This article was originally published in the Spring 2003 issue of Kindred Spirit as “Song of Solomon: Love Story or Love Stories?” Dr. Johnston further expanded these ideas in 2009 for a three-part series in Bibliotheca Sacra entitled “The Enigmatic Genre and Structure of the Song of Songs.”

The narrative approach to the Song of Solomon has been popularized in recent years by several writers. Although they acknowledge that the Song is poetry, advocates of this approach argue that it also contains an underlying narrative plot. This approach attempts to trace the development of the love relationship between one man and one woman (Solomon and Shulammith) through several stages in chronological order: courtship (SOS 1:2–2:7), engagement (SOS 2:8–3:5), wedding day (SOS 3:6–11), wedding night (SOS 4:1–5:1), marital growth (SOS 5:2–6:13), marital maturation (SOS 7:1–8:4) and epilogue, which, among other things, explains how this relationship began (SOS 8:5–14). While this approach has some merits, it has several significant problems.

1. No Clear Storyline 

There is no clear evidence that the Song develops a story line. While the Song clearly celebrates idealized romantic love between a man and woman, we do not find a dramatic plot that is typical of narrative (prologue, problem, development, turning point, resolution, epilogue).1  All too often, reconstructions of an underlying story line/plot are strained and forced to read too much between the lines.

2. Unclear Chronological Progression

The chronological progression from courtship (SOS 1:2–3:5) to wedding (SOS 3:6–5:1) to marriage (SOS 5:2–8:4) is difficult to ascertain or defend.2  While the juxtaposition of a wedding procession (SOS 3:6–11) and consummation of a marriage in 4:1–5:1 clearly suggests the sequence of wedding day and wedding night, this does not demand that everything that precedes (SOS 1:2–3:5) can be limited to courtship nor that all which follows (SOS 5:2–8:14) is exclusive to marriage. There are numerous intimations in the so-called courtship section (SOS 1:2–3:5) which seem to depict a man and woman involved in conjugal relations (e.g., SOS 1:4, 13, 17; 2:4–6, 17; 3:4). Likewise, there are poems within the so-called marriage section (SOS 5:2–8:12) that seem to depict a couple involved in courtship (e.g., SOS 8:1–2, 8–10, 11–12). While 8:8–10 and 8:11–12 are sometimes classified as part of an epilogue (SOS 8:5–14) and viewed as “flashbacks” that explain how this relationship originally began,3  this kind of explanation cannot explain the other aforementioned inconsistencies.

3. Sex Before Marriage? 

Advocates of the narrative approach identify SOS 1:2–3:5 as the courtship section in which the couple experiences sexual longing but is not involved in sexual activity until the wedding night in 4:1–5:1. However, there are strong indications that the two lovers are sexually involved within this section (SOS 1:4, 13, 17; 2:4–6, 17; 3:4).4

For example, advocates of the chronological approach are forced to translate 2:4–6 in such a way that the maiden is merely expressing her desire for sexual intimacy with her lover, rather than actually experiencing this kind of intimacy. However, the Hebrew syntax of SOS 2:6a (verb-less clause which typically describes a present-time situation) seems to demand an indicative or factual situation rather than a wished-for experience:

He has brought me into his house of wine;
and his intent is to make love to me.
Sustain me with raisin-cakes,
refresh me with apples;
for I am love-sick!
His left hand is under my head,
and his right hand fondles me! (SOS 2:4–6)

For a brief discussion on the translation of 2:4–6, and the present-time indicative experience in view here, see my study notes on this passage in the NET Bible.

4. Pattern of Dialogue

Noting the prominent role of dialogue in the Song, Murphy suggests that the individual poems appear to be arranged in a dramatic pattern of dialogue between two lovers.5  Rather than advancing a narrative plot in linear fashion, the Song is arranged in a series of paired dialogues. In striking contrast to contemporary Egyptian love poems, which primarily feature monologues (expressing admiration, longing and fantasy), the Hebrew Song of Songs portrays idealized romantic love as characterized by the dynamic of dialogue—communicating their love to one another.

