The Song of Songs is thought by some to be an allegorical representation of the relationship of God and Israel as husband and wife. Literally, however, the main characters of the Song are simply a woman and a man, and the poem suggests movement from courtship to consummation. It is one of the shortest books in the Bible, consisting of only 117 verses. According to Ashkenazi tradition, it is read on the Sabbath that falls during the intermediate days of Passover. In the Sephardi Jewish community it is recited every Friday night.
The name of the book comes from the first verse, "The Song of songs, which is Solomon's."
"Song of songs" is a Hebrew grammatical construction denoting the superlative; that is, the title attests to the greatness of the song, similar to "the lord of lords", "the king of kings" or "holy of holies" (used of the inner sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple). Rabbi Akiba declared, "Heaven forbid that any man in Israel ever disputed that the Song of Songs is holy. For the whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy and the Song of Songs is holy of holies." (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5). Similarly, Martin Luther called it das Hohelied (the high song). This is still its name in German, Swedish and in Dutch.
Some interpret the Hebrew construction differently, a song of several songs, and argue for a degree of independence between sections within the Song.
Some people translate the first clause of the title as "which is of Solomon," meaning that the book is authored by Solomon. Rabbi Hiyya the Great said Solomon first wrote Proverbs, then The Song of Songs, and afterward Ecclesiastes. Rabbi Jonathan said Solomon first wrote The Song of Songs, then Proverbs, then Ecclesiastes. The Talmud, however, states the order of the canon, listing Proverbs first, then Ecclesiastes, and then The Song of Songs.
Others translate the first clause as "which is for Solomon," meaning that the book is dedicated to Solomon. It was common practice in ancient times for an anonymous writer seeking recognition for his work to write eponymously in the name of someone more famous. Some read the book as contrasting the nobility of monogamous love with the debased nature of promiscuous love, and suggest that the book is actually a veiled criticism of Solomon, who, according to , had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines.
Another approach to the authorship is that offered by Rashi, consistent with allegorical interpretations, rendering the narrator "he to whom peace belongs", i.e: God. The Hebrew name of Solomon, Shlomo, can also be inflected to mean the constructed form of the noun shalom, peace, which through noun declension can be possessive. This means that the author is in fact Solomon, but he narrates the book from the perspective of God, who is conversing with the Jewish people, his allegorical bride.
The text, read without allegory as a celebration of sexual love, alternates between the speeches of a woman and her lover. A series of antiphonal remarks are provided by the "daughters of Jerusalem." The woman's brothers have a few lines near the conclusion of the Song. Most scholars also see some verses as the voice of a narrator.
Views vary regarding authorship and composition of the Song. Some have suggested the Song is composed from a collection of originally more independent poetry.
Although it is commonly held that an allegorical interpretation justified its inclusion in the Biblical canon, scholarly discussion hasn't reached any consensus yet on the Song of Songs and leaves other possibilities open.
According to Jewish tradition in the Midrash and the Targum, the book is an allegory of God's love for the Children of Israel. In keeping with this understanding, it is read by Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews on Sabbath eve, to symbolize the love between the Jewish People and God that is also represented by Sabbath. Most traditional Jews also read the Song on the Sabbath of Chol HaMoed of Passover, or on the seventh day of the holiday, when the Song of the sea is also read.
The Song of Songs is not directly quoted by New Testament writers, but is possibly alluded to on a number of occasions.
In a Christian tradition that began with Origen, the Song is regarded as an allegory of the relationship of Christ and the Church, or else Christ and the individual believer (see the Sermons on the Song of Songs by Bernard of Clairvaux which is the outcome of abundant patristic and early medieval commentary). This type of allegorical interpretation was applied later to even passing details in parables of Jesus.
Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) of 2006 refers to the Song of Songs in both its literal and allegorical meaning, stating that erotic love (eros) and self-donating love (agape) is shown there as the two halves of true love, which is both giving and receiving.
It has been suggested that the book is a messianic text, in that the lover can be interpreted as the Messiah. It could refer to the Messiah because it often speaks of the Davidic king, Solomon. Nathan’s prophecy in showed that the promised Messiah would issue from the progeny of David. Each Davidic king was viewed as a potential Messiah, so the Song’s speaking of the Temple-builder Solomon would bring to readers’ minds their Messianic hopes. When the Song references “mighty men” it brings to mind David and his mighty men (). Describing the lover as “ruddy” again brings to mind David (c.f. ). The Aramaic Jewish targums also interpreted the lover as the awaited Messiah. All these references to kingship, to shepherding, to David, and to Solomon, bring to mind the expected Messiah.
The king's garden (for example ) can be viewed in the light of the Garden of Eden bringing to mind the Messiah who was expected to restore Israel to an Edenic state. The lovers are portrayed as having overcome the alienation produced by the Fall. The state of woman whose “desire shall be for your husband” has even been reversed: “his desire is for me” ().
Historians have noted that the Song of Songs closely resembles the Egyptian love poetry of its time.
Feminist theologians have interpreted the Song of Songs as a positive representation of sexuality and egalitarian gender relations within the Bible.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest denomination in the Latter Day Saint movement, does not recognize the book as authoritative, although it is included in the Church's canon and printed in Church-published copies of the Bible.
Christian translations and commentary: