Song of Songs: Conclusion – Part 1

Having completed our detailed critical-exegetical notes on the Song of Songs, it now remains to give serious consideration to questions surrounding the nature and purpose of the Song, including the ever-controversial issue regarding how best to understand love poetry of the Song as Scripture. This concluding discussion will be divided into several parts:

    1. Authorship and Dating of the Song
    2. Composition and Structure
    3. The Song as Scripture, with an evaluation of the three main interpretive approaches:
      1. The Allegorical-Symbolic approach
      2. The Mystical-Spiritual approach
      3. The Religious-Cultural approach
    4. Conclusion: A fresh approach to the Song

1. Authorship and Dating of the Song

Let us begin with the question of when the Song was composed.

The heading of the Song suggests that it was written by Solomon (“The Song of Songs, which [belongs] to Solomon”), and would thus date from his reign (c. 960-922 B.C.). The exact expression is hm)ýv=l! (lišlœmœh), with the prefixed preposition l= (“to, for”) denoting “belonging to”. This certainly could indicate authorship, as in the superscriptions to the Psalms, many of which are indicated as being musical compositions “belonging to David” (dw]d*l= l®¼¹wi¼). At the same time, it is possible to read hm)ýv=l! in the sense of “relating to Solomon,” in the manner, for example, of the titles of the Canaanite epic poems—lkrt, laqht, and lb±l. Since b±l refers to the deity Baal Haddu, clearly lb±l does not mean “written by Baal”, but that the composition is about Baal—that is, he is the subject and main character.

There are strong reasons to doubt that the Song was composed by Solomon. The attribution of so many Psalms to David reflects his legendary (traditional) status as a famous musician and singer-poet. In a similar way, it was natural for a wide range of writings to be attributed to the figure of Solomon, whose famous wisdom and prodigious literary output (1 Kings 4:32) were well-established in tradition and legend. Not only were the canonical books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs ascribed to Solomon, but also such works as the Jewish Psalms of Solomon, the Christian Odes of Solomon, and doubtless many others that no longer survive. Moreover, the royal harem of Solomon with his many wives was also part of the historical tradition, and one can easily see how this grandest of love songs, specifically, might be attributed to him.

Indeed, it is hard to see how anyone reading the lines in 8:11-12 (cf. the recent note) could still be convinced that Solomon was the author of the Song. In my view, he is neither the author nor even a significant character in the Song. It is, rather, the milieu of his reign—the Solomonic Age—that serves as the literary setting of the Song. In a modern novel or motion picture, we might subtitle the Song, “A Love Story from the Time of Solomon”.

Even so, we must admit the possibility that the heading of the Song was intended to express the belief (or tradition) that Solomon was the author. By all accounts, the heading was a secondary addition, written by a separate hand, indicated by the use of the classical relative particle rv#a& rather than the prefixed –v# used everywhere else in the Song (cf. below).

As far as historical or cultural references that might give some indication of when the Song was composed, there is very little at hand. The reference to Tirzah as a prominent northern city (6:4) has been used by some commentators to date the Song to the brief period when Tirzah served as the capital of the Northern Kingdom (prior to the building of Samaria, 1 Kings 16:24ff). Such a conclusion, however, reads too much into this single reference, since Tirzah doubtless would have remained as a legendary northern city in the minds of many people for generations to come. All that the reference proves with certainty is that the composition of the Song post-dates the division of the Monarchy (cf. 1 Kings 14:17; 15:21ff; 16:6-9ff).

Most commentators rely on the language and style of the Hebrew to determine the relative dating for the Song’s composition. The most distinct linguistic feature is the consistent use of the prefixed relative particle –v# (še), rather than the particle rv#a& that is used throughout most of the Old Testament (writings from the Kingdom and Exilic Periods). It is the regular relative particle in later (Mishnaic) Hebrew, and occurs primarily (100 of 139 occurrences) in two Old Testament texts that are often regarded as of later (post-Exilic) date—Ecclesiastes (68) and the Song of Songs (32). This picture, however, is complicated by the fact that –v# also occurs, albeit rarely, in earlier Hebrew texts, including the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:7), one of the oldest portions of the Old Testament. Other pre-exilic occurrences are: Gen 6:3; Judg 6:17; 7:12; 8:26; 2 Kings 6:11; it also occurs 17 times in ten Psalms if uncertain date (122-124, 129, 133, 135-136, 144, 146), while the age of Jonah 1:7, 12; 4:10 is also debated; cf. Fox, p. 188. How is this evidence to be explained?