5. Repetition of Refrains Rather than Linear Movement

Rather than moving forward in a linear direction, the Song features the repetition of poetic refrains, a literary characteristic more consistent with a poetic structure rather than a narrative structure. For example, the Song contains no less than four sets of repeated refrains that are scattered throughout the entire composition: (1) adjuration refrain (SOS 2:7; 3:5; 5:8; 8:4); (2) mutual possession refrain (SOS 2:16; 6:3; 7:11); (3) sexual embrace refrain (SOS 2:6; 8:3); and (4) gazelle refrain (SOS 2:17; 8:14).

6. Parallel Panels 

The content of the Song itself consists of several sets of parallel panels. For example, there are two parallel “dreams” of seeking-finding (SOS 3:1–5; 5:2–8); two virtually identical wasfs songs (SOS 4:1–7; 6:4–10); two invitations to a rendezvous in the countryside (SOS 2:8–13; 7:12–14); two portraits of the maiden in the vineyard (SOS 1:5–6; 8:11–12); and two question-answer dialogues (SOS 3:6–11; 5:9–6:3). This pattern of repetition seems to argue for a recurrent poetic structure rather than a linear narrative-like story line.

7. Chiastic, Non-linear Structure

In contrast to the linear narrative approach, numerous scholars suggest that the Song features some kind of nonlinear symmetrical structure. The chart below presents the chiastic-like macro-structure of the Song.6

A SOS 1:2–2:7 Introduction: maiden keeping vineyard + brothers + apple tree + Solomon
 B SOS 2:8–17 Rendezvous in the countryside + song of yearning + double refrains
  C SOS 3:1–5 Dream: seeking and finding + concluding adjuration to daughters
   D SOS 3:6–11 Question + answer: wasfs describing Solomon’s royal palanquin + daughters
    E SOS 4:1–5:1 Descriptive praise (wasfs) of the maiden’s beauty + garden motif
  C’ SOS 5:2–8 Dream: seeking and (not) finding + concluding adjuration to daughters
   D’ SOS 5:9–6:3 Question + answer: wasfs describing Solomon’s royal personage + daughters
    E’ SOS 6:4–13 Descriptive praise (wasfs) of the maiden’s beauty + concluding refrain
    E” SOS 7:1–11 Descriptive praise (wasfs) of the maiden’s beauty + concluding refrain
 B’ SOS 7:12–8:4 Rendezvous in the countryside + song of yearning + double refrains
A’ SOS 8:5–14 Conclusion: maiden keeping vineyard + brothers + apple tree + Solomon

8. Concentric pattern

While the macro-structure features a somewhat symmetrical pattern, several of the major sections within the Song are arranged in concentric fashion. For example, SOS 1:2–2:7 consists of eight poems (SOS 1:2–4, 5–6, 7–8, 9–11, 12–14, 15–17; 2:1–3, 4–7) linked together in a concentric structure that features the repetition of key terms and themes. This is shown below:

A Song of Yearning: The Maiden’s Desire (SOS 1:2–4)
1. “he has brought me into his bedroom chambers”
2. repetition of  “love” (used 2x in poem)
3. wine compared to love
4. maiden addresses women of Jerusalem
B Self-Description Song: The Maiden and the Sun (SOS 1:5–6)
1. Introductory self-description: “I am …” 
2. foil: “daughters”
3. maiden burned by hot sun
4. flora imagery: vineyard 
C Tease Song: Praise of Maiden’s Beauty (SOS 1:7–8)
1. repetition of “beautiful” (used 1x in poem)
2. dialogue between maiden and young man
3. flora and fauna imagery: sheep and shade
D Metaphorical Praise Song: Metaphor for the Maiden (SOS 1:9–11)
1. metaphor: “my beloved is like a mare”
2. comparison introduced 
3. jewelry around maiden’s neck
4. royal imagery: “Pharaoh”
D’ Metaphorical Praise Song: Metaphors for the Man (SOS 1:12–14)
1. metaphor: “my lover is like myrrh”
2. comparison introduced 
3. bundle of myrrh around maiden’s neck
4. royal imagery: “the king”
C’ Admiration Song: Mutual Praise of Beauty (SOS 1:15–17)
1. repetition of  “beautiful” (used 3x in poem)
2. dialogue between young man and maiden
3. flora and flora imagery: doves and trees
B’ Description Songs: The Maiden and the Shade Tree (SOS 2:1–3)
1. introductory self-description: “I am …” 
2. foil:   “daughters”
3. maiden sits in shade of the apple tree
4. flora imagery: flowers and trees
A’ Song of Yearning: The Maiden’s Desire (SOS 2:4–7)
1. “he has brought me into his banquet hall (house of wine)”
2. repetition of  “love” (used 2x in poem)
3. house of wine associated with love
4. maiden addresses women of Jerusalem

