Bible Commentary: Song of Solomon 7:11–8:4

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Song of Solomon 7:11–8:4

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"Come, My Beloved, Let Us Go Forth to the Field"

In this short unit the woman invites her beloved to join her in a trip into the countryside in the bloom of springtime. (That she is speaking is clear from the wording.) In the symmetrical arrangement of the Song, as explained by Dr. Craig Glickman in Solomon's Song of Love, this sixth major section of the Song (second to last) is parallel to the second major section (Song of Solomon 2:8-17), in which the man asked the woman to come away with him into the country in springtime. Thus there is a reversal of roles in her now taking the initiative to lead their love to a new level. Interestingly, the refrain of mutual possession was part of the conclusion of the former section (Song of Solomon 2:16)—expressing the total commitment of the couple—and its order reversed within the reconciliation of the previous unit (Song of Solomon 6:3). Now a changed form of that refrain in Song of Solomon 7:10, emphasizing desire, occurs right before the present unit as a transition into it (or right at the beginning of it according to Glickman). Some see the present unit as progressing further toward the sexual intimacy the lovers sought at the end of the former unit. Others, however, believe sexual union was achieved in the former unit—but that now the woman is seeking to deepen their love and intimacy.

Shepherd-hypothesis advocates, believing Song of Solomon 7:9-10 is the Shulamite's rejection of Solomon's unwanted advances, take the current unit as her then addressing her true love and purposing to return with him to her childhood home (given the reference to her mother's house in Song of Solomon 8:2). How he is suddenly present in this view is unclear (perhaps she has sought him out without any description). Some deem him still absent. Commentator Franz Delitzsch decries this view, and the three-character drama generally, quite sternly: "The advocate of the shepherd-hypothesis thinks that the faithful Shulamith, after hearing Solomon's panegyric [or elaborate praise, given earlier in chapter 7], shakes her head [in verses 9-10] and says: 'I am my beloved's.' To him she calls [in verse 11], 'Come, my beloved'; for, as [19th-century German commentator H.G.A.] Ewald seeks to make this conceivable: the golden confidence of her near triumph [in resisting the king] lifts her in spirit forthwith above all that is present and all that is actual; only to him [her absent true love] may she speak; and as if she were half here and half already there, in the midst of her rural home along with him, she says, 'Let us go out into the fields,' etc. In fact, there is nothing more incredible than this Shulamitess, whose dialogue with Solomon consists of Solomon's addresses, and of answers which are directed, not to Solomon, but in a monologue to her shepherd; and nothing more cowardly and more shadowy than this lover, who goes about in the moonlight seeking his beloved shepherdess whom he has lost, glancing here and there through the lattices of the windows and again disappearing" ("Commentary on the Song of Songs," Keil & Delitzch's Commentary, note on Song of Solomon 7:12). Indeed, where has this shepherd been throughout the woman's ongoing struggle in the palace? Feeding his flock? Why has he not contended with Solomon regarding his imprisoned bride? Appeal might be made to the shepherd as emblematic of Christ away in heaven. Yet the shepherd lad himself is not in heaven. And if Christ were on earth, would He not strive for His Bride—for His people? Would Christ always be sneaking around? Even while in heaven, Christ actively intervenes for His Bride! He does not stand impotently by and leave the Church to face Satan's temptations alone. Given all this and other factors we have previously noted, the shepherd hypothesis just does not seem very likely.

We also might wonder why, if the couple is already married in the three-character view here, would the woman wish to return to the house of her mother (if this phrase be understood literally). Would she not want to return with her beloved shepherd husband to their shared home after this terrible ordeal? Of course, some shepherd-hypothesis advocates argue that they are not yet married. In that case, we should wonder at the erotic implications of this section.

