August 15: Song of Songs 6:2-3

Song 6:2-3

This is the final song, and portion, of the section covering 5:2-6:3. It is parallel with the initial scene in 5:2, providing a direct contrast between the enclosed house/room in the city and the enclosed garden (cf. below). This song is comprised of two verses.

Verse 2

“My love has gone down to his enclosure,
to the garden-beds of spice(s),
to pasture in the enclosed (space)s,
and to pluck up (the) lilies.”

In verse 2, the young woman provides the answer to the question posed by the “daughters of Jerusalem” in v. 1 (cf. the previous note): “where has your love gone…?” The answer is that he has gone down to his garden (/G~). Fundamentally, the noun /G~ refers to an enclosed and protected place—that is, specifically, an enclosed garden.

As we saw in 4:12-5:1, the garden, representing the young woman’s sexuality as well as the place of sexual union for the couple, was depicted as an enclosed space with a latched entrance. In this regard, the garden enclosure forms a precise parallel with the city house (and room), with its latched door, in 5:2 (cf. the earlier note on that verse). Let us consider how these two locales—house/room and garden—frame the thematic structure of 5:2-6:3:

    • Enclosed room in the city (5:2)—separation between the lovers [union is not possible]
      • Song 1 (5:3-9): The girl is unable to see the boy (his disappearance)
        Exchange with the other girls (vv. 8-9)
      • Song 2 (5:10-6:1): The girl describes the boy’s appearance, seeing him through the poetic vision of her love
        Exchange with the other girls (5:16-6:1)
    • Enclosed Garden (6:2-3)—the possibility and promise of union between the lovers

In order to emphasize this parallelism between two enclosed spaces, I have translated /G~ here as “enclosure, enclosed (space)”. There can be no doubt, however, that here in vv. 2-3 we are dealing with a garden. The motif of ‘garden-beds’ (togWru&), with growing plants and flowers, is picked up from the previous praise-song (5:13). This helps us understand the use of the plural <yN]G~, i.e., “gardens”, rendered here as “enclosed (space)s”, referring to all the luxurious spaces within the enclosure of the garden. The wording also alludes to the prior waƒf praise-songs, with their description of individual body parts (i.e., ‘places’ in the garden).

As in 4:16, it is referred to as “his garden” (cp. 5:1, “my garden”), in the sense that it belongs to him—i.e., the girls sexuality is reserved for him alone (and for no other young man)—and his seal of ownership is stamped upon it (spec. on the spring of water at the center of the enclosure, 4:12). As with the city-room, the garden enclosure has a latched entrance, which serves, at least temporarily, to separate the two lovers. However, this is not a barrier imposed by society, and once the girl invites the young man in, the two can be together in the garden of their sexual union.

This entrance of the young man was described (and/or anticipated) in 5:1, and the same imagery is essentially repeated here by the girl. He comes into the garden to graze, like the very sheep/goats that the young man (as a herdsman in the Song) pastures (vb hu*r*). There is wordplay between the verb hu*r* (“[give] pasture, graze, feed”) and the suffixed noun yu!r@ (“my companion,” 5:16) from a separate root hur (“associate with, be a friend”). In this context a “companion” means a lover, and the whole line of grazing/pasturing imagery in the Song is erotically charged (cf. 1:7-8).

Indeed, the motif of “plucking” (vb fq^l*) flowers here in the Song clearly alludes to the enjoyment of sexual pleasure and is suggestive of sexual intercourse. On the erotic symbolism of the blossoming “lilies” (<yn]v*ov), cf. the earlier note on 2:1-2. The entire imagery here, of course, is predicated upon the symbolism of the garden throughout of the Song (cf. above), much like the parallel vineyard motif (1:6, 14; 2:13, 15, etc).

The flower-beds are also one with the beds of spices (sing. <c#B#) in the garden. As I have mentioned repeatedly in these notes, spices (particularly, frankincense and myrrh) serve as a fundamental symbol of sexuality (and sexual union) throughout the Song—most recently in 5:13, cf. the prior note.

Verse 3

“I (belong) to my love,
and my love (belongs) to me—
(he is) the (one) pasturing in the lilies.”

These final lines emphasize again that the garden—that is, the sexuality of the young woman—belongs to this young man, and is reserved for him alone. This could be taken to imply that the boy and girl are betrothed to one another (that is, engaged to be married), but it is not necessary to read the verse in that light. In any case, the nearly identical wording in 2:16, where a clandestine night-time rendezvous is apparently being depicted, effectively undercuts any sense that marriage (even the expectation of marriage) is being emphasized here.

