From Song of Solomon 1:9-14
When I say that communication is at the very heart of success or failure in marriage, I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new. It’s like saying that bad weather is going to cause you some inconvenience during the year. We all know that, but what can we do about it?
We need to keep our marriages in the right Book—the one inspired by God. At the foundation of our identity as His children, we have basic needs, implanted by our Creator that can only be met by the nourishing and unconditional love of an intimate partner. That love is given and received by the medium of clear communication. Let’s look at some biblical principles for doing that right, courtesy of Solomon and Shulamith.
Be Personal With Your Praise
You simply can’t show your love without using the principle of praise. When we are in love we say, “Let me count the ways.” It’s right here in The Song: the power of magnifying all that is good in your loved one. In the ninth and tenth verses of Chapter 1, we learn to get personal when it comes to praising someone. We also receive a few practical tips on how to do it.
In the previous chapter I’m sure you noticed that we had yet to hear from Solomon himself. Now he speaks. At the beginning of this section, he brings us from the countryside to the palace. You will also recall Shulamith’s insecurity about her physical appearance, particularly as measured against the fair-skinned women of the city.
We learn that Solomon is sensitive to her doubts and fears. How does he confront them? By building her up with genuine, heartfelt praise and encouragement.
Go Public With Your Praise
Now it gets a little more difficult—but hang in there.
Have you ever seen that guy at the office who is surrounded by coworkers when his wife calls on the phone—the guy who at the end of the conversation says, “Me, too”? It’s obvious that his wife has just said, “I love you,” and he has replied with a shorthand substitute: “Me, too.” He may actually say “I love you” at home, but he’s not quite secure enough to say it in front of the guys in the office.
Yet here’s the next principle we learn from The Song. Go public! Put it out there. In the eleventh verse, Solomon continues, “We will make you ornaments of gold with studs of silver.” Note the change in pronouns from verse nine (“I”) to verse eleven (“we”). Solomon has gone public with his love; he is involving other people (“we”) in professing his love for Shulamith through the creation of gifts of gold and silver.
Need I tell you that the opposite approach can be devastating? Make it a steadfast rule never to air out a grievance about your spouse in the presence of others—no matter how slight. I’ve seen the pain too many times in my work as a pastor. On one occasion, Donna and I were on our way to a capital campaign to raise money for a building project. This was a formal dinner at a country club in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and our church leaders and committee members were present. After a fine dinner, we were standing around talking when one of the wives approached us. She said to her husband, “We have a babysitter. We need to leave pretty soon.” Her husband turned around and replied, for everyone to hear: “Well, if you want to go home, why don’t you just walk?”
It was as if someone had let the air out of the room. Everyone was shocked, and I can tell you that after thirty years, I can still see it and hear it vividly in my memory—particularly the injured expression on the woman’s face. Nothing will destroy a marriage more quickly than public insult. If there’s an issue, you need to attend to it. But do it in the privacy of your home. In public, only loving support is appropriate.
Be Passionate With Your Praise
We need to be personal and public, but we must also be passionate. That’s the carbonation that puts the “fizz” in the cola. There is, “I love you,” and then there is, “I love you!” The italics and the exclamation mark may be invisible in conversation, but we recognize the difference in how the words are said. One spouse says it with real meaning, the other bats the words back where they came from with no discernible emotion. Sometimes it’s worse to say “I love you” the wrong way, than not to say it at all.
In our biblical passage, Solomon has been speaking words of love to Shulamith. But now the speaker changes again; Shulamith begins to address praises to Solomon. The effect is something like a contest in which the two try to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10, English Standard Version). It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? Solomon has spoken his love, and Shulamith tries to top him.
Nearly every couple develops a private love vocabulary.
Shortly after Donna and I were married, we went off to seminary where I began studying the biblical Greek language. One day I came home and told Donna that I loved her—using koiné Greek, the biblical language which all New Testament students learn. Fascinated, Donna immediately wanted to learn how to say it herself. I had fun teaching her to pronounce the phrase. And to this very day, the koiné Greek words for “I love you” are special and personal for us. It’s an ancient language that isn’t used in any culture, but it’s very active in the culture of our home. It’s fun to be able to say something to each other that is “our little secret,” so that no one around us understands. Even our kids never caught on! I hope you have a special language in your marriage.
Let’s discover how Shulamith shows her passion.
Passionate About His Dignity
Be forewarned: In this section, when we use the word passionate, we mean it. A biblical display of affection follows.
Verse 12 reads, “While the king is at his table, my spikenard sends forth its fragrance.” The word spikenard doesn’t quite carry the music of poetry, does it? Nor does it sound like a name we would assign to a perfume. Yet in the Bible, this is the name of a very precious fragrance. Shulamith will describe her love for Solomon by referring to three different kinds of perfume.
Spikenard is derived from a plant native to the Himalayan region of India and grown between 11,000- and 17,000-feet above sea level. In ancient times, only the very rich could afford it. For one thing, it couldn’t exactly be grown in one’s backyard—the conditions had to be just so. Even today, spikenard is available and costly, pungent with its warm, earthy aroma.1 A little of it goes a long way, or so I’m told. You might recall the Gospel story of Mary of Bethany, who poured an alabaster container of spikenard perfume on Jesus in an act of extravagant worship. The Bible tells us that the fragrance quickly permeated the house (Luke 7:36-50). Back in the Old Testament, a dab of the scent on Shulamith would be certain to attract Solomon’s attention, even as he presided at a royal banquet table spread with rich-smelling culinary delights.
Shulamith is passionate about her man’s dignity. Royalty deserves royal fragrance, and the aroma of spikenard sends that message.
Passionate About His Devotion
Shulamith says, “A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, that lies all night between my breasts” (verse 13). Not only is Shulamith passionate about his dignity, but also his devotion. She feels the love of Solomon like a sachet of myrrh resting between her breasts.
And now for a word about myrrh, that strange substance we hear about at Christmas time—a gift to the Christ child from the wise men who followed the star. (See Matthew 2:11.) Myrrh is a resinous gum gathered from a species of South Arabian trees. As a liquid, it was carried in small bottles like a perfume. But it could also be found in solid form, in which case it might be carried in a small pouch or sachet worn about a woman’s neck. The myrrh would be mixed with a bit of fat that would melt from the heat of the sun releasing the fragrance of resin to fill the room.2 It tasted bitter, but it smelled rich and lovely. Worth its weight in gold, this was to be the primary ingredient in the anointing oil that God directed Moses to prepare in Exodus 30:23-33.
Shulamith’s words are sensual but not particularly sexual. The idea is that the fragrance of the myrrh was another rich, fragrant reminder of Solomon, who held a royal place in her nation and her heart. The sachet, worn close to the heart day and night, was a symbol of his devotion to her that was permanent and unchanging. The constant love of a spouse is like that—we close our eyes at night knowing that same head will be on the other pillow for this night and every night to come. With so many transient, untrustworthy things in this world, we hold the love of our marriage close to our heart, fragrant and precious.
Passionate About His Distinction
Finally, Shulamith is passionate about the qualities that set Solomon apart from other men. In the following verse she says, “My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blooms in the vineyards of En Gedi” (verse 14).
En Gedi lies along the western shore of the Dead Sea. Vineyards are there, but the name means “The Spring of Kid” because of the wild mountain goats nearby. Known as ibexes, these goats find their way down the mountain to the oasis of En Gedi to drink from its cool springs. The vicinity is surrounded by arid desert, and it’s also the region where David once hid in the rock caves from King Saul. So, like so much of Israel, this is an intriguing area: beauty surrounded by desolation, tranquility tinged with danger—a place where God’s hand has moved in profound ways.
In this climate and with the many watering holes all around, henna sprung up across the hillsides. It has a blue-black berry and a white flower with a sweet, clean, fragrance that lingers in the air.3 Isn’t it delightful how Solomon’s Song must be read with the five senses at full attention? Smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound are all vessels of human and godly love. Genuine love has that effect on us. Our devotion overflows through every human channel.
Archeologists have excavated shops where perfume was formulated at En Gedi.4 In these very markets, the fine henna perfume that Shulamith describes was sold. For her, of course, it’s all about Solomon, of whom all these tastes and aromatic delights are only a reminder. She seese her man as a wonderful oasis in a desert of unremarkable men.
For many of our single men and women, the great quest of life is that one person who stands out, that man or woman of distinction in a seemingly arid landscape of humanity. Some people say, “When you meet the right one, you’ll just know.” It sounds too trite, too Hollywood, and yet sometimes it works out like that after all. Years ago our youngest daughter, Jennifer, was getting ready to go to seminary. One of her friends from the school called her on the phone to fill her in on what to expect when she got there. She said, “Jennifer, as a female seminary student, you’re going to be in the minority up here. Let me tell you about that: The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” In her opinion, more quantity than quality. Yet Jennifer found the love of her life there.
We want to “just know.” We need love to be as clear as a bright, vivid oasis in the middle of a desert. In this day of broken relationships, we want to be rock-solid certain that we’ve found the one and only life partner that God has reserved for us. We have a full chapter on this subject a little later; for the time being, our point is that there was no doubt in Shulamith’s mind. Her man was outstanding in his field—an oasis in the desert.
If you’re married, have you recently told your partner what distinguishes him or her? You might need to give that some thought, and thank God that He found the right one for you. Then, after expressing your gratitude to Him, let your spouse know. Build up your life mate with praise. This first chapter of The Song has given us a terrific example of how a couple can creatively express their love for one another. You can only imagine how these words inflamed their mutual passion. Is there any doubt that such a loving exchange, using more contemporary terms, would do the same for you?
This article is an excerpt from What the Bible Says About Love, Marriage, and Sex by Dr. David Jeremiah.
2 G. Lloyd Carr, The Song of Solomon: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 84-85.
3 “Henna” http://www.tigerflag.com/madini_henna.html (accessed 13 November 2008).
4 “En Gedi,” http://www.bibleplaces.com/engedi.htm (accessed 13 November 2008).