Song of Solomon 1: In the Chambers of the King & Ancient Love Poetry

1 The song of songs, which is Solomon’s.

2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.

3 Because of the savor of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee.

Wall carving of a mounted warrior, Tel Halaf
Horses came from the vast grazing lands of the steppes of Asia and Europe. They grazed on the open pastures in summer and endured the fearsome windswept winters. Natural wanderers, they seem to have reached the ancient Bible lands from southwestern Asia.

Somewhere along the way they was domesticated. It became the friend and servant of tribal people in western Europe, southwestern Asia and Mongolia.

• The first mention we have of the horse is in Akkadian documents at the end of the 3rd millenium BC. The people who wrote these documents called it the rather undignified “mountain ass” or “foreign ass”.

• It is called “an ass of the west” in a fable of the time of Hammurabi (1750 BC).

4 Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee.

5 I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.

6 Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.

7 Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon: for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions?

8 If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherds’ tents.

9 I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh’s chariots.

10 Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with chains of gold.

11 We will make thee borders of gold with studs of silver.

12 While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof.

13 A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.

14 My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of En-gedi.

15 Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes.

16 Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our bed is green.

17 The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.

Ancient Love Poetry 

The ancient Near East produced many examples of what can broadly be called “love poetry.”  Some of it is overly religious in nature, describing the love affairs of gods and goddesses.  Other songs provide examples of “secular” love poems that explore both the excitement and the heartbreak so prevalent among young lovers.  Examples of ancient love poetry are as follows: 

Mesopotamia has produced primarily religious love poetry: 

Nebo and Tashmetu: an Akkadian poem about the love between Nebo, the god of scribes, and his consort, Tashmetu. 

“The Love Song for Shu-Sin”
An inscription dating back to c.2000 BCE, The Love Song for Shu-Sin is described as the world’s oldest known love poem. “Once a year, according to Sumerian belief, it was the sacred duty of the ruler to marry a priestess and votary of Inanna, the goddess of love and procreation, in order to ensure fertility to the soil and fecundity to the womb,” writes Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer.

“The time-honored ceremony was celebrated on New Year’s day and was preceeded by feasts and banquets accompanied by music, song, and dance. The poem inscribed on the little Istanbul clay tablet was in all probability recited by the chosen bride of King Shu-Sin in the course of one of these New Year celebrations.”

Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you.
Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber,
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you.
Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber.

The Bridal Sheets: a Sumerian song featuring a playful dialogue between the god Utu and his sister Inanna, in which he gradually divulges that he has arranged for her to marry Ama-ushumgal-anna. 

Songs of Ishtar and Tammuz: a compilation of songs dealing with the love affair between the goddess Ishtar and the god Tammuz. 

Egypt has produced a number of love songs that are more “secular” in outlook in that they concern people rather than gods (c. 1300-1150 B.C.).  They do, however, sometimes have fantastic or mythological motifs.  These poems astutely but sometimes comically portray the emotional turmoil of young love, with striking similarities to Song of Songs. 

Papyrus Harris 500: A young man and woman sing of their passionate love for each other.  

The dialogue-like parts for the male and female singers are similar to what we see in the Song. 

In some of these texts the female sings a soliloquy about her love; this too has parallels in the Song.

“The Flower Song”
Something interesting to note about Ancient Egyptian poems in general from National Geographic:

“Women’s voices were strong in Egyptian poetry — as the narrators of poems or as lovers making choices about their beloveds, for example. This strength confirms that women had a higher position in ancient Egyptian culture than in other societies at the time, [Egyptologist Terry] Wilfong said. Women may even have written some of the poetry.”

To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
I draw life from hearing it.
Could I see you with every glance,
It would be better for me
Than to eat or to drink.

Cairo Love Songs: Recorded on a vase, they include the songs of a young woman who declares her devotion to her lover, and those of a young man, who yearns to be with her – to be the ring on her finger on her laundryman so he can handle her clothing. 

The Turin Love Song: a fanciful text in which various trees talk a pair of young lovers. 

Chester Beatty Papyrus I Love Songs: again include parts for male and female singers, in which they describe the intensity of their passion and their frustration at being kept apart.  One compilation, the Nakhtsobek Songs, explores a man’s becoming enamored of a prostitute. 

The Egyptian poetry displays several parallels to the Song of Songs.  Structurally they are similar in that both have parts for male and female singers.  They also share similar metaphors and imagery.  A few examples of common elements include: 

The beloved is called “brother” or “sister” as a term of endearment. 

In the Egyptian texts the woman asserts that her man’s love is better than beer (the favorite Egyptian beverage).  In the Song, his love is preferable to wine (1:2).

In the Egyp0tian poems the woman calls for her lover to come like a horse dashing to a battlefield; in the Song she summons him to hasten to her like a young stag (e.g., 8:14). 

In both cases the woman is said to be a flower (2:1). 

In each instance either the man or the woman is likened to a tree (2:3).           

The door image is important to both (5:2-7). 

At the same time, Egyptian poetry and the Song have significant differences: 

Egyptian lovers often invoke Hathor, the goddess of love, in their quest to win over their beloved.  The Biblical texts never suggest that God can be persuaded by a lover-struck youth to manipulate someone to fall in love with him or her. 

The Egyptian songs, but not the Song of Songs, often focus on youthful infatuation and thus include some frivolous elements. 

The Egyptian poems are generally lighthearted, intended as humorous entertainment.  Song of Songs takes a much more serious look at the significance of sexual love. 

It is impossible and unnecessary to deny that the Egyptian texts influenced the poetry of Song of Songs.  In fact, this poetry gives us a strong reason to date Song of Songs to the age of Solomon, who not only lived near the time the Egyptian songs were being written, but also maintained good relations with Egypt.  Even so, the content complexity and theological significance of Song of Songs require us to regard it not as an imitation but as an original, canonical text.