Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.II.
(1) The rose.—Heb., chabatseleth. The identification of this flower is a much vexed question. From its derivation, it should be a bulbous plant (batsal—a bulb), and it happens that the flower which for other reasons best satisfies the requirements is of this kind, viz., the Sweet-scented Narcissus (Narcissus tazetta). “Others have suggested the crocus, of which there are many species very common, but they are deficient in perfume, and there is no bulb more fragrant than the narcissus; it is, besides, one of which the Orientals arc passionately fond. While it is in flower it is to be seen in all the bazaars, and the men as well as the women always carry two or three blossoms, at which they are continually smelling” (Tristram, Nat. Hist. of Bible, p. 477). Dr. Thomson prefers the mallow, from the fact that the Arabs call it khubbazey. In Isaiah 35:1, the only other place where chabatseleth occurs, the LXX., Vulg., and Chaldee render “lily,” and many eminent moderns “autumn crocus.” Here the LXX. and the Vulg. have flower.
Of Sharon.—Better, of the plain, as in the LXX. Here (as invariably except 1Chronicles 5:16) the Hebrew has the article before sharon, but without definite local allusion to the district north of Philistia. The verse is by many taken as a snatch of a song into which the heroine breaks in answer to the eulogies on her beauty. It is certainly spoken with modest and lowly intention: “I am a mere flower of the plain, a lily of the valley;” by no means like Tennyson’s “Queen lily and rose in one.”
Lily.—So the LXX. and Vulg.; Heb., shôshanath (fem. of shôshan, or shûshan; comp. name Susan), a word occurring seven times in the poem, three times in 1 Kings 7, and in the headings to Psalms 45, 60, 69, 80. The Arabs have the word, and apply it to any brilliantly coloured flower, as the tulip, anemone, ranunculus. Although many plants of the lily tribe flourish in Palestine, none of them give a predominant character to the flora. There are, however, many other plants which would in popular language be called lilies. Of these, the Irises may claim the first mention; and Dr. Thomson (Land and Book, p. 256) unhesitatingly fixes on one, which he calls Huleh Lily, or the Lily of the Gospel and of the Song of Songs. “Our flower,” he says, “delights most in the valleys, but it is also found in the mountains. It grows among thorns, and I have sadly lacerated my hands while extricating it from them. . . . Gazelles still delight to feed among them, and you can scarcely ride through the woods north of Tabor, where these lilies abound, without frightening them from their flowery pasture.” Tristram, however, prefers the Anemone (A. coronaria), “the most gorgeously painted, the most conspicuous in spring, and the most universally spread of all the treasures of the Holy Land” (Nat. Hist. of Bible, p. 464).
As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.(2) Among the daughters—i.e., among other maidens.
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.(3) Apple tree.—So the LXX. and Vulg.; Heb., tappuach. Out of the six times that the word is used, four occur in this book, the other two being Proverbs 25:11—“apple of gold”—Joel 1:12, where it is joined with vine, fig, &c, as suffering from drought. It has been very variously identified. The quince, the citron, the apple, and the apricot have each had their advocates.
The apple may be set aside, because the Palestine fruit usually called the apple is really the quince, the climate being too hot for our apple. (But see Thornson, The Land and the Book, p. 546.) The requirements to be satisfied are (1) grateful shade, Song of Solomon 2:3; (2) agreeable taste, Song of Solomon 2:3-5; (3) sweet perfume, Song of Solomon 7:8; (4) golden appearance, Proverbs 25:11. The quince is preferred by many, as being by the ancients consecrated to love, but it does not satisfy (2), being astringent and unpleasant to the taste till cooked. The citron does not, according to Thomson and Tristram, satisfy (1); but according to Rev. W. Drake, in Smith’s Bible Dictionary, “it is a large and beautiful tree, gives a deep and refreshing shade, and is laden with golden-coloured fruit.” The apricot meets all the requirements, and is, with the exception of the fig, the most abundant fruit of the country. “In highlands and lowlands alike, by the shores of the Mediterranean and on the banks of the Jordan, in the nooks of Judiæa, under the heights of Lebanon, in the recesses of Galilee, and in the glades of Gilead, the apricot flourishes, and yields a crop of prodigious abundance. Many times have we pitched our tents in its shade, and spread our carpets secure from the rays of the sun. . . . There can scarcely be a more deliciously-perfumed fruit; and what can better fit the epithet of Solomon, ‘apples of gold in pictures of silver,’ than its golden fruit as its branches bend under the weight, in their setting of bright yet pale foliage?” (Tristram, Nat. Hist. of Bible, p. 335).