The two lovers belong to each other in a more rudimentary sense, quite apart from any regulation within the ordered world of society. It is love itself that establishes the bond, a love that certainly entails an overpowering sexual attraction. The societal order is symbolized by the city locale in 5:2-7, with the latched house-room, the city walls and streets, and the patrol going through the city as guardians (of order). By contrast, the garden represents an ideal world where the two lovers can be together, removed from the strictures and barriers imposed by society.

Whether or not the couple is engaged to be married is rather beside the point, at least in terms of the love poetry of the Song. The expectation and anticipation of marriage does play a role in the Song, but only (as I see it) in the concluding sections of each movement (3:4-11; chap. 8). On the whole, neither marriage nor the marital status of the two lovers is particularly emphasized in the earlier sections, nor is there any real evidence that it is in view here in 5:2-6:3.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum explains the young man’s gathering of the flowers in terms of YHWH bringing His people back from exile (in Babylon); the spices refer to the re-establishment of sacrificial offerings (incense, etc) in the Temple. The Midrash similarly identifies the spice-beds with Israel, located within the garden of the world. The plucking of lilies in this context refers to God bringing about the blessed death of the righteous.

For verse 3, the Targum continues the same line of interpretation from v. 2, explaining the young woman’s declaration as a restoration of the covenant-bond between God and Israel, along with the indication that Israel is now worshiping YHWH with faithfulness:

“And in that day I worshiped the Lord of the World, my Beloved, and my Beloved made His holy Presence dwell with me and He fed me with delicacies.” (Pope, pp. 556, 558)

For Gregory of Nyssa, the declaration of mutual belonging in v. 3 establishes the fundamental point that “the purified soul must possess nothing but God alone, and must look to nothing outside of Him”. According to this line of mystical interpretation, which tends to run all through the sermons, the soul must purify itself “from every material thought and deed” so that “it may become completely transformed into something spiritual”. The soul that is cleansed is able to gaze upon the Beloved (Christ, the Word), and, as looking into a mirror (a favorite motif among mystics), is transformed according to the pure image of the Divine Beauty. Such a soul belongs to Christ, and lives for him alone (citing Gal 5:19-20 and Phil 1:21). Following the Beloved’s example, the Bride (the soul) feeds on the lilies, which symbolizes the possession of goodness and virtue, to the point that the virtues fill and embue the soul completely, making it radiant with the character of God.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Quotation of Gregory of Nyssa above are by Herbert Musurillo, S.J. (translator and editor) in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2003), here pp. 281-4.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 51 (Part 2)

Psalm 51, continued

As previously discussed, this Psalm may be divided into two parts or stanzas: the first (vv. 3-11 [1-9], cf. last week’s study) focuses on forgiveness of sin, while the second (vv. 12-21 [10-19]) emphasizes the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin.

Part 2 (vv. 12-21 [10-19])

Verse 12 [10]

“A clean heart may you create for me, Mightiest,
and a sound spirit make new in my inner (parts).”

The opening couplet of the second stanza has a 4-beat (4+4) meter. It establishes the theme for the second part of the Psalm: the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin. Here we may properly refer to the New Testament (Pauline) idiom of a new creation, since the verbs ar*B* (“create”) and vd^j* (“be new,” Piel “make new”) are used in tandem. There is a formal parallelism at work in the couplet:

    • A heart | clean | may you create
    • A spirit | firm | may you make new

The verbs are imperatives, but when addressing God in this context, they are clearly petitionary: “may you…” The passive (Niphal) participle /okn, used as a verbal adjective, is a bit difficult to translate, since the root /wK has a relatively wide semantic range. The parallel with rohf* in the first line suggests that a purity of spirit is view; however, given the fundamental meaning of the verb /WK, a translation something like “well-founded” would not be far off the mark. For poetic concision, I have rendered it “sound” (= “firm, fixed”) above.

Verse 13 [11]

“May you not throw me out from before your face,
and (the) Spirit of your holiness, do not take it (away) from me!”

