Category Archives: Song of Solomon

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)

Song of Songs 3 Seeking the King of Her Heart

Edward Poynter, The Visit of the Queen of Shebe to King Solomon (1890)

Song of Songs 3

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

1 Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer.
 2 “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not.
 3 The sentinels found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”
 4 Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
 5 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!
 6 What is that coming up from the wilderness, like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of the merchant?
 7 Look, it is the litter of Solomon! Around it are sixty mighty men of the mighty men of Israel,
 8 all equipped with swords and expert in war, each with his sword at his thigh because of alarms by night.
 9 King Solomon made himself a palanquin from the wood of Lebanon.
 10 He made its posts of silver, its back of gold, its seat of purple; its interior was inlaid with love. Daughters of Jerusalem,
 11 come out. Look, O daughters of Zion, at King Solomon, at the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, on the day of the gladness of his heart.

During the day the woman sent the man away, presumably in this reading to deal with the issues that keep them apart, but now in the night she desires his presence. Although the translation of the Hebrew nephesh as soul has helped many traditional commentators see this as an allegory for the relationship with God, the meaning of nephesh would be closer to ‘with all my being.’ The very essence of the woman loves and desires the beloved and departs from the bed and the house to seek him. We join the woman in her desperate search for her beloved. Perhaps she regrets telling him to flee earlier or realizes that her desire for him is more powerful than her need for public acceptance of their relationship. Her search for him is desperate. This one whom she loves with all her being must be found and brought into her home.

Many readers hear of the sentinels finding the woman and anticipate this being a threatening scene for the woman. There are certainly many instances of men with power and authority taking advantages of a vulnerable woman and an unmarried woman walking through the city at night may be taking a risk. Yet, the sentinels here are not viewed by the woman as a danger but rather as a resource. They are someone who may have seen her beloved in their rounds, and so she asks them for information. The woman’s desperate search for the beloved overcomes any sense of danger these sentinels may pose, and she passes beyond them without harm or any additional information on the beloved’s location.

The desperate search in the night leads the woman to the one whom she loves with all her being and now she will not let him go again. Shortly after the encounters with the sentinels she finds him and brings him into her home. She brings him to the place where no other man is present, no brothers or fathers, and she brings him into a place where our lovers can close the door and keep the rest of the world outside. Perhaps previously she desired him to bring her into his own home, but for now she refuses to let go of him and brings him into her own home.

This passage presents an interesting contrast to the description of the dangerous woman in Proverbs 7. In Proverbs the dangerous woman also will not stay at home and:

Now in the street, now in the squares, and at every corner she lies in wait. She seizes him and kisses him, and with an impudent face she says to him: “I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; So now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you! Proverbs 7:12-15

Proverbs would probably find the woman’s desperate search for the beloved distasteful, her seeking through the streets and the squares and her bold seizing of the man and bringing him back to her household as the antithesis to that book’s more chastened view of relationships. As Stephanie Paulsell states, “Proverbs tells this story with the woman in the role of the villain, the Song places the woman in the role of the brave heroine.” (Cox 2012, 222) I find it helpful that our scripture can embrace both a male and feminine perspective on a similar story. It is also ironic perhaps that the male perspective in Proverbs is threatened by the presence of daring (dangerous in Proverb’s view) women.

The second half of the chapter shifts into the language of metaphor and may initially seem out of place within this portion of the poem.  Verse six can be read in either voice, as the man complementing the woman which is answered by her long compliment of the man, or as the woman beginning her extended metaphor about her beloved. I read this entire chapter as the woman’s voice, and her question about “What (or who) is that coming up from the wilderness…” being answered by the exclamation “Look, it is the litter of Solomon.” In our culture we may think of women being the primary ones perfumed or wearing scents like “myrrh, and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of the merchant” but especially with the metaphor of the beloved as Solomon this fragrant procession which produces a column of smoke makes sense in the poem.

The beloved one is probably not actually Solomon, or even the king, but instead it is a way of referring to the majesty, strength, and power of the beloved in the woman’s eyes. The normal procession for a wedding would be the bringing of the woman in the man’s household, but perhaps there is something in the ancient culture we have missed. Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 25: 1-13 of the bridesmaids waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom, where it is the bridegroom that approached the place where the wedding occurs. Here Solomon approaches in all his glory and wealth to the place where the woman is so they can experience the joy of their mutual love.

