Church history is filled with the debates over whether to read this book as an allegory of God’s love for his people or as a literal picture of human marriage. Frankly, I’m not convinced we have to choose only one of those options. If it’s not about human marriage, then the metaphors of God’s relationship with his people would make no sense at all. And if it’s not also about God’s relationship with his people, then Paul, Hosea, and Ezekiel (among others) wouldn’t have gone there. This book gives us much wisdom for dating, marriage, sex, and conflict. And in so doing, it shows us the paradise of knowing Christ and being known intimately by him.
When the Lord God made the heavens and the earth, there was only one thing that he declared was not good: the man’s being alone. So God promptly invented romantic love, and his word is very clear about how such love works. It begins with the problem of loneliness, which is not a result of sin but simply a result of being a created being. It proceeds when boy meets girl, and things start to feel really awkward. And the only way to make progress is with poetry, song, and celebration. The World’s Greatest Song (aka The Song of Songs) is here to help.
The poetry in the Song of Songs flits about from character to character, as the woman, the man, and the daughters of Jerusalem all lift their voices in an intricate back-and-forth befitting the subject matter. As a result, the poetry can appear quite mysterious and dense. Thankfully, the poet makes use of two refrains that serve, with minor variations, as paint blazes on the trail to help us follow his train of thought.
Each refrain occurs three times in the book. The first refrain is “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (Song 2:7, 3:5, 8:4). The second refrain is “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (Song 2:16, 6:3, 7:10). These two refrains provide the chief applications to the unmarried (do not awaken) and the married (join in mutual possession). And in addition, they help us to mark many of the book’s divisions.
In addition, the flow of most of the poems moves from separation to union (or reunion). The arcs of each section follow this general pattern where the lovers begin apart from one another and move toward one another to be together.
The chief audience for the Song of Songs is the virgin daughters of Jerusalem, who are addressed all throughout the book. In this way, this book is something of a complement to the book of Proverbs, whose chief audience is the young men of Israel. This doesn’t mean that men have nothing to gain from the Song, but it helps us to understand why the woman is in the spotlight for much of the book.
After the book’s title (Song 1:1), we’re immersed right into the intoxicating nature of love, which is better than wine (Song 1:2-4). Then in the first main poem, the couple delights in the playful back-and-forth of getting to know one another and finding ways to spend time together as their attraction develops (Song 1:5-2:3). As they draw close, however, and move into a place of profound intimacy (Song 2:4-6), the woman emerges from the chamber to warn the virgins of Jerusalem not to awaken such love in themselves until the time is right (Song 2:7).
The second poem (Song 2:8-3:5) focuses on the wooing and courtship, but completely from the woman’s perspective. She describes the man coming to see her (Song 2:8-9), before quoting what he says—or what she hopes he’ll say?—to win her heart for life (Song 2:10-15). She longs for them to achieve mutual possession of one another (Song 2:16) but must still say goodbye at the end of the evening and send him back to his home (Song 2:17). This leads her to dream of what life would be like without him—a reality she cannot bear to accept (Song 3:1-4).