Some advocates of a two-character progression believe that the lovers in this section are not married and that, in a rather different picture, they are trying to slip away to be alone together for intimacy—the presumption being that they can't where they are and that if they were married they would simply go to their bedroom. Yet why would the Song be celebrating an unmarried couple sneaking off to the woods for premarital sex? Such a theme would not have been condoned in ancient Israel, particularly among those who canonized Scripture. Some see the unmarried couple merely imagining future intimacy here—but given the detailed fantasizing it would be better for the two not to meet in private!

We ought to recognize, moreover, that the presumption that a husband and wife could at any time just go to their bedroom for fulfillment is a false notion. Even today it is common for married couples to want to "get away" from regular duties and routines to be freer to concentrate on their relationship and enjoy togetherness unencumbered. Many, understanding a "getaway" in mind here, believe the wife is seeking to go on a vacation with her husband—to travel into the countryside or, more specifically, to visit her childhood home. Some even think she desires a permanent move. Still others comprehend the picture here as being that of the newly married couple leaving the wedding feast with its temporary bridal chamber to go to their home—i.e., to their new life together.

Many, it should be realized, understand the Shulamite to be speaking of the outdoors metaphorically—so that the couple's bedroom is in actuality (or at least in the main) the setting for intimacy. The use in verse 13 of "our gates" or "our door" (NIV) would seem to argue for this. As commentator Tom Gledhill points out: "We have met this theme of love in the countryside before (Song of Solomon 2:8-13). The whole of nature seems to be sprouting and blossoming, and the two lovers want to be part of that. Their love has blossomed and become fragrant, they are ripe for love. Love in the springtime is a common literary motif. It seems to suggest that powers and urges that have long lain dormant can now burst forth unhindered and without restraint. The imagery seems to indicate that there is a time and a season for everything. There were times when restraint was necessary, but now it is the time to embrace [Ecclesiastes 3:1, Ecclesiastes 3:5]. Romance in the great outdoors is also a picture of untrammelled freedom and of closeness to nature. The literary fiction reminds us of our creatureliness and of our unashamed delight in participating in the natural order of things" (The Message of the Song of Songs, pp. 211-212). Furthermore, we should recall the metaphor in Song of Solomon 2:10-13 of the springtime of romance following a "winter" period of separation. Even so, here in Song of Solomon 7:11-12 the springtime romance follows a period of trouble in the relationship—a winter of separation of a different sort.

7:11: In Song of Solomon 7:11, the sentence "Let us go forth to the field" has a bit of a wild connotation to it. Recall the earlier adjurations by the gazelles and does "of the field" (Song of Solomon 2:7; Song of Solomon 3:5)—an image of lovers in the open country. "Let us lodge in the villages" in the latter part of the verse may seem a bit tamer. But we should realize that the word rendered "villages" here, kepharim, while it can refer to unwalled villages, occurs two other times in the Song in both singular and plural form in reference to fragrant henna plants (Song of Solomon 1:14; Song of Solomon 4:13). Thus some see the end of Song of Solomon 7:11 as meaning "Let's spend the night among the henna bushes" or even "among fragrant surroundings." Perhaps a pun is intended with villages. In any case, the henna bushes would seem to more closely follow the other metaphoric imagery here. "Of course," as Gledhill continues, "the fantasy of the lover's love-making is an illusion, which must not be punctured by a crudely literal interpretation, where all such romantic notions are too rapidly frustrated by the intrusions of nettle rash, soldier ants, bumble bees and stony ground, to say nothing of ragged urchins peeping through the undergrowth" (p. 212). That is to say, nature as the setting for love is an idealized picture.

7:12: The wording of Song of Solomon 7:12 appears to be taken from Song of Solomon 6:11, as both mention going to see if the vine has budded and the pomegranates are in bloom. The parallel mutually affirms the sexual and relationship connotations of both passages—as does Song of Solomon 6:11's parallel with going to the garden in Song of Solomon 6:2. We should also recall the vineyards in Song of Solomon 7:12 as symbolic of the woman in Song of Solomon 1:6 and Song of Solomon 8:12. There, the woman says in Song of Solomon 7:12, she will give the man her love— dodi here referring to her loving acts or affections, the context here being clearly a sexual one.