There is an absence of fathers in the Song. First the woman brings the man into her mother’s home and chamber, and then it is Solomon’s mother who crowns him. This is a pattern throughout the poem, but here is also makes sense within the metaphor. In 1 Kings 1, when Solomon is anointed and declared king, his father David is very old and feeble and apparently unable to participate in the coronation of his son. It makes sense in the logic of the story that it is Bathsheba who crown her son and rejoices with him in his role as the king of Israel and in his, in the poem, upcoming wedding.

The progression of the poem takes the woman’s search for the beloved and her action of bringing him back to her mother’s home into a metaphorical procession of Solomon departing his father’s house with his mother to come to a place where he can celebrate his love for this woman. The man is both the one whom she loves with all her being and metaphorically one who embodies the majesty, strength, and power of Solomon. At the very least this man is the king of her heart, and her desire is to be the queen of his. The poem continues to bring the lovers close together, but still builds upon the anticipation of a rendezvous that is not final.

This portion of the Song has a number of echoes throughout the scriptures and also has a rich history within the allegorical and mystical interpretations of the Song of Songs. The image of a pillar of smoke moving through the wilderness evokes the pillar of cloud and fire that is the physical manifestation of God’s leading of the people of Israel through the wilderness in the Exodus. (Exodus 13:17-22) Frankincense and myrrh are used in the temple as a part of the act of lifting up offering to God, and frankincense in particular in the Hebrew Scriptures is always used (outside of the Song of Songs) in reference to the cultic practices in the temple.[1] Myrrh can have the connotation of worship, royalty and lovemaking in the scriptures.[2] This divine royal connotation also is part of the imagery in Matthew’s gospel when the magi present frankincense and myrrh to Jesus.[3] Myrrh also enters into another ‘love song’ in Psalm 45, where the king’s robes are fragrant with myrrh. If verse six is read in the feminine voice referring to the male character, the male character adopts several kingly but also divine attributes.

The one seeking her beloved here forms a contrast to the frequent pattern of Israel failing to seek God who is their partner. One example of this would be Isaiah’s inviting us into God’s frustration and heartbrokenness over Israel’s continue unfaithfulness:

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am.” To a nation that did not call on my name. Isaiah 65:1

Yet, the mystics have sometimes turned this around when God has been difficult to find.  Ellen Davis points to the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and she confronts God saying,

How is this compatible with Your mercy? How can the love You bear me allow this? I believe Lord, that if it were possible for me to hide from You as it is for You to hide from me, that the love You have for me would not suffer it; but You are with me and see me always! Don’t tolerate this, my Lord! I implore You to see that it is injurious to one who loves You so much. (Davis 2000)

On both sides of the relationship between the seeker and the divine there are moments of deep intimacy and closeness and those frustrating moments of distance and division. One of the gifts of Hebrew wisdom literature is its ability to live in the complex reality of multiple perspectives. Wisdom can include the perspective where a woman seeking a lover in the streets can be a dangerous lure away from the relationship with one’s partner (as in Proverbs and metaphorically speaking of the relationship between God and Israel in Hosea) but she can also be an image for a love that will not be denied and something that moves the hearers beyond their complacency with the way things are. The woman wants everything her lover, her king, and even her God can offer her and will not settle for less. As others fail to seek, she leaves her bed in the night and is unwilling to settle for anything less than bringing her beloved into her presence.

[1] Exodus 30:34, Leviticus 2:1,2,11,15, 16; 5:11, 6:15, 24:7, Numbers 5:15, Nehemiah 13:5, 9, Isaiah 60:6, 66:3, Jeremiah 6:20, 17:26.

[2] Exodus 30:23, Esther 2:12, Proverbs 7:17

[3] Matthew 2:11.

Song of Songs 2 Desire and Distance

Tulipa Agenensis, Israel. One of the possible botanical references for the Rose of Sharon photo by Zachi Evenor shared under Creative Commons Attributions-Share Alike 4.0

Song of Songs 2 

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

1 I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.
2 As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens.
3 As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
4 He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.
5 Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love.
6 O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!
7 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!
8 The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
11 for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
14 O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.
15 Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards — for our vineyards are in blossom.”
16 My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies.
17 Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.

