When we began to study the Song of Songs together I mentioned that some commentators propose a three-person interpretation of the book. That is, there are not two main characters in the song, but three. There’s the woman and King Solomon; and then there’s a third main character, who is a young shepherd. The woman and the shepherd love one another, but Solomon wants to take her away to his palace to be part of his harem. And therefore, she has a choice to make: will she choose a life of luxury in Solomon’s palace, where she will only be one wife among many; or will she remain in the country with her shepherd, who is not rich or famous or influential, but who loves her deeply. Which will she choose?
And today’s passage is important for that three-person interpretation, because here’s Solomon, arriving in all his royal splendour, to woo the woman with his words and to persuade her to become his.
However, others who hold to this interpretation suggest that while Solomon appears at the end of chapter 3, the words of chapter 4, which are addressed to the woman, are spoken not by Solomon, but by the shepherd. Solomon may want her for himself, but Solomon doesn’t love her the way the shepherd clearly does, because everything about her delights him.
And to complicate matters even further, another commentator suggests that the carriage which we read about in 3:9 is not really a carriage, but a bed in Solomon’s palace. According to this interpreter, the song-writer is not depicting a royal procession, but a scene in the palace as Solomon and his new wife are married.
Now, the reason I’m mentioning this is simply to make the point once again that the Song of Songs is difficult to interpret. However, it seems to me that the wisest approach is to try to keep things as simple as possible, which is why I’ve stuck with the simpler two-person interpretation. The Song is a love song about a man and a woman and the man is probably Solomon. And therefore, today’s passage depicts how the man comes to the woman and he begins to praise her.
Most of the commentators take it that verses 6 to 11 describe a royal procession. So, here’s Solomon coming from the desert. The column of smoke is probably dust from the road, but the king is perfumed with all kinds of oils and anointments and the scent fills the air. Whereas David was famous for having thirty mighty men, Solomon has twice as many men around him as body-guards. And in verses 9 and 10 the song-writer describes Solomon’s carriage, which is made of the finest timber and silver and gold. And the young women are invited to come out and to look at King Solomon who is wearing a crown for his wedding day. And so, this is a wedding procession. Nowadays everyone waits for the bride to arrive in a limousine. But in those days, they waited for the groom to arrive. And a royal groom arrives in a royal chariot to meet his new wife.
And as one of the commentators reminds us, in the first chapter the woman explained that her skin was dark because she had to work hard in the fields for her brothers. And so, what a dramatic change has taken place in her life, because her days of hard labour in the fields are over, because now she’s married to the king.
Some of the commentators point out that the mention of a desert and a column of smoke recalls the exodus when the Lord led the Israelites through the wilderness by means of a pillar of cloud and fire. At that time, God and his people entered into a covenant with one another and bound themselves to one another with a promise. And the man and woman in the Song of Songs are about to enter into a covenant with one another, binding themselves to one another with a promise.
In verses 1 to 7 of chapter 4, the man begins to praise the woman. The verses begin and end in the same way:
How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh how beautiful!
All beautiful you are, my darling;
there is no flaw in you.
And between verses 1 to 7, he praises her in seven ways. Seven, you might remember, is the perfect number. And so, by praising her seven ways, he’s saying that she is perfect.
We’re to imagine that they’re facing one another. And the first thing he notices about her is her eyes. They are like doves. Perhaps he’s referring to their shape, or perhaps her eyelids flutter like the wings of a dove. He looks away from her eyes to her hair, which reminds him of a flock of goats. It might seem a strange comparison to us, but perhaps he’s referring to the colour of her hair, or perhaps to the way it moves and falls over her head. Next he looks at her mouth and he sees her teeth, which are like a flock of sheep. Again, we might raise our eyes at the comparison, but he’s probably complimenting her by saying her teeth are white and not one of them is missing. And perhaps she smiles at him, because he now refers to her lips which are like a scarlet ribbon. Her temple, or perhaps her cheeks, are like pomegranates. And her neck is like a tower. Therefore it’s long and straight, but elegant. Presumably she’s wearing a necklace around her neck, which he compares to the shields soldiers might carry. And then he mentions her breasts which are like the twin fawns of a gazelle. That is, he compares them to young deer. At least one commentator suggests that verse 6 means he’s going to have to leave her for a time and travel to a distant mountain. However, it’s more likely he’s now comparing her breasts to mountains and he’s describing how he and she will be together. And so, he praises her and declares at the end that there is no flaw in her. She is perfect in every way.
