Saturday, August 20, 2011

Thoughts on Song of Solomon

I taught Song of Solomon last week and this.  Here are my two lessons, combined.  It's long, sometimes overlaps, and may seem a bit unorganized.  The sources of borrowed material are noted, but I think this could help you if you have to teach it.

Sometimes I feel we get obsessed with the goings on of people 3,000 years ago in a strange mideastern country.  What impact does this have on me?  How can we make it matter to people?  OT must always be kept as background, as explanation, not as foreground.

Solomon is both fascinating and mysterious. We have no background as to when and why he wrote this.

Solomon is not included in the Luke genealogy.  Why?  Mary is descended from Nathan, David’s first son. 

And sons were born to David at Hebron: his firstborn was Amnon, of Ahinoam of Jezreel;
2Sa 3:3  and his second, Chileab, of Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel; and the third, Absalom the son of Maacah the daughter of Talmai king of Geshur, and Tamar (girls not mentioned);
2Sa 3:4  and the fourth, Adonijah the son of Haggith; and the fifth, Shephatiah the son of Abital;
2Sa 3:5  and the sixth, Ithream, of Eglah, David's wife. These were born to David in Hebron.
2Sa 3:6  While there was war between the house of Saul and the house of David, Abner was making himself strong in the house of Saul.

And David took more concubines and wives from Jerusalem, after he came from Hebron, and more sons and daughters were born to David.
2Sa 5:14  And these are the names of those who were born to him in Jerusalem: Shammua, Shobab, Nathan, Solomon,
2Sa 5:15  Ibhar, Elishua, Nepheg, Japhia,
2Sa 5:16  Elishama, Eliada, and Eliphelet.

David paid the price for all this sex.  His oldest son, Amnon, was guilty of incest with his half sister, raped her.  His heart was turned away from God, as God prophesied in Deuteronomy 17:14.  I Samuel 8:6ff.  The people of Israel were given freedom, and they rejected it.  Of course, I am reading this as an American, but we are all waiting for Superman, someone else to solve our problems instead of being obedient and making our own choices. 

I Kings 1:  Story of how David’s sons, spec. Adonijah, wanted to take the kingdom away from him.  He had so many kids from different wives this was bound to happen.   God, I think, wants Solomon to be king despite his lineage (Bathsheba).  Nathan does an endrun and makes sure Solomon is anointed king, while the other sons are trying to take the throne.  The man of God gives the holy approval.  In I Kings 2 we read of how Solomon had to “clean house” and he sounds a bit bloodthirsty in making sure his father’s enemies don’t get a chance to causes uprisings, executing his own brother for wanting one of his father’s concubines (although he didn’t sleep with her).  In fact, Bathsheba, who doesn’t get it, asks this for him.  Solomon knew the law and that such a thing was an abomination, a form of incest. 

Why?  He’s not the first born.  But he isn’t a plotter like the rest of them, and like David at that point in his life he is submissive and wants to honor God, which we don’t see in David's other descendants.  But power went to his head, and that was his choice.  God knows what our choices will be but still lets us take them.  Great mystery to me, to all mankind.  I heard about how 10,000 children are dying in Somalia from starvation.  Why does God let that happen?  Why does man let it happen?  They are dying because of men’s choices.  This free-will/predestination dichotomy will plague us to the end of time.

One of Solomon's names was Jedidiah - beloved of the Lord (2Sa_12:25);

When did he write it?  After backslidings, or before when pure?

Solomon (or the writer) does not identify himself as king, etc. 
the main speaker is the bride and her maidens.  Let me just start by saying that I do not accept allegorical interpretations of the Bible, except where it clearly says, this is an allegory (Galatians.)  Most Bible commentators will do that with SOS.  I am more concerned what it meant to the Jews before Christ.  

It was read to Jewish people on feast days, along with Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations (interesting combination.  What does that say about post exilic Jews?  Where they came from, how they were preserved, how they should focus their lives in a diverse society, and to remember their sin.  SofS--love of God for Israel.

Song of Songs means highest of all.  Mother of all songs.  He wrote 1005 of them, this is the best.  But my question is whether this is a description of Solomon with a real girl or a fictional king reaching out to a shepherdess.  Since we have no record of him marrying a Shulamite (what is that, woman from Shula? She isn't called this until 6:13.  It appears to be a feminine form of Solomon, like Patricia for Patrick)

Some reject Solomon as author, but it names him several times, it references the kingdom before it's divided by Jeroboam, and it has all kinds of royal images. Jewish tradition dates it before his profligacy. 