The particle v# indeed has very ancient roots, used in many Semitic languages/dialects over many generations and throughout a wide geographic range. Hebrew v# (še) is equivalent to Akkadian ša, and also cognate with Aramaic (cf. Dan 2:11, 23, et al) and Arabic ¼¥, etc. All of these variant forms go back to the use of the Proto-Semitic interdental ¼—which variously came to be spelled/pronounced as š/´, d, ¼, z, in the different languages and dialects, over the course of time. The best explanation thus would seem to be that v# was the regular relative particle in early Hebrew, to be replaced (for unknown reasons) by rv#a& in the Classical (Kingdom and Exilic) Period, only to return as the regular particle in later (post-Exilic) Hebrew, probably under the influence of Aramaic. Its occurrence in the Song of Deborah (and other pre-exilic passages) apparently represents an archaic vestige of the earlier usage. Cf. Pope, p. 33. The consistent use of v# in the Song can thus be explained two ways:

    • It is a sign of very early poetry (probably older than the Song of Deborah), or
    • It means that the poetry is quite late (i.e., post-Exilic)

Overall, the evidence strongly favors the latter. As noted above, the pairing of Tirzah/Jerusalem in 6:4 argues for a time after the division of the Kingdom (i.e., post-922 B.C.). The usage in Ecclesiates suggests a much later date, as do the signs of Aramaic influence and the linguistic/stylistic parallels with Mishnaic Hebrew. There are, indeed, many rare and usual words and phrases—including numerous hapax legomena (words that occur in the OT only in the Song)—and a number of these are attested in Aramaic and later Hebrew. Most critical commentaries provide convenient summaries of this evidence—cf. for example, Fox, pp. 187-9. There are instances where linguistic parallels (or possible cognates) for the hapax legomena can be cited from earlier examples in Akkadian or Ugaritic, so the evidence for a post-exilic dating is not absolutely decisive.

What of the content of the love poetry itself? Unfortunately, the nature of love poetry is such that it practically defies dating. Many of the same (or similar) motifs, images, idioms, and phrases can be found in Near Eastern poetry across thousands of years, from the early Sumerian love songs to modern Arabic (Egyptian, Palestinian, etc) poems today. I have cited a number of such relevant and representative examples throughout the notes. In terms of ancient Near Eastern love poetry, probably the closest parallels to the Song—in terms of both style and content—are found in the Egyptian love songs from the New Kingdom (19th-20th dynasties, c. 1300-1150 B.C.), though the Song as we have it is likely nowhere near so old. However, it is certainly possible that the author of the Song drew upon more ancient and traditional material—incorporating motifs, phrases, verses, and even individual poems—that are considerably older than the Song itself. Some of these possible sources (and sources of influence) will be discussed in the next section (Part 2).

If a post-exilic dating is correct, which would make the Song one of the latest of the Old Testament Scriptures (probably later than Ecclesiastes), then a time-frame c. 500-200 B.C. would be a plausible rough estimate for the time of composition. The earliest external, objective evidence for the existence of the Song are the four Qumran manuscripts (4QCanta-c, 6QCanta)—all quite fragmentary, but together covering the bulk of the Song. These Dead Sea MSS show that the Song was in existence (and being widely copied) by the 1st century B.C. There is an earlier reference in Sirach (47:15, 17) to a song by Solomon, but it is by no means clear that this refers to the Song of Songs (it may simply allude to 1 Kings 4:32). Cf. Fox, p. 189.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).

September 12: Song of Songs 8:11-12

Conclusion to the Song (8:11-14)

Song 8:11-12

“A vineyard there was for Šlœmœh in Lord-of-a-Multitude {Baal-Hamon}…
he gave (out) the vineyard to the (one)s keeping (it),
(and each) one would bring in its fruit (for) a thousand (pieces) of silver.
My vineyard, which belongs to me, (is right) before me.
The thousand (silver pieces) belong to you, Šlœmœh,
but two hundred (go) to (the one)s keeping its fruit!”

These witty lines—a kind of mini-parable—serve a double purpose here in the Song. On the one hand, they bring the second movement of the Song (4:1-8:10) to a close; on the other hand, they form (along with vv. 13-14) a separate conclusion to the Song as a whole.

The closing section of the second movement (8:1-10) is parallel, in a number of ways, to the close of the first movement (3:4-11). While there is nothing quite comparable to the royal wedding scene of 3:6-11, there is a parallel reference to Solomon (hm)ýv=, Šlœmœh, vv. 7, 9, 11). And, if one reads carefully (between the lines, as it were), there is here an allusion to the marriage of the two lovers. However, instead of Solomon serving as a positive image (for a grand royal wedding, in 3:6-11), he functions here as a negative foil, a point of contrast for the lovers of the Song.