Those commentators who suggest that the Song of Songs depicts the love of Christ for his church refer to Ephesians 5 where Paul tells us how Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish. In other words, Christ the Saviour died to make his bride perfect.
And then in verse 8 the man invites the woman to come with him. It’s not clear why he mentions places like Lebanon and so on which lay to the north of Israel. However, by mentioning lions’ dens and leopards at the end of the verse, he’s perhaps suggesting that she will always be safe with him and there will be nothing to endanger her when she’s with him.
And then he continues to praise her and to express his delight in her. She has stolen his heart with one glance of her eyes. In other words, it was love at first sight; and now he’s captivated by her. He refers to her as his sister, which seems odd to us, but apparently it was the custom in those days to refer to your wife as your sister; and it was a term of affection. When he refers to her love in verse 10, he’s probably referring to the things she does which express her love. So, it would include her kisses and caresses and the way she holds and hugs him. And these things delight him and please him more than wine or perfume. He compares her lips to honeycomb which is sweet and her mouth to milk and honey, which he tastes when they kiss. Her fragrance reminds him of Lebanon, which was famous for its forests.
And he compares her to a garden in verse 12. And it’s a locked garden, isn’t it? And that speaks to us of her virginity, because no one has had access to her until now. And, of course, the image of a garden conveys the idea of life and beauty and fruitfulness and enjoyment. We enjoy being in a garden on a summer’s day and we linger there. And he therefore enjoys being with her. And not only is she a garden, but she’s like an enclosed spring and a sealed fountain. Springs and fountains are life-giving and refreshing, but no one but this one man is allowed access. And the plants in her garden are pomegranates and choice fruits and there are spices and herbs. Everything about her delights him.
And so he describes her as a garden, which flows with milk and honey and is full of plants and trees which are good for food and pleasing to the eye. In previous weeks I said that a lot of the Song takes place in an Eden-like land. And therefore it recalls that first paradise when Adam and Eve were together and they were naked, but they knew no shame because sin had not yet come into the world to spoil God’s good creation. So, a lot of what happens in the Song takes place in an Eden-like garden. But now, the man compares the woman to an Eden-like land. Being with her is like being in paradise. And he feels at home with her, at home in God’s garden, where everything is very good.
And then, after all that he has said to her, she speaks to him in verse 16 and she invites him to come into his garden. In other words, she’s inviting him to come to her. And he responds in verse 1 and says that he has come into his garden, where everything has delighted and pleased him.
And whereas the previous two sections of the Song ended with a warning not to arouse or awaken love until it so desires, this section ends with an invitation to the man and woman to eat and to drink their fill. They are to enjoy being with one another; and they’re to feel no shame, just as Adam and Eve felt no shame in the beginning when they lived together in paradise.
And so, once again we have these connections with the Garden of Eden before the fall. And it suggests to us that the love between a husband and wife today echoes the love which existed back then before sin spoiled God’s good creation. But if what we read here echoes the Garden of Eden, it’s a distant echo, because life is not like this now and every relationship is spoiled because of sin. Instead of praising one another, we point out each other’s faults. Instead of rejoicing in one another, we criticise one another. Instead of speaking kindly to one another, we say things which are hurtful. Instead of building one another up, we tear one another down.
But thanks be to God who loved us and who sent his Son to save us and to deliver us from our sin and misery and to fill us with the hope of a new and better life to come, where there will be no more sin; and everything will be perfect and we will love the Lord our God as we should. And so, what we read here makes us miss what we once had in the beginning and it makes us yearn for what we will have in the end, when we’ll come into the new and better world to come.
And thanks be to God because we know that though we are guilty sinners and full of flaws and blemishes, who should be sent out of the presence of our God, nevertheless we are justified through faith in God’s Son. In other words, we are pardoned by God for all what we have done wrong and we are accepted as righteous in God’s sight. And that means we are covered over in Christ’s perfect righteousness. We are covered with the perfect goodness of our Saviour, so that our sins and flaws and blemishes are covered over by Christ’s perfect goodness.
And that means that, like the woman in the Song who could come into the presence of the king with confidence, because everything about her was perfect, so we may come with confidence into the presence of our God and Saviour in the life to come. He won’t drive us away. He won’t throw us out. But we’ll be able to come into his presence and be with him forever, because he has cleansed us and made us spotless by his blood.