Aimee Byrd

Inside the word. Outside the box.

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Well, that question could provoke a whole book of its own. One of the more common responses to me when I talk about how the Song of Songs is a book that ministers deeply to me, followed by either the awkward laughter or awkward silence, is the question about how one is even supposed to approach this book of the Bible. How do you read it? Is it linear? Is it a bunch of poems chopped up and compiled together? I think that many look at it as some sort of secret code about sex in which the key is lost.

If you’ve read any of my posts on the Song, you see both an allegorical and canonical approach. We can’t begin to understand sexuality until we get the point. Peter Leithart explains it like this:

Sex is allegory, and as allegory it is metaphysics and theology and cosmology. For Christians, sexual difference and union is a type of Christ and the church: How could an erotic poem (and in the Bible!) be anything but allegory? From the Song we relearn that poetic metaphor does not add meaning to what is itself mere chemistry and physics. Nor is erotic poetry a euphemistic cover for Victorian embarrassment. Poetry elucidates the human truth of human sexuality, and it seems uniquely capable of doing so. Only as allegory does the Song have anything to teach us about sex. Only as allegory can the Song play its central role in healing our sexual imaginations.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The allegorical and canonical approach guide us in interpretation, but what is its literary structure? It’s a song. And it’s the Song of all songs! And it is brilliantly written. With all the differing analyses out there, I find David Dorsey’s[1] the most helpful. He builds off the work of J. Cheryl Exum and William Shae, as he finds the lyrics forming seven cycles with internal cohesion within each unit, each ending in a refrain or concluding line and scene shift.

Six of the seven feature internal structures that are chiastic; and all but two are septenary. The seven constituent units of the book form a very obvious chiasm, at the center of which is, quite fittingly, 3.6-5.1, the Wedding Scene (if indeed it is that) and the book’s dramatic high point (4.16—5.1).

I’ve mapped out the structure suggested by Dorsey, along with some of his observations, and it has been enlightening. I don’t have space to do all that here, but I thought it interesting just to show what the Song is even telling us in its literary structure. Here are just a few quick notes on the 7 cycles. Even though the center of each chiasm often isn’t necessarily the emphasized point of its unit like the center of the over-all chiastic structure of the book is, I find them together telling us something. It’s also interesting to look at the mirroring qualities of the chiastic structure of the book. And it’s notable how many 7’s there are in the literary architecture and expressions.[2] Completeness. Perfection. Each unit has a pattern of seeking and finding with expressions of desire, except the last one, beginning with their unity and ending with her calling him to the spice-laden mountains which her body represents. Maranatha!

1st chiasm/cycle: 1:2—2:7

Main Speaker: woman

Septenary

The center of the chiasm is the man’s voice (1:15):

How beautiful you are, my darling. How very beautiful! Your eyes are doves.

2nd chiasm/cycle: 2:8—2:17

Main Speaker: Groom

7 participles (2:6-2:7)

The center of the chiasm is mainly the man’s voice, bookended by the woman’s (2:10—2:15)

Woman: My love calls to me.

Man: Arise, my darling. Come away, my beautiful one. For now the winter is past; the rain has ended and gone away. The blossoms appear in the countryside. The time of singing has come, and the turtledove’s cooing is heard in our land. The fig tree ripens its figs; the blossoming vines give off their fragrance. Arise, my darling. Come away, my beautiful one.

My dove is in the clefts of the rock, in the crevices of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is lovely.

Woman: Catch the foxes for us—the little foxes that ruin the vineyards—for our vineyards are in bloom.

3rd chiasm/cycle (3:1—3:5)

Speaker: woman

Septenary

Center of chiasm: 3b

I asked them “Have you seen the one I love?”

4th chiasm/cycle (3:6—5:1)

Main speaker: Groom

Septenary

7 items (3:7—3:10)

7 body parts (4:1—4:5)

7 lofty places (4:8)

7 more admirable parts of woman (4:9—15)

The end of the unit, spoken by narrator (or Yahweh?) centers the Song:

Eat, friends! Drink, be intoxicated with caresses!

Center of chiasm and of all seven cycles (4:7):

You are absolutely beautiful, my darling; there is no imperfection in you.

5th chiasm/cycle (5:2—7:10)

Multiple speakers

Mirrors qualities with the 3rd unit: both begin with woman in bed dreaming (?), night scene, streets of the city, guardians find her and are neglectful or abusive.

Septenary

10 parts of adoration of the Groom, from head down (5:11—5:16)

10 parts of adoration of the woman, from feet up (7:1-6)

Center of Chiasm, Groom is praising woman’s face (6:4-9):

You are beautiful as Tirzah, my darling, lovely as Jerusalem, awe-inspiring as an army with banners. Turn your eyes away from me, for they captivate me. Your hair is like a flock of goats streaming down from Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of ewes coming up from washing, each one having a twin, and not one missing. Behind your veil, your brow is like a slice of pomegranate. There are sixty queens and eighty concubines and young women without number. But my dove, my virtuous one, is unique; she is the favorite of her mother, perfect to the one who gave her birth. Women see her and declare her fortunate; queens and concubines also, and they sing her praises.

6th cycle, no chiasm (7:11—8:4)

Linear, 3 parts

The woman’s invitation

Mirroring qualities to the 2nd chiasm/cycle:

In the 2nd cycle, man gives invitation, in the 6th it is the woman’s invitation

In the 2nd cycle, man asks to hear her voice, in the 6th we hear only the woman’s voice

Both have blosoming flowers, fragrance, possible mother’s house, wall/door, wine/vineyards. Neither are septenary.

