July 28: Song of Songs 4:12

Song 4:12-15

This is the last of a series of three songs by the young man, praising his beloved and expressing his love (and desire) for her. It is related thematically to the prior song (4:8-11), particularly in terms of the broad themes of separation and union between the lovers—the former was emphasized in vv. 8-11, the latter here in vv. 12ff.

Song 4:12

“(You are) a garden latched (shut), my sister (and) bride—
a garden latched, (with) a spring (of water) sealed.”

The primary motif in this song is of the young girl as a garden enclosure (/G~), the root implying a fenced-off or otherwise protected area. Given some of the imagery we have seen earlier in the Song, it may be a royal garden that is in view here. In discussing the scene in 3:7-10, I mentioned the strong possibility that a (royal) gardened pavilion was intended, along the lines of the description in Esther 1:5-6. However, the fundamental intent of the imagery here is of the garden as a symbol of female sexuality, very similar to the use of the vineyard motif earlier in the Song (1:6, 14; 2:13-15). In addition to symbolizing the sexuality of the young woman, it also represents the love shared between the two.

The Masoretic text in the second line reads lG~ instead of /G~. This is translated as “spring” or “pool”, but the word would more appropriately refer to the rolling or mounting waves (of the ocean). The LXX, Syriac (Peshitta) and Vulgate all assume that the reading is /G~, just as in the first line, an example of the kind of repetition we see frequently in the Song; I follow the versional evidence in my translation above, even though the lone surviving Qumran manuscript (4QCantb) supports the MT. If lG~ is original, it may perhaps refer to a rolling stone that serves as the door/entrance to the garden, or to the gate/wall of the enclosure itself being made of a “heap” of stones.

The verb lu^n` properly indicates something that is latched (tight or shut); in the case of a door or gate (i.e. to a garden enclosure) perhaps the idea of it being “bolted” shut would be more appropriate. In any case, the emphasis is on the garden area being closed off, and thus inaccessible. This plays upon the theme of separation from vv. 8-11, only it is not a separation based on the idea of distance; rather, the girl is now close at hand, but there is still something that separates the two lovers.

There is a fountain or spring of water within the garden enclosure—the common noun /y`u=m^ essentially refers to a place of flowing water. Based on the nature-imagery used throughout the Song, we should understand a mountain spring of fresh and clear water, more than some kind of artificial fountain structure. Thus the mountain-motif from vv. 8-11 is suitably blended with the garden-imagery of vv. 12ff; this is all the more likely if the “Amana” of v. 8b alludes to the mountain-source of the Amana river (cf. also the motif of water flowing down a mountain slope in v. 1).

Here it is said that the spring of water is sealed (vb <t^j*). This can be misleading in context, implying that the spring has been sealed-off so that no one can drink from it, etc. While that idea may also be present, the primary significance of the seal is to indicate ownership of something. Thus, there are two lines of imagery at work in this scene:

    • A garden enclosure, the entrance to which has been latched shut, and
    • A spring of water inside which has a seal indicating to whom the spring belongs.

This seal can further be understood two ways: (a) it indicates that the water belongs to the young woman (she being the garden), or (b) it shows that the water in the garden (i.e., the sexuality of the woman) belongs to the young man, and only he can have access to it. Both aspects, I think, are present, but the latter is the primary point of reference. The beauty, youth, vitality, and sexuality of the young woman belongs to the one who is her beloved—and to him alone. No other man can, or should, have access to the ‘garden’ and its ‘spring’. That is certainly the sense of the comparable imagery in Prov 5:15-17.

The basic idea here is that the young man alone has access into the garden enclosure (of the girl’s sexuality), and there to enjoy its delights. However, even for him, the beloved, the entrance is latched shut; it is the girl herself who must ‘open up’ to him, and only then will the last barrier to union be removed.

The imagery of this scene will be discussed further in the next note, along with a brief consideration of the sensitive social, ethical, and religious issue surrounding the marital status of the lovers (in the note on v. 15), limiting the discussion to the immediate context of the songs in chapter 4.

(Examples of Jewish and early Christian interpretation, on vv. 12-15, will also be included in the note on v. 15.)

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