The joy of God-given love

The Song of Solomon 2:8–13 is part of the lectionary readings for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, which is July 5th. The background for this love ballad is the romance between Solomon and his beloved bride.

According to 1 Kings 4:32, King Solomon composed 1,005 songs. Many Bible scholars assume that the Song of Songs (sometimes called the Song of Solomon) is one of these.

It seems most reasonable to accept Solomon as the God-inspired composer, especially since the title refers to Solomon by name (1:1). In fact, his name appears many times throughout the book (1:5; 3:7, 9, 11; 8:11, 12).

Admittedly, there are some who question Solomon’s authorship of the book, arguing that the real author used Solomon’s name to give prestige to his writing. They follow various lines of reasoning, such as pointing to the presence of some rare words. However, these arguments are not convincing to most conservative scholars.

As for when the book was written, those who are uncertain of Solomon’s authorship are likewise divided over when the song was composed. Yet, since it is most reasonable to accept that Solomon was the composer, the date seems just as clear: Solomon’s reign extended from about 970 to about 930 b.c.

Whereas the songs of Solomon probably covered a broad range of themes, this song is specifically about love. It portrays love’s subtlety and mystery, its beauty and pleasures, its captivation and enchantment. It reveals the romantic feelings of a woman and a man.

The Song of Solomon also portrays the power of love. In fact, in this book the power of love is shown to rival the strength of death itself. So, one of the main lessons to be learned from a study of the Song of Songs is that God intends for powerful love to be a hallmark of a marital relationship.

The Song of Songs is love poetry filled with similes and metaphors. The singers are the bride and bridegroom, the beloved and her lover. Their songs are interspersed with songs of their friends. Since God is not mentioned in the Song of Songs, we must think carefully about His place in courtship and marriage according to New Testament principles and practices.

The Song of Songs has often been taken as allegorical. In this interpretation, the lovers are viewed, not as historical figures, but as symbolic characters. Jewish interpreters who took the allegorical approach have seen the characters as representing God and Israel, while Christian interpreters have seen them as representing Jesus and the church.

Another view sees the Song of Songs as typological. In other words, the characters are accepted as historical, but their love is taken to also illustrate the love God has for His people. Christians have seen in the love relationship between the young bride and groom, the love that Jesus, the Bridegroom, has for His bride, the church.

When taken at its face value—the natural or literal interpretation—this song appears to portray an actual case of romantic love. So, in this study, we are focusing our comments on the relationship between the lover and his beloved, which is celebrated in explicit terms. Of course, this approach does not preclude the author’s use of metaphorical language, in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to delineate another.

There is no clear plot in the Song of Songs as there would be in a play or a story. Interpreters have therefore suggested several different storylines.

As already noted, this commentary takes the view that the poem shows the love between King Solomon and one of his wives. The poem contains a cluster of five meetings in which the lovers pass through courtship, their wedding, the consummation of their love in marriage, and later occasions in which they renew their love. According to this analysis of the action, there are three sources of the speeches in the poem: the bride, her attendants, and the groom.

The lines of the Song of Songs are short and rhythmical, and the language is rich in imagery and highly sensual. This narrative poem reflects the words and feelings between two people who are experiencing human, sexual love with all its pleasures and sorrows.

The vivid, expressive language of this love ballad exalts the purity of marital affection and romance. It also strongly condemns unchaste relations outside of marriage (for example, sexual experimentation before marriage).

Furthermore, the Song of Songs reminds the reader about the beauty and sanctity of sexual intimacy between a husband and wife. The book reveals that such love is characterized by sacrifice, commitment, and faithfulness.

The bride was identified as a Shulammite (6:13), a dark-skinned country girl (1:6). She was brought to the palace to become the bride of King Solomon (v. 4).

Though it is clear that the friends of the young bride called her a Shulammite, it is unclear what they meant by this distinction. The following is a list of possible meanings for that term: a reference to the bride’s birthplace, which was possibly Shunem in Galilee; her actual name; a feminine form of the name Solomon; a reference to a pagan goddess of fertility; or a name derived from a Hebrew word that means “the peaceful one.”

We have no details about the couple’s courtship. Their songs began with the Shulammite’s introduction to the court from which she celebrated the king’s love and name. Their songs fit the character and customs of an ancient Middle Eastern wedding. Brides commonly were in their teens.

It will help if we try to catch the spirit of the occasion and contemplate the intimate dialogue between the bride and bridegroom. They described their love in the colorful imagery of Solomon’s time.

In anticipation of the couple’s union, it was important for the Shulammite to recall their young love. She celebrated her lover’s physical and moral qualities.

The bride used many word pictures to describe their relationship (vv. 12–14). As a point of clarification, women wore small perfume pouches around their necks, and henna blossoms were thought to be the most beautiful flowers. As the two sang to each other, they rejoiced in the beauty that had attracted them to one another (vv. 15–17).

In chapter 2, we find the couple’s first extended conversation. We note how much freer they were to express their feelings than during their first days at the palace.

At this stage, the couple’s songs are brief. After a concise interchange (vv. 1–2), the beloved gave an extended picture of her lover (vv. 3–7). She described the pleasures she enjoyed in his presence and expressed her needs and desires.

The bride sang about the couple’s pleasant country place on a gorgeous spring day and extolled her lover’s virtues. She compared her lover to both a speedy gazelle and a powerful stag. She saw him leaping over the mountains, as it were. His youth and virility entranced her (vv. 8–9).

In this poetic imagery, we can see how the bride admired the groom’s qualities. She was not ashamed to picture him in terms that reflected her own life in the country. For instance, gazelles and stags were highly prized wild animals.

The bride remembered how her lover had first approached her dwelling. She recalled his shyness, hiding behind her wall, then sneaking up to her house and looking into the windows for her. Perhaps he had first knocked on her door, and getting no response, he had decided to look for her because he was so eager to see her (v. 9).

The bride called to mind how the bridegroom had entreated her to come away with him (v. 10). She described how he had wooed her. He had not only used words of endearment (“my darling”), but also emphasized their personal relationship (“come with me”).

The bride remembered the bridegroom’s verbal affirmations with deep appreciation. His words had attracted her, reminding us about the power of communication in building lasting love relationships.

In this case, Solomon had entreated the Shulammite with vivid imagery of the lovely spring weather (vv. 11–13). Winter was over, harsh weather was gone, and flowers were budding. Doves were cooing and fig trees were bursting with fragrant blossoms.

Is it true that in spring a young man’s fancy turns to love? That’s what the poets say, and Solomon made the most of it. The beauty of the land matched the beauty of his love.

Of course, nature by itself cannot maintain love, but often it inspires love. We have to build our love on more than flowers, birds, and trees, but God in His wisdom and love uses these things to enhance our human relationships. He lifts our hearts with the glories of His creation.

The songs continued through a variety of settings and experiences. The bride sang about her longings for her lover, and in her dream, she feared that she had lost him (chap. 3). How delighted she was when she awoke to the reality of her bridegroom’s wedding procession.

We are allowed to share the bridegroom’s song as he sings to his bride on their wedding night (chap. 4). He rhapsodized about her beauty and his passion for her.

Then we encounter the songs of the beloved’s distress because some distance has entered their relationship and she fears losing her husband (chap. 5). Yet, the lovers found each other and once again spoke about their deep affection and passion (chap. 6).

Chapter 7 reminds us of King Solomon’s statement that there is a “time to embrace” (Eccl 3:5). The couple’s words disclose how much the lover and his beloved enjoyed the deeper levels of fulfilled physical intimacy. They sang openly—without blushing—about the pleasures they found in each other, yet never in a lewd, depraved way.

The lover’s sentiments began in 6:13 and concluded with 7:9, “may your mouth be like the finest wine.” The king’s beloved responded: “May the wine go straight to my lover, flowing gently over lips and teeth.” The groom had discovered the wisdom of Proverbs 5:18: “May you rejoice in the wife of your youth.”

The bride responded to her lover’s affection and found joy in his desire for her (S. of S. 7:10). She realized that she could find satisfaction in his compassion for her.

