Song of Songs

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Approaches to the Book

This book is known by two different titles in English, either “The Song of Songs” or “The Song of Solomon.” Both of these come from the book’s superscription, which translated literally is “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” In the Jewish tradition, the book is known by its Hebrew title, šir ha-širim, that is, “The Song of Songs,” a construction that expresses the superlative: “The most beautiful of songs” (GNT) or “Most Excellent Love Song” (NET).

In the Hebrew canon, Song of Songs is located in the third division designated as the Writings. It is one of the subgroup of five books known as the Megilloth and is read at Passover (the other four are Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther). In the Christian Old Testament, the book is located between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah.

There are two main ways the Song of Songs has been interpreted over the centuries.

1. Since the early twentieth century, most Bible commentaries have analyzed and discussed the plain meaning of the book as a collection of poems that express love and sexual desire between a man and a woman. Within this category, there are a variety of approaches.

(a) Because the poems are primarily speeches or dialogues between the two lovers, some interpreters view the book as a drama with either two or three main characters and a plot. Dramatic interpreters often locate the plot and characters in the time of Solomon and identify one of the characters as King Solomon himself.
(b) Some Christian interpreters who seek a way to apply the love poems may interpret the poems as expressions of the ideal love that occurs within heterosexual marriage. They may even interpret the book as a kind of marriage manual.
(c) Other interpreters argue that the woman and man are neither married nor engaged, and, consequently, they focus on the experience of sexual desire, rather than on the ideal of marital love. Many of the poems reflect a situation of separation, where the two lovers are kept apart, and in one poem, violence is used upon the woman. Interpreters who take this approach may discuss negative aspects related to human love and sexuality.

When this approach to the book is followed, the Song of Songs becomes a source for theological reflection, especially in theologies of embodiment. It also serves as a scriptural source for ethical reflection on marriage and human sexuality.

2. Before the Enlightenment, interpreters looked beyond the plain meaning of the poems to arrive at allegorical or figural interpretations of the poems. Jewish allegorical interpretations viewed the male as God and the female as the people of Israel, and the poems portray the love of God for the covenant people of Israel. In Christian allegorical interpretations of Song of Songs, the male lover of the poems is usually identified as Christ. The female lover of the poems is identified as the church, the individual believer, or Mary, Jesus’ mother (who represents the church or the ideal believer). Anabaptists in the premodern period usually identified the man as Jesus and the woman as the church or the individual believer. In the premodern period and continuing into the modern period, the imagery and language of the Song of Songs have served as a source for music and visual art and for devotional and mystical writing (see “The Text in the Life of the Church” in Bucher, which discusses these uses of the Song).


Song of Songs provides Christians a biblical text that relates to human sexuality, physical and emotional desire, the body, and beauty—topics that are mostly absent from much of the Bible. Human experience is embodied experience, and Song of Songs challenges readers to consider the full range of human experiences, including sexual desire and physical attraction to another human being. It recognizes the strength and power of human desire. It also acknowledges the pain that can accompany love, when, for example, lovers are kept apart.

Christian readers tend to respond in one of two ways to the Song of Songs. Readers who expect to find biblical texts relating directly to God are often dismayed to discover poetry that expresses human sexual desire. Other readers are pleased to find one biblical book that celebrates the human experience of love and sexual desire. Viewing human sexuality as a key aspect of human nature, this second group believes the Bible should contain texts that pertain to fundamental human experiences.

Date and Authorship

Before the nineteenth century, most readers identified King Solomon as the author of this collection of poems. Solomonic authorship would mean a tenth-century BCE date for the book. There are several details that support the theory of Solomonic authorship:

1. The book’s superscription can be understood to attribute authorship to Solomon.
2. References within the poems reflect the wealth and luxury of a royal court.
3. 1 Kings 4:32-33 identifies Solomon as a composer of songs.
4. The book contains references to Solomon by name and to an unnamed king.