7:13: This is magnified in Song of Solomon 7:13 with the mention of "mandrakes," alternatively spelled "mandragoras." In Hebrew, the spelling is duda’im, which is closely related to dodi in verse 12. Indeed, the Hebrew meaning seems to be "love plant," and it is sometimes called a "love apple." The word occurs in Scripture only here and four times in Genesis 30:14-16, where Rachel and Leah used mandrakes while competing to produce offspring for Jacob. Yet in the Song "it is their property as a sexual stimulant that is in view, here, and not their aid to reproduction" (Gledhill, p. 212). Not that these lovers really need an aphrodisiac—as stimulated with one another as they already are. The mention of mandrakes is most likely a literary device to clarify that sexuality is the real meaning here behind all the plant and springtime imagery.

Commentator Othmar Keel points out: "The plant occurs frequently in Egyptian pictures from the New Kingdom (1540-1075 B.C.)....The ancient Egyptian love song also describes the effect of the love apple. The man sings: 'If only I were her Nubian maid, her attendant in secret! She would let me bring her love apples [i.e., mandrakes]; when it was in her hand, she would smell it, and she would show me the hue of her whole body' [Cairo Love Songs, Group B, no. 21]. The woman's skin is described in another love song: 'Your skin is the skin of the mandrake, which induces loving'" (The Song of Songs, Continental Commentaries, pp. 257-258, note on 7:13a).

Another of the Egyptian love songs mentions mandrakes in an interesting parallel to the blossoming of love we have seen: "If only my sister were mine every day, like the greenery of a wreath!... The reeds are dried, the safflower has blossomed, the mrbbflowers are (in) a cluster (?), the lapis-lazuli plants and the mandragoras have come forth.... {The blo}ssoms from Hatti have ripened, the bsbs-tree blossomed,...the willow tree greened. She would be with me every day, like (the) greenery of a wreath, all the blossoms are flourishing in the meadow...entirely" (Cairo Love Songs, Group B, no. 21E, translated by Michael Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, p. 38).

The mention of all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, at the couple's gates or doors has been seen by some as a metaphoric reference to marital relations during the wedding feast. Marvin Pope notes in his Anchor Bible commentary that there is a "Talmudic reference to hanging fruits in the bridal tent (TB [Babylonian Talmud] Abodah Zarah 12)" (Song of Songs, p. 650, note on verse 14b, Hebrew numbering). Even beyond this, the figurative meaning of the whole passage provides the basis for the primary way the wording should be comprehended here. The varied delectable fruits, new and old, are synonymous with the acts of love she is offering at the end of verse 12. This would seem to strongly imply that the couple is already married—for the old pleasant fruits symbolize the aspects of their physical relationship already experienced that they will continue in. The new implies new elements to be brought in to their lovemaking—perhaps introducing more romance, more adventure, more romping and play (as symbolized by journeying to the wild outdoors).

8:1: In Song of Solomon 8:1, the woman expresses her desire that her lover be like her brother—note the "like" (or "as"), not that she wants him to actually be her brother. This may be playing off the man's earlier affectionate references to her as "sister" (4:9-5:2). "Who nursed at my mother's breasts!" in the next line of 8:1 may imply on some level that she wishes she had known the man her whole life—that she had grown up with him (so that she would not have missed any time with him). Yet the main reason she wishes he were like her brother (or, rather, that he would be viewed like her brother) is explained in the latter part of the verse—she wants to kiss him freely in public. As The New American Commentary states: "The point is that she wishes she were free to display her affection openly. In the ancient world this would have been impossible for a woman with any man except a father, brother, or other near relative, the kissing of whom would not be construed by the public as a quasi-sexual act. The freedom to kiss in public would not apply to her husband" (p. 424, note on verse 1). The New International Commentary on the Old Testament concurs but explains that this is deduced mainly from the passage itself: "The verse likely reflects some kind of cultural norms for public intimacy. That is, it might be permitted to touch, hold hands, and kiss a brother, but not a lover (or perhaps even a husband) since the latter, as opposed to the former, would have erotic implications, likely thought unseemly in public. The problem, however, is that we must infer this custom from the verse since we do not know in any kind of detail the customs of the day" (p. 204, note on verse 1). Of course we do see this in later Middle Eastern custom. The New American Commentary further notes: "Fox (Song, 166) incorrectly assumes that this [verse] proves that the couple 'is not betrothed, let alone married.' But the open display of affection between the sexes is frowned upon in many societies (e.g., traditional Oriental [i.e., Eastern] society) regardless of whether the couple is married" (p. 424, footnote on verse 1).