The little parable in verse 11 is simple and straightforward: Solomon possesses an enormous vineyard, so large that it is necessary for him to sublease it (“give it [out],” vb /t^n`) to a number of “keepers” (<yr!f=n)). Each of these “keepers” possesses a substantial vineyard in its own right, enough to receive a thousand pieces of silver (a large amount) for its fruit. The verb rf^n` is frequently used in a farming context, such as the cultivating of a vineyard. It was used earlier in 1:6 (cf. also Isa 5:1-7); indeed, there is almost certainly an intentional echo of the earlier reference in 1:6, referring to the girl as belonging to a family of vineyard-workers. In the symbolic context of the Song, the idea of “keeping” a vineyard means cultivating feminine sexuality.

Commentators have tended to trip over the location of the vineyard, /omh* lu^B^ (Ba±al H¹môn), attempting to identify it with a real historical location (cf. the “Did You Know…?” section below). In my view, it is a serious mistake to read the expression as a simple place-name (Baal-Hamon) with no further significance. Almost certainly, the fundamental meaning is figurative and symbolic. Literally, the name would mean something like “Lord [lu^B^] of a Multitude [/omh*],” and this is how I have rendered it in the translation above. It thus alludes to the wealth, power and prestige of Solomon, the greatest (in that sense) of Israel’s kings. Perhaps more importantly, the noun lu^B^ can be used specifically of a husband—i.e., “husband of a multitude,” most likely a thinly veiled reference to the royal harem of Solomon, his multitude of wives (1 Kings 11:3ff). His harem was so large that he could not possibly care for all his wives himself, leaving most of the work to other royal officials and servants (the “keepers”).

By contrast, the young man of the Song has only one wife—his beloved, the young girl of the Song. And this one wife truly belongs to him, being always there right before his face. This specific contrastive parallel to the wives of Solomon does, I believe, allude to the fact that the two lovers of the Song are intended to be husband and wife for each other, and will, indeed, be married.

The final two lines bring the contrast—between Solomon and the young man—to a sharp and satiric point. It draws upon the economic reality for a large vineyard that has been leased out to workers/keepers. In this particular illustration, the fruit for each subleased sector of the vineyard comes to a thousand pieces of silver, which technically belongs to Solomon; however, of this price, two hundred pieces (of the thousand) go to the keepers. Thus, Solomon is unable himself to enjoy all of the fruits of his vineyard. Throughout the Song, the motif of the “fruit” of the garden/vineyard represents primarily the enjoyment of sexual pleasure—specifically, enjoying the sexual charms and appeal of the young woman. This suggests that, within the context of the parable here, other royal officials are able (or allowed) to enjoy the women of Solomon’s harem.

By contrast, the young man enjoys all the fruit of his vineyard—that is, the beauty, charm, and sexuality of his beloved.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum explained these verses as an historical reference to the division of the Israelite kingdom following the reign of Solomon. The Midrash followed the Old Testament symbolism identifying Israel as a vineyard (Isa 5:7, etc). The reference to “Baal-Hamon” alludes to the fact that Israel sinned by “thronging” (Wmh*, h¹mû) after Baal—idolatrous practices that ultimately led to the destruction of the Kingdom and the Exile. The giving over of the vineyard to “keepers” was understood as referring to the Babylonian Captivity.

Bede follows the Vulgate in reading “the peaceful one” (assuming a substantive adjective from the root <lv) rather than the personal name Solomon (hm)ýv=); similarly ‘Baal-Hamon’ was translated as “that which contains people” —the first line of verse 11 thus reading, “The peaceful one had a vineyard in that which contains people”. This allowed Latin commentators like Bede to interpret the verse in a completely positive sense, as referring to the Church as the vineyard belonging to the “peaceful one” (Christ). The “keepers” are the prophets and apostles, and their successors in roles of leadership, exercising care and cultivation of the vine, guarding its fruit. According to this line of interpretation there is no point of contrast in the illustration; rather, the keepers work in the presence of the “peaceful one” who ultimately oversees his own vineyard—all things thus functioning harmoniously.

Interestingly, Theodoret, in his interpretation of vv. 11-12, does maintain a sense of contrast, but in terms of the earlier reference to the vineyard in 1:6 (cf. above). That vineyard, the young woman (i.e., the Church) says, she did not keep; now, however, it has been restored to her—through the work of the “keepers” (working for her salvation), under the authority of the Bridegroom (Christ).

