Troublesome Topic: Interpret the Song as a Series of Images to Avoid Over-Spiritualizing or Over-Sexualizing

Let’s be honest – Song of Solomon is a strange book. We read stuff in there about mares and towers and goats and navels (belly-buttons) and mounds of wheat, and none of that makes sense to us. So, most of us have just ignored this book of the Bible. Most preachers, teachers and writers that do address the Song of Solomon over-spiritualize it, or over-sexualize it. Neither extreme is helpful.

When we feel repulsed by something in Scripture and want to avoid it, when we think it is silly or just nonsense, we should know we have totally missed the point. The problem is not with that part of the Bible, the problem is with us. There are several large portions of Scripture that Christians are often uncomfortable with, and the Song of Solomon is definitely one of them. Yet the Jews of old referred to this as the “Song of Songs;” in other words, the “Song to beat all songs,” or the “best song ever.” They obviously got it, and we obviously don’t.

Most scholars agree that Song of Solomon contains lots of imagery or symbolism, but then they go on to force a literal form of interpretation upon it. Or they see the imagery and immediately ask themselves, “What do I think this means?” Rather than asking “What did this mean to them?”

The Most Common Interpretations of Song of Solomon

Some disregard the imagery and say this is a literal description of the sexual fulfillment of a young couple, but that ignores some of what is said in it, and it ignores their meaning behind the imagery. For instance, how is the statement “your nose is like the Tower of Lebanon” a statement of sexual attraction? (Through imagery it is a powerful and beautiful statement which is spiritual in nature, but otherwise it means nothing.) The Song is definitely not about sex for the sake of sex as is so often the case in our culture. If it were only about sex, I am convinced it would have quietly passed into oblivion long ago without making it into the cannon of Scripture.

Some claim it is only a spiritual allegory of our relationship with Christ, but that also ignores some of what is said therein. For instance, The Song mentions mandrakes, which were the most potent and best-known sexual aphrodisiac of the Ancient Near East; once mandrakes are mentioned, the conversation is no longer about spiritual issues. Also, The Song presents each partner meeting the other one’s needs in a wholesome relationship of mutual fulfillment. Do we meet God’s needs to the same degree that He meets our needs? Are we on the same level with God, able to refresh and revive Him the way He revives us? The Song speaks of these things as if the partners in the relationship are on an equal level, each meeting the other’s needs to the same degree, like mirror images of each other.

Go to footnote number

Would an ancient Hebrew present our satisfying God on the same level as Him satisfying us? No way! This is the most powerful argument against the notion that this Song is primarily about an individual’s relationship with God, or Israel’s relationship with God, or the Church’s relationship with God. Some of what is said here can be seen in a secondary sense as a picture of our relationship with God, but only in a secondary sense.

There is yet another method of interpretation which is referred to as the “Shepherd Hypothesis.” In this interpretation, King Solomon is striving to win the Shulammite’s heart, but she is already deeply in love with a poor shepherd. Some versions of the Shepherd Hypothesis posit that the two men are vying for the Shulammite’s allegiance; this would imply that the pursuit is on and neither one has actually had sex with her yet. Others think she is already a concubine in Solomon’s harem, but her true love is the shepherd, whom she hopes will come and rescue her. This theory depicts Solomon as an arrogant, sex-hungry ruler. Any mention of the Shulammite’s affection are thought to be directed to the poor shepherd and never to Solomon.

Many of those who promote the Shepherd Hypothesis consider the Shulammite a concubine, not a wife. The primary difference was that the sons of a concubine did not receive any inheritance; The only other difference I know of would be that a concubine was not given as high a status as a wife. But she was not a sex slave; she had the same rights as a wife, with the exception of inheritance.

Here Are the Reasons I Reject the Shepherd Hypothesis:

1) To me this seems to be an over-reaction to Solomon’s many wives, and is fed by an improper understanding of the life of Solomon. For this reason it is important to read my Life of Solomon before reading the text and its comments.

2) It is very modern in its interpretive approach; it is not based on how people of Solomon’s day or shortly thereafter would have understood it.

3) Verse one of Song of Solomon reads, “Solomon’s song of songs,” meaning, “the song to beat all songs, by Solomon.”

