February 16: Song of Songs 1:4

Song of Songs 1:4

Verse 4 should probably considered as part of the poem in vv. 2-3 (cf. the previous note), though it is also possible to read it as an independent lyric.

“Draw me after you—we will run!
The king brought me into his enclosure,
we will spin (for joy) and rejoice in him!
We remember your loving (caresse)s more than wine
(and just as) smoothly do we love you!”

There is a certain parallel between the initial line of verse 4 and that of vv. 2-3, with an opening imperative calling on the young man (the woman’s lover) to initiate a romantic encounter. Here the verb is Ev^v* (“drag, draw, pull”). We can imagine the charming archetypal picture of the two young lovers running together, with the man leading the woman by the hand. The imperfect form of the verb (as of those in the following lines) can be seen as having cohortative force (i.e., “let us run, may we run!”), similar to the jussive sense in verse 2. The 1st person plural, as well as the plural forms that follow throughout the verse, should not necessarily be read as implying the presence multiple characters. The use of the plural is emphatic and poetic, and refers ostensibly to the woman herself. Such shifts in grammatical number and person are typical of Near Eastern poetry.

The mention of “the king” (El#M#h^) in the second line has been taken by many commentators as a reference to Solomon, though not necessarily in a positive context. According to a common interpretation of the Song as a romantic drama, the king (Solomon) brings the girl into his harem, taking her away from her shepherd-lover. For those who prefer to read the Song primarily in a marriage/wedding context, this verse refers either to Solomon’s wedding, or to the wedding of the young lovers (with the bridegroom called “king”).

In my view, such interpretations are both unjustified and unnecessary. Following along the lines of a bridegroom being traditionally called “king” (in a wedding ceremony), it is actually typical in Near Eastern love poetry for the young lovers to refer to each other as “king” and “queen” or “prince” and “princess”, etc. The are several clear examples of this from ancient Egypt (cf. Fox, pp. 15, 22, 26, 98):

“I am headed to the ‘Love Garden,’
my bosom full of persea (branches),
my hair laden with balm.
I am a [noblewoman],
I am the Mistress [i.e., Queen] of the Two Lands,
when I am with you.”

“I say to my heart within (me) in prayer:
[‘Give me] my prince tonight,
(or) I am like one who (lies) in her grave!'”

“I’ve drawn near to you to see your love,
O prince of my heart!”

The last short quotation is particularly close in sense and mood to v. 4 here in the Song.

The noun rd#j# means “enclosure”, often in terms of room within a dwelling. The basic significance is of privacy—that is, a private chamber or other secluded location. The seclusion, of course, is so that the lovers can have a private (and hidden) place to be together. This does not necessarily mean an actual room indoors; in this regard, the term could easily be understood in a figurative sense (for any secluded spot). Similarly, it is only in the context of the lovers as ‘king and queen’ (cf. above) that this location becomes, for them, a ‘royal (bed)chamber’.

The next two lines are, I believe, best understood in terms of the young women thinking back on her last romantic encounter, and looking forward to the next one. Her “spinning” (vb lyG]) and rejoicing is as much a part of her memory of the experience as it is a description of the encounter itself. This seems clear from the use of the verb rk^z`, which has the regular meaning of “remember”.

As in verse 2, the plural <yd!oD (“loves”) may be understood in the literal sense of “acts/gestures of love”, as I translate above (“loving [caresse]s”). However, it can also be read as an intensive or comprehensive plural for the love (and lovemaking) that takes place between the man and woman. Similarly, the plural <yr!d*j& (“enclosures,” cf. above) should probably be understood in a comprehensive/intensive sense—i.e., the most secluded spot—comparable to the expression “enclosure of enclosures” (1 Kings 20:30; 22:25; 2 Kings 9:2).

The final line of verse 4 is difficult, especially the word <yr!v*ym@, read as a (plural) verbal noun, which can be used in a adjectival (or adverbial) sense. It is derived from the root rvy, which has the fundamental meaning “(be) straight”; the noun thus indicates something that is straight (or firm, level, smooth, etc). There are two ways that this word can be understood here.

