Philippe R. Sterling
The Song of Songs is a celebration of the love which unites a man and a woman in monogamous marriage.
The Song of Songs is ascribed to Solomon. It may have been written in the tenth century BC towards the end of Solomon’s reign. It is a lyrical story in dialogue and monologue form that celebrates the love of a man and a woman and the fulfillment of that love in marriage. We know that Solomon was a prolific songwriter (1 Kings 4:29). The Hebrew name “Song of Songs” comes from 1:1 and expresses the superlative, making it the best of songs.
There have been many interpretive approaches to the Song. Four main ones are the allegory approach, the typology approach, the anthology approach, and the drama approach. The allegory approach is that the Song is a non-historical lyrical story in which the characters represent the spiritual relationship between God and Israel or Christ and the church. The typology approach holds to the historical basis of the Song while suggesting that it foreshadows the relationship between Christ and the church. The anthology approach is that the Song is a collection of songs extolling human love. The drama approach is that the Song is a musical drama involving either two or three main characters. As a two main characters drama the Song is a lyrical story about Solomon and the “Shulammite” – an alternate form of “Shunammite” used to refer to inhabitants of Shunem in 1 Kings 1:15 and 2 Kings 4:8-12 – that extols human love, marriage, and sexual pleasure. As a three main characters drama the Song is a lyrical story about a relationship triangle that celebrates the Shulammite’s faithfulness to a beloved shepherd over against Solomon’s attempts to win her for his royal harem. We will approach the Song as a three characters drama with a Messianic implication.
The Shulammite could be Abishag, the beautiful virgin from the city of Shunem, who became David’s nurse in his old age (see 1 Kings 1:3-4, 15). Abishag’s relationship with David was not consummated as a marriage. David’s son Adonijah requests to marry her in an attempt to strengthen his claim to the throne (1 Kings 2:13-25). Solomon understands the threat and eliminates Adonijah as a contender for the throne. Soon after these events Abishag may have returned home to Shunem and there become caretaker of Solomon’s vineyards leased to her brothers (1:6 and 8:11). Solomon on a visit to Shunem to inspect his vineyards sees her and seeks to woo her and add her to his harem. He invites her to return to the palace in Jerusalem where he continues his charm offensive. The Song depicts Abishag’s resistance to Solomon’s advances and her faithfulness to a beloved shepherd in Shunem. The love that overcomes all obstacles cannot be bought even by someone like Solomon (8:6-7). Throughout all of Solomon’s attempts to woo her, Shulammite remains a virgin, “a garden locked up and a sealed spring” (4:12). She preserves her “vineyard” from Solomon and freely offers herself in marriage to her one true love (8:12).
The purpose of the Song is to uphold human love and purity and monogamous marriage. Solomon learns this lesson not by practicing it but by observing it in a young woman whom he could not seduce with all of his power and wealth. He writes about it in the Song of Songs so that others might avoid his mistakes and adopt a pure monogamous love as God originally intended for marriage (Gen 2:18-25).
Literary Structure and Content
The Song is written in what could be a precursor to a dramatic musical style. It may have been performed by singers before an audience making it an ancient musical. Several literary forms and features support a dramatic structure:
- An opening and closing reference to the Shulammite’s labor in a vineyard and the influence of her brothers (1:6; 8:8-12)
- Multiple references to Solomon’s position as king and his possessions including 60 queens and 80 concubines (1:1, 4, 5, 12; 3:7, 9, 11; 6: 8-9; 7:5; 8:11)
- Multiple addresses to a beloved who appears to be someone other than Solomon and who is described as a shepherd (1:7-8; 2:16; 6:2-3)
- Two clear dream sequences (3:1-4; 5:2—6:3) and a possible daydream sequence (4:6—5:1)
- Several sets of refrains: adjuration refrains to purity (2:7; 3:5; 8:4); embrace refrains (2:6; 8:3); mutual possession refrains (2:16; 6:3; 7:10); gazelle refrains (2:17; 4:6; 8:14)
- Two questions which suggest a contrast between Solomon and the beloved shepherd for the Shulammite’s choosing (3:6; 8:5). She chooses the shepherd.
