Christ the Lover: Song of Songs 3:8 – 5:1
The fifth Sunday of Lent marks the final two weeks before our celebration of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Historically, on this Lord’s Day, a liturgical shift occurs turning the focus of prayers, readings and song from our own personal fights against sin to the final days of Christ’s own struggle and passion. There is not a more fitting consideration as we turn our attentions toward these events than the love that drove Him to the cross.
“Who is this coming out of the wilderness…” (Song of Songs 3:8 – 5:1)
Apart from the overwhelming historical witness, there are a number of textual and contextual indications that point to the legitimacy of an allegorical reading. First, the name of the book is the normal superlative form in Hebrew meaning literally, ‘The Greatest Song’, reminding us of one of the most common superlative constructions, ‘The Most Holy Place’. Secondly, the vocabulary throughout the Song is architectural (e.g. 4:4, 5:15, 7:1, 7:4, 8:10). These sweet nothings present some awkwardness rhetorically that are difficult to overcome pleading for idiomatic oddity. Additionally, the recently constructed Temple fills a significant historical backdrop in Israel in general and for Solomon in particular. A third reason for considering the Song as an allegory, related to the second, are the particular ornaments, building materials and geographical references. It is difficult not to think about the temple with multiple references to cedar beams, lilies, pomegranates, palm trees, and Lebanon (compare 1 Kgs. 6-7). Lastly, the numerous prophetic references to Israel as the vineyard of God (e.g. Is. 5, Jer. 12:10, Matt. 20-21) as well as Paul’s exhortation to make the love of God for His people the standard for all earthly love (Eph. 5:25) would lead to us to consider the book in this light.
Coming Up from the Wilderness
It’s difficult to miss the historical allusion here to Israel’s own sojourn through the wilderness, particularly given what follows. Phrases like “columns of smoke”, “mighty men of Israel”, and even the reference to the “couch” of the king surrounded by an army remind us of the camp of Yahweh coming out of the wilderness (Num. 2). Apparently the portable couch finds its resting place as a palanquin or enclosed litter (v. 9). But this litter is built from the cedar of Lebanon. Thus King Solomon pictures the movement of Yahweh from the desert riding on a portable throne in the Tabernacle and coming to rest in the Temple, built from the cedars of Lebanon (1 Kgs. 5).
The beloved’s face is behind a veil (4:1, 3) which indicates that it is hidden and separated. This is what she said at the beginning of the Song as well (1:5). What are the “curtains of Solomon”? Overwhelmingly throughout the Old Testament this word for curtain refers to the curtains of the Tabernacle. While a number of the other descriptions may be obscure, describing her neck as the “tower of David” able to hold a thousand shields seems to further indicate that the beloved of the King is Israel. The references to spices, smells and in particular frankincense, remind us of the incense which was regularly offered before the Lord and often offered with sacrifices (Ex. 30:34). The phrase “honey and milk” (v. 11) is also hard to read without remembering the promises of God concerning the land of Canaan. Notice also the repetition of Lebanon. The fixation with the location (v. 8), the smell (v. 11) and the waters of Lebanon (v. 15) make best sense when considered in light of the cedar from Lebanon used to build the Temple.
A Garden Enclosed
While on the surface a “garden enclosed” could simply be referring to chastity and virginity, given all of the Temple imagery already clearly set before us, a “garden enclosed” could also simply be a reference to a house. Not just any house would fit this description, but one built of wood, decorated with palm trees, flowers and buds, one with chariots of water and an enormous pool inside of it would (1 Kgs. 6-7). And thus, not only is the Temple a garden enclosed, it is a spring shut up, a fountain sealed, a fountain of gardens, a well of living (running) waters, and streams of Lebanon (v. 12, 15). And thus to this garden, a new Eden – the Temple of Israel – the Lover comes to feast: to eat honey, to drink wine and milk, yes, to drink deeply (4:16 – 5:1).
The temptations with allegory are either to make it irrelevant (over spiritualizing) or to make the story irrelevant (under spiritualizing). This means that we must insist that the Song is about the unsurpassed love of God for His people, and because this is so, it is also all about sex. And we must not forget either one. But striving to avoid both ditches, it is necessary to consider what this means in light of the Incarnation. Perhaps one of the most striking references to the Song in the New Testament is through the phrase “daughters of Jerusalem.” (1:5, 2:7, 3:5, 3:10, 5:8, 5:16, 8:4). If there was still any doubt, Jesus speaks authoritatively, interpreting the Song as His own Song on the road to Calvary (Lk. 23:28). It is the same Lover who wooed His bride, Israel out of the wilderness and into Canaan, it is the same Lover that rejoiced over his bride’s beauty and lavished her with jewels and perfumes and praise that now walks with criminals up a stony path to be crucified.
Looking at our dying Savior in the light of The Great Song reminds us in a powerful way why we call the cross of Christ His passion. This is a challenge to every husband or would-be husband to the nobility of real love, true passion. But considering Christ as the perfect Lover, demands furthermore that we live in the grace of forgiveness.