THE SONG OF SOLOMON
Bible Studies for the Dean's Class
Cathedral Church of the Advent
The Dramatic Movement of the Song
and Practical Lessons Drawn from the Text
Sunday, December 12, 2004
The Song of Songs is a crucial part of Sacred Scripture because it displays the beauty of human sexual love between a bride and a bridegroom in freedom and spontaneity. The contents of the speeches in this lyrical song demonstrate drama and unity throughout. And although some of the highly figurative phrases of the work have prompted disagreement over the meaning, it makes good sense to understand the song as a dialogue between lovers with all their expressions and comparisons (from the perspective of ancient Israelite culture), tracing a general story line from early meetings through to marriage. In short, there is a movement from poetic section to poetic section.
And as we have seen, the imagery and ideas are from the culture of the ancient Israelites; we have to understand that and find equivalent expressions in our world. Modern readers may not think much of comparing hair to a flock of goats; but if they took the viewpoint of a shepherd in Israel who saw in the distance a flock of goats coming down the side of the hill, it would suggest the locks of hair cascading and curling as they lay on the shoulders. To understand figures in the Bible, we have to live in its culture.
Because of the frequent comparison in Scripture of the marriage relationship and the spiritual covenant, many have taken this book to be at least an illustration of the covenant, and lines from it have been woven into devotions, sermons, and music about the Lord and his people (this we will look at in the fourth class). Regardless of the implications of the book for the mystery of redemption and the union of love in Christ, the primary focus seems not to be on a theological treatise, but a discourse on what God had intended for the man and the woman to enjoy in marriage. The impact of the work in ancient Israel no doubt would have contrasted sharply with prevailing pagan views about intimacy--that is, sexuality had been so corrupted by pagan cults on one hand, and so safeguarded from the Hebrew Sanctuary on the other, that people might have wondered about the legitimate enjoyment of sexual union. This book, among other things, taught Israel that God had created male and female and given them the privilege and delight of sexual union in their marriage. And since there is no emphasis in the book on having children, it is more interested in the pure enjoyment and fulfillment that comes in marriage. It is refreshing, then, to find such a song in the Bible that explores the union of the sexes in all its beauty, excitement, and fulfillment.
I shall take some time with this poem now because it is so important to understanding the practical lessons--and because it is seldom given enough attention in Church classes. So in this study I have included a full sentence outline of the sections of the book, and added some explanatory comments under each where I felt it would be helpful. The best way to use this material is to read the verses for each point and then see how I have summarized it in my outline. Then, along the way I have introduced the practical lessons based on the text, practical lessons for men and women who are trying to maintain a good marriage relationship. Some of these principles would also work in the spiritual application of the bride, the Church, speaking to Christ--but we will consider that in the fourth lesson.
I. The Shulamite and her beloved express their mutual adoration of each other in their anticipation of their union (1:2--2:7).
(Lesson # 1: Husbands and wives need to continue to lavish praise on each other to show their love for and enjoyment and appreciation of each other. When this disappears from a marriage, and the partners start taking each other for granted, or worse, start carping with criticisms, then real difficulties lie ahead. The principle of praise is that we spontaneously talk about the things we enjoy--if we are not praising, we are not enjoying or appreciating. This could be true in a marriage--certainly true in our relation to Christ).
A. The Shulamite expresses her adoration of her beloved in comparison to her unworthiness, longing for his presence (1:2-8).
The name in Israel is equal to the character, and so to the woman her beloved's name is perfume. And all the women of court know that his character is very pleasing. The women of court, then, rightly appreciate him too. She is not the only one who recognizes that he is worth loving--no one will try to convince her he is not worth it. She can say, "Rightly do I love you."
In verse 5 she describes herself as darkened, probably in contrast to the delicate women of the court. Her half brothers have made her work in the vineyards, and she has neglected her own vineyard, her body. The similes and implied comparisons present the idea of strikingly dark appearances (tents and curtains usually made out of goat hair).
(Lesson #2: The reassuring words of praise will offset natural feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Everyone has uncertainties and insecurities. In this section the bride expresses her feelings, and as the section continues, the bridegroom praises her in such a way that will let her know that she is not one wit less than the women of court.)
