Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Terror of Love

With my wedding less than 6 weeks away I am excitedly working on writing vows for my beloved. Part of my preparation for this involved reviewing materials from a course I took in seminary called Theology of Romantic Love. As I re-read an exegesis of Song of Songs 5:2-6:3, I was reminded that romantic love is a fearful thing. Its intimacy requires a vulnerability that is psychologically terrifying. Yet at the same time this vulnerability is the very means to a divine-like intimacy that is characterized by the Song of Songs' mantra: I am my beloved's and my beloved's is mine. Here is some of that exegesis (if you're not up for the read, skip down to "Interpretation").

Literary Context

The pericope at hand is sectioned off fairly clearly by 5:1 and 6:4.  The preceding poem (4:9-5:1) comes to a definite conclusion by describing the man’s entrance into the woman’s “locked garden” (4:12) and his subsequent enjoyment (5:1).  5:2 then begins a new scene.  Just so, 6:4 begins a new poem and thereby marks the end of our pericope at 6:3. 

More interesting, however, is that 5:2-6:3 closely resembles another poem, perhaps even two.  The obvious parallel is found in 3:1-5 where, beginning on her bed at night, the woman ventures out to the city to search for her lost lover until she finds him. The poem recounts almost identical events (encountering the watchmen and adjuring the daughters) and seems to express a similar focus on the yearning of desire.

A weaker but nonetheless present parallel may be found in 2:8-17.  The resemblance stems from the poem’s description of the man coming to the woman and calling for her (cf. 5:2).  Despite these similarities, 5:2-6:3 is certainly a unique poem with nothing in the book quite like it.  It is beautiful and dark at the same time. As I shall expound below, I believe that it attempts to capture the ineffable paradox of intimacy (viz. sexual intercourse).   

Detailed Exegesis

For the sake of space I will not examine each verse in detail but will devote most attention to the key elements of the poem, namely verses 1-8 and 6:1-3. Also worth noting is that I am not concerned with any sort of logical explanation of this poem – for it is a poem! I will make no attempt to justify the sequence of events in the poem’s scenes.  Instead, my aim is to understand the feelings, ideas, and convictions expressed in the poem.

5:2The woman’s voice opens the poem by recounting a past occurrence (hence, I will tend to describe the poem in the past tense because I think something is lost if translated to present tense).  The woman tells that she slept yet lightly enough to hear the knock on the door and the call of the man.  Was she dreaming? Is the whole poem a dream or just a part of it?  Commentators seem to differ on this[1] but it is not central to my interpretation since I aim to consider the psychological meaning of the images.

The man’s request was for intimacy with the woman (i.e. sexual intercourse).  This is inferred by the double meaning of the man’s request (“Open to me”) and the implicit but unmentioned door, which, according to Longman is symbolic of entry into the woman’s body.[2]  That the man was dripping with dew from the night may imply further sexual innuendo but need not necessarily. What is clear is that the man had come with desire for his “perfect one.” 

5:3It is unclear who is speaking. Is it the man or the woman?  Garrett interprets this as the man’s entreaty, but he is in the minority view.[3]  If it is the woman, it is unclear whether or not she speaks to the man, to herself (as soliloquy) or perhaps to the daughters of Jerusalem found in v.8.[4]  Nevertheless, the woman’s twofold lament is clear: she was unready for the man.  That she was stripped and bathed suggests that she was prepared for sleep and not for sex.  I believe that this verse is best read as disclosing details of the scene rather than dialogue between the lovers.  Moreover, the lines express the woman’s feeling of surprise, vulnerability, and perhaps even reluctance. 

5:4The poem’s excitement increases as the woman describes how the man touched his “hand to the latch,” (RSV).  Longman translates this more intensely as “hand through the hole” and argues that this language is undoubtedly sexual.[5]  I find this convincing since the following line describes the woman’s reaction: “my heart was thrilled within me,” (RSV).  Here the Hebrew me’ah (translated “heart”) is more rightly conveying a deeper, more private, area of the body.[6]  When combined with the word hmh (translated “thrilled”), I believe it is clear that the act of the man – whatever it details – caused sexual pleasure for the woman (and probably the man as well).  These intense images portray pleasure.

5:5The pleasure described in 5:4 is enough to have roused the woman to open to her beloved.  The woman explains that she moved to the door and her hands “dripped with myrrh,” (cf. 1:13; 3:6; 4:6; 5:1).  The myrrh does not indicate anything specific but simply adds to the intensity of the sensual pleasure.