The main characters of the Song are King Solomon, Abishag the Shulammite, and the beloved shepherd. In addition there are a chorus of women, watchmen of the city, and Abishag’s brothers. The main settings are Solomon’s royal tent in the Issachar countryside near Shunem and the royal palace in Jerusalem.
One of the keys to understanding the flow of the Song is the use of number and gender. The specific characters have singular or plural phrases and masculine or feminine forms to distinguish them in the Hebrew and Greek texts. There is sometimes ambiguity in distinguishing between the king and the shepherd but clues in the speeches and the context help with the interpretation.
Title and Author (1:1) – The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s
Act I – Royal Tent near Shunem: Love’s Longing (1:2 – 3:5)
Scene One – Shulammite and the Daughters of Jerusalem (1:2-8)
- Shulammite longs for her beloved shepherd (1:2-4a).
- Shulammite notes that the king has brought her into the chambers of his royal tent (1:4b).
The Daughters of Jerusalem extol Solomon’s love (1:4b).
- Shulammite commends Solomon’s attractiveness (1:4c).
- Shulammite deprecates her appearance comparing it to the curtains of Solomon’s tent and blames her brothers for having made her caretaker of the vineyards (1:5-6).
- Shulammite longs for her beloved shepherd – she is in the tent of Solomon but would rather be with her beloved shepherd (1:7).
The Daughters of Jerusalem encourage Shulammite to carefully consider her choice of Solomon or the
Scene Two – Solomon and Shulammite: 1st Effort to Woo (1:9 – 2:7)
Solomon tells Shulammite that he finds her attractive and desires to enhance that attractiveness (1:9-10).
The Daughters of Jerusalem tell Shulammite that they will enhance her attractiveness (1:11).
Shulammite – While at the king’s table, the fragrant perfume given her awakens within her remembrance
of her beloved shepherd (1:12-14).
Solomon tells Shulammite that she is beautiful (1:15).
Shulammite longs to be with her beloved shepherd in their pastoral setting and says she is the rose of Sharon
and lily of the valleys (1:16—2:1).
Solomon calls Shulammite a lily among the thorns [maidens of the court] (2:2).
Shulammite in an aside says that she is lovesick for her beloved shepherd and longs to be intimate with him
but adjures the daughters of Jerusalem not to arouse love until the proper time (2:3-7).
Scene Three – Shulammite’s Song: Reminiscence of the Beloved’s Visit (2:8-17)
Shulammite recalls her beloved shepherd’s visit to her home in Shunem (2:8-9).
She remembers how he began to court her and sought to be intimate (2:20-14).
She cautioned him not to be hasty by being like foxes that ruin the vineyards while they are still in bloom
[she later refers to herself as a vineyard in 8:12] (2:15).
She rejoices in their mutual love (2:16).
She longs for his appearance (2:17).
Scene Four – Shulammite’s Dream: Searching for and Finding the Beloved (3:1-5).
Shulammite dreams of seeking and not finding her beloved shepherd night after night (3:1).
She dreams of arising and going about the city looking for him and asking the watchmen if they’ve seen him (3:2-3).
She dreams of finding him and consummating their love (3:4).
In a second aside she adjures the daughters of Jerusalem not to arouse love until the proper time (3:5).
Act II – The Palace in Jerusalem: Love’s Testing (3:6 – 8:4)
Scene One – Entrance of Royal Procession into Jerusalem (3:6-11)
An observer sees the royal procession coming into Jerusalem and describes its splendor (3:6-10).
The observer encourages the daughters of Zion to gaze on King Solomon and what he assumes to be a
coming wedding (3:11; cf. Isa 61:10).
Scene Two – Solomon’s 2nd Effort to Woo Shulamite and Her Daydream (4:1 – 5:1)
Solomon praises Shulammite’s beauty (4:1-5).
