SONG OF SONGS, THE (A. V. The Song of Solomon):

One of the Five Megillot. The Hebrew title, , is commonly understood to mean "the most excellent of songs, composed by Solomon" (not "one of the songs composed by Solomon"); the title, however, is later than the poem, in which the relative pronoun is always ש, never . The ancient versions follow the Hebrew; from the rendering in the Latin Vulgate, "Canticum Canticorum," comes the title "Canticles."

Interpretation: Solomon as Bridegroom.

The oldest known interpretation of the Song (induced by the demand for an ethical and religious element in its content) is allegorical: the Midrash and the Targum represent it as depicting the relations between God and Israel. The allegorical conception of it passed over into the Christian Church, and has been elaborated by a long line of writers from Origen down to the present time, the deeper meaning being assumed to be the relation between God or Jesus and the Church or the individual soul. The literal interpretation of the poem as simply a eulogy of married love had its representatives in early times (Theodore of Mopsuestia, and, to some extent, Abraham ibn Ezra), and, in the renaissance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was maintained by Grotius, Clericus, and others; but it is only in the last hundred years that this interpretation has practically ousted the allegorical. The Song is now taken, almost universally, to be the celebration of a marriage, there being, in fact, no hint of allegory in the text. Obviously there are two principal personages, a bridegroom and a bride; but opinions differ as to who the bridegroom is. If the title be accepted as genuine, it is a natural conclusion that the poem describes the nuptials of Solomon and a princess (the daughter of Pharaoh) or a country maiden (so Delitzsch and others). But, apart from the question of date, this construction is proved impossible by the fact that the bridegroom is distinguished from Solomon in viii. 11, 12, and probably, by revision, in vi. 8, 9. To meet this difficulty it is assumed (by Ewald, Driver, and many others) that the bridegroom or fiancé is a young shepherd, and that Solomon is his would-be rival; that the king has carried off a beautiful rustic maiden (vi. 10-12) and has brought her to his palace in Jerusalem (i. 4), where he endeavors to win her affections; but that she, resisting the allurements of the court, remains true to her country lover, and is finally united to him (viii. 5-14). This theory, however, rests on unwarranted interpretations of particular passages. The alleged rivalry between a king and a shepherd appears nowhere in the text: there is only one lover, as there is only one maiden; Solomon is introduced as an actor in only one place (iii. 6-11), and here he is represented as the shepherd bridegroom himself. Both the views described above (and the various modifications of them) regard the poem as a drama: it is divided by expositors into acts and scenes. It is, in fact, dramatically conceived (like the Job poem, for instance), since it consists not of narratives, but of lyric utterances put into the mouths of certain characters; but it is not a drama. Not only is there no definite indication of time or place, all being vaguely rhapsodical; but there is no movement, no culmination or catastrophe. The marriage is already consummated in i. 6 (and so in ii. 6, iv. 16-v. 1, vii. 9 [A. V. 8]); and the story is no farther advanced in viii.

Rustic Wedding.

Still another view regards the book as picturing the popular festivities held in Palestine in connection with the wedding-week. Of such festivities there are hints in the Old Testament (Judges xiv. 10-12; Jer. xvi. 9; Ps. xix. 6 [5]; comp. Matt. xxv. 1 et seq.); and Wetzstein (in his article "Die Syrische Dreschtafel," in Bastian's "Zeitschrift für Ethnologie," 1873, pp. 270 et seq., and in the appendix to Delitzsch's commentary on the Song) has given the details of the modern Syrian marriage celebration, in which he finds parallels to those of the poem. In the week succeeding the marriage the villagers assemble; the thrashing-board is set up as a throne, on which the newly married pair take their seats as "king" and "queen"; there are songs in praise of the physical charms of the pair, and dances, in which bridegroom and bride take part; especially noteworthy is the "sword-dance," performed by the bride with a naked sword in one hand (see vii. 1 [R. V. vi. 13]). In accordance with this view the "king" of the poem, sometimes called "Solomon" (an imaginative designation of a person of ideal beauty), is the bridegroom; the "daughters of Jerusalem" are the village maidens in attendance on the bride; the royal procession of iii. 6-11 is that of the bridegroom (comp. Ps. xix. 6 [5]); the dialogues, descriptions of bodily charms, and other pieces are folk-songs; according to Budde, the name "Shulamite," given to the bride once (vii. 1 [vi. 13]), is equivalent to "Shunemmite," and isan imaginative reminiscence of the fair Abishag (I Kings i. 3).