The meter in this second couplet is irregular, overweighted as 3+4. In such instances it is often better to treat the verse as a triad, with an initial 3-beat line followed by a short 2-beat couplet; however, here the parallelism of the lines is better served by retaining the longer 3+4 format:

    • Do not throw me out from before (you)
      • your face (i.e., Presence)
      • your holy Spirit
    • do not take away from me

The same basic petition is being made, but from two different directions or perspectives; the negative particle (la^) governs the two-fold petition, giving it a negative formation. The Psalmist asks that it should not happen:

    • that he be removed from God’s presence (His face) /
      that God’s presence (Spirit) be removed from him

The “face” and Spirit of YHWH both refer to His manifest presence and power. The literal expression in the second line is “spirit of holiness” (vd#q) j^Wr), but it corresponds precisely (in our idiom) to “holy spirit”. For more on this verse, in the context of Old Testament teaching and tradition on the Spirit, cf. my earlier study.

Verse 14 [12]

“May you return to me (the) joy of your salvation,
and (with) a willing spirit take hold of me.”

This verse builds upon the previous couplet, focusing on the effect of YHWH’s presence and power upon a person. That it has been missing for the Psalmist is indicated by the use of the verb bWv (“turn [back]”), here in the Hiphil, i.e., “make (something) turn back, make (it) return”. What has been missing, specifically, is the joyful experience of the salvation YHWH provides. The noun uv^y# here could also be rendered “safety” or “security”, referring to the protection provided by YHWH according to the binding agreement (covenant) He has established with those faithful/loyal to Him. Sin disrupts the covenant-bond, and removes the obligation for God to protect and deliver His vassal.

A second effect is that God’s Spirit transforms the spirit of His servant, turning it into a willing (hb*yd!n+) spirit—so that the Psalmist might remain faithful to YHWH of his own accord, never again acting rebelliously to break faith with God. Here the Psalmist asks specifically that YHWH would “take hold of” him (vb Em^s*) with His holy Spirit, so that his own spirit might be changed (made new, v. 13 [11]) and strengthened.

This couplet returns to a 3-beat (3+3) meter, as if poetically resolving the tension (expressed metrically) built into the previous couplets.

Verse 15 [13]

“I will teach your ways (to those) breaking (faith),
and (those) sinning might (then) return to you.”

The vow or promise given here alludes back to the idea of a willing (hb*yd!n+) spirit in the previous verse, since the nouns hb*yd!n+ and hb*d*n+ can be used in the religious context of a voluntary gift or deed offered to God. Here the promise involves teaching the ways of God (as expressed primarily through the regulations and precepts of the Torah) to other sinners, those who are currently acting rebelliously and breaking faith (vb uv^P*) with YHWH. Following the ways of God means being faithful to the covenant bond (the Torah representing the terms of the covenant).

There is a bit of wordplay here that can be lost in English translation. In the previous verse, the Psalmist asked that God “return” the joy of salvation to him; now he promises that he will respond by causing other sinners to “return” to God—the same verb (bWv, “turn [back]”) being used in both instances.

Verse 16 [14]

“Snatch me away from blood, O Mightiest,
(you) Mighty (One) of my salvation,
(and) my tongue will ring out your justice.”

In this verse, the Psalmist makes yet another promise, framed conditionally—on the condition that YHWH rescue him (lit. snatch him away, vb lx^n`) from “(shedd)ing of blood”. The plural noun <ym!D* (“bloods”) is used in the Old Testament as a specific idiom (difficult to translate into English) referring to the shedding of blood. It can be used for violence (and wickedness) generally, even if no blood is actually shed. Here there are two possibilities: (1) it can refer to sin and wickedness, or (2) it can refer specifically to the guilt (from sin) that leads to death. Probably the latter is in view.

A 3-beat couplet (lines 1 and 3 above) has been expanded into a triad, including a short 2-beat middle line, emphasizing the Psalmist’s praise of God, the very thing that he promises to do if YHWH delivers him from death (“my tongue will cry/ring out [vb /n~r*] your justice”).

According to one line of interpretation, the Psalmist has experienced illness, which he understands as punishment for sin that he has committed. This generally fits the context, though the specific sense of physical suffering (from illness or disease) is not as prominent in this Psalm as it is in other prayer/petitionary Psalms we have studied. If he is praying to be delivered from death (cf. on the use of the word <ym!D* above), this would give some added weight to the idea that the Psalm involves a prayer for deliverance (healing) from sickness.

Verse 17 [15]

“My Lord, may you open (up) my lips,
and my mouth will bring out front a shout (to) you.”