The first possibility is as an adverb—i.e., to do something straight(ly), or “with rightness, truth, integrity,” etc. The word <yr!v*ym@ is used this way in Psalm 58:1[2] and 75:2[3]. This meaning would fit the parallel with the end of verse 2, and the statement that “upon this [i.e. for this reason] do the maidens love you”. The comparable statement here in verse 4 would be “rightly/truly do we love you”.

However, the specific association with wine (as also in verse 2) indicates that the word is better understood in terms of the smoothness of the wine. This is the context of the usage later in the Song (at 7:10[11]), and in Proverbs 23:31, and should probably be read this way here as well.

I suspect that there is an intentional wordplay involving both of these meanings. The woman loves the man truly and completely (in part, because of the wonderful way that he loves her); but her love toward him is also part of the comparison with wine made in the prior line. His love is more precious than wine to her, and her love (for him) is also as smooth as the finest wine. I have tried to capture this ambiguity in my translation above.

On a syntactical note, the comparison “more than” is established, in the Hebrew idiom, by the (prefixed) preposition /m! (“from”), used both in verse 2 and 4 for the comparison of the young man’s love with wine. Literally, the wording here in verse 4 is “we remember your loving caresses from wine [/y]Y!m!]”, which, in the comparative sense of the expression, would have to be filled out something like “we remember your loving caresses (more than we do the pleasure we get) from wine”. It is much easier, in this case, simply to translate the expression into English idiom, rather than attempting a true literal translation (which would be quite cumbersome, especially in poetry).

Jewish and Christian Interpretation

Here I will give just a brief note, illustrating again the allegorical approach to the Song typical of Jewish and (early) Christian commentators. The use of the Hebrew term <yr!v*ym@, from the root rvy (“[be] straight,” cf. above), and often used a moral and religious sense (i.e., righteous, upright), helped to facilitate such an approach. It fit in well with the idea that the Song refers to the love between YHWH and Israel—that is, the righteous ones who follow the way of God, since the beginning of the covenant when the Torah was given to them by God (through Moses). As the Targum paraphrases and applies the verse, putting the woman’s words into the mouth of Israel: “Lord…we will be drawn after you and we will run after your godly way. So draw us near…and give us your Law from the treasure house of the firmament. And we will rejoice and be glad…. and all the righteous who do right before you will revere you and love your commands” (Pope, p. 306).

Origen, in his Commentary on the Song, connects “running after” the lover (the king) with the idea of his name being “poured out” (v. 3). He interprets this in the allegorical (and mystical) sense of the soul, purified by virtue (and uprightness of conduct), following after the Word of God (Christ), and longing to be united with God (the King) through it (on this, he cites Jn 17:21). Origen specifically connects the “emptying” of the ointment with the incarnation of Christ (Phil 2:6-8). He goes to relate the incarnation of Christ to the “chamber” of the King, and to the mysterious (secret) way that the soul is united with the incarnate Word.

This passage also played an important role in the development of Marian devotion in Catholicism. On the whole, the Song was particularly amenable to this, since the young woman of the Song could easily be explained as a type of the Virgin Mary. Her righteous character and longing for God was ultimately focused on the conception of Jesus. This proved to be a powerful expression of the mystical interpretation of the Song, since, even in the Gospel account (Lk 1:26-38), the encounter with the Spirit clearly takes the place of ordinary physical/sexual love. The initial words of verse 4, in their Latin Vulgate translation (trahe me post te), came to be associated with the “Immaculate Conception” of the Virgin Mary (celebrated on Dec. 8th). For an example of the artistic and creative potency of this association, I would point out, among many possible examples, the beautiful musical setting of this text by Tomás Luis de Victoria (his motet and subsequent Mass setting).

References above marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).
Those marked “Pope” are to Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 7C (1977).

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