In Song of Songs 3:11 we see a description that it is the wedding day and what follows are images of a wedding ceremony. This sets the stage for how we should look at the poetry we are reading. The first three chapters show courting and dating. We are reading love poetry about a relationship between a man and a woman that is moving toward marriage. So as we read the first few chapters I believe we should look at this in the context of the dating relationship.
She Desires Him (1:2-4)
The song begins with her desiring intimacy with this man. She desires to kiss him. His love is intoxicating to her. His love is a joy and great delight to her. Further, she is attracted to his character as well as his looks. He acts well and smells good. His cologne and his name excites her. He is a person that other women also desire. There is something wrong if this man has absolutely no hope of finding a spouse. He is not someone that all the women say, “Ewww! That guy!” The other women also think he is a catch. If nobody likes this man, that is supposed to be a warning. If your parents do not like him and your friends do not like him, you need to be greatly concerned. How often a girl will say of a man she is dating, “I am the only one who understands him” or “No one sees in him what I see in him.” You are fooling yourself. This is a warning. The reason you are the only one who sees something is because you are hoping to see something that is not there. You think you are going to fix him or make him a better person or change him. This is not the situation this woman is in. Other girls enjoy his company also and are not confused as to why you are spending time with him.
In verse 4 she expresses the desire to spend intimate alone time together. We are going to see throughout this Song that there is a fight to spend private time together. They are continually looking for alone time together. A couple translations suggest that this is the bedroom. “Chambers” can refer to a bedroom in scriptures but the word merely means “the innermost part of the house.” There was a need for privacy for kissing, especially in that day. “Romantic kissing was assumed but kept away from the public gaze” (Hess, 49; cf. 8:1). There is still somewhat of a stigma today for kissing in public, though it does not at all seem to be to the degree that we are reading about in that time. But it is not hard to see that there was a need for privacy when kissing and that is what they are longing for and find privacy for. The point is not that they are starting a sexual relationship before marriage. The point is that they want to spend time together, to the exclusion of others. They want time alone, away from distractions. This is natural. You start ignoring your friends and spending more time with the person you are dating. When you spend time together, you spend the time without distraction, doing things together.
How sad when a couple does not want to spend time together but look for time to be apart to unwind and relax. We need to fight for time together. We spend so much time together when dating, but that time is easily lost when married. Children completely destroy together time. So we have to be creative in making time together. You may not be able to go out on dates like you did before. But you can send the children to bed and have a date night at home. Spend time together talking, playing games, and interacting together. Fight for time together.
Further, there’s something wrong if we are not desiring one another physically. It is good to desire each other. Sexual desire is not evil. It has a proper place. God gave us these desires. The desire is not the problem but what we do with the desire (fornication, lust, porn, etc).
Notice also that she calls him “the king.” Scholar and commentator Tremper Longman writes, “It is best to take the reference neither historically nor ritually, but rather as a poetic device. It is love language. She refers to him as king, but this must not be taken literally. In her eyes, he is a king, the best and most powerful male in her life, worthy of the highest honor. Elsewhere, she calls him a shepherd (1:7), but that is not literal either. These are terms of endearment. The Song is best understood as creating a poetic world, not as describing actual events” (Longman, 92). We use the same kind of language today in love and poetry. He should be your “Prince Charming.” Women speak of certain men as their “knight in shining armor.” Is he really a knight? Is he really a prince? Ladies, if one of you said to the other that the prince took you on vacation, you would not think that she was having an affair with a prince. You would understand that the prince is the husband. It seems best to do the same here, remember that this is a song with strong poetic metaphors in use.
Her Self-Image (1:5-7)
She describes herself as your average woman. She does not look like the models. She is lovely, but she is not amazingly hot. She is a woman that all women can relate to. She has average good looks. She is dark from working outside. Pale skin was “in” back then because it meant you had wealth and did not have to work. Today tan is “in” and pale is “out.” This shows how styles are always changing. But the point is that she is someone for all the women to relate to. She is not a perfect 10.