While “Baal-Hamon” may have figurative/symbolic meaning here in the Song, it likely draws upon ancient (Canaanite) historical tradition. Originally, the designation –amœn (> „amœn) may have referred to ‘Mount Amanus’ in northern Syria, and that the Creator °E~l was called by the title “Lord (Baal) of the Amanus mountain(s)” (Ba±l –amœn). The great high-deities in the Semitic world tended to be associated with mountain locations (symbolic of their cosmic mountain-dwelling). For more on this, cf. the discussion in F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Harvard: 1973), pp. 26-28. There were many Baal- place names in Palestine, inherited by Israel, which likely were originally associated with the Creator El (= Yahweh), rather that storm deity Haddu.

July 21: Song of Songs 3:11

Song 3:11

“Daughters of Yerushalaim, go forth,
and look, (you) daughters of ‚iyyôn,
on the king, Šlomoh, on the crown
with which his mother crowned him,
on (the) day of his marriage,
on (the) day of (the) joy of his heart!”

As discussed in the previous note, The last two words of v. 10 (separated from the prefixed preposition –m) properly belong to v. 11 here, forming an initial parallel couplet in which the speaker—most likely the young woman—calls on the other girls to look with amazement at her bridegroom as he approaches. The “daughters of Jerusalem” are referenced a number of times in the Song, including earlier in 1:5; 2:7; 3:5. Here they function as spectators at the wedding, possibly even members of the bridal party. In my view, all of vv. 6-11 represents an ideal portrait, in the mind of the young woman, of her (intended/future) wedding to the young man.

It may be that this scene draws upon historical traditions regarding king Solomon’s wedding, but here, in the Song, the reference to Solomon is most likely figurative. It is the young man, the girl’s beloved and intended groom, who plays the role of her “king”, her “Solomon”. The crown (hr*f*u&, lit. a band, etc, wrapped around [the head]) emphasizes the royal character of the wedding. Again, this is figurative, and the sense of role-play may be indicated by the role of the boy’s mother in “crowning” him as king at the time of their wedding. The girl imagines the ceremonial splendor of her wedding as being on a truly grand scale, akin to the wedding of Solomon himself.

If there were any doubt that a wedding scene is in view, this is made explicit in the final lines. The noun hN`t%j& occurs only here in the Old Testament, but it is related to /t@j) and /t*j* which essentially denote being (or becoming) a son-in-law. This aspect is quite difficult to translate literally in English; one can only become a son-in-law through marriage, and that is probably the best way to translate hN`t%j& here.

The approach of the young man (the royal bridegroom) is parallel to the approach of the young woman (the royal bride) in v. 6 (cf. the prior note). In my view, this parallelism is clear and definite, like facing panels of a triptych with the central scene of the wedding bed/night (vv. 7-10) portrayed in between.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum explains the wedding/coronation of Solomon in terms of the king’s dedication of the Temple. The Midrash Rabbah played on the presumed derivation of the name Solomon (hm)l)v=) from the root <lv, “(be) complete”, applying it to God who created all things in their fullness and perfection. The “crown” and the wedding-day could also be explained in historical terms, being associated with the Tabernacle, the giving the Law to Israel, and again with the consecration of the Temple. The motif of Israel as a bride (and/or bridegroom), united to YHWH in a covenant bond, was natural and well-rooted in Old Testament tradition (Isa 61:10; 62:3-5, etc). Cf. Pope, p. 449-50.

As Gregory of Nyssa explains it, the “daughters of Jerusalem” are those other souls being saved who have not yet attained to her level of growth and understanding, and so the Bride calls to them that they may follow her example. Christologically, it would be God the Father who “crowned” Christ, so Gregory feels compelled to offer some explanation as to why it says here that the king was crowned by his mother. In this regard, the name is not significant—whether male or female, it refers to the Power of God. The Church itself is interpreted as the ‘living stones’ embedded, it is assumed, in the Bridegroom’s crown; however, the Church only becomes so when believers “come out” to witness the King in all his splendor, and are thus purified and enlightened together as the Bride of Christ.

Ambrose’s explanation of the scene has a more ascetic emphasis, interpreting the command for the daughters of Jerusalem (the souls) to “come forth” as meaning:

“…come away from the cares and thoughts of this age, come away from bodily constraints, come away from the vanities of the world—and behold what love the peace-bearing King has on the day of his wedding, how glorious he is…” (translation by Norris, p. 150)

His fine comments at the close of this section are worth repeating:

“This is the victor’s crown of the great contest, this is the magnificent wedding-present of Christ, his blood and his suffering. For what more could he give, who did not hold himself back, but offered his death for our benefit?” (ibid)

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, general editor Robert Louis Wilken (Eerdmans: 2003).

