July 18: Song of Songs 3:6

Song 3:6-11

This next section is the closing portion of the first half of the Song. It thus holds a climactic position within the overall structure. The mention of Solomon in these verses is abrupt and difficult to explain. In the remainder of the Song, outside of this section, there is no indication that Solomon is a character in the poetic narrative. There are, to be sure, still commentators who would interpret the Song as an expression of Solomon’s love for his bride. Overall, however, such a scenario is most unlikely. How, then, should the focus on Solomon in 3:6-11 be explained?

Nearly all commentators are agreed that the primary reference in 3:6-11 is to a wedding scene—a royal wedding that may be rooted in historical tradition involving king Solomon. The grandeur of Solomon’s wedding ceremonies are likely to have been such that they would come to be preserved, in various ways, within Israelite cultural memory and tradition. If one were to use the imagery of a royal wedding, it would be natural to draw upon the figure of Solomon for the grandest and most splendid example.

The idea of marriage between the young man and young woman was introduced, for the first time in the Song, in verse 4 (cf. the discussion in the prior note). Along these same lines, it seems likely that what follows here in vv. 6-11 is an idealized portrait of the young couple’s wedding. In the world of their love, the boy and girl are “king” and “queen”, and the intimacy they share, however humble the circumstances in actuality, takes on the character of a sumptuous royal affair. We saw this tendency earlier in the Song, in 1:4-5, 12, 16-17, where the young woman repeatedly refers to her beloved as her “king”. If, as I believe, the Song is meant to be set in the age of Solomon’s reign, then Solomon would naturally be referenced as the royal example (cf. 1:5).

Song 3:6

“Who (is) this coming up from the outback,
like tall (column)s of (fragrant) smoke,
being made to rise (with) myrrh and white-dust,
from all (the) powder of traveling (merchants)?”

This section opens with the interrogative particle ym! (“who…?”), indicating that the verse asks the question “who (is) this (person)?” The implication might be that the answer follows in v. 7 (cp. Isa 63:1, etc); yet it is not always the case that a specific answer follows (e.g., Isa 60:8), and the closest parallel in the Song (6:10) suggests that the question is rhetorical, expressing wonderment.

The implicit answer to the question is that the person “coming up” from the desert is the young woman, coming as a (royal) bride to her wedding. Two points are decisive in this regard. First, the identification with the young woman is clear from the parallel at the end of the Song (the second half) in 8:5. Second, we have the parallel here in v. 11, where the young man (the royal bridegroom) is the one who approaches in dramatic and impressive fashion; it is natural and appropriate that the same is being described of the young woman (the royal bride) here in v. 6.

The locative noun rB*d=m! literally means something like “place out back,” i.e., “outback, hinterland”. It refers to the region(s) outside the settled and cultivated territory, i.e., the wilderness, desert, or steppe area. The image of “coming up” (vb hl*u*) suggests that this person is approaching from the east and south, and that it is those desert regions which are in view here. In particular, the young woman, in her beauty and splendor, appears in a wondrous vision from the east, like the rising sun (or morning star) at dawn.

The motif of a “column of smoke” incorporates a number of traditional images, including the divine presence (of YHWH) who appeared to Israel as a cloud-pillar in the Exodus traditions. Also involved is the image of the sacrificial/ritual offerings of incense, in which fragrant smoke rises, symbolically, into heaven. Here the term used is hr*m*yT!, which means a “tall (column)”, emphasizes a towering height; it is given here in the plural, which adds to the sense of splendor in the scene.

The smoke is perfumed, drawing upon the image of burning fragrant incense, like the kind that came to Israel from the east by merchants/traders. Never was such trade in luxury items so great or extensive as it was during the reign of Solomon. The verb lk^r* simply refers to someone who travels around, i.e. as a merchant or trader. Of this fragrant “powder” (hq*b*a&), two kinds are specifically mentioned: myrrh (Heb. rom, perhaps so called because of its bitter taste) and frankincense (lit. “white [stuff]”, hn`obl=). The use of the passive participle (tr#F#q%m=) in the third line makes clear that the woman is being identified specifically with the fragrant incense that is burned (lit. “being made to rise [as smoke]”).

The preposition /m! should probably be understood in a comparative sense—i.e., the woman is even more fragrant than those powders brought by merchants from the east. The basic thrust of the imagery is that the woman appears like a magnificent, fragrant apparition, approaching out of the magical eastern horizon.

The scenario seems to be that of the lovers’ wedding day, and the reaction (“who…?”) is essentially that of the audience and participants. In my view, the portrait is being given by the young woman, and it is primarily the other girls (the “daughters of Jerusalem”) who are being called upon to look (with wonder) at the grandeur of the scene. This will be discussed further in the next note.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum explains the reaction in v. 6 in terms of the historical tradition of Israel’s entry into the land of Canaan; the peoples in the land exclaim with wonder as Israel comes up ‘out of the wilderness’. The Midrash Rabbah draws a closer connection with the pillars of cloud and fire that accompanied Israel during their desert wanderings (cf. above). Through some highly creative lines of interpretation, the fragrant powders are identified variously with the Patriarchs, Moses, Aaron and the priesthood; in the latter case, there is unquestionably an allusion here to the sacrificial (priestly) offerings of incense (cf. above).

Gregory of Nyssa interprets this scene as a picture of the heights to which the soul has risen, which evokes wonderment from the friends of the Bridegroom. He notes the earlier reference to the “blackness” of the woman (1:5f), which is now contrasted with her appearance shining/burning white (hn`obl=, cf. above). He explains this change as the result of her time spent in the wilderness (rB*d=m!) where she purified herself and grew in virtue and understanding. For the motif of the burning of incense, Gregory notes that the person who would be consecrated/dedicated to God must first become myrrh (being purified and buried [along with Christ]), and then also frankincense, denoting the sacrificial worship of God by the purified soul. Burned up as sweet incense in the fire of devotion, the soul (i.e., the Bride) is thus made ready for the marriage bed (symbolizing union with the Bridegroom).

Somewhat later commentators such as Theodoret and Ambrose give to the verse a more pronounced ethical and Christological interpretation, citing, for example, Paul’s instruction that believers should present themselves (their bodies) as living sacrifices to God (Rom 12:1; cf. also Heb 13:15); the reference to myrrh, with its funerary associations, naturally brings to mind the Pauline teaching regarding being buried with Christ (Rom 6:4), as well as the more general ascetic principle of self-mortification (Col 3:5, etc). The myrrh and frankincense represent both self-mortification and worship, as well as the two aspects of Christ’s person to which we, as believers, relate—his humanity, with which we are united (symbolically) in his death, and his deity, which we worship with offerings of praise, etc. Ambrose particularly notes the connection between burning incense and the prayers of Christians (citing Rev 8:3-4).

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