Some explanation such as this is required by the character of the book. It is a collection of pieces in praise of the physical delights of wedded love. The freeness of expression (especially in vii. 2-10 [1-9]), offensive to modern taste, is in accord with ancient custom (comp. Ezek. xvi., xxiii.; Prov. v. 16-20): it may be due in part also to the license of popular festivities. It is not necessary, however, to suppose that the author has merely reproduced the songs of the rustic celebrations of his time; rather, a poet of high ability here sings of married love, following the lines of the festive customs, but giving free play to his imagination: such charm of style as the book shows is not to be looked for in rustic songs. The unity of the poem is one of emotion—all the situations reflect the same circumstances and the same sentiments.


The date of the Song is indicated by its literary form: the idyl is foreign to the Hebrew genius, and points to the time when the Jews imitated Greek models (Theocritus and Bion). The word (= "palanquin" [iii. 9]) appears to be the Greek φορεῖον; (iv. 13) was not introduced earlier than the later Persian period (for other late words see Driver, "Introduction"). The date of the book can hardly be determined precisely: it was probably composed in the period 200-100 B.C.; but some of the material may be older.

The discussions at the Synod of Jabneh (Jamnia) show that toward the end of the first Christian century the canonical authority of the Song was disputed in certain quarters (see Bible Canon, § 11). Probably the ground of opposition was its non-religious character: it does not contain the Divine Name (except "Yah" in viii. 6, Hebr., as an expression of intensity); its love is sensuous; and its only ethical element is the devotion of one man to one woman in marriage. It is quoted neither by Philo nor in the New Testament. But it appears to have gained popularity; and the probability is that at an early day it was interpreted allegorically by the sages, and that it was on the basis of such an interpretation that its canonicity was finally established. On its ritual use at Passover see Megillot, The Five.

  • On the history of the interpretation: S. Salfeld, Das Hohelied Salomo's bei den Jüdischen Erklärern des Mittelalters, 1879;
  • W. Riegel, Die Auslegung des Hohenliedes in der Jüdischen Gemeinde und der Griechischen Kirche, 1898;
  • E. Reuss, La Bible (gives a conspectus of various schemes);
  • C. D. Ginsburg, Song of Songs, 1857;
  • Cheyne, in Encyc. Bibl. s.v. Canticles.
  • The traditional interpretation (Solomon as bridegroom) is given in Delitzsch's commentary, 1875;
  • and the fuller dramatic interpretation (the shepherd lover) in: Ewald, Dichter, 1867;
  • W. R. Smith, Canticles, in Encyc. Brit. 9th ed.;
  • Rothstein, Das Hohe Lied, 1893;
  • idem, Song of Songs, in Hastings' Dict. Bible;
  • Driver, Introduction (which gives a full outline of the schemes of Delitzsch and Ewald);
  • Wetzstein, in Budde, The Song of Solomon, in The New World, 1894, vol. iii.;
  • idem, Commentary, in K. H. C.;
  • Siegfried, Commentary, in Nowack's Handkommentar;
  • and Cheyne, l.c. On the relation between the Song and Theocritus: W. M. Fullerton, in Unitarian Review (Boston), July, 1886;
  • D. S. Margoliouth, Lines of Defense of the Biblical Revelation, London, 1900. On the meter: Budde's commentary; and on the Hebrew text: this and the commentaries of Graetz and Siegfried.
E. G. H. T.
Images of pages