PRAISE FOR YOUR BRIDE’S FLAWLESS BEAUTY OPENS THE DOOR FOR CELEBRATING THE SENSUALITY AND EXHILARATION OF INTIMACY
Duane Garrett / Paul House: Together, the four stanzas present the bridegroom alternatively praising the bride and declaring her to be inaccessible to him. The obvious point is that he cannot have her until she voluntarily yields to him; it is a decision she must make.
α The pleasures of the bride: her beauty (vv 1–6 [“my companion”])
β The inaccessible pleasure: the bride as mountain goddess (v 7–8 [“bride”])
α´ The pleasures of the bride: her affection (vv 9–11 [“my sister, (my) bride”])
β´ The inaccessible pleasure: the bride as locked garden (vv 12–15 [“my sister, (my) bride”])
Dennis Kinlaw: The bride has now come to the groom. The time for consummation has arrived. The bride in biblical fashion is veiled (v. 1; cf. Gen 24:65; 29:23-25; 38:14). But her lover is now free to enjoy her physical charms. The result is an erotic physical inventory of the details of her beauty. The description of her is given in metaphors that may seem alien to moderns. But, even then, the power of this bit of love poetry is moving. Her sense of modesty is protected (vv. 1, 3). His freedom is uninhibited. She is his, and what he sees is perfection (v. 7). To him there is no flaw in her.
Sierd Woudstra: Chapter 4 is a song praising the exquisite beauty of the bride, in imagery best understood and appreciated by the Oriental mind.
I. (:1-7) FOREPLAY FOR BIBLICAL SEX (INTIMACY) IS PRAISE FOR YOUR BRIDE’S FLAWLESS BEAUTY
Trevor Longman: The reason why we treat 4:1–7 separately is that it comprises a form critical unit, which has been called a waṣf in recent years. Waṣf is an Arabic term, which simply means description, and its application to biblical scholarship originated with the research of J. G. Wetzstein in the nineteenth century. Wetzstein was not a biblical scholar, but rather a German diplomat living in Syria at this time. As he attended local weddings, he noted similarities between the customs and songs of the day and what he read in the Song of Songs. In correspondence with the eminent biblical scholar Franz Delitzsch, he talked about songs where the groom and the bride would describe one another’s physical beauty as a prelude to lovemaking. Delitzsch published excerpts of his personal correspondence with Wetzstein in an appendix in his commentary. Since this time, other more ancient analogies to these descriptive songs have been discovered and described, but they have nonetheless retained the name waṣf in the literature.
Song of Songs 4:1–7 is simply the first of four waṣfs in the Song. The others are found at 5:10–16; 6:4–6; 7:2–8. . . All except 7:2–8 follows the pattern of starting at the head and working down the body. The descriptions all stop with the object of the speaker’s sensuous attention. In the case of 4:1–7 that would be the woman’s breasts. If we allow that verses 10–14 continue the waṣf, then it is the woman’s vagina. In either case, it is clear that this poem is a prelude to lovemaking.
A. (:1a) Opening Summary Praise of Bride’s Beauty
“How beautiful you are, my darling,
How beautiful you are!”
Tom Gledhill: The poem itself is framed by two similar exclamations of praise: How beautiful (4:1); All beautiful you are (4:7). This is how he feels about his beautiful girl, and then he proceeds to the specific aspects of her beauty.
Daniel Akin: Time and tenderness are essential twins for a sexually and romantically attractive bedroom. Here we see that slow, romantic foreplay is underway. He praises her specifically and in detail for everything he sees. He gives before receiving. He is as much concerned, if not more so, for her pleasure and satisfaction than he is for his own. He is loving her as Christ has loved us (Eph 5:25ff).
B. (:1b-5) Specific Body Parts Praised by Creative Metaphors
1. (:1b) Eyes
“Your eyes are like doves behind your veil;”
Iain Duguid: The descriptive poem (sometimes called a waṣf) begins with her dove-like eyes. Like many of the other images in the poem, this metaphor is full of motion, as doves flutter about from branch to branch. It also communicates shyness and inaccessibility, since doves are often observed hidden in the clefts of the rock (see 2:14). Here, used in conjunction with her veil, the focus is on the latter attribute.
2. (:1c) Hair
“Your hair is like a flock of goats
That have descended from Mount Gilead.”
Iain Duguid: The image is one of shimmering motion and life
3. (:2) Teeth
“Your teeth are like a flock of newly shorn ewes
Which have come up from their washing,
All of which bear twins,
And not one among them has lost her young.”
