We humans love to talk about love. We love to sing about it, write about it, laugh about it, cry about it. Through the ages, our stories, songs, poems and pictures have been saturated with the subject of love – most especially the romantic kind, with all its joys and heartaches.

No surprise, then, that God should include in his Word a book dedicated to that subject, aptly titled “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” Admittedly, the book is something of an outlier within Scripture, notable for never mentioning God, as well as for its zestful language about sexual desire between young King Solomon and his new bride.

Popular passages from it are often read at weddings, while biblical scholars, Jewish and Christian, continue to debate what the book is about. Is it a metaphor for the love between God and his people, between Christ and his church? Or is it a picture of the passionate delight of physical intimacy between a husband and a wife?

Those are significant questions, but focusing solely on resolving them can cause us to overlook some vital truths the Song is telling us about love, both human and divine – and just as important, how the Song is saying those things.

Genre and context

The Song of Songs may be a love song, but it’s not like anything we’d find on the soundtrack of a romantic movie or from a popular recording artist. Written three thousand years ago in the Ancient Near East, its style, language and structure would have been familiar in those cultures but are alien in ours.

The heading in the first verse suggests the Song was written by, for, or about Solomon (the first option being most likely) for the occasion of the young king’s marriage to his equally youthful first wife. The Song switches between at least three different voices: the young woman, the young man, and the chorus, comprised of her brothers, her girlfriends, plus a general narrative voice. This chorus, which interacts with the main characters and comments on the action, was a common feature in ancient poetry and theatre, most notably in the tragedies of Ancient Greece.

Rather than following a direct linear narrative, the structure of the Song is built around a series of vignettes or episodes. In fact, the storyline is secondary to the inner thoughts and feelings of the young couple, as they passionately yearn for one another. The metaphors through which they express each other’s attractiveness are vivid and sometimes quite strange to our modern ears.

All these factors remind us that the Song of Songs should be read as poetry. It wasn’t written to be dissected for nuggets of information. Like all the best love songs, it was meant to speak to our hearts and our senses about the universal experience of romantic love.

Romantic love

Since we’re fallen beings living in a fallen creation, all our relationships, including romantic love, have been tainted by sin. And yet, we yearn to love and to be loved in ways that are healthy and pure and joyous. This is because at our core, we all sense that we were made for this. Love in all its forms, including romantic desire between men and women, is a beautiful gift from God, designed to be expressed within proper relational bonds, also created by God, for our good and his glory.

It's more than a little ironic, then, that a book like the Song of Songs should have given commentators such fits, both in the history of Judaism and Christianity. Older writers tended to limit the Song to a spiritual symbol for God and his people or for Christ and his Church, while sidestepping its suggestive metaphors for physical passion. One could almost feel the pages of their commentaries blushing.

However, there’s no escaping the Song’s sustained use of double entendre and euphemisms for physical passion, with its gardens and fruits and spices, its longings in the middle of the night. The poetry insists on being allowed to sing with its own voice, as a ringing endorsement of sexuality as a delightful gift from God.

At the same time, it’s not a carte blanche for sexual expression without boundaries. The context is limited to the relationship between the bride and her groom. This is underscored three times by the bride’s warning to her unmarried girlfriends: “Young women of Jerusalem, I charge you, do not stir up or awaken love until the appropriate time” (Song of Songs 2:7; 3:5; 8:4).

In the ancient world, writings about sexual attraction almost exclusively focused on the desires of men. The thoughts and feelings of women – to say nothing of their consent – was rarely considered. The Song of Songs is radical in that most of it is dedicated to the words of the woman – a powerful picture of the fact that women and men are equally made in God’s image and thus equal partners in romance and in marriage.

