Volume 45 - Issue 3

The Wisdom of the Song of Songs: A Pastoral Guide for Preaching and Teaching

By Eric Ortlund


This article explores the way in which the Song of Songs instructs its readers in wisdom with regard to romance and marriage. Although neither a straightforward narrative or a simple set of instructions, the poetry of the Song does portray God’s ideal for human love. Special attention is given to the importance of waiting (2:7, 3:5, 8:4), the climactic place of marriage and the subordinate (though still good) role of physical sexuality, the role of the woman, and the non-ultimacy of marriage. The spiritual significance of human romance as a “flame of the Lord” (8:6) is finally discussed with special reference to the sweeping changes in Western sexuality morality in recent decades, and the way in which the Bible’s narrative about love and sexuality is simultaneously more realistic and more beautiful than recent humanly-constructed alternatives. Attention is given throughout to the particular way in which the Song communicates, by adorning and beautifying its subject through poetry, rather than through direct commands.


1. Introduction: The Song of Songs as Wisdom

Are we supposed to learn anything from the Song of Songs? Everyone knows, of course, how beautiful the book is: from the Rabbis to the present day, every book on the Song praises the poetry and the emotions which it expresses.1 What is less clear is how the Song is meant to instruct us—if, in fact, we are supposed to learn anything at all. After reading the passionate speeches of the young couple, the whirlwind of imagery and emotion, the “manic disjunctions and extraordinary imaginary flights,”2 I think one could be forgiven for concluding that the Song intends only to praise romantic love, not teach us about it.3 In fact, with the exception of the famous reflection on love in 8:6–7, the book does not reflect on love as much as express what it feels like from the inside. It is always springtime in the Song of Songs: and as long as the reader lingers, it is springtime for us as well. The experience is lovely, but do we learn anything? Are we supposed to?

If we answer this question in the negative, an odd result follows in which the Song appears at odds within its genre of OT wisdom literature. Wisdom literature as whole is meant to instruct God’s people in the complexities of creation so that we can live under God’s blessing in his world. God has structured created reality such that obeying his commands is one necessary part of realizing his full purpose for human beings, but not enough in itself; God’s people must complement obedience to Torah with skillful engagement with the subtleties of God’s creation in order to fully enjoy God’s blessing. With regard to romance and marriage, for example, not committing adultery (Exod 20:14) is a crucial part of a successful relationship. But there are couples who obey this rule without managing to stay together. Because obedience to commands is not enough—because God has put created life together such that living fruitfully and successfully is a more subtle affair than simply applying rule number 38 to a particular situation—God joins together the imperatives of Torah with wise instruction in how to live skillfully in his world. For example, Proverbs appeals to the son to trust God more than his own instincts about how life words (3:5–8) so that he can find favor with God and man (3:4) in every area of his life, from marriage (ch. 5) to money (3:9–10) to work (10:4–5). The book of Job enlightens readers to God’s larger purpose in allowing suffering for what looks like no reason (1:9, 21), encourages us that God will draw near to us in unique ways in inexplicable suffering (42:6), and promises that such ordeals are always the exception to his good treatment of his children (1:1–3, 42:12–17). Ecclesiastes helps us engage with lives which are over so quickly (12:1–7) and mostly out of our control while we are alive (e.g., 9:11), enabling us to enjoy fully God’s good gift of life (9:7–10) without ignoring the fact that, from an “under the sun,” non-eschatological, this-worldly perspective, our lives are full of futility (1:2–3).

From this perspective, it is natural to expect that the Song, as a piece of OT wisdom, instructs its readers in some way. This essay tries to tease out what instruction the beautiful but confusing poetry of the book has for us—the way in which this inspired book complements Scripture’s crucial imperatives about marriage in the Pentateuch and Proverbs with wise instruction in negotiating the subtleties and complexities of romance, the tumult of emotion, the pain of separation, and so on. In order to hear its teaching, however, we will have to consider briefly the way in which the book communicates.

2. The Hermeneutics of the Song

Francis Landy makes the astute observation that the Song is very difficult to understand if one tries to analyze the text intellectually, but easy to connect with if one engages with the poetry on an emotional level.4 This is in part due to the way in which the Song parachutes us into the subjectivities of the lovers, so that we see the world through their eyes: “we learn about love through what lovers say about it.”5 Narrative clarity is sacrificed for immediacy and intensity; emotional connections are continually made instead of logical ones.6 The young couple is not aware of us, and we listen in on their romance with “an intimacy … which is delightful and embarrassing.”7 The entire world flowers in perpetual blossom for the young couple—and as we read, it does for us as well.

A moment’s reflection will suggest why the book is written in this way. It is crucial that we obey the rules God has set for marriage, but it would be naivete itself to think that negotiating so beautiful and sometimes overwhelming an experience as being in love (“I am sick with love!” [Song 2:5]) is only a matter of applying rules. Because of this, the Song complements Scripture’s imperatives by showing us a romance from the inside in order to help those who have not yet fallen in love prepare for this heady and confusing experience, as well as guiding those already married when our marriages may not reflect God’s ideal as portrayed in the Song. The total effect of the poetry is to simulate within the reader the experience of being in love, letting us experience, through the poetry, an ideal relationship, and thus making us wiser in our own. It is in this way that the Song instructs: not by delivering imperatives, but letting us listen to the music so that we can sing in tune.8

In a section on the hermeneutics of Song of Songs, the reader probably expects a discussion of allegorical readings of the Song; after all, no other book in the Bible has been allegorized so extensively as this one. While I do believe the Song hints that human romance symbolizes a greater spiritual reality, I will leave this to a later section. It seems more obvious to me that the Song intends to make us wise about the exquisite and tumultuous human experience known as “being in love,” and that the larger spiritual reality behind marriage is only discernible if we attend to the book at this literal level.

So what wisdom does the Song have to teach us about sex, romance, and marriage?

3. Do Not Rush Romance

It is very striking that, in a book which adorns romantic love so beautifully, the one repeated refrain tells us in no uncertain terms not to arouse or awaken love until it desires—that we should let love wake up on its own (Song 2:7, 3:5, 8:4). In fact, the kaleidoscopic effect of the poetry causes this repeated refrain to linger in the mind in a way which a string of imperatives would not. And it is crucial that this wisdom should linger with us. After all, without this refrain, it would be natural for young readers to conclude that they should try to fall in love as quickly as possible and enjoy this unspeakably beautiful experience for themselves. But without any way diminishing how wonderful love is, a major element of the wisdom of the Song of Songs instructs us in cautious patience: we should not arouse or awaken love until it desires. Part of the reason for this is that the feelings in romance are so strong that falling in love before one can act on those feelings puts one in a dangerous and painful position. But beyond this pragmatic consideration, our Creator is instructing us in how to wisely engage with this aspect of our existence. We should let the experience happen on its own or not at all.

This repeated refrain (2:7, 3:5, 8:4) is helpful in another way, because it clues us into the intended audience of the book. While married couples can of course turn to the book just as much experienced sages can glean new insights from Proverbs (see Prov 1:5), married couples don’t need to be told to let love wake up on its own. Unmarried people do. This suggests that just as Proverbs 1–9 addresses the son just about to enter adult maturity and responsibility, so the Song should be read before you have the experience it describes, not to hasten it, but to enter it wisely.

4. The Beauty of Love

The Song of Songs teaches us that love and one’s beloved are almost indescribably beautiful. Even when the imagery jars modern readers (such as the neck like a tower in 4:49), who can resist the young woman’s eyes like doves behind her veil (4:1), her lips like a scarlet thread (v. 3), her breasts like fawns (v. 5)? The young man happily confesses that he’s completely captivated (v. 9), and we are, too.10 Elsewhere, the couple speaks of each other in royal terms: she sees him as a king (1:4), even though he’s a lowly shepherd (1:8); he distinguishes her above queens and concubines (6:8), fearsome as an army with banners (6:10). Love royalizes an ordinary couple.

Readers may be rolling their eyes at this point. Surely we already know love is beautiful? Do we really need a revelation from on high to instruct us on this point? Well, in a word, yes, and any couple who has been married for any amount of time knows why. It doesn’t take long in marriage for the early ardours of the relationship to settle into more comfortable patterns. That is doubtless a good thing—who could live at that pitch of intensity for long? But most couples know that familiarity in marriage breeds not contempt but (what is almost worse) invisibility. The delightful echo of mutual beholding in 1:15–16—“Behold, you’re beautiful, my darling!” “Behold, you’re beautiful, my love!”—fades into the past until not even an echo remains. The sharp, fascinating freshness of just looking into her face … we don’t see it anymore.