Further, she is painfully aware that her appearance does not measure up to the conventional definition of feminine beauty in her culture (1:6). She says that because she works in the vineyard that does not have the time or ability to “doll herself up” like the other women. She is a busy woman working in the vineyard and she is aware that she does not and cannot look like others. Does any woman love their appearance? It is interesting that even the woman in the story feels like she has to justify her appearance and is not satisfied with her looks. But she is beautiful to her man, as we will see as the poem progresses. This is all that matters.
Men, your wife is the standard of beauty and not what you see on tv or in movies. She will be insecure about her looks because the world always seems to have a moving target for what is beautiful. She is beautiful. If she had makeup artists, clothing consultants, special lighting, airbrushing, and Photoshop, she would look smashing also. But the one you are married to or the one you are dating works, takes care of the children, goes to the grocery store, does household chores, cooks meals, manages the house and so forth. She cannot look like what you see on television and in magazines, men. She can’t be in the beauty parlor for four hours everyday. So it is unreasonable to hold your woman up to a false standard of beauty that no one is able to maintain.
All that matters is that he thinks she is beautiful. Men, she is your standard of beauty. She is beautiful to you. It does not matter what the world defines as beautiful. Men must communicate that to the woman. We are going to see the man in this relationship do that later in this chapter. Further, this is part of the plague of internet pornography. The images you are seeing are not real and cause you to be dissatisfied with your spouse’s or girlfriend’s looks. If you married a short woman, then you like short. If you married a tall woman, then you like tall. If you married a “high-maintenance” woman, then you like “high-maintenance.” If you married a “low-maintenance” woman, then you like “low-maintenance.” If you married a skinny woman, then you like skinny. If you married a not so skinny woman, then you like no so skinny. What if they do not look the way they did when you married them? Neither do you. Now you like the way she looks now. As we have noticed with this woman in the Song, she is keenly aware of her looks and how it does not match the standard of the world. You do not need to reinforce that to her. Instead, you need to reinforce your pleasure in her.
In verse 7 we see that she wants to know where he will be so that she can find time to spend with him. She does not want to blend in with “the friends crowd.” She wants to be alone with him. Couples should be looking for ways to make time together. She says that she wants to meet him at work to spend time with him. This was one of the nice things my wife did for me when we were dating. I was working at a gas station/convenience store in college and I worked the third shift. There were times she came and visited me, even though it was late at night. We need to think about one another and do things for each other that would be enjoyed and appreciated.
Textual note: Kedar was a territory southeast of Damascus where the Bedouin roamed. Their tents were made of the skins of black goats.
His Praise For Her (1:8-11)
In verses 8-10 we see the man make two declarations to her. First, though busy and working (1:7), she still is the priority of his life. She needs to be his priority and she is. She needs to know that he wants to be around her. He does not say, “Don’t bother me at work. I’ll see you when I am done tending the flocks.” She wants to spend time with him and he is encouraging her to do so. Also, there is an important message of trust declared here. There is a knowledge of where each other will be. It is not a surprise as if he has gone somewhere that she had no idea. There is nothing hidden from each other in this relationship. They know where each other are. If you are dating and you think you need more privacy, then you have the wrong person. If you are trying to hide yourself from the other person, then this tells you that you do not enjoy spending time together. If you are married, then this secrecy is a big problem. It is often an indication of an affair, or at least a heart that has shut down to you and may be opening up for another. This problem must be immediately addressed.
Second, he is willing to praise her beauty. He listened to her concerns and addressed what she needed. She has asked to not be looked down upon because of her looks. She is lovely but she does not meet the culture’s standard of beauty. He only has eyes for her. Among all the women, she is the most beautiful. He says that she stands apart from all the other women. You catch the attention of all the men. Notice that he confirms her beauty to alleviate her fears that she is expressed in verses 5-6. Also notice the specificity of his compliments to her and she will respond in kind. Don’t just say “you look good.” He gives her specific compliments. Tell her what looks good. Tell her what you like and be specific about your compliments. He speaks about how beautiful her jewelry sits on her. Women like to hear these kinds of words, men. Further, the language he uses also speaks to her nobility and her value to him.
Verse 11 is another chorus of women singing how beautiful the jewelry sits on her.
