Song of Songs 3:1-4:7 is not necessarily the best division of the text because Song of Songs 4:1-7 fits better with the text that follows than that which precedes it. But in any case, the three songs here move from one that climaxes in sex, one about a wedding day, and then one about a woman’s breasts. Hopefully the previous posts on Song of Songs have discouraged you from reading the text like it is a story and instead an anthology of love poetry because the people involved in these other songs are married. Nevertheless, the explicit nature of the text once again makes it sparsely used in worship today — which is lying about God and His design for our lives. That is, God is no prude and He wants the lives of married couples to be physically intimate (and not just for the purpose of making children but part of enjoying His good gifts to us). The text again invites you men to put yourself in the place of the man and you women to put yourself in the place of the woman, and for us all to listen and learn when she addresses the daughters of Jerusalem.
Song of Songs 3:1-5
There are two poems in Song of Songs 3. The first is the Song 3:1-5.
The first song of the chapter is linked to the previous song because of the theme of seeking. However, this time it is the woman who pursues the man and at first she does not find him. Then when she does find him she refuses to let go of him until the relationship is consummated. The biggest change then between the previous song and this one is the mood.
Longman says that this is a poem of yearning – not the first one of these that we have seen. The difference though is that this time the woman describes the experience, as we discover in the final verse, for the daughters of Jerusalem (i.e., for the reader). It has been suggested that the account of Mary Magdalene holding onto the risen Jesus is akin to this text – the major difference being that Jesus refuses to go to her mother’s house but goes to prepare a place for us.
The song opens with the problem – her lover is not present. The word ”soul” used throughout the Song is not meant to refer only to her soul (in the way that we use the word) but to her whole person. After being unable to find him in her bed, she goes out searching in the city. And at first she does not find him while wandering the city either. She encounters some watchmen that she asks about him. Then the song tells us that she found him just after passing the watchmen. Describing her assertiveness at this point, Longman says, ”She is no passive wallflower waiting for the advances of the more active male. She grabs him and hauls him off to the privacy of the bedroom.” By hauling him off to her mother’s bedroom, even described as ”the chamber of her who conceived me” the emphasis is on the fact that they will have sex. Another reason for the mother’s bedroom is that the mother had an important role in arranging marriages. This is why Naomi told Ruth and Orpha to return to their mother’s house (Ruth 1:8-9).
Yet even with all of this pursuit and the climax of pleasure, the woman then says to the daughters of Jerusalem ”that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” This is now the second time we have seen this oath-language of warning (Song 2:7, 3:5).
Song of Songs 3:6-11
Song of Songs 3:6-11 describes what Longman calls ”a royal wedding procession.” Solomon’s name is mentioned three times in this poem: Song 3:7, 9, 11 (and only seven times in the book, the other times being: Song 1:1, 1:5, 8:11, 12). Those who hold this is a historical description debate about whether it is Solomon or the woman or both in the palanquin (a covered litter – that is, the couch on which servants carry an important person like a king) and debate about the identity of the speaker for verses 6-10 (dts of Jersualem?). But we have been taking a look at the Song in a different way than that. It may or may not be inspired by seeing an actual historical marriage parade. But it is designed to encourage your imagination as you reflect upon love and marriage.
The only other marriage poem in the Bible is Psalm 45, which is also meant to be utilized by commoners.
Longman says that the Solomon angle is used here not because of his reputation with regard to love and marriage, but because of his great riches. This point seems rather obvious when the reader stops to think about it. Thus the idea is that the woman is calling her man ”King Solomon” in an imaginative way to celebrate marriage. And in the last verse she invites the daughters of Jerusalem (i.e., us) to ponder the picture. This fits what we said earlier about the woman calling her husband a king or a shepherd even if this is not his job in real life.
The mention of myrrh and frankincense adds to the exotic smells of the poem. Longman notes that the smell would not carry that far, but this is poetry and the imagination that the Song all along has been exercising includes scent.
The view that makes the most sense of the picture is that the man (our ”King Solomon”) is on the covered couch. The 60 mighty men all well armed and experienced for war give the wedding parade picture the feeling of safety. Song of Songs 3:9 is not to be understood literally either – it is not as if Solomon would make his own sedan chair or litter (portable couch). The more natural understanding would be to take it as it was made for him, which sometimes we do say that we made something when what we really mean is that a contractor did it on our behalf.
The only place that the ”daughters of Jerusalem” are dubbed the ”daughters of Zion” in the Song is Song of Songs 3:11. Jerusalem and Zion are natural alternatives for one another in Scripture as Zion is a metonymy for the whole city.