God's name is not mentioned, as in Esther.  It is very Jewish and middle eastern in all its images and metaphors, so some of it wouldn't be romantic for us.  Romance as we think of it was not invented until the middle ages anyway.  Love is tied to marriage, period.  Yet it is very sensual.  A woman’s neck like a tower:  strength, straightness, perfection. 

Allegory tries to make every detail of a story have spiritual meaning.  Typology only connects it to the broad outlines.  So, allegory would say every mention of oil or anointing is the Holy Spirit (making consistent interpretation very hard) but typological shows that the purity of the love between the two is a comparison with Christ's love for the church.  Eph. 5:25- makes this valid.  But we don't have to read it just for that, we can enjoy it for itself, just as a love poem. 

One allegorical interpretation says that the Shulamite is the virtuous woman, Solomon is Satan, the shepherd lover is Christ.  This is one of the three-person dialogue views.    Others say Shulamite is the same as Shunemite, and David's last wife was a Shunamite, Abishag, and that's who this is, and that David's last wife became Solomon's wife, but that would have been considered incest and an abomination, so that's weird.  Adonijah's request to marry her after David's death caused Solomon to put him to death ( I Kings 2 :27ff). I would go with the idea it's a feminine of Solomon, because in the ancient world they did that sometime.  It means she is the female counterpart to Solomon.  Spurgeon preached so.  The word only appears once,6:13. This however lends itself to the allegorical, in that we are named after Christ.  I came across some really weird stuff, because once you get allegorical you can't stop.

By the term “sister,” carnal ideas are excluded; the ardor of a spouse’s love is combined with the purity of a sister’s   Sister could also refer to her being of his own people. 

Significant references to smell.  Smell is arousing; it also covers bad stuff.  Frankinscence and myrrh related to birth and death of Christ.  This is where commentators get all kind of interpretations.

Three person dialogue; four person dialogue; two person. 
Solomon and Shulamite.  Solomon, Shulamite, daughters of Jerusalem.  Solomon, shulamite, her shepherd lover, daughters of Jerusalem.   Some add a fifth speaker, God.  Or the Shullamite's brothers.  

Is this a good introduction for married couples.  Maybe.  It teaches that the attitude toward sex should be carefree, not a weapon or bargaining chip.  That purity of heart is needed for marriage, a desire for self satisfaction but also more to pleasure the other person.  That sex is for pleasure as well as for babies.  Babies not mentioned here.  That one partner should try hard to say beautiful things about the other, not just take it for granted. 

"The allegorical method...lacks any external justification. The Song gives no indication that it should be read in any but a straightforward way. The discovery and publication of formally similar love poetry from modern Arabic literature as well as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia signaled the end of the allegorical approach to the text, but left the church with a number of questions about the theological meaning of the Song. The Song serves an important canonical function with its explicit language of love. Allegorization in early times arose from the belief that such a subject was unsuitable for the Holy Scriptures."  Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology.

John MacArthur says that two springs ae mentioned, The first spring appears in Song 2:11-13 and the second in Song 7:12.  This is based on what is blooming. 

Abrupt changes in speaker make for difficult interpretation.  Also parallelism. 

Harry Ironside in his Addresses on the Song of Solomon gives the following background based on the book...

King Solomon had a vineyard in the hill country of Ephraim, about 50 miles N of Jerusalem, Song 8:11. He let it out to keepers, Song 8:11, consisting of a mother, two sons, Song 1:6, and two daughters—the Shulamite, Song 6:13, and a little sister, Song 8:8. The Shulamite was "the Cinderella" of the family, Song 1:5, naturally beautiful but unnoticed. Her brothers were likely half brothers, Song 1:6. They made her work very hard tending the vineyards, so that she had little opportunity to care for her personal appearance, Song 1:6. She pruned the vines and set traps for the little foxes, Song 2:15. She also kept the flocks, Song 1:8. Being out in the open so much, she became sunburned, Song 1:5.

One day a handsome stranger came to the vineyard. It was Solomon disguised. He showed an interest in her, and she became embarrassed concerning her personal appearance, Song 1:6. She took him for a shepherd and asked about his flocks, Song 1:7. He answered evasively, Song 1:8, but also spoke loving words to her, 1:8-10, and promised rich gifts for the future, Song 1:11. He won her heart and left with the promise that some day he would return. She dreamed of him at night and sometimes thought he was near, Song 3:1. Finally he did return in all his kingly splendor to make her his bride, Song 3:6-7.3 (H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the Song of Solomon, pp. 17-21, summarized by Merrill Unger, Unger's Bible Handbook, pp. 299-300)  

 But is this a way of making it like the second coming, or Cinderella?

