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. Myrrh can have the connotation of worship, royalty and lovemaking in the scriptures. This divine royal connotation also is part of the imagery in Matthew’s gospel when the magi present frankincense and myrrh to Jesus. 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.