THE SONG OF SOLOMON
Bible Studies for the Dean=s Class
Cathedral Church of the Advent
The Imagery of the Song of Solomon
December 5, 2004
The Song of Solomon is a lyrical poem celebrating the union of the man and the woman in marriage. The book provided the Israelites with a proper understanding of what God had designed at creation, for in their world sex had been perverted in many ways, not only in the sinful abuse of marriage and of women in particular, but also in the pagan world which joined sex with worship in the fertility rituals. Accordingly, and rightly, the Law made many restrictions and warnings; but people might have wondered about the legitimacy and enjoyment of sex. This book reminded them, and us, that sex was a gift from God to be enjoyed within the boundaries of the institution of marriage.
It is important to note in passing that the primary divine intention for human beings at creation was that they be the image of God. Thus, God invested the man and the woman with all the capacities to worship and serve the creator, to be God=s personal representatives on earth. The special task for the image of God was outlined as being fruitful and multiplying (that is, sharing the work of God in creating life, eternal souls), ruling and having dominion (that is, overseeing life and trampling opposition and evil under foot), and serving God and keeping his commandments and the way to the tree of life (essentially, they were created to be spiritual servants, like priests in the temple). Marriage was a primary means by which all of this could be done, some of it could only be done in a marriage, some of it could be done better in a marriage where the two together did the work of God, but much of it could be done in the community of believers. Marriage was not the highest goal of creation--serving God as his image on earth was. Moreover, if a marriage does not do that, then it is not fulfilling the design of God. Besides, marriage is not eternal; it is earthy, temporal. In heaven, as Jesus explained, there is no marriage. This does not mean that close relations as in a marriage will not also be close in glory; but it means that individuals are glorified and will serve God in the life to come with a truly spiritual service.
It is also important to note that while the Song addresses marriage and those who are preparing for it or who are married, the Bible also speaks to the wider issues of people who are single (in the Bible meaning celibate), or who are widowed. For them the sense of fulfillment, enjoyment of life, usefulness to God, mutual support and encouragement--the kinds of things marriage should provide for a couple--must be derived from (1) their relation to and service of the Lord, (2) close family members and friends, and (3) the community of the saints. In this latter case, the churches have truly failed, for the attitudes of the culture, isolation, individuality, and competition, have robbed the Church of any chance of achieving fellowship or community as the Scriptures expect. In the Bible, marriage is presented as the normal path most men and women take, and celibacy is a calling, or a challenge, whether permanent or temporary, for people to give themselves to spiritual service. Paul himself is a good example of this, for he was free to devote himself to the Lord (whether he was ever married, which most assume he was, there is no information on what happened, although some speculate his wife did not convert as he did--but that is speculation) But then there is Anna in the early chapters of Luke, an elderly saint, a prophetess, who had remained a widow for decades, but gave herself to the sanctuary and the service of God.
The topic of being unmarried will be discussed further in the fourth class. For the time being, we shall look at the Song as it was intended to be read, the expression of love between the man and the bride. The book is clearly an adult book, dealing with a mature theme. But it is never crude or crass. It harmonizes with the lofty status of Holy Scripture, celebrating the purity and the integrity of sexual love that finds its fulfillment in marriage. Worldly cultures may not place much value in purity, in virginity, in the sanctity of marriage; but God=s ways are always counter culture, and a witness to the holiness of God. Celibacy and virginity before marriage are still what God desires; and they are what a marriage partner would want in the other as well. It goes with what we call Aholy matrimony,@ a marriage that is different from the world.
With those general comments in mind, we may now look at the imagery of the book, the expressions used in the dialogue or speeches. This will not only help us understand what they mean, but also understand the background for the imagery in creation.
The Imagery is from their World.
For many people who read through the book for the first time, a lot of the imagery strikes them as very strange. That is because it is not their world. For example, here in the West you might tell someone that you love him or her with all your heart, the heart representing the seat of your will and emotions. That idea is also found in the Bible. But if you lived in some countries in the Middle East, such as Syria, you would say that you lived him or her with all your liver. The liver is the largest organ, and therefore to them the most important for your will and other mental activities.
Well, we have to enter the world of ancient Israelite life to understand all the things that are said here. It is the language of vineyards and gardens, of tents and palanquins, of flocks and herds, and of plants and animals distinctly found in the land. To study this book you would have to look many of these things up in dictionaries and commentaries to capture the sense. A figure of speech has to be interpreted, both for its intellectual connotations and also for its emotional connotation. Almost all the images in the book will evoke good feelings, positive emotions, and so interpreting this song is different than, say, the Psalms, which include laments, complaints, and imprecations as well as blessings.
So, to say that her hair is like a flock of goats on Mount Gilead, you have to understand how valuable goats were (and are) to that part of the world. (In our world a goat is the opposite of a hero, or a stubborn person is an old goat). You can also picture off in the distance a flock of goats coming down the hilly slopes of Gilead, reminding the man of the cascading locks of her hair. Goat=s hair, by the way, was used for making tents and some of the finest wools and cloths. As tenting material it was wonderful, shrinking in the dry heat to let air blow through, and expanding in the wet to keep the rain out. Her world is the country with all its earthy beauty.