She speaks of her lover as a shepherd, and he may well be that in part. But the image may be coming from her own world, and so she sees in him the shepherd-like qualities she admires. He cares for people and provides for them; he is strong and dependable; and he gently leads those who are young and weak.
She does not want to go looking for him in the streets as a veiled woman would wander about, for that would make her look like a loose woman. But she longs to be with him.
B. The beloved praises her loveliness and promises to adorn her (1:9-11).
He compares her to a mare in Pharaoh's chariotry. The idea is of the greatest prized horse, noble, stately, well-groomed, and standing out from all the rest. Now we know that Pharaoh would not have used mares to pull the chariots, so a mare among the chariots would cause quite a stir and totally distract the stallions. This is what this woman is like, taking the world by storm as it were, just by her presence. He then adds that she will be even more beautiful when adorned with the jewelry she will have, jewelry that the women of court are eager to make for her.
(Lesson #3: Such praise is naturally accompanied by romantic gifts, perhaps impractical, but lovingly given to the partner. Very practical if they keep a marriage romantic! But the kind of gift one gives says a lot about what one thinks of the person. If a man buys his wife a new mop for a gift, it says he thinks she is a cleaner. Will that kind of gift be well-received? Not likely. The praise and the kind of gift go together to express true appreciation and love. Likewise, as we shall see next week, the same would be true of what we give God--it says what we think of God!)
C. The Shulamite relates the value of her love as she is enraptured in his presence (1:12-14).
Nard is a kind of myrrh. She compares him to a sachet of perfume she would have worn around her neck and between her breasts. This represents him to her; her thoughts of him are as fragrant as the perfume, and she carries those thoughts close to her heart throughout the night.
En Gedi is the lovely oasis on the western side of the Dead Sea. In a dry and hot desert land, this is the most delightful and refreshing spot. The henna blossoms are the loveliest desert flowers. He was that special and that refreshing to her.
D. The beloved breaks into a rhapsody of praise for his bride who is fair and innocent (1:15).
As lovers do, he looks into her eyes and compares them to doves, soft, gentle, tender, harmless.
(Lesson #4: Women, and especially men, need to develop the appropriate language of love for their situations, because words and images are powerful and memorable. We are so careless with our words, or insensitive to how a word or expression will be received. It calls for us to study the other person to know what will carry the most meaning of our feelings.
E. The Shulamite expresses her adoration of her beloved and expresses her pleasure and satisfaction in their woodland setting (1:16--2:1).
Their "couch" is the green grass; their "roof" is the cedars over them. The setting is the country, which she compares to their house. She is at home in this woodland palace. And in it she compares herself to a tender flower, a rose of Sharon and a lily of the valley. Sharon was the lowland coastal region that in antiquity was forested; and in it the wild flowers grew. She describes herself as such a flower, just one among many. She is now seeing herself as he sees her, not dark and plain.
F. The beloved corrects her opinion of herself, and she in turn praises him (2:2, 3).
The king clarifies her assessment--she is not one among many, she is a lily among thorns. The rest cannot compare. She is as distinct as that.
She then describes him as an apple tree, a figure of beauty, strength and fertility in antiquity--strong, fruitful, delicious. She now finds rest with him, as if under the shade of an apple tree. She has in him a sense of place, and it is a place of rest, rather than long hours of labor in the sun. And so she finds him sweet as well as refreshing.
(Lesson #5: The focus of the lovers must always be exclusively on each other, and in their eyes no others are to be considered as equals to their spouse, let along options or alternatives. The time for "shopping around" is over--they are to focus on each other. This is why the emphasis here is on looking into the eyes. It is speaking to the heart.
(Lesson #6: This kind of love provides a sense of place where the lovers have their identity, security and fulfillment. They find their "place" in each other, and no one else can provide that. Here they have their identity and their comfort and their acceptance. They do not take each other for granted, but they know they belong here in this place. It is not so much a home or a place to live, but being "one flesh."
