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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Song of Solomon 1

 

 

Verse 1

Song of Solomon 1:1 contains the title of the book: literally, A song of the songs (Heb., Shîr hashîrîm), which to Solomon, i.e., of which Solomon is author. This has been understood as meaning “one of Solomon’s songs,” with allusion to the 1,005 songs (1 Kings 4:32) which that monarch composed. But when in Hebrew a compound idea is to be expressed definitely, the article is prefixed to the word in the genitive. So here not merely “a song of songs” (comp. holy of holies), i.e., “a very excellent song,” but “The song of songs,” i.e., the most excellent or surpassing song. For the question of authorship and date of poem, see Excursus I.


Verse 2

(2) Love.—Marg., loves, i.e., caresses or kisses, as the parallelism shows. The LXX., followed by the Vulg., read breasts (probably dadaï instead of dôdaï), the origin of many fanciful interpretations: e.g., the two breasts = the two Testaments which breathe love, the first promising, the second revealing Christ. The reading is condemned by the obvious fact that the words are not spoken to but by a woman, the change of persons, from second to third, not implying a change of reference or speaker, but being an enallage frequent in sacred poetry. (Comp. Deuteronomy 32:15; Isaiah 1:29, &c) Instead of “let him kiss me,” many prefer the reading “let him give me to drink,” which certainly preserves the metaphor (comp. Song of Solomon 7:9), which is exactly that of Ben Jonson’s:—

“Or leave a kiss but in the cup,

And I’ll not ask for wine.”


Verse 3

(3) Because of the savour.—The general sense of this verse is plain, though grammatical difficulties render the literal translation doubtful. It should be divided into three clauses, not into two only, as in the Authorised Version: “Because of their odour (or, with regard to their fragrance) thy ointments (are) sweet.” There is no authority for taking riach = sense of smell, or we should naturally translate “to the smell thy ointments are sweet.” The rendering of the next clause, “thy name is (like) oil poured forth,” is to be preferred, though it necessitates making either shemen = oil, or shem = name, feminine, for which there is no example, since the alternative, which takes tûrak = poured forth, second masculine instead of third feminine, is harsh: “Thou art poured forth like oil with regard to thy name.” The image is an obvious one (comp. Ecclesiastes 7:1). There is a play on words in shemen and shemka.

Virgins.—Heb., alamôth; young girls. (See Note, Song of Solomon 6:8.) Those who understand Solomon to be the object of the desire expressed in these verses understand by alamôth “the ladies of the harem.” In the original these three verses plainly form a stanza of five lines


Verse 4

(4) The king hath brought me.—The dramatic theory of the poem (see Excursus II.) has been in a great measure built up on interpretations given to this verse. We understand it as a repetition, in another form, of the protestation of love made in Song of Solomon 1:1-3. Like them, it forms a stanza of five lines. The clause, “the king hath brought,” &c, is—in accordance with a common Hebrew idiom, where an hypothesis is expressed by a simple perfect or future without a particle (comp. Proverbs 22:29; Proverbs 25:16)—to be understood, “Even should the king have brought me into his chambers, yet our transport and our joys are for thee alone; even then we would recall thy caresses, those caresses which are sweeter than wine.”

The upright love thee.—Marg., they love thee uprightly; Heb., meysharîm, used in other places either (1) in the abstract, “righteousness,” &c, Psalms 17:2; Psalms 99:4; Proverbs 8:6 (so LXX. here); or (2) adverbially, Psalms 58:2; Psalms 75:3 (and Song of Solomon 7:9 below; but there the Lamed prefixed fixes the adverbial use). The Authorised Version follows the Vulg., Recti diligunt te, and is to be preferred, as bringing the clause into parallelism with the concluding clause of Song of Solomon 1:3 : “Thou who hast won the love of all maidens by thy personal attractions, hast gained that of the sincere and upright ones by thy character and thy great name.”


Verse 5

(5) As the tents of Kedar—i.e., Dark as the Kedareen tents of black goats’ hair, beautiful as the royal pavilions with their rich hangings. For a similar style of parallelism, comp. Isaiah 15:3 : “On her housetops, and to her open streets, every one howleth, descendeth with weeping.” For Kedar, see Genesis 25:13.

As the poet puts this description of the lady’s complexion into her own mouth, we must understand it as a little playful raillery, which is immediately redeemed by a compliment. It also prepares the way for the reminiscence of an interesting passage in her early life. See next verse.


Verse 6

(6) Look not . . .—i.e., with disdain, as in Job 41:34 (Heb. 26).

Black.—Literally, blackish.

The sun . . .—The word translated looked upon occurs only twice besides (Job 20:9; Job 28:7). The “all-seeing sun” is a commonplace of poetry; but here with sense of scorching. The heroine goes on to explain the cause of her exposure to the sun. Her dark complexion is accidental, and cannot therefore be used as an argument that she was an Egyptian princess, whose nuptials with Solomon are celebrated in the poem.