Or, if he compares the woman to a choice mare in Pharaoh=s chariotry, this too would be a complement. Pharaoh=s horses would have been the finest there were, beautiful, elegant, strong, magnificent in every way. These are the qualities the man sees in her. If he says her neck is like the tower of David on which the shields are hung, again he means she is stately, striking, perhaps decorated with jewelry, perfectly fit for the royal court in Jerusalem (she did not feel she was, so he was assuring her).
There are also many references to places that were familiar to them. Her eyes are like the pools of Heshbon. This was a city in what is today Jordan; it apparently had beautiful and refreshing pools of water in a desert setting. Or, the woman says that she is dark like the tents of Kedar. Here too we must think of the dark bedouin tents, like small umbrellas really, that were common and exposed to the scorching sun (the dark color better than light under the sun). Or, the description of certain plants from En Gedi refers to one of those lovely oases next to the Dead Sea. A visit there would settle forever in your mind why one would allude to such a place.
What is true of the study of most of the Old Testament is certainly true here, namely, that to understand the expressions that are used in the Bible we have to learn a good bit about the culture and the circumstances in which it was written.
The Imagery is Garden Imagery.
As you read this book you soon discover that much of the imagery is taken from gardens or vineyards or oases. This is natural to the human spirit, for we all gravitate to plants and flowers and trees and fruit. But in that region, which was arid and dry, filled with wilderness areas and bordering on deserts in most directions, an oasis, a garden, or a vineyard was most delightful. It spoke of life, fruitfulness, and certainly pleasure with shade and food and water. The language of such things was then used for human life, so that having children was being fruitful, or producing seed, and that the body was like a fountain of living water, because that enabled life.
So we find in the book the woman, called the Shulamite, talks about her own body as a vineyard. She had worked in the vineyard and neglected her own vineyard. The language is beautiful and filled with meaning, which in the context of love is perfectly communicative. It is not base or grotesque. The woman also uses garden imagery when she speaks about her love--she compares him to myrrh, to henna blossoms, and most significantly, to an apple tree that gives protective shade and is fruitful. And from the animal world she compares her lover to a young stag, a gazelle leaping on the hilltops. Even when she describes him as the mighty king, she uses similes and metaphors of gold, silver, ivory, and beryl. These are riches of the land, of course, but in the Bible they are also riches that were in abundance in the Garden of Eden. They represent the best of creation.
The countryside also provides a setting for their early meetings. She describes their couch or bed as green, their roof of cedars, and their rafters of fir. They are in a park, or a meadow, on green grass, under the trees. It is as if nature is their house.
When the man describes her he compares her to a rose and a lily among thorns (the exact kind of flower is uncertain, but perhaps of the crocus family). She had thought of herself as a rose of Sharon (the coastal plains), one among many. But he said she was among thorns--the rest are like thorns, she is the flower. He also compares her eyes to doves, her temples to pomegranates, her lips to honey, and her breasts to fawns. These are the lovely, pleasant, and delicious things of their world.
The language of flowers, figs, grapes and nuts fill out the theme of fruitfulness between them.
But at the heart of the man=s praise for his bride is the image of a garden proper. She was to him an enclosed garden. The metaphor brings together all the lovely things in a garden to capture her beauty and delights. But she is enclosed, protected (her brothers had overly protected her garden [8:8]), and not accessible to anyone except her husband. He describes her as a palm tree with the clusters of dates to show fruitfulness. Also, he describes her as a spring, a fountain sealed, a well of living water. These are essential to producing fruit; they refer to the woman=s body as the source of life. The Book of Proverbs warns the wayward husband to avoid the adulteress, and to Adrink water from his own cistern.@ Here, in the Song, the man will come into his garden, meaning, he will consummate the marriage with his bride.
All the language of the Song is drawn from the lovely, luscious, and fruitful aspects of life, notably the garden and the vineyard. This would probably suggest itself naturally to the young lovers, especially in spring time; but there is something more behind all this language that is worth surveying.
The Imagery Draws upon Paradise
The language of the Song draws upon the beauty of nature as created by God, and so all of nature naturally recalls the design of the creator to those who are spiritually minded. Accordingly, any discussion of a garden would also recall the garden par excellence, the Garden of Eden, or what we call "Paradise." "Paradise" is a Persian word that was brought into Bible translations through Greek; it means the secret inner garden of the king. In Genesis God is the king; it is his garden.
The Garden of Eden provided the Israelites, and us as well, with one of the most powerful memories of the work of God. In Israel the Tabernacle in the wilderness and later the Temple of Solomon were patterned after the Garden, for it had been a Sanctuary on earth, the place God dwelt among his people. We cannot go into the details, but everything in Israel's sanctuary reflected the things that were in the Garden of Eden, the living water, the precious gems, the gold, the tree of life, the cherubim, the arboreal designs, the image of God (all temples have images of their gods), and the LORD God himself. It is no surprise that the heavenly sanctuary where God dwells will also be called Paradise (with its river of life, trees of life, gold, precious gems, and all).
