The Sanctuary and the Song

The Song of Solomon has attracted a variety of interpretations, on account of its diverse imagery. It has inspired a great many commentaries throughout church history. A variety of different themes are woven together throughout the book, including the themes of sanctuary, garden and city. Both Solomon and his bride describe one another using extremely rich metaphorical language. I will be considering here the theme of the sanctuary and the way that this inspires the lovers’ reflections on one another.

A Fragrant Sacrifice

Just outside of the sanctuary, in the courtyard, sacrifice was offered to God. Sacrificial language can be found in a number of places within the Song. In the opening description of Solomon, his “anointing oils” are said to be fragrant, and his name is compared to “oil poured out” (1:2-4). Oil was poured out upon grain offerings and was used for ordaining priests and kings. Special anointing oil was also kept for the purposes of setting apart sacred people and spaces.

Another example of sacrificial imagery would be in the description of Solomon arriving in his wedding carriage in 3:6-11. The reference to “columns of smoke” in the wilderness echoes the presence of God leading his people through the desert. However, it also has sacrificial connotations, since the sacrifices of the bronze altar ascended upwards in a column of smoke. The references to perfuming with “myrrh and frankincense” strengthen this connotation. Myrrh was the main ingredient in the holy anointing oil used to sanctify the tabernacle (Exodus 30:22-33) and frankincense was used to perfume grain offerings before presenting them before God on the altar (Leviticus 2:1-3). In the approach of Solomon, the bride witnesses the approach of God himself, descending in the sacrificial smoke and anointed with a holy scent.

Another section of the Song which uses sacrificial imagery is Solomon’s first detailed description of his bride in 4:1-16. Note the way that the bride’s face is described in the opening verses: She is said to have eyes like doves, hair like a flock of goats and teeth like ewes bearing young.[1] These are all sacrificial animals, fit for an Israelite to offer up on the altar. Just as a sacrifice is presented to God and becomes a fragrant aroma and an acceptable offering to him so too is Solomon’s bride a fitting sacrifice in his eyes, a fragrant aroma in his sight.

A Sacred Place

There are other sections of the Song which relate directly to the sanctuary itself. In the wedding carriage scene already mentioned (3:6-11), note the way that the carriage is described. It is made with the wood of Lebanon, a subtle allusion to the description of Solomon’s palace in 1 Kings 7:1-12.[2] However the overall picture is more like that of the ark of the covenant. God was enthroned above the ark which was fitted with poles and carried by his servants, the Levites. It was made from wood and overlaid with gold (Exodus 25:10-22). Similarly, Solomon is enthroned upon a wooden carriage with a gold plated back and surrounded by royal soldiers standing guard. The presence of Solomon to his bride is like that of God enthroned above the ark of the covenant, surrounded by his servants.

The first detailed description of the bride previously mentioned (4:1-16) ends with a comparison between the bride and a garden (verses 12-16). She is described as a “locked” garden and a “sealed” fountain. She is said to contain many choice fruits and spices. She has a river running through her, a “well of living water” producing many streams. This is an allusion to the garden of Eden. The garden of Eden was full of choice fruits, pleasing to mankind (Genesis 2:8-9a). It had the tree of life and a river producing many streams flowing out of the garden (Genesis 2:9b-10). After the fall, the garden became sealed off to mankind (Genesis 3:22-24).

The garden of Eden was the very first sanctuary in history. It was situated on a high place,[3] with rivers flowing out from it to the four corners of the earth. It was the place where God came to meet with man and to delight in his presence. After the fall, human beings could only approach the sanctuary of God at a distance, through the blood of animals offered on the altar. When Solomon witnesses his bride, he sees in her the garden of Eden, a reversion back to a time when man could meet with God up close.

The Presence of God

In all of these passages there is a common theme. The notion of God’s presence among human beings is re-iterated throughout the Song. Early on in the Song, Solomon speaks of seeing the face and hearing the voice of his bride “in the clefts of the rock” (2:14). This is an allusion to Exodus 33:12-23, in which Moses is told to hide “in a cleft of the rock” whilst he witnesses the glory of God. However, unlike Moses who could not gaze upon the face of God, Solomon witnesses up front the face of his bride.

The final chapter of the Song sums this up well. In 8:6-7, the bride expresses her love for Solomon in a way which strongly reflects the love of God for his people. Just as with the covenant of the Law, which was to be placed upon one’s heart, hand and head,[4] the “seal” of marital love is to be set upon one’s “hand” and one’s “arm”. Such love is like “fire”, like the flaming presence of the Lord. In the love between Solomon and his bride, heaven meets earth and God is united once again with mankind.

“Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the Lord.”
(Song of Solomon 8:6)

[1] The second detailed description of the bride also mentions the same three animals, but instead of describing her eyes as like doves, Solomon uses the dove as a title for the bride herself (6:4-10).

[2] This passage from 1 Kings is particularly significant, in that it also mentions a house being built for Solomon’s first wife, the daughter of Pharaoh. This and the other allusions to Solomon’s palace could therefore indicate that she is the bride depicted in the Song.

[3] See for instance Ezekiel 28:11-19, which describes the garden of Eden as situated upon a mountain.

[4] See Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

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