Mother’s children—i.e., brothers, not necessarily step-brothers, as Ewald and others. (Comp. Psalms 50:20; Psalms 69:8.) The reference to the mother rather than the father is natural in a country where polygamy was practised.

Mine own vineyard . . .—The general sense is plain. While engaged in the duties imposed by her brothers, she had been compelled to neglect something—but what? Some think her beloved, and others her reputation; Ginsburg, literally, her own special vineyard. But the obvious interpretation connects the words immediately with the context. Her personal appearance had been sacrificed to her brothers’ severity. While tending their vines she had neglected her own complexion.


Verse 7

(7) Where thou feedest . . . thy flock . . . For why should I be . . .?—The marginal reading, that is veiled, follows the LXX. in rendering the Hebrew literally. But it has been found somewhat difficult to assign a meaning to a literal translation. The suggestions=unknown (Ewald), veiled as a harlot (Delitzsch, &c; comp. Genesis 38:15), fainting (Gesenius), seem all wide of the mark, since the question only refers to the danger of missing her beloved through ignorance of his whereabouts. A transposition of two letters would give a word with a sense required = erring, wandering about, a sense, indeed, which old Rabbinical commentators gave to this word itself in Isaiah 22:16 (Authorised Version, cover); and probably the idea involved is the obvious one that a person with the head muffled up would not find her way easily, as we might say, “Why should I go about blindfold?”

The Rabbinical interpretation of this verse is a good instance of the fanciful treatment the book has received: “When the time came for Moses to depart, he said to the Lord, ‘It is revealed to me that this people will sin and go into captivity; show me how they shall be governed and dwell among the nations whose decrees are oppressive as the heat; and wherefore is it they shall wander among the flocks of Esau and Ishmael, who make them idols equal to thee as thy companions?’”


Verse 8

(8) If thou know not.—With this verse one subsection of the poem plainly ends. Most of the supporters of the dramatic theory make Song of Solomon 1:9 begin the second scene of Act I.; and many of them understand this reply to the heroine’s question as an ironical allusion on the part of the court ladies to her low birth. We take it rather as one of the many playful ways in which the poet either recalls or arranges meetings with the object of his passion (comp. Song of Solomon 2:10-14). In the first seven verses he imagines her sighing for him, and in his absence, fancying, as lovers do, causes which might keep them asunder or make him forsake her, such as the loss of her complexion, her abduction into a royal harem; and then in Song of Solomon 1:8 shows how groundless her fears are by playfully suggesting a well known way of finding him.


Verse 9

(9) Company of horses.—So Vulg., equitatus, but Heb. susah more properly = mare, as in LXX., τῇ ἵππῳ μου. The ground of the comparison is variously understood. Some, offended at the comparison of female beauty to that of a horse, think the rich trappings of a royal equipage suggested it, while on the other hand, the mention of the caparisoned steed may have suggested the reference to the lady’s ornaments. But Anacreon (60) and Theocritus (Idyll xviii. 30, 31), and also Horace (Ode iii. 11), have compared female with equine beauty; and an Arab chief would not hesitate to prefer the points of his horse to the charms of his mistress.

Chariots.—The plural shows that the image is general, and with no reference to any one particular equipage. Pharaoh’s teams are selected as pre-eminently fine by reputation. The supposition that there is a reference to some present from the Egyptian to the Israelite monarch is gratuitous. The kings of Israel bought their horses and chariots at a high price (1 Kings 10:29).


Verse 10

(10) Rows.—Heb., tôrim, from tûr = went round; hence = either circlets or strings of jewels, or the round beads themselves of which necklaces, &c, were made.

Chains.—Literally, perforated, i.e., beads, or possibly coins strung together. “Arab ladies, particularly the married, are extravagantly fond of silver and gold ornaments, and they have an endless variety of chains, bracelets, anklets, necklaces, and rings. It is also quite common to see thousands of piastres, in various coins, round the forehead and suspended from the neck, and covering a system of network, called suffa, attached to the back of the head-dress, which spreads over the shoulders and falls down to the waist” (Thomson, The Land and the Book).

Olearius (quoted by Harmer) says:—“Persian ladies use as head-dress two or three rows of pearls, which pass round the head and hang down the cheeks, so that their faces seem set in pearls.” Lady Mary Montague describes the Sultana Hafitan as wearing round her head-dress four strings of pearls of great size and beauty.


Verse 11

(11) Borders.—The same word translated rows in preceding verse. In the dramatic theory, this verse put into Solomon’s mouth takes the form of a seductive offer of richer and more splendid ornaments to dazzle the rustic maiden; but no theory is necessary to explain a fond lover’s wish to adorn the person of his beloved.


Verse 12

(12) While the king sitteth.—There is no need to imagine a scene where the monarch, having failed in his attempt to allure the shepherdess by fine offers, retires to his banquet, leaving her to console herself with the thoughts of her absent shepherd love. As in Song of Solomon 1:2 the poet makes his mistress prefer his love to wine, so here she prefers the thought of union with him to all the imagined pleasures of the royal table.