Notably, the woman is given the opening and final words in the Song, freely expressing her desires and her agency in pursuing the relationship:

Oh, that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your caresses are more delightful than wine. The fragrance of your perfume is intoxicating; your name is perfume poured out. No wonder young women adore you. Take me with you – let’s hurry. Oh, that the king would bring me to his chambers. (Song of Songs 1:2-4)

Run away with me, my love, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices. (Song of Songs 8:14)

Divine love

None of this disqualifies the Song from also being read as a metaphor for God’s relationship with his people. Old Testament poetry and wisdom literature often functions on two levels, and the Song is no exception. Many of David’s psalms describe his own immediate circumstances but also point to the future Messiah. In the same way, the Song of Songs is best understood in the context of the mutual passion between Solomon and his bride, while also symbolizing the love between God and his people.

This has been the general view of Jewish and Christian scholars through the centuries and is consistent with the rest of Scripture. In the Old Testament, God portrays himself as the husband of his unfaithful wife, the people of Israel, whom he continues to pursue with kindness and grace. In the New Testament, Jesus describes himself as the bridegroom and his Church as his bride, with whom he will share everlasting joy in his new creation.

The Song of Songs reflects this cosmic drama through its earthy love story, with its romantic tension, frustrated longings and ultimate consummation, brought to a climax by the woman’s joyful words, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3).

Along with its celebration of romantic love, the Song of Songs is also a metaphor for the love between God and his people, between Christ and his church. But this is not a cool platonic love, the way some people of faith have pictured it. According to the Song, it’s a bond marked by the highest levels of intimacy, passion and delight.

The greatest love story

Solomon, inspired by the Holy Spirit, titled this work the Song of Songs, meaning the best and most beautiful of all songs. The claim is even more astounding when we consider the fact that he wrote 1,005 songs, according to 1 Kings 4:32. Still, this wasn’t empty bravado or artistic arrogance. As a young man blessed with prodigious creativity and wisdom, Solomon could reflect on his work and admire it with gratitude that God had so gifted him.

God, who not only gifted Solomon but also inspired him to write the Song, intended it to be more than just an evocative outpouring of romantic feeling, although it certainly is that. As part of God’s written Word, the Song conveys layers of meaning about our relationships with one another and with God.

First, we mustn’t skip over the fact that the Song is a work of artistic excellence, all the more beautiful for confronting us with cultural and aesthetic conventions far removed from our own. We’re made in the image of a creative God whose Word as often as not speaks to us in poetry and stories rather than in propositional facts. He invites us to appreciate him and his creation with our minds, but also with our emotions, our imaginations, and our sense of beauty and wonder.

Next, we mustn’t shy away from the frankly suggestive language and imagery of the Song. The wise young woman of the story advises her girlfriends, and us, not to stir up passions until the appropriate time. We’re made in the image of a passionate God who has given us the beautiful gifts of romantic feelings and physical attraction, to be pursued within the bonds of marriage. He invites women and men within those bonds to enjoy, cherish and delight in one another.

Finally, we mustn’t ignore the fact that our most intimate relationships as men and women were designed by God to reflect something of his nature and of his relationship with us. We’re made in the image of a loving, triune God who has existed eternally in the perfect bond of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He invites us to enter and pursue passionate, joyful, loving relationships (within his ordained limits) with one another and with him, for which he created us.

The Song of Songs is a beautiful love poem that points to the Story of Stories: God’s grand narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. It’s a story filled with more drama, romance, passion and delight than we can imagine, and our God invites us as his bride, the Church, to be part of it with him.

Sources and further reading

Jessica Brodie, “Song of Solomon,” Christianity.com, accessed February 12, 2024.

Donald E. Curtis, “The Song of Songs,” Bible.org, July 2, 2004.

Adam Greenwald, “Kisses sweeter than wine: Understanding the Song of Songs,” My Jewish Learning, accessed February 12, 2024.

Jay Harvey, “Why study the book of Song of Solomon?Crossway, June 8, 2018.

Katlyn Richards, “Song of Songs: A return to the garden and a vision of relational healing,” BibleProject, July 10, 2019.

Miles Van Pelt, “3 things you should know about the Song of Solomon,” Ligonier, September 8, 2023.

BibleProject Team, “Song of Songs: Solomon’s team of highly skilled writers,” BibleProject, June 11, 2017.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2024 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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