5:6In a kind of anticlimax, the woman describes the poem’s unpredictable twist: she opened to her beloved only to find him absent.  Indeed, it is even more anticlimactic for the reader since we are given no explicit reason for the man’s exit.  The woman alludes to her previous reluctance in v. 3 and comments, “My soul failed me when he spoke,” (RSV).  The NIV translates this comment as “My heart had gone out to him when he spoke.”  Both translations suggest that the reason for the man’s departure was the woman’s reluctance to answer his initial call, but, as I have noted, any attempt to make logical sense of this scene is futile.  Rather, I believe that this central stanza of the poem expresses the instantaneous vulnerability of intimacy (more below). Garrett offers an interesting and very plausible interpretation that the man’s absence is nothing more than his orgasm.[7]  The verse ends with the woman’s description of her failed attempts to “find” her beloved. 

5:7The woman now tells a traumatic scene in the city: the “watchmen” find her and beat her. As in previous passages,[8] the “city” (contrasted with the country) represents a difficult “place” to be and express love. What is significant here is not what the watchmen, city, or physical beating literally represent, but rather the feelings that they convey.[9]  The images clearly express fear and anxiety.

5:8The woman here speaks directly to another (her audience?).  She adjures the “daughters of Jerusalem” to tell her beloved (should they find him) that she is “sick with love.”  Such an intense description of the woman’s experience seems to convey the way that love and desire consumes the human psyche. 

5:9The daughters of Jerusalem fail to recognize the uniqueness of the man: “What is your beloved more than another beloved?” (RSV)  The daughters’ response expresses the distance of those outside the lovers’ intimacy (i.e. those on the “outside” cannot understand). This scene also sets up the woman’s wasf in 5:10-16.

5:10-16This is the woman’s first and only wasf in the entire book.  As such it is especially fitting for this poem because the context emphasizes the uniqueness of personal experience.  Who can describe the man? Only the woman who has been intimate with him.  There is not room to add commentary on the images of the wasf.[10]

6:1 – Again the daughters of Jerusalem inquire to the woman.  This time, however, they do not ask a “what” question but a “where.”  It seems that the woman’s wasf was sufficient to capture their attention and they too now desire to know where this exceptional man may be found.

6:2,3 The woman answers with an unexpected response.  Though previously she was “sick with love” and could not find her beloved, she now claims to know exactly where he is: “My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to pasture his flock in the gardens, and to gather lilies. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he pastures his flock among the lilies,” (RSV). That the man is in “his garden” brings to mind the explicit image of the woman’s body in the foregoing poem (4:19-5:1).  Further support is found in the woman’s clear explanation that the man is not missing but is, in fact, intimately joined to her: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The man is not lost (and never was).  Instead, the woman explains that she and she alone knows where the man described in the wasf is to be found: in the intimacies of sexual intercourse. 


As Garrett rightly notes, “All of this makes for narrative chaos if read in any literal way.”[11] The illogical drama of the poem does not recount literal events but is rather a poetic expression of the psychological experience between lovers.  More specifically, I believe that the poem expresses the paradoxical feelings of intimacy vis-à-vis sexual intercourse. As such, the poem captures the depth of love as not only a physical act, but also a psychological phenomenon.
The poem conveys three waves of emotion: 5:2-6; 5:6-9; 5:10-6:3.  The first wave expresses the lovers’ desire for one another.  The imagery is obvious and the couple takes pleasure in consummating their love.  The woman’s reluctance in v. 3 ought not be viewed as literal disinterest in her lover but rather an expression of the vulnerability that a (possibly virgin) wife might feel during the moments of sexual consummation.  Again, the poem captures the storm of emotions that are part of sexual intimacy.  Any feeling of reluctance is quickly replaced by passion and desire in verses 4-6.  The physical pleasure is not disconnected from the psychological; it is all connected.
 The second wave of emotion in 5:6-9 conveys the woman’s fear and anxiety.  Anyone who has ever been in an intimate sexual encounter understands that with the passion and pleasure of sex come the fears of exposure (cf. Gen. 3:7).  The disappearance of the man in v. 6 expresses the deepest of human fears: opening to our beloved and being rejected. The subsequent verses continue to portray the woman’s fear of losing the one with whom she has been most intimate.  Such is the power in sexual intimacy and it plays upon our psyche. Indeed, it makes the woman sick. Hence the repetitious warning: Do not awaken love!
The woman’s fears are ultimately squelched in the third wave as she remembers the nearness of her beloved.  The man is not aloof as her fears might imagine; he is actually so near that he belongs to her and she to him. This reassurance is something that only she can know because she alone has known him intimately.  Thus, the woman offers her unique description of the man in vv.10-16. Her wasf is the location of her reassurance. It is as if the wasf grounds the woman in her unique view of the man and reminds her of their intimacy.  Then she is able to “find” him: Aha! He is here with me in my garden.
I have noted throughout that I believe this poem expresses the paradoxical emotions of intimacy vis-à-vis sexual intercourse. Provan agrees in his assessment: “Love, when stirred up, will involve wonderful moments of intimacy and passion.  It will also involve moments, however, of vulnerability, insecurity, fear, and loss.”[12]  The truth of this poem is not that lovers experience such psychological paradox, though it is true.  The deeper truth, I believe, is found in the concluding line of the poem: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”  Despite the [sometimes illogical] drama of love, the two lovers belong to one another.