7th chiasm/cycle (8:5-14)

Chiastic heptad

Begins and ends with the two together

Mirroring qualities with 1st chiasm: brothers, vineyard, woman’s worth, daughters of Jerusalem, alternating speakers, eyes, Song begins and ends with woman’s voice, immodestly calling her beloved to her. Both speak of silver, cedar, apple tree, breasts, vineyards, exclusive love, and Solomon is mentioned by name (which only happens again in center unit of Song, tying them together).

Chiastic center: brothers and the bride (8:8-10):

Brothers: Our sister is young; she has no breasts. What will we do for our sister on that day she is spoken for? If she is a wall, we will build a silver barricade on her. If she is a door, we will enclose it with cedar planks.

Woman: I am a wall and my breasts are towers. So in his eyes I have become like one who finds peace.

The chiastic center of the outer units, 1 and 7, both refer to their lover’s eyes. In the 1st, the Groom tells the woman she has dove’s eyes. This is interesting because the dove in Scripture is used as a sign of the Spirit. As Gregory of Nyssa says, “Hence the most perfect praise of eyes is that the form of their life is shaped in conformity with the grace of the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is a dove.”[3] When Christ looks at his bride, he sees himself. It is also foreshadowing. “God is within her; she will not be toppled” (Ps. 46:5). So, the bride can use the language of a fortress when she describes herself at the end of the Song, looking into his eyes. “I am a wall and my breasts are towers. So in his eyes I have become like one who finds peace.” She finds peace (the true Solomon) in the Bridegroom’s eyes. And as he says in that 1st chiastic center, “How beautiful you are, my darling. How very beautiful!”

The penultimate units, 2 and 6, are the only ones corresponding without the septenary structure. In the 2nd unit, the man invites the woman out to the countryside, and she is shy, yet playful. The center of the unit invites all of our senses into this invitation. Desire is blossoming and potent. And yet, gentle and tender in seeking consent. The 6th is the only linear unit, dominant with the woman’s invitation building on itself from the familiar blossoming countryside to her mother’s house, Zion.

We’ve got the night scenes in units 3 and 5, explaining not only Israel’s and the church’s history, but addressing our own experiences of abuse and neglect when it doesn’t seem like our Groom is there. “Have you seen the one I love?” We learn that he is with his people, the lilies, all along. He sees. “You are beautiful as Tirzah, my darling, lovely as Jerusalem, awe-inspiring as an army with banners.” With a focus on our Lord, we get back up. We hear who we are. And the world will see as well. Even queens “see her and declare her fortunate.”

And that middle. There it is. There’s so much. But right there in the center of the whole chiastic structuring of the Song, we hear what we long for: “You are absolutely beautiful, my darling; there is no imperfection in you.” The union of Christ and his bride is blessed by the Father himself, “Eat, friends! Drink, be intoxicated with caresses!”

The Song is telling us a heck of a lot about God’s love for his people. While I usually love to write more on its metaphors, symbols, imagery, allegory, intertextual references, echoes, and allusions, literary structuring shows us how it all centers around that beautiful center—intimate presence with the Son, desire restored and fulfilled, and communion with the triune God.


[1] David. A. Dorsey, LITERARY STRUCTURING IN THE SONG OF SONGS, JSOT, 46 (1990) 81-96.

[2] There are words that are mentioned 7 times in the Song as well, not mentioned here.

[3] Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Song of Songs, Homily 7.

6 thoughts on “What is the Song of Songs Telling Us?

  1. Cynthia W. says:

    I know – as a matter of faith – that it’s an allegory of something wonderful, but I’m so put off by all the uses of “beautiful” and descriptions of her body. When does the Bride’s Lover tell her that she’s trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent, and that he loves her because of her character rather than her “worthiness” to service his bodily appetite?

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    1. Aimee Byrd says:

      Hi Cynthia,
      Perhaps this quote by Robert Jenson from his commentary on the Song would help: “beauty is realized eschatology, the present glow of the sheer goodness that will be at the end.” When Christ sees looks at his bride, he sees his own Spirit in her, his own radiance, his own holiness, and the eternal joy in the gift his Father gave him. Hope that is helpful.

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      1. Cynthia W. says:

        Thank you, Aimee, that is helpfu.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. George M says:

    Cynthia – I’m an old Boy Scout, so I see what you did there . . .

    I agree with you that the attributes that are praised, vs. what we ought to look for in people is off-putting. I wonder if the focus on things the bride can take no credit for, her natural beauty, and the ignoring of the things the bride could take credit for (hunaly speaking) in admirable character is instructive. I’m just surmising, but maybe he loves his bride because the bride was created and called to be his bride, and that it has nothing to do with the worthiness of the bride. Sort of a “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

    The Bible has plenty of examples of the courtship/engagement process that we seek to emulate at our peril. If I had a daughter, and her suitor approached her like that, I’d be less than impressed.

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    1. Cynthia W. says:

      Thank you for the response, George M. Those are excellent insights.

      It can be difficult to keep our real-life experiences from getting mixed up with the messages of Scripture. However, when we say the Lord loves his people because he is the Lord and they are his people, “enfleshed,” as it were, in his gifts of grace, that takes things out of the realm of human lust.

      Liked by 1 person

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