As a church we’re spending time in the Old Testament book Song of Songs at the moment. To aid this, in e-news each week I’m including an excerpt from an essay Douglas Sean O’Donnell has written titled: The Earth Is Crammed with Heaven: Four Guideposts to Reading and Teaching the Song of Songs. This week we’re looking at his fourth and final guidepost (note: these are longer than normal posts, but given our subject matter worth reading). If you’d like to read the whole essay hit the link above. Enjoy.
Four Guideposts to Reading the Song of Songs
4. Guidepost Four: Written to Give Us Wisdom
Our fourth and final guidepost is about wisdom. This is a song (guidepost one) about human love (guidepost two) found in the Bible (guidepost three) written to give us wisdom (guidepost four).
I say “wisdom” because we can rightly categorize the Song of Songs as Wisdom Literature, thus fitting in with the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. The most obvious reason is 1:1: “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” This is Solomon, the king of Israel, but also the wisest of men, the supreme sage of the Bible’s Wisdom Literature.
In the Christian canon, the order goes Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Proverbs begins, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (1:1). Ecclesiastes begins, “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1) = Solomon? Finally, the Song starts, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” (1:1). The part translated “which is Solomon’s” could indicate:
- Dedication: to or for Solomon
- Subject Matter: about Solomon
- Affinity: in the Solomonic literary tradition
- Authorship: by Solomon
I take the traditional view, the most natural linguistic view, that Solomon was the author. I take this Song as one of Solomon’s 1,005 songs (see 1 Kgs 4:32). As the superlative superscription states, the “song of (all) the songs,” it is the very best of all of his prolific songwriting labors.
I also side with the medieval Jewish scholar Rashi that Solomon wrote this Song not in his youth but in his old age and that he did so as an act of contrition. In other words, in view of his idolatrous, polygamous relationships that led his heart away from the Lord (1 Kgs 1-11) and away from sexual purity and marital intimacy, he sets himself up as the foil in this Song. Thus, he writes this greatest of his songs in a distant “self-deprecating tone” to say to his first readers and to us, “Listen, on this matter of marriage, do as I say, not as I did.” Put differently, he says, “Don’t emulate my love life. Emulate theirs-this imaginary (or real?) couple. Emulate their simple, monogamous, faithful, passionate love for each other.”
Whether one holds this particular view or not, it is important to see the Song as part of the wisdom corpus, based partly on its association with Solomon, but also on the wisdom admonition that functions as a refrain throughout the Song: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem . . . do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” That refrain is first found in 2:7 and then also in 3:5 and 8:4. Besides that wisdom admonition, there is another subtle refrain, what we may call a wisdom admission: “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” This is found in various forms in 2:16, 6:3, and 7:10. These two refrains function as a double-edged key that helps unlock the front door of the Song. They highlight that this is a unified poem, not a collection of random poems pasted together; and they direct us to the wisdom Solomon seeks to give two different groups: the married and the unmarried.
The primary target audience is the unmarried, specifically single young women, “the daughters of Jerusalem.” Thrice the refrain begins, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem.” These “daughters” are the “virgins” mentioned in 1:3 or the “young women” in 2:2. They might be viewed as “bridesmaids”, but they certainly should be understood as young Israelite women (of Jerusalem-Israel’s city girls and “local lasses”). It addresses women of marriageable age, whose bodies are ripe for sexual love, who desire marital intimacy, but are still unmarried.
These girls are admonished to wait for sexual intimacy. Their bodies are saying “yes.” Their instincts for intimacy are saying “yes.” Their suitors might even be saying “yes” (or at least “please”). But they are admonished to say, “no.” The wisdom message to these young women is to wait. Virgins, stay virgins (!) . . . not forever, but for now. Wait for marriage. That is wisdom. That is the simple wisdom in this complex book.
Now notice how Solomon artistically does this. The admonition does not come through the voice of a celibate prophet, a learned rabbi, a stern sage, or even a father or mother (as common in the Wisdom Literature), but through the voice of a newlywed-the bride, a former daughter of Jerusalem herself, one of their peers. This is a book about peer pressure at its biblical best! Yes, the protagonist in this poem is a young bride. And this newly married woman comes out of her wedding chamber, love scene after love scene, to tell the young ladies, “Wait for this-what I’m enjoying. It’s worth it. Cool your passions now, and arouse them later, when it’s time.” The daughters of Jerusalem who hover around this “poetic drama” (they seem never to leave the scene) are the key to understanding the purpose of this whole wisdom poem.
Setting the Song alongside Proverbs, another Wisdom book, sheds further light on the feminine-focus of the Song. The book of Proverbs can be called “a book for boys.” The word “son” is used forty-four times; the word “daughter” is never used. “My son, stay away from that kind of girl, and don’t marry this kind of girl. But marry and save yourself for that girl-Prov 31:10-31.”That’s how the book ends, quite intentionally, for Proverbs is a book for boys. The Song of Songs is a book for girls. And its message to girls is “patience then passion” or “uncompromised purity now; unquenchable passion then.” Or put another way: In Proverbs the young lad is told to take a cold shower. In the Song the young lassie is told to take a cold shower.
However, also in the Song the married couples-the newlyweds and not so newlyweds-are told to take a warm shower . . . together. I mean it. God’s Word means it. The shower part is optional, the passion part is not. There are two refrains to the Song: one is to the unmarried (young women especially); the other is to the married. That second refrain goes like this: “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” This is the second side of the double-edged key. It opens to us the wisdom admission of mutual compatibility and absolute intimacy: two becoming one.
In an indirect and impressionistic manner, the second refrain functions as an invitation to intimacy. In Titus 2:3-4, Paul instructs the older women to “train the young women to love their husbands.” Here in the Song, the young woman (the bride) trains the older women to love their husbands. That is, the Song is a like a splash of fresh water that some of us old lovers need thrown on our faces. Or to change metaphors and borrow one from the Song itself, it is like the wind that rekindles a flame that is dying out: “Awake, O north wind . . . come O south wind! Blow” (4:16) . . . blow this fizzling spark into a forest fire.
So the Song asks the Christian husband and wife, “How’s your love life? Is your wedding bed dead or alive? Is it as cold as a frozen pond in February or as hot as the Florida sand in August?” Reading, studying, listening to, and feeling the Song of Songs is like attending a wedding and witnessing the ripeness and rightness of young love. This Song is God’s provision to sustain loving marriages and renew loveless ones. It is his provision for increased intimacy that reflects the intimacy of Christ’s love for the church, an intimacy that makes the world turn its head to view our marriages and say, “So, that’s the gospel. What must I do to be made wise unto salvation?”
“Understandest Thou What Thou Readest?”
It is no easy task to navigate through the deep waters of Solomon’s Song. When we read from its opening scene
Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses! (Song 1:2a)
We will indeed rejoice and be happy for you.
We will indeed recall your lovemaking more than wine. (Song 1:4b)
we scratch our heads, only after we blush. We not only wonder how the two things that we will do our best to teach our young daughters to avoid (kissing boys and comparing such kissing to alcoholic consumption) made it into God’s Holy Word, but we also wonder how to explain to our congregations how such erotic poetry is appropriate and edifying for the church gathered. The four guideposts presented in this article- this is a song (guidepost one) about human love (guidepost two) found in the Bible (guidepost three) written to give us wisdom (guidepost four)- cannot explain every image or solve every philological, grammatical, and structural riddle, but hopefully they can give us greater confidence to read and teach this holy book that is wholly applicable today.