The Song of Songs (שׁיר השׁרים) is one of the great works of Hebrew dramatic poetry. In an ancient, pre-literate world, the great works of literature were not written for the page. They were to be presented publicly. Although these stagings were not as elaborate as modern plays and were presented for moral, polemic or cultic reasons, they nonetheless share a great deal with modern stagecraft.
This dramatic poem is presented from the perspective of a character we call The Love (רעית) or more commonly, The Bride. This character is a strong female lead who presents the overwhelming majority of the lines of the play. She is also identified as The Shulammite (6:13), a curious word which does not appear anywhere else in the Hebrew text. It appears to be a female form of the name Solomon.
The Bride sings to her groom, My Beloved (דוד). He is variously presented as a king, a shepherd, a husbandman and a lover. There is strong internal evidence to identify The Beloved with Solomon (3:7-11, 8:11).
To the voices of the Bride and her Beloved, the author has added a choir, called The Daughters of Jerusalem (1:5). They will often respond to the Bride’s songs, and elsewhere they are possibly identified with the royal wives and concubines of Solomon (6:8).
Who Is the Bride?
There are as many theories about the origin and chronology of the Song of Songs as there are readers of the Song. There are few indications as to who the Bride is or where she fits in Solomon’s life.
It is my opinion that the Bride is actually Solomon’s first wife, the daughter of Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1).
Her appearance matches that of an Egyptian of the Third Intermediate Period, which was a period of domination of southern peoples darker even than the Egyptians of earlier periods. She describes herself as “very dark” (שׁחר), a curious word that is used to describe dark hair (Lev 13:31, 37; Song 5:11, Zech 6:2-6). She offers a comparison to “the tents of Kedar,” a reference to the black tents of the Arabian bedouin. Later, the Beloved will compare her to the mares of Pharaoh’s chariot (1:9).
There are also hints in her poetic representations that she is an older woman who has been pushed aside by younger women. She describes her role as “keeper of the vineyards but my own vineyard I have not kept.” (1:6) Elsewhere, the vineyard is used to describe a sexual relationship (8:12) and this may be an indication of the Bride as an older wife who tends to the king’s harem.
The Bride uses the poetic language of the garden to represent the physical pleasures of marriage. When she and her Beloved were married she could sing, “Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits” (4:16). But now, he has gone to his own garden, to a bed of spices (6:2). This sounds like a woman who has been put aside, as the daughter of Pharaoh was after twenty years of living in Solomon’s house (1 Ki 9:24).
One of the Bride’s refrains is a warning not to awake love (2:7, 3:5, 8:4). This may be an indication of an unrequited love she feels for her Beloved. It was once experienced, but now it is a memory. She also sings about pleasures “new as well as old” (7:13) which may give an indication that she has prepared something special for her husband, and it has been a long time since they have been together.
A Song of Restoration
It is my opinion that the Bride has been recalled to the bedchamber of the king. All of the clues point toward sense of renewal of the relationship which exists in the opening lines (1:4). Having long been separated from her Beloved, the Bride is now being recalled. After years of dreaming of his return to her bedchamber, there are hints of a chance encounter (beginning in 6:11).
Thus, the Song of Songs is a dramatic presentation of the enduring love of Solomon’s first wife. She tends to the needs of his growing, polygamist household. She longs for the love of their youth, before he became the great man. Where he had once regarded her as unique among all women (2:2), she had been veiled in the midst of his many companions (1:7). Somehow, he noticed her again, and she is recalled to that former love.
As she journeys on her return to her Beloved’s bedchamber, she recounts the love they once had. The portions of the book that have him speaking are recollections of what they once had. She wonders aloud if they can reclaim that love, or if he is too lost and the man she is seeking is no longer there.
The Daughters of Jerusalem, Solomon’s other wives and concubines, all rejoice in the restoration. She is loved by all around her, and when he recalls her, they dress her (1:11) and they sing for joy (1:4). Solomon even observes them singing for her (6:8-9).
The Final Moment of Love
In the last few verses of the book reflect the final restoration. As the Daughters of Jerusalem ask whether a woman should ever open herself to love (8:8-9), the Bride confesses, “I was a wall, and my breasts were like towers; then I was in his eyes as one who finds peace.” (8:10) She surrenders her defenses. Her vineyard is once more Solomons (8:11-12).
The great act of Solomon then is to take his Bride in his arms. He turns to speak to the audience, beginning with the metaphor for physical relations, “O you who dwell in gardens, with companions listening for your voice, let me hear it.” In other words, don’t give up on love.
And then the Bride takes his hand and steps behind the veil of their marriage bed and calls out to him, “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spice.” (8:14)
The curtain falls and the audience is left with the satisfying notion that the Bride’s Beloved steps behind the veil to once more make love to the wife of his youth.