Overview of the Song of Songs

Courting: The Young Woman Yearns for her Beloved

The song begins with the woman expressing intense love to her beloved, yearning to receive the expression of his passion:

"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine.” Because of the fragrance of your goodly oils, your name is 'oil poured forth.' Therefore, the maidens loved you. (1:2).

She recognizes that she is not the only one who loves her beloved. He is handsome, impressive, and the fragrance of his perfumed oil causes all the maidens to love him. As the verse states:

Because of the fragrance of your goodly oils, your name is 'oil poured forth.' Therefore, the maidens loved you. (1:3)

She smells the fragrance of her beloved. She longs for a kiss, but he is not yet accessible. She asks that he draw her to himself so that they can unite:

“Draw me, we will run, the king brought me to his chambers. We will rejoice and be glad in you.” (1.4)

After praising the fragrance of her beloved and mentioning that all the maidens love him, she turns to the daughters of Jerusalem. She tells them that, despite her dark skin (considered un-beautiful in that culture), she is nevertheless pretty. She declares:

I am black but comely, O daughters of Jerusalem! Like the {dark} tents of Kedar, like the {colorful} curtains of Solomon. Do not look upon me [disdainfully] because I am swarthy, for the sun has gazed upon me; my mother's sons were incensed against me; they made me a keeper of the vineyards; my own vineyard I did not keep. (1:5-6)

After talking to the daughters of Jerusalem, the woman turns her attention to her beloved, who is nowhere to be found. In this exchange, she refers to him as a shepherd who is out in the fields pasturing his sheep. She asks him: "Where can I find you? Where do you pasture your sheep״?

For whatever reason, the time has not yet come for them to meet. He does not disclose his location to her. Instead, he tells her to follow her sheep and look for him amongst the other shepherds:

"If you do not know, O fairest of women, go your way in the footsteps of the flocks and pasture your kids beside the shepherds' dwellings. (1:8)

To compensate for his absence and to ensure that she knows that he is still interested in the relationship, he sings his love to her, describing her beauty:

I have likened you, my darling, To a mare in Pharaoh's chariots. Your cheeks are comely with rows, your neck with strings of jewels. We will make you rows of gold with studs of silver." (1:9-11)

In the previous verses, we read of the praises the man offered his beloved. Perhaps because he isn't ready to become too close, his praise focused not so much on her but on her jewelry. The woman responds by raising her faults, implying that she is not deserving of his compliments. Instead, she continues to praise him:

While the king was still at his table, my spikenard gave forth its fragrance. A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me; between my breasts he shall lie. A cluster of henna-flowers is my beloved to me, in the vineyards of Ein-Gedi." (1:12-14)

It worked. The woman sensed that her beloved was afraid to praise her and instead praised her Jewelry, so she insisted that she was unworthy of praise. At that point, he had no choice but to insist, not once but twice, on her beauty and even to get specific and praise her beautiful eyes:

Behold, you are comely, my beloved; behold, you are comely; your eyes are dove-like. (1:15)

After the man praised the woman by saying, "Behold, you are comely, my beloved; behold, you are comely," she is eager to advance the relationship. She responds by complimenting him with the same expressions he used to describe her, but she doesn't stop there. She wants to solidify the relationship by building a home together with her beloved. She is dreaming about a home, furniture, and a bed:

Behold, you are comely, my beloved, yea pleasant; also our couch is leafy. The beams of our houses are cedars; our corridors are cypresses. (1:16-17)

The pace of dialog picks up. She declares:

"I am a rose of Sharon, a rose of the valleys."

He reflects her words to her, referring to her as a rose, and contrasts her to other girls:

As a rose among the thorns, so is my beloved among the daughters." (2:1)

She follows his lead and compares him to the other young men. She senses that he is happy to praise her, but he is not ready to solidify the relationship; she escalates the conversion and evokes closeness and intimacy. She speaks of "sitting in his shade" and "eating its fruit":

"As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the sons; in his shade I delighted and sat, and his fruit was sweet to my palate. He brought me to the banquet hall, and his attraction to me [was symbolic of his] love. (2:2-4)

The woman's longing for her beloved reaches the peak in the following verse:

