The reception of the book in the Canon led, as Siegfried has said, to the most monstrous creations in the history of interpretation. If it be by Solomon, and therefore a holy book, it must be a celebration of divine love, not of human. So it was argued; and the theme of the book was regarded as the love of Jehovah for Israel. Christian interpreters, following this hint of their Jewish predecessors, applied it to the love of Christ for His church or for the individual soul. The allegorical view of the poem has many parallels in the mystic poetry of the East, and it even finds a slender support in Hosea's comparison of the relation of Jehovah to Israel as a marriage relationship; but taking into account the general nature of the poem, and the tendencies of the Hebrew mind, it may be fairly said that the allegorical interpretation is altogether impossible. Any love poem would be equally capable of such an interpretation.
Another view, first hinted at in a phrase of Origen, is that the book is a drama, a view which has held the field -- not without challenge -- for over a century. There is much in the language of the song to suggest this: it is obvious, e.g., that there is occasional dialogue, i.15, 16, ii.2, 3, but the actual story of the drama was very far from clear. The older view was that it was a story of Solomon's love for a peasant girl, and of his redemption from his impure loves by his affection for her. But as in viii.11 f. and elsewhere, Solomon is spoken of by way of contrast, room must be made for a third person, the shepherd lover of the peasant maid; and, with much variety of detail, the supporters of the dramatic theory now adhere in general to the view that the poem celebrates the fidelity of a peasant maid who had been captured and brought to Solomon's harem, but who steadily resisted his blandishments and was finally restored to her shepherd lover. The book becomes thus not a triumph of love over lust, but of love over temptation. The story is very pretty; but the objections to it and to the dramatic view of the book are all but insuperable. It must be confessed that, to arrive at such a story at all, a good deal has to be read between the lines, and interpreters usually find what they bring; but the most fatal objection to it is that the text in vi.12, on which the whole story turns -- the maiden's surprise in the orchard by the retinue of the king -- is so disjointed and obscure that the attempt to translate it has been abandoned by many competent scholars.
Apart from that, the story can hardly be said to be probable. "She, my dove, is but one," vi.9, would sound almost comical upon the lips of one who possessed the harem of vi.8. But in any case, it is almost inconceivable that Solomon would have taken a refusal from a peasant girl: Oriental kings were not so scrupulous. Again, it is very hard to detect any progress on the dramatic view of the book. Ch. viii. with its innocent expression of an early love, follows ch. vii., which is sensuous to the last degree. Further, in the absence of stage directions, every commentator divides the verses among the characters in a way of his own: the opening words of the song, i.2a, may be interpreted in three or four different ways, and equal possibilities of interpretation abound throughout the song. Of course the difficulties are not quite so great in the Hebrew as in the English (e.g. i.15 must be spoken by the bridegroom and i.16 by the bride), but they are great enough. Again, how are we to conceive of so short a play -- ll6 lines -- being divided into acts and scenes? for the scenes are continually changing, and the longest would not last more than two minutes. It would not be fair to lay too much stress upon the fact that there is no other illustration of a purely Semitic drama; that would be to argue that, if a thing did not happen twice, it did not happen once. Nevertheless, coupled with the untold difficulties and confusions that arise from regarding the song as a drama, the absence of a Semitic parallel is significant.
The true view of this perplexing book appears to be that it is, as Herder called it, "a string of pearls" -- an anthology of love or wedding songs sung during the festivities of the "king's week," as the first week after the wedding is called in Syria. Very great probability has been added to this view by the observations of Syrian customs made by Wetzstein in his famous essay on "The Syrian Threshing-board," and first thoroughly applied by Budde to the interpretation of the Song. Syrian weddings, we are told, usually took place in March, ii.11ff. The threshing-floor is set on a sort of platform on the threshing-board covered with carpets and pillows; and upon this throne, the "king and queen," i.e. the bride and bridegroom, are seated, while the guests honour them with song, game and dance. This lasts for seven days (cf. Gen. xxix.27; Jud. xiv.12); and the theory is that in the Song of Songs we have specimens of the songs sung on such an occasion. In particular, it is practically certain that vi.13-vii.9 is the song which accompanied the "sword-dance" (as the last words of vi.13 should probably be translated) performed by the bride on the eve of her wedding day. This would explain the looseness of the arrangement, no special attempt being made to unify the songs, though it may be conceded that the noble eulogy of love in viii.6, 7, as it is the finest utterance in the book, was probably intended as a sort of climax.
