Last week I went over again some of the challenges we face when trying to interpret this book of the Bible. And then we spent the rest of the time on the first part of this song. The woman described for us how she longed for the man, because his love is more delightful to her than wine. She was dark, because the sun had tanned her skin. And yet, he was captivated by her beauty. ‘How beautiful you are’, my darling, he said. And she replied: ‘How handsome you are, my lover!’ ‘I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys’, she said. ‘You’re like a lily among thorns’, he replies. You’re like an apple tree to me, she says. I love to sit in your shade and everything about you is pleasant to me. And she described how his left arm was under her head and his right arm embraced her. They held one another, because they love one another.
This is the Song of Songs, the best song, the superlative song. And it’s a song of love, which recalls life in the Garden of Eden before the fall, before Adam and Eve had sinned; and when they were both naked and felt no shame; and there was nothing to spoil their life together. And it anticipates the life to come, when sin will be no more and when we will live together in perfect peace and rest in the company of Christ our Saviour who loved us and gave up his life for us.
Today we’re studying the second part of the Song, which begins at verse 8 of chapter 2 and which ends at verse 5 of chapter 3 where the woman once again warns the maidens with her not to arouse or awaken love until it so desires. Don’t rush it. Don’t force it. Let it come in its own time.
And this part of the Song begins in verse 8 with the woman saying: ‘Listen!’ She hears a noise. What could it be? We can imagine her, sitting upright, trying to figure out what that sound means. And then she realises: it’s her lover. And she looks out and look! There he is. He’s coming to her.
In the first part of the Song, he compared her to a mare. She now compares him to a gazelle or a young stag. And like a gazelle, like a young stag, he comes bounding over the mountains and hills. He’s running and leaping and springing over the countryside in order to be with her once again. And then he’s right outside her house, because there’s only a wall between them. And he’s looking through the window, searching for a view of her. But he’s not a peeping-Tom. He’s not a voyeur. He’s not stalking her. His gaze is not unwelcome, because she’s as thrilled to see him as he is to see her.
And then he calls to her in verse 10. And so, in the verses which follow, she’s telling us what he said to her. And what did he say? He summoned her:
Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, and come with me.
He’s saying to her: ‘Come away with me.’ And if you glance down to verse 13, you’ll see he repeats the same summons:
Arise, come, my darling,
my beautiful one, come with me.
And between those two summons he tells her that the winter is past. The rains have stopped. The clouds have gone. Wintertime is damp and cold and miserable. The trees and plants are bare. Nothing is growing. It’s a lifeless time. But now, the spring has come. And it’s a time of life and happiness. Flowers appear on the earth, he says in verse 12. The season of singing has come, because the cooing of doves is heard throughout the land. The birds are singing in the trees. And no doubt people are singing too, as they go out into the fields, into the sunshine, to see and to smell the flowers. And they sing for joy, because the earth is transformed by spring. And look: the fig tree is beginning to bear fruit. And the vines are blossoming and they’re spreading their fragrance.
And so, the woman is in her house. But the man has come and he’s beckoning her to come outside with him and to walk through what? Through this Eden-like land, where the trees and plants are pleasing to the eye and good for food.
And there, in that Eden-like land, he once again speaks of his love for her. He describes her as ‘his dove’. Well, couples will sometimes have pet names for one another. And this man’s pet name for his beloved is ‘my dove’. And presumably she’s still in the house; and so it seems to him that she’s hiding from him. And so, he says she’s a dove who is perched in a cleft of the rock on the mountainside. Show me your face, he says. Let me hear your voice, because the sound of your voice is sweet to me. Sometimes we meet someone and we can’t stand the sound of their voice. Or someone speaks only to criticise us or to complain or to nag. But this woman’s voice is sweet to the man. He wants to hear it. And he wants to see her, because her face is lovely to him.
It’s not entirely clear who says the word of verse 15, but whoever is speaking warns that they need to catch the foxes that ruin the vineyards. Now, this is a song. It’s a poem. And so, it uses images and pictures and metaphors which need to be interpreted. And so, the foxes which ruin the vineyards probably refer to the things that can ruin a relationship. And so, they need to watch out for those things and catch them and get rid of them before they have a chance to spoil their love for one another.
And they have to watch out for those things, because nothing must spoil their relationship, because they belong together. He is mine. And I am his. When a couple are married in church, they promise to take each other. I take you to be my wedding wife. I take you to be my wedded husband. They take each other, to have and to hold, from the day of their wedding until the end of their lives. They belong together. And the woman in the song is saying that she and the man belong together.
And earlier she described him as an apple tree and his fruit was sweet to his taste. In other words, she delighted in him and everything about him was pleasant to her. And the same idea is conveyed now in verse 16 by this image of browsing among the lilies, which picks up on the idea from verse 9 that he’s like gazelle or stag and the idea from verse 2 that she’s a lily among thorns. He is satisfied by her and delights in her. And in verse 17, she compares him to a gazelle or stag who is on the rugged hills. And it’s possible that in this image, she’s the rugged hills. And so, she’s inviting him to stay with her.