Personally, I think this Song does two things – it is actually criticizing Solomon and it is praising marriage. First, it is obvious that the main goal of this song is to praise marriage and invite us to look at the happy man on his wedding day. Its location here may be influenced by the previous song mentioning the mother’s bedroom where they consummate the relationship. That song did not have to be describing marriage since she should not be looking for the man in her bed before they are married. Yet that song did at least conjure up the theme of marriage, which then gives way to this poem about a royal wedding. The Song of Songs then are both warning about rushing into marital relationships too quickly and they are holding marriage up high. These two ideas go hand in hand. The Song values marriage and as we have seen it assumes a marriage relationship when describing joyful intimacy. Then when the Song calls the man ”King Solomon” there is an implicit criticism of Solomon. Without having to say a critical word, by mentioning Solomon in a poem praising marriage the Song invites the reader to not make the same mistake Solomon did in having so many wives and concubines. We can even understand the man as the person that Solomon should have been. In other words, the very disjunction between the aim to praise marriage and the example of Solomon historically is a not-so-subtle criticism of Solomon.
Consider further that this particular poem would be an odd one for Solomon to write since if one were to take a historical view it would be writing about himself from the perspective of the woman or perhaps the daughters of Zion. Thus our understanding the song as creating a poetic world describes what the text is doing better.
Song of Songs 4:1-7
The next song may be Song of Songs 4:1-7. It is also possible, given the links Longman observes, that this is the first part of a larger unit running all the way through Song of Songs 5:1. But the reason for identifying this as a separate unit is that it is a known genre. Song of Songs 4:1-7 is what scholars call a waṣf. That is an Arabic word meaning ”description.” The point being that these verses give a description of the woman’s beauty from head to breasts. The modern realization that this was a genre came because of a diplomat in the ninteenth century attending weddings in Syria. If I may explain it this way: Apparently at these weddings the woman would sing a song describing the man’s beauty and vice versa. Then they would go have their wedding night.
This is the first of four examples of the waṣf in Song of Songs, the others Longman lists as Song 5:10-16, 6:4-6, and 7:2-8. Three of the four are the man’s description of the woman. Usually the poem begins with a general statement of beauty and then the woman’s head and then works down to the item of focus – this time the breasts.
Song of Songs 4:1 thus begins with a general statement about the woman’s beauty and then begins to describe her physical beauty with her eyes and hair – i.e., starting with her head. The veil offers something missing in our culture – it hides her beauty but it also then encourages the man to long to see more. The exact nature of this particular veil is unclear. In any case, the descriptions may come across as strange for us living with different ideas of beauty but we get the idea. This woman’s hair is likened to a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead suggesting that the hair is flowing and beautiful – it is a flattering image. Mount Gilead was probably a stunning sight to behold. The compliment about her teeth is that they are white and that they are all there – which is not always true in places where dental hygiene is not widely practiced.
The compliment about her cheeks likely has pomegranates in view because of their complexion. The key with all of the images is not to press them too much. Usually there the metaphor is comparing one thing about the image and its bodily referent. Consider this point when comparing the neck to the tower of David. It may very well not be saying that she has a long neck, but much more likely it is making a different comparison. Longman suggests, for example, the following qualities, ”it is grand, strong, dignified, perhaps elegant.” Perhaps then the shields on the tower are then meant to refer to jewelry worn on her neck – some kind of necklace.
But this is all leading up to the breasts. What exactly the point of comparison is between the fawn/gazelle and the breasts is also difficult for us to know because of our distance from that time and place. The mention of a fawn may be to focus on their youth, which fits the description of the woman in other songs in the Song. The twin nature of the breasts is hardly worth noting except that perhaps he is enamored by their symmetry. The idea that they ”graze among the lilies” also is difficult to understand and I hesitate to even repeat Longman’s suggestion for the imagery. But he makes a good point after saying it, ”Perhaps we carry the image too far, but then again there are no formulas for knowing when to stop.” This is the challenge for the modern interpreter.
In any case, my reluctance reflects how much a focus on breasts is counter-cultural for conservative Evangelical Christians to talk about openly. This again suggests that our God is no prude and that the man who has eyes for no other woman should enjoy what he sees when looking at her.
Perhaps this poem follows the last because of the like mention in Song of Songs 4:6 of the fragrances of myrrh and frankincense. This verse conveys the man’s desire to be with her and intimately so bringing in the sense of smell.
And as this song began it so ends – with another general statement about her beauty. The first half puts it positively – ”You are altogether beautiful, my love,” and the second half negatively – ”there is no flaw in you.” The latter likens her to the perfection required for sacrificial animals. This is not to bring sacrifice into view – the point of comparison is the lack of a blemish.
It is also worth reflecting then on the significance of the woman’s physical beauty. The point being that often Christians downplay physical beauty for the beauty of the heart. Surely the woman would not be beautiful to the man if it were not for her internal beauty and character. However, he is in love with what he sees as well. Remember that the poem does not focus on identifiable things like her hair or eye color, etc. This is generic enough that any man who is in love with his young wife could genuinely use these words to describe her as gorgeous.