9. Desire/fulfillment cycle

Dorsey notes that the first major macro-unit in the Song (SOS 1:2–2:7) opens with desire (SOS 1:2–4) and it closes with fulfillment (SOS 2:4–7).7 This cycle of desire-fulfillment recurs throughout each of the major literary units in the Song (SOS 1:2–2:7; 2:8–17; 3:1–5; 3:6–11; 4:1–5:1; 5:2–6:3; 6:4–13; 7:1–11; 7:12–8:4; 8:5–14). Rather than tracing a straight-line narrative progression from desire in courtship in the first half of the book to fulfillment in marriage in the second half of the book, this movement from desire to fulfillment recurs no fewer than ten times in a cyclic pattern. This clearly suggests a cyclical (poetic) rather than linear (narrative) structure for the Song.

10. Forms of the ancient Near Eastern Love Poetry Genre

Since the discovery of several collections of ancient Egyptian love songs from the Ramesside Period (Dynasties 19–20: ca. 1320–1100 B.C.), it has become clear to many scholars that the Song belongs to the genre of ancient Near Eastern love poetry. Comparison with these collections of ancient Egyptian love poems suggests that the Hebrew Song of Songs is also a collection of individual love poems, albeit the best collection of romantic love poetry. Using this kind of comparative method, form critics identify about a dozen forms of love poems in the Song. On the basis of form-critical analysis, we may identify about forty individual poems in the Song.

For example a comparison with ancient Egyptian love songs suggests that SOS 8:1–2 may be classified as a “wish song.” The maiden’s fanciful wish to be more intimate with her lover has striking parallels with Egyptian “wish songs” in which a young man expresses his wish to be more intimate with his beloved:

Three Egyptian Wish Songs: Cairo Love Songs: Group B: Love Song 21 (##1–3)

If only I were her Nubian maid, her attendant in secret!
  I would be the one who brings her a bowl of mandragoras.
  She would give pleasure to me while it is in her hand;
  She would allow me to see the beauty of her body!
If only I were the laundryman of my sister’s linen garment even for one month!
  I would be strengthened by grasping the clothes that touch her body.
  I would be the one who washed out the moringa oils that are in her kerchief;
  I would rub my body with her cast-off garments!
If only I were her little seal-ring, the keeper of her finger!
  I would see her each and every day.
  [ The text is broken at this point ]
  I would be the one who stole her heart!

Hebrew Wish Song: Song of Songs 8:1–2

If only you were my little brother who nursed at my mother’s breast!
  I would meet you outside and kiss you, and no one would despise me.
  I would lead you and bring you to my mother’s house, she who taught me;
  I would give you spiced wine to drink, the nectar of my pomegranates!

11. Solomon’s Other Anthologies

Viewing Song of Songs as a collection of love poetry finds analogy with the two other works traditionally attributed to Solomon, namely, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, which are collections of wisdom-sayings. The biblical historian reports that Solomon both composed and collected numerous proverbs and songs. While Solomon composed numerous proverbial sayings, he also collected other well-known wisdom-sayings composed by other sages. So we may conclude that Solomon may have composed some of the love poems in the book, while others were composed by other poets but collected by Solomon into this anthology.