July 20: Song of Songs 3:9-10

Song 3:9-10

“King Šlomoh himself made a canopy
from (the) trees of the white (mountains):
its standing (post)s he made (with) silver,
(and) its spread (was made with) gold;
its seat(-cushion) (was made with) purple,
(the space) within it was inlaid (with) love.”

The meaning of the term /oyr=P!a^ (°appiryôn), which occurs only here in the Old Testament, remains uncertain and much debated. It is probably a foreign loanword, suggestions ranging from the Sanskrit paryanka to Greek phoreion (forei=on). While the derivation of the word cannot be determined with any certainty, cognate words in Aramaic can at least provide some clarity to its meaning. These terms (pwrywm°, prywn, pwryyn°, pwry°, pwryh, and note also Syriac pwrywn; cf, Fox, p.125) all refer to a bed or couch, including a portable unit that can be transported. The context here clearly refers to a canopied (covered) structure, with posts and a frame. Since the bed/couch itself was referenced in vv. 7-8 (cf. the previous note), I understand the description of the /oyr=P!a^ here as referring primarily to the covered structure (canopy) for the bed.

While it is possible that the description draws upon authentic historical tradition, regarding a grand structure which was actually made for Solomon, its purpose here is almost certainly figurative. The frame of the canopy is made out of cedar-wood from Lebanon (lit. the “white [capped mountains]”). The posts are additionally covered/decorated with silver, and its “spread” (the carpeted covering) with gold. Thus it is truly a luxurious (and expensive) structure!

The final two lines focus on the space inside the frame. The cushions (lit. place to sit, bK*r=m#) are made with expensive purple-dye, while rest of the space is said to be “fit together” (or “inlaid”, vb [x^r*) “(with) love”. This last phrase is problematic, complicated by the textual confusion in the MT, as the final two words of v. 10 almost certainly belong at the start of v. 11 (a point recognized by most commentators). It has been suggested that the initial –m of MT tonB=m! should be attached instead to the end of the previous word, as an enclitic <-, and this seems plausible; the expression “daughters of Jerusalem” fits better with what follows in v. 11.

Some commentators would emend <bha (“love”) to <ynba (“stones”); while this makes sense, there is really no textual support for such a change. Perhaps what the poet has in mind is the decoration of the bed-frame (and canopy) with scenes of lovemaking. Pope (p. 445) notes the ivory carvings on the bed of the king of Ugarit which include the scene of a man and woman embracing (photo provided by Pope in Plate II [following p. 360]). The ivory beds mentioned in Amos 6:4-7 may have contained similar sorts of decoration. Mention should also be made of the great ivory throne of Solomon (1 Kings 10:18); the principal reason for the use of ivory is it viability for carved (and inlaid) decoration.

It seems likely that the overall portrait in vv. 7-10 is of a portable canopied bed which could be set in a favored location. A gardened pavilion may be in view, akin to what is described in Esther 1:5-6. This “little house” (/t^yB!) of the king has parallels with the garden pavilions of royalty in Mesopotamia (where the cognate term bitanu is used) and Egypt. Such a royal chamber, with couches for drinking and love-making, seems to be in view earlier in the Song (1:4) as well.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (vv. 9-10)

The Targum and Midrash explained the (portable) bed of Solomon, in historical terms, as the Temple and/or the Ark of the Covenant. The posts of the canopy and the seat “inlaid with love” were particularly connected with the Ark and its cover. The Midrash Rabbah further develops this symbolism, whereby the interior “inlaid with love” was explained as the merit and virtue of the Torah, and of those righteous ones who study it (cf. Pope, p. 446).

Among early Christian interpreters, Theodoret takes advantage of the etymology of the name Solomon as meaning “peaceful” (cf. above on the root <lv), identifying him as a type of Christ (“he is our peace,” Eph 2:14), and turning to Psalm 72 [LXX 71], ascribed to Solomon, as an account of the “righteous deeds of the Savior” (Norris, p. 148), whose kingdom of peace will come to extend over the entire world. Theodoret interprets the sexuality of the wedding night (and the bed) primarily in a moral and religious sense: the Bride lies down with the Bridegroom (Christ) to receive the seeds of his teaching, eventually conceiving and ‘giving birth’ to offspring (in a spiritual sense). The sixty warriors and the canopy (cf. above) are similarly interpreted in a typological manner, as referring to the Old Testament saints and the apostles, the “pillars” of the canopy specifically being those leading apostles of the Jerusalem Church mentioned by Paul in Gal 2:9, etc.

