Tag Archives: love poetry

Song of Songs 8 A Love that Endures Amid Struggle

Song of Solomon a Cycle of Paintings, Study G. By Egon Tschirch, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56954607

Song of Solomon 8

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded, the daughters of Jerusalem are underlined, and the brothers are capitalized in the poem (my interpretation)

1 O that you were like a brother to me, who nursed at my mother’s breast! If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me.
2 I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother, and into the chamber of the one who bore me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranates.
3 O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!
4 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!
5 Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? Under the apple tree I awakened you. There your mother was in labor with you; there she who bore you was in labor.
6 Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
7 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.
10 I was a wall, and my breasts were like towers; then I was in his eyes as one who brings peace.
11 Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon; he entrusted the vineyard to keepers; each one was to bring for its fruit a thousand pieces of silver.
12 My vineyard, my very own, is for myself; you, O Solomon, may have the thousand, and the keepers of the fruit two hundred!
13 O you who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for your voice; let me hear it.
14 Make haste,[1] my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices!

Many of the classic love stories are tales of loves that transgress the established boundaries of their society. Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Pride and Prejudice and countless others tell the story of people falling in love across the social boundaries of their society. The boundaries may be about family, race, social standing, wealth, education, or some other reason, but we rarely remember the love stories where everyone approves of the relationship between the members of the couple. We remember the stories where the love has to struggle against the opposition of those in the society who oppose it. Throughout the Song of Songs, we have seen evidence of this struggle which attempts to keep our lovers separate and here at the end it voices itself again.

The words of the woman wishing that her beloved was like a brother to her seems strange in our context where the ideal match is someone from a completely different family, but in the ancient world the ideal match was typically a cousin or other close relative. Someone who was still a part of the family line but not close enough to be considered incestuous. Just as the earlier appeal to the woman as, “my sister, my bride” indicated endearment, so the familial imagery here of desiring the beloved to be a brother desires a proximity to family that does not require hiding the relationship. The woman wants to be able to have the relationship be out in the open, she wishes she could go up and kiss her beloved without worrying about the disapproving stares of others. She desires to be able to bring him into her house without others thinking she is acting inappropriately. She wants to be able to celebrate their love in both the daylight and the public spaces as well as at night. She no longer wants their love to be a secret. Earlier she has sent the man away to deal with the barriers that separate them, but she desires for their love to be able to be enjoyed all the time.

The woman once again tells the daughters of Jerusalem not to awaken love until it is ready, and now the daughters of Jerusalem see her and her beloved together. She and the man are seen together as they make their way into the city together. The words that follow could come from the woman or the man, but with the change to a more contemplative tone I have chosen to read this as the man speaking again to the woman. He has come to her, and he has made the offer of a public relationship sealed in the eyes of the community where his mark is placed not only on her heart but upon her arm for the world to see. Let them wear their hearts on their sleeves, to let their love which is stronger than death and passion which is as fierce of the grave be seen by the world. He has found something priceless in her and nothing can quench his burning desire for her.

Yet, as the love comes out into the public square the family of the woman reacts. The brothers of the woman for the first time speak. Earlier these sons of her mother made her keep their vineyards[2], and now they speak condescendingly to their little sister. These brothers still view it as their role to provide a barrier between her and any suitor. They want to close her away, to keep her behind armed walls and boarded up doors. The beloved one does not meet their criteria for an appropriate relationship for this little sister who is still, in their eyes, not sexually mature (has no breasts) and unable to manage her own vineyard.

The woman now speaks up to these brothers who would deny her the relationship she desires. Earlier her beloved described her being “as comely as Jerusalem[3] and now she picks up this language to throw back at her condescending brothers. She is a walled city of peace (shalom).[4]Extending the imagery her breasts, which her brothers said were non-existent, are like towers in her beloved’s eyes. She has been made to be the keeper of her brother’s vineyards, with no time for her own. Using the imagery of Solomon and his vineyard at Baal-hamon, she accuses her brothers of failing to mange their affairs but now she is ready to tend to her own vineyard and her own affairs. The family issues remain unresolved at the end of the poem. Once more the man calls out to hear her but in this instance she once again has to tell the man to flee.

There is no modern fairy tale ending where the man and the woman live happily ever after. The two lovers will have to continue to steal opportunities for love until the familial and social barriers can be overcome. Yet, if their love is stronger than death and fiercer than the grave it will overcome the barriers that family and society place upon them. Many people have had to make a choice between their beloved one and the family who raised them or the community or church that formed them. Many multi-racial, LGBTQ, and international or interreligious relationships suffer challenges well beyond what two socially accepted individuals endure and the world where love grows often doesn’t allow for fairy tale endings. Yet, love endures along with faith and hope, and a poem about love rests in the heart of the scriptures. The language and forms of scripture are often strange to us but the struggles of the people in the scriptures, once we understand, them are often familiar.

Song of Songs throughout the history of the church and even longer history with our Jewish ancestors has been read as an analogy for the relationship between the people of God and their God. It is a story of longing and desire for both God and God’s people and the barriers that the world around has placed to interfere with that relationship. Yet, the love that unites the lover and the beloved one transcends even death and the grave, it is an unending flame. It is a relationship of desire and distance, of drawing close and fleeing away. The surrounding world may see the consuming passion and be drawn to the object of that passion as well, or they may remain blind to the desirability of the beloved one. The lover may be viewed as unworthy of acceptance and yet they experience the gracious and steadfast love of the God who seeks and desires them. There is wisdom in the church and synagogues seeing in the boundary breaking love between a man and woman a metaphor for the love that nothing can separate God’s people from. But there is also wisdom in learning to accept and honor the enduring power of love between two people that endures the struggles that their families and society place upon them.

[1] The Hebrew berach means flee. Make haste can indicate making haste in the woman’s direction but this verse in Hebrew indicates making haste away from the brothers.

[2] Song of Songs 1:6

[3] Song of Songs 6:4

[4] Jerusalem is the ‘city of shalom-peace’

Song of Songs 6 The Fairest Among Women

By Egon Tschirch, A Cycle of Paintings “Song of Solomon” Study E, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56954517

Song of Songs 6

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded, and the daughters of Jerusalem are underlined in the poem (my interpretation)

1 Where has your beloved gone, O fairest among women? Which way has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?
2 My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to pasture his flock in the gardens, and to gather lilies.
3 I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he pastures his flock among the lilies.
4 You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners.
5 Turn away your eyes from me, for they overwhelm me! Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.
6 Your teeth are like a flock of ewes, that have come up from the washing; all of them bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved.
7 Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil.
8 There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens without number.
9 My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, the darling of her mother, flawless to her that bore her. The maidens saw her and called her happy; the queens and concubines also, and they praised her.
10 “Who is this that looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?”
11 I went down to the nut orchard, to look at the blossoms of the valley, to see whether the vines had budded, whether the pomegranates were in bloom.
12 Before I was aware, my fancy set me in a chariot beside my prince.[1]
13 Return, return, O Shulammite! Return, return, that we may look upon you. Why should you look upon the Shulammite, as upon a dance before two armies?

The woman in her seeking has appealed to the daughters of Jerusalem to assist her in locating her beloved. Previously we have encountered violent resistance from the sentinels of Jerusalem, those entrusted with making the city a safe place. Most interpreters now interpret the response from the daughters of Jerusalem in a positive manner: the woman has appealed to them for aid and their interest, now piqued, causes them to ask where they might find the beloved. Yet, there is something in the tone of the two responses by the daughters of Jerusalem in this chapter which have made me wonder if they also may be resisting the desired union of the woman and her beloved.

From the very beginning of the poem, we have seen that the woman is outside the cultural expectations of beauty for a woman. She is black and beautiful to herself and her beloved but she remains outside conventional norms. What if the title granted to the woman by the daughters of Jerusalem, ‘O fairest among women’ is spoken ironically? What if their offer to help find the beloved one are not genuine? That would explain the woman’s answer which does not include the daughters of Jerusalem in her search as well as provide a way to understand the interaction between the man, the woman, and the daughters of Jerusalem at the end of the chapter.

The woman’s response to the daughters of Jerusalem rebuffs their offer to seek her beloved with her. It could be that she doesn’t want to share her beloved’s attention with any of the daughters of Jerusalem, but it may also indicate that their offer was not genuine or helpful. The woman’s response that her beloved has gone to his garden and is pasturing his flock there echoes the imagery of the first four chapters and while it may indicate a literal garden it may also indicate that the man is coming to her.[2] The woman and her beloved are solely for one another and not to be shared with the daughters of Jerusalem.

Even though her seeking has met resistance, we hear the voice of her beloved speaking to her and complimenting her again. The initial comparisons are to the cities of Tirzah (the original capital of Northern Israel) and Jerusalem.  Normally in the bible a capital city is referred to in feminine terms and feminine metaphors are used to describe Jerusalem or Bethel, but here the imagery is reversed where the beauty of a capital city is used to describe the woman. Many would expect Bethel to be paired with Jerusalem, but there are many possible explanations why the poet may choose Tirzah instead.[3] The woman is viewed as impressive and even overwhelming. She is like an army approaching in all its might and even her look upon the man is overwhelming. The man then returns to the language of nature, echoing his descriptions of the woman in 4:1-3. To the man she is more impressive than all the queens and concubines of royalty or any maiden among the daughters of Jerusalem. To the man she truly stands out as terrifyingly beautiful and desirable beyond all others. He is overwhelmed in her presence and yet he comes once again to her.

Verses eleven and twelve have puzzled interpreters, and the NRSV’s translation is merely one guess at what is occurring in these two verses. My best guess is that the man goes to the ‘nut orchard’ to look at the vines and the pomegranates. The imagery from throughout the poem would lead me to believe he has come seeking the woman to see if the time is ripe for love, or whether he is still too early. He has come to her, and she has been swept up together with him. Yet, as she has been swept up together with her beloved and they ride off into the sunset, the daughters of Jerusalem call her back. They call her to return so they may look at her. I read the response coming from the man, defending the woman, from the intrusion of the daughters of Jerusalem. His response essentially says, “why should you have the privilege of looking upon her as something to be exhibited.” It could also be the woman defending herself, but what follows in chapter seven is also coming from the man praising her beauty. In the man’s eyes she is the fairest of all women even if she might not be in the eyes of the daughters of Jerusalem.

One of the ways this passage has been read is where the woman has invited the nations of the world (represented by the daughters of Jerusalem) to come and know what her beloved (God) is like.[4] If this is the interpretive path chosen the woman clings to her faith and hope in her beloved even when she encounters resistance. Yet, once again the woman is described in terms that are almost godlike-being beautiful and formidable, awe inspiring and powerful. One of the gifts of poetry is the multiple ways it can be heard and bring meaning. Perhaps the man is defending his woman or metaphorically his God. Regardless, our two seekers are finding themselves again in proximity to one another despite the resistance of the sentinels of Israel and perhaps even the daughters of Jerusalem. They cling to one another even as others may attempt to make a spectacle out of them.

[1] Verse 12 is the most difficult verse to translate in the Song and interpreters disagree about what is actually said or who is speaking. The NRSV’s translation assumes that it is the woman speaking. As Stephanie Paulsell can say about this verse, “No one really has any idea what it means.” (Cox 2012, 251)

[2] See for example 4:12-14

[3] A couple plausible explanations include: 1) following the lead of the Septuagint, translators have read Tirzah as a nominal form of the Hebrew raza (pleasing) 2) The destruction of Northern Israel (Samaria) and the aversion between the people of Judea and Samaritans may have made the mentioning of Bethel problematic, while Tirzah has fewer negative associations. (NIB V:419)

[4] See comments on previous chapter.

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)