G. The Shulamite recalls her trip to the banqueting hall and expresses her deep longing for her beloved (2:4-7).
His banner of love is over her. The image is one of a huge banner that expresses to all his love for her. Whether real or implied as a figure, it means that he is not ashamed to tell the world of his love for her--he wants everyone to know. There is nothing secretive or private about his intentions.
(Lesson #7: Truly devoted lovers will not be afraid to declare their love for and loyalty to each other openly and publicly, so that everyone who hears will know that the choice was final. If they do not do this, it leaves a crack in the door for competition to wiggle in and try to take the affections away).
She is faint with love; and so using romantic images from the culture (raisin cakes were erotically shaped to represent the woman, and apples represented the man), she expresses her longing for the consummation of their marriage. She wants to be embraced by him; the description of one hand under her head and the other embracing her must reflect their lying down together. This is her longing; and it is a normal desire in the situation.
(Lesson #8: True lovers should be eager to go to each other and be with each other and please each other; they should study each other to know how to act and react. Something is wrong when they try to stay away from home, or cease trying to do things for each other. In a healthy marriage the lovers will know each other so well they can anticipate needs and desires--and not just think of themselves. As you read chapter 2 verses 1-14 you see this emphasis of desire to be with and to do things for the one loved).
But she will be patient; and so to the women of the court she advises (for her own benefit) that love not be roused up until love is ready.
II. The Shulamite relates how her beloved came calling her away from her solitude, and then in the night she longed for him and looked for him (2:8--3:5).
A. The Shulamite relates how her beloved came to call her out of her solitude (2:8-15).
The excitement she feels is expressed in her words that he was coming to meet her. The similes describe the eager young man moving swiftly over the hills, peering in through the lattice. He invites her to come out with him. All the language for the background of the scene is springtime, the fragrance of spring, the beauty of flowers, the freshness of love. Everything speaks of life and fertility.
She tells how he wanted to see her and to hear her voice. He called her his dove, an interesting comparison because doves often hide in the rocks and are hard to see at first. He simply longs to know her better.
But they must catch the little foxes. Foxes were pests to the vineyards. And since their bodies, their love, is represented by the image of the vineyard, and the time of the blossom is the period of their budding romance, the foxes would signify anything that would ruin it. His call is to remove anything that would ruin their love or spoil their relationship.
(Lesson #9: The couple must be vigilant to protect what they have from any outside threat [the little foxes]. This can be done in a number of ways, but the best way to protect a marriage is to keep it healthy as we have been observing in these lessons. There will then be no desire to pay attention to the little foxes, a metaphor for anyone or anything that could ruin the marriage--not just seductive temptations, but also in-laws, excessive work schedules, anything at all that will cause real problems).
B. The Shulamite claims union with the king and longs for his presence with her (2:16, 17).
She says that they belong to each other; she is not simply his chattel. They are counterparts, and will become one together. And so she longs for the day, inviting him to the mountains of separation, meaning her breasts. She longs for him to lie in her embrace til dawn, meaning she wants to consummate the marriage throughout the night. But she has to wait.
C. The Shulamite recalls how in the night she longed for him and went to look for him (3:1-5).
This section may be a dream, or it may be an adventure in the night. She suddenly feels alone and insecure, or unsure of her future, and so she had to get up and search for him. Love brings great joy; but it also brings anxieties, such as in separation. With the help of the watchmen she finds him and takes him to the place where she feels secure, her mother=s tent. Holding him close to her she feels secure again. But she must be patient and wait (3:5).
(Lesson # 10: In a loving relationship, holding and being held give the greatest sense of security and love. And by the way, if children see their parents holding each other, it will give such a sense of security to them--and of course their being held by the parents will do the same).
III. The Shulamite describes the magnificent coming of the king to the wedding feast, and finding herself the object of praise and adoration, invites complete union with her beloved, an invitation he eagerly accepts (3:6--5:1).
A. The Shulamite describes the coming of the king to the wedding feast and urges the women of the court to marvel at his grandeur (3:6-11).