The Song is not teaching us to try to stay in the early stages of romance forever. As we’ll see below, the Song depicts a maturing relationship in which the partners marry, begin a new life together, and grow in their relationship. But the Song does instruct us that those early ardours need not be lost, and that God’s ideal for married couples is never to lose that captivation with each other (4:9). In so doing, the Song confronts one of the sadder mistakes of our own culture: the idea that the early stages of romance are the best and that marriage inevitably dulls a relationship. (Almost all of our romantic comedies focus on the early chapters in a love story and end at a marriage, if they reach that point at all; the coverage of the Song is instructively different.11) The wild emotion of the poetry, and the way in which the book makes us immediately present to the lovers, continually urges us to makes the Song’s poetry our own. The intent is not to discourage us by exposing the sometimes-depressing distance between the ecstasies of the couple in the text and our boredom in marriage, but to encourage each couple that they can, genuinely if imperfectly, embody God’s ideal for human romance in their own marriage. Just as the woman, after a break with her husband (5:2–8), eventually finds him in the garden which is both hers and his (6:2–3), so married couples can find each other again after reading this book of wisdom, and with a surprise sweetened with the years, repeat to each other, “Behold, my darling! You’re so beautiful!”12

5. Romance Transcends Sex

For all the unabashed emotion of this book, for all their almost embarrassing love talk, there is a noticeable reticence to the book when it comes to sex itself. This is a relationship which is obviously miles away from being Platonic. But sex never actually happens in the text itself: the couple is either wishing they could be together (as in 2:8–3:5), or just about to consummate the relationship (as in 4:16–5:1). There is no direct description of physical intercourse; none of the normal verbs in Hebrew for intercourse are used (such as “lie with” [שׁכב], “know” [ידע], or “uncover nakedness” [גלעערוה]).13 The way in which the couple describes each other to each other shows a similar restraint: they are clearly deeply in love, but they describe the whole body, never each other’s genitals. During the couple’s wedding in 3:6–5:1 (see below for my interpretation of this passage), the man’s praise moves from the woman’s eyes to her breasts (4:1–5), but does not go any lower.14 Similarly, the woman’s description in 5:10–16 moves from his head (v. 11) to face (vv. 12–13) to arms (v. 14) to legs (v. 15) to his mouth (v. 16); the man’s speech in 7:1–9 is similar. The Song has no parallel to Juliet wondering about hand or foot or arm or face or “any other part belonging to man”15; it’s not difficult to guess which part of Romeo she’s thinking of. In contrast, physical sexuality is submerged and suffused throughout the whole of the Song, and the springtime gardens we walk through. It never explicitly appears, even in the form of innuendo.16

Part of the wise instruction of the Song is to show us that physical sexuality and its expression are beautiful and good, but they are both private and non-ultimate. Sex is private because, despite the intense immediacy of the Song, the reader is never invited into that part of their relationship. It is non-ultimate because the lovers’ awareness of each other’s bodies and delight in them transcends genital intercourse. They are entirely beautiful to each other, as whole bodies and whole persons. In other words, their love for each other is expressed sexually but not reducible to sex.17 The ways in which this aspect of the Song confronts and corrects mistakes current in our culture are obvious.18

In fact, for all the descriptions of the young couple’s bodies, we finish the book without having the slightest idea what they look like. The descriptions and continual comparisons are not intended to help us picture the book’s couple, but suggest what feelings the other evokes in them. Nothing is said about what the two might have looked in real life because it is not important—all that matters is how they look to each other. Similarly, nothing is said about sexual technique; what matters is the feelings which the lover and beloved share. In light of the obsessive attention given to physical beauty in our context, this aspect of the Song is both counter-cultural and freeing. By the same token, of course, sexual love is presented in the Song as a good in itself. No other aspect of created existence is invoked to justify it, such as having children (this is a point we’ll return to below).

All this is to say that the Song shows us a mixture of uninhibited emotional expression and marked modesty about the physical aspects of love, even though the latter is clearly present and presented as an unambiguously good thing. The relationship is neither ascetic nor only sexual.19 This is an important part of the wisdom of the book.

6. Marriage as the Telos of Romance

Marriage is presented in the Song as the ultimate goal and full realization of romance in two ways. The first is seen in 3:11, the only verse in the book to explicitly mention marriage (חֲתֻנָּה), and the only verse to use the word “joy” (שִׂמְחָה). Joy is associated with marriage, not sexual intercourse; it’s not sex that brings joy, but marriage.20 Part of the wisdom of the book is to teach young people what becomes obvious to most of us as we get older: sex won’t make you happy, and people who devote their lives to it can lead the emptiest of existences. Only marriage gives that kind of deep happiness. Again, this is counter-cultural for modern Western readers and an important part of the book’s wise instruction.

Marriage is presented as the telos of romance in a second way which is just as important but harder to discern and which requires a longer discussion. Although it is not obvious, I think the Song shows the couple moving from courtship to marriage and only then consummating their relationship. Without denying that the Song is not narrative poetry in any straightforward sense, one can trace the outline of an unfolding story in which the young couple begin the book in love but apart (1:2–3:5), marry and consummate their relationship (3:6–5:1), begin their new life together in the same home and negotiate their first conflict (5:2–6:3), grow in their relationship (6:4–8:4), and finally integrate with their larger family (8:5–14). Although I don’t want to overstate the narrative development of the song—the intent of the book is to communicate the emotions and experience of love from the inside, not tell a story21—the outline of a narrative is both present and important for the way in which this part of Scripture makes us wise about this aspect of our existence as God’s creations. God’s ideal is that couples reserve sex for marriage. Furthermore, God’s good plan for romance is one in which sexual intimacy is not the pinnacle of the relationship; marriage is.

Unfortunately, this claim is controversial. Some important commentators read the Song non-sequentially, as only an anthology of love poetry.22 Others read the Song as completely disassociating marriage and sex;23 one scholar went so far as to speak of the Song as a “polemical celebration of ‘free love.’”24 Some Christian commentators respond by saying marriage can be assumed in the Song even if it is not explicitly recorded.25 This is sometimes combined with a reading of the book as an anthology, according to which some poems can be taken to refer to the couple’s courtship and some to a time after they are married, even if they are not sequentially arranged.26 In contrast to this, however, a good argument can be made that the Song shows the outline of the narrative in which the lovers do not sleep with each other until after marriage.

In what follows, I am relying on (and altering somewhat) the outline of the book given by Hess.27 This is not because it is the only possible structure discernible in the text; many commentators point out how the shifting patterns of the poetry can be divided up in different ways. The lack of obvious structure or well-defined boundaries is not a weakness in the poetry; the poetry is meant to be ever-shifting, easy to enjoy but difficult to grasp, just like the poetry’s subject.28 But I find Hess’s outline a more or less useful guide to following the text itself:

A) Prologue: desire unfulfilled (1:2–2:7)

B) “Come away with me!” (2:8–17)

C) A dream of searching and finding (3:1–5)

D) Love and marriage at the heart of the Song (3:6–5:1)

C’) A dream of searching and not finding; eventual reconnection (5:2–6:3)

B’) “Come away with me!” (6:4–8:4)

A’) Epilogue: recognizing the relationship; desire unfulfilled (8:5–14)29

Let’s follow the story.

As the book opens, the relationship is already flourishing emotionally (1:2–3, 8–10, 15–16). The only problem is that they are apart physically: she wants to get away with him (v. 4), but they are both are stuck at work (vv. 6–8). She chafes at having to work outside where she develops a deep tan (v. 6) instead of attending to her own beauty (the “vineyard” of v. 6).30 Even though the young man feels just as strongly about her as she does him (v. 9), any expression of their relationship seems to exist mostly in her mind at this point. You can see this in v. 4: no sooner does she express her desire to run away with him than her “king” has brought her into his bedroom (the perfect of בוֹא should be taken as a past tense). The leap from desire to realization in v. 4 is a clue that the young woman is fantasizing, as does the fact that her “king” is a commoner who works as a shepherd (v. 8).31

A similar contrast between the woman’s wishes and reality obtains in 1:7–2:6. After the tentative, shy conversation about the sheepfolds where he’ll be working (vv. 7–8), we are transported to the king on his couch (v. 12) in a beautiful house (v. 17) where they spend the night together (v. 13; the verb לִין means not just “lie” but “spend the night”). The disjunction between the two scenes suggests that desire is realized in the first part of the Song mostly in the young woman’s imagination. However strongly they feel about each other, circumstances conspire against them. The Song knows how difficult it is to wait!