 8:2: In Song of Solomon 8:2, we have the image of the woman desiring to lead the man into her mother's house, a picture we saw earlier in Song of Solomon 3:4. In the NKJV and other English versions, the word "lead" here is rendered in the subjunctive form as "would lead"—following, as with the verbs in the two prior lines at the end of verse 1, from the beginning of verse 1. That is, if the man were perceived like her brother, then she would kiss him in public, would not be despised for doing so and, in the present clause, would lead him and would bring him to her mother's house. We have already, in commenting on verse 1, made sense of why the man being as the woman's brother would allow her to kiss him openly. But why would it enable her to lead him to her mother's house? Why should she not be able to freely do this anyway, since this implied going to a place of privacy? It could be that the issue of concern, though not spelled out here, was that of leading him by the hand. Recall her dreamlike thoughts in Song of Solomon 3:4: "I held him and would not let him go, until I had brought him to the house of my mother." Perhaps, as noted above, a married couple holding hands was also looked down upon. Others, however, interpret this differently. In The New American Commentary, Dr. Duane Garrett contends: "The mood of her words here [at the beginning of 8:2] is not subjunctive but indicative and indeed determined, as shown by the juxtaposition of the two verbs; and it should be translated: 'I will lead you; I will take you to the house of my mother.' Since she cannot express her love with a kiss openly, she will express her love much more fully privately" (p. 425, note on verse 2). The latter interpretation seems likely given the connotations here—since there seems to be little question that she is indeed going to lead him to this place as she desires.

Some, as noted above, take the mother's house here to be the couple's literal vacation destination, it being referred to as the Shulamite's mother's house because—as explained in our previous comments on 3:4—either her father was not in the picture (compare Song of Solomon 1:6) or young women were considered to be raised in their mothers' homes (compare Genesis 24:28; Ruth 1:8). Alternatively, some see the woman as desiring to move back home or near home, taking the man with her (this supposedly being their logical residence together if he were like her brother). Of course, we must not forget the amatory subtext of this unit. The mother's house, taken literally, seems an odd choice for a romantic rendezvous. The Bible Knowledge Commentary says that in Song of Solomon 8:2 the Shulamite "playfully assumed the role of an older sister (I would [or will] lead you—the verb nahag is always used of a superior leading an inferior) and even the role of the mother. The lady of the house would give special wine to the guests. So the beloved [i.e., the woman] shared the characteristics of a sister, an older sister, and a mother in her relationship to her husband. The Song also portrays the lovers as friends (cf. Song of Solomon 5:1, Song of Solomon 5:16). Thus the lovers had a multifaceted relationship" (note on Song of Solomon 8:2-4).

