The Song of Solomon (2)
Andrew Wilson, Brisbane, Australia | Dunstable, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
In the first two chapters the Song describes the delight the lovers experienced in each other’s fellowship. Over the next three chapters, the Shulamite has a recurrent dream – a nightmare – in which she fears that she will lose her beloved. After the first dream, 3. 1-4, her fears are calmed by a visit from Solomon himself, 3. 6-11, who reassures her of his love in the most wonderful way possible, ch. 4. Thus, we might entitle the middle chapters of the Song, ‘Love’s Fears’.
One of the biggest questions that confronts us as we seek to understand the storyline behind the Song is if, or when, the lovers are married.
Most commentators see the section in chapter 3 verse 6 as describing a wedding procession. Indeed, most Bibles prefer to use the word ‘wedding’ instead of the AV’s ‘espousals’ in chapter 3 verse 11. The words of chapter 5 verse 1b are taken to be the wedding feast where the ‘friends’ are invited to ‘eat and drink’. Most commentators also see the consummation of the marriage in the words at the start of chapter 5 verse 1, ‘I have come to my garden, my sister, my spouse; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk’. The garden, of course, refers to the bride herself and the enjoyment of its fruits is taken by most commentators to refer to the intimacies of marriage.
However, there are numerous problems with this view of the Song. For a start, if the eating of the honeycomb and drinking of the wine and milk in chapter 5 verse 1a, are supposed to be the enjoyment of everything the bride offers, i.e., the consummation of the marriage, why are the friends also invited to partake, as in most Bibles, in 5. 1b? The first eating and drinking are taken metaphorically, but the eating and drinking which immediately follow are taken literally!
In addition to this interpretational inconsistency, the honey, wine and milk mentioned in chapter 5 are continuing the imagery used in chapter 4 verses 10-11, where Solomon likens the Shulamite’s love to wine and her words to honey and milk. Consistency would suggest that the metaphors used in chapter 4 to describe the king’s delight in the love-language of the Shulamite are conveying the same things in chapter 5 verse 1.
The idea that the couple are married in the middle of the Song leaves other problems too. For example, the expression, ‘until the daybreak, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of Bether (i.e., separation)’, is not only found in chapter 2 verse 17 but is also found (with a slight variation) in chapter 4 verse 6 – right in the middle of the supposed wedding passage. Even more problematic is the fact that similar words are also found in the very last verse of the Song, ‘Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices’, 8. 14. In this verse the Shulamite is calling her beloved to come quickly, the same note upon which the New Testament ends - ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ The Song, then, seems to conclude on a note of separation (‘the mountains’) alongside an anticipation of their imminent joyful union.
Again, throughout the Song, the Shulamite is compared to a ripening vineyard, 1. 6; 2. 13, 15; 6. 11; 7. 12; 8. 12. In chapter 6 verse 11 and chapter 7 verse 12 – after the marriage has supposedly taken place in chapters 4 and 5 and the fruit of the union has been enjoyed – the vineyard is still being inspected to see if the fruit has come to maturity and everything is ready for the harvest, the fulfilment of their hopes. It is not until chapter 8 verse 12 that the bride offers the fruit of her vineyard to Solomon in anticipation of the imminent wedding.
On the other hand, that something very significant is happening during the extended passage from chapter 3 verse 6 through to chapter 5 verse 1 is seen in the fact that six times, (in the ten verses from chapter 4 verse 8 through to chapter 5 verse 1 and only here in the Song), the Shulamite is addressed as ‘my spouse’ or ‘my bride’. Also, the procession in chapter 3 verses 6- 11, seems to be associated in some way with their marriage, for the word ‘wedding’ (or ‘espousals’ AV, RV, JND) is used.
What is happening here?