This verse (another 3-beat couplet) builds upon the idea of giving praise to YHWH in v. 16 [14]. If God delivers him (from death), then the Psalmist promises to praise Him; yet, even so, he asks further that YHWH “open up” his lips (i.e., inspire him) so that he will be able to present a proper “shout” (hL*h!T=) of praise. The verb dg~n` (in the Hiphil stem) literally means “put in front, bring out front”. This is one of numerous references or allusions in the Psalms to the idea of musical/poetic inspiration, with the source of the inspiration being God Himself (His Spirit).

Verse 18 [16]

“For you do not delight (at all) in (ritual) slaughter,
and should I give (you) rising (smoke) you would not be pleased.”

The rhythm of this (slightly irregular) 3-beat couplet is a bit difficult to render into English. However the poetic parallelism of thought is clear and direct enough. It repeats some of the prophetic themes we saw expressed in Psalm 50 (cf. Parts 1 and 2 of that study), downplaying the importance of the sacrificial offerings. This message does not necessarily mean that one can (or should) forego the performance of the sacrificial ritual; rather, it emphasizes that the heart and intention of the person making the sacrifice is far more important. Simply fulfilling the ritual duty, while one’s heart remains unfaithful and rebellious, actually makes a mockery of the Torah regulations. This is clearly stated in the next verse.

Verse 19 [17]

“(The) slaughterings of (the) Mightiest (are) a broken spirit—
a heart broken and crushed, Mightiest, you will not despise.”

The powerfully concrete language used in this couplet tends to be lost in conventional English translation. It is important to preserve the fundamental meaning of the noun jb^z#; typically translated “sacrifice,” it literally refers to the slaughter of an animal (in a religious/ritual context). But what the Psalmist states here, most strikingly, is that the kind of slaughtering YHWH truly wants is not the cutting up of an animal, but the breaking apart of one’s spirit. That is to say, one should offer up one’s own spirit—one’s very own life and being—as a sacrificial offering. Two passive participles are used (as verbal adjectives) to express this, from the verbs rb^v* (“break [apart]”) and hk*D* (“crush”).

A broken and crushed spirit (j^Wr = heart [bl@]) refers both to an attitude of repentance and the experience of suffering. YHWH treats the animal sacrifices, in and of themselves, as worth nothing; however, the sacrifice of one’s own heart and spirit—that He does not treat as nothing (vb hz`B*, i.e., belittle, despise). On the contrary, a faithful/loyal heart is of the utmost importance to God, and part of this faithfulness is the willingness to make right the covenant bond when it is broken by sin. The process of making things right involves both repentance and the endurance of punishment (i.e., suffering) at times.

The expression “slaughterings [i.e. sacrifices] of the Mightiest” means: sacrifices that one should offer to God, that are acceptable to Him.

Verses 20-21 [18-19]

“May you do good, by your pleasure, (to) ‚iyyôn,
(when) you build (the) walls of Yerushalaim;
then you shall delight (in) slaughterings of justice—
(the) rising (smoke) and (the) whole (offering)—
then they shall offer up bulls upon your place of slaughter.”

The Psalm comes to a close, somewhat curiously, with this pair of couplets (the second couplet being expanded into a triad), focusing rather abruptly on the city of Jerusalem. Commentators tend to regard it as an editorial appendix, whereby the original Psalm came to be adapted into a wider communal context. A number of Psalms show similar signs; once these compositions came to be utilized, on a regular basis, in a communal and ritual setting, it is not surprising that such minor additions would develop within the text.

The individual petition has shifted to a petition by the entire community of Jews (or Judeans) longing for a restoration of their holy city and its Temple. This clearly indicates an exilic (and probably post-exilic) setting. While this focus on communal and national restoration is secondary, it is not at all inappropriate from the standpoint of the Old Testament and Israelite religious tradition. Indeed, there is a close connection between individual sin and that of the community, and also between individual and national repentance.

It was, after all, the sins of individuals which led to the guilt and punishment of the entire community (of Judah and Jerusalem), culminating in the Exile and destruction of the Temple. Correspondingly, repentance will lead to the rebuilding of the city and Temple; once that happens, ritual sacrifices can again be offered to YHWH. The expectation is that, after the experience of suffering, the people will come to offer these sacrifices with a new and transformed heart, loyal to the covenant with YHWH, and thus the offerings will be acceptable to Him.