Iain Duguid: symmetrical perfection of form
Duane Garrett / Paul House: The woman has all of her teeth! This may seem like a rather droll bit of praise to the modern, Western reader, but we live in an age of highly sophisticated dentistry and orthodontics. Until very recently, a beautiful, healthy smile with no missing teeth was hardly something people could take for granted. The fact that the teeth are like shorn lambs that come up from washing obviously implies that they are clean and white.
Trevor Longman: In a word, dental hygiene was nothing like it is today. To be banal about it, the verse basically has the man saying to the woman, “Your teeth are white, and you even have all of them!” although the flattery is delivered with more of a flourish than that.
4. (:3a) Lips
“Your lips are like a scarlet thread,
And your mouth is lovely.”
Duane Garrett / Paul House: The obvious visual link between the metaphor and the lips is the color red, a feature still regarded as attractive for women’s lips in many cultures. For the reader of the biblical canon, it is noteworthy that the phrase “scarlet thread,” is precisely the same as that used to describe the “scarlet thread” by which Rahab signaled to the Israelites which house was hers (Josh 2:18). Is it coincidence that Rahab, a prostitute, had such an item readily available in her home? Possibly; but a scarlet thread may have had some kind of sexual significance and thus have been a kind of trademark for prostitutes. Keel ( 143) suggests that a prostitute would have attached the red cord to her door as a symbol of her profession. If so, the red cord may not have of itself signaled prostitution; it could have been a symbol for love (like the “heart” shape today) that was co-opted by prostitution. In any case, the point may be that the man sees her lips as an invitation to love.
Trevor Longman: The reference might be to the natural color of the woman’s lips but could refer to the fact that they are artificially colored in a way analogous to modern lipstick.
However, in the context of a love poem, the intention of the compliment is obvious. She has lovely lips; he desires to kiss them. Indeed, her mouth is desirable; he would like to possess it.
5. (:3b) Temples
“Your temples are like a slice of a pomegranate
Behind your veil.”
Iain Duguid: on account of their many seeds, pomegranates were associated with fertility, a theme never too far below the surface of this poem. The word for mouth (midbār) is unusual, focusing on the mouth as the organ of speech: it is not merely the appearance of her mouth that is lovely, but the use to which she puts it.
6. (:4) Neck
“Your neck is like the tower of David
Built with rows of stones,
On which are hung a thousand shields,
All the round shields of the mighty men.”
Iain Duguid: it seems likely that this is an image of strength and confidence. She carries herself with a regal bearing. Her neck is also like the tower of David in its adornment: the decorative stonework and two different kinds of shields hung about the tower suggest a comparison to the woman’s multi-layered necklaces which the man admired in 1:10, though the language is admittedly obscure. The choice of such military imagery is an interesting one: it depicts her as a fortified city, impervious to assault (Walsh 2000: 97), just as she will later be described as a locked garden and a sealed fountain (v. 12) and as a city wall, defended with towers (8:10). Clearly, she is no easy conquest for any man who comes along; she has followed her own counsel not to stir up love too soon (2:7; 3:5).
Duane Garrett / Paul House: Applied to walls and towers, this language connotes impregnability. The man’s adoration of the woman arises in part from the fact that he cannot take her at will. He speaks tenderly to her, hoping that she will give him willingly what he cannot take by force. Furthermore, his words imply respect for how she deports herself and possesses her beauty. She is not weak in her beauty but strong.
7. (:5) Breasts
“Your two breasts are like two fawns,
Twins of a gazelle,
Which feed among the lilies.”
Duane Garrett / Paul House: the juxtaposition of lotuses and fawns is significant. Both connote beauty, sexuality, and life. The woman can compare the man’s lips to lotuses (Song 5:13) and call herself a lotus (Song 2:1). For the man, her breasts are a focal point of her sexuality.
Tom Gledhill: They are graceful, sprightly and playful. Their texture and softness are invitations to caressing and fondling.
Richard Hess: The emphasis again is upon life and fertility. Pope observes how the biblical texts can identify the breasts as givers of milk and life (Isa. 28:9; Joel 2:16; Ps. 22:10 [22:9 Eng.]; Job 3:12), as well as objects that sexually attract (Ezek. 16:7; 23:3, 21; Hosea 2:4 [2:2 Eng.]). They represent the part of the female that, in the eyes of her lover, combine beauty and grace with fertility and youth. The twin fawns enhance this image with a picture of perfect balance between the two as well as a doubling of all these characteristics.