Additional internal evidence, however, supports a different view of authorship and a later date.

1. Linguistic evidence suggests a date in the sixth or fifth centuries BCE, either for the book or for certain poems within the book. This linguistic dating thus rules against Solomonic authorship for the book as a whole.
2. The superscription may be interpreted to mean that the book is dedicated to Solomon or is written in the tradition of Solomon.
3. The Solomon of the poems never speaks of himself as subject. References to Solomon in the book are in the third person.
4. Additionally, it can be argued that the poems use Solomon as an object lesson of what love is not. Solomon was a wealthy king who had many wives. The Song of Songs proposes that love is neither defined by quantity (the number of lovers) nor by wealth. (See the essay “King Fiction” in Bucher.)

Form and Literary Features

The Hebrew title 'šir ha-širim, The Song of Songs—meaning “the best song” or “the most beautiful song”—suggests that the eight chapters of this book are best understood as a single, unified work. Yet it is difficult to identify a single unifying theme or plot. This leads some scholars to view the book as a collection of love poems that is more like an anthology than a single poem.

The poems themselves can be identified generally as “lyric” poems, rather than dramatic or narrative. As lyrics, the poems of this book express the inner life of an individual who is in love and who faces obstacles to the fulfillment of that love (see Linafelt).

One distinctive genre is that of a “descriptive inventory,” usually referred to by the Arabic term waṣf. Four poems in the book describe the physical features of the beloved in a type of inventory, listing the physical attributes from the head to the feet or from the feet to the head. Three of the descriptive inventories are descriptions of the woman. In one, the woman praises the physical attributes of the man. Through these inventories, the audience is drawn into the poetry by being encouraged to visualize the beloved for themselves. The imagery used in the descriptive inventories is difficult for modern readers who assume the comparisons are physical comparisons. It is better to take the descriptions as in some way revealing the beloved’s character and as a rhetorical device to draw the audience into the joyful experience of the two lovers. The descriptive inventories resemble the Greco-Roman rhetorical feature of ekphrasis, in which an author uses vivid language to bring a scene alive before the eyes of the audience (on this last point, see Dobbs-Allsopp and James).

There are two main speakers: a man and woman, who address each other. Neither is named, although the woman is sometimes referred to as “the Shulammite” (based on 6:13). The woman addresses a group she calls “the Daughters of Jerusalem” (1:5; 2:7; 3:5, 10; 5:8, 16; 8:4). Addressing the Daughters of Jerusalem gives the woman a way to express her innermost feelings. A refrain occurs within these direct addresses: the woman says, “do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!” (2:7; 3:5; 8:4 NRSV). The meaning of the refrain is unclear, but the occurrence of refrains gives the book a sense of coherence.

Another refrain occurs in the mouth of the woman three times (with slight variations) in which she expresses the mutuality of the relationship with her beloved: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (2:16), “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3), and “I belong to my beloved, and his desire is for me” (7:10 NIV).

Settings and Imagery

Imagery in the poems comes from four primary settings:

1. Agricultural imagery from the cultivated land, which is frequently the setting of the couple’s expressions of love: wine, oils, fruit, flowers, gardens, vineyards, orchards, domesticated animals, especially sheep and goats.
2. Imagery related to mountains and wilderness, which is frequently viewed as a dangerous or hostile location: lions, leopards, gazelles, stags.
3. The public square and city streets are linked to violence and opposition.
4. Interior spaces, such as the king’s chamber and the mother’s house, are portrayed as safe spaces for the couple.

Additional imagery is associated with the king and with wealth and abundance: jewelry, precious gems, expensive oils, and ointments. (See “Setting of the Poems” and “Imagery of the Poems” in Bucher, Introduction, and the essay on “Geography.”)

Summary and Comment

Celebrating Love, 1:1-8

The opening poem describes a woman’s desire for her beloved and introduces us to three settings that will recur throughout the following poems: palace, vineyard, and pasture. The woman defends her physical appearance and expresses her desire to find her beloved.