Shulammite’s heart is still in Shunem as she daydreams of marriage to her beloved shepherd (4:6-8).
She imagines their first act of physical intimacy for which she has reserved herself and of God’s approval (4:9 – 5:1).
Scene Three – Shulammite’s 2nd Dream: Searching for and Description of the Beloved (5:2 – 6:3)
Shulammite dreams that her beloved comes for her but she uncaringly turns him away (5:2-3).
[Solomon may have clouded her thinking.]
He departs but leaves an expression of love which reignites her feelings for him (5:4-5).
She goes out to search for him but does not find him and is wounded by the watchmen of the city (5:6-7).
She adjures the daughters of Jerusalem to convey her desire for him if they find him and they ask her what’s so special about him (5:8-9).
She describes her beloved shepherd (5:10-16).
They then ask where he might have gone that they could seek him with her and she answers that he would
have gone back to pasture his flock (6:1-2).
She desires to be his and he hers (6:3).
Scene Four – Solomon’s 3rd Effort to Woo Shulammite (6:4 – 8:4)
Solomon speaks of Shulammite’s bedazzling beauty and unique purity among 60 queens and 80 concubines
[later 700 wives and 300 concubines according to 1 Kings 11:3] (6:4-9a).
The wives and concubines also praise her (6:9b-10).
She reflects on how she had first caught the attention of Solomon and the court (6:11-12).
The women express their desire to gaze at her and she realizes that she is merely a physical object for them
to gaze upon as they would gaze upon companies of dancers (6:13).
The women praise her physical attributes and say that Solomon is captivated by her hair (7:1-5).
Solomon speaks of his lust for sex with her (7:6-9a).
She decides that she will save herself for her beloved shepherd and longs for the consummation of their
love (7:9b – 8:3).
In a third aside she adjures the daughters of Jerusalem to not arouse love until the proper time (8:4; cf. 2:7 and 3:5).
Act III – Back in Shunem: Love’s Sealing (8:5-14)
Scene One – Shulammite and the Beloved Shepherd (8:5-7)
Shulammite reunites with her beloved shepherd (8:5).
She asks for his devoted love and states her desire to freely give him her love (8:6-7).
Scene Two – The Brothers and Shulammite (8:8-10)
The brothers had wanted to guard the purity of their sister. If she was a “wall” they would support her resolve
and adorn her battlement with silver. If she was a “door” they would barricade her with planks of cedar (8:8-9).
Shulammite testifies that she was a “wall” and found peace in “his eyes” [brother, God or the beloved
She demonstrated what kind of woman she was by how she turned Solomon away and kept her “vineyard”
Is there a happy ending? (8:13-14)
Shulammite addresses the beloved shepherd and asks for his decision (8:13).
She asks that he come quickly and consummate their love in marriage (8:14).
This beautiful lyric story about a young woman choosing between the king and her beloved shepherd is helpful to everyone today who values love and marriage. We can learn about true love and choosing the right mate, waiting in purity for marriage, and the importance of affection and intimacy in marriage. The story reflects God’s intent for marriage in Eden (Gen 2:18-25).
The lyrical story of the faithful Shulammite, the beloved shepherd, and the seductive Solomon may typify the relationship of the faithful believer, the beloved Christ, and the seductive world. Jesus is the great Shepherd of the sheep (Heb. 13:20). He is also the bridegroom (John 3:29). The apostle Paul teaches that the union of Christ with his church underlies the marriage relationship (Eph. 5:22-33). The Shulammite yearns for her shepherd as the church eagerly awaits the return of Christ (Titus 2:13; 1 Peter 1:8; Rev 22:20). Revelation 19:7-9 refers to the marriage of Christ and his bride. The world seeks to woo the believer away from Christ (2 Cor 11:2-3; 1 John 2:15-17). Shulammite remained faithful to her beloved shepherd, so must we remain faithful to Christ.