Song of Songs 4 A Dance of Desire

Song of Songs, a Cycle of Paintings no. 16 by Egon Tschirch (1923) Permission to use provided by his heir Wolfgang Adler under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Song of Songs 4

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded in the poem (my interpretation)

1 How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.
2 Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved.
3 Your lips are like a crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil.
4 Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors.
5 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies.
6 Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense.
7 You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.
8 Come with me from Lebanon, my bride; come with me from Lebanon. Depart from the peak of Amana, from the peak of Senir and Hermon, from the dens of lions, from the mountains of leopards.
9 You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.
10 How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! how much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
11 Your lips distill nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon.
12 A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
13 Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard,
14 nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices —
15 a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.
16 Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.

The intertwined voices of the lovers weave together very different sets of imagery to describe and compliment their partner in this lover’s dance of attraction. The majority of the fourth chapter is the man’s response to the woman’s seeking and compliments in the previous chapter and his voice begins by describing her attributes. The man begins his descriptions of the woman’s attributes by stating, “how beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful’ and ends by stating, “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” Between these two statements are metaphorical descriptions of her attributes. The use of seven in scriptural poetry is a way of designating completion and so both the descriptions, the structure and the bracketing of these compliments reinforce in the poem how completely beautiful this woman is to the man.

The imagery the man uses may seem strange to us in describing a woman’s body, but just because they use imagery that would be alien to our language to describe the object of our affection does not make them any less valued by the hearer of the poem. The images all come from the natural world and probably express the experiences of a person who works in the field and who may have been drawn into the military for service at times. Eyes being doves, hair being like a flock of goats, teeth like shorn ewes leave us wondering how the images are compliments but these animals are all viewed positively in an agrarian world where flocks and birds are a part of the life, particularly the life of a shepherd. Perhaps hair like a flock of goats is long and brown and moves with the wind, while teeth like shorn ewes each bearing a twin are white teeth in proper alignment with no missing teeth, but whatever the compliments were intended to mean the woman values them. Lips like a crimson thread are probably easier to envision as well as round cheeks like a half pomegranate. The militaristic image of the tower of David where one thousand shields hang could simply indicate a long, strong neck or it may, as Carey Ellen Walsh states,

suggests a fairly strong defensive system, namely, of a thousand infantry men manning the tower. In addition, it may reveal the lover’s insecurity over the woman’s other suitors: a thousand armed men may have beaten may have beaten him to her. (Walsh 2000, 97)

The man’s final attribute he compliments is her breasts, but even here the image is one from nature, and one she has used to talk about him, gazelles. The poetry is seductive but not pornographic, and the man as he is poetically describing the woman’s attributes instead of sexualizing her body uses the images from the natural world to express how altogether beautiful she is in his eyes.

There is a distance that exists throughout the Song. The woman is often seeking the man or beckoning him to come inside the place where she is while the man when he speaks invites her to join him outside. After complementing the beauty of the woman, he invites her again to come away. The man induces her to come away from Lebanon, the mountaintops, from the dens of lions and leopards. Perhaps the place where the woman resides is dangerous for the man, it is a place where he is out of his element. Perhaps the presences of other suitors make his approach as treacherous as going into a den of lions or the mountain lair of leopards. In approaching this dark-skinned woman, he may find himself as a stranger in a strange land and yet, in the language of the poem, he comes to entice her to journey from Lebanon and the mountains to join him.

The man’s heart has been captured by the woman. She has either ‘ravished’ or ‘stolen’ his heart, but regardless of which translational choice is made for the ‘heartening’[1] effect she has on the man, his will belongs wholly to her. The pairing of, “my sister, my bride” is strange in English but ‘sister’ is a common term of endearment in Egyptian love poetry (NIB V:405) and would probably be understood that way in Hebrew poetry. Calling the woman his bride picks up the image of the wedding procession at the end of chapter three and invites us to hope for an approach of the man to come and join the woman. Her glance, her jewelry, her scent (or the smell of her perfume/ointment), her kiss (or words), and her love are all intoxicating to the man. The woman is a garden or a fountain that only those who are privileged to be invited to view may admire, but this man knows that behind her walls are all the precious fruits and spices that he could want and the living water that can quench his thirst.

The man beckons the woman to come with him, the woman desires the man to come to her. She asks the wind to spread her fragrance so that the man might smell her and be entranced. She wants him to come to her and to enjoy and explore the garden that she is and to sample the harvest of love that awaits. The scent of this woman, the promise of exploring her beauty and tasting her love should draw her beloved to come to her. He has declared her altogether beautiful. She has ravished him with her glance, put on her best jewelry, perfumed herself and extended an invitation for her beloved to view her garden. We now wait with her for his response.

Christian and Jewish interpreters of the Song have often heard the man’s declaration of the woman’s beauty as an echo of the love of God for humanity, Israel, or the church. This woman, who is declared as the bride, has a resonance with the imagery of the land that is called Married in Isaiah 62: 4-5

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no longer be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is In Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and you land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

Many interpreters have understood the locked garden and sealed fountain as an allusion to the lost garden of Eden, and the invitation of God for the hearer to re-enter this lost garden where the beloved can encounter God without fear. The seeker is invited to come to a place that is hidden to the world, but a place where the desired intimacy with God can be achieved. Yet, in poetry the images can flow in multiple directions and the lesser taken path is hearing the woman representing the divine. Many of the images here in this chapter that the man uses to describe the woman echo what other cultures in the region of Israel have used to describe a goddess.[2] The woman’s looks and attraction are overwhelming to the man, and as Stephanie Paulsell notes, “If she views him as a king, he sees her as something even more awe inspiring.” (Cox 2012, 237) If the woman poetically is representing God, the God desires the seeker to come to the place where God dwells and sends out the alluring fragrance upon the winds to draw and entice the seeking ones. While the seeker attempts to draw the divine from the mountains, the sought one invites the seeker into the place into their home to come and know their presence. Either reading has its limits, as all poetry does, but whether speaking of human love or divine love we stand in the tension between these two parties who continue their dance of attraction and distance, desire and hope, and love and delight.


[1] The Hebrew is literally ‘to hearten’, the verbal form of the Hebrew word for heart.

[2] Stephanie Paulsell (Cox 2012, 237) cites Marvin H. Pope as making this claim (Pope 1977, 474)

3 thoughts on “Song of Songs 4 A Dance of Desire

  1. Pingback: Song of Songs 6 The Fairest Among Women | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Song of Songs 7 Mutual Love in the Garden | Sign of the Rose

  3. Pingback: Song of Songs or Song of Solomon | Sign of the Rose

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