The Hebrew word chattunah used in chapter 3 verse 11 (‘wedding’, ‘espousals’), is found only here in the Old Testament, but it is derived from a rather more common word chathan, which has an interesting range of meanings: to make a marriage (3 times); father-in-law (21 times); mother-in-law (one reference); son-in-law (15 times); bridegroom (8 times); husband (twice); to join in affinity (twice); and to make affinity (once). The breadth of meaning here is indicative of the fact that the central idea underlying all the different uses of the word is a contractual or legal state, such a state as is entered into in an engagement or marriage, as well as in a political alliance, as seen in 1 Kings chapter 3 verse 1 and 2 Chronicles chapter 18 verse 1. Thus, Strong gives for the definition ‘to give away’ (in marriage), ‘to contract affinity’.
It would thus appear that what has happened in the passage from chapter 3 verse 6 to chapter 5 verse 1 was that the marriage was arranged or contracted; the lovers have ‘become engaged’. The AV’s rendering ‘espousals’, which can mean an engagement, is thus the best translation here. An engagement also best explains: (a) the words used in chapter 4 verse 6, indicating that a separation would inevitably intervene before the wedding day; (b) the fact that in the dream in chapter 5 verse 2, (straight after the engagement), the Shulamite is alone and separated from her beloved rather than enjoying his company, as would doubtless have been the case had they just been married; and (c) the fact that the bride-to-be is described as a ‘garden enclosed’ and a ‘spring shut up, a fountain sealed’, 4. 12 – she is now to be kept solely for her husband-to-be.
Thus, the Song is moving, without undue haste, through the stages of a normal romance – this is no ‘shotgun’ marriage. In chapters 1 and 2, there is friendship, in chapters 3 and 4 engagement, and finally in chapters 5 to 8, there is the period of waiting and wedding preparations.
The First Dream, 3. 1-5
The scene described in the first four verses of chapter 3 is a dream. The Shulamite says ‘by night on my bed I sought the one I love’, 3. 1. The similar scene in chapter 5 verses 2-7 is even more clearly describing a dream, ‘I sleep, but my heart is awake’. Dreams are a normal part of falling in love, but the dream here is dark and full of fear. The Shulamite goes about the city alone at night seeking her beloved in the streets and squares, v. 2. She is accosted by the watchmen, v. 3, who cast an even more sinister shadow over the dream. In the happy coincidence of the dream, she immediately finds her beloved, holds him tight and brings him back to her mother’s house and into her mother’s bedroom, v. 4.
The dream is a projection of her fears and desires. Having spent times of delightful fellowship with the one she loves in chapters 1 and 2, she is now separated from him and fears that he will somehow forget her or that his love will cool. The same is possible in our Christian experience. We may lose the feeling of Christ’s nearness or, due to our own lack of faith or because we have let the Lord down in some way, we may doubt His love for us. The lesson we can take from the Shulamite’s dream is that the more our feelings cause us to fear, the more urgent we should be in seeking fellowship with the One who loves us. The scene closes with the repetition of the charge to the daughters of Jerusalem not to stir up nor awaken love until it pleases, v. 5, perhaps describing her overwhelmed reaction to the dream upon waking.
The Royal Procession, 3. 6 - 4. 6
The Shulamite’s fears in the dream are here proven to be groundless. Solomon himself, mentioned three times, vv. 7, 9, 11, has crossed the desert and come to claim her as his bride-tobe. She accompanies him in his royal carriage to Jerusalem where the people come out to see the royal procession and the great joy that Solomon’s bride brings to his heart.
Verse 6. ‘Who is this coming up from the wilderness?’ ‘This’, in Hebrew, is feminine (see JND) and points to the Shulamite. The words ‘like pillars of smoke’ are perhaps a description of the dust clouds that herald the arrival of the procession. These clouds are further likened to billowing incense, ‘perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the merchant’s fragrant powders’. This description is used because of the beautifully fragrant relationship at the centre of the procession – the love of the royal couple, cf. Eph. 5. 1-2.
Verses 7-8. The onlookers exclaim as the procession draws nearer, ‘Behold, it is Solomon’s couch’. The palanquin is guarded by ‘sixty valiant men’, all holding ‘swords, being expert in war, every man’ with ‘his sword on his thigh because of fear in the night’. It is a picture of strength and security, the answer to the Shulamite’s fears in the night scene of the previous section.
