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The most beautiful bride (Jan. 10, 2016)

Scripture passage and lesson focus: Song of Solomon 6:4-12

Any Christian who has read the Song of Solomon, which is also known as the Song of Songs, from beginning to end might very well ask: Why is this poem about the physical and psychological yearning of two lovers included in the Bible? There is no mention of God in this document. Its singular focus seems to be on erotic love.

The tradition that King Solomon was the author of this poem may have led to its inclusion in the Bible, but there is no evidence that he actually was its author. The title of this poem is probably a later addition. This poem contains only a very few veiled and ambiguous indications of when it was written or what its original historical context might have been.

Traditional Jewish interpretations viewed the Song of Solomon as an allegorical description of the relationship between God and the people of Israel. The Christian tradition has understood it as an allegory describing the love of Christ for the church. More recent Jewish and Christian scholars have offered a wide range of interpretations. Most agree that it is an artfully crafted celebration of carnal love.

Song of Solomon 6:4-7 — The bride’s beauty
Song of Solomon consists of a series of four lengthy speeches by two lovers interspersed with brief asides. Two are by the woman, who describes her beloved, and two are by the man, who also describes his beloved. Their descriptions use a variety of striking and even startling images of body parts, natural aromas and plant or animal analogies to extol the matchless beauty and strength of their lover.

In our passage for today the man describes the awesome beauty of his beloved. He likens her beauty to two well-known and legendary cities in Israel: Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom, and Tirzah, the capital of the northern kingdom for a short time. The names of these revered cities generate images of power and majesty similar to an army marching under unfurled banners. The New Revised Standard Version and the King James translations aptly describe the beloved saying that she is “terrible as an army with banners.” This tells us that his beloved is not an ordinary woman, but an awesome woman of great strength and power.

At the same time, he asks his beloved to avert her gaze because he is overwhelmed by it. Earlier he said, “You have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes” (4:9). Viewers of television commercials for certain frequently advertised male-oriented products have probably seen “that look.” Love in the ancient world was probably not much different in some respects than love in the modern world.

Turning to comparisons with scenes from pastoral contexts, the poem compares the hair and teeth of the bride to a flock of goats or ewes with lambs moving along the hillsides of a pasture. For an Israelite shepherd, such images must have constituted high praise indeed. For modern readers, they probably require a strong imagination.

Song of Solomon 6:8-12 — The bride’s perfection
The “sixty queens and eighty concubines” in verse 8 suggest a context like King Solomon’s court. 1 Kings 11:1-3 says that Solomon “loved many foreign women … Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines.” Solomon’s lifestyle incurred God’s anger, but there is no such condemnation implied in our passage. Instead, the bride is described by her paramour as “unique” (following the translation of the New International Version) and “my perfect one.”

Moreover, the beloved bride is her mother’s darling, the perfect daughter. She enjoys the praise of other women. The man asks a rhetorical question of the bride of the bride who is “fair as the moon, bright as the sun.”

The last two verses of this passage are difficult to interpret because the Hebrew text of verse 12 is “hopelessly corrupt,” according to commentator J. Cheryl Exum. The translators can offer only a conjecture.

Readers who overlook the literal erotic sense of this love poem see instead an allegory describing Christ’s love for the church. As beautiful as that love is, however, it is rooted in God’s love, not erotic human love.

For discussion
Does it shock you that the Bible contains an erotic love poem? What does this passage tell us about the love of the groom for his bride? Have you ever heard a sermon based on a passage from the Song of Solomon?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.