The Song of Solomon – A High View of Courtship, Marriage and Women
By Neil Earle
Pastor-scholar Paige Patterson has laid down this challenge:
“In a world awash with the debris of broken homes, crushed spirits and fractured dreams, God’s people need the message of The Song of Solomon as never before. The Song is a righteous antidote to a licentious society that has prostituted the sacred nature of human love. Hope exudes from its pages…My prayer is…to do the unimaginable – preach through the Song of Solomon” (Everyman’s Bible Commentary, page 9).
In the age of third-wave feminism and the Me-Too movement few advocates and activists would think of looking into the Bible for a high-toned, wholesome and even poetic exposition of the nature of human love and, yes, even sexual attraction. The trouble is the symbols, metaphors, allusions and geography behind the Song is very foreign to us today. If Shakespeare needs decoding in our school classrooms how much more a piece of poetry from Iron Age Israel.
But read on. Thoughtful Christians across the centuries have excavated enough of the background to this delightful literary jewel that we can at least get to first base. Craig Glickman’s A Song for Lovers is the best popular attempt at this. Glickman realizes much of the Song is sheer poetry and he is not afraid to allow for lots of “poetic license” in his rendering of the message.
Take Song 4:1, for example, “Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead.” What could that mean? Would you advise a young man to try this line with his girl-friend today? Glickman uses this as an analogy calling for a translator’s imaginative ingenuity. Here’s his explanation:
“It is perhaps the end of a long day, so the goats are descending from the mountain. Across the valley is seen an entire flock moving together down the mountains. The individual members of the flock blend in to form a dark stream flowing smoothly to the valley. The peacefulness of the evening, the flowing movement of the flock tell us that the long flowing hair of the bride is very attractive, almost hypnotic to the king” (page 14).
A Seven Act Drama
Bravo, Glickman. With the additional aid of John Balchim’s chapter in The New Bible Commentary (NBC) it is possible to unlock this outstanding but neglected piece of Scripture. Let’s borrow a page from Glickman and turn this book into a seven act play, illustrating each chapter with classic love songs from recent staples of popular culture. Here goes:
Act One: Dating Snapshots from the Royal Album/ Theme: “Can’t Take My Eyes off You” (Song 1:1 - 2:3)
Act Two: Heavy Date/ Theme: “I Only Wanna Be With You” (Song 2:4 - 2:17)
Act Three: Pre-Marital Jitters and the Wedding/ Theme: “One Hand, One Heart” (3:1-11)
Act Four: The Wedding Night/Theme: “The Way You Look Tonight” (4:1 - 5:1)
Act Five: First Fight and Kiss and Make Up: “I Will Always Love You”
Act Six: Escape Weekend/ Theme: “So Happy Together” (7:11 - 8:5)
Act Seven: Flashback Reflections/Theme: “I Must Have Done Something Good” (8:8-14)
The thought of seeing this Song as a sequence of events in the life of two young people very much in love, very much infatuated, very much interested in the physical aspect of their relationship yet not rushing in where wise men fear to tread – this is what makes this such a timeless, priceless part of Scripture. Paul McCartney had a song in the 1970s called “Silly Love Songs” wherein he wondered, why is it that people want to keep writing silly love songs. Then he pauses, musically, and asks a cute question:
What’s wrong with that/I’d like to know
Cause here I go, again…..I love you (repeat, repeat, repeat)
Sexual Dynamics as God’s Invention?
See how it works?
This special Song is not written by a prudish God or a morbid deity whose only advice to young people is “Don’t. Don’t Don’t.” And again – “Don’t.” Without compromising the highest standards of biblical morality these two young lovers show how wonderful romantic attraction can be, why a generous Creator knew it was needed to draw young folks together to begin new lives together. It’s good to remember in instructing young people about their sexuality the healthy and longstanding Biblical insight that sex is God’s creation, that he invented it, that he set in motion the dynamic stimuli that attract us to each other. Remember, in Genesis 1:31 the Creator pronounced the male and female anatomy and all that goes with it as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Note: not just good. Very good.
While teaching 200 young people Christian Living principles in the 1990s I found that most young people have no problem agreeing with that text! And that’s why the richly imbedded message of this Song needs to reach them. After all, “Well begun is half done” and if our youth can be inspired by the healthy approach of this Song everyone benefits. Let’s get started.