Verses 9-10. In contrast to the exterior of the palanquin in verses 7-8, here we have described the interior of the royal carriage. It is made of wood from Lebanon, with pillars of silver, its support or bottom of gold, its seat of purple, and ‘its interior paved with love by the daughters of Jerusalem’. The description is one of luxury and wealth; Solomon would have only the best materials. Above all, it was fitted out so as to convey the love and special worth that Solomon had for his bride. The Shulamite’s heart’s fears and hopes are no doubt satisfied.
Verse 11. The daughters of Zion are invited to ‘go out and see king Solomon with the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his espousals, the day of the gladness of his heart’.
Chapter 4 verses 1 to 5. While the crowds marvel at the king’s carriage, the king himself is lost in wonder at the beauty of his bride, ‘Behold, you are fair, my love! Behold, you are fair!’ He proceeds to give a seven-fold description of her beauties in the verses that follow. He describes her eyes, ‘You have dove’s eyes behind your veil’, v. 1. The veil indicates that the engagement is still the background to this section here, cf. Gen. 24. 65. ‘Dove’s eyes’ suggest gentleness and the ‘veil’ modesty; characteristics commended of Christian women, 1 Pet. 3. 4.
- Her hair is described as ‘a flock of goats going down from Mount Gilead’, v. 1. Her hair is not dowdy nor nondescript but a picture of distinctive femininity, full of life and individuality, ‘her long black locks ripple and tumble freely’, Carr1. The New Testament is not silent on this score, either.
- Her teeth are described in terms of ‘a flock of shorn sheep which have come up from the washing, every one of which bears twins, and none is barren’, v. 2. The NIV captures the idea of the last clause here well, ‘each one has its twin, not one is alone’. Her teeth are perfect, pearly white, with each one matching its opposite. Her smile brings him great delight.
- ‘Your lips are like a strand (lit. thread) of scarlet and your mouth is lovely’, v. 3. There is a delicate sensitivity about the thin red line of her lips and a playful pleasantness about her mouth as she speaks to him. He finds great joy in her speech.
- Her cheeks are also described in verse 3, although some Bibles use the word ‘temples’2, ‘Your cheeks behind your veil are like a piece of pomegranate’. The pomegranate is a fruit noted for its red colouring once sliced open. Her blush here signifies ‘an evidence of a gentle, refined and tender nature’ FLANIGAN3.
- Her neck is compared in verse 4 to ‘the tower of David, built for an armoury, on which hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men’. A neck like the tower of David points to her strength of purpose and royal dignity, the hanging shields the beauty of her jewellery.
- Her breasts, lastly, are compared to ‘two fawns, twins of a gazelle, which feed among the lilies’, v. 5. These creatures are easily frightened off, especially their young. Here they are pictured feeding, with their heads down obscured from view, among the lilies. In other words, the bride is commended for her modest and sensitive, yet graceful and feminine beauty and deportment.
Verse 6. This scene ends with the refrain ‘until the day breaks and the shadows flee away, I will go my way to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of frankincense’. DELITZSCH, who says that those who see Solomon as the speaker here ‘lose themselves in absurdities’, thinks that the bride is speaking and suggests that the bride in modesty ‘shuns’ the praises of the king and goes out for some private meditation! However, it is obvious from the similar refrains in chapter 2 verse 17 and chapter 8 verse 14, that it is the King himself who, because of the engagement, must go away. It is Solomon who speaks here, and His ‘going away’ is reminiscent of Christ in John’s Gospel4.
In the Mountains and the Gardens, 4. 7 - 5. 1
The scene shifts to the outdoors, the mountain and the gardens. The mountain top is a picture of Solomon’s situation while the garden describes his bride’s. Here they get a glimpse of each other’s lifestyle, thus preparing them for their marriage to come.