Trevor Longman: They are grazing among the lilies. Are we to picture them from the rear then? That is, as they stick their heads into the sweet smell of the flowers, their rounded rumps with their small tails may remind the poet of breasts with their protruding nipples. Perhaps we carry the image too far, but then again there are no formulas for knowing when to stop.
C. (:6) Sexual Desire Expressed
“Until the cool of the day
When the shadows flee away,
I will go my way to the mountain of myrrh
And to the hill of frankincense.”
Duane Garrett / Paul House: Having described her breasts, the man abruptly breaks off from the description and declares his intentions. He is determined to get himself to “Myrrh Mountain” and “Incense Hill,” and the meaning of his words is hardly obscure: the two hills are obviously her breasts.
Richard Hess: It is as though the male, having joyfully praised one part of his lover’s body after another, reaches the breasts and can go no farther. A torrent of sensual images and passions come cascading down upon him as he determines in his mind to spend the night with her and to realize the love that he has imagined. Altogether overcome, he expresses a collection of images selected from earlier expressions of love by his partner and himself. The overpowering aromas of the spices betray a fever pitch of excitement in his own heart as he thinks only of his lover.
D. (:7) Closing Summary Praise of Bride’s Beauty
“You are altogether beautiful, my darling,
And there is no blemish in you.”
Richard Hess: The summary of v. 7 frames its comments with two second-person feminine pronominal suffixes on the first and last words, “All of you/in you.” There is no verb in this verse, unlike all the others. Instead, there are two designations that surround the term of endearment. The whole produces a chiasm:
All of you
There is not a blemish
Iain Duguid: Having described the perfect number (seven) of perfect body parts, it is not surprising that the man concludes his description by saying, You are altogether beautiful, my love. Not only are the woman’s concerns about her own appearance in 1:5 swept away at a stroke, but when he adds, there is no flaw in you, he widens the statement. To be without flaw sometimes refers to physical appearance, as in the case of Absalom (2 Sam. 14:25), but it can also refer to moral and intellectual capacity as well (see Dan. 1:4). She is not just physically attractive, but altogether beautiful in his eyes. The man’s joy in his bride on their wedding day is comparable to the Lord’s delight in his original creation when he declared of all that he had made that it was ‘very good’ (Gen. 1:31).
Tom Gledhill: But the mysterious combination of the correct proportions that makes for true beauty defies all detached description. We can only stop and gaze in awe, and know that it is so. Alexander Pope has written:
“Tis not a lip or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.”
(:8) HINGE – SUMMONS TO JOIN HIM – BIBLICAL SEX IS BY INVITATION ONLY WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF MARRIAGE
“Come with me from Lebanon, my bride,
May you come with me from Lebanon.
Journey down from the summit of Amana,
From the summit of Senir and Hermon,
From the dens of lions,
From the mountains of leopards.”
Richard Hess: His invitation to his bride then turns into a call to come away from the impregnable heights and to join him. . . Verse 8 forms a “hinge” between what has preceded and what follows. . . The connections of v. 8 guarantee that the waṣf of the first half of this chapter will not be separated from the garden imagery of the second half.
Trevor Longman: The distant, dangerous location signifies her present distance from the man. He wants her to join him in a place of safety, namely, his embrace. The emphasis of the verse is on the with me.
Duane Garrett / Paul House: The point of the text is that she is wonderful, powerful (in her sexuality), and inaccessible. . . Once again, the virginity of the woman asserts itself and sets her far beyond his reach. She will be his only if she chooses to come down from her mountain lair. . .
Furthermore, we need to account for the surprising cluster of uses of the term “bride,” here and only here. As suggested above, this canto depicts a bridegroom calling his new bride on their wedding night to their first union. He tenderly woos her, in effect seducing her rather than simply claiming his right as husband to her body. Even so, he repeatedly calls her “bride” in this context to gently remind her that she has entered this relationship with him, and that a bride is not truly a bride until she has consummated her marriage. Calling her “bride” is not simply demanding sex from her on the grounds that she is now his wife, but it is a tender reminder of the nature of their relationship. Five times in a row addressing her by this epithet, he declares how beautiful and delightful she is to him while yet speaking of her as a goddess on a mountain (Song 4:8) or a locked up garden (Song 4:12). The point is that to truly be a bride she must descend to him and open her garden to him. Finally in Song 5:1, at the celebration of their sexual union (as I interpret it), he calls her “bride” for the last time. From that point forward, she is no longer a bride but a wife.