This is the wedding procession, and all eyes are on the king (as would be expected--see Ps. 45). A cloud of dust is really the fragrances that attend his person. He arrives on his chariot-chair with sixty groomsmen beside. This is a royal, full-dress military wedding. The song even describes the chair which is the finest quality for this occasion, even inlaid with love. The women of the court have lovingly contributed to this day. Everyone shared the joy.
B. The king praises the bride's beauty on this their wedding (4:1-15).
The king adorns her with praise of her beauty, preparing her physically and emotionally for their union. She is so beautiful to him. He compares her eyes to doves again, and her hair to a flock of goats on Gilead. The picture is that of a distant view of the flock cascading down the side of the slopes of the hills. The description of her teeth as shorn sheep indicates they are bright and clean and matched, so that when she smiles she is lovely. Her lips are outlined as a scarlet thread and her mouth is lovely. Her temples, which would have referred to her cheeks as well, are healthy and reddish. Pomegranates were also associated with romantic imagery in the ancient world. But the image of the tower of David focuses more on her demeanor than on her appearance. She is elegant of stature, secure and strong, not bent over and cowering. The way she carries herself is stately. And then he describes her breasts as fawns; the idea is that they are delicate, soft and tender, and the impulse is to touch and caress them. In all, he admired seven things about her; that is to say she was perfect to him. He will indeed spend the night in the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense.
The king wants to take her away from fearful places (4:8). She did not actually live in a den of lions. He wants her to come completely to him, leaving thoughts of home and any fears and anxieties behind her. He wants her full attention without distractions.
He then expresses adoration for her (4:9-15). She is not passive, but caresses and kisses him. Her kisses are deep kisses because her tongue is sweeter than honey, and her garments are fragrant.
(Lesson # 11: Even though the bride might already be all-glorious, as in this case, the bridegroom must tirelessly praise her with images she loves and treasures, and with all the valuable things of her world. The same would be true of the woman for the husband--in this case he is a king who is used to pomp and praise, and so heartfelt praise is called for, that he can believe. But as you read through chapter four you can see genuine praise, always focusing on "you" and "your," not "me" and "my." Praise builds up the other person--honestly).
Their love is consummated at the end of this chapter, beginning in 4:12 where he compares her to a garden that he will enter, describing her as a spring or fountain that is locked simply refers to her virginity--it is a secret garden. But all her charms and attributes are then compared to the plants and herbs of the garden. He wants to enter the garden and enjoy the delights.
C. The Shulamite invites her beloved into her garden and their union is complete (4:16--5:1).
(Lesson #12: In a loving relationship there is no need to be crude or crass--it cheapens the whole thing. Beautiful, romantic, poetic expressions of love elevate the relationship to its highest and most effective level. In this section the words are tremendously erotic, but in a way that is beautiful--and appreciated).
Verse 16 is the invitation of the bride to her husband, to excite her and to enter her and to taste of her excellent fruit. All the senses of seeing, tasting, touching, feeling will be participants in this night of marital love. To him she is delightful and refreshing as streams in the mountains. And at this moment a voice tells them to eat and enjoy. In the final analysis this must be the voice of the Creator, whispering in their hearts that this was what he had intended for them to enjoy. He gives them his hearty approval for this and other nights. They have experienced all the love and beauty and excitement he intended them to have. They were prepared for this night by their love, and they enjoyed its fulfillment because of their mutual adoration. And it was perfect, because they waited.
(Lesson #13: Once the man and the woman are united in marriage they belong to each other and must not think independently of this relationship. The "one flesh" of Genesis does not refer only to the moment of sexual union--it describes that they become [a process] one in mind, soul, body, with all their dreams, ambitions, delights, and even sorrows--a shared life. The theme of the book, Amy beloved is mine and I am his" says it best. It does not mean they are joined at the hip; it means that in whatever they do they think of the other and what their life together should be).
(Lesson #14: The sexual union of the man and the woman in marriage is genuinely fulfilling when the couple prepare for it with the bonding of their hearts through their communication. They talk; and what they say expresses affection, devotion, desire, commitment . . . ).
IV. The Shulamite relates the case and circumstances in which her beloved withdraws from her indifference. Causing much anxiety until she finds him again (5:2--6:3).