Spikenard—Heb., nerd—is exclusively an Indian product, procured from the Nardostachys jatamansi, a plant of the order Valerianaceœ. It was imported into Palestine at a very early period. The perfume is prepared by drying the shaggy stem of the plant (see Tristram’s Nat. Hist. of Bible, pp. 484, 485). There is a sketch of the plant in Smith’s Bibl. Dict.


Verse 13

(13) A bundle of myrrh.—The mention of perfumes leads the poet to a new adaptation of the language of flowers. For myrrh (Heb., môr), see Genesis 37:25. For various personal and domestic uses, see Psalms 45:8; Proverbs 7:17; Proverbs 5:13. Ginsburg quotes from the Mischna to prove the custom, alluded to in the text, of wearing sachets, or bottles of myrrh, suspended from the neck. Tennyson’s exquisite little song in The Miller’s Daughter suggests itself as a comparison:—

“And I would be the necklace,

And all day long to fall and rise

Upon her balmy bosom

With her laughter or her sighs.

And I would lie so light, so light,

I scarce should be unclasped at night.”


Verse 14

(14) Camphire.—Marg., cypress: Heb., côpher. There is no doubt of the identity of this plant with the Henna of the Arabs, the Lawsonia aïba or inermis of botanists. Robinson found it growing in abundance at En-gedi (where alone it is found), and suggested the identification (see his Note, Researches, ii. 211). Tristram describes it thus: “It is a small shrub, eight or ten feet high, with dark back, pale green foliage, and clusters of white and yellow blossoms of a powerful fragrance. Not only is the perfume of the flower highly prized, but a paste is made of the dried and pounded leaves, which is used by the women of all ranks and the men of the wealthier classes to dye the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, and the nails” (Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 339). (Comp. also Thomson, The Land and the Book, p. 602, who, however, prefers to identify côpher with some specially favourite kind of grapes, but without giving any sufficient reason.) For En-gedi, see Joshua 15:62. It is the only place in Southern. Palestine mentioned in this poem, the other allusions (except Heshbon, Song of Solomon 7:4, which is in Moab) being to northern localities.


Verse 15

(15) Behold, thou art fair.—The song is now transferred to a male speaker—the advocates for the dramatic theory cannot agree whether Solomon or the shepherd; and no wonder, since the poem gives no indication.

My love.—Marg., companion, LXX. πλησίον, in Heb. rayati, is used for the female, dôdi being her usual term for her lover. Beyond this the terms of endearment used cannot safely be pressed for any theory.

Thou hast doves’ eyes.—Literally, thine eyes are doves’. The same image is repeated (Song of Solomon 4:1), and adopted in return by the heroine (Song of Solomon 5:12). The point of the comparison is either quickness of glance or generally tenderness and grace. The dove, a favourite with all poets as an emblem of love, is especially dear to this bard. Out of about fifty mentions of the bird in Scripture, seven occur in the short compass of this book. For general account of the dove in Palestine, see Psalms 55:6, and for particular allusions Notes below to Song of Solomon 2:11-12; Song of Solomon 2:14. (Comp. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, v. 3:—

“Or those doves’ eyes

That can make gods forsworn.”

Tennyson’s Maud:—

“Do I hear her sing as of old,

My bird with the shining head,

My own dove, with her tender eye?”)


Verse 16

(16) Our bed is green.—The heroine replies in similar terms of admiration, and recalls “the happy woodland places” in which they were wont to meet.


Verse 17

(17) Rafters.—Marg., galleries (comp. Song of Solomon 7:5); LXX., φατνώματα; Vulg., laquearia; Heb., rahît, from rahat = run, flow: hence (1) a gutter, from the water running down (Gen. 3:38); (2) a curl, from its flowing down the neck (Song of Solomon 7:5—Hebrews 6); (3) here rafters, or roof beams, from their spreading overhead. “Our couch was the green grass, the arches of our bower the cedar branches, and its rafters the firs.” Others read rachitim, which is explained as a transposition for charitim = turned work. But the thought is plainly connected with the woods, not with a gorgeous house. For cedar see 1 Kings 4:33.

Fir.—Heb., berôth (Aramaic form of berôsh), a tree often mentioned in connection with cedar as an emblem of majesty, &c. (Ezekiel 31:8; Isaiah 37:24; Isaiah 60:13). “The plain here has evidently been buried deep under sand long ages ago, precisely as at Beirût, and here are the usual pine forests growing upon it (Beirût is by some derived from berûth). These are the finest specimens we have seen in Palestine, though every sandy ridge of Lebanon and Hermon is clothed with them. In my opinion it is the Heb. berôsh, concerning which there is so much confusion in the various translations of the Bible . . . the generic name for the pine, of which there are several varieties in Lebanon. Cypress is rarely found there, but pine everywhere, and it is the tree used for beams and rafters (Thomson, The Land and Book, p. 511). The Pinus maritima and the Aleppo pine are the most common, the latter being often mistaken for the Scotch fir. (See Tristram, Nat. Hist. of Bible, p. 353, &c.)

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Song of Solomon 1:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/song-of-solomon-1.html. 1905.

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