Act One: Dating Snapshots.
Remember that poetry, as the Elizabethans said, is “right royal” i.e. it can be a call to high-toned, richly-flowing idealism. This opening scene is probably two young people at a banquet or the royal table (or a Mel’s Diner?) totally “twitter pated” (remember Bambi?) with each other and longing for physical closeness. Or it could capture the young girl out on the terrace of an evening drinking in the moon, the mood and the moment. Guess what she’s thinking about? The opening lines are frankly sexual. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is better than wine.”
Jimmy Rodgers sang “Kisses sweeter than wine” in the 1950s and it is a direct steal from this Song. The lesson here is that she, the girl, highly regards her future beau. The language reflects admiration. She desires him to initiate affection but he won’t and she knows it. He’s got his hormones flying in formation. He clearly began the relationship – brought her to the big city, to the royal palace so they could get to know each other better. She admires his leadership, is also clearly intoxicated with him. The reference to love-sickness appears more than once. In such a condition it’s good to have other people around – chaperones, or our best friends so we first meet the “daughters of Jerusalem” in Song 1:4.
The lesson here is that this relationship is public and above board. Good idea. They are not tempting each other by always being alone.
The intervention of the Daughters of Jerusalem – perhaps ladies of the court who function as a sort of Greek chorus (or backup group if you want to redo this as an opera) – brings her back to reality. It is his “name” that is like strong perfume. He has character. He has a good reputation. The first questions parents ask: “What kind of boy is he?” As Glickman says: “She should not be so infatuated that she imagines a scoundrel or a knave to be her knight in shining armor (page 31). “No wonder the maidens love you.” Yes, her guy, her beau is well known, not some reclusive “moody blues” fellow with no fixed address who drops in from who knows where. He’s a hit. That’s why (in the words of Motown):
There’s nothing you can say can tear me away from my guy, Nothing you can do cause I’m stuck like glue to my guy.
Silly love talk. But we need it, even more as we grow older in marriage.
She continues to praise him (verse 5-7). She reveals herself as somewhat shy and that innocent virginal quality is part of her appeal for him. Another thing: She has had a generally strict upbringing and…it wasn’t the worst thing, really. She says: “My mother’s sons (her older brothers) were angry with me.” That’s the way discipline often feels like to a young person but at the end of the Song she reveals that they had her best interest at heart (Song 8:8-10).
She wants to be with him. Very natural (verse 7-8), When he sees her coming he responds with ardent love talk which needs serious decoding. “I liken you my darling to a mare harnessed to one of the chariots of Pharaoh” (verse 9). What is he saying: “You look like a horse?”
For the ancients well-bred horses symbolized grandeur, beauty, stateliness. Even the fabled Helen of Troy was compared to a “Thessalian steed.” Glickman notes that the lead horse in Pharaoh’s famous chariot squadrons was always the prize of the lot – “uniquely noble and beautiful.”
She returns the compliment – her beau is like myrrh and henna (verses 13-14) which was the Chanel Number Five or the Max Factor of its day. “Night and day I think of you” by Cole Porter comes close to expressing the emotional tone here. She clearly desires physical union but knows that everything will happen in its time – healthy drives, under control. As John Balchin comments: “The world says, any time, any place. God says, my time, my place.” This explains the references scattered throughout to “the little foxes that can devour the vine” throughout. The hormones need to be there but they have to be in check.
Principles of Courtship
From 1:15 to 2:3 the love talk is very intense. Infatuation is anything but logical so it is difficult to interpret it all, especially 2500 years later. Glickman explains the sexual tension that is building; something most engaged couples know about:
“As they come closer to marriage, restraint becomes more necessary (the little foxes)…nothing is wrong with suppression – the conscious restraint of natural impulses. For example, you may have an impulse to punch someone in the nose, but it is good to suppress that impulse and restrain yourself.”
For sure, no-one can give an exact blueprint in how to carry out a godly courtship. But already we see some very helpful principles at work. The Song stresses wise restraint in the face of youthful passion. The mature reaction under her fiancé’s steady lead is the reason the Rose of Sharon grows in self-confidence and self-esteem. Balchin explains:
“She sees herself as a beautiful flower (the Rose of Sharon). It is a very beautiful thing how being truly loved can bring about a transformation in the view you have of yourself. As believers we are the object of Christ’s unfailing love and we are beautiful in his eyes” (NBC, page 621).