Theological Interpretation

Just as human love is characterized by paradox, so too is divine-human love.  I would like to posit that the picture of human love painted in this poem is an image of the divine-human relationship. As such, the love that characterizes the divine-human relationship is not agape, but eros.[13]  This love is characterized by passionate desire for one another. 
However, just as the lovers of the poem experience psychological fear and vulnerability, so too do human beings – and, I would argue, God as well. Human beings undoubtedly experience fears and vulnerability when we become intimately in love with God (e.g. Psalms 13 and 22; the Dark Night of the Soul, etc.).  I also believe that, through Jesus,[14] God knows this paradox as well; for is there a more intimate moment of love between humans and God than the Cross? (c.f. “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine”)  Paradoxically, is there a moment when the lovers are not seemingly more aloof?  Indeed, the psychological paradox of intimacy portrayed in the lovers of the Song is an image of the intimacy between our Divine Lover and the human Jesus.


Intimate love is risky business.  To apply a quote from Richard Bauckham, intimate love demands what it offers and offers what it demands.[15]  Intimate love demands the risk of exposure and vulnerability, but at the same time it offers the reward of supreme love and belonging.
After reflecting upon this poem, it seems to me that the wasf has a key role to play in the process of intimate love.  More specifically, perhaps the wasf is a crucial means for overcoming fear and finding reassurance.  As I noted above, the woman seems to find reassurance after describing her beloved.  Perhaps we too might apply this strategy when fears overtake us. There is a profound wooing that occurs when we describe our human lover for who they are.  In my own experience, the act of poetically describing my beloved helps me to see her as unique and reminds me why I love her so.
The same may be true for describing the eternal and invisible God.  As Jensen notes, “Christ on the cross…is a figure naked to the world; the church points up to him and says, My lover is like that.”[16]  In the midst of our deepest fears that the One who knows us most intimately might reject us, perhaps the wasf is a tool for overcoming fear and returning to our Lover’s Garden (cf. Gen.2:8).

A Jesus Wasf

My Beloved is the finest lover of all;
A million blazing suns could not outshine Him.
Like the whir of a warm spring rain,
His voice soothes my heart.
His hands are camel’s hair;
And His eyes like doves.
His skin is like sea glass,
Broken and bruised by waves.
His garments of purple are finer than diamonds;
The rarest of stones envy him.
His lips drip with sweet honey,
From His tongue comes heaven’s manna.
His blood is the essence of life,
His veins are the rivers of being.
He alone is my lover,
My beloved is my friend
and God.

[1] Mitchell believes 5:2-5 to be dream, 878. Provan views 5:2-7 as dream, 341.  Longman III remains ambiguous and does not deem the matter significant, 165. 
[2] Longman III, 166.
[3] Duane Garrett, World Biblical Commentary: Song of Songs, vol. 23B (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 208.
[4] Jensen, 53.
[5] Longman III, 162, 167.
[6] Longman, III 167.
[7] Garrett, 212.
[8] e.g. 1:5-6; 3:2-3
[9] Even Longman III treats this scene as dream rather than literal event, 169.
[10] For details see Garrett 202-224; Mitchell 918-944.
[11] Garrett, 224.
[12] Provan, 341.
[13] Jensen, 17.
[14] I might argue that God also knows through the Spirit with Jesus and all human beings; but in Jesus in a unique way.
[15] Trevor Hart, “Imagination for the Kingdom of God?” in Richard Bauckham, God Will Be All in All: The Eschatology of Jurgen Moltmann, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 71. 
[16] Jensen, 58. 

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