Sustain me with flagons of wine, spread my bed with apples, for I am lovesick. His left hand was under my head, and his right hand would embrace me. (2:5-6)

She is lovesick. She cannot think of anything other than her beloved. She dreams of his embrace. And that is when it dawns on her that while her love is flaming, he is not ready, his love for her has not yet ripened. She turns to her friends, the daughters of Jerusalem, and she shares the critical but painful insight she had learned. She tells them: don't awaken the love when it is still premature:

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you neither awaken nor arouse the love until it is desirous. (2:7)

The Tables Turn. The Man Pursues His Beloved

At this point in the song, the perspective shifts. Up until this point, it was evident that the woman's desire to connect was intense, yet the man was not necessarily ready to reciprocate in the same way. At this point in the song, the tables turn. He is courting her with enthusiasm:

The sound of my beloved! Behold, he is coming, skipping over the mountains, jumping over the hills. My beloved resembles a gazelle or a fawn of the hinds; behold, he is standing behind our wall, looking from the windows, peering from the lattices. My beloved raised his voice and said to me, 'Arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away. For behold, the winter has passed; the rain is over and gone. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of singing has arrived, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree has put forth its green figs, and the vines with their tiny grapes have given forth their fragrance; arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away. (2:8-13)

While the young man is leaping over the hills to meet his beloved, she is not available to see him. He describes her hiding from him and pleads that she appear, or, at least, to let him hear her voice:

My dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the coverture of the steps, show me your appearance, let me hear your voice, for your voice is pleasant and your appearance is comely. (2:14)

While her beloved pleaded that she come with him, that she show him her appearance and allow him to hear her pleasant voice, she is not yet ready. She tells him to come back later in the day; in the meantime, she tells him to run off to the distant mountains:

Until the sun spreads, and the shadows flee, go around; liken yourself, my beloved, to a gazelle or to a fawn of the hinds, on distant mountains." (2:17)

In the previous verse, we read that although her beloved expressed an intense desire to meet her, the young woman was not ready to meet. She told him to run to the distant mountains and come back later in the afternoon when the sun will spread in the sky. Her beloved, however, did not come back. Once again, the tables are turned. She is left lying in bed alone, yearning for her beloved. The longing is so intense that she goes out to look for him in the dark of night:

On my bed at night, I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him but I did not find him. I will arise now and go about the city, in the marketplaces and in the city squares. I will seek him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but I did not find him. The watchmen who patrol the city found me: "Have you seen him whom my soul loves?" I had just passed them by, when I found him whom my soul loves; I held him and would not let him go, until I brought him into my mother's house and into the chamber of her who had conceived me. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you neither awaken nor arouse the love while it is desirous. (3:1-5)

The Wedding

The spotlight turns to a woman ascending from the desert, perfumed with various spices. The narrator then describes king Solomon, his bed, and the crown his mother gave him on his wedding day. This indicates that these verses describe the wedding between the young woman and her beloved, which we now discover is none other than King Solomon. The description captures the contrast between the anonymous bride ascending from the desert, and the king Solomon in all his glory. As the song describes:

Who is this coming up from the desert, like columns of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, of all the powder of the peddler? (3.6)

After describing the bride emerging from the desert, our attention turns to describing the groom. The contrast between the groom and bride is stark. While she emerges from the desert, the groom, king Solomon, is in his palace, surrounded by mighty men, riches, and the daughters of Jerusalem: is described in all his splendor:

Behold the bed of Solomon; sixty mighty men are around it, of the mighty men of Israel. They all hold the sword, skilled in warfare; each one with his sword on his thigh because of fear at night. King Solomon made himself a canopy of the trees of Lebanon. Its pillars he made of silver, its couch of gold, its curtain of purple, its interior inlaid with love, from the daughters of Jerusalem. (3:7-10)

Amidst the wedding celebration, the narrator encourages the girls of Jerusalem to gaze upon the King's crown, which his mother crowned him in on his wedding day:

Go out, O daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, upon the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding and the day of the joy of his heart. (3:11)

The groom is elated. He exclaims:

"I have come to my garden, my sister, {my} bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice, I have eaten my sugar cane with my sugar, I have drunk my wine with my milk. Eat, friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, beloved ones." (Song of Songs 5:1)

