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Song of Songs

The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, is a celebration of the love of a young couple as they move from engagement to marriage. In some ways the Song of Songs is modern in its ideal of marriage as a match based on the romantic love between the couple. It was not uncommon in the ancient world for parents to arrange marriage. It was expected that the couple would learn to tolerate each other after the marriage. Frequently romantic love was to be sought through adultery rather than within marriage, as in the medieval courtly love tradition. It was the Puritans who dusted off the old model from the Song of Songs to encourage their adherents to find love within marriage. They called it companionate marriage.

The sexuality of the Song of Songs has been a problem for interpretation because of the prudishness of medieval Jewish and Christian scholars. At least the Jews could get married: priests, monks, and nuns were supposed to be celibate. So what to make of the Song of Songs? There are three possible approaches for the prudish.

  1. Ignore it.
  2. Allegory. Allegory is a popular method of interpretation of Biblical texts, going all the way back to Genesis. So it was natural to interpret the Song of Songs allegorically. The usual way is to see God as the bridegroom and the Jewish people or the church as the bride. I have a print copy of the KJV printed in 1985 by the Holman Bible Publishers, the publishing company for the Southern Baptist Convention. So here are the section headings they chose to print.
  3. Mysticism. Mystics ties to achieve direct union with God. This union is often ecstatic and beyond description. Thus when mystics try to communicate their experiences, they have to do so using various images and metaphors. For example, Langston Hughes' "Salvation" describes how he thought the people in the church he grew up in thought he would literally see Jesus when he was saved. Because the the closeness of people when they are having sex, it was frequently used as a metaphor for the experience of oneness with the divine.

In addition to being the sexiest book in the Bible, the Song of Songs gives us a staple of love poetry, especially during the English Renaissance: the blazon.  The blazon lists and describes the beauty and character traits of the beloved, usually with a series of metaphors and/or similies.  Check this passage from Song of Songs 4:

  1. Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes within thy locks: thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead.
  2. Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren among them.
  3. Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks.
  4. Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men.
  5. Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.
  6. Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.

Two things to note about the blazon:

  1. The metaphors are culturally determined and can seem bizarre in different cultures. In what way are teeth like a flock of sheep, for example?  We might think "wooly," but the meaning seems to be more that the lovers teeth are white and none are missing.  A high compliment in the ancient world!
  2. It gets old quickly if overused, so much so that it can quickly become a parody.

Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare is a famous, ironic blazon:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
     As any she belied with false compare.


  א . דִּבְרֵי קֹהֶלֶת בֶּן-דָּוִד, מֶלֶךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָם 1 The words of Koheleth, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
ב  הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת, הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל. 2 Vanity of vanities, saith Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

Ecclesiastes is the third book popularly ascribed to Solomon. (Actually, any king who descended from David would be eligible for authorship.) Ecclesiastes is also wisdom literature in the Judaic tradition. It has a very different feel from Proverbs, however. Proverbs is written from the perspective of a father talking to his adolescent son. Ecclesiastes is written from the perspective of an old man who seems to be talking to himself. Like many old men, he has become pessimistic about life and pretty much everything in it. The speaker doesn't view suffering highly, but pleasure has left him empty as well.  Wealth, accomplishments, power, popularity, even wisdom itself — they are all in vain. The biggest fool in the world lies in a grave along with the wisest man in the world. He finally comes down in favor of fearing God and keeping his commandments as the one thing that is not in vain.

If we look at the Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes together, they form an arc.

  1. The Song of Songs could also be called, "Young Solomon in love." Certainly the image is not that of a jaded king marrying his 300th wife; the picture it draws is of a young couple in love, mindless of everyone else
  2. The Proverbs are the words of a father in his prime passing his wisdom and experience along to his son.
  3. Ecclesiastes is the musings of an old man looking over past experiences. From the perspective of old age, both the passion of youth and the wisdom of his prime now seem but vanity, emptiness.

Important terms.

Guest lecture by Frederick Buechner

Koheleth means "Preacher" and is the name by which the author of the book of Ecclesiastes is known. When the rabbis got together to decide which books to put into the Old Testament and which to throw out, it is reported that Koheleth's almost didn't make it. You can't help seeing why, but at the same time you can't help being grateful to them for letting it in under the wire even so. In that great chorus of voices that speak out of the Bible, it is good to have this one long-drawn sigh of disillusion, skepticism, and ennui, if only because the people who read the Bible sometimes feel that way themselves, not to mention also the ones who wouldn't be caught dead reading it.

People are born and people die, Koheleth says, and the sun goes up and the sun goes down, and first the wind blows from the northand then it blows from the south, and if you think you're seeing something for the first time, just go ask your grandmother, and if you think you're seeing something for the last time, just hang around for a while, and the whole thing is as pointless and endless and dull as a drunk singing all six dozen verses of "Roaming in the Gloaming" and then starting in from the beginning again in case you missed anything. There is nothing new under the sun, Koheleth says, with the result that everything that there is under the sun both is old and, as you might expect in all that heat, stinks.

If you decide to knock yourself out getting rich and living it up, he points out, all you have to show for it in the end is the biggest income tax in town and a bad liver; and when you finally kick the bucket, the chances are that your dim-witted heirs will sink the whole thing in a phony Florida real-estate deal or lose it at the track in Saratoga. If you decide to break your back getting a decent education and end up a Columbia Ph.D. and an adviser to presidents, you'll be just as dead when the time comes as the high-school dropout who went into stuffing sausages, and you'll be forgotten just about as soon.

If you decide to be Mr. Nice Guy or Miss Goody Two-Shoes and never do the dirty on a pal, that may win you a gold star somewhere, but it won't keep you from getting it in the teeth like everybody else, because "there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous," Koheleth says (Ecclesiastes 8:14), and we're all in the hands of God, all right, but "whether it is love or hate, one does not know" (9:1).

God has a plan for us, to be sure, but he leaves us in the dark as to what that plan is, and if God's plan happens to conflict with some plans of our own, guess whose way wins out? That is what the famous "A time to weep and a time to laugh" passage is all about(3:1-9)-that is, if you feel like laughing at a time that God has already pegged as a time for weeping, start reaching for the Kleenex.

"The race is not to the swift," he says, "nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful" (9:11), and that about sums it up. The dead are luckier than the living, he says, but luckiest of all are the ones who had the good sense never to get born in the first place.

But the rabbis in their wisdom let Koheleth into the Good Book anyway, placing him not far from the Psalms of David on one side and the prophecies of Isaiah on the other. Maybe it was their hope that in that location a little of David and Isaiah might rub off on him, especially one of the insights they more or less shared, which was that often people are closest to God when they need him most and that sometimes they know him best by missing him. [The Hebrew-speaking rabbis actually put the book between Lamentations and Esther. The Greek-speaking rabbis who oversaw the LXX put it between Psalms and Isaiah, which order the Christians followed in their Old Testament. — BRM]

The Book of Ecclesiastes

~originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words

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