The next scene in 2:8–17 begins early in the morning (see v. 17) as the young man comes to the woman’s house and speaks to her through the window (vv. 8–9), begging her to come away with him (vv. 10–13). The woman appears to hesitate, saying nothing (v. 14). She then teases him (not ungently) that he’s posing a danger to their relationship (v. 15): since the vineyard is a symbol throughout the book redolent of (but not reducible to) the young woman’s sexuality, the “foxes” that need to be caught before they spoil the vineyard are young men who might spoil a relationship.32 Implicitly, the young man is putting himself in the category of one of these “foxes” with his request.33 She tells him to leave (v. 17),34 but just as in 1:8–9, she is not toying with his feelings or playing “hard to get.” Before turning him down, she pledges herself to him (v. 16). She belongs to him—but now is not the time to start their new lives together.

Before the next use of the repeated refrain in 3:5, a second poem in 3:1–5 complements the first in 2:8–17 in mirror fashion, showing the young woman seeking the man (instead of him her) at night (instead of at morning) and finding him (instead of being sent away, as he was). Since she couldn’t literally search for him on her bed (3:1), this is either a dream or a fantasy. The repeated “I sought the one my soul loves” shows her insistent, unyielding desire; it also shows that when she sent her love away in 2:17, it was not for lack of feeling. She asks the city guards if they’ve seen him (v. 3)—and then, without warning, there he is (v. 4). Without another word, she brings him to “the chamber of her who conceived me” (v. 4); in the modesty of the Song, her intent is clear but not stated outright. But the consummation of their relationship happens (so far) only in a dream.

The next section of the book (3:6–5:1) shows another dizzying imaginative leap as an otherwise unidentified feminine subject comes up from the wilderness (v. 6) on Solomon’s royal palanquin (v. 7a), surrounded by soldiers (vv. 7–8). Only at the end of the chapter do we realize she is traveling from afar to get married (v. 11).35 Finally, the time of waiting is over! But even on the day of their wedding, the imaginative opulence of the Song continues: instead of two rural peasants, the groom sees his bride like an exotic princess, while the bride sees her groom as no less glorious than Solomon himself.36 The woman’s references to her “king” in 1:4, 12 have prepared the reader for this imaginative leap. This means that the question in 3:6 is asked by the young man not for information, but in awe as (to use modern terms) the woman he’s seen so many times walks down the aisle toward him in her wedding dress. (Doesn’t every man feel that way at his wedding?) The whole scene is redolent of opulence, splendor, drama: the bride’s long train of attendants create clouds of dust which plume like smoke; the soldiers stand impressively nearby; the silver, gold, and royal purple of the palanquin only serve to make the bride even more beautiful; everything is scented with myrrh and incense. Their love elevates what may have been a very humble wedding into a royal one.

The man proceeds to praise his wife (4:1–15), referring to her for the first time in the book as his bride (כַלָּה, vv. 8–12). Part of his praise of her is that she is a locked garden, a sealed spring (v. 12). She hasn’t slept with anyone, not even him, and this makes her even more beautiful in his eyes. The young bride responds by calling the young man to enter the garden—but for the first time, in addition to describing it as her own, she calls it his (4:16). The bride voluntarily gives herself to her new husband, even calling on the winds to blow on her garden so that it might be even more enticing to him. Only then does the man enter the garden that is now his (5:1), again referring to his love as his bride. The wedding party celebrates with them (5:1). The garden which has been locked and sealed for the woman’s entire life is now open, but only to him, and only with the woman’s permission. God’s ideal for marriage is that the relationship remain chaste until marriage, that the woman would voluntarily give herself to her husband (instead of being forced or traded like property). God’s ideal is also that the couple would leave restraint behind after marriage: nothing in the “garden” is to be refused (note the wide variety of what the man will “eat” in 5:1). In fact, the word which the woman uses for the awakening of the wind in 4:16 is the same as that used in 2:6 and 3:5 for not awakening love before its time.37 A loss of control within the context of marriage is actually encouraged.38 The couple is supposed to get drunk (5:1).

(I am forced to write somewhat analytically in order to trace the narrative of the developing relationship in chs. 1–5 of the Song; but this approach obscures as much as it reveals. I hope the above paragraph does not cloud for the reader the rich reverence of this scene, the hushed wonder, as, for the first time, the man enters his garden.)

Now that the couple is married, we can move more quickly through the Song’s last four chapters. The next section of the book (5:2–6:3) narrates a dream (v. 2) in which the woman loses her husband but eventually finds him again (6:1–3). It is similar to her night-time search of 3:1–5, but unlike that earlier passage, the married couple is now living in the same house. The break ends with the man returning to his garden (6:2): disruptions, arguments, failed connections will not destroy the deeper emotional and sexual bond the couple enjoys. He will always find his way back to her.

Having reunited, the couple spends the next section of the book enjoying each other (6:4–8:4). Most of this section shows the man praising his wife (6:4–10, 7:1–9); the repetition of some of the phrases and images from 4:1–15 shows that marriage has dulled none of his feelings for her (compare 4:1–3 with 6:5b-7). This passage ends with the couple getting away together, not to consummate their relationship (as in 4:8), but to enjoy their blossoming garden (7:12–14). As the young bride echoes her husband’s earlier (and unfulfilled) requests in get away (2:10, 13), we get the pleasing sense of a relationship that is maturing; familiar scenes are revisited, but the couple grown since we last visited them. The only problem is external, and mentioned only in passing: the woman can’t show affection for her husband in public the way she wants (8:1).39

The Song’s last passage (8:5–14) shows the couple returning from their getaway (compare 8:5 with 7:11). The same awestruck question which was first asked on the woman’s wedding day (3:6) is now repeated, with the difference that the woman is fully united to her husband. (Marriage dulls none of the woman’s glory!) Verse 5 may suggest the woman is starting to think about a family; but if so, children remain in the future. The beautiful reflection in vv. 6–7 will be discussed in its own section below; for now, we should notice the strange way in which the woman’s family receives her (vv. 8–9). Curiously, her brothers seem completely to misunderstand her position: they pledge to protect their sister’s virtue and adorn her for whenever she might be ready for marriage in the future, on the day when she is “spoken for.”40 However well-intentioned this might be, one wonders how the brothers have missed the obvious fact that this young woman is both physically and emotionally ready for marriage, and has been since the Song’s first chapter, when her brothers were first mentioned (1:6).41 As a result, their relationship is legitimate and should be supported. Because she didn’t give herself away before marriage, their marriage will be full of shalom, wholeness (v. 10). Is there a hint to young couples that their relationship might not always be recognized as quickly as it should?

Regardless, a contrastive comparison with Solomon in vv. 11–12 follows which shows the woman happy with her more humble “vineyard,” irrespective of Solomon’s expensive one. This implies that the couple has internalized the lesson of v. 7. The poem then ends where it began, with desire still “out there,” waiting to be fulfilled (vv. 13–14).

This has been a long discussion, but it is necessary to show that the outline of an unfolding narrative is discernible in the eight chapters of the Song of Songs in which sex is saved for marriage. There is, of course, only an outline of a narrative. The Song’s main purpose is not to tell a clear story with well-defined characters and storyline, but to prepare young people for falling in love by communicating what the experience is like from the inside. This explains why the marriage of the young couple is not easier to see: despite how important marriage is, getting married doesn’t much change how you feel about the other person, and it is the emotional dimension of marriage on which the book focuses. But part of the wisdom of the book is to show us that God’s plan for human romance reserves marriage as the context within which a sexual relationship flourishes.42 Marriage is the larger reality and telos of love; the physical expression of love is subordinated and secondary to this.

7. The Role of the Woman

The above summary of the book may already have brought to the reader’s attention the active role which the woman plays in the relationship. I say “active” and not “independent”; she is not some modern feminist who reduces marriage to a kind of contract in which she retains some measure of independence and freedom. Both partners in this ideal marriage give themselves to each other unreservedly and without qualification; as Duguid points out, the poem’s motto is very much not, “My beloved is mine and I am my own” (see 2:16, 6:3, 7:10).43 But neither is the woman entirely passive. This is seen in multiple ways.

