In the Hebrew Bible this book was the first of the five volumes or scrolls (meghillôth) used by the Jews on important feast days. It was the book read on the eighth day of the Passover.
The title comes from the literal translation of the Hebrew term Sir hassirim, a very common grammatical form used in Hebrew to describe a superlative degree of some quality: as, for example, “holy of holies” instead of “holiest” (cf. Ex 26:33). This is why Origen called this book the Song par excellence or the Greatest Song or just the Song.
The very title of the book (given in the first verse) attributes it to Solomon. But as we have seen in the case of the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Wisdom, this is used in substitution of the writer’s real name—a common convention. The true author of this beautiful lyrical-dramatic poem remains unknown.
The many Aramaicisms and the serene and optimistic tone of the narrative allow us to give the first part of the fourth century as the likely time of composition.
This was the period immediately following the religious reform introduced by Ezra and Nehemiah, when all Palestine was at peace, a situation which would continue up to the overthrow of the Persian empire by Alexander the Great (331 B.C.).
A reading of this book shows that it is a poem of married love, presented in alternating songs. Most commentators say that it was written as an allegory, because its background is that of the relationship between Israel and the God of the Covenant: It is a song in praise of the re-establishment of theocracy, the renewal of the alliance between Yahweh and the “remnant” of Israel returned safe and sound from captivity in Babylon.
One commentator (Cf. F. Spadafora, Diccionario Bíblico, Barcelona, 1968, 104-06) explains it as a parable and a contrast, a parable in an idyllic setting and a contrast between two lives, two loves. A simple shepherdess tenderly loves her young husband, also a shepherd; and he loves her no less tenderly.
The setting is pastoral, rural, unspoilt countryside, where they have grown up together. Up to this point, the book is an idyll.
Contrasting with this simple life, this pure affection, lies the city with its hubbub, the court with its blandishments, a powerful king (personified in Solomon, the richest and most ostentatious of all the kings in the history of Israel) who seeks to win the love of the shepherdess, to be his consort and enhance his court.
But the generous shepherdess disdainfully rejects the approaches of the king and is content with the simple rural life. She wishes to remain forever faithful to her shepherd, the only object of her pure love.
Throughout this vivid narrative, very rich in images, the faithfulness of the couple symbolizes the relationship between God and his people.
They had been put to the test in their exile by all the sparkle of life in Babylon, but they still felt the claims of faithfulness to the God in the Covenant.
Many did succumb, but a “remnant” chose to stay true to Yahweh and are ready to persevere in that fidelity. These are those who have returned, and in gratitude to God they sing a song in his praise.
Probably no other Old Testament book is open to so many interpretations. However, from the beginning Jews, and later Christians, have taken this book mainly as an allegory, as we have said. The love between the couple represents Yahweh’s love for his people-the same metaphor as used by the prophets from Hosea onwards (cf. Hos. 2; Is. 54:6ff; 62:4ff; Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 16:1-58), and the same as used in the New Testament to symbolize the relationship of Jesus Christ with his Church, St. Paul applies this image to the Church, Christ’s spouse, whom our Lord presents to himself “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27). whom he deeply loves and on whose behalf he readily goes to his death, death on a cross (cf. Matt. 9:15; 22:1-14; John 3:29).
The sacred author also uses the image of the vineyard (Song 2:15) to describe the love God expects of his people; but there are little foxes in the vineyard, who continually try to undermine their fidelity.
Gregory says that this is a warning to those who.aspire to holiness, to be on the watch against faults and defects which may seem to be very minor but which must be uprooted at the outset and not allowed to grow stronger and eventually utterly destroy their souls.
If he reads it attentively and meditates on it with faith, the Christian will discover in this book teachings of benefit to his spiritual life, giving him consolation and optimism.
Along with the drama of sin and human wretchedness, he will discover the great value of repentance, which always leads to God’s forgiveness. For although sin breaks the limits of love, sincere repentance restores the soul’s friendship with its Lord.
This is how mystics like John of the Cross understand the poem. He uses it in his Spiritual Canticle to show all who.aspire to holiness the way to attain it, even those who, not wanting to withdraw from their daily affairs, want to turn all their activities into a prayer pleasing to God.