Act Two: Heavy Date
The motif of exhilarating fun takes over. She remembers his last, lingering romantic embrace. She remembers having to heed the wise advice: “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.” (2:7). Verse 8 always reminds me of the musical “Oklahoma,” where Curly brags to Laurie of his “surrey with the fringe on top.” In the Sixties it was “Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learnin’ how, come on safari with me” or “Honda, Honda, faster, faster.”
The technology changes but the exhilaration of a fun date never does when you’re young and in love. He exemplifies male vigor – “like a gazelle or a young stag” (2:9). (Maybe he drives a Mustang!?) But it doesn’t matter. Its springtime, time for courting. Another poet wrote,
In the spring a young man’s fancy, lightly turns to thoughts of love.
His voice thrills her, and that’s a sure mark of young love – the voice, which moves away from the explicitly sexual overtones. “Arise, come my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.” He responds in kind: “Let me hear your voice.” This is one reason 33% of cell phone users are young people. They can’t get enough of each other’s voice.
There’s the athletic image again, just like today where a guy on a motorcycle is hard to resist – “Turn my lover and be like a gazelle or like a young stage on the rugged hills.” It’s been a good date. Ah, to be young again.
Act Three: Premarital Jitters
Shakespeare coined this one: “True love never runs smoothly” and it applies here “I will search for the one my heart loves. So I looked for him but did not find him” (Songs 3:1). Before every great prize there seems to be a test or trial to endure and many commentators bring out the aspect of strangeness here, of a young girl prowling the streets alone.
This passage is usually considered a dreamscape, a nightmare, John Balchin calls it. It is possibly a dream of loss, of losing the beloved – the worst thing imaginable for young lovers about to tie the knot. But who has never had such frightful fantasies? This is what spiritual seekers call the “dark night of the soul.” Four times she describes her lover poignantly as “the one my heart loves.” But even here in counterpoint there is a note of true love’s longing and the song “I won’t last a day without you” fits here. It seems so out of context from what’s gone before.
In the literature of love and longing there are many street songs that have to do with wandering, with loss and longing. There is “Midnight, not a sound from the pavement” from Cats. Or the surging bittersweet rhythm of “On My Own” from Les Miserables:
On my own, pretending you’re beside me,
All along I walk with you till morning;
Without you, I feel your arms around me
And when I lose my way I close my eyes and you have found me.
This ghostly, jarring note is important. It grounds the Song in reality. True love is not all airy-fairy romance. There are rivers to cross, mountains to climb. Who doesn’t get cold feet? Who isn’t nervous before a wedding?
Act Four: The Wedding
But after the night comes the dawn. Song 3:6-11 describes the Wedding itself. And it is a very posh affair. Solomon was well able to afford the extravagance associated with his court (see picture). His carriage escorted by sixty warriors in full public view expresses something vital about the biblical sexual ethic. How often do false charmers say, “Why wait for marriage? If you loved me you would indulge now. Who needs a piece of paper, the ink stains that have dried upon some line, to tell of our love?”
Sounds clever but…wise counselors reply: “Not so fast. If you really loved me you’d declare your love publicly ‘in the face of God and these witnesses.’ Why not, if you are a real man, sign your name on the state-approved certificate to show everyone – my friends and yours – just how committed you are?”
Once again, the standards here are of the highest.
Song 4:1-5:1 seems to be the Wedding Night and the love talk here is pretty intense – a good reminder for all long-time married to keep expressing the way we feel about each other.
Act Five: First Fight/Kiss and Make Up
More realism. Rose bushes do have thorns. Song 5:2 to 7:10 is a long section. Charlie Shedd described the coming together of two independent souls as the crashing of two mighty rivers causing much turbulence for a while but eventually leading to something smoother and deeper. Things such as early marriage sometimes need time for the dynamics to work. Let-downs happen after the initial excitement, de rigueur for newlyweds. She is being somehow unresponsive to her husband’s advances or his need for solace:
He: “Open to me my sister, my darling.”
She: “I have washed my feet, must I soil them again?”
You always hurt the one you love. The new husband feels rejected and rebuffed by his overly fastidious wife! He thinks, “She cares more about her appearance (who for, pray tell?) than the fact that I need her.” He strides off, hurt. She begins to realize her mistake: "I opened for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure. I looked for him but did not find him. I called him but he did not answer” (Song 5:6).