In trying to make sense of the mention of the mother's house here, we should also recall the earlier use of the imagery of the woman taking the man to her mother's house in Song of Solomon 3:4—which was followed by the charge to the daughters of Jerusalem in Song of Solomon 3:5 (likely concerning physical relations), just as the current use of the mother's house imagery in 8:2 is followed in verse 4 by a form of the same charge. In our comments on the earlier passage, we noted the possibility that the reference points to a groom visiting a bride's parents' house as initiating a marriage. Some might apply that in the present case to the couple being not yet married and looking forward to the intimacies of marriage. Yet, if they are already married, the imagery could imply that they want to be as if newly married (on a second honeymoon, we might say today). Alternatively, it was noted in the prior case that some interpret "mother's house" or "mother-house" as meaning the womb, which would make the reference a sexual one.

It was also pointed out, though, that the next phrase in 3:4, "and into the chamber of her who conceived me," made the womb meaning difficult, as the mother's womb would then seemingly be meant instead of the girl's (but not out of the question since the girl could have been referring to the same part of her own person as that in which her mother conceived her). A similar difficulty with respect to the womb interpretation occurs in 8:2, the next clause seeming to refer more directly to the mother: "she who used to instruct me." However, this phrase, telammedeni, could also be translated as "you would teach me" (Jerusalem Bible; Roland Murphy, The Song of Songs, Hermeneia Commentaries, p. 180) or "you will teach me"—thus referring to the man. Some wish to emend the Hebrew text here. Gledhill comments: "The troublesome telammedeni can easily revert to teladeni by dropping the 'm,' thus meaning, 'she gave me birth'" (p. 216)—seen to correspond to "her who conceived me" in Song of Solomon 3:4 (and similar meanings in Song of Solomon 6:9 and Song of Solomon 8:5). But dropping a consonant from the Masoretic Text is unwarranted—as is the Greek Septuagint changing the entire line in Song of Solomon 8:2 to repeat the phrase from Song of Solomon 3:4. It seems more likely that the wording in Song of Solomon 8:2 was carefully chosen to be close to the former wording in 8:2 but with a significant difference. The wording may even be intentionally ambiguous as to person. In one sense, the Shulamite, who was reared and taught by her mother in the ways of love, will now take on the role of teacher of her husband in the bedroom. Yet on the other hand, the woman who was formerly taught by her mother will now learn much more about the ways of love from her husband assuming the teaching role. Thus, the indication may be that they will instruct one another in their shared adventure.

Concerning the giving of wine to drink in the next line, this may refer on some level to the role of the lady of the house playfully assumed, as mentioned above. Of course, this should be seen in a figurative sense. "The second line of the verse utilizes the by-now-well-attested theme of drinking intoxicating liquids to signify physical intimacies (Song of Solomon 1:2; Song of Solomon 5:1; Song of Solomon 7:9). Sexual activity is both sensual and intoxicating, and so is drinking spiced wine and pomegranate wine" (NICOT, p. 204, note on 8:2). Note particularly that she refers to the juice of her own pomegranate. This is clearly an erotic symbol. We earlier saw the woman's sexuality represented as an orchard of pomegranates (Song of Solomon 4:13). And note the symbolism in one of the Egyptian love songs, where trees of an orchard are describing lovers meeting there: "The sister and brother make {holiday}, {swaying beneath} my branches; high on grape wine and pomegranate wine are they, and rubbed with Moringa and pine oil" (Turin Love Songs, no. 28, in William Simpson, ed., The Literature of Ancient Egypt, p. 312).

In verse 2 "there is also an interesting word/sound play between 'I would make [or 'will have'] you drink' (’aššaqeka...) and 'I would...kiss you' (’eššaqeka...) in Song of Solomon 8:1" (NICOT,note on verse 2). And this follows ’emsa’aka ("I would find") in verse 1. Moreover, "'pomegranate (rimmoni), and 'right hand' (wimino) [in verse 3] have similar sounds" (Gledhill, p. 216).