Notice first how the woman initiates the conversation with her beloved in 1:7–8—not in order to “ask him out,” but only to ask where he might be.44 This is nuanced by 1:4, which shows that the woman wants the man to take her away, i.e., she wants him to take the initiative (“draw me after you!”).45 She is not competing with him, but happy to follow his lead into a new life together.46 At the same time, it is the woman who, even while pledging herself to the man, sends him away in 2:17, gently warning him that his entreaties are actually endangering the relationship. She takes the initiative to guard their relationship in this way. Furthermore, as emphasized above, it is the woman who allows the man to enter in marriage the garden which is otherwise locked (4:12, 16). She gives herself willingly instead of being bartered or forced. (Are we to see here a contrast with her brothers’ imagined scenario in which their little sister is “spoken for” in 8:8?) And is it an accident that the woman is given more speaking lines in the poem than the man? Or that it is she who speaks the most memorable and theologically profound lines of the Song in 8:6–7?47

I don’t want to make too much of this; it’s hardly a major emphasis of the poem, and discussions of gender have become so tortured and histrionic in our context that it’s difficult to say anything about the subject without being misunderstood. But just because modern Western cultures are so confused about these areas of created existence, the Song can speak to us in especially helpful ways. God’s wisdom re-balances the distortions and extremes of both our culture and cultures very different from ours. Some cultures subjugate and oppress women; in contrast, modern Western culture turns to unfettered self-determination and independence as a strategy for fulfilment. In (perhaps understandable) reaction, Christians occasionally articulate male headship in a way which seems to give women hardly any room beyond cooking and cleaning. None of these represent God’s ideal, but the woman in the Song of Songs does in a way both beautiful and balanced.

8. There Is No “Happy Ever After”

The major emphasis of the Song is obviously to communicate how unspeakably precious one’s beloved is. But part of the wisdom of the book is to warn young readers that the experience will not always be a comfortable or easy one. At one point, the young woman feels physically sick (2:5). At another, the young man asks her to look away, so overwhelming is the effect she has on him (6:5). For him, she is “beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun,” looming large as the sun and moon itself, “fearsome as an army with banners” (6:10). The word “fearsome” (אֲיֻמָה) is used elsewhere to describe the kind of terror a human feels toward the Almighty (Gen 15:12, Exod 15:16, Josh 2:9, Job 9:34). In a sense, perfect (human) love does not cast out all fear.

The Song’s guidance for young reader in the sometimes-painful parts of a relationship is clearest in 5:2–6:3, which narrates, in dream-like fashion, a break in the relationship which is eventually healed. It begins with the woman dreaming of her husband knocking on their door, asking to be let in (v. 2). In what is either a tease or an excuse, she says she’s already comfortable and doesn’t want to get up; but the mere sound of him fumbling with the lock awakens her desire and she hurries to open the door (vv. 4–5). As sometimes happens in dreams, however, he’s suddenly gone (v. 6). She searches everywhere, calling out without any answer (v. 6); things turn nightmarish when the city guards beat her (v. 7). Not only has she lost her husband, the young woman is treated like an intruder or a prostitute in her own city!48

It’s not clear whether the conversation with the “daughters of Jerusalem” beginning in 5:9 is part of the dream or happens the next day as she asks friends for help. What is clear is that after describing her husband in vv. 10–16, the friends are convinced to help her look (6:1)—but there is no need. She’s found him already, “going down to his garden” (6:2, echoing the description of the consummation of their relationship in 4:16–5:1). The distance between the new husband and wife is resolved.

The dream-like atmosphere of 5:2–6:3 make it difficult to be sure of exactly what’s happening, but it is clear that young Israelites shouldn’t think of marriage as leading to placid, unbroken harmony. In fact, just because the relationship now is deeper, the breaks in the relationship may be even more painful than those from the period of courtship (5:6b simultaneously echoes and builds on 3:2 by having the woman call uselessly for her husband; the guards also do not beat her in the first dream.) Being in love makes you very vulnerable! Happily, however, the emotional and sexual bond which a married couple shares means that when breaks occur, they are never permanent. This is in part implied by the unrealistic nature of the description in 5:10–16: it doesn’t give helpful information for finding a lost partner, but reveals how she feels about her husband in a way which heals the emotional distance between them. “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3)—their exclusive commitment is not new (2:16), but takes on deeper resonance as they are bound together more intimately through the ups-and-downs of marriage.

There is a second sense in which marriage, however happy it might be, does not provide a perfect and ultimate “happy ever after.” On the one hand, there are elements of ultimacy in marriage as portrayed in the Song; for example, the young woman is perfect, flawless to the young man (6:9); queens cannot compare with her (v. 8). Additionally, the marriage in ch. 4 stands at the zenith of the chiasm of the poem, perhaps suggesting that their marriage will (in some ways, at least) be the high point of their relationship. On the other hand, the poem ends on a note of unfulfilled desire (8:14)—exactly the note with which the book begins (1:2).49 We are not given the final end of the matter, as in Ecclesiastes (see 12:13–14); fulfilling as marital union is, the fulfilment fades, to be sought again and again.50 Part of the wisdom of the Song is to teach young people that, however important romance and marriage are, they do not give a perfect, final, unsurpassable happy ending to our lives. In a paradox, there is a kind of ultimacy to human romance—this is, after all, the Song of Songs—but it is never complete or final. We’ll pick this up again below.

9. Set Me Like a Seal on Your Heart: The Need for Commitment

The one place where the Song pauses and explicitly reflects on romantic love expresses the need for total, exclusive commitment (“set me like a seal”) and the deepest levels of our being (“on your heart,” [8:6]). This is the climactic wisdom of the Song, and one instinctively listens closely to these final verses as the woman speaks not of her love, but love itself.51 The reason given for the commitment which seals husband and wife together is love’s power (v. 6b) and its preciousness (v. 7). What else is as unyielding as the grave? What other aspect of created existence could be compared to the grip which death has on each of us? But just because love is so overpoweringly strong, a couple in love must commit to each other in an absolute way. The central wisdom of the song is to join what we might intuitively separate: undeniable, uncontrollable desire with unbreakable commitment. If love is as strong as death, it’s hopeless to try to suppress it; one must rather commit.52

The preciousness of love is a second reason calling for a completely unique commitment (v. 7). Business relationships might be formed for the sake of money; friendship might be forged out of common interests. But people naturally (and rightly) scorn those who enter into marriage for any reason less than that unquenchable desire for each other. Marrying for money is not just unwise; it falls so far short of real love that it is to be scorned. Just because love is so overwhelmingly—one might say supernaturally—powerful, it requires a unique level of commitment, surpassing friendship or even one’s relationship with one’s parents (Gen 2:24). Young people who seal themselves in commitment to each other because of the inexorable power of love do so wisely, and under God’s smile.

10. An “Almighty Flame:” The Spiritual Significance of Marriage

The climactic wisdom of the Song in 8:7 calls human love a “flame of the Lord,” or “an Almighty flame” (שַׁלְהֶבֶתְיָה, the final syllable [yah] is a shortened form of the divine name Yahweh).53 This is best taken as a genitive of source: love finds its ultimate source in God himself. An attributive or adjectival idea is, however, difficult to rule out. As it comes from the heart of God, this unquenchable flame love expresses something of God’s character and love.

This is just a hint in the Song—the ending of a single word. Despite its brevity, however, the word grabs our attention, because nothing in the Song’s previous seven chapters has prepared us for it; so far, the book’s love story looks like a very beautiful but completely ordinary human romance. But once the ultimate source of romantic love is revealed to us, we read the Song with new eyes, noticing numerous ways that the poetry of the Song hints that something supernatural happens in human romance, and that an ordinary human marriage reflects a reality altogether extraordinary. The short passage of 8:6–7 itself reads differently. After all, is love really as strong as death? Surely there is a sense in which death is stronger?54 No matter how much a married couple loves each other, one will have to bury the other eventually. Surely in a sense death is stronger than love—unless there’s a more-than-natural love being hinted at here, unless a love which is not literally stronger than death reflects a love that is.55 The particular word for love in these verses (אָהֲבָה) would support either reading, since it is used for both human love (Jacob and Rachel [Gen 29:20], David and Jonathan [1 Sam 18:3]) and divine (Deut 7:8, Jer 31:3, Zeph 3:17).

