Perhaps nothing but a direct revelation from God will unite scholars in an understanding and interpretation of this love poem. Is this dramatic poetry like the book of Job, with dialogue carried on between Solomon and a Shulammite lover? Is it a lyric poem designed to celebrate the romance and wedding of Solomon and a bride of humble birth? Is it a collection of short erotic verses intended for wedding feasts of Oriental couples? Such questions are raised by anyone making a serious study of its structure.
There have been numerous attempts by scholars to explain the structure of the SS. Some of the explanations follow:
1. A nuptial song of Solomon's marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.
2. An allegory of God's conduct toward the Jews in bringing them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into their Promised Land.
3. The incarnation of Christ and his “marriage” with human nature in order to redeem it.
4. Christ's love to believers in the church who make up his bride.
5. An allegory of the glories of Christ and his mother.
6. A collection of sacred idylls whose spiritual meaning is unknown (Clarke, 3:842).
These views can be summarized in three primary interpretations.
A. Allegorical—By the first century a.d. Jewish rabbis had established the interpretation in the Targums that the SS was an allegory of the marital love of Jehovah, the bridegroom, and Israel as the bride from the Exodus to the messianic time. Origen wrote the first extant Christian explanation of the book in the second century. He thought it was a wedding song in honor of Solomon's marriage to an Egyptian princess. It was in the Bible as an allegory of Christ's love for the church (Kinlaw, 642). The Mishnah kept Jewish scholars from interpreting SS as a secular song.
Christian scholars from Augustine to the present have found it easy to follow the Jewish method of interpretation because the figure of wedlock is employed in the NT by Paul and John to represent the vital union of Christ and his church (cf. 2Co 11:2; Eph 5:22-33; Rev 19:7-9; 21:2, 9). Wesley regarded it as a picture of Christ and his marriage with the church. He wrote that it breathes “forth the hottest flames of love between Christ and his people, most sweet and comfortable, and useful to all who read it with serious and Christian eyes” (Commentary, 1:1, 318). So all through SS, Wesley spiritualizes every term and description of human love, making them parallel with NT Scriptures or a relationship between Christ and his church.
The difficulty with the allegorical method is that there is not a shred of evidence in SS to suggest that it should be understood as an allegory. Most allegorical interpretations have no historical basis. They are construed and superficial. Many who allegorize it take nearly every phrase of every verse and give it a spiritual meaning. They leave the impression that God has inspired them with what they think they see. The various people named or unnamed in SS are introduced casually and incidentally for the sole purpose of bearing some spiritual message, according to this method.
God's name is not once mentioned here, nor is there any reference to any of his attributes. It is true that God has a special relationship with his chosen people. Christ does have a close affinity with believers. But the writers of sacred literature are careful to state the use of a figure of speech when it is so intended. If SS is intended to represent Christ and his bride, it is difficult to understand why he and all the NT writers pass over it completely. The allegorical method of interpreting Scripture is weak unless metaphors, similes, types, or other figures of speech are clearly indicated by the writer (cf. Eze 23:1-4; Hos 3; Ro 5:14; Gal 4:24; Heb 9:9, 24; 11:19).
B. Literal—This view takes Song its rhythm, symmetry, and beauty in all its force as expressive of natural love between two normal human beings. Theodore of Mopsuestia of the Fourth Century of the Christian Era said that SS was the literal response of Solomon to his subjects who criticized him for his marriage to an Egyptian princess. The church condemned his interpretation, but in more recent years some authorities have taken the same position (Kinlaw, 642). Song of Songs may be both moral and didactic in purpose in describing the dignity and purity of physical love. Human love does not have to be merely erotic, sensual, lustful, animalistic, physical, and biological in nature. It can and also should be pure and noble in accord with God's design for married couples.
The literal view sometimes is called the naturalistic theory by those who think that SS is a collection or anthology of erotic songs that have literary merit but no allegorical or typical meaning whatever (Decision, Dec. 1968, p. 5). Some authorities think it is a survival of an ancient pagan liturgy, such as that sung to a fertility god (Kinlaw, 643). Such views, however, are farfetched and depend on the Jews preserving a document or collection simply for their literary excellence. Or the unacceptable conclusion would need to be held that the Jews modified a pagan song for use in the worship of Jehovah. This is contrary to the carefulness with which they included only inspired writings in their Scriptures.
One of the more interesting views of SS, taken literally, is dramatic in nature. The chief character is Solomon, the hero, and a Shulammite maiden, the heroine. Both of these names are from the same root, one masculine and the other feminine in form. They mean “king of peace” and “daughter of peace.”
The simple story told in poetic, dramatic form is that a village girl, daughter of a widowed mother of Shulam, is betrothed to a young shepherd whom she met while tending the flock. (Some think the name Shulam may be derived from Shunem, a village southwest of the Sea of Galilee in the tribal area of Issachar.) The girl's brothers hired her to work in the vineyard on their farm. While on the way to the vineyard one day she met a cortege of sixty warriors with King Solomon, who was on a spring visit to the country.
Enthralled with her beauty, the king took the girl to his royal palace in Jerusalem in great pomp and ceremony. In the hopes of adding the girl to his harem by overwhelming her with his splendor and wealth, Solomon praised her with the most lavish words of enticement. But all was in vain. True to her virtue, love, and grace the Shulammite resisted all of Solomon's allurements; spurned his promise to elevate her to the highest rank; and assured her humble shepherd that her affections were secure, sacred, and inviolably pledged to him. Solomon allowed her to leave the royal palace, and the two lovers returned to their native land hand in hand.
C. Typical—Whereas the allegorical method of interpretation ignores the historical setting altogether, this method sees SS as a recital of an actual incident in the life of Solomon. It recognizes the distinctives in each of the other views without going to either extreme. The truth of the book is that it took the charms of a humble country girl to teach the king the true meaning of monogamous love. It is the ideal of human love. It is representative of the love between the Lord and his people as he leads every believer into close fellowship with God.