Our reading plan took us through Song of Song (aka Song of Solomon) this week.
I don’t know how familiar most people are with this short poetic book. I can generally assume that most people have read books like Genesis or Matthew. I can at least assume most people know what those books are. But I’m not sure most people have read Song of Songs.
My experience is that most have not read it. Even worse, those that have seem to only be familiar with the three or four odd passages in which the Lover (the male character in the story) describes the beauty of the Beloved (the female character in the story) with imagery taken from their ancient Israelite surroundings. You may know the verses where the Lover says the Beloved’s teeth are “like sheep” (4:2) and her neck “like a tower” (4:4). Modern readers seem to find this language to be fairly ridiculous. In fact, when I was in Bible college I saw a drawing which portrayed what the Beloved would look like if the Lover’s words were taken literally. Here it is:
As I’ve often said before, I have a sense of humor and am able to see why modern readers find these descriptions funny. I also know, though, that there is far more to Song of Songs than an easy joke. There are many statements in the book today that are profound, wise, and helpful for us modern readers. In fact, there are more than I realized before this most recent reading. Here are a few of them:
Rose of Sharon/Lily of the Valleys
The Beloved uses the phrases “a Rose of Sharon” and “a lily of the valleys” in 2:1. She is talking about herself when she does so, saying that she is them or is like them.
But Christian tradition did something interesting with those phrases. It extended them to Jesus, making them descriptions of Him. This not Bible; there is no verse in the Bible which connects these descriptions with Jesus. But tradition did it nonetheless. For example, the Southern Gospel song “Daystar” starts with these words:
Lily of the Valley, let your sweet aroma fill my life
Rose of Sharon show me how to grow in beauty in God’s sight.
Those lines are talking about Jesus when they use those phrases, not the Beloved.
The classic hymn “Lily of the Valley” does this as well. Its chorus says,
He’s the lily of the valley, the bright and morning star
He’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul.
This chorus not only refers to Jesus as “the lily of the valley” (making valley singular instead of plural) but also “the fairest of ten thousand”, which is likely a reference to Song of Songs 5:10. (“Bright and morning star”, by the way, is a reference to Revelation 22:16.)
So we have traditionally seen Jesus in the Beloved’s self-description, and I believe we are correct to have done so. Despite the fact that these words were not directed at Jesus, it is clear that this is what Jesus is. He is the Rose of Sharon. He is the lily of the valleys. And Song of Songs tells us so.
His Banner Over Me Is Love
“His banner over me is love” is another phrase tradition has taken out of Song of Songs and applied to Jesus. In 2:4, the Beloved says, “Let him lead me to the banquet hall, and let his banner over me be love.” Once again, the rest of the Bible does nothing further with this phrase. But tradition has, applying it to what Jesus does for us.
We see this in the children’s song “His Banner Over Me Is Love”. That song says,
The Lord is mine and I am His.
His banner over me is love.
I never sang this song when I was a child in church. I was unaware of it until I went to Bible college. But lots of people did sing it as children in church. It is a good description of how Jesus loves us, taking us under his banner of love, and it comes from Song of Songs.
My Beloved To Me
I don’t believe tradition has applied this next phrase to Jesus, but it could. Twice the Beloved talks about her intimate relationship with the Lover (2:16 & 6:3). The NIV translates what she says as, “My beloved is mine and I am his” or “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”, but a more literal translation is, “My beloved to me, and I to him” (Douay-Rheims Bible). Since this phrase is stated twice in the book, once in each half, so I think this is a theme of the book. This is defining the intimacy between couples as being a “mutual ownership”, of each belonging to the other.
Paul says the same thing in a less poetic way in 1 Corinthians 7. There, he says,
A wife belongs to her husband instead of to herself, and a husband belongs to his wife instead of to himself. (CEV)
The marriage relationship, of course, is the most intimate relationship we have, and this statement has special meaning for it. But I believe the statement could apply to other relationships as well: siblings, cousins, friends, etc. When we enter into relationship with others, we are giving ourselves to others and thus must not only be devoted to those others but also aware of what damage we will do if we are not faithful to those others. That is what this statement is telling us.
Catch The Foxes
In Song of Songs 2:15, the Lover says this to the Beloved:
Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.
This phrase caught my attention during my Bible college days. I’m not sure how it did that. It could have been simply from reading Song of Songs, but it also could have been from a book commentating on Song of Songs. However it happened, it happened. This phrase caught my attention and held it because it is a perfect description of how relationships and homes get ruined. “Little foxes”, that is, small annoyances, come in to the relationship and/or home. These foxes are so little they are easy not to notice. Unnoticed, they gnaw on things and before anyone knows it, they have destroyed the whole “vineyard”, that is, relationship or home.
Song of Songs not only points out this phenomena to us, but it tells us what to do about it. “Catch” these foxes before they take things to the point of ruination. Eliminate them from your life before they destroy it. That is great counsel.
Do Not Arouse or Awaken Love
Finally, perhaps the greatest statement in this book full of great statements is this one:
Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.
Like “my beloved to me”, this statement is made multiple times. Three, to be exact. You can find them in 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4. In each place, the Beloved is saying this to the “Daughters of Jerusalem”, that is, women younger and less experienced than her. It is something she “charges” them to do. That word charge makes this a command, something very similar to what Paul says to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:21:
I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism.
So there is a lot of weight in this statement. And what that weight is intended to do is encourage us all not to enter into a relationship when we are not ready and/or able to maintain a relationship. The Beloved (and God) is telling us here to be careful with our hearts and the hearts of others. That counsel is perhaps even better than “catch the foxes”. It is definitely one of the main teachings of the book. It might even be the main teaching of the book.
Beauty and Truth
Song of Songs is beautiful. Are the archaic descriptions of the Beloved’s appearance strange to modern readers? Yes, they are. But the book as a whole is still beautiful. It is beautiful because of the things it says. But it is even more beautiful because those things are wise and true. God has blessed us with both beauty and truth in this book. My prayer is that we enjoy it completely.