It is said that the early church forbade the reading of one book of the Bible: The Song of Solomon. Some traditions hold that individuals had to be at least 30 years old before being allowed to read it. Other communities maintained that the book could only be understood once the lower nature was overcome. Some have seen the book as an allegory between God and the church, imposing all sorts of interesting interpretations. Others see a saucy lover’s triangle with multiple parties.
It is recommended that one read the book of Song of Solomon in one sitting, preferably in a translation that has the identity of the speakers provided. Reading more like a play, these eight chapters are a dialog between a man and a woman interrupted with a few choruses from the Daughters of Jerusalem. Imagine the confusion if one were to read a Shakespeare play with the characters not identified. When read carefully from the beginning comparing contextual evidences, the Song depicts a biblical picture of sexuality between one man and one woman that ultimately points typologically to the intimate love of God for His people.
The male protagonist is none other than Solomon, whose name is mentioned seven times (1:1, 5; 3:7, 9, 11; 8:11, 12) in the book itself. There are many clues that point to this wise man, from his familiarity with horticulture and zoology to descriptions of his royal wedding in 1 Kings. Also, geography, details of Pharaoh’s horses, and tone of luxury and fame are consistent with the Solomonic narratives. Though Solomon was well known for his polygamy, this book seems to reference his monogamous years early in his reign rather than his political marriages later on. Using imagery and language of kingship as well as shepherding, the book portrays a man courting the female protagonist: the Shulamite in chapters 1–3:5. The narrative then continues with the marital union of the two from 3:6–5:1, and finally a life of marital bliss and sexual love in 5:2–8:14. This outline is consistent with the order of relationships that we are to pursue: courtship first without “stir[ring] up nor awaken[ing] love until it pleases” (2:7 and 3:5); marriage second, in a proper wedding ceremony; and third, the step where sexual reservations are removed.
What is most obtuse in this book for modern readers are the analogies used by the romantic couple. Necks and noses are likened to towers, teeth to sheep, and other more intimate parts of the body to animals. Our contemporary senses can interpret these passages as their literal expressions of love, which would mean that this ancient couple may have looked quite unusual. Or, more likely, ancient Hebrew poetry conveyed not the physical form, but the emotional state of the poet. Towers were expensive strategic buildings that evoked soldiers. Taking a hill and then seeing another tower to overcome would evoke amazement, wonder, and perhaps even a little fear. They were known for their intricate details and workmanship. The entire multifactorial and multisensorial experience was intended in the poetic line of “your neck is like an ivory tower” (Song 7:4) rather than a woman with a long, gooselike neckline.
Another example is Solomon describing his beloved’s waist as a “heap of wheat set about with lilies” (Song 7:2). Not to be taken literally as a potbellied woman with white birthmarks littering her midriff, the experience of harvest is to be understood as when wheat was finally threshed and placed in a heap. There was a sense of plentifulness, thanksgiving, finality, and security, along with the beauty, purity, and delicateness of the lilies.
The poetic imagery of courtship, marriage, and sexuality takes on all the senses and fits the yearning of sexual intimacy in the human experience. Rather than a book that should be eschewed, the Song of Solomon teaches humanity about the deepest expressions of nostalgia, beauty, desire, fulfilment, pleasure, ad contentment.