The Song of Songs 1 (Day 672) 3 November 2011
1: Solomon is said to have composed 3000 proverbs and 1005 songs (1 Kings 4:32). The Song of Songs is a lyrical romantic poem which tells the story of a love affair between a man and a woman, consisting of several encounters described unabashedly. God is never mentioned in the book, a troubling fact it shares with the book of Esther. But while in Esther God is standing just off stage, in the Song of Songs God’s presence is not as readily sensed. Still, God, the author of life and creator of human beings, male and female, looks out from between the lines.
There is no escaping the fact that the Song of Songs is a rather erotic poem, and the edification of the believer is not uppermost in the mind of the author. It is a frank presentation of human romantic imagination. Erotic as it may be, it is unarguably and thoroughly grounded in an understanding of how God made us. As such, it is a welcome antidote to the cynicism of Ecclesiastes.
2-4: Some have interpreted the Song of Songs as an allegory celebrating the love affair between God and Israel; or, as in medieval times, between Christ and the Church. Others have noted that there are more verses for the woman’s voice than for the man, leading them to ponder whether the poem could be the composition of a woman, or perhaps a collaborative effort. Verse 4 puts the setting of the encounter within the king’s chambers, identifying the couple as a royal pair.
5-8: On the other hand, she is presented as a dark-skinned keeper of vineyards and he a shepherd rather than a king. Perhaps in their culture everyone perceived their lover to be a king or queen much as our own culture speaks of a “knight in shining armor.” In any case the plot is quickly established; she is seeking to arrange a tryst.
9-11: He compares his lover to a mare in Pharaoh’s service, meaning a very fine horse indeed, but hardly flattering to a modern girl. He plies her with jewelry, an approach as ancient as men and women.
12-14: Using highly suggestive and inviting language she describes their meeting. En-gedi could be a number of places, but the name itself simply means a spring or perhaps an oasis and is likely to be intended as a reference to such a spot in the southern desert not too far from Jerusalem. Nard and myrrh were used in perfumes. Myrrh is specifically mentioned as part of the ritual of a woman preparing for lovemaking with her husband (Esther 2:12).
15-17: He in turn compliments her beauty. It seems they are in an outdoor setting, upon a couch of green grass with cedar and pine boughs above them.
The Song of Songs 2 (Day 673) 4 November 2011
1-7: At first it appears that this is a dialogue between the two lovers, but it is rather a poetic rendering of their thoughts for and about one another. Verse 1 describes what she wants to be for him – a rose (actually a crocus) of Sharon. Sharon was a lovely grazing land in the rolling hills near Mt. Carmel. Verse 2 is how he sees her, as a lily among brambles. In other words, all the other girls are unattractive next to her. Verses 3 to 7 record her thoughts and desires for him. Verse 7 affirms that all her love affairs before now were a waste of time.
8-17: Her fantasy of love is described in the kind of language we might expect from within an agrarian culture, with many references to animals and places in the wild. She imagines that her beloved sneaks into her quarters and spirits her away to the countryside.
The Song of Songs 3 (Day 674) 5 November 2011
1-5: Another fantasy: Unable to sleep for thoughts of love she leaves her chamber and goes out into the streets to search for him. After an encounter with sentinels in the street she finds him and clings to him, and brings him to her mother’s bed for a night of love.
6-11: Now we have a description of King Solomon approaching the city with his entourage. The girls are all aflutter at the sight of him. He is wearing the crown his mother gave him as a wedding gift. The scene seems to be unrelated to the fantasy described in the previous verses, but some commentators believe the girl is flattering her lover by “mistaking” him for the king – sort of like a more modern girl saying something like, “he’s my Romeo.”
The Song of Songs 4 (Day 675) 6 November 2011
1-7: Now it is his turn to flatter her and he does so in language that makes the casual reader blush. She is described in the terms common to an agrarian culture, with parts of her body compared to doves, goats, shorn ewes, pomegranates, and gazelles.
8: Is she Lebanese? The color of her skin notwithstanding (see 1:5) that seems to be the case. The mountainous region of Lebanon is aptly described as a place of lions and leopards, which it was in Biblical times.