If we return to the beginning with this insight in mind, supernatural hints turn up everywhere. For example, the young man is described both as a shepherd (1:4) and a king (v. 8).56 Who does that remind you of? Additionally, the first poem of the book uses words and images which, although found in ordinary settings elsewhere in the OT, are often used in liturgically or theologically significant contexts. For examples, kisses (1:2) in the OT are often ordinary, but they express religious allegiance in 1 Kings 19:18; similarly, the wine to which the woman refers in this verse often comes up elsewhere in the OT in an ordinary way, but wine is also used frequently in worship (Exod 29:40, Lev 23:13). Furthermore, the “scent” of the young man (רֵיח, 1:3) sometimes refers to ordinary smells (Gen 27:27), but very frequently describes God’s reception of a pleasing offering (Gen 8:21; Lev 1:9, 13, 17, 2:2, etc.). The oil and the young man’s name in the same verse have similar liturgical echoes: oil is used in the consecration of priests (Exod 29:2, 7, 21, 23, 40), the anointing of the sacred furniture of the tabernacle (Exod 30:24–25), and in the food offering (Lev 2:1–2, 4–7, 15–16). Not only that, God’s name is invoked in worship extremely frequently (e.g., Deut 12:5, 11; Ps 148:13). These echoes continue in the first line given to the chorus at the end of v. 4. The verbs for their joy (גיל and שׂמח) frequently describe worship in the Psalms (see 14:7/53:7; 16:9; 31:8; 48:12; 97:1, 8; 118:24; see the same in Isa 25:9; Joel 2:21, 23), and the verb translated as “extol” (ESV) or “praise” (NIV) also describes Israel’s worship (see the Hiphil of זכר in Pss 20:8, 71:16, 77:12; Isa 12:4, 26:13, 63:7; “remembering” in general is an important part of worship in Exod 3:15; Ps 22:28; 30:5, 145:7).57

None of this is to allegorize the text. I am not suggesting that these echoes portray the young woman as representing Israel or the church, or that her praise of her beloved is actually speaking about the worship of God’s people at some deeper, spiritual level.58 This is not because allegory is always completely wrong (cf. Gal 4:24–26); after all, the prophets frequently portray the covenant between Yahweh and Israel as a (tragically troubled) romance (e.g., Ezek 16). I am only trying to follow the hint given in the text of 8:6–7 that romantic love is a flame of the Lord, and I am suggesting that as one reads the book from that vantage point, one can discern the poetry of the Song working on multiple levels, describing a beautiful but ordinary human romance, while continually suggesting a supernatural love and delight which overshadow human love. In other words, the literal meaning of the text portrays ordinary human romance as reflecting divine love. That the Song should communicate in this multidimensional way should not surprise us: just as the “boundaries between figure and referent, inside and outside, human body and accoutrement or natural setting, become suggestively fluid” in the poetry of the book,59 so romantic love takes on multiple levels of significance.60

The hints of this deeper significance recur so frequently, in fact, that it is difficult to believe they are not intended. I offer just a few more examples. First, the woman delightedly sits (ישׁב) in her lover’s shadow (צֵל) in 2:3, just as the one who trusts the Lord dwells in the shadow of the Almighty (both words repeat in Ps 91:1) and penitent Israel returns to dwell beneath the Lord’s shadow (Hos 14:7; the idea of dwelling beneath God’s shadow is frequent in the Psalms [see 17:8, 36:8; 57:2; 63:8, etc.]). Furthermore, the young woman is described as “perfumed” with myrrh and frankincense on her wedding day in 3:6, but the verb is very frequently used for incense rising in the temple (33x in Leviticus, beginning in 1:9). Frankincense also plays a noticeable part in ritual worship (Lev 2:1–2, 15–16; cf. Isa 60:6). The wood of Lebanon which forms the material of the young woman’s carriage in 3:9 is most often mentioned elsewhere for the construction materials of the tabernacle (1 Kings 5:13, 2 Chr 2:7, 15; Ezra 3:7; one exception is in Ps 104:16). One final example: the desire (תְּשׁוּקָה) of the man for his wife in 7:10 uses a word found only twice elsewhere in the OT: in Gen 3:16, as part of Eve’s curse as her marriage descends into frustrating power struggles, and in Gen 4:7, describing the desire which sin has for Cain. But now, in the Song, this desire is entirely innocent and happy. It is as if the couple has somehow returned to Eden, as if something of the fall has been healed. Indeed, in the lovers’ descriptions of the each other and the world, the world seems an uncursed, Edenic paradise.61 But can only ordinary human love work that miracle?62

A major part of the wisdom of Song of Song is to teach young people the incredible power and preciousness of love, and the total commitment with which they must enter marriage as a result (8:6–7). As it does so, the Song hints at a greater Love standing behind human romance and the total commitment with which he relates to us, a Love stronger than death, jealous beyond the grave, unquenchable, fierce, not to be denied. The Song is teaching us that our marriages are not ultimately about ourselves, but reflect something much better. Indeed, part of the reason why God has structured created existence so that romance and marriage is such a big part of our lives is to give us the capacity and vocabulary to appreciate this greater Love.63 In light of this, the wisdom of the Song teaches us continually to look beyond the very good but non-ultimate experience of marriage to “the One toward whom all our most intense earthly desires ultimately point.”64 Just as the text can be read as an entirely ordinary human romance, but continually suggests a profounder horizon against which human relationships exist, so our own marriages are (in one sense) entirely ordinary, but (in another) reflections of the divine. In Duane Garrett’s fine phrase, the woman’s experience in the book “brings out the deep structure of the human soul”; in the Song, love is not an allegory of our need for God but an expression of it.65 This is the wisdom of the Song, and the way it expresses that “profound mystery” in every human marriage of which Paul speaks (Eph 5:32).66

At this point, one could easily ask why, if the nature of human love as a reflection of divine love is so important, the theme receives only hints in the book. Why not be more explicit? One supposes that the divine author of Scripture allows for alternating hints and explicit teaching on any number of subjects in just the right proportions in his book. But in addition to this, remembering the polytheistic setting of ancient Israel can help us appreciate the particular wisdom of the Song and the subtlety with which it negotiates this theme. For all the sophistication of the ancient Middle East, their gods and goddesses were basically human beings writ large; their myths show gods eating together, sometimes fighting (and even killing each other), and sometimes being lovers (Tammuz and Ishtar from Mesopotamia are a prominent example [cf. Ezek 8:14]). There is also some evidence of sacred marriage and temple prostitution in the ancient word (e.g., Gen 38:21–22; Deut 23:18; Hos 4:14).67 In a context where human sexual activity would have been crassly projected onto the gods, the Song must tread carefully not to miscommunicate to ancient Israelites who otherwise were happy to engage in idolatry (2 Kings 17).68 The hints of human love as a reflection of divine love must remain hints only. The Song is teaching ancient Israelites that there is nothing specifically sexual about God; human sexuality is a good but entirely ordinary created thing. It is only a reflection of the divine, a halo flickering around that Almighty flame.69

Greater awareness of the way in which the Song spoke against its own culture makes it natural to turn to the way it is speaking against ours. After all, every culture finds ways to misunderstand and fumble God’s good gifts of love and marriage. If the medieval church allegorized the Song because they could not imagine a person being simultaneously holy and sexually active,70 we are in danger of swinging to the other extreme. The thought of someone being simultaneously celibate and happy is, to us, impossible! Modern Western hedonism expresses itself in a strange paradox, however: on the one hand, our culture recklessly over-values sex. We have turned personal sexual fulfilment (of whatever orientation or variety) in a human rights issue; any suggestion that some kinds of sexual activity might be out of bounds is taken as an affront to personal dignity. On the other hand, we simultaneously tend to think that sexual activity has no meaning beyond personal fulfilment and self-gratification; there are no long-term consequences to sleeping with whomever, as long as you don’t hurt anybody. We have reduced and circumscribed the meaning of sexuality within the atomistically individual, self-determining self; but at the same time, sexual expression is located at the very core of self-actualization and self-worth. In one way, sex means nothing to us; in another, everything.

The wisdom of the Song of Songs helpfully challenges this account of human sexuality and marriage. It simultaneously humbles our unwise elevation of sexual fulfilment to the pinnacle of human self-expression, while also breaking our restriction of romance and love within the sphere of the autonomous self. The Song teaches that human romantic love is a good but non-ultimate thing, only a reflection of something much better; but it is forever tied to that ultimate reality which it reflects. Human romance is neither one’s personal property, to be used as one sees fit; but neither does it contain the essence of human fulfilment.

At the same time, it is crucial to attend to the way in which the Song instructs us differently from Deuteronomy and Proverbs. The blunt imperatives of those other books are good and very needed; the sometimes-strident warnings about the strange woman in Proverbs 5–7 are especially necessary for male teenagers who would otherwise easily blunder into serious sin. But the Song does not command; it adorns. The Song instructs us by opening for us a profound vision of romance as a flame of the Lord, and the poetry beautifies its subject for the purpose of attracting us to God’s good wisdom for human romance. As we attend to the words on the page and let the poetry do its work, we are to be ever more smitten with the spouse God has given us—and ever more aware of the supernatural context within which our ordinary romances play out.