8:3: Song of Solomon 8:3 repeats the statement in Song of Solomon 2:6 (about the man holding the woman) that preceded the refrain of adjuration to the daughters of Jerusalem in Song of Solomon 2:7. It now precedes an altered form of that refrain. Some, as in the NKJV translation, take the words in both cases as referring to present reality, which is reasonable. Others see in both cases a wish, translated, "Oh, may his left hand be under my head and his right hand embrace me" (Glickman, pp. 178, 188). This is also quite reasonable. In the latter case, the realization of the desires expressed in this unit would still be yet to come—perhaps immediately following without direct comment. It is even possible that the ambiguous wording, though the same, could allow for a wish in the former case and present reality in the latter—the context being different.

8:4: The present unit concludes in Song of Solomon 8:4 with an altered form of the adjuration refrain to the daughters of Jerusalem that concluded earlier units in Song of Solomon 2:7 and Song of Solomon 3:5. In this case there is no mention of the gazelles and does of the field as before. Perhaps more interestingly, as Dr. Glickman notes, is that the refrain at Song of Solomon 8:4 "replaces the word rendered 'not' (im[literally 'if' but meaning 'not' in oath formulas]) that precedes 'arouse' [or 'stir up'] and 'awaken' in the earlier refrains with a different word (mah).... Most translations note that this new word preceding 'arouse' and 'awaken' (mah—'what, why, that') can on rare occasions indicate negation. Then they translate 8.4 like before: 'Do not arouse...until it pleases.' But in light of the subtle but very instructive differences in the occurrences of other refrains...the translator must consider whether the variation yields a change of meaning as well. The grammars and lexicons that suggest this new word may imply negation can cite examples only where the negation arises out of a rhetorical question like, 'How can I do this wrong?' meaning 'I can't do this wrong.' But that rarely occurs, and it would be awkward that the imperative 'promise me' (or 'swear to me' [or 'I charge you']) would introduce it. Furthermore, if Shulamith had wished to request a promise 'not to arouse,' she could simply have used the same word for 'not' she used in the earlier refrains.... Quite significantly, the only other place where [mah] follows the verb 'promise me' [or 'I charge you'] (in Song of Solomon 5:8), it bears the sense of 'that'" (pp. 226-227). Let's note that third adjuration out of the four in the Song: "I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem , if you find my beloved, that you tell him I am lovesick" (Song of Solomon 5:8; compare Song of Solomon 2:7; Song of Solomon 3:5; Song of Solomon 8:4). The Hebrew word rendered "that" in Song of Solomon 5:8 is mah. As noted earlier, some see here a negative sense: "do not tell him." But most understand the meaning as "that" in the positive sense (i.e., "that you do" or "that you will")—which makes a good deal more sense. With this usage in the third adjuration, "the songwriter appears to intentionally prepare the reader for the different sense of the refrain in 8:4, when mah occurs twice" (Glickman, p. 227).

Thus 8:4 seems to more reasonably be translated as "I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you stir up and that you awaken love when it pleases" (not "until it pleases" as before—since the Hebrew word here can mean either when or until depending on the context). Glickman, understanding mah as denoting adverbial intensity, translates Song of Solomon 8:4 as follows: "I want you to promise me, O young women of Jerusalem, that you will surely arouse, you will surely awaken love when love pleases to awaken." The previous wording of the refrain in Song of Solomon 2:7 and Song of Solomon 3:5, seeming to be a warning against premarital intimacy (and perhaps even against stirring up loving feelings too early in a relationship), is valid and important. But it is also important to not hold back from love and intimacy when the right person and marriage at last does come. The Song thus gives us the appropriate balance: "No way" before it's time and "all the way" when it's time! Glickman comments: "Perhaps in light of the obvious benefit of acting when the time is right and Shulamith's unfortunate experience on the night recounted after the wedding night, she desires to state the refrain in its positive form here. In light of the instructive transformations of other refrains in the Song, the resounding encouragement to seize the opportunity for real love when the opportunity arises is a climactic conclusion to this refrain" (pp. 227-228).

As the curtain rings down on this unit, it is not clear whether the lovers are already together in their intimacy or whether they are heading off together (literally or figuratively) for that purpose.