Why is the Song of Solomon in the Bible?

ROB ASKS:

The Song of Solomon gets a lot of ‘bad press.’ Are there spiritual lessons to be found in this book?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The Song of Solomon or Song of Songs has probably roused more confusion than any other book in the Hebrew Bible, similar to the New Testament’s complex Book of Revelation. Roland K. Harrison of the University of Toronto says the Song provides “almost unlimited ground for speculation.” The Bible’s usual piety, preachments, and prayers are totally absent, nor is God even mentioned (except for 8:6 in some translations). Yet readings from the Song are chosen for Judaism’s Passover liturgy and Catholicism’s feast of Mary Magdalene.

Why was this book chosen for the Bible in the first place? Did King Solomon write it? Is it about him? And, most important, is this a book of erotic poetry, as it appears on the surface, or something totally different, an unusual expression of the spiritual love bond between God and believers?

Pioneer Protestant John Calvin said the Song was about physical love and saw nothing wrong with that. But the notable 17th Century Protestant commentator Matthew Henry insisted on the spiritualized view and warned against reading the Song “with carnal minds.” Such interpretation carries danger of “death” and “poison,” he declared. “Therefore the Jewish doctors advised their young people not to read it till they were 30 years old” lest they kindle “the flames of lust.” (!!)

Such distaste for the erotic as inappropriate for holy Scripture typified official views through much of Jewish and Christian history. There’s evidence that Christianity’s Second Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553) condemned a theologian partly because he took the Song literally and therefore said it should be removed from the Bible.

Tremper Longman III of Westmont College says no other biblical book has undergone such a radical shift in interpretation since the 19th Century. In modern times Calvin’s view prevails and the spiritual reading gets little regard. And yet the “Catholic Study Bible” says most scholars in that church think the Song portrays “the mutual love of the Lord and his people” as a “parable” — not an “allegory” as was often claimed. However, this study Bible adds that it’s “possible” to also see an idealized portrayal of the “sacredness and the depth of married union.”

The late Father Roland Murphy, an influential Catholic scholar, said the literal and erotic sense “seems to be the obvious meaning.” A standard evangelical reference work, the “New Bible Commentary” is more emphatic that the Song “must be taken literally as what it appears to be,” and finds love poems fully appropriate because the Bible teaches the “righteousness and value of true love” between a man and woman.  Yet this commentary thinks it’s probable that  ancient Jewish authorities, and early Christians who followed them, only included the Song in the Bible because of a strictly spiritual understanding.

The Guy concludes from various experts that this book obviously honors and celebrates physical love in marriage, which matches the biblical Book of Genesis where God’s creation of male and female is “very good.” However, Longman advises us,  “the Song is not a dating guide or a sex manual.” And the spiritual understanding adds inspirational value.

Tradition said Solomon himself wrote the Song but few think so today. Saying “of” Solomon seems to indicate it was “by” Solomon, but the preposition can also mean “dedicated to” or “in the manner” or “tradition” of Solomon, who was the symbol of biblical “wisdom” authors (see 1 Kings 4:29-34). Is the Song “about” Solomon? Apparently not, since he’s referred to in the third person. Moreover, Harrison notes that this king was “a licentious and capricious oriental despot” and thus an unlikely biblical role model. The Song celebrates marital monogamy and exclusivity, whereas King Solomon defied God and took 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-4).

Since the Song’s woman lover is more prominent than the man, there’s intriguing modern speculation that a woman might have written some or all of these poems. Longman concludes that Solomon might have written a poem or two but clearly the book “is not telling a story about Solomon” and in fact nothing “indisputably connects the book with Solomon,” which he says is no problem since there’s “little at stake” in authorship.

Liberal professors typically prefer late dates for biblical writings and say the Song’s Aramaic, Persian, and Greek vocabulary indicates it was completed long after Solomon’s day, following the Babylonian Captivity that ended in 538 B.C., or even  later than that. Carl Ernst of the University of North Carolina tells us “scholars agree” that the Song dates to “around the first century” of the Christian era. That’s a remarkable claim since the Song would have been a brand-new production in the same century when Jewish sages decided it was appropriate for inclusion in the Bible. What are the odds?

 

 

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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