Teaching Old Testament: Song of Songs

Seminary Curriculum / Produced by TOW Project

This article on teaching the Old Testament was written by Alistair Mackenzie, Teaching Fellow at Laidlaw College and member of The Theology of Work Project Steering Committee. It originally appeared in the Oikonomia Network newsletter in November 2016.

Song of Songs is not a book we usually think of in connection with work and the economy. Certainly it has presented interesting hermeneutical challenges for successive generations of Christians, but these center on the extent to which it is primarily a celebration of sexual love and marital fidelity, and additionally (or alternatively) a more figurative poetic picture of the sort of intimacy God wants to enjoy with His people.

But a closer reading notices what the couple are actually doing while reciting love poetry to each other: planting a vineyard and working hard at it.

Song of Songs is about a couple who start a small business as a way to make a living and to strengthen their love. Their work draws them together, rather than keeping them apart. This book shows work and family life not as a balance of competing priorities, but as an integrated way of achieving what is most important in life.

The Theology of Work Bible Commentary notes: “The Song of Songs is love poetry. Yet it is also a profound depiction of the meaning, value and beauty of work. The Song sings of lovers who court, then marry, and then work together in an ideal picture of life, family and work.” It goes on to explore themes of hardship, beauty, diligence, pleasure, passion, family and joy as they are depicted in the wide variety of work seen in the Song of Songs.

The Song begins with the woman speaking about how her skin has been darkened because her brothers made her work the family vineyard (Song 1:6). In the ancient world, people tended to look down on dark skin, not for racial reasons but for economic reasons: dark skin meant you were in the peasant class and had to work in the sun. Fair skin meant you were in the aristocracy. Therefore pale skin – not a tan! – was especially prized as a mark of beauty in women. But this woman’s hard work has not really diminished her beauty: “Dark am I, yet lovely” (Song 1:5 NIV). A woman who works with her hands may not be an aristocrat, but she is beautiful and worthy of praise. The biblical perspective is that work has an intrinsic beauty.

Solomon builds himself a palanquin (a seat carried on poles) and the Song extols the beauty of the workmanship. It is literally a labor of love (Song 3:10). He puts its beauty to use in the service of love, transporting his beloved to their wedding (Song 3:11), yet the work was already beautiful in its own right. Work is not only a means to an end – transportation, harvest or paycheck – but a source of aesthetic creativity. Believers are encouraged to see and praise the beauty in others’, including spouses’, work.

The woman seeks her beloved where he is tending the sheep. His work is arranged in a way that makes interaction with his beloved possible. There is no notion that work time belongs to the employer, while time off belongs to the family. While the reality of modern work often makes family interaction during employment hours very difficult, many workplaces are exploring creative ways of becoming more family-friendly.

A trip into the countryside in springtime is not just a picnic. It involves work. Specifically, pruning has to be done to ensure a good harvest (Song 2:12–13; “the time of singing” can also be translated “the time of pruning,” as in the NASB). In addition, Song 2:15 says that foxes – animals that love to eat young grapes – have to be kept from the vineyards lest they spoil the harvest. But the man and woman have light hearts. They turn this task into a game, chasing away the “little foxes.” This episode in the Song is a glimpse of how God desires life to be for us – almost as if sin had never happened. It is as if Isaiah 65:21 were already fulfilled: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” The kingdom of God brings not the elimination of work, but the restoration of joy and delightful relationships in work.

The Song should increase our appreciation of unpaid work. In pre-industrial households, there is little distinction between paid and unpaid work, since work occurs in an integrated unit. In industrial and post-industrial societies, much – but by no means all – of the work occurs outside the household, earning wages to support the household. The unpaid work that remains to be done within the household often gets less respect than the paid work done outside. Money, rather than overall contribution to the household, becomes the measure of work’s worth, and sometimes even of individuals’ worth. Yet households could not function without the often unpaid work of maintaining the household, raising children, caring for aged and incapacitated family members and sustaining social and community relationships. The Song depicts the value of work in terms of its benefit to the household, not its monetary value.

The Song may pose a challenge to many churches and those who guide Christians, for it is uncommon for Christians to receive much help in arranging their work lives. Not enough churches are able to equip their members for making godly, wise, realistic choices about work in relationship to family and community. Perhaps churches could do more to help their members recognize God’s design for work and relationships, express their hopes and struggles, and explore creative options with other workers.

The Song shows us an ideal for which we should strive. Labor should be an act of love. Marriage and household relationships should support – and be supported by – work. Work is an essential element of married life, yet it must always serve, and never crowd out, the most fundamental element of all: love.

Suggested Assignments

  1. Read the introductory sections to two recognised commentaries on the Song of Songs (as recommended by the course teacher). Note the different approaches that have been taken to interpreting the Song of Songs historically. Then read the Song of Songs Commentary from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary. In what ways is the TOW Commentary on the Songs of Songs both similar to, and different from, other historical hermeneutical approaches to this book? How valid is the approach that the TOW Commentary on the Song of Songs takes? Does it provide a new and useful perspective on the Song of Songs or a distortion of the message of this book? Please offer specific examples from the text of the Song of Songs, the commentaries and other sources you have consulted.
  2. Here is another component that could be added to the above assignment or assigned separately: Create the outline for a Bible study or sermon exploring the meaning of work based on the Song of Songs.