The king, then, is not Solomon, but the peasant bridegroom, who enjoys the regal dignity, and even the name of Israel's most splendid monarch, iii.7, 9, for the space of a week. Ch. iii.11, with its reference to the bridegroom's crown (cf. Isa. lxi.10), is all but conclusive proof that the hero is not king Solomon, but another sort of bridegroom. His bride, perhaps a plain country girl, counts for the week as the maid of Shulem, vi.13, i.e. Abishag, once the fairest maid in Israel (vi.1, I Kings i.3). So throughout the "king's week" everything is transfigured and takes on the colours of royal magnificence: the threshing-board becomes a palanquin, and the rustic bodyguard appear as a band of valiant warriors, iii.7, 8. There is a charming naivete, and indeed something much profounder, in this temporary transformation of those humble rustic lives. We are involuntarily reminded of scenes in A Midsummer Night's Dream. This view of the book has commended itself to scholars like Noldeke, who formerly championed the dramatic theory, though two of the latest writers have argued skilfully against it.
The following may be taken as an approximate division of the songs, though some of the longer sections might easily be regarded as a combination of two or three songs. The bride praises the bridegroom, modestly depreciates her own beauty, and asks where her bridegroom is to be found, i.2-8. Each sings the other's praises: the happiness of the bride, i.9-ii.7. A spring wooing, ii.8-17. The bride's dream, iii.1-5. The bridegroom's procession, iii.6-11. The charms of the bride, iv.1-v.1. The beauty of the bridegroom, v.2-vi.3. Praise of the bride, vi.4-12. Praise of the bride as she dances the sword-dance, vii.1-10. The bride's longing, vii.11-viii.4. The incomparable power of love, viii.5-7. The bride's proud reply to her brothers, viii.8-10. The two vineyards, viii.11, 12. Conclusion, viii.13, 14.
The immortal verses in praise of love, viii.6, 7, show that, in spite of its often sensuous expression, the love here celebrated is not only pure but exclusive; and the book, which once was regarded as a satire on the court of Solomon, would in any case make in favour of monogamic sentiment, and tend to ennoble ideals in a country where marriage was simply regarded as a contract.
The mention of Israel's ancient capital Tirzah in vi.4 (if the text be correct) as a parallel to Jerusalem, would alone be enough to bring the date below Solomon's time (cf.1 Kings xiv.17, xvi.23). But it is no doubt much later. The Persian word pardes in iv.13 appears to imply the Persian period, and is used elsewhere only in post-exilic books (Neh. ii.8; Eccles. ii.5). Indeed the word appirion in iii.9 appears to be the Hebraized form of a Greek word phoreion, and if so would almost necessarily imply the Greek period, though the Hebrews may have been acquainted with Greek words, through the Greek settlements in Egypt, as early as the sixth century B.C. Many of the words and constructions, however, are demonstrably late and Aramaic; and the linguistic evidence alone (unless we assume an earlier book to have been worked over in later times) would put the Song hardly earlier than the fourth century B.C. Yet the fact that though a secular writing, it is in Hebrew and not Aramaic, which was rapidly gaining ground, shows that it can hardly be brought down much later. On the whole, probably it is to be placed somewhere between 400 and 300; and its sunny vivacity thus becomes a welcome foil to the austerity of the post-exilic age. If this argument is sound, it follows that the book cannot have been by Solomon. The superscription, i.1, was no doubt added by a later hand on the basis of the many references to Solomon in the book, iii.7-11, viii.11 f, and of the statement in 1 Kings iv.32 that he was the author of 1,005 songs.
Where the songs were composed we cannot tell. The scenes they reflect so vividly are rather those of Israel than of Judah, but the repeated allusions to the daughters of Jerusalem would be most naturally explained if the songs came from Jerusalem or its neighbourhood. With this agree the references to Engedi, Heshbon, Kedar, while the northern places mentioned, Lebanon, Hermon, Gilead, Damascus, are such as would be familiar, at any rate, by reputation, to a Judean.