Earlier the Shulammite had sung, “My lover is mine and I am his” (2:16), and “I am my lover’s and my lover is mine” (6:3). These subtle differences indicate mutual commitment, not domination by one party over the other. Paul later wrote, “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband” (1 Cor 7:3).

The bride loved the groom and vice versa. She acknowledged the beauty of his desire and saw nothing offensive in his approach to her.

The Shulammite invited her beloved to join her in the villages of the countryside and in the blooming vineyards (S. of S. 7:11–12). This was her metaphor for his enjoyment of her body (4:16; 6:2–3).

To this point in the ballad, the bridegroom had initiated their expressions of affection. This is the first time the bride had done so. In their growing love, the Shulammite found the security to give the king her tender invitation to enjoy her caresses.

The bride said the time for intimacy was right because evidence was also present in nature. “Mandrakes” (7:13) were ancient aphrodisiacs. The very air incited the wife to give herself to her husband. This remarkably candid and beautiful scene shows how their love had matured.

The love song of the bride and groom peaks in 8:6–7, which is among the finest portrayals of affection ever written. These verses are part of a series of short reprises leading to the ballad’s conclusion.

The bride asked her bridegroom to place her like a seal over his heart and arm (v. 6). The seal was a legal sign of ownership, being engraved in stone or metal.

The Shulammite wanted the king to openly acknowledge that she belonged to him. His heart represented his emotions and his arm stood for his strength.

The bride used powerful figures of speech to define her love. It was “strong as death” (v. 6). The Hebrew term can mean either an irresistible assailant or an immovable defense. In the words of 1 Corinthians 13:8, “Love never fails.”

Love’s “jealousy” (S. of S. 8:6) is as “unyielding as the grave.” This is jealousy in the proper sense, not the evil sense. It means her rightful claim of possession. “Death … grave” show that just as the grave does not yield the dead, so the Shulammite’s bridegroom would not give up his bride.

Love burns with such power that not even rivers of water can quench it (v. 7). No amount of money could purchase the kind of love the bride shared with her bridegroom. Neither can we buy another person’s love.

The preceding verses show how the couple’s understanding of love had matured. Their love was more than the temporal arousal of passion. Its depth superseded even the depth of their physical intimacy.

The couple’s affection would endure long after the intensity of their passions had subsided. The unquenchable flame of their love “always endures, always believes, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor 13:7).

Despite the romantic images and fantasies throughout this book, there is inherent realism. The author talked about erotic desire, meddling relatives, and the struggle to establish a relationship in the face of separation and hostility.

One learns that people live in a fallen world where even love has its pain. Despite this, one is left with the impression that love can be beautiful, as well as provide deep satisfaction and contentment.

Key ideas to contemplate

In the Song of Songs, Solomon painted a picture of true chivalry, especially as he described the manner in which the suitor approached the maiden, whom he desired to woo. Once the period of courtship was completed, friends of the bride and groom had shown their excitement and concern for the couple, and the marriage had taken place, it was time for the honeymoon.

The hectic pace that accompanies courtship and preparations for marriage these days can be physically and emotionally exhausting for any newly wedded couple. They must spend time alone, getting to know each other. They do so in the midst of God’s blessing on their lives.

Sadly, though, it seems that with each passing generation, the marriage vows become less and less significant. The soaring divorce rate reflects the lack of seriousness with which the marriage vows are taken.

In contrast, the young couple in our biblical poem are so deeply in love and consider their vows so seriously that they are convinced no amount of earthly wealth could replace it (8:7). The young woman wanted her beloved to let her be as a seal upon his heart (v. 6), as if one would affix an official seal to a document. The strength of their relationship was in their love for one another.

Whatever we think of the parallel made between the lovers of the Song of Songs and Christ and the church, we can receive the overarching applicational message of God’s love in our own lives. In this ballad, the bride called the husband to lasting love and contentment.

In the book of Revelation, the Spirit and the bride called for anyone who is thirsty to come (22:17). We are the thirsty ones, and God calls us to respond to His invitation to love Him with all our heart, mind, and soul. If we respond in faith, He will quench our thirst with everlasting life and blessings.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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