The distance between the two lovers in the poem makes the woman yearn for her beloved’s presence. Many of the botanical references in this passage are not certain, even if their poetic use in English has achieved wide recognition. The rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys are wildflowers that are native to the region, the ‘rose’ may be the tulipa agenesis (pictured above) or the tulipa montana a red flower native to the hills of the Middle East and the lily may be a crocus or the Madonna lily. (lilium candidum) Beyond the precise botanical designation is the poetic function of the self-declaration of the woman of her beauty and flattering response of the man. Her usage points to its ordinariness, she is a wildflower-something pretty but common. Her beloved counters that she is exceptional. She is set apart from the other maidens who may attempt to attract his attention. She is something special. She responds by describing her beloved, using botanical imagery again, this time as a fruit tree. Though apple trees are well known in our context there is the objection that they may not be native to Israel. As Ellen Davis can also insightfully state,

At any rate, wild apples are acid, not sweet. The apricot has been suggested as a substitute. The scientific issue remains uncertain, but the suggestion makes good poetic sense. A sun-ripened apricot is a sensual delight, being rich in color, scent, taste and even touch, as it almost literally melts in the mouth (“his fruit was sweet to my palate,” v. 3). (Davis 2000, 251)

The woman and man use natural imagery to describe one another. She is beautiful and stands out as extraordinary among all the other maidens like a beautiful flower among the prickly vines. Her beloved stands out among other men as a sweet fruit tree among all the other trees, yet only he produces the sweet fruit this ‘rose of Sharon’ desires.

The poem abruptly shifts from botanical references to a scene of a ‘banqueting house’ (literally ‘wine house’) where the man invites the woman. This is supposed to be a place where their love can be fully sated. Yet, even within this time of invitation we are aware that the desire of the woman has not been satisfied. Previously she wanted to taste the fruit that came from his tree upon her palate, now she asks for the fruit of the vine and the fruit of the tree to sustain her because she is faint with love. Her love and her desire are awakened, and these emotions are powerful and threatens to overwhelm her in her waiting. Yet, even in this invitation to a place where passions can be embraced we as the readers have to wait with the woman. She wants to be wrapped up in the embrace with her beloved with his left hand under her head and his right hand around her, but we are still waiting for that embrace to occur. She is present in the banqueting house at the invitation of the beloved, but he is not yet there.

We dwell in the anticipation of the two lovers. The beloved man may not be there yet, but he is close enough that his voice is heard, and his movements can be observed. The man is pictured as a gazelle or stag quickly bounding over mountains and hills to close the distance between himself and the woman. He is near to the house, but not inside it. Instead, we wait as he looks longingly in through the windows and peeks through the lattice for a glimpse of the woman. Something keeps him from crossing the threshold of the banquet house where she is and embracing her, perhaps someone is obstructing the consummation of their love for one another. Perhaps someone in his or her family is keeping them apart, or perhaps there is some societal expectation that make their love unable to occur in a public place. We are caught with the two lovers on opposite sides of the wall until the man’s voice beckons the woman to leave the house behind and come away.

In the man’s voice we hear an invitation once again into nature. The man may have brought the woman to the banqueting house, but the nourishment they both seek seems to occur away from the confines of the wall or city. This beloved man speaks in imagery of the natural world. The time of winter and of the rains has past and now is the time to be out in the world. In the earth’s awakening for spring and songs of the migrating birds, and in the fragrant flowers and figs comes the invitation to embrace among the beauty of the creation. There is an invitation to a secret, hidden place: a small cave in the rocks or a thicket among the cliffs. A place where the lovers can be away from all others and be with one another without the interference of others.