The Separation

The wedding is over; the honeymoon has passed; the romance has evaporated from this scene. The woman is asleep, and her beloved is outside on a rainy night knocking on the door. She is too comfortable in bed to rise and open the door for him. By the time she does, he is gone. When she searches for him in the city streets, the watchmen beat her. Once again, she turned to the daughters of Jerusalem. Once again, she adjures them. But this time, instead of telling them not to awaken the love, as she had told them twice before in the song, she tells them that if they meet her beloved, they should tell him that she is lovesick for him:

"I sleep, but my heart is awake. Hark! My beloved is knocking: Open for me, my sister, my spouse, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is full of dew, my locks with the drops of the night.” "I have taken off my tunic; how can I put it on? I have bathed my feet; how can I soil them?” My beloved stretched forth his hand from the hole, and my insides stirred because of him. I arose to open for my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, and my fingers with flowing myrrh, upon the handles of the lock. I opened for my beloved, but my beloved had hidden and was gone; my soul went out when he spoke; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he did not answer me. The watchmen who patrol the city found me; they smote me and wounded me; the watchmen of the walls took my jewelry off me. "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, what will you tell him? That I am lovesick." (Song of Songs 5:2-8)

"Where has your beloved gone, O fairest of women? Where has your beloved turned that we may seek him with you?" The young woman's friends taunt her by asking why her beloved has disappeared. She responds: "My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the spice beds, to graze in the gardens, and to gather roses." She seems unsure where he went. Did he go looking for other roses? Has he abandoned her in pursuit of another relationship?

Despite The Separation, The Man Sings Her Praises:

The song turns to the man, who responds unequivocally that he is still in love with her. He reassures her that despite being in the rose garden, seeing various roses, she is unique and singular. He praises her and says: "You are fair, my beloved, as {the city of} Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, awesome as the bannered legions."

Amongst the praises, he says:

Turn away your eyes from me, for they have made me haughty; your hair is like a flock of goats that streamed down from Gilead. (Song of Songs 6:5)

The beloved woman, the song's protagonist, is not the only woman in the palace. The man singing her praises acknowledges that many women indeed surround him, yet, nevertheless, she is unique:

There are sixty queens and eighty concubines and innumerable maidens. My dove, my perfect one, is but one; she is one to her mother, she is the pure one of she who bore her; daughters saw her and praised her, queens and concubines, and they lauded her. (6:8)

The seventh chapter of the song begins with the call to the young woman "Return, return, O Shulammite; return, return, and let us gaze upon you." Now that her beloved is not present, other people call her, as they would like to gaze upon her beauty. The following verses describe her beauty, from the bottom up, beginning with her sandals and concluding with her head and her braided locks:

How fair are your feet in sandals, O daughter of nobles! The curves of your thighs are like jewels, the handiwork of a craftsman. (Song of Songs 7:1)

Establishing a Permanent Bond

Chapter eight, the final chapter of the song, focuses on the young woman's desire that her relationship with her beloved, which has experienced many ups and downs, should become formal, institutionalized, and therefore out in the open. The chapter begins with her expressing her deep wish that her beloved should be like her "brother ", to whom she can display her love in public:

"O, that you were like my brother, who sucked my mother's breasts! I would find you outside, I would kiss you, and they would not despise me. (Song of Songs 8:1)

In a sign of the increasing permanence of the relationship, the woman requests: “place me a seal upon your heart.” She is devoted to him completely; she wants to attach herself to him. This form of attachment is likened to death, as she is relinquishing her sense of independence:

Place me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm, for love is as strong as death, zeal is as strong as the grave; its coals are coals of fire of a great flame! (Song of Songs 8:6)

The Climactic Reunion

The woman is in the garden with her beloved. He tells her that their friends are present and listening. He requests to hear her beautiful voice. Her response, which is the concluding verse of the song, is that he must flee to the spice mountains. He must escape with her and run to a place where they can be alone and enjoy an exclusive intimate connection. As the final two verses of the song describe:

You, who sit in the gardens the friends hearken to your voice; let me hear [it]. Flee, my beloved, and liken yourself to a gazelle or to a fawn of the hinds on the spice mountains." (Song of Songs 8:13-14).