And as we turn to verse 1 of chapter 3, we need to remember again that this is a song, a poem. It’s not a narrative, with one thing happening after another in chronological order. It can jump around. So, one moment, she’s in her house and he’s coming over the hills to see her and to invite her to come away with him and to walk through the countryside. And the next moment, she’s in bed in a house which is in the city.
And so, in verse 1, she’s in her bed. And all night long she looked for him, but she could not find him. So, she decides to get up and go out into the streets of the city to look for him. But still, she could not find him. The watchmen found her as they made their rounds of the city. And so she asked them whether they have seen the one her heart loves. They apparently were unable to help. But scarcely had she passed them, when she found the one her heart loves. And having found him, she held him and would not let him go. She did not want to lose him again. And she brought him to her mother’s house. The significance of her mother’s house is not clear, though some commentators suggest that visiting the bride’s house may have been part of the marriage ceremony in those days. Others suggest that this shows the couple had the approval of her family for their relationship. Others suggest that her mother’s house conveys the idea of a place of safety and security. But it’s not clear.
And this part of the song ends with the warning to the maidens not to hurry love, but to wait for it.
I’ve said before that some commentators interpret the Song typologically. That is, it speaks to us of the relationship between Christ and the church, which is his bride. And therefore, this passage speaks to us of how our relationship with the Lord can be broken. At the beginning of this part of the Song, the man and the woman are apart from each other. And then, she describes this restless night when she could not find him and went out to search for him. And there’s the reference to the foxes which can ruin the vineyard. And so, there are things which happen in our life which can spoil our relationship to the Lord. He seems far away from us. Though we look for him, we cannot find him. Our communion with the Lord is spoilt because of our sins which we need to confess and turn from. And the good news is that though the Lord may seem distant from us, nevertheless he will come to us again, as a gazelle bounds over the hills, to summon us to come away with him again. Leave behind your sins. And come away with me again.
And all of that is true, isn’t it? Our church’s Confession of Faith has a chapter on the perseverance of the saints, which makes the point that God’s people can fall into serious sins and may continue in them for a time. And so, we incur his displeasure and we grieve his Spirit and we lose some measure of our graces and comforts and bring temporal punishments on ourselves. In other words, our relationship to the Lord is broken. And then, in the next chapter of the Confession, which is on the assurance of grace and salvation, it makes the point that true believers may have their assurance of salvation shaken or diminished or temporarily absent. This may happen for various reasons. But for a time, we can walk in darkness with no light, because our sense of God’s presence with us has been removed for a time. And so, our communion with the Lord can be broken. But the good news is that it is only for a time and it’s not permanent. He will come to us again and we will once again sense his presence and his pleasure. So, those things are true. But I’m not convinced that’s what this passage is about.
Those who give the Song a natural interpretation — saying that it’s about human love and human love alone — will focus on verse 15 and the warning about catching the foxes. So, men and women need to watch out for those little things that can spoil our relationships. It might be another person. It might be some sinful habit we have or a sinful attitude or desire. Whatever it is, we need to catch it before it does permanent harm. And that too is true and we would be wise to watch out for such things.
However, it seems to me that we need to pay attention to the garden imagery. The woman is in her house. The man comes and invites her to come with him into this Eden-like land, where the tree and plants are pleasing to the eye and good for food. And there, in that Eden-like land, they celebrate their love for one another. And therefore it recalls the Garden of Eden, where everything was once very good and where Adam and Eve were naked and felt no shame and there was nothing to spoil their love for one another.
But then something came into the garden to spoil their paradise. It was not a fox, but a serpent. And he ruined, not only their relationship, but the whole of creation. And every relationship since then has been spoiled by sin; and none of us loves one another the way we should. We hide from one another because we’re ashamed of ourselves. We hide from one another because we’re afraid. Someone’s voice gets on our nerves or makes us afraid. Marriages break up and those who once promised to love one another always end up hating each other.
And yet the Lord our God did not leave us in our sin and misery, but he sent his only Son into the world to deliver us from our sin and misery and to give us the hope of everlasting life in a new and better world to come. And the new and better world to come is compared to a garden, isn’t it? In the new heavens and earth, there’s the river of life and there’s the Tree of Life and its leaves are for the healing of the nations. But in the new heavens and earth, there’s also a city, isn’t there? The new Jerusalem, where all of God’s people who make up the church will live in perfect peace and rest. And there will be no night. And we’ll never be separated from the Lord Jesus, who is our Bridegroom.
And so, as we read the Song of Songs, the best song, the superlative song, about this man and woman who loved one another deeply, it speaks to us of what we lost and it speaks to us of what we can look forward to in that new and better world to come, where we won’t be married, but we won’t be single, because all of God’s people who make up the church, his bride, will be with our Saviour forever and forever.
And as we look forward to that new beginning, we can give thanks to the Lord because in his mercy he allows us to experience love even in this fallen world, in our families and with our friends; in our marriages and in the church. And so, we can give thanks to him. And we can look to him for the help we need to love another as we should.