Verse fifteen with the invitation to catch the foxes which ruin the vineyard has received a wide variety of interpretations and can be heard from either the woman or the man. Some options for understanding this verse include: 1) It is another invitation from the man for the woman to come outside and join him in a joyous chase after these quick animals. 2) Cheryl Exum suggests that this is the woman’s response to the man and the meaning is that she wants to capture him so that she can have her as her own. 3) Ariel and Chana Bloch interpret the foxes as the woman’s brothers who are preventing the two lovers from being together. (Davis 2000, 216) My personal interpretation follows the direction of the third option, but without indicating those interfering with the two lovers. I feel that the woman, frustrated by the boundaries separating them is calling out to the man to capture and remove those who are obstructing and attempting to ruin their love. I agree that the woman wants her beloved for herself and is not satisfied with attempting to steal these moments where they can be together. Her love is in blossom and is ready to bear fruit, and now it is his responsibility to move beyond the walls that keep them apart.

The chapter closes with the woman’s famous words, “my beloved is mine and I am his,” and yet she beckons him to flee. Her beloved approached her like a stag or a gazelle and now he is told to flee in the same manner to the mountains. Their meeting continues to be delayed and shadows continue to lurk over their relationship. They belong to one another, but his inability to come into the house where she lies fainting for love needs to change. She doesn’t merely want to hear his voice or see him peeking in through the windows, she wants his arms to embrace her and to allow their love to grow. Her love is awake, and it causes her to ache, yet there is something the man must do to make their love possible. Perhaps this one who is ‘black and beautiful’ is unwilling to remain in the shadows any longer. If she is truly a lily among the brambles then she wants to be more than just one more pretty flower. She wants all of her beloved and so we are caught with her, waiting on his action to remove the barriers that obstruct their love.

Moving into the mystical and allegorical tradition of reading this portion of Song of Songs has traditionally viewed the believer in terms of the feminine character and God in terms of the masculine character. In this reading God is able to say to the believer that they are beautiful and exceptional and not merely ordinary. I find the almost playful and lovestruck image of God leaping like a gazelle or peeking in through the windows and looking through the lattice as an attractive image and far different from the classical portrayals of God. Perhaps just as critical in the poetry is the distance that needs to be bridged between the beloved one and the woman, and that bridging needs to occur by the action of the masculine character in the poem. Only this beloved one has the power to overcome the obstacles which separate them so that they can share in the intimate relationship they were created for. Within the Christian idea of grace (which emerges from the Hebrew idea of hesed– steadfast or covenant love) is the understanding that the distance in the relationship is something that God must overcome because the believer is unable to do that on their own. One of the powerful things about poetry is the way it can embrace multiple perspectives, and since Song of Songs is primarily written in a feminine voice, perhaps the roles traditionally assigned in the poem can also be reversed with God now occupying the feminine voice unwilling to be settle for pretty words, wanting to be desired above all other options and sending the beloved one out until they are willing to leave behind all else and cross the threshold of the banqueting house of God. God in this role would be unwilling for merely an admirer who watches through the lattice but wants God’s beloved to be fully God’s as God fully shows God’s covenant love to the beloved one. Poetry is language that reaches for metaphors to express meaning and it is a different way of expressing things than doctrine or story. Perhaps the gift that this poem can grant us is an expansive set of images that can help our imaginations see both the way our relationship with our human lovers should be and to give us words to point to the desire and distance within our relationship with God.

Song of Songs 1 An Embodied Desire

Virgin’s Monastery (Benedictine) Petropolis, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by Claudio Pastro, photo by Eugenio Hansen, OFS shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Song of Songs 1

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

1 The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.
 2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine,
 3 your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefore the maidens love you.
 4 Draw me after you, let us make haste. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine; rightly do they love you.
 5 I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.
 6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!
 7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you pasture your flock, where you make it lie down at noon; for why should I be like one who is veiled beside the flocks of your companions?
 8 If you do not know, O fairest among women, follow the tracks of the flock, and pasture your kids beside the shepherds’ tents.
 9 I compare you, my love, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.
 10 Your cheeks are comely with ornaments, your neck with strings of jewels.
 11 We will make you ornaments of gold, studded with silver.
 12 While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance.
 13 My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts.
 14 My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi.
 15 Ah, you are beautiful, my love; ah, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves.
 16 Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely. Our couch is green;
 17 the beams of our house are cedar, our rafters are pine.