She sets out after him. Things go from bad to worse. The city guards mistake her for a loose woman prowling the mean streets late at night. She is accosted (Song 5:7). Things look bleak indeed. Still, the only hope is to find her one true love. She pines deeply for him now. The mood here is Olivia Newton-John’s song “Hopelessly devoted to you.” Even the best relationships have misunderstandings, crossed-purposes and misjudgments. People taunt her – “Come on, just who is this guy you’re looking for” – can he really be that great (Song 5:9)? This sets her off in a rhapsody of praise for her young husband (5:10-16). The crisis bears good fruit. It makes her realize how much she needs him, misses him, yearns for him.
But where could he be? Then she remembers his favorite haunt, where he can usually be found to ride out his troubles – his favorite garden (6:2). She skips along with eager anticipation, her mind and heart fully set on reconciliation. Then – he sees her coming! And guess what? There’s no way he can stay mad at her:
“You are beautiful my darling as Tirzah, lovely as Jerusalem, majestic as troops with banners. Turn your eyes from me; they overwhelm me” (Song 6:4). Tirzah was the original capital of Israel, a well-sited, lush agricultural city (1 Kings 12:25). Jerusalem’s fame needs no comment. A wise man once said, “Sex appeal is 90% from the neck up” and there is something about the beloved’s eyes that melts the toughest hearts. Note his expressiveness here: “My dove, my perfect one, is unique…The queens and concubines praised her” (Song 6:9). It doesn’t get much better than that. His mood might be
“Can’t get used to losing you/No matter what I try to do
Gonna spend my whole life through/Loving you”
And the new bride? She might be thinking along the lines of what Whitney Houston sang so powerfully “I… will…always…love…you.” Physical intimacy heals over this incident, as it is partly designed to do (7:1-9).
Act Six: An Escape Weekend
“Come, my lover, let us go to the countryside” (Song 7:11) captures the new mood of maturity after reconciliation. This Song, of course, is one of the great adverts for marital getaways. After early marriage both partners have to consciously set aside time to be with each other. Counselors say couples have to be intentional about dating, business-like about planning time together or it just won’t happen. Otherwise the little foxes, the little foxes will squeeze affection out.
But not for this happily reconciled couple. They are happier together:
“I can’t see me lovin’ nobody but you/for all my life…”.
She leans on him as they drive his new chariot around town (8:3). The shiny new vehicle surfaces again. Some things never change, eh? Song 8:6 is one of the strongest faith declarations in the entire Old Testament. It powerfully asserts that “love is as strong as death,” an unusual image but one that hits home as John Balchin explains:
“[T]rue love is as strong as death in that both are irresistible…True love has its source in God for God is love. So such love has a supernatural power that no human efforts can extinguish. The waters of sin, death, Sheol, and all the rebellion of humankind cannot put out the love of Christ for the world” (page 627). “Love comes from God” as 1 John 4:7 affirms.
Song 8:7 reaffirms that true love can’t be bought or, as the Beatles reminded us, “Can’t Buy Me Love!”
Act Seven: Flashback Reflections
Act Seven (8:8-14) is like the opening, a bit mysterious and jumbled. It can be compared to a diverse collection of verbal snapshots and reminiscences from their early lives together complete with flashbacks of her early upbringing. Her family encouraged her as a young girl to strive for high ideals in courtship and romance, to keep the goal of true love before her (8:8-9). It worked. To win such love, she can say, with Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music: “Somewhere in my youth or childhood/I must have done something good.”
There is still more realism – the man has his work, his job, to go to but at the end of the day he comes home to his sweetheart, his friend, his one and only (8:10-12). “This love is here to stay” as Cole Porter sang! The garden imagery and the protective symbolism that ends the Song doesn’t obscure the telling fact that the young girl both opens and closes this poem – she gets the first and last word! Not a bad insight for Iron Age Israel and timely for Women’s History Month.
What a Song! What a high-toned refresher for approaching courtship and marriage and even for older marrieds needing to recover that early spark. Patterson summarized it well. He wrote of “the difference between the tenderness of the godly holy love expressed through this book and the rather brutal roughness of many of the intimacies advocated in modern society.” So true! As the French would say, the difference is vast and “vive la difference.”