Song of Songs: A Lover's Paradise

The bond of love

One of God’s greatest gifts to humanity is the special bond of love between a husband and wife. From the beginning, God intended for a man to leave his parents "and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).

cinnamon Cinnamomum zeylanicum is a small evergreen tree native to Sri Lanka. Oil, incense and perfume can be obtained from its inner bark. Cinnamon was a highly valued spice and perfume, and was a special ingredient in the sacred anointing oil. It is just one of many rare plants listed by the man to communicate to his wife how precious she was to him (Song of Songs 4:13-14).
We do not know which plant is the "lily" in Song of Songs. The water lily (Nymphaea caerulea, right) is one candidate. Others include the lotus (Nymphaea lotus) and the white lily (Lilium candidum). In the ancient Near East, lilies symbolized sex appeal, fertility and perfection, making them appropriate metaphors in Song of Songs 2:1-2, 16; 4:5; 5:13; 6:2-3; 7:2. lily
 myrrh Myrrh comes from Commiphora myrrha, a thorny tree that grows in south Arabia and Ethiopia. Myrrh was a costly perfume that a woman might wear in a sachet between her breasts (Song of Songs 1:13). Like nard, another costly ointment mentioned often in Song of Songs, myrrh was used in connection with Jesus’ burial (John 19:38-40; see also John 12:3-8 and Mark 14:3-8).
The pomegranate was one of the fruits the scouts brought back from the Promised Land (Numbers 13:23; see also Deuteronomy 8:8). Pomegranate seeds were a fertility symbol throughout the area, and pomegranate juice was often mixed with wine (Song of Songs 8:2). In Song of Songs 4:3, the man may be complimenting his wife’s rosy cheeks, temples or complexion in general.
Illustrations by Jody Eastman
pomegranate

Some of Solomon’s wisest advice concerned the pleasures of marriage: "May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer — may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love" (Proverbs 5:18-19). The Song of Songs is an exposition of these verses; it exemplifies the way a husband and wife should express their love toward each other.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul viewed the love between husband and wife as a type of the love between Christ and the church: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church…. Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church" (Ephesians 5:25, 28-29).

Viewed in this way, the Song of Songs should encourage us by illustrating the great love Christ has for us. Likewise, it should provoke us to express our love toward him — both in our words and in our actions. For the most part, however, our commentary focuses on what a married couple can gain from this book.

Invitation to paradise

Song of Songs is first and foremost lyrical love poetry. It was written in a cultural environment far removed from our own. After all, what Western woman today would feel complimented if you compared her teeth to a flock of shorn sheep (Song of Songs 4:2), her temples to the halves of a pomegranate (4:3) or her hair to a flock of goats (4:1)? Yet within the environment in which Song of Songs is set, these words had positive connotations. They expressed admiration, affection and love.

In the Song of Songs, the lovers try to re-create paradise. The word paradise is derived from the Greek paradeiso, meaning "garden." This Greek word predominantly occurs in two places in the Septuagint: in Genesis 2–3, describing the Garden of Eden, and in Song of Songs.

Numerous words related to a garden, rarely used in the rest of the Bible, appear in Song of Songs: myrrh, budded, nard, pomegranates and lilies. The setting is the spring: "The winter is past; the rains are over and gone" (2:11), and the book is traditionally read during the Passover season. In this spring setting, the lovers invoke imagery of flora and fauna to transport themselves to paradise.

Even when we cannot understand some of the specific figures of speech used in Song of Songs, we can appreciate the intentions and emotions they convey. This is made clearer by the use of such simple endearments as "darling," "lovely," "beautiful," "handsome" and "charming." Expressions such as "How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful!" (1:15) anyone can understand.

Using the senses

In the Hebrew, an abundance of alliteration enhances the poetic effect. Words are selected not just because they refer to beautiful things, but because they sound beautiful. Francis Landy writes:

"The Song appeals to the sensual ear as much as to the intellect; the reader may be baffled by the words and still respond to their emotional and physical connotations; in fact the difficulty reinforces this appeal to an uncritical pleasure. The poem has an enchanting quality, whatever the precise meaning of the words, that derives in part from its musical quality, its function as voice; and in part from its imaginative play with the beauty of the world, corresponding to our own reverie on the sensations with which it continually surrounds us" ("The Song of Songs," in Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, p. 306).

While our ears may be confronted with sensuality from the way the poetry sounds, the sensations dominant in the text itself are sight, smell and taste. Sight is used for conscious admiration, but smell and taste capture the intoxicated moods of the lovers.

When God created the heavens and the earth, plant and animal life and, finally, man and woman, he saw that his creation was very good (Genesis 1:31). Song of Songs is a lesson in using our senses to appreciate the beauty and splendor of God’s creation.

Esteeming your partner

From beginning to end, the lovers sing each other’s praises. The woman shows her esteem for the man: "Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my lover among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste" (2:3).

To those who ask, "How is your beloved better than others...?", she boldly proclaims: "My lover is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand…. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as its cedars. His mouth is sweetness itself; he is altogether lovely. This is my lover, this my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem" (5:9-10, 15-16).

Likewise, the man esteems his wife above all else: "Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the maidens" (2:2); and "My dove, my perfect one, is unique" (6:9).