Song of Songs, often called the Song of Solomon in many modern translations, may seem like a strange book to include within the wisdom literature of the bible. The name of the book, which is a long poem, is Song of Songs. The opening line serves the same purpose as the superscription on many of the psalms, and here it gives both the title and the attributed author. Song of Songs is a superlative declaring that what follows is the greatest of all songs or the ultimate song. Although it may be composed of poems that are collected together in some historical reconstructions the intended meaning of this title is not that it is a song made up of songs, but rather that here is a masterpiece that surpasses other songs. Although Solomon is mentioned in the title and occasionally is used as a description in the Song of Songs, many people who spend a lot more time with the Hebrew language than I do will tell you that the Hebrew represented by the Song of Songs is more recent than Solomon’s reign. Regardless of authorship, the text was collected and celebrated as a part of both the Jewish and Christian scriptures and it is both a source of strength and discomfort for both traditions.

When I began spending time delving deeply into the Hebrew scriptures, or Old Testament, I was amazed at how earthy they are. This collection of books has little concern about the afterlife which had dominated my early formation in faith and were concerned about a life lived on earth. These writings speak to the experience of being a human, with human needs and desires, in a covenant with a God of steadfast love and faithfulness who is jealous for their fidelity. Learning from these books have caused me to look at life and faith in an embodied way. Much of Christianity has viewed desire and passion suspiciously and in much Christian theology there is a schism between soul and body. This is not the view of the bible. The bible celebrates that way that we as humans are created to be and Song of Songs revels in the sensual and embodied poetry of attraction and desire as wisdom worth celebrating.

Song of Songs begins and is dominated by the female voice longing passionately for her beloved. The first three verses of the poem summon four of our five senses: touch (kiss me with the kisses of your mouth), taste (your kisses are better than wine), smell (your anointing oils are fragrant and metaphorically your name is perfume), and hearing (the unnamed name itself). Only sight is not immediately invoked, and that will come. Immediately we are brought into the intimate and passionate desire of the woman for her desired one’s kiss. In the language of metaphor love becomes better than wine, a loved name on the tongue is like a sweet smell in the nostrils. Others can see and recognize the desirability of the beloved, but the woman wants his attentions all for herself. She wants to touch, taste, hear, smell, and savor this lover who is like a king to her. Her lover may be royalty, or he may not, but in her eyes he rules every part of her.

Every culture in every time has expectations of beauty and the woman does not fit within what is expected. She is black and beautiful in her own words, and the word (Hebrew sehora) is not merely dark as some older translations would state but black. Skin color has often been an attribute that denotes privilege and which limits which relationships are acceptable. Even though she may not meet the societal standards of acceptability and beauty her response is one of affirmation of her body rather than rejection. Within her poetic response there is also the possibility that her references to her working in her brother’s vineyards and inability to keep her own vineyard may be a poetic way to state that she has not been able to safeguard her own virginity, which would also make her less desirable as a marriageable woman, Yet, if this is the case, the woman is able to accept her past along with her skin and declare that in spite of all of this she is black and she is beautiful.

Throughout the poem the woman will be seeking her beloved, and for the first time she asks where she can find him. She asks the one who her soul[1] loves where she can meet him when he pastures his flock and has some free time, presumably for her affections, in the middle of the day. She doesn’t want to waste her time having to seek him out and find him or having to remain veiled around others. She would rather spend her time in his presence. In response we hear the man speak for the first time not to answer where he will be but to encourage her to seek him out. The man in the Song of Songs may be elusive but the woman is determined and passionately persistent.

The man’s description of the woman highlights a very different set of metaphors. The first image is a militaristic one: a mare among the chariots. In the tactics of the ancient world sending a mare out among your enemies’ chariots, pulled by stallions, would make it challenging for the enemy to control their horses. In the metaphor the woman drives the man wild. Then the man begins to praise individual portions of her body. He begins with her cheek and her neck and also pays attention to the adornments which accentuate these features. The man desires to give her silver and gold to adorn herself and to highlight her already maddening beauty.