A. The Shulamite relates (by dream or reality) the case and circumstance in which her beloved withdrew himself from her indifference (5:2-6).
She was in bed, and he apparently was outside the door (dew was in his hair). And when he came to her ("open to me" could refer to the door to her room, or to her), she was apathetic. He used many terms of endearment: sister, darling, dove, perfect one.
But she had put off her tunic and did not want to put it on again (apparently to get up to go to the door). The contrast is significant--before she could not rest if he was not there, now she is a little indifferent to his call. She momentarily forgot that it is for him she lived. So he withdrew, rather than forcing his way. But he left the sachet of myrrh there to indicate he had come to her.
(Lesson #15: At times there will be misunderstandings [here his insistence and her indifference] when each thinks only of self; these need to be forestalled, and if they occur, remedied quickly. The passage and the point are pretty clear. The incident seems so trivial--but it is from such trivial misunderstandings that greater divisions come, and then charges and counter charges dredged up for years).
B. The Shulamite relates her efforts to search the town for her beloved (5:7--6:3).
Now her feelings were aroused again and she went to look for her beloved. But unlike before, now she was treated roughly by the men in the town who did not know who she was.
So she called for help, so that if they found him they could tell him she was looking for him. In 5:9 the women want to know why he is so special; and so in 5:10-16 she tells them. He is ruddy, suggesting healthy, well-tanned (golden-red) with striking black hair like ravens. His eyes are gentle, soft and tender, like doves. His cheeks are a bed of balsam, a bed of spices, suggesting they have a scent like herbs. The lips are compared to lilies, sweet, as if dripping myrrh. His hands are precious, as if encased in gold and set with jewels; they are gentle and yet firm. In v. 15 she describes further his stature and character. His abdomen is like a plate of iron covered with sapphires, probably indicating firmness and beauty--muscular. With legs like alabaster he is firm, and cannot be shaken. Overall, he is impressive and dignified and strong (like a warrior king should be), like the choice cedars. His mouth is sweet; he is not crude or crass. Everything about him is wonderful to her. He is her friend and her companion for life--the kind of relation that God intended.
This is what she thought of him, even though a little problem had crept in with her indifference and his withdrawing. But because she truly adored him and loved him, she sought him.
(Lesson #16: The lovers must always be able to easily and eagerly tell others of the love they have for one another; trouble comes when they give the impression it is not true. Here especially, when there has been a misunderstanding, the praise is lavish--they do not go griping to others about their marriage partner. That is disloyal and dangerous).
The women ask where they should look for him, and her answer is revealing. She knows where he went, to his favorite garden; she knows they are still one; and she knows his attitude is gentle and patient. He would be there waiting for her. Patient silence waits for the reunion.
V. The king, re-united with his bride, lavishes praise on her as they take their fill of love (6:4--8:7).
A. The king lavishes praise on his bride (6:4-10).
When she finds him she receives compliments from him. He repeats the images he used to show that nothing has changed. But he leaves out the erotic descriptions, because he first wants to affirm he loves and adores her and not just desires her. He adds other images, such as Jerusalem, to say that she is noble, dignified, and striking. In verse 10 the idea is that she is distant and dim, like the moon, but when she draws close she is bright like the sun.
(Lesson #17: Whenever there has been a problem, the lovers must re-assure each other that nothing has changed in their love for each other. They have to set aside the erotic language now and re-establish the expression of true love. This is not the time for the suggestive language, but for the straight assurance of love, without affixing blame).
B. The bride finds herself with her husband once again (6:11--7:1).
Now the king will lavish praise on his wife without restraint; he will use erotic descriptions that he did not use before, because now they know each other and enjoy love for the sake of fulfillment, not for the sake of consummating a marriage as before.