Esteem breeds confidence, and the lovers in Song of Songs have complete confidence in each other. The woman says, "My lover is mine and I am his" (2:16). Again, she says, "I am my lover’s and my lover is mine" (6:3). She knows her husband’s love for her: "I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me" (7:10), and "His left arm is under my head, and his right arm embraces me" (2:6).

Affection and tenderness of love

No matter how great those times are when lovers express their intense passions for each other, it is simple, unadorned affection and tenderness that binds a marriage together. Notice the man’s continuous displays of affection toward his wife: "How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful!" (1:15); "Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the maidens" (2:2); "You have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes" (4:9); and "You are beautiful, my darling, as Tirzah, lovely as Jerusalem" (6:4).

The woman remembers her husband’s words of affection; they mean a lot to her: "My lover spoke and said to me, ‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me’" (2:10). She returns her husband’s affection: "How handsome you are, my lover! Oh, how charming!" (1:16). Simple words are often the most effective. Clearly, you need not be a great poet to express how much you love your spouse. Nevertheless, as Song of Songs also shows, a little poetic praise can go a long way.

Yearning for each other

Look how the woman yearned for her husband: "All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves; I looked for him but did not find him. I will get up now and go about the city, through its streets and squares; I will search for the one my heart loves. So I looked for him but did not find him" (3:1-2). She then asks the watchmen if they have seen her lover (3:3). Eventually she finds him and holds him fast, not letting him go (3:4).

In each of these four verses, the woman refers to her husband as "the one my heart loves." In a similar passage, the woman says, "I opened for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure (5:6). The woman yearns to be with her husband, to encompass him (see also 1:13). Moments spent away from him are painful for her. Similarly, the man yearns for his wife: "Show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely" (2:14).

Like the woman who is not ashamed to search publicly for her husband and proclaim her love for him (3:3; 5:8), Christians also, as the Israel of God, should not feel embarrassed to be known as people who are actively seeking Jesus Christ. We should praise God daily in our prayers, expressing our love and gratitude to him. As the lovers in the Song of Songs are clearly enraptured with each other, so we should be enraptured with God’s love for us. As the apostle John wrote, "We love because [God] first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com

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This article was written by Jim Herst and Tim Finlay in the mid 1990s, posted on our website in 2003, and edited again in 2013. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.

The Song of Songs presents an idealized relationship, the way things should be in a marriage and in our relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If we are not careful, we can drift away from God. Similarly, husbands and wives can slowly drift apart. The Song of Songs can help rekindle that first love (Revelation 2:4). It can inspire us to improve our marriages and our relationship with God.

The ultimate paradise

As mentioned before, the Song of Songs looks back to the Garden of Eden. But the ultimate paradise awaits all those who follow God. Jesus Christ promised, "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7). The apostle John was given a vision of this paradise:

"Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations" (Revelation 22:1-2).

Here, Christ’s faithful servants shall be with him forever: "The throne of God and of the Lamb [Jesus] will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.... And they will reign for ever and ever" (verses 3-5). The Song of Songs, with its imagery of paradise, is a rich metaphor for our glorious ultimate relationship with Jesus.

Song of Songs ends with the woman desiring her husband’s presence, "Come away ["make haste" KJV], my lover" (8:14). Similarly, Revelation ends with the church’s anticipation of Christ’s return: "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus" (Revelation 22:20).

Song to the Shulammite

Song of Songs celebrates the intimate relationship between a husband and wife. Both lovers praise each other’s body in an unashamedly frank manner. In one delightful passage, the man expresses his appreciation of the Shulammite woman by describing her features in poetic ascent from her feet to her head (7:1-9). The Shulammite may be dancing before him as he praises her (6:13).

"How beautiful your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter! Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of a craftsman’s hands" (7:1).

The man considers his wife a prince’s daughter. The intensifying phrase "the work of a craftsman’s hands" refers initially to the jewels, but also applies to the Shulammite’s God-given graceful legs or thighs.

"Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine. Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies. Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle" (7:2-3).

Again, the intensifying phrases refer primarily to the metaphors ("goblet," "mound of wheat," "two fawns"). But they also, by analogy, apply to the body parts those metaphors represent. Euphemistic expressions disguise some of the eroticism in Song of Songs, but even at its most erotic and intimate, the poetic description is highly dignified. The poem throughout elevates, uplifts and inspires. This is a man’s personal eulogy to his wife’s beauty.

"Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim. Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon looking toward Damascus. Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel. Your hair is like royal tapestry; the king is held captive by its tresses" (7:4-5).

The lover moves from describing the more intimate areas of the Shulammite’s body, seen by him alone, to praising the neck, face and hair generally visible to everyone. This is why his similes concern well-known landscapes and admired architecture such as the pools of Heshbon and the tower of Lebanon. The royal image at the beginning of the poem recurs here. The crowning attribute of this prince’s daughter could hold a king captive.

"How beautiful you are and how pleasing, O love, with your delights! Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit" (7:6-7).

As the lover now beholds his wife in her entirety, he expresses further admiration: "I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.’ May your breasts be like the clusters of the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine" (7:8-9).

Now that his eyes have been satisfied with the sight of his wife, the husband engages the other senses as he kisses and caresses her. His beloved is a fair and pleasant delight indeed!

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