The woman has been seeking her beloved out in the pastures, but now the metaphor shifts again to being in the place of dining (meals were eaten reclining on the couch). The fragrance of nard could be the rich perfume imported to attract her lover (who is now a king instead of a shepherd) or it could be smells her own body is producing in anticipation of time spent passionately with her lover. The imagery becomes even more sensual as she inverts the man’s desire to give her adornments to now wear her beloved as an adornment between her breasts. He is that pleasant smelling thing that rests on this space unseen by all but her beloved. He is the flower that rests in the vineyard, which is probably a sexual allusion.  Verses 15-17 can be read as two voices (as I do) or as all in the woman’s voice. Verse 15 seems to me characteristic of the male voice in describing her attributes: you are beautiful, my love, your eyes are like doves. If I am reading this correctly the woman responds to her beloved that he also is beautiful, truly lovely. Poetry loves to mix metaphors and while the description of where they are can sound like a grand house the green couch and cedar beams and pine rafters may point to an encounter on the ground beneath the trees where two lovers are stealing some time for one another in the midst of nature.

On the one hand it is important to hear Song of Songs in a literal sense, as poetry between two lovers and its affirmation of the attraction and desire that humans were meant to experience. Yet I also believe there is something to the mystical and allegorical path that has dominated both Jewish and Christian appropriations to this book. The relationship between God and God’s beloved has often been one of passionate seeking. The woman whose role we take on in this reading may not fit societal standards of beauty or purity but remains lovely to God. Much of the path of the faithful is longing for a closer encounter with the beloved who is king and shepherd and beloved and yet still remains elusive and needs to be sought out. The gift of poetry is its expansiveness. It can playfully and passionately attempt to describe the object of its desire, and yet that language only highlights aspects of the beloved. Yet, even in his elusiveness the beloved one still lets the seeker know that they are seen as beautiful and valuable beyond treasure.

[1] Remember that the Hebrew idea of soul nephesh is much different from how many modern people think of soul. The Hebrew idea is closer to saying, “you whom every part of me loves.”

Transitioning into Song of Solomon

Aharon April, The Song of Songs-Last 2005 Shared under Creative Commons-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Song_of_Solomon#/media/File:Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last.jpg

Psalm 62 may seem like a strange place to pause in the midst of the psalms, but there is a logic behind pausing here. The book of Psalms is subdivided into five books, with book two ending at Psalm 72. My pattern has been to do roughly 10 psalms between other books, and this sets me up to complete book two of the psalms following the next book I work through. I planned to work through Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, prior to beginning Matthew but that project refused to wait. So now, after a long delay, I am finally turning to this strange love song which falls in the heart of the bible.

Song of Solomon has always been a controversial book within the scriptures. When our Jewish ancestors were debating which books would be included in their sacred scriptures opinions were sharply divided on this book. Ultimately its attribution to Solomon and the allegorical interpretation of the book’s poetry allowed Rabbi Akiba (ca. 50-135 CE) to defend it stating, “all the scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs in the Holy of Holies.” (Paulsell 2012, 172) Within Medieval Christianity it was one of the most frequently read and written about book with over one hundred commentaries appearing by the year 1200. (Davis 2000, 231) Yet in modern times the Song of Solomon has fallen into disuse and many modern interpreters struggle once again to find an appropriate way of integrating this poem into the broader library of scriptures.

On the one hand, Song of Solomon is poetry about two lovers and their passionate desire for the other. Unique among the bible is the prevalence of the feminine voice throughout the poetry and it gives voice to a female perspective on desire in relationships in the bible. Like Esther, God is not mentioned in this book nor are there allusions to any religious traditions. On the other hand, the placement of this love poem within the scriptures assumes that it has something to speak about God, the world, relationships, and the people of God.  Within the organization of Christian scriptures, Song of Solomon is the final book of Wisdom Literature and like Ecclesiastes, which precedes it, it is not a religious or churchy type of wisdom.

Eighteen years ago, I was asked to give my senior sermon before the worshipping community at my seminary on a text from the Song of Solomon. I was struck then by the placement of this very unique book near the geometric center of the bible. I was fascinated by imagining God in the person of the lover leaping like a stag or looking through the lattice. (2:9) My intention as I go through this short book is to hold the sensual literal reading and the church’s historical reading alongside each other. I think there is wisdom in reading this book as simply a passionate poem of love and allowing it to rekindle some of the desire within us. Yet, I also believe that our own experiences of love at its best come from and in some way shape our understanding of God’s love for us as well. I’m curious to see where this unique book takes me over the next couple months.