Among the sons—i.e., among other young men.
He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.(4) Banqueting house.—Marg., house of wine; not the cellar of the palace, nor the banqueting hall of Solomon, nor the vineyard, but simply the place of the delights of love. The comparison of love with wine Is still in the thought. (Comp. Tennyson’s “The new strong wine of love.”)
And his banner . . .—i.e., “and there I felt the sweet sense of a tender protecting love.”
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.(5) Flagons.—Heb., ashishôth, apparently a dried cake, but of what substance is uncertain. From the margin of Hosea 3:1, possibly “grape cakes.” In 2Samuel 6:19 it occurs as one of the gifts distributed by David at the removal of the ark, and is rendered by the LXX., a cake from the frying-pan. Here the LXX. have sweet unguents, and the Vulg. flowers. The Authorised Version, flagons, follows a Rabbinical interpretation.
Comfort.—The margin, straw me with apples, follows the LXX.; the Hebrew word occurs in Job 17:3; Authorised Version, “make my bed”—Job 41:30 (Heb. 22). Authorised Version, “spreadeth.” Hence some translate here, “make me a bed of apple-leaves;” but the parallelism is against this, and the root idea in both the words translated “comfort” and “stay” is putting a prop or support under. Metaphorically = refresh or sustain.
I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.(7) Roes.—Heb., tsebi, tsebiyah; undoubtedly the ghazal of the Arabs; the gazelle. (See 1Chronicles 12:8.)
Hinds.—Heb., ayyalah. (See Genesis 49:21.) The LXX. strangely read, by the powers and virtues of the field.
My love.—Here almost certainly in the concrete, though there is no instance of such use except in this and the corresponding passages. The Authorised Version, “till he please,” is a mistake in grammar. Read, till she please. The poet imagines his beloved sleeping in his arms, and playfully bids her companions keep from intruding on her slumbers. This verse (which is repeated in Song of Solomon 3:5; Song of Solomon 8:4) marks natural breaks in the poem and adds to the dramatic effect. But there is no occasion to imagine a real stage, with actors grouped upon it. The “daughters of Jerusalem” are present only in the poet’s imagination. It is his manner to fancy the presence of spectators of his happiness and to call on outsiders to share his bliss (comp. Song of Solomon 3:11; Song of Solomon 5:16; Song of Solomon 6:13, &c), and it is on this imaginary theatre which his love conjures up that the curtain falls, here and in other places, on the union of the happy pair. Like Spenser, in his Epithalamium, this poet “unto himself alone will sing;” but he calls on all things bright and beautiful in the world of nature and man to help him to solemnise this joyful rite, and now the moment has come when he bids “the maids and young men cease to sing.”
The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.(8) The voice of my beloved.—So here there is no need of the clumsy device of supposing the heroine in a dream. This most exquisite morsel of the whole poem falls quite naturally into its place if we regard it as a sweet recollection of the poet’s, put into the mouth of the object of his affections. “The voice” (Heb., kôl), used to arrest attention = Hark! (Comp. Psalms 29) The quick sense of love discerns his approach a long way off. (Compare—
“Before he mounts the hill, I know
He cometh quickly.”—Tennyson’s Fatima.)
My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.(9) Wall.—As an instance of the fertility of allegorical interpretation, the variety of applications of this passage may be quoted. The wall = (1) the wall between us and Christ, i.e., our mortal condition; (2) “the middle wall of partition,” the law; (3) the iniquities separating man from God, so that He does not hear or His voice cannot reach us; (4) the creatures behind whom God Himself stands speaking through them, and “si fas dicere, (5) the flesh of Christ itself spread over His Divinity, through which it sounds sweetly and alters its voice” (Bossuet).