Dennis Kinlaw has a helpful discussion of language issues which contribute to the difficulty modern commentators have in discerning the meaning of this love poem...

Several problems confront the modern reader in the study of the text of the Song of Songs that make certainty in understanding and interpretation difficult to achieve. One of these is the matter of language.

Ancient Hebrew is a primitive tongue. The syntax is quite different from ours. Verb tenses are different so that time sequences are more difficult to establish. Word order can raise problems. There is an economy of language that can be tantalizing. And then it is poetry. There is a succinctness of style that makes it almost telegraphic. The result is that the text is often more suggestive than delineative, more impressionistic than really pictorial. Much is left to the imagination of the reader rather than spelled out for the curious modern, who wants to know the specific meaning of every detail.

Added to the preceding problems is that of vocabulary. In 117 verses there is an amazing number of rare words, words that occur only in the Song of Songs, many only once there, or else that occur only a handful of times in all the rest of the corpus of the OT. There are about 470 different words in the whole Song. Some 50 of these are hapax legomena (words only used once in a text). Since use is a major way of determining the meaning of words in another language, the result is that we are often uncertain as to the exact meaning of key terms and phrases.

Another problem is that the imagery used was a normal part of a culture that is very different from our modern world. The scene is pastoral and Middle Eastern. So the references to nature, birds, animals, spices, perfumes, jewelry, and places are not the normal vocabulary of the modern love story. The associations that an ancient culture gives to its vocabulary are difficult, if not impossible, for us to recapture. The list of plants and animals is illustrative: figs, apples, lilies, pomegranates, raisins, wheat, brambles, nuts, cedar, palms, vines, doves, ravens, ewes, sheep, fawns, gazelles, goats, lions, and leopards. So is that of spices and perfumes: oils, saffron, myrrh, nard, cinnamon, henna, frankincense, and aloes. The place names carried connotations some of which are undoubtedly lost to us: Jerusalem, Damascus, Tirzah, En Gedi, Carmel, Sharon, Gilead, Senir, and Heshbon. We understand the overtones of "bedroom," but when the lover refers to "the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside" (Song 2:14), to gardens, parks, fields, orchards, vineyards, or valleys, we are aware that the places of rendezvous were different for lovers in that world than in ours.

The terms of endearment cause us problems. The metaphors used are often alien. When the lover likens his beloved to a mare in the chariot of Pharaoh (Song 1:9), we are surprised. "Darling among the maidens" (Song 2:2) or even "dove" (Song 2:14; 5:2; 6:9) is understandable, or "a rose of Sharon" (Song 2:1). "A garden locked up" (Song 4:12), "a sealed fountain" (Song 4:12), "a wall" (Song 8:9, 10), "a door" (Song 8:9), "beautiful … as Tirzah" (Song 6:4), and "lovely as Jerusalem" (Song 6:4) are not our normal metaphors of love. Nor are our heroine's references to her lover as "an apple tree" (Song 2:3), "a gazelle" (Song 2:9, 17), "a young stag" (Song 2:9, 17), or "a cluster of henna" (Song 1:14).

To further complicate matters, it is not always certain who is speaking. One of the most difficult tasks is to determine who the speaker is in each verse. It is not even completely clear as to how many speakers there are. Our best clues are grammatical. Fortunately, pronominal references in Hebrew commonly reflect gender and number. In some cases, however, the masculine and the feminine forms are the same. (Gaebelein, F, Editor: Expositor's Bible Commentary OT 7 Volume Set: Books: Zondervan Publishing)

There are three common interpretations, or directions for how we should read Canticles, or the Song of Solomon.  The first one is:

 The literal approach.  It is a love poem between a man and a woman according to the Middle Eastern culture.  It celebrates marital love and sexuality.  This is the most direct interpretation, but doesn’t explain why it is in the Bible.  The name of God does not appear in the book.  “The name of God is not mentioned in the Song. The principal characters are Solomon, the King in Jerusalem, the Shulamite maiden, and the Daughters of Jerusalem, ladies of the royal court. Without the Presence of God implied in the story it is hard for a reader to imagine the transforming, redemptive, and transcendent course of the story as it unfolds”  ( 
Sidlow Baxter observes that those who take the literal approach...rightly understand the book to be an historical record of the romance of Solomon with a Shulammite woman. The “snapshots” in the book portray the joys of love in courtship and marriage and counteract both the extremes of asceticism and of lust. The rightful place of physical love, within marriage only, is clearly established and honored. Within the historical framework, some also see illustrations of the love of God (and Christ) for His people. Obviously Solomon does not furnish the best example of marital devotion, for he had many wives and concubines (140 at this time, Song 6:8; many more later, 1 Kings 11:3). The experiences recorded in this book may reflect the only (or virtually the only) pure romance he had. (J. Sidlow Baxter. Explore the Book)
Criswell notes that some who take the literal approach go a bit too far and...maintain that the poem is therefore merely a secular love song expressing human romantic love at its best without spiritual lesson or theological content. They value the Song only as a divine sanction upon marital love and a timely warning against perversions of marriage popular in Solomon's time. However, there is also the option that the poem is a vital expression in frank but pure language of the divine theology of marriage as expressed in the love between husband and wife in the physical area, setting forth the ideal love relationship in monogamous marriage. Even the most intimate and personal human love is according to divine plan and as such is bestowed by God Himself (cf. Ge 2:18-25; Mt 19:4-6). The richest and best of human love is only a foretaste of the matchless, greater love of God. In this book, the scarlet thread of redemption is revealed, as man, through seeing and experiencing the purity and holiness of earthly love in marriage, gains a better and clearer understanding of the eternal, heavenly love of Christ for His church.
This is the preferable way to study the Song of Solomon, in my opinion, but my opinion is just that.  Many people disagree.

The allegorical approach.  This means that it is interpreted as the relationship between Christ and the Church.  Everything in the book gets read as something in the gospel story.  The problem with allegorical interpretations is that anybody can come up with his or her own interpretation.  The problem with allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon is that there is no mention of Jesus, the gospel, or the church that would make this a reasonable way to read it.  However, many, many Christian leaders have interpreted it this way.  Also, it is interpreted as the relationship between Israel and God.  If one takes the allegorical approach, that is the only way it can be interpreted.

The typological approach.  A student of the Bible can use this method of interpretation and the literal.  “The NT authors repeatedly make the point that the OT is a true foreshadowing of the ministry of the Lord Jesus. I do not hear a great deal of preaching today in which the types are stressed... I do think it is important and is something to which we ought to pay careful attention. It is part of "old fashioned" preaching of the Word of God and it encourages us in our doctrines of inspiration and atonement, as we see the way in which the Old Testament pictured the coming of Christ long before He came.... Part of the preaching of the Word of God involves laying a stress on Old Testament as a revelation of God that points forward to the Lord Jesus.”  

“I see a type as being a premeditated resemblance which God has built into the Bible and history to illustrate and teach truth---to make it easier to grasp than if it were only stated in prosaic and propositional terms. It is a kindness of God to stir our minds and imagination by the use of types --to make an unforgettable impress. I see it as God's way of "putting his brand on our brain" so that we cannot escape the impact of truth. (Smith, Bob: Basics of Bible Interpretation)

So, it is all right to see physical objects and actions in the Old Testament as pointing to Christ.  The tabernacle is a good example:  each item had a place in Jewish worship, and it symbolized a spiritual truth about redemption.  The Song of Solomon does point to the beauty of love.

So, I am going to explicate Song of Solomon here with two things in mind:
  1.  It is not allegorical, but typological; there’s more here than just a sexual love poem about Solomon put in the Bible to prove he was a great writer and collector of poetry.  The characters and their actions do not, however, match up point by point with the gospel story, so Solomon is not Christ (not even his genetic descendant).
  2. There are four speakers:  Solomon, or the beloved; the Shulamite; the daughters of Jerusalem; her brothers; and perhaps at one point, God as a fifth.

Where is Solomon in his life?  While commentators (conservative ones) would like to portray him here as never married, maybe not in the position of king yet (not referred to in the title), 6:9 implies that at the time he had 60 queens and 80 concubines as well as other women in his harem.  Maybe this is his only real love among all those arranged marriages.  Maybe those were part of a wedding procession from another country.  We’ll never know.  It’s easy to whitewash this.  If you insist on seeing Solomon as a Christ figure in an allegory, you’re going to run into trouble here.  While the Shulamite works well as the church, Solomon does not work well as a Christ figure.  I further don’t see where commentators get the love triangle between the good shepherd, the Shulamite, and the evil king who wants to take her away.  That’s too much of a fairly tale, like the Cinderella interpretation.  Solomon does not come off well either way.  But really the book is less about Solomon than the Shulamite anyway.  It’s all from her perspective, which is refreshing.  A woman enjoying sex and being honest about it!