Poems of Admiration and Desire, 1:9–2:7

This unit includes a poem expressing the two lovers’ admiration for each other. Following their expressions of mutual admiration, the woman compares herself to the beauty of the “rose of Sharon” and “lily of the valleys.” The unit concludes with a refrain in which the woman speaks to the Daughters of Jerusalem.

An Invitation to Love, 2:8-17

In this unit, the landscape shifts from a cultivated garden to distant, craggy mountains, and the woman appears unsure of her relationship with her beloved. She seems to push her beloved away and wants to pull him close to her. It is unclear if she wants her beloved to turn toward her or to turn away from her.

Seeking and Finding the Beloved, 3:1-11

The first poem in this chapter explores the theme of “seeking and finding” the beloved. It concludes with another charge directed to the Daughters of Jerusalem. The second poem describes a royal procession and refers to King Solomon.

Describing Beauty, 4:1–5:1

The first of four descriptive inventories (or waṣfs) begins this unit. The man describes his beloved and her effect on him. The unit ends with a refrain that affirms love.

Seeking the Beloved (Again), 5:2–6:3

This unit contains two descriptive poems, a dialogue, and a refrain. The opening poem describes a disturbing experience, either actual or in a dream, in which she responds too late to her beloved’s knock on the door and must go out into the city to search for him. In this second search for her beloved, she encounters violent opposition from city watchmen, who beat her. Following this poem is the second descriptive inventory, in which she describes and celebrates her beloved’s beauty. The unit ends a refrain in which she expresses their mutual belonging.

Overwhelmed by Love, 6:4–7:13

This unit contains the third and fourth descriptive inventories. In both, the man describes his beloved. The woman expresses her desire for the man, and the unit closes with a refrain, the third expression of their mutual belonging.

Love Is Strong as Death, 8:1-14

The concluding chapter contains three short poems, with abrupt transitions between them. Although the chapter contains much that is ambiguous, the poems do express love’s determination, playfulness, and value. What is possibly the best-known poem of the book (8:5-7) expresses the power and profundity of love. The book ends on an ambiguous note, perhaps suggesting that love, although irresistible, cannot be controlled.

Major Themes

Although the book lacks a clear narrative or dramatic plot, it does contain several key themes (see “Major Themes of the Song of Songs” in Bucher, Introduction).

  • The desire to be with one’s beloved
  • Separation from one’s beloved brings pain
  • A lover searches to find the absent beloved
  • Love may meet with external opposition
  • Admiration for the beloved
  • Mutuality within the relationship
  • Celebration of human sexual desire
  • Human love and desire can be overpowering

Conclusion and the Anabaptist Tradition

This book of poetry has a wide range of interpretations. On the one hand, the allegorical and figural interpretations have contributed to the language and imagery in hymns, spiritual songs, and devotional writings. On the other hand, the more recent interpretations, which have understood these poems as expressions of human sexual desire, have contributed to theological reflections on embodiment and ethical reflections on sexual ethics and the nature of human sexuality.

Song of Songs has never been a key biblical text for Anabaptists. This does not mean they avoided reading it or viewed it as scandalous. Early Anabaptist writers occasionally quote passages from Song of Songs, usually reading the passages allegorically or figurally. The male lover of the poems is identified as Christ, and the woman as the church or the body of believers.

Several passages appear to have been favorites of early Anabaptist writers.

1. Song 1:2a
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” (NIV)

At least one sixteenth-century Anabaptist relates the kiss of this verse to the gospel message or the Word of God, understood as God’s revelation through both the Scriptures and the Son (Melchior Hofmann: 186). Dirk Philips understands the kiss to be the “holy kiss of peace,” which Christ bestows upon “his congregation” (Philips: 340). Menno Simons draws upon the imagery of the kiss in its Song of Songs context when he writes of Christ, “He would bring us into the chamber of his covenant, kiss us with the lips of His peace, wash us from all uncleanness, and espouse us as his bride” (Simons: 374; a similar translation may be found here).

