The Bible has a great deal to say about love: love for God, love for friends, and love for our partners. And it’s this final type of love that this series of articles will cover. And there’s no better place to go for this than Song of Songs. This short little series is a practical exposition of the early chapters of Song of Songs which should help with the sticky questions of courtships and relationships up to the point of marriage. I’m aiming specifically at young people – after all, most of the events described seem to have happened when Solomon and the Shulamite woman were quite young.
For those not familiar with it, Song of Songs is a series of poems that tell the story of two lovers: Solomon, and a lady we call the Shulamite woman. The book is almost entirely their own words, though just occasionally a few others add their own thoughts. It was written by Solomon, and the events described took place around 965BC, nearly 3,000 years ago.
If you’re going to get the most out of this article, you’ll need your Bible beside you. And if you have an old translation of the Bible, then Song of Songs is going to be very hard to read, not because of the old-fashioned language, but because it will be very hard to work out who is saying what to whom. Make sure you have a modern translation with headings that explain who is speaking in each verse.
How to read Song of Songs
When some people look at Song of Songs, they believe that the story of human love is just an allegory of the love that God has for His people. For them, the first and only point of application is about Jesus Christ and His church. So Solomon becomes Jesus, and the Shulamite woman becomes the church. This creates all sorts of problems! As Stuart Olyott says: ‘Song of Songs is not an allegory. Those who try and read it in that way tie themselves in knots trying to find a spiritual meaning for every single allusion and turn of phrase which the book contains. The task is impossible, and those who attempt it have to resort to boundless ingenuity and inventiveness, rather than to solid principles of biblical interpretation’ (A Life Worth Living, Evangelical Press).
Instead, we need to understand that Song of Songs is a story about two lovers. It tells of us their courtship, marriage and later life. It tells us a little of their problems and hardships. But most of all it tells us about their love. And because it tells us about this great love a husband had for his wife, and because husbands should love their wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25), and because Christ is in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27), then looking at Song of Songs will inevitably teach us of the way that Christ loves us. This theme will become the focus of the third and final article in the series.
But we won’t be tied to find a hidden meaning to every camel and tent and plant. We’ll just let the book tell its own story, and use the rest of the Bible to open the truths of Solomon’s happy relationship, applying the truths to both our human relationships and our heavenly one.
But it’s important to understand that the Song follows a story line, starting before the two lovers have properly met, continuing through their courtship, then marriage, and into old age. You can split the story up into six scenes, though this series will only look at the first few chapters of the song.
- Scene 1: Wooing, waiting and winning (1:1–3:5)
- Scene 2: Wedding day glory (3:6–11)
- Scene 3: Wedding night bliss (4:1–5:1)
- Scene 4: Weariness and worry (5:2–6:3)
- Scene 5: Working things out (6:4–8:4)
- Scene 6: Weary, but not worn out (8:1–14)
A knight in shining armour?
Song of Songs starts with the Shulamite woman imagining all the things she would love to do with Solomon. She wants to kiss him, and she wants him to take her away. Like many girls, she’s letting her imagination run away with her a little bit as she sees this knight in shining armour coming to whisk her off her feet!
In response to these powerful thoughts, comes the chorus at the end of verse 4. They underline the fierceness of the competition for Solomon’s heart. (‘We rejoice and delight in you; we will praise your love more than wine.’) So how can the Shulamite woman triumph over the multitude of would-be admirers? How can she get her man?
She’s particularly concerned she won’t catch his eye – she’s too tanned (‘I am darkened by the sun’, v.6). Nowadays, the ladies of leisure who pour time into trying to make themselves look beautiful lie on beaches becoming bronzed, whilst ordinary mortals are stuck indoors working! In Solomon’s day, the opposite was true – the upper classes would spend the day in the cool indoors, with the working-class girls sent out into the fields to work, so it was fashionable to be fair-skinned. But despite insecurity about her looks, she wants to be with the one she loves (1:7). She’s not going to do anything special – just be with him. That’s what love is, isn’t it? It’s not just about going to cinemas or the theatre, wining and dining, or walking hand-in-hand down the beach. This is real love! She wants to be with him when he’s doing the normal things of the day. She just wants to be ‘where you graze your flock’.
But notice that that means she’s going to be ‘beside the flocks of your friends’. She’s not going to take him alone, yet. It’s too early for that – she’s got to win him, and woo him. And she’s going to do it whilst in the company of others. There’s real wisdom there. If you want to win a girl or a boy, then be with his or her friends. There’s safety in numbers. Take things carefully.
Finding her man
But notice too that the Shulamite woman has a definite plan of action. She has a strategy to bump into him during his lunch break! Her goats will just happen to need a drink from the very same place as his sheep. Boys, beware – girls often have plans of action! If they happen to bump into you somewhere, and a few days later happen to bump into you again, it might be planned! Like most girls, the Shulamite woman will let Solomon think their coming together was all down to his good judgment – yet in reality she’d been tracking him for days, perhaps even weeks!
With the help of the chorus (1:8), the Shulamite finds her man, and now it’s Solomon’s opportunity to speak for the first time (1:9-11). Men – don’t try this at home: ‘I liken you, my darling, to a mare’. Don’t tell your girlfriend she looks like a horse! But to the Shulamite it is a compliment. 1 Kings tells us that Solomon loved his horses – and horses were quite a rarity. They were seen as beautiful, elegant, strong and noble, and Solomon sees those qualities in her. And now Solomon starts to imagine her (‘Your cheeks are beautiful with ear-rings, your neck with strings of jewels.’) He’s imagining what she would look like, for verse 11 makes it clear she doesn’t wear gold and silver earrings yet – after all, she’s working now with her young goats (1:8), not all dolled up for a night on the town. There’s another lesson here, isn’t there? True beauty shines and doesn’t need tight tops and short skirts. True beauty can be seen in all circumstances.
Being with each other
Now we start to see more of the Shulamite’s plan unfolding (1:12-17). She’s too shy to approach him, so she puts on her best perfume, and walks quietly past his table (1:12). It worked – Solomon notices her (1:15)! And he sees her at close range, noticing the beauty of her eyes – not just her face generally as before (1:10). Their eyes have met across the crowded room. It seems then that Solomon takes her away from the tent, and they sit down together on the grass, looking up at the trees where ‘the beams of our house are cedars; our rafters are firs’, just enjoying being with one another on their first date (1:16-17).
And what does this do for the woman? It fills her with confidence: She was ‘darkened by the sun’, but now she feels like ‘a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys’ (2:1). Men, we have a real responsibility for our girls. Because Solomon has accepted her for who she is, she has confidence in herself. And it gets better, because Solomon tells her that she’s not a lily, but ‘a lily among thorns’ (2:2). Not very fair on Solomon’s groupies, but he wants her to be confident that it’s only her. Even on this first date, at this very early stage, he wants her to know that she’s the only one for him. Remember: if the girl or boy that you have your eyes on is only a lily among lilies – then don’t go out together. Wait. A lily among thorns – that’s the right time.
Then in 2:3-5 the Shulamite speaks at length. We could call this section What women want, and the biblical version is much better than the Hollywood one. She says, ‘I delight to sit in his shade’ (v.3). Girls, do you like to do that? Perhaps you’ve got a real battle here, because you don’t really like being in the shade, you want to be in charge – and this is all part of the problem going back to the fall (Gen. 3:16b). But God has designed women to sit in the shade – not in the sense that men dominate, but in the sense that her man is to protect her from the harsh desert sun. He provides for her (‘He has taken me to the banquet hall’), loves her (2:4), he strengthens her (2:5), he gives her support and care (2:6). That’s what women want! At least, that’s what godly women want – protection, provision, love, support, care. Isn’t it? So if you’re looking for a girlfriend, that’s what you should be looking to offer. If you’re looking for a boyfriend, you should be looking for someone to give you that.
We need to leave Solomon and the Shulamite woman there. In the next magazine we’ll see what happens when they become physically close. Pausing here will be a reminder that these two lovers took things slowly, as we’ll see next time.