II. (:9-15) BIBLICAL SEX IS SENSUOUS, EXOTIC AND EXHILARATING
A. (:9-11) Your Love Must be Celebrated
1. (:9) Your Love is Alluring and Exciting — You Drive Me Crazy
“You have made my heart beat faster, my sister, my bride;
You have made my heart beat faster with a single glance of your eyes, With a single strand of your necklace.”
Trevor Longman: Here, the focus is on the emotions, and the word refers to the man’s excited emotional state as he thinks of the woman. A more colloquial translation of the verb would be “you drive me crazy!”
Duane Garrett / Paul House: “Sister” — The term here does not mean that she is literally his sister. Still, we must ask why the Song would use a love term that seems to imply incestuous love (cf. Lev 18:9). The significance of the term as an affectionate expression of licit love is not unrelated to its literal meaning. A brother and sister are members of the same family and household. As close relatives, the emotional bond between them is very strong. In an ancient Israelite family, to be sure, kinship and its duties were not taken lightly. In calling her his “sister,” the man implies that they have become one family. The canonical analogue is Adam’s declaration that the woman was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh (Gen 2:23). In Wisdom literature, by contrast, the prostitute or adulteress is the “foreign woman” or “stranger” (e.g. Prov 2:16; 5:20; 6:24; 7:5). In calling her sister, he declares that the two of them are bound as by having common flesh and blood.
Richard Hess: The eyes represent to the male the most alluring part of the female’s body. They are what one looks at first, and they increase the value and beauty of the whole of the female.
Tom Gledhill: Our lover has been smitten by his girl. The words translated by the NIV as ‘You have stolen my heart’ constitute one word in Hebrew. The verbal form is derived from the noun for heart, and can mean either, ‘You have captured or taken away my heart’ or else, ‘You have inflamed, aroused, excited my heart.’ It is a rare form in the Hebrew, and can most likely bear both meanings. Whilst in the majority of Old Testament usages the heart is the seat of the mind, the will, or the conscience, or more generally the person himself, in this particular case his heart is more evidently the seat of his emotions. Our lover is completely bowled over. One glance is enough to slay him, one sparkling shaft reflected from her jewels, is sufficient to render him helplessly in love. He is a captive. He cannot help himself. He has been remorselessly drawn to her. His thought process cannot explain it, his love is in a sense irrational. He has been rendered weak and feeble by her beauty, overpowered by her loveliness, yet aroused and made strong by his every thought of her. But it is not mere thoughts that arouse him. Her caresses (dôdîm), her stroking and embracing are more intoxicating than any wine. Her perfume is heady and sends him reeling. Sight, touch and smell–all these work their magnetic power on her beloved.
2. (:10-11) Your Love is Sensuous and Exhilarating
“How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride!
How much better is your love than wine,
And the fragrance of your oils Than all kinds of spices!
Your lips, my bride, drip honey;
Honey and milk are under your tongue,
And the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.”
Iain Duguid: As in the beginning of the Song, desire seeks the fulfilment of a kiss, but now the tables have been turned. Verses 10–11 closely mirror 1:2–3, only now the sentiments originally spoken by the woman are found on the man’s lips. Like her appearance (4:1), the woman’s caresses are desirable, better than wine. The meaning of the metaphor in the opening chapter is now illuminated and enhanced by the intervening comparison of her body to a vineyard that is in blossom (1:6; 2:13): we now discover that wine is not merely a random symbol for the sweetness of a kiss, but rather represents the appropriate product of vineyards that have been harvested at the right time, not when they are in blossom but when their fruit is fully ripe. Now, on their wedding day, the couple’s love is fully mature, like a fine wine, ready to be consummated.
Fragrance and taste go back and forth as the dominant sense in the poem: the taste of the woman’s lips combines with the scent of her oils to form a heady concoction.
Duane Garrett / Paul House: This strophe opens with a recapitulation of the praise of her body but moves into a celebration of the joys of receiving affection from her. The metaphors here relate to sensations rather than to physical objects. Wine, perfume, balsam, honey, and milk all connote not the items themselves but their tastes and smells. Also, metaphors that are liquids rather than solids (such as towers, mountains, goats, or sheep) more readily lend themselves to the celebration of an action—her lovemaking—rather than to the praise of her physical body.
Richard Hess: The tenth verse provides an enthusiastic assessment of the lover’s lovemaking. This central expression of physical love is assessed and pronounced both “delightful” and “better” than wine.