Looketh forth.—Rather, looking through, as in next clause, where the same Hebrew particle occurs. and may = either out or in, as context requires. Here plainly in at.
Shewing himself.—Marg., flourishing. The primitive idea seems to be “to look bright.” Hence the Hiphil conjugation = “to make to look bright;” here “making his eyes glance or twinkle as he peers in through the lattice.”
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;(11) Winter.—Heb., sethav, only used here; probably from root = to overcast: the season of cloud and gloom.
The rain is over and gone.—Wordsworth uses this line in a description of an early spring in a very different climate.
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;(12) The time of the singing—Heb., zamîr·—may mean pruning (so LXX. and Vulg.), but parallelism requires singing-time (a meaning which analogy will certainly allow us to give to the Hebrew word zamîr). Nor can the correctness of our version in inserting of birds be questioned, since from the context it is plainly “the untaught harmony of spring,” and not the voices of men intended. It is true there is no authority for this beyond the context, and the allusions to the singing of birds are besides very few in Scripture; but travellers say that different species of warbless (Turdidœ), especially the bulbul and the nightingale. abound in the wooded valleys, filling the air in early spring with the rich cadence of their notes (Tristram’s Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 160).
Turtle.—Heb., tôr (turtur), from its plaintive note. Three species are found in Palestine, but the one intended is doubtless our own turtle-dove (Turtur auritus). It is migratory, and its advent marks the return of spring (Jeremiah 8:7). “Search the glades and valleys even by sultry Jordan at the end of March, and not a turtle-dove is to be seen. Return in the second week of April, and clouds of doves are feeding on the clovers of the plain.” “The turtle, immediately on its arrival, pours forth from every garden grove and wooded hill its melancholy yet soothing ditty from early dawn till sunset” (Tristram’s Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 219).
The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.(13) The fig tree putteth forth her green figs.—Literally, has ripened its unripe figs. Heb., phag (preserved in Bethphage); not the early fruit that appears before the leaves (Matthew 24:31), but the green fruit that remains through the winter (Gesenius and Tristram).
The vines with the tender grape.—Literally, the vines (are) blossoms, i.e., are in blossom.
O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.(14) O my dove . . . in the clefts of the rock.—The rock pigeon (Columba livia), the origin of the domestic races, invariably selects the lofty cliffs and deep ravines (comp. Jeremiah 48:28; Ezekiel 7:16) for its roosting places, and avoids the neighbourhood of men. The modesty and shyness of his beloved are thus prettily indicated by the poet. For the expression “clefts of the rock,” see Note, Obadiah 1:3.
The stairs—i.e., steep places (comp. Ezekiel 38:20, margin), from root = to go up.
Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.(15) Take us the foxes.—Possibly this is a verse of a familiar country song, introduced here from the suggestion of the “sweet voice” in the last verse; but more probably to be compared to the “avaunt” so commonly addressed by poets in Epithalamia and love songs to all mischievous and troublesome creatures. Thus in Spenser’s Epithalamium, owls, storks, ravens, and frogs are warned off.
Foxes.—Comp. Judges 15:4. Whether our fox or the jackal (Heb., shual), it is known to be equally destructive to vineyards. Theocritus (Id. v. 112) is often compared:—
“I hate those brush-tailed foxes, that each night
Spoil Micon’s vineyards with their deadly bite.”
In the allegorising commentators they stand for heretics.
My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.(16) He feedeth.—Heb., he that is feeding his flock—the pastor.
Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.(17) Until the day break.—Heb., breathe, i.e., becomes cool, as it does when the evening breeze sets in. The time indicated is therefore evening, “the breathing blushing hour” (Campbell). (Comp. Genesis 3:8, “The cool of the day”—margin, wind. This interpretation is also fixed by the mention of the flying, i.e., lengthening shadows. Comp. Virg. Ecl. i. 84: “Majoresque cadunt altis de montibus umbræ;” and Tennyson, The Brook—
“We turned our foreheads from the falling sun,
And followed our own shadows, thrice as long
As when they followed us.”)
Bether.—Marg., of division; LXX., of ravines or hollows, either as separating the lovers or as intersected by valleys. Gesenius compares Bethron (2Samuel 2:29).