Glossary of Terms

Song of Solomon or Song of Songs or Canticles


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Song of Solomon, the (Heb. Shir Hashshirim, ‘Song of Songs,’ which means the best or greatest song), a poetic ot book known also as ‘Song of Songs’ or ‘Canticle (of Canticles).’ The attribution of the work to Solomon probably derives from that monarch’s renowned marriages (1 Kings 11:3) as well as from the mention of his name in the Song (1:5; 4:6 -11; 8:11-12). There is no agreement about the date, although the prevalent opinion is inclined to the postexilic period (post mid-sixth century b.c.).


The Song of Solomon

I. Title and introduction (1:1-6)

II. Dialogue between the man and woman (1:7-2:7)

III. Reflections (2:8-3:11)

A. Reminiscence by the woman (2:8-17)

B. Loss and recovery (3:1-5)

C. Description of Solomon’s wedding procession (3:6-11)

IV. Dialogues (4:1-8:4)

A. Dialogue between the man and woman (4:1-5:1)

B. Dialogue between the woman and the daughters (5:2-6:3)

C. Address of the man to the woman (6:4-12)

D. Dialogue between the man and woman (7:1-8:4)

V. Appendices (8:5-14)

The Song consists of from about five to fifty love poems, the number depending upon the interpretation of transitions within the eight chapters. However, a dialogue between a man and a woman runs throughout the work and gives it a certain unity. The characters in the work are a man (idealized as a king and a shepherd), a woman, and the Daughters of Jerusalem. These latter function as a foil for the woman’s statements. It is not likely that the book was conceived as a drama with three characters, wherein a king and shepherd vie for the hand of a peasant maiden.

The poems are of several kinds: songs of yearning, admiration, self-description, description of the physical charms of the beloved (similar to the Arabic love poem called a wasf). There may even be a proverbial saying in 8:6, where the power of love is compared to that of death.
The literal historical interpretation of the Song understands it as an exchange of love between a man and a woman. It is not clear that the setting is a marriage celebration. The two lovers express their feelings for one another in extraordinarily vivid and exotic imagery (animals, flowers, spices, etc.). The religious interpretation, which was popular at one time, understands the poem as originally (although not in its present form) deriving from the religious celebrations of divine marriage (e.g., Tammuz to Ishtar). There are many examples of this kind of literature in ancient Mesopotamia, but the Song does not really fit here; it is rather to the love songs of Egypt (dealing with human love) that it bears closer resemblance.

The traditional interpretation by both the synagogue and church found in the Song another level of meaning: the love between God and his people, i.e., the Lord and Israel, Christ and the Church or the individual person. Such an interpretation can become arbitrary when individual details are interpreted in allegorical fashion. But if the work as a whole is interpreted in the light of the prophetic understanding of the covenant as a marriage relationship (e.g., Hos. 1-3; Isa. 62:5), this level of meaning can be defended.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
Top of page