This is an urgent matter in our context. Some churches respond to the recent sweeping changes in common sexual morality in the West by emphasizing only the imperatives of Scripture. Some continue to hold to a traditional view of marriage, but do so without reference to the deeper theological significance of this institution, commending marriage in a way which sounds suspiciously similar to our cultural context (i.e., marriage is an answer to those deep longings and loneliness within). Although marriage is wonderfully fulfilling at a personal level, only speaking of marriage in the context of personal fulfilment, without reference to that “Almighty flame,” runs the risk of simply perpetuating our radical individualism with a Christian veneer and also setting young people up for doctrinal compromise later in life. After all, if marriage is only a matter of personal fulfilment, why can’t two men or two women get married? But if marriage is both instituted by God and a reflection of God himself, a gender disparity in marriage is crucial to the way marriage speaks beyond itself of God’s love for us. Same-gender marriage obscures this mystery.71 (Polygamy obscures marriage as a reflection of God’s love in a similar way; God does not parse himself out among multiple partners, but gives himself to the believer fully, exclusively, without limit.)

Scripture both warns and woos. God commands us, but also and entices and allures. In his word, imperative and metaphor mix to reveal a vision for human romance which is both more beautiful than our culture’s and more realistic. After all, if sexual fulfilment is worshipped as the apex of human fulfilment and self-realization, it is bound to become disappointing. Is it an accident that the recent sea-change on marriage and sexuality in our culture has been accompanied by a swell of self-righteousness and angry, factious polemics? Our culture seems more hateful and frustrated than ever. From this perspective, the ordinariness of the Song is a breath of fresh air. But the Song of Songs and the Scripture of which it is a part does more than topple our culture’s favorite idols; it reveals something more beautiful than our best idol. The Song’s instruction of human romance as an “Almighty flame” is a more beautiful and stirring account of sexuality and marriage than anything our culture has come up with. Our culture is pressing the church very hard on this point, and it is easy to feel like a reactionary or a Luddite for believing what Christians have always believed. It is just exactly the beauty of the Song which can deepen and enhance our witness at the present moment. We can speak winsomely and not stridently about a romantic beauty which our non-Christian friends hardly suspect.

In this way, the practical and immediate wisdom of the Song turns out to have consequences far beyond mere relationship advice. But I hope that, for the reader, the emotional and imaginative aspect of the Song is what lingers. Although not directly related to the Song, a quotation from George MacDonald’s Phantastes so beautifully evokes the reflection of divine love in human love that it is a suitable way to close this study:

Soon I fell asleep, overcome with fatigue and delight. In dreams of unspeakable joy—of restored friendships; of revived embraces; of love which said it had never died; of faces that had vanished long ago, yet said with smiling lips that they knew nothing of the grave; of pardons implored, and granted with such bursting floods of love, that I was almost glad I had sinned—thus I passed through this wondrous twilight. I awoke with the feeling that I had been kissed and loved to my heart’s content; and found that my boat was floating motionless by the grassy shore of a little island.72

[1] E.g., Rabbi Akiva (50–135 AD) distinguished the Song as the “Holy of Holies” among Scripture’s holy writings (Babylonian Talmud, Yadayim, 73a).

[2] Francis Landy, “Beauty and the Enigma,” JSOT 17 (1980): 56.

[3] Ellen Davis not unfairly compares the images of the Song to “one of those pictures whose content shifts before your eyes: is it a vase or two faces, an old woman or a young one?” (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000], 269). However confusing it might be, the effect is deliberate, for reasons explored below.

[4] Landy, “Beauty and the Enigma,” 59.

[5] Cheryl Exum, Song of Songs: A Commentary, OTL (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 1. Exum points out the exclusive use of direct speech in the book; there is no narration (p. 3).

[6] Iain Duguid, Song of Songs, TOTC 19 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015): 72. Duguid has written two commentaries on the Song, one for the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series and one for Reformed Expositional Commentaries; I distinguish the two in these notes by date (2015 for the former and 2016 for the latter).

[7] Barry Webb, Five Festal Garments, NSBT 10 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 18.

[8] Sometimes practical expositions of the Song miss this point. For example, Tommy Nelson derives the following rules for dating from the early stages of the relationship portrayed Song of Songs 1:9–17: a couple dating should take their time and let the relationship grow, have a “no strings attached” policy in which both members are (at this stage) free to date other people, and demonstrate mutual respect (The Book of Romance: What Solomon Says about Love, Sex, and Intimacy [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998], 22–27). Regardless of the quality of this advice, it misunderstands the way in which we are supposed to engage the Song. Nelson’s hermeneutic would fit better with Proverbs.

[9] Even here, a little imagination will help the image do its work; the man is praising the strength and confidence of the woman, and a comparison to a tower is a fine way to communicate this (Duguid, Song of Songs [2015], 112).

[10] The use of the Piel of לבב in this verse is a fine touch. A denominative Piel (i.e., a verb derived from a noun) either shows “being occupied with the object expressed by the noun” or depriving or injuring that object (GKC 52h). Either would fit the young man’s statement here: his very core (his “heart”) is electrified by his love, or he is “deprived of heart” in the sense of being out of his mind when she’s around—or both at the same time. Isn’t that just how love feels?

[11] Duguid, Song of Songs (2015), 48.

[12] In Michael Fox’s lovely expression, romantic love in the Song is “a confluence of souls … in which lovers look at each other with an intensely concentrated vision that broadens to elicit a world of its own” (The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs [Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1985], 330). It is a world married couple need not leave.

[13] Duane Garrett, Song of Songs, WBC 23B (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 205. Richard Hess also points out how the repeated image of a garden for the woman’s sexuality is very different from Samson’s crass comparison to ploughing a field in Judges 14:18 (Song of Songs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005], 28).

[14] See Duguid, Song of Songs, Reformed Expositional Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2016), 116. The description of the woman’s breasts (in 4:5 and 7:3) is not an exception to the modesty of the Song in sexual matters, both because the lovely comparison to fawns and gazelles is very different from a crass reference to (say) their size, and also because breasts are much more commonly associated in the OT with nursing and God’s blessing of fruitfulness as opposed to female sexuality (see, e.g., Gen 49:25; Job 3:12, 24:9; Pss 22:9, 131:2; exceptions to this are found in Song 8:1; Ezek 16:7, 23:3). While the young man is not yet thinking about his new wife as a mother, the OT as whole suggests that a woman’s breasts were not sexualized in ancient Israel to the extent that they are in our culture, and so the references to the woman’s breasts in the Song do not carry the same charge which they might in our context. Even if an erotic element is not absent, the poetry here is very different from how a woman’s figure is usually portrayed in our love stories. As above, words like “restraint” and “modesty” seem appropriate. This is part of the wisdom of the Song.

It is interesting to note a painting of women making bread from the tomb of Senet in ancient Egypt (around 1950 BC) dressed in skirts only, with chests exposed. It probably made it easier to work in the heat that way, and I doubt anyone thought of those women as being inappropriate for doing so.

[15] William Shakespeare, “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,” in Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), act 2, scene 2, lines 40–42.

[16] Some commentators do find multiple innuendos throughout the Song, e.g., the mountains of 2:17 as a double entendre for the woman’s breasts, or her navel (7:2) as a way of referring to her vagina, or the man putting his hand in the keyhold (5:4) as a masked reference to intercourse. I’ve never found this convincing; it seems more influenced by Freudian assumptions than anything in the text itself. As Cheryl Exum points out, once you start looks for innuendo in the Song, you can find it anywhere: “like beauty, double entendre is in the eye of the beholder” (Song of Songs, 10). Michael Fox rightly argues that “interpreting too many things as penises and vaginas imposes upon the poems a genital focus that is foreign to the Egyptian love songs and certainly to the Song of Songs” and that “[m]any things happen in love besides sexual intercourse” (The Song of Songs, 299). Instead of innuendo, the Song’s eroticism “is diffused throughout the body—and projected onto the world beyond” (Fox, The Song of Songs, 328).

[17] In this way, the Song clearly distinguishes itself from pornography; as Ellen Davis writes, “Pornography sees the body, and nothing else” (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, 263). Lover and beloved in the Song see so much more.

[18] And other cultures as well: for instance, the woman is not seen merely as a vehicle for offspring, or a way to seal a political agreement.

[19] Duguid, Song of Songs (2015), 83.

[20] Hess, Song of Songs, 123.

[21] Kenton Sparks rightly remarks that the Song “constantly invites the reader into a narrative-like context that never quite takes shape” (“The Song of Songs: Wisdom for Young Jewish Women,” CBQ 70 [2008]: 277).