The Church down through history used the motif of the Garden of Eden as an ideal for meditation. This gave rise to the forming of what became botanical gardens. They were often made in circles, to reflect the world, divided into quarters, to represent the four corners of the earth. And in them was placed every type of plant that could be found. But they were all kept perfect, neatly cared for, orderly and flourishing, so as not to reflect the curse. This was also inspired by the fact that not only did the LORD God walk on earth in the Garden, but our Lord also prayed in a garden, and rose from the dead in a garden where he was mistaken for the gardener. He chose the surroundings of the best of creation for his wondrous acts.
For the Song of Solomon, the setting of a garden and garden imagery would call to mind the meaning of the original garden. After all, it was in that garden that God instituted marriage in the first place.
1. The garden was a place of rest. When God finished his creation, he rested from his work--not that he was worn out and needed to rest. The word "rest" (Hebrew shabbath) has more to do with ceasing one work to enjoy and celebrate its accomplishment. When God placed the humans in the garden, the text (2:15) says that he set them at rest in the garden (their serving and keeping the garden would have been a spiritual service and not hard labor which was the result of sin and the expulsion from the garden). Sabbath was to be a celebration, an enjoyment of the creation. Interestingly, in the Book of Ruth when Naomi is preparing Ruth for her possible marriage to Boaz in chapter 3, she reasons, "Should I not find rest for you." Marriage is supposed to be a place of rest in a troubled and unsettled world, in a place of labor and strife. Here there should be rest, not just relief, but a celebration and enjoyment of life that God has created.
2. The garden was a place of security and safety. The man and the woman were perfectly at ease in the garden. This is expressed by the statement in chapter 2 that they were both naked and not ashamed. The word ashamed has the connotations of not feeling vulnerable, no fear of exploitation, perfectly at ease in their integrity. That is before sin. After sin nakedness created a sense of fear, exploitation, danger, and embarrassment or shame (as hard as it is for modern westerners to understand). Shame and guilt take over because of the awareness of what sin can do. Nakedness outside marriage leads to such guilty fears and realization of exploitation. What marriage tries to do is recapture the safety and security of Paradise, which of course requires a trust between the man and the woman based on their mutual love and respect. Sad, however, to hear of people who feel unsafe or exploited at home, who cannot be at ease and feel safe. Something is very wrong with that situation.
3. The garden was a place of exquisite beauty and delight. The Song picks up on all of this to capture the same feelings and ideas for the marriage. The text makes great use of God's creation. In the Garden of Eden there was every kind of tree that was beautiful and pleasant, and there was gold and there were precious gems, and clean living water. Everything that the man and the woman needed to enjoy their life together was there; they did not need gimmicks and modern technology because they had everything God provided. Likewise in a marriage the man and the woman have in each other all the beauty and delight that they need to bring enjoyment to their life, true and lasting enjoyment, not just their bodies, but their souls and spirits and minds.. God made people this way; and the union of a man and a woman in marriage can explore the good gift that God gave them in this way and find delight and beauty in one another together.
4. The garden was a fruitful place. Everything that God created was programmed to be fruitful, with male and female, whether animals or plants, or humans. Water was the source of all life; the river flowed out of Eden, watering all the surface of the garden so that it would grow. God had created all plant life to reproduce with the availability of water. The image then was used for humans as well, the woman being a fountain of living water, the man planting the seed, God giving them children, the fruit of the womb as Psalm 127 says. God had intended the Garden to be a fruitful place; he intended marriage to be a fruitful union. This is one main reason why God said it was not good for man to be alone. By himself he could not be fruitful and multiply; the woman by herself could not either; neither could the same sex, no matter how many there were. Malachi said God created one man and one woman to be united together as one flesh to produce a godly seed. If God does not bless a marriage with children, the couple must decide how best to use their relationship for the furtherance of God's kingdom; if the couple decides to wait or plan for children, their decision must be made by faith and not because of selfishness. Having children is not only a part of the purpose of marriage, it is also a heritage from the Lord, and a means of discipline and growth. But that is another subject for another time, for the Song does not dwell on having children as the only reason for sexual union.
The Song of Solomon, then, celebrates the complete union of man and woman in the divine institution of holy marriage; but in doing it the book strongly suggests that this union is like the work of God at creation. The man and the woman who are married, then, should seek to live above the curse that reigns in the world, a curse that brings pain and conflict, jealousy and manipulation and power plays and exploitation. They should look to Paradise for their model: their marriage in the Lord should be a place of rest, a place of safety and security, a place of fulfillment and enjoyment, and a place of fruitfulness. When people try to have the sexual intimacy apart from the sanctity of marriage, or in the way that God intended it, whatever enjoyment they find will be brief and not trouble-free, for it will lead to guilty fears and provide no sense of security or safety or spiritual fulfillment. And should there be a pregnancy from it, all kinds of complications arise that make the fulfillment of the plan of God hard to realize.
God's plan is still by far the best.