Ambrose takes a more lyrical (and mystical) approach, identifying Solomon’s bed directly with the person of Christ, who is called “the bed of the saints, upon whom the weary hearts of every one of them rest from the struggles of this age” (transl. by Norris, p. 150). This is applied primarily to the Patriarchs and saints of the Old Testament, but it also anticipates the Bride (believers) mounting the bed to lie down with Christ (the Bridegroom) himself.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).
Those marked “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, general editor Robert Louis Wilken (Eerdmans: 2003).


July 19: Song of Songs 3:7-8

Song 3:7-10

I would outline the section 3:6-11 as follows:

      • The approach of the royal bride (the young woman), v. 6 (cf. the previous note)
      • Description of the marriage bed (or couch) for the wedding night, vv. 7-10
      • The approach of the royal bridegroom (‘Solomon’ = the young man), v. 11

Verses 7-10 provide a description of the couple’s couch/bed in preparation of their wedding night. As discussed in the previous note, the wedding of the young couple is depicted as a royal wedding, and traditions associated with Solomon (hm)l)v=, Šlœmœh, the grandest of Israelite kings, add to the sense of splendor.

Verses 7-8

“See, where he stretches out, (the bed) for Šlomoh!
Sixty strong (one)s (are) surrounding her,
from (the) strong (one)s of Yisrael,
all of them being (taught) to hold a sword,
(hav)ing been instructed in war,
(each) man (with) his sword upon his thigh,
from (the) terror (that comes) in the night.”

Literally, the first line would read: “See, (the) place for stretching out [hF*m!] which (belongs) to Solomon”; I have rendered it in a more poetic fashion. The use of the relative particle (v#) + the preposition l= is a pleonasm for the possessive, i.e., “Solomon’s place for stretching out” —that is, his bed or couch. The context clearly indicates that it is the bed/couch where the royal couple (the king and his bride) lie down together (on their wedding night).

The remainder of these verses focus on the swordsmen who stand guard around the royal bed. The adjective roBG] fundamentally refers to strong, powerful, vigorous young men; the expressions that follow, both utilizing descriptive passive participles, indicate the skill of these men with the sword and also their strength/ability as warriors in battle. One is reminded of the fame attached to David’s corps of elite warriors (2 Sam 10:7; 23:9, 16ff; 1 Kings 1:8).

The reason why they stand guard, with sword close at hand, is stated, however enigmatically, in the last line: it is to protect the bed “from (the) terror (that comes) in the night” (tolyL@B^ dj^P^m!). As in verse 1, the plural (“nights”) is used, indicating something that occurs regularly/frequently during the night.

Perhaps the best explanation of this imagery is that the warriors (“sixty” being a standard/traditional number) primarily serve a ceremonial or ritual purpose. They symbolically guard against demon-spirits that might attack or disturb the couple on their wedding night. Pope (pp. 434-6) provides strong arguments in support of this interpretation, drawing upon earlier studies by J. G. Wetzstein and Samuel Krauss; the evidence cited by Krauss (“Der richtige Sinn von ‘Schrecken in der Nacht,’ HL III 8” in Occident and Orient, Moses Gaster Eightieth Anniversary Volume [1936], pp. 323-330) is particularly convincing. The basis for such a superstition presumably lies in the natural sense of danger surrounding sexual activity, at night, within the sacred/consecrated environment of the wedding ceremony. On the potential dangers of the wedding night, cf. Tobit 3:7ff; 2/4 Esdras 10:1; on the source of the danger being the activity of demon-spirits, it is worth noting the tradition in Pirqê de-Rabbi Eliezer §12, where the angels are compared to “groomsmen who guard the bridal chamber” (Fox, p. 124). T. H. Gaster also cites a Mesopotamian incantation describing Zaqar, the deity governing dreams, as “the terror of the nights” (pulu—tu ša lilatî)—a nearly exact parallel with the expression here in v. 8 (Pope, p. 436).

There is a possible parallel with Mesopotamian tradition of the kurgarrû—ceremonial performers associated with the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, who, like the Canaanite godddess Anat, paradoxically embodies both love and war. The kurgarrû performers where men (and/or women) functioning, it seems, as dancers skilled in swordplay. For more on this, cf. Pope, pp. 437-40.