[22] E.g., Marcia Falk, Love Lyrics from the Bible: A Translation and Literary Study of the Song of Songs, BAL 4 (Sheffield: Almond, 1982), 68–70; Robert Gordis, The Song of Songs (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1954), 23–24; Othmar Keel The Song of Songs: A Continental Commentary, trans. Frederick Gaiser (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 17; Exum, Song of Songs, 35, 47, Fox, The Song of Songs, 95–96.

[23] E.g., Fox, The Song of Songs, 287, 297, 313. Fox takes the reference to marriage at 3:11 as a “playful and fantastic description” of the garden bower where the lovers rendezvous and the man’s hailing of the young woman as his bride in 4:8–12 as affectionate and anticipatory, not a statement of the relationship (The Song of Songs, 135, 213). Cheryl Exum makes the same argument (Song of Songs, 169–70). This seems unlikely to me: who refers to their girlfriend as a wife when they’re not married?

[24] André LaCocque, “I Am Black and Beautiful,” in Scrolls of Love: Reading Ruth and the Song of Songs, ed. Peter Hawkins and Lesleigh Stahlberg (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 162.

[25] Hess, Song of Songs, 35, 237.

[26] Tremper Longman, Song of Songs, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 54–56, 59.

[27] Hess, Song of Songs, 35–36.

[28] Exum points out how scholars who see the Song as an anthology of poems cannot agree on how many poems the books contains, or exactly where they begin and ends (see her summary of different outlines in Song of Songs, 33–39). As stated above, the proper response to this is not try harder to find the structure of the poem, but to surrender to the poetry. Although there is a general shape to the poem, it is meant to impressionistic and difficult to capture precisely. The above is only a general guide.

[29] A number of features in the poetry suggest this outline. The division into seven sections is suggested in the following ways: the first (A), third (C), and second-to-last sections (B’) all end on the adjuration against untimely arousal of love (2:7, 3:5, 8:4); the second section (B) begins and ends with a gazelle bounding over the hills (2:8–9, 17); the third (C) and fifth (C’) begin with the woman dreaming (3:1, 5:2); and the climactic midpoint (D) and final section (A’) both begin with the same question about the woman coming up from the wilderness (3:6, 8:5). A chiastic relation among these sections is suggested by the dream passages (C and C’) which surround the marriage (3:1, 5:2; see also the very similar 3:1/5:6 and 3:3/5:7), as well as the call to run away together, which occurs in the second and sixth passages (B and B’), the first frustrated (2:10, 17) and the second fulfilled (7:11). Finally, the prologue and epilogue (A and A’) both reference the woman’s family (1:6, 8:8–9), mention the vineyard which is the woman’s (1:6, 8:11–12), and end and begin with the apple tree (2:3, 8:5; for some further examples within a different outline of the book, see Andrew Hwang, “The New Structure of the Song of Songs and Its Implications for Interpretation,” WTJ 65 [2003]: 105–11).

The Song does not present a perfect chiasm and does not intend to; other echoes across passages not chiastically parallel create a shifting, prismatic effect which is appropriate to the beautifully confusing experience of being in love. Examples of this include going to the mountains at dawn in the young man’s initial suit (2:17), at their wedding (4:6), and in the book’s final verse (8:14), as well as the left hand/right hand embrace at the end of the first section (2:6) and at the end of the penultimate section (8:3); see also the echoes in 2:16, 6:3, 7:10 (“my beloved is mine and I am his”), in 1:8, 5:9, 6:1 (“most beautiful of women”), and in 2:16, 4:5, 6:2–3 (“pasturing among the lilies”; more echoes could be listed). The prismatic quality of the poetry endures even as the shape of the whole comes into focus.

[30] “Like many a girl before and after her, she saw herself ripe for romance before her family did” (Fox, The Song of Songs, 100).

[31] Roland Murphy points out that in Egyptian love songs, the young man in question will be portrayed in royal terms even though he is never a king himself: “the guise of royalty for the male lover is indirectly represented” by, e.g., calling him “the king’s steed” (The Song of Songs, Herm [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990], 47; see also Sparks, “Song of Songs,” 283).

[32] The plural imperative beginning v. 15 is either addressed to the woman’s family or the chorus, who support the relationship by celebrating (1:4) and adorning it (1:11). The presence of the chorus throughout the book suggests that even though falling in love is an intensely personal experience, it is not absolutely private.

[33] Othmar Keel reports that, in Egyptian love songs, “foxes” appear as womanizers; as a result, they must be caught for the woman’s protection (The Song of Songs, 110). Even if the woman is not quite calling her love a womanizer—she refers to him as only a “little fox”—the parallel is instructive.

[34] Hess argues that the “mountains of Bether” (הָרֵי בָתֶר), although possibly to be translated as “mountains of spice” or “ravines,” should be taken as a place name, mentioned by Bar Kochba as Beitar and in the LXX of Josh 15:59 (Song of Songs, 100; according to Hess, gazelles are found there to this day). He plausibly connects these mountains to those of v. 8, understanding the young woman to be sending the man back the way he came.

[35] See Keel, The Song of Songs, 132, for pictures of actual palanquins from the ancient Middle East.

[36] Reading the royal references in this way seems simpler than seeing a three-way romance in which Solomon and a rural shepherd compete for the hand of the same woman (as argued by, e.g., S. R. Driver, An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament [Cleveland: Meridian, 1956], 436–46, or C. D. Ginsburg, The Song of Songs and Coheleth [New York: Ktav, 1970], 4–11; Iain Provan revives this interpretation [but implausibly] in Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, NIVAC [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], 298–305). A three-way romance is a possible way to read the book (e.g., in 1:4, the woman might be begging her real love to take her away from King Solomon), but it has the strange result of making the Bible’s ideal love story a competitive love triangle, in which a woman yearns for a man to whom she’s not married. This interpretation is rightly rejected by most modern commentators (e.g., Fox, The Song of Songs, 208; Exum, Song of Songs, 78).

Iain Duguid, in his excellent commentary on the Song, presents something of a variation on this reading by interpreting the royal procession of 3:6–11 as a second wedding which the main characters watch from afar on the day of their own marriage. Duguid sees a contrast between the two relationships, such that Solomon enjoys wealth and luxury on the day of his wedding, but misses the true love which the unnamed couple enjoy (Song of Song [2016], 70–71, 73). My sense is that it’s simpler to read the royal language only as communicating the great value which bride and groom see in each other.

[37] Duguid, Song of Songs (2016), 87.

[38] Hess, Song of Songs, 32.

[39] The poem of 6:4–8:4 contains the Song’s most enigmatic passage in 6:11–13. Iain Duguid helpfully interprets it as an intentional mixed metaphor which communicates the health and vitality of the relationship in a way which happily surprises the woman: when the woman goes to see if the “garden” is in bloom (v. 11), she suddenly finds herself in a chariot next to a prince (v. 12)—implicitly, her prince. Her fears from 5:2–8 that she has lost her love are happily proved false (Song of Songs [2015], 140–41; this involves the minor emendation of MT’s עַמִּי [“my people”] toעִם [“with”]). The woman is so caught up with her prince charming that the others call for her to come back (6:13), but her husband mildly rebukes them; it is time for the couple to focus on each other. The “dance between two camps” at the end of 6:13 can be a public and not immodest dance, as in Exod 15:20, Judg 11:34, 1 Sam 18:6–7; the point is not that the woman is actually dancing, on that the joy of the couple’s reunion is compared to it (Duguid, Song of Songs [2015], 143; see a basically similar interpretation in Fox, The Song of Songs, 156; Hess, Song of Songs, 195, 208–10).

[40] Some wonder whether the “wall” and “door” to which the brothers compare their sister have opposite meaning, i.e., the brothers will make her an attractive bride regardless of whether or not she’s been chaste (cf. 4:12). If this is the case, it makes the brothers seem even more callous; but one would expect פֶּתַח (“entrance, doorway”) for this, not דֶּלֶת (“door;” see Keel, The Song of Songs, 278–79; Garrett, Song of Songs, 260). In other words, both “wall” and “door” mean the same thing; the brothers assume their sister’s virginity because of (what they perceive to be) her physical immaturity (GKC 150h lists other places where double questions introduced with אִם need not be mutually exclusive).

