Solomon’s love song

When we think of Solomon there are probably two things that come quickly to mind. We think of his wisdom, which he asked God for, and we think of his wealth. We might also remember that he built the first temple for the glory and worship of God.

What often does not come to mind was that he was a prolific writer and in particular, a writer of Hebrew poetry. We have recorded that “He composed 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs. He produced manuals on botany, describing every kind of plant, from the cedars of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows on walls. He also produced manuals on biology, describing animals, birds, insects, and fish” (1 Kings 4:32-33 NET). Sadly, we don’t have most of these writings preserved.

Three of Solomon’s writings are recorded for us in scripture: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. One of the Psalms is also identified as being written by him (Psalm 72). It is thought that Solomon wrote the “Song of Solomon” when he was younger, “Proverbs” in mid-life, and “Ecclesiastes” as an old man. The content of these books seem to bear this out.

The “Song of Solomon” may be entitled the “Song of Songs” in your version of the Bible. Both titles are based on the first verse which describes it as “Solomon’s Most Excellent Love Song” (NET) or “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” (ESV). Both point to this as being the best of the songs which Solomon composed.

For many, Song of Solomon is a strange book because it is a love poem. It expresses the joy and love of a bride and her groom. That an entire book of the Bible would deal with the physical love of two people has mystified some people and they have sought to make this book an allegory between Jesus and his people, while some Jews interpreted it as an allegory of the love of God for Israel.

This short book is in the form of an idyllic drama. To make better sense of the book, it is useful to use a modern translation, which identifies who is “speaking” each part (in Hebrew it is easier to tell who is speaking because the words used often indicate number and gender). There are three main ‘characters’: the bride, her groom, and a ‘chorus’.

The bride is referred to as “Shulamith,” which may mean “daughter of peace,” or may be a reference to where she was from. The bride may be the daughter of Pharaoh, who seems to have been Solomon’s first wife, although the description given doesn’t necessarily match someone from Egypt. The setting of this poem is pastoral and seems to be in the spring, with many images of the countryside of Israel.

In later Judaism, this book is read at Passover, possibly to present a contrast of tender love with the time of slavery in Egypt. A large sculpted pomegranate with texts from Song of Solomon are still used today in Israel to indicate a synagogue. This seems to come from the mention of pomegranates in the book coupled with the use of pomegranates in the decoration of the temple. There is not a mention of God in this work and, as a result, there has been much debate as to whether we should consider it as part of inspired scripture.

Although many see in this poem the love of Jesus for his bride, perhaps it is better to view it as the love between a married couple. The love we had for our spouse when we were courting is the love that should continue throughout our life. May we continue to show these sentiments in our marriages: “Oh, how beautiful you are, my beloved! Oh, how beautiful you are! Your eyes are like doves! Oh, how handsome you are, my lover! Oh, how delightful you are!” (Song of Solomon 1:15-16)

Photo of pomegranate marking a synagogue underground along the Western Wall, Jerusalem (by Jon Galloway, November 2019).

Readings for next week: 1 Kings 10-11; Psalms 49, 72; Song of Solomon 1-8

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