9-15: He is obviously head-over-heels. While the previous paragraph used mostly animal imagery, now he relies primarily on things found in the fields, orchards and vineyards. She is, to him, a veritable garden of delights.
16: And she accepts the imagery, inviting him to enjoy.
The Song of Songs 5 (Day 676) 7 November 2011
1: So he does just that.
2-7: She engages in another romantic fantasy: her lover comes to her chamber while she sleeps. She longs for him and arises to open the door but finds that he is gone. She searches for him in the city and is beaten by guards, although no explanation is given as to why she should be so punished – but again, this is a fantasy or a dream. Her suffering at the hands of the sentinels is perhaps a subconscious admission that the affair she is imagining is somewhat taboo.
8-9: In her fantasy she asks the women of the city to help her find him, and they want to know what’s so special about him.
10-16: She describes him with the same kind of excessive imagery that he used in describing her. His attributes are compared to ravens, doves, lilies and cedars. Much of her image of him, though, involves precious metals and jewels: gold, ivory, sapphires (or lapis lazuli), and alabaster. Frankly, I wouldn’t care to have my eyes compared to doves or my lips to lilies, but whatever turns you on.
Song of Songs 6 (Day 677) 8 November 2011
1-3: Her friends, having heard her description of him, want to know where he is, and her response is that he is tending his flock. Verse 3 may be intended to refer back to the imagery in 4:5.
4-10: Once again we have his fanciful description of her. She is almost too beautiful to look upon; lots of hair, no missing teeth. If you should line up countless other girls she would be the only one. Her beauty is as threatening to them as an army on the march.
11-13: She goes out to the orchard (in 1:6 she is a keeper of vineyards) and imagines she is with her lover. The other girls call for her to return, but she rebuffs them. Verse 13 is the only place where she is referred to as a Shulammite, and the word is a puzzle. Some scholars think it is the feminine form of Solomon. Others see in it a reference to an unidentified location. The “dance before two armies” (NRSV) is in other translations rendered “the dance of Mahanaim.” Mahanaim literally means “two camps,” and is the name Jacob gave to the place where he encountered angels after separating from Laban (see Genesis 32:2). Perhaps the sense of verse 13b is something like, “Why should you stare at Solomon’s lady as though she were some sort of camp-side entertainment?”
Song of Songs 7 (Day 678) 9 November 2011
1-5: The suitor gives yet another description of her, from the tips of her toes to the top of her head. She’s really something, isn’t she?
6-9: He makes a rather forward overture, making no bones about his intentions; they are entirely dishonorable and refreshingly honest.
10-13: She gives an encouraging response, promising a night of love-making in a village apparently known to them both. Mandrakes are mentioned twice in the Bible: here and at Genesis 30:14-16. A variety of nightshade, mandrakes have some hallucenogenic qualities. The roots were (and still are among some cultures) thought to enhance sexual desire. The Hebrew word is “dudaim,” which literally means “love plant.”
Song of Songs 8 (Day 679) 10 November 2011
1-4: She expresses the wish that they were close enough kin that they could engage in public displays of affection. Her fantasy is that, were they like brother and sister (which in that culture could mean what we would call “kissing cousins”) they could enter the privacy of her mother’s house without raising eyebrows, and there freely engage in lovemaking. Once again, the expression about not awakening love until it is ready is a way of saying she has found her true love and that makes all her previous relationships meaningless by comparison.
5-7: The poem plunges again into obscure images that seem disconnected from one another as well as from the preceding scene. The apple tree reference is impossible to explain and the reference to his mother in labor is just as troublesome. But verses 6 and 7 seem to be a summary of their affair. Love is indeed more valuable than all the wealth one might possess.
8-10: Again it is hard to find any connection between these verses and the rest of the book. It seems to me that the “daughters of Jerusalem” are reflecting on girlhood, puberty and emerging womanhood.
11-14: The book ends with an invitation to young lovers everywhere to enter into the delightful twists and turns of romantic love.
You may be wondering, having read the book, why it is in the Bible to begin with. The best answer I can offer is that the Song of Songs is an exuberant celebration of Genesis 2:18-25.