AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. by W. O. E. Oesterley, D.D., Litt.D.,& T. H. Robinson, D.D., Litt.D. Hon. D.D. (Aberdeen), Hon. D.Th. (Halle Wittenberg). © W O E Oesterley & T H Robinson 1934. First published SPCK. 1934. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.


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The Song of Solomon (the Hebrew title is "Song of Songs") was one of the last books to find a secure position in the Jewish Canon. Its secular nature made it difficult for Jewish scholars to accept it. But the tradition which ascribed it to Solomon and its undoubted beauty made men anxious to include it, if possible, and the problem was ultimately solved by treating it metaphorically, as a picture of the love existing between Yahweh and the ideal Israel. The headings in the English Authorized Version suggest a parallel interpretation in the Christian Church.

In the Hebrew Bible the Song is placed first of the "Five Rolls," and so immediately follows Job and precedes Ruth. (See above, p.5.)

In the Greek versions it appears immediately after Ecclesiastes and before Job, being the fourth of the poetical books. A similar position is assigned to it in the Vulgate, though the fact that Job is placed before the Psalter makes it the fifth of these books.

In the Peshitta it stands immediately after Ruth and before Esther.

These variations are partly due to the general arrangement of the Bible in the various versions, and partly to the uncertainty as to its authorship and canonicity.


The Song of Solomon consists of a series of erotic lyrics, most of which are incomplete, and some are mere fragments. Sometimes a man speaks to a maiden (i.9-11, 15-17, iv.1-7, vi.4-9, vii.1--9, viii.13), sometimes a maiden addresses her lover (i.2-4, 7-8, 12-14, 15-17, vii.10-viii.4, viii.14, [ii.1]. At other times we have a maiden addressing a company, usually of other women (i.5-6, ii.8-14, iii.1-5, v.2-8, v.9-vi.3, viii.6-7); these little poems include passages that are descriptive of the lovers' experiences. We have short dialogues between them in ii.1 -7 and iv.8-v.1, and brief descriptions of the lover's splendour or his beloved's beauty in iii.6-11, vi.10, 11 -12. In vi.13 it is the company of women who speak, while in viii.8-10 and 11-12 we have two little lyrics; in the first some brothers describe their care of their sister, and in the second we have the parable of Solomon's vineyard.


As so often in collections of different pieces, the poems in the Song of Solomon tend to be shorter and more fragmentary towards the end of the book. This makes it improbable that they were arranged on any definite plan; but many commentators have, nevertheless, sought to discover a systematic structure in the book. Two types of theory may be mentioned:

(a) Dramatic.

It has been maintained that the book is a drama.

Two forms have been suggested. In the one Solomon sees a rustic maiden, is captivated by her beauty, takes her into the royal harem, and wins her love. In the other form a third character is introduced: a shepherd to whom the girl has given her heart. As in the other form, Solomon takes her into his harem, but fails to win her, and in the end she returns to her rustic lover. (The two schemes are described at length by Driver, op. cit., pp. 411-416.)

This theory has obvious disadvantages. Apart from the possibility of dramatic scenes in connexion with some forms of ritual, we have no reason to believe that there was any kind of drama in ancient Israel. There is not the slightest hint of it either in the rest of the Old Testament literature or in any outside writer. There are no stage directions of any kind, and these must be left to the imagination of the reader; even the differences between the speakers are clear only from the grammatical forms used.

(b) The marriage ceremony.

It has been suggested that marriage customs in ancient Israel were similar to those that now prevail among the peasantry of northern Syria.

There the bride and bridegroom are enthroned for a week as queen and king, and, on the threshing-sledge, which is their throne; they receive the adoration of their village, sometimes themselves taking part in the proceedings. (Cp. Wetzstein in Dalman's Palastinische Diwan (1901).)

Attempts have been made to reconstruct the ceremonies of the week, but they are hardly convincing. (E.g. by Haupf, in American Journal of Semitic Studies, Vil. XVIII, pp.193-245, XIX, pp.1-32.)

A recent study of the book by T. H. Meek has resulted in the suggestion that the songs are derived from hymns used in the cult of Ishtar, transplanted to Palestine in the worship of Astarte. Meek cites many parallel expressions, but, though the list is impressive and suggestive, it hardly amounts to proof, and the improbability of such songs being preserved in Israel militates against the theory. (Cp. "The Song of Songs and the Fertility Cult," in The Song of Songs, a Symposium, pp.48-79 (1924).)

We can say with confidence only that we have here a collection of erotic lyrics that, in their extraordinary beauty and freshness, are hardly surpassed by Sappho or Burns. They may have been used in the wedding ceremonies of Palestine, and they may owe their preservation to this fact, but on that point we cannot be certain. In favour of this view, we may suggest that the name given to the woman - "Shulamite" - may have no reference (as it is commonly supposed to have) to the village of Shunem, but may simply be a feminine of Solomon. As the glorious king of Israel was the king-bridegroom, so his consort must be a "Solomoness".


The date of the Songs in their present form can hardly be early. The language shows signs of lateness, many Aramaic and even some Greek words appearing in the text. The relative used, is one that became common only in Rabbinic times, though there are signs which suggest that it may have been current in earlier days in the far north.

But, beyond saying that they are post-exilic, it is difficult to assign any period to them with confidence.


The MT is often obscure, and this may be owing to corruption, though it is also partly due to the very large number of unusual words, and partly to the mutilated condition to which so many of the poems were reduced before their inclusion in the collection.

Help may be derived occasionally both from the Septuagint and from the Peshitta, though neither presents any unusual features.

It has been suggested that the current Septuagint version is later than that of Aquila, but this view has not found general support.