The guardians may also be seen as fulfilling a practical function, at least in part, if the bed was intended to be placed in an outdoor garden location; this will be discussed further in the next note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (vv. 7-8)

The Targum explains Solomon’s bed as the Temple, and the sixty warriors as the (sixty) letters of the priestly blessing (associated with the Temple ritual, Num 6:24-26). The Midrash Rabbah contains the same explanation of the sixty warriors, but also applies the number to the divisions of the priests and Levites (24 + 24 = 48) added to the the divisions of the rest of the people of Israel (12 +48 = 60). Alternately, it could be explained in terms of the Sanhedrin or of the 60 myriads (600,000) adult men who traditionally made the Exodus out of Egypt. Cf. Pope. p. 434.

Along a separate line of interpretation, the Targum explains the warriors’ skill with the sword in terms of the understanding of the Law. The sword at the thigh was also seens as a symbol of circumcision, marking a man’s faithful service and allegiance to the covenant. All of these things serve to protect one from the “terrors of the night”. The Midrash similarly cites a tradition regarding the circumcision of each uncircumcised Israelite male on the eve of Passover (in fulfillment of the requirement in Exod 12:48). A legal precept in the Talmud (b. Yebamot 109b) applies this verse as an admonition for judges—wearing a sword between his thighs was meant to prevent any perversion of justice (Pope, p. 440).

Gregory of Nyssa adopts a decidedly mystical (and ascetic) interpretation of the sword-carrying guardians: the imagery reflects the contrast (and conflict) between spiritual and carnal desire. The love of God can only arise from that is “contrary to carnal desire”, and, in this light, the Divine beauty can seem terrifying to the flesh. The weapons of those who stand guard are thus poised to destroy all “wicked thoughts”, penetrating into the darkness. The “sword” of hearing is to “listen to spiritual instruction”. The sixty warriors are explained as five ‘chosen ones’ from each of the twelve tribes of Israel (“Israel” representing all who are saved). Yet even believers (Israelites) must be purified and made perfect, so that, clean of heart, they will be able truly to see the Word of God, and to be united with him on the bed of the King (i.e., the marriage bed where the children are conceived [cf. 3:4]). The elect are thus represented simultaneously as a child, as a warrior, and as a true Israelite:

“As a true Israelite, he sees God with a clean heart; as a warrior, he guards the royal couch, that is, his own heart, in purity and freedom from passion; as a child he sleeps upon the couch of salvation.” (transl. Musurillo, p. 211)

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).
The translations of Gregory of Nyssa here are by Herbert Musurillo, S.J., in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, edited by Musurillo and selected by Jean Daniélou (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).

July 18: Song of Songs 3:6

Song 3:6-11

This next section is the closing portion of the first half of the Song. It thus holds a climactic position within the overall structure. The mention of Solomon in these verses is abrupt and difficult to explain. In the remainder of the Song, outside of this section, there is no indication that Solomon is a character in the poetic narrative. There are, to be sure, still commentators who would interpret the Song as an expression of Solomon’s love for his bride. Overall, however, such a scenario is most unlikely. How, then, should the focus on Solomon in 3:6-11 be explained?

Nearly all commentators are agreed that the primary reference in 3:6-11 is to a wedding scene—a royal wedding that may be rooted in historical tradition involving king Solomon. The grandeur of Solomon’s wedding ceremonies are likely to have been such that they would come to be preserved, in various ways, within Israelite cultural memory and tradition. If one were to use the imagery of a royal wedding, it would be natural to draw upon the figure of Solomon for the grandest and most splendid example.

The idea of marriage between the young man and young woman was introduced, for the first time in the Song, in verse 4 (cf. the discussion in the prior note). Along these same lines, it seems likely that what follows here in vv. 6-11 is an idealized portrait of the young couple’s wedding. In the world of their love, the boy and girl are “king” and “queen”, and the intimacy they share, however humble the circumstances in actuality, takes on the character of a sumptuous royal affair. We saw this tendency earlier in the Song, in 1:4-5, 12, 16-17, where the young woman repeatedly refers to her beloved as her “king”. If, as I believe, the Song is meant to be set in the age of Solomon’s reign, then Solomon would naturally be referenced as the royal example (cf. 1:5).

Song 3:6

“Who (is) this coming up from the outback,
like tall (column)s of (fragrant) smoke,
being made to rise (with) myrrh and white-dust,
from all (the) powder of traveling (merchants)?”

This section opens with the interrogative particle ym! (“who…?”), indicating that the verse asks the question “who (is) this (person)?” The implication might be that the answer follows in v. 7 (cp. Isa 63:1, etc); yet it is not always the case that a specific answer follows (e.g., Isa 60:8), and the closest parallel in the Song (6:10) suggests that the question is rhetorical, expressing wonderment.

The implicit answer to the question is that the person “coming up” from the desert is the young woman, coming as a (royal) bride to her wedding. Two points are decisive in this regard. First, the identification with the young woman is clear from the parallel at the end of the Song (the second half) in 8:5. Second, we have the parallel here in v. 11, where the young man (the royal bridegroom) is the one who approaches in dramatic and impressive fashion; it is natural and appropriate that the same is being described of the young woman (the royal bride) here in v. 6.

The locative noun rB*d=m! literally means something like “place out back,” i.e., “outback, hinterland”. It refers to the region(s) outside the settled and cultivated territory, i.e., the wilderness, desert, or steppe area. The image of “coming up” (vb hl*u*) suggests that this person is approaching from the east and south, and that it is those desert regions which are in view here. In particular, the young woman, in her beauty and splendor, appears in a wondrous vision from the east, like the rising sun (or morning star) at dawn.

The motif of a “column of smoke” incorporates a number of traditional images, including the divine presence (of YHWH) who appeared to Israel as a cloud-pillar in the Exodus traditions. Also involved is the image of the sacrificial/ritual offerings of incense, in which fragrant smoke rises, symbolically, into heaven. Here the term used is hr*m*yT!, which means a “tall (column)”, emphasizes a towering height; it is given here in the plural, which adds to the sense of splendor in the scene.

The smoke is perfumed, drawing upon the image of burning fragrant incense, like the kind that came to Israel from the east by merchants/traders. Never was such trade in luxury items so great or extensive as it was during the reign of Solomon. The verb lk^r* simply refers to someone who travels around, i.e. as a merchant or trader. Of this fragrant “powder” (hq*b*a&), two kinds are specifically mentioned: myrrh (Heb. rom, perhaps so called because of its bitter taste) and frankincense (lit. “white [stuff]”, hn`obl=). The use of the passive participle (tr#F#q%m=) in the third line makes clear that the woman is being identified specifically with the fragrant incense that is burned (lit. “being made to rise [as smoke]”).

The preposition /m! should probably be understood in a comparative sense—i.e., the woman is even more fragrant than those powders brought by merchants from the east. The basic thrust of the imagery is that the woman appears like a magnificent, fragrant apparition, approaching out of the magical eastern horizon.

The scenario seems to be that of the lovers’ wedding day, and the reaction (“who…?”) is essentially that of the audience and participants. In my view, the portrait is being given by the young woman, and it is primarily the other girls (the “daughters of Jerusalem”) who are being called upon to look (with wonder) at the grandeur of the scene. This will be discussed further in the next note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum explains the reaction in v. 6 in terms of the historical tradition of Israel’s entry into the land of Canaan; the peoples in the land exclaim with wonder as Israel comes up ‘out of the wilderness’. The Midrash Rabbah draws a closer connection with the pillars of cloud and fire that accompanied Israel during their desert wanderings (cf. above). Through some highly creative lines of interpretation, the fragrant powders are identified variously with the Patriarchs, Moses, Aaron and the priesthood; in the latter case, there is unquestionably an allusion here to the sacrificial (priestly) offerings of incense (cf. above).

Gregory of Nyssa interprets this scene as a picture of the heights to which the soul has risen, which evokes wonderment from the friends of the Bridegroom. He notes the earlier reference to the “blackness” of the woman (1:5f), which is now contrasted with her appearance shining/burning white (hn`obl=, cf. above). He explains this change as the result of her time spent in the wilderness (rB*d=m!) where she purified herself and grew in virtue and understanding. For the motif of the burning of incense, Gregory notes that the person who would be consecrated/dedicated to God must first become myrrh (being purified and buried [along with Christ]), and then also frankincense, denoting the sacrificial worship of God by the purified soul. Burned up as sweet incense in the fire of devotion, the soul (i.e., the Bride) is thus made ready for the marriage bed (symbolizing union with the Bridegroom).

Somewhat later commentators such as Theodoret and Ambrose give to the verse a more pronounced ethical and Christological interpretation, citing, for example, Paul’s instruction that believers should present themselves (their bodies) as living sacrifices to God (Rom 12:1; cf. also Heb 13:15); the reference to myrrh, with its funerary associations, naturally brings to mind the Pauline teaching regarding being buried with Christ (Rom 6:4), as well as the more general ascetic principle of self-mortification (Col 3:5, etc). The myrrh and frankincense represent both self-mortification and worship, as well as the two aspects of Christ’s person to which we, as believers, relate—his humanity, with which we are united (symbolically) in his death, and his deity, which we worship with offerings of praise, etc. Ambrose particularly notes the connection between burning incense and the prayers of Christians (citing Rev 8:3-4).