12. Lack of Transitional Texts

Viewing the Song as a collection of individual love poems rather than a narrative story better explains the seeming lack of connection from one passage to another. Rather than superimposing an implied story line upon the Song to try to explain the relation of one passage to the next, we may simply read the 30–40 literary units in the Song as individual love poems that are self-enclosed. Although some of these poems are linked to one another with linking catch words or similar themes, there is no need to reconstruct a story line.

13. The Changing Maiden 

Viewing Song of Songs as a collection/anthology of several sets of individual love poems provides a better explanation for several features that seem to defy explanation in the chronological-narrative approach. First, the maiden in one poem does not always appear to be the same maiden in other poems. In one poem she is a country maiden working in the family vineyards but victimized by angry brothers (SOS 1:5–6). In another poem she is a country maiden who owns her own vineyard (SOS 8:11–12) and in yet another poem she is a pre-adolescent whose brothers love her (SOS 8:8–10). In one poem it appears that she hails from the village of Shunem/Shulem in Galilee (SOS 7:1), but in another poem it sounds as if she had been wooed from the region of Mount Hermon (SOS 4:8). While she is a country maiden in one poem (SOS 1:5–6), she is a prince’s daughter in another (SOS 7:2). The royal entourage escorting Solomon’s bride to her groom approaches Jerusalem from the Negev in the south (SOS 3:6–11), suggesting perhaps that she is none other than the daughter of Pharaoh whom Solomon is reported to have especially loved (SOS 1; Kings 10:1). While each poem within this collection celebrates the love between one man and one woman, there is no need to assume that the same couple is always in view in every poem. Just as the collections of ancient Egyptian love poetry contain poems describing the love relationship between a variety of individual couples, so the Hebrew Song of Songs may contain individual poems about several different couples. The actual identity of each individual man and woman is obscured poetically because the main point of each love poem is not who is the man and who is the woman, but rather to idealize romantic love between a man and a woman. Likewise, modern anthologies of love poetry may celebrate the love between one man and one woman, but the same couple is not always in view in each case.

14. The Polygamy Problem

Finally, viewing Canticles as a collection of love poetry better explains the role of Solomon, an infamous polygamist, in the composition of the Song. Moreover, it helps to offset some of the bewilderment that the reader experiences upon encountering mention of a harem in 6:8–10. As one of my colleagues, Dr John Reed, once mused: “The Song of Songs does not describe what Solomon’s experience at love actually was, but what Solomon wished his love life had been like!”

  1. G. Lloyd Carr, “Song of Songs,” in A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 283–84, 291.
  2. Dennis F. Kinlaw, “Song of Songs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:1211.
  3. Jack S. Deere, “The Meaning of the Song of Songs,” unpublished Th.D. dissertation (Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1984), 246.
  4. Helmut Gollwitzer, Song of Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 29.
  5. Murphy, The Song of Songs, 64–67.
  6. Gordon H. Johnston, “The Enigmatic Literary Structure of the Song of Songs,” paper presented at national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November 2001.
  7. David A. Dorsey, "Literary Structuring in the Song of Songs," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 46 (1990): 81-96; idem, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 199-213.

About the Contributors

Gordon H. Johnston

Dr. Gordon Johnston possesses a specialist’s depth and generalist’s breadth. Known for thorough research and meticulous detail, he delights in helping students see the broad themes that unify the Scriptures. He has degrees in Classical Greek, Biblical Hebrew, and Hebrew and Semitic languages, as well as post-doctoral study in Hittite as visiting research professor at the University of Chicago (2010–11). His research/teaching interests include Wisdom Literature and Biblical Theology. Dr. Johnston has published numerous articles in scholarly journals, contributed to the NET Bible, and co-authored a monograph entitled Jesus the Messiah. Gordon and the love of his life—his wife, Danielle—have been blessed with three dearly loved children.