe you know this classic:
My beloved is mine and I am his; he browses among the lilies. Until the day breaks and the shadows flee
And then there’s my favorite:
My beloved is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand. His head is purest gold.
What are love poems doing here?
Alright, all joking aside, these are all lines from the famous love song in the Bible, called the “Song of Songs” or “Song of Solomon.” It’s a collection of ancient Israelite love poetry in your Bible. The poems are exquisite, beautifully crafted, and full of passion. It’s pretty awesome that something like that is in the Bible. But, at the same time, it raises a fascinating question: Why are there eight chapters of ancient love poems in the Bible?
This is a question that has exercised the minds of great Jewish and Christian thinkers for millennia. However, it’s not one of those questions in which “the answer” is readily available. The Song of Songs presents Bible readers with many riddles and wonderful puzzles, and the point, it seems, is not just to solve them with the right answer. Rather, a book like this one invites us into a wonderful world of idyllic gardens and youthful love. It’s a book full of bliss, and unless we let it enchant us and draw us into the wonder of the human experience of love and delight, we are sorely missing the point.
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With that, let’s address a couple issues that will help us understand this book better. First of all, the opening line is: “The song of songs, which is to/for/by Solomon.” The phrase “song of songs” is its Hebrew title, which means “the best song.” That’s not too difficult to understand. But the next part, “to/for/by Solomon” is more intriguing. In Hebrew, the phrase is “le-shlomoh.” The word shlomoh is the name “Solomon” and that single letter “le-” is the Hebrew preposition which most often means “to/for.” In Hebrew, if you wanted to say “Tim’s car,” you would say “the car le-Tim,” literally, “the car that is for/to Tim.” This indicates possession. But the preposition can indicate a much looser relationship as well, as in the phrase “to be told about the Lord” (le-adonai, see Ps 22:31), or even “a friend in connection with David” (le-David, see 1 Kings 5:15).
Even though we know that Solomon was brilliant and really good with words (see 1 Kings 4:29-32), this opening line doesn’t necessarily indicate authorship, as if Solomon wrote the poems. In fact, he almost certainly did not write the book, given that the speaking voice is mostly that of a young woman. When he is mentioned, which is not that much, he’s described in third-person (Song 1:5; 3:7-11; 8:11-12). Additionally, Solomon is simply an odd candidate as the book’s author. The poems celebrate the love between a man and woman, and they are one another's only lover. And Solomon, if you recall, had in the ballpark of 700 wives (political marriages), and an additional harem of 300 women on retainer for his sexual appetite (see 1 Kings 11:1-4). Needless to say, it’s very difficult to imagine him ever writing poetry like we see in this Song.
So, Solomon loved to write, study, and collect knowledge in all sorts of areas, even plant and animal studies. He loved to explore the world around him and observe its patterns. And, as a king who was loaded with wealth, he could sponsor all kinds of writing projects. We’re told elsewhere about his executive staff team, which included scholars and scribes (1 Kings 4:1-6). This also helps us understand his role as a “royal sponsor” of Israel’s wisdom tradition.
Another biblical book that begins with Solomon’s name is Proverbs, which opens with the words “The Proverbs of Solomon” (Prov 1:1). Now, there’s no reason to think that Solomon isn’t responsible for many of the proverbs and poems in this book, but he’s definitely not the author of the entire book. The book tells us as much! We’re told in 22:17 that we’ve begun reading “the words of the wise ones,” and in 24:23 we read, “these also are the sayings of the wise ones.” So, the book contains literature from Solomon, but also from anonymous sages and scribes in ancient Israel. And even more, the final two chapters of the book name their authors, Agur (Prov 30) and Lemuel (Prov 31). So even with Solomon’s name at its head, it doesn’t mean Solomon was responsible for all the material in the book of Proverbs, or even for the book itself. Brevard Childs, a Hebrew Bible scholar puts it this way:
The [Song of Songs], along with the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, is related to Solomon as the source of Israel’s wisdom literature. As Moses is the source [though not the only author] of the Torah, and David is the source [though not the author] of the book of Psalms, so is Solomon the father of the wisdom tradition in Israel… The connection of the Song of Songs to Solomon in the Hebrew Bible sets these writings within the context of wisdom literature.
– Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture
Wisdom Literature At Large
Israel’s Wisdom Tradition is the collective voice of Israelite elders who have lived in the fear of the Lord and are now sharing their wisdom on how to live well in the world with the next generation—the purpose of wisdom literature in the Bible. King Solomon would have been the royal sponsor responsible for aggregating and presenting this wisdom in the finished works we see in Hebrew and Christian Bibles.
If you think about the kinds of human experience that fall under “living well,” my hunch is that relationships and marriage would make it onto your short list of “really important things to learn about.” Love and relationships are two of the most basic human experiences, and we should not be surprised to find that an entire book of the Bible’s wisdom literature is dedicated to these topics. Actually, it's not only found in the Song of Songs, but the book of Proverbs has a number of poems celebrating the passion and physical intimacy between a man and woman (see Prov 5:15-23). The imagery and language of this poem is very similar to what you find in the Song of Songs, which should not surprise us. If the purpose of this biblical literature is to educate us in how to think wisely and well about the many aspects of life in God’s design, it makes all the sense in the world why an entire book would be dedicated to celebrating the goodness of love. Again, Brevard Childs puts it this way:
Israel’s sages sought to understand through reflection the nature of the world and human experience in relation to the Creator… The Song is wisdom’s reflection on the joyful and mysterious nature of love between a man and a woman within marriage. – Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture
Love is as strong as death, its passion unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.
If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.
More than Romance
Another noticeable feature of this book, is the pervasive use of garden imagery. From the first page, “My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of Engedi” (Song 1:14), to the last, O you who dwell in the gardens, with companions listening for your voice; let me hear it. Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices (Song 8:13-14).
This book is simply permeated with images and scenes of garden love, as the lovers chase and play and embrace each other in poem after poem. What is going on here? There is only one other story in the Bible that places two lovers in a garden, and that’s pages 1-2 of the book of Genesis. We’re told there that the man and woman were “naked and felt no shame” (Gen 2:24-25), and that the two became one. The garden of Eden is an image of human love—relationships as they were meant to be. It’s the ideal image, and the Song of Songs explores both the potential and the wonder of such a relationship. Hebrew Bible scholar Tremper Longman, author of an excellent commentary on the Song of Songs, fashions this idea in the following:
What is a book like the Song of Songs doing in the Bible? Without the Song we would be left with only spare and often negative words about a reality that is crucial to the human experience: love and sex. God in his wisdom has spoken through the poet of the Song to both encourage and warn us about the unquenchable power of love and desire. The Song celebrates the joy of physical touch, the exhilaration of exotic scent, the sweet sound of a lover’s voice, and the taste of another’s lips. The Song is a divine affirmation of love and an acknowledgement of the pain that often accompanies it. – Tremper Longman, The Song of Songs
The Song of Songs is a unique book in the Bible that offers a unique gift. It’s a playful and beautiful exploration of one of the most powerful and potent human experiences: love and sexual passion. This book of Israelite love poetry lets us peer back into Eden, and we find there an ideal that very few people ever truly experience. For those who do experience it in their own marriages, it’s often fleeting, just as love is for the man and woman in these poems. In this way, the poems both affirm human love, but also show how it is itself only a pointer to something more grand and more sublime. The book never mentions God’s love, but all the links back to the garden of Eden make the point by themselves. Who is the author of life and human experience? And who, therefore, is the author of this powerful experience we call “love?” It’s none other than the Author of all reality, who has given humans a great gift and responsibility in our bodies, minds and hearts when it comes to sexual love.
It must be stewarded and nurtured and recognized for what it is: a gift from God! And, there’s a whole book of the Bible to make the point, in case we ever forget it.