Go to footnote number

Why would Solomon write it if he was the villain of the story? Why would the ancients, who were much closer to its writing than we are, attribute this poem to Solomon if it were not written by him?

4) It totally ignores the symbolism of The Song. All cultures use things like symbolism, idiomatic phrases, puns, etc. If you ignore those linguistic constructs you have missed the intended meaning. The times that The Song equates the Shulammite to a tower, a mound of wheat, to flocks of sheep, or to a mare, are not intended to be taken literally. They are obviously word pictures, or symbolism. As you read my paraphrase, which I lay alongside my translation of the Hebrew text, you will find that the symbolism is balanced, fitting, appropriate, powerful and beautiful. It leaves no unresolved questions, as does the Shepherd Hypothesis.

5). In those days, a king did not court or woo a concubine, but rather she was given to him as a gift, or he requested her after which the arrangements were made with her father. Basically, if he wanted her, he could have her, either as a wife or a concubine depending on other social issues. The entire Shepherd Hypothesis is based on a situation that would never have happened in ancient times. If you consider her a wife, Solomon would not have gone after her to woo her, he would have gone to her father to speak to him and work out the marriage arrangements between the two of them. The king always got the woman he wanted if she was not yet married, and even then, he sometimes got her. Thus, this hypothesis would be impossible whether you think of her as a concubine or a wife. That is one of the reasons I say it is a modern way to interpret The Song, and it ignores the way the ancients would have seen it.

6) If a poor man were courting a concubine of the king, both of them would be killed for attempting any such thing – you don’t touch anything belonging to the king. Also, if the poor man did take her from the king’s harem, he and the girl would be guilty of adultery, and would both be stoned. Does this hypothesis promote sexual sin?

7). Whether she is in Solomon’s harem, or is not, there are things the Shulammite says about her true love that are not appropriate for her to say about someone to whom she is not married. The same can be said of the man, whether Solomon or some unknown shepherd; things come from his lips which should only come from the lips of someone who is married to the woman he is speaking about.

There are other details I take issue with, but they are related to specific verses, specific words and their translation, or other specific details. I will not bore you by going into such minute detailed analysis.

In summary, an interpretive theory must apply to the entire book of the Bible being interpreted; if it does not fit the entire book, it cannot be the right method. None of the three interpretive methods mentioned so far fit the entire book of Song of Solomon.

My Interpretation of Song of Solomon

I strive to see the word pictures as the original audience would have understood them. Doing so puts sexual fulfillment in its proper place, shows there are various types of fulfillment in marriage, and reminds us that no relationship is complete without God in the mix. As a mural depicting the entirety of a marriage relationship, it stands out as something balanced, powerful, and worthy of special honor.

I could summarize the message of the Song in one sentence, but it would not have the power or the beauty that it has as a poem chock full of imagery. Only this method of interpreting The Song justifies it being called the “Song of Songs.”

We read strange things in the Song and we ask, “Would I want to be described that way?” or “Would my wife want to be described that way?” Once again those are the wrong questions. It is not about us. It is about how they would have understood the symbols used in painting this picture. I am convinced they would not have understood this poem as touchy-feely sweetness, but as a deep-rooted “rightness.”

The next lesson is: Were They a Married Couple at the Time of its Writing?



This in itself is remarkable. A husband and wife were not thought of in those days as equals, nor on equal terms, nor as mirror images of each other. It was a unique way to function in the marriage relationship, and yet it appears they did so without throwing out the concept that the husband and wife fulfill different roles. But we must be very clear about how they were portrayed as equal. They were equal in their ability to meet the other one’s needs, to refresh, revive, encourage, build up, strengthen, and motivate. They did not try to be just like the other in all things; they did not switch anything typically associated with gender, for The Song is strong in presenting His male strength and her feminine beauty. The Song does not confuse their roles in the relationship or in society, but it does present them as equal partners in a mutual relationship that was focused on loving, refreshing, and teaching the next generation.


This is not a title that was added in modern times by an editor, it is part of the Hebrew text, and has been for a very long time. In reality, verse one was probably not written by Solomon, but was added shortly after he died when someone published this poem.