[41] Duguid points out the jarring contrast between the vision of married love in 8:6–7 and the more commercial model of the brothers in vv. 8–9, in which the young woman is not even consulted, but spoken for (Song of Songs [2015], 156); he speaks of the brothers treating their sister like “a marketable commodity” (Song of Songs [2016], 157). Elle Assis judges the brothers even more harshly, understanding them to imply that she cannot attract a mate on her own and “only their intervention can ‘save her’” (Flashes of Fire: A Literary Analysis of the Song of Songs, LHBOTS 503 (London: T&T Clark, 2009], 247). Alternately, some understand the description of the woman as not physically ready for marriage in vv. 8–9 as either a tease or to express the brothers’ genuine concern to protect their little sister, i.e., they take her seriously enough to provide for her marriage “on the day she is spoken for,” but tease her that she’s just a kid, knowing that it’s not exactly true (e.g., Fox, The Song of Songs, 171–72). This is possible, but the contrast between 8:6–7, 8–9, and then the woman’s speech in v. 10 makes it (to my mind) less likely.

[42] Garrett marshals an impressive body of evidence to show that sexual activity within the bounds of monogamous, heterosexual marriage was the norm in the OT, second temple Judaism, and in early Christianity (Song of Songs, 164–68). In this way, the Song is reflecting and buttressing the teaching of the entire Bible.

[43] Duguid, Song of Songs (2015), 129.

[44] It is worth noting that Ruth takes the same strategy with Boaz in Ruth 3:6–9, not actually proposing marriage to him, but tacitly raising the subject within the framework of the kinsman-redeemer relationship. Ruth takes the initiative without supplanting Boaz’s role.

[45] Duguid, Song of Songs (2015), 82.

[46] Somewhat as an aside, it’s worth pointing out how the woman is neither hyperconfident and overassertive, nor completely insecure and utterly dependent on the man’s approval: she knows she is beautiful (1:5), but is also bothered by her deep tan (1:5) and needs affirmation (2:1–2). As elsewhere, the Song is hinting at the wisest way to enter a relationship through the words it gives to its characters.

[47] It would be a mistake to read too much into the small details and silences of the text, but one notices that the young woman’s brothers play only unhelpful roles in the book (1:6, 8:8–9), that her mother is mentioned without appearing in the text (3:4, 8:5), and that the young woman’s father is not mentioned at all (Duguid, Song of Songs [2016], 14). Has this woman had a bit of a rough start in life? If so, the maturity which she enters into this relationship is even more admirable.

[48] Othmar Keel gathers Mesopotamian evidence of night watchmen on guard against prostitutes who would veil themselves; if any were found, they were to be unveiled and beaten (The Song of Songs, 195). If this is in the background of this passage, it means that part of the woman’s nightmare is that she’s being treated far worse than she deserves, punished like a prostitute when she only wants to find her own husband.

[49] Philip Ryken, The Love of Loves in the Song of Songs (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 146–47.

[50] Duguid, Song of Songs (2015), 48.

[51] Exum, Song of Songs, 3.

[52] James Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 77.

[53] The second translation is from Duguid, Song of Songs (2015), 155. God’s name can be added to adjectives to make it a superlative, suggesting the less interesting translation, “a powerful flame” (compare Ps 118:5, מֶרְחָב יָה, “a broad place of Yahweh,” or “a very broad place,” or Ps 36:6, הַרְרֵי אֵל, “mountains of God” for “great mountains”; see further examples in Isa 28:7, Jer 2:31, and Joüon 141n). Even though this translation is possible, Duguid points out that superlatives can be communicated in other ways without invoking the divine name (Song of Songs, [2015], 155), suggesting the more theologically suggestive translation given above.

[54] “In a world in which death writes the epitaph of every human relationship, the love of a man and a woman for each other cannot be an end in itself” (Duguid, Song of Songs [2016], 48; see further Ryken, The Love of Loves, 140–41).

[55] Although it seems less likely, there may be a second hint in the way 8:6–7 echoes echo names and titles for gods in the pagan Semitic pantheon known from the Baal Epic: Death, Resheph (“flame”), and the sea god Yam, hailed as “prince Sea” and “judge River.” Without at all lending any legitimacy to pagan mythology, the comparisons to love in these verses may hint that the love being described here is more than natural.

[56] Duguid points this out (Song of Songs [2015], 50).

[57] Duguid, Song of Songs (2015), 50.

[58] For those interested, any good commentary will summarize Jewish and Christian allegory of the Song; Duguid is a good place to start (Song of Songs [2016], xvi–xix). Denys Turner provides a convenient anthology of medieval readings of the Song in, Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs, Classical Studies Series 156 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), as well as discussing the larger theological and hermeneutical framework within which allegorical readings cohered and were compelling to medieval Christians. He also demonstrates that allegorical readings were not uniform and sometimes provoked disagreement (Nicholas of Lyra and Aquinas both argued against excessive allegorizing).

[59] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic, 2011), 248.

[60] Landy, “Beauty and the Enigma,” 57–58.

[61] Fox, The Song of Songs, 329.

[62] Some commentators find another supernatural hint in the gazelles and does by which the woman adjures her friends against the untimely awakening of love (2:7, 3:5), since the words for these animals sound like titles for God (צְבָאוֹת, “gazelles,” is close to יֶהוָה צְבָאוֹת, “the Lord of hosts,” andבְּאַיְלוֹת הַשָׂדֶה , “does of the field,” is close to אֱלֹהִים שַׁדָּי, “God Almighty;” e.g., Garrett, Song of Songs, 152). This seems less likely to me; God is so frequently explicitly invoked in oaths the OT, I cannot think why his name would be hidden here. Gazelles and does recur so frequently in ANE love poetry that references to these animals as ordinary animals makes sense in this context (Hess, Song of Songs, 80 n. 90; Keel, The Song of Songs, 92).

[63] Duguid, Song of Songs (2015), 117. Duguid points out how OT wisdom literature elsewhere links “relational and spiritual truths,” e.g., the forbidden woman is a reflection of Lady Folly (p. 117).

[64] Duguid, Song of Songs (2016), 10. Hess suggests that this is the reason why the book’s title is a superlative (the Song of Songs)—not because sex is the most important part of human experience, but because it reflects the divine Love (Song of Songs, 37–38).

[65] Garrett, Song of Songs, 107.

[66] This is, to me, a more satisfying and convincing way to read the Song than interpreting the young woman’s two breasts as Moses and Aaron, or the two tablets of the decalogue, or the Old and New Testament, or the two Protestant sacraments, or the beauty of the church in Christ’s eyes (for these interpretations, see Garrett, Song of Songs, 74). Othmar Keel justly writes that “if two allegorizers ever agree on the interpretation of a verse it is only because one has copied the other” (The Song of Songs, 8). Far and away the best non-allegorical study of the biblical-theological significance of marriage is my father Ray Ortlund’s Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).

[67] See further Samuel Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite: Aspects of Faith, Myth and Ritual in Ancient Sumer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970).

[68] Some nuance is required here, because the extra-biblical texts to which the Song is most similar—Egyptian and Mesopotamian love poetry—“show scarcely a trace of a mythologizing of love;” at most, Hather is invoked as “the protector and patron of love” and prayed to as such (Keel, The Song of Songs, 33; Murphy similarly writes of an almost total lack of any interest in or references to religion in Ramesside era Egyptian love songs [Song of Songs], 45). In other words, the overlap between sex and theology in the ANE does not obtain in ancient Middle Eastern love poetry. Nevertheless, a confusion about how human romance is related to the divine is still evident in Israel’s pagan surroundings.

[69] Murphy quotes two German commentators (Gerleman and Rudolph) who understand the Song to deliberately de-sacralize human sexuality in reaction against ancient Middle Eastern paganism (Song of Songs, 100–1).

[70] Cyril of Jerusalem wrote that the reader of the Song “must not, accepting the vulgar, superficial interpretation of the words, suppose that the Canticle is an expression of carnal, sexual love” (quoted in Keel, The Song of Songs, 8). Turner records how many medieval theologians were uneasy even with married couples having sex; although it is necessary in order to repopulate the human race, it remains spiritually subject (Eros and Allegory, 83). It is significant that the Song never justifies sex in relation to some other good (such as childbirth); it is good in itself. Indeed, in the Song, the spiritual significance of marriage is wrapped up in the pleasure of marriage, not divorced from it.

[71] This is not in the slightest to imply that men are somehow more important than women, or necessarily better reflections of God; both genders equally image God (Gen 1:27–28). The Bible’s teaching about gender and distinction of gender roles is never predicated on male superiority.

[72] George MacDonald, Phantases (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1858), 223. I’m deeply grateful to my mother, Jani Ortlund, who read and commented on this article and encouraged me in it.

Eric Ortlund

Eric Ortlund is a tutor in Hebrew and Old Testament at Oak Hill College, London, England.

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