And this says something to me.  We can get caught up in so many theological disputes and interpretational conflicts, but we know one thing:  God loves us and did everything possible to bring us into his banqueting house and put his banner of love over us.  The main theme here, I really believe, is LOVE AS PROTECTION.  In our hyper individualistic culture, we don’t want to see Love as Protection, we want to see it as mutual choice between two equal persons, but the whole point here is that the Beloved protects her in a loving relationship.

As I said last week, the grammar in Hebrew lets us know who is speaking (male or female) and to whom (male or female).  So in 1:4, “I will run after you” the you is male; in “We will be glad in you” you is female.  In 1:2 your is male; in v. 4, “your love more than wine” your is masculine. 

The Daughters of Jerusalem can be thought of as the women of Solomon’s court, or virgins.

In 1:5-6, we see the Shulamite’s situation in life.  She is humble, perhaps in the wrong way.  Diminished and not valued.  We can talk about having self-esteem based in God, but we have a responsibility to help God do that.  Build people up, edify, by reminding them they are loved and that God has given them good qualities.  That is what marriage is supposed to do, but in living with someone we spend more time tearing down.  Good marriages build up. 

1:14 – En Gedi is an oasis.

In 2:1 and following the Shulamite  is now loved and thinks and says better things about herself.  If we follow a strict plot here, with 3:1 being the marriage, then they are having sex before the marriage.  I don’t think we are supposed to take this as strict chronological plot, but as general progression.  Or we can just see them as making love before marriage.  Not only that, they “do it” in the wild.  The other idea is that Solomon is slumming it, in disguise, going to pick up chicks, and that she doesn’t know who he is until the third chapter when he comes as the bride.  That is too literal; this is poetry and not supposed to be taken like a newspaper account.   She says in 2:4:  He brought me into his banqueting house… So she knows he is the king early on.  Again, this is overlapping time sequences of poetry, not a novel. 

v. 2:7 is repeated three times.  Why?  And what does it mean?  It serves as a closing thought to three sections, 1-2:7, 2:8-3:5, and 3:6-8:4.  It could mean “don’t force love, let it happen (sort of like all romantic comedies); or “do not get sexually involved until it is appropriate” or one interpretation is “don’t interrupt sex” but that one doesn’t really fit.  “Stir up” is “arouse, awaken.”  I like the “don’t push it” interpretation, either way.  Sexuality is powerful and must stay within boundaries.  We have totally lost all sense of boundaries and appropriateness with sexual activity and expression.  Our culture acts like animals.  No wonder the Middle Eastern Muslim people think we are pagans!

The Shulamite has two disturbing dreams, 3:1-5 and 5:2 and following.  The first one ends with Solomon coming to get her for the wedding, which is the Middle Eastern way. 

The more I read it, the more I like the metaphors.  I see them as being very apt.  Another issue that might disturb Americans is that in chapter 4 he calls her his “sister, spouse.”  But most of Solomon’s “women” were foreign, and the Shulamite is Jewish.  So she is a kinswoman, may even be of the tribe of Judah, so it’s sister in the distant or metaphorical sense. 

4:12 presents a very sexual image but also a psychological one.  The lover who opens her “body” through sex will also open her soul through such intimacy. 

5:1b:  One Bible translation has this being said by God, not by a human.  It’s a nice idea, but hard to conclude anything about. 

In 7:1 there  is some very strong sexual imagery.

The climax of this really short book is 8:6-7.  Is jealousy a bad thing?  Not in the Bible.  We see it as bad because guys stalk old girlfriends, and it seems to imply a lack of trust in a relationship.  That’s true, but jealousy equals expectation of exclusivity.  One and only and that’s protected.  Because we are sinful humans we get it wrong, but God doesn’t.  This verse shows the good and bad of jealousy.  Cruel, severe, and hard as the grave, like fire.  But love and jealousy are connected, and no amount of water can quench it. 

Closing thoughts:

Love is protection; jealousy is not always bad; human love is a reflection of God’s love (but imperfect); sex is good; women should enjoy it as much as men; sexual intimacy grows in intensity; marriage should be a place of mutual edification (rarely is); appropriate praise will help another open up and grow; love doesn’t die.  And it’s ok to enjoy literature without spiritualizing it!

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