King or shepherd? — The discussion has been of flocks, herds, shepherds, and vineyards. But the rest of chapter 1 speaks of a table, expensive and exotic perfumes, and spices from far away places. At the beginning of the chapter he was called a king but now he is called a shepherd. This may be confusing to us because we do not usually associate shepherds and kings. This confusion has led some to suggest that there are two men, one who is a king and one who is a shepherd. However, the confusion simply indicates how far our world is from the world of David’s day. In the ancient Near East in the second and first millenniums B.C., kings from Greece to Egypt to Persia were called shepherds. Notice that the Lord calls Cyrus of Persia “my shepherd” (Isa 44:28). In Jeremiah 2:4-13 four classes of leaders are castigated: the priests, the legal authorities, the rulers, and the prophets. The Hebrew term for the rulers is ro’im (lit., “shepherds”). She is still calling him by pet names. Whether he is truly a king or truly a shepherd or neither is not relevant to the poet. To her, he is her king. To her, he is her shepherd. (cf. Expositor’s Bible Commentary).
His Importance To Her (1:12-14)
She is wearing perfume and he is sitting on the couch. In keeping with the first couple verses of this chapter, they have gone into the innermost part of the house to have time together privately. She is wearing pouch of myrrh around her neck that hangs between her breasts. This is one of the ways a woman would perfume herself in ancient times. Nard (NIV, “perfume”; ASV, KJV, NKJV, “spikenard”) was an ointment derived from a plant that grew in northern and eastern India. It was considered very fragrant and quite expensive. It was used as a love charm in the ancient Near East, as were other aromatic oils (cf. Luke 7:36-50) (Expositors’ Bible Commentary). So what she is saying about him is that he causes everything to be better for her and she does the same for him. She is like perfume to him and he is a beautiful fragrance to her. This is what she means to say that he is like “a cluster of henna blossoms.” Henna was a Palestinian shrub. Its leaves were used to produce a bright orange-red cosmetic dye. It has been used in the Near East to color the hair, hands, and feet. We still know it as a hair dye. Its blossoms, however, were quite fragrant. He is a wonderful fragrance to her. He is not the stench in her life. His presence is pleasant, comfortable, and enjoyable.
His impact on her is encompassing and inescapable. Her consciousness of him sweetens her life the way the aroma of a sachet of perfume placed between the breasts makes a girl move in a cloud of fragrance. The thought or sight of him is as pleasant as the aroma wafted from a field of henna blossoms. Love has its own hallowing touch on all of life. The point is that the person you are with is better than anyone else. You are not settling for someone. Rather, your lover is like flowers among the desert wilderness. Notice how both are speaking complimentary back and forth to each other. We do these kinds of things in dating but they must continue into marriage. For some reason these things often stop once marriage begins and we take one another for granted.
Engedi was an oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea. It stands in stark contrast in the middle of the desert region. It was an extraordinarily fertile place and archaeology indicates a significant perfume business was there. To her, he is an oasis, a respite from life. He is the place where she goes for comfort, relaxation, and relief, not agitation and distress. We need to be an oasis to one another in our relationship. When we are dating, we put aside a terrible day and put on our best face because we are with the person we love. We must continue this in marriage.
Building Life Together (1:15-17)
In verse 15 he responds to her gestures by declaring her beauty. Notice it is not just her beauty, but he speaks to her softness. He says that her eyes are like doves. There is a kindness and tenderness about her. She is beautiful and tender.
She also responds that he is handsome also. It is important that this is communicated to the man. Just as we see the man validating the beauty of this woman in this song, we see that she reciprocates the feeling. Yes, she finds him attractive also.
Now she praises him for the home they are going to be building together. We have built the home that we will enjoy together. This seems to be more than a literal,”I like the green couch we have.” This metaphor speaks more to the relationship that they have built together that is strong and beautiful. A lasting, wonderful relationship is being built by these two people.
We should read this first chapter and note how these two speak to each other and how they perceive each other. We must look to replicate this atmosphere in our relationships. They are working for private time together to build their relationship. They physically desire each other. They are building each other up with their words. They are a strength, a wonderful fragrance, and an oasis for each other. They are delighted in being with each other and others are able to see the joy and love in the relationship. They have built a strong, beautiful relationship together because they have focused on the needs, desires, and wants of the other person.