Verses 7-8. In what amounts to a summary of his previous description of the bride, Solomon says that she is ‘all fair’ and that ‘there is no spot in you’, v. 7. It is hardly co-incidence that the same words ‘without spot or . . . blemish’ are used of the bride of Christ, Eph. 5. 27. Solomon invites his bride to come with him to the mountains of Lebanon and to view everything from its vantage points. Throughout the Song, Solomon is pictured as a gazelle on the mountains – it is a metaphor of his lofty position, a picture of Christ’s present situation. Yet, in heights there are dangers, and Solomon’s position is also a politically dangerous one, as indicated by the lions’ dens and the mountains of the leopards, v. 8.
Verses 9-11. Yet, far more breathtaking than the mountain view is the sight of his bride, ‘You have ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse’. One glance from her eyes in his direction, one glimpse of her necklace, put on specially to look beautiful for him, and his heart fails him, v. 9. In words that echo her words at the opening of the Song, he describes her love as better than wine, and the scent of her perfumes as better than all spices, literally the sweet-smelling balsam, v. 10. He describes her words as like honey and milk, sweet and strengthening, and the fragrance of her garments like the fresh mountain scents of Lebanon, v. 11.
Verses 12-15. The bride, by contrast, is pictured as a garden paradise5 of the choicest fruit trees, flowers and spices, pomegranates, henna, spikenard, saffron, calamus, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh and aloes. It is full of beautiful tastes, colours and scents, but it is enclosed, sealed and shut up, v. 12, reserved solely for Solomon at the appointed time. The garden has its own indwelling water supply, v. 15, a fountain, a well of living waters, ultimately fed by streams from Lebanon. New Testament connections with this verse are again unambiguous, see John 4. 14; 7. 38-39.
Verse 16. ‘Awake, O north wind, and come, O south! Blow upon my garden that its spices may flow out’. Through the various seasons of the engagement period, the cool north wind of affliction and the warm southerly breeze producing growth will waft the fragrance of the garden over its walls for the king’s enjoyment. However, this is not enough, for the bride invites the king to come into ‘his garden’ (she now belongs to him) and eat its pleasant fruits – to enjoy everything the garden offers. It is a natural, if impatient, request. Would that the different seasons did not have to pass before they could be together!
Chapter 5 verse 1(a). The king replies, ‘I have come to my garden . . . I have gathered my myrrh with my spice (lit, balsam). I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk’. As noted already, wine, balsam, honey and milk were previously mentioned in chapter 4 verses 10-11 – all speaking of the king’s delight in the looks and words of love from his bride-to-be. The only addition here is myrrh, that bitter-sweet aroma, for the king is talking of their engagement in his reply to his bride, saying that he is indeed satisfied with his bride’s love and everything their engagement has brought, even if it also means for a while the added bitterness of separation.
Verse 1(b). The section closes with an invitation from Solomon to their friends to celebrate the couple’s love. ‘Eat, O friends! Drink, yes, drink deeply, O beloved ones’. Some Bibles (NIV, NASB, RSV) take these to be words of encouragement from an onlooker to the couple. ‘Eat, O friends, and drink; drink your fill, O lovers’. Whichever way, the point remains, the engaged couple are rejoicing in their love for each other.
- The Song of Solomon, G. LLOYD CARR, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, IVP, page 114.
- ‘The term means more broadly ‘the side of the face’, i.e., ‘cheeks’, CARR, page 116. The LXX uses ‘melon’ here, meaning ‘cheeks’.
- J. FLANIGAN, What the Bible Teaches, Song of Solomon, Ritchie Old Testament Commentaries, page 53.
- John 7. 33; 8. 21; 13. 1, 33; 14. 2-3; 16. 5.
- This is the literal word behind ‘orchard’, used in verse 13.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Commended by the assembly at Bexley, Sydney, Australia, in 1994, and together with his wife, Gillian, has sought to serve the Lord in New South Wales, Australia, and then London, UK. Involved in evangelistic, children's and Bible teaching ministries. He now resides in Brisbane, Australia.