2. Song 1:4a
“Take me away with you—let us hurry!” (NIV)

Pilgram Marpeck associates this petition with the power of nonviolent love and observes that the experience of love only increases our desire for love:

For in this time we cannot lay claim to the fullness of love with its power to convince. But [we can] follow her path with sincere desire, and mark her footprints and tracks with earnestness, as love pleads with and speaks to love in the Canticle: “Draw me after you and let us make haste” [Song of Sol. 1:4], and never to lose sight of her until we completely possess her in that day with Christ. (Marpeck: 533).

3. Song 2:10-13
“My beloved spoke to me,
‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.
See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves is heard in our land.
The fig tree forms its early fruit, the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.’” (NIV)

Several sixteenth-century Anabaptists quote all or some portion of Song 2:10-13, which for them envisions a new and hopeful chapter in the story of God’s people (see Simons: 221–22; Marpeck: 524; Philips: 340).

Menno’s use of the text appears in his Foundation of Christian Doctrine, section E, “To the Church of the Lord” (in the Dutch original, this is titled “To the Bride, Kingdom, City, Body and Church of the Lord, to Whom Be Grace and Peace”). The section begins, “The Bridegroom, Christ Jesus, through Solomon addresses his bride, the church, saying, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle [dove] is heard in our land; the fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, by [sic] love, my fair one, and come away. S. of Sol. 2:10-13” (CWMS: 221; a similar translation may be found here).

4. Song 8:6b
“Love is as strong as death” (NIV).

Dirk Philips quotes this passage in the context of Christ’s command that Christians love one another (Philips: 479–80). Menno Simons quotes and elaborates upon Song 8:6-8 to describe the power of love to motivate Christians to serve God (Simons: 339; see a similar translation here).

Recommended Essays in the Commentary

Allegorical and Figural Interpretation
Authorship and Date
History of Interpretation
King Fiction
Love and Desire
Nuptial Imagery in the New Testament


Anabaptist Sources:

  • Hofmann, Melchior. “The Ordinance of God.” In Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, edited by George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal, 184–203. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1957.
  • Marpeck, Pilgram. The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck. Translated and edited by William Klassen and Walter Klaassen. Classics of the Radical Reformation. Kitchener, ON: Herald, 1978.
  • Philips, Dirk. The Writings of Dirk Philips, 1504–1568. Translated and edited by Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy. Classics of the Radical Reformation. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1992.
  • Simons, Menno. The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496–1561. Translated by Leonard Verduin. Edited by John Christian Wenger. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1956.

Secondary Sources:

  • Bucher, Christina, “Song of Songs.” In Lamentations, Song of Songs, by Wilma Ann Bailey and Christina Bucher, 133–303. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald, 2015.
  • Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W., and Elaine T. James. “The Ekphrastic Figure(s) in Song 5:10-16.” Journal of Biblical literature 138 (2019): 297–323.
  • Exum, J. Cheryl. Song of Songs. Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005.
  • Fishbane, Michael. Song of Songs. The JPS Bible Commentary. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2015.
  • Hess, Richard S. Song of Songs. Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.
  • Linafelt, Todd. “Lyrical Theology: The Song of Songs and the Advantage of Poetry.” In Toward a Theology of Eros: Transfiguring Passion at the Limits of Discipline, edited by Virginia Burrus and Catherine Keller, 291–305. Fordham University Press, 2006.
  • Pardes, Ilana. The Song of Songs: A Biography. Lives of Great Religious Books 32. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.
  • Paulsell, Stephanie. “The Song of Songs.” In Lamentations and the Song of Songs, by Harvey Cox and Stephanie Paulsell, 169–279. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012.

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Christina Bucher