Daniel Akin: Verse 11 moves us into even greater sensual and romantic territory. Her lips, he says, “drip sweetness like the honeycomb,” and “honey and milk are under your tongue.” The idea that a particular kind of kissing began in France is put to rest by this verse! Deep, wet, sweet, and passionate kissing is at least as old as this Song. Canaan was a land of milk and honey (cf. Exod 3:8). It was a land of promise, joy, blessing, and satisfaction that God graciously provided for the nation of Israel following her enslavement in Egypt. It was a land of sweetness to a people who had been enslaved for more than four hundred years. Solomon found immeasurable joy in the deep, long, and intimate kisses of his bride. He could, as we say today, “just eat her up!”
Tom Gledhill: The girl’s garments also add to her allure. Probably they refer to her undergarments or her négligé. The word used is the same as that describing the covering of the wedding bed on which the ‘tokens of virginity’ were found. So there is the possibility of some erotic connotation here. The delicacy and flimsiness of female underwear, sprayed with scent, has an undoubted erotic appeal.
B. (:12) Your Virginity Must be Protected
“A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
A rock garden locked, a spring sealed up.”
Duane Garrett / Paul House: In this verse the notable feature of the metaphor is that she is a “locked” garden and “sealed” fountain. The point is not that she is locked to all others but open to him. Rather, it is that she is as of yet still virginal and out of even his reach. Like the prior metaphor of the goddess on a mountain, this strophe presents her as inaccessible. He appeals to her to open herself to him.
Richard Hess: The locked garden provides an image of the female, whose physical love is not open to anyone. It thus continues the image of inaccessibility exemplified by the mountains of v. 8. However, as the verses continue, it becomes clear that the male does visit the garden and knows of the fruits and beauties found in it.
Trevor Longman: The next three verses will describe the woman as a garden and a fountain. In the ancient Near East and elsewhere in the Bible (Prov. 5:15–20), these are highly erotic images. The images of fountain and garden probably are to be visualized together since a garden would need a water supply. The focus may well be on the ultimate place in the act of lovemaking, the woman’s vagina. Two of the images are in the present verse, garden and fountain. She is not a garden or fountain open to every passer-by; she is rather a locked garden, a sealed fountain. These images describe her inaccessibility. However, as we will see soon, she will open up her treasures to the man who will enter her garden (“enter” often has the overtones of sexual intercourse). With the image of sealing and locking, we would be hard pressed to miss the idea of virginity (at least up to now).
C. (:13-15) Your Love is Exotic and Revitalizing
1. (:13-14) Your Love is Exotic and Fragrant
“Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates
With choice fruits,
henna with nard plants,
Nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
With all the trees of frankincense, Myrrh and aloes,
along with all the finest spices.”
Duane Garrett / Paul House: In short, the phrase “your growth [shoots]” does not refer to any parts of the woman’s body. Rather, it refers to the variety of plants found in her “garden,” a metaphor for the pleasures of her lovemaking. This verse does not catalog parts of her anatomy under the metaphor of plants; still less does it focus on her vagina. It uses an assortment of aromatic plants to communicate the idea that her love gives manifold and diverse pleasures. Her affection is to him an Eden (“paradise”), a garden-park with every kind of exotic, delicious, and wonderful kind of plant. Loving her could never be boring.
Trevor Longman: perhaps the shoots refer to her pubic hair. . .
– Saffron (karkōm): a type of crocus that has purple flowers and produces an oil that gives a sweet, spicy, floral scent. The flower is native to western Asia, Asia Minor, and the eastern Mediterranean. The word is from Sanskrit.
– Calamus (qāneh): literally, the “cane,” but in this context it is likely a reference to sweet cane oil, which has a warm, woody, spicy odor.
– Cinnamon (qinnāmōn): refers to the aromatic bark of any of a number of trees. The English word is derived from the Hebrew via the Greek, although the substance comes from the far East, Ceylon, or India. In the Hebrew Bible we find it used in the oil of anointing (Exod. 30:27) and in the bed of the adulteress (Prov. 7:17).
– Incense tree (ʿaṣê lebônâ): a word that does not denote a certain kind of tree but rather a type of sweet-smelling tree.
– Myrrh (mōr): as defined in 1:13, an aromatic gum from the bark of the Bulsamadendron tree from Arabia, Abysinnia, and India. The word also occurs in Song of Songs 1:13; 3:6; 4:6; 5:5, 13).
– Aloes (ʾăhālôt): a fragrant wood of an east Indian tree.
– Spices (bōśem): or perhaps “perfumes” in this context; see 4:10.
2. (:15) Your Love is Active and Revitalizing
“You are a garden spring,
A well of fresh water,
And streams flowing from Lebanon.”