He describes her from head to foot. The feet are delicate in her sandals. The curves of her thighs up to her hips are like ornaments, precisely carved by the creator and very beautiful. The navel (perhaps a euphemism) is like a goblet with a drop or two of mixed wine. The abdomen is described most vividly, with a stack of wheat and enclosed lilies, perhaps using the imagery of a smooth field bordered with wheat and soft petals. He then repeats the description of her breasts as before. The neck now is described as a tower, dignified and stately. The eyes like the pools of Heshbon (in Jordan) are refreshing and relaxing from the rush of society. The nose gives her a stately look, indicating a strong character. The head is the crowning point, like Mount Carmel, the vineyard of God. She is beautiful and impressive atop the rich land (=figure) below the crown. The tresses are described as royal, the flowing hair of a queen. The overall appearance is like a palm tree with the clusters as the breasts. He will climb the tree and enjoy the fruit.
The poet arranges the lovemaking scene to reflect the wedding night in chapter 4. But the praise is now more sensual, and the list is longer, ten things now, the number of completion. There is time, and there is growth in perfection.
Her kisses bring the sweet scent of apples and the best wine. But now the woman interrupts his praise to finish the sentence, "going down smoothly, through the lips of the sleeping ones." The scene ends with them falling asleep, fulfilled.
(Lesson #18: In the fulfillment of the union of marriage, the man and the woman can be completely comfortable with each other (as demonstrated in their trust of each other in their routines and their pleasures, such as with humor and dance. Chapter 7 has some subtle humor, just good fun along with the dance. But one has to be careful about humor in a relationship, to make sure it is properly received, or it is at the right time. No place at all for sarcasm or satire here; they are destructive. But again if the couple have studied each other, they will know how to play).
C. The bride invites her husband to the country where they can enjoy each others embraces as before (7:12--8:7).
She wants to return to the vineyards in the countryside to see if things are in bloom, suggesting that a year has past since they enjoyed their spring together. But there is also a double meaning here, because in the vineyard they will have their caresses. The introduction of mandrakes enforces this, since they were considered to be an aphrodisiac.
She desires that he be like a brother to her. It was not proper to show affection in public, unless people were in the immediate family. She wants to display her affection for him everywhere, so she would playfully assume the role of an older sister. But he also will teach her of his love. Beginning in 8:5 we have as summary of the description of their love. The bride (vv. 6-7) speaks of the apple tree, but it is not literally an apple tree, but her husband; now he can be awakened, whereas before love was not to be aroused. Now is the time to initiate love, because she is a wife. But she wants the seal of his love on her because there is so much that could intrude and destroy their affections. There is a concern for destructive jealousy. So anything of great value is sealed.
(Lesson #19: Once the man and the woman are married, they can be aggressive with each other in the expression and fulfillment of their desires. If this aggressiveness is not under the seal of a marriage covenant, it will lead to pan and guilt. It is interesting in this book, written in ancient Israel when we would think women very much in the background [although that is what we think because popular presentations have said that], the woman here says what she feels and desires and is rather aggressive. This is a normal relationship).
VI. Flashback: The Shulamite recalls how her family cared for her until her beloved found her (6:8-14).
This section is her recollection when she was back in the country--it brought back memories. She grew up cared for by her brothers. And since she guarded herself like a plank, they safeguarded her as well. If she had been like a door, they would have had to have closed it to the advances of men. But she was a wall, men looked, but had respect. They were caring for Solomon's vineyards, where they put her to rough and hard work. Ironically, that occasioned her meeting with the king, so that in a way while they meant it for evil, God meant it for good. She found the love of her life there, so there were no more bitter memories.
(Lesson #20: The joy that the man and the woman have together will now overshadow any earlier bad or bitter experiences. The memory of pain may never be completely removed, but the couple can return to those places and draw upon their shared joys to overcome and heal the memories, enhance their relationship, and bring about the triumph of love. The painful treatment from before will not have power over them).
The Song of Solomon, then, celebrates the divinely ordained sexual union of a man and a woman. In spite of the Fall and the presence of sin in the world that has driven a barrier between men and women, necessitating laws and rulings with punishments and correctives, it is refreshing to see that it is possible for a man and a woman to transcend all that through deep and fulfilling love. The Song reminds us that God had designed that "they two shall become one flesh." In giving us this Song, then, God the Holy Spirit wants to instruct us in how to maintain a healthy and enjoyable and meaningful marriage.