Parting Can be Sweet (8:5-7)
Daughters:5Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning on her beloved?
The King: Under the apple tree I awakened you. There your mother was in labour with you; there she who bore you was in labour.
The Woman: 6Set 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. 7Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised.
A new poem within the Song begins with verse 5. The speaker is observing the arrival of the king and the one he loves. Often this verse is interpreted as describing the Christian life. The wilderness is the world and the Christian is leaning on Jesus as he takes her through it. But we know that there are times when our relationship to Jesus cannot be described as leaning on his breast. Rather these times could be pictured as us leaning out of the carriage trying to get to the things of the world.
Instead of describing an ongoing state of affairs in the Christian life that is going to continue until Jesus and the believer reaches heaven, I think the verse is picturing the close of a journey the king and the woman have made together. It may be that they are returning from the journeys described in the closing verses of the previous poem. Verse14 indicates that the king has left after bringing her to this location, so their destination here could not have been heaven. Instead the king has brought her to a suitable place where he could leave her with her companions.
A difficulty arises when we think of the term ‘wilderness’. Usually we imagine a barren area without growth or life. It is better to think of it as uncultivated land as opposed to cultivated areas. It could be a place of danger from wild animals or from robbers, where a traveller would need provision as he passed through. Nevertheless it was part of Solomon’s country, and not part of the territory of his enemy. Solomon was able to travel through it freely, no doubt in a carriage guarded by soldiers. Out in these wild areas he may have had lodging houses where he could meet with his friends.
When we think of Jesus, we recall that he is Lord of all. Both the cultivated fields and the wild areas of the world are his. The cultivated places are where his grace has produced spiritual vitality, where the laws of his kingdom are gladly obeyed – these places would be the congregations of his people. Yet his followers are not able to spend all their time in these cultivated areas. Daily they have to go through wild areas, and in these areas they need provision, protection from danger and assurance of safety. The only way that these can be received is for Jesus to accompany each of them as they pass through these wild areas. This is being pictured here. Jesus and his disciple have been travelling together and are returning to her abode, where her companions are looking out for her. As they observe them drawing near, they are focussed, not on the king, but on the nearness that she enjoys to him. They observe that this journey to the wild places as increased her devotion to the king and opened up for her increased opportunities of intimacy with him. When a disciple of Jesus experiences his provision in a spiritually-barren place and observes his protection in a spiritually-dangerous place, her devotion should increase.
Her posture is a wonderful picture of healthy faith. It depicts delight in his company, an example of Calvin’s comment that ‘faith is the warm embrace of love’. But it also depicts dependence upon him because she is leaning upon him, aware of both her weakness and his strength.
Detailing his love
There has been disagreement about who is speaking in verse 5b about the fruit tree. The pointing of the Massoretic text indicates that it is the woman (Durham, for example, takes this view). Yet the majority of Christian fathers and other commentators refer it to the king. The way to decide who is speaking is to assess which speaker the words fit best.
If it is the woman who is speaking, then she says that she woke him from sleep while they were passing a particular fruit tree, which was the place where the king had been born. Perhaps the tree was planted to celebrate that fact or else his mother suddenly went into labour there and gave birth. In any case, the woman focuses on a particular event in his life. On a spiritual level, such activity is very appropriate for the disciples of Jesus. In his company they should speak of events in his life, so displaying to him their love for him.
If it is the king that is speaking, then he is claiming to have been involved in her birth and upbringing. Obviously he does not mean that he is her father. Literally, the verse does not make sense if applied to Solomon and a lover, but it does make sense if applied spiritually to Christ because he was instrumental in giving new life to each of his disciples. Earlier in the Song the king was likened to a fruit tree (2:3). Literally, Solomon could not be the tree under which a lover was born. But sinners are born again and grow in grace through receiving from the fruits that Jesus delights to give freely to them. He is the tree that provides shade from the heat of God’s wrath, fragrance to dispel the stench of their sin, and fruit to feed their souls.
Therefore I would suggest that this poem describes the daughters of Jerusalem overhearing what the king and the disciple are saying to one another. In verse 5b, he speaks to the disciple about her birth and in verses 6 and 7 she responds.
Desiring his love
Although she has been enjoying his intimacy, the woman’s words reveal that she was anticipating his absence. When she says, ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm,’ she is using the words that a wife would say to her husband if he was going to be away from their home. She would want him to so impress her image on his heart so that he would not forget her. The disciple, sensing they are drawing near to her house, addresses Jesus and requests that she be engraved on his heart.
This is not the first time that she has been in a house without his presence. In 2:8-13, the king is pictured as coming there in order to enjoy her company for a short time before he goes away again (2:14-17). It was probably to her house that he had come on that occasion when she had denied him access (5:2ff), a response that had resulted in deep searchings of heart before they were once again together. Now that she is going to her house again, she wants from him the assurance that, when he is absent, he will be thinking about her.
The Christian life can be described in many ways. It is a race, a fight, an ascent; it is also a romance in which the Beloved comes and visits the one he loves. They love each other, yet there are times when he expresses his love in strength to her heart. Such occasions are mountain-top experiences, but they don’t last all the time. And we are not to expect them all the time. Instead we are to remind ourselves that they occur for our spiritual benefit, and like all other such benefits we should pray that they would be blessed to us.
Moody Stuart comments on this verse, ‘Ransomed one, in the hour of thine access lift not thy head from that bosom, till thou hast pleaded and procured the engraving of thy name upon that heart.’ It is not sufficient to plead for this reality, we have also to pray until we have procured it. He further comments: ‘The fruit of many interviews with Jesus is partially lost for want of this wisdom and zeal; lost by not covenanting with him before the meeting is dissolved, that there shall be this perpetual remembrance; lost by not detaining him till he grant this perpetual remembrance.’ We are to be like Jacob when he responded to a divine visit by saying to the Lord, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’
We can picture a wife saying to her husband as he is about to leave for a long journey, ‘Tell me that you will think about me when you are away?’ The question does not arise from doubt, but from her need of comfort. Jesus knows that we will need comfort, but we have to ask him for it.
Describing her love
The woman describes her love as determined, jealous, intense, indestructible and beyond value. It is as determined as death (it will follow him at all costs), it is jealous for anything that might come between herself and her Beloved, it is more intense than a raging fire, it is indestructible (a great storm cannot destroy it), and it is of more value than what a person possesses. These features should be true of marital love, and they are seen in the heart of a believer towards her Master. Of course, her love for Jesus, although it contains these beautiful features, is only a faint expression compared to the love that he has shown, is showing, and will yet show to her.
His love was determined in that no obstacle could prevent him becoming her husband. There was the obstacle of nature (he is divine, she is human, but he overcame it by becoming a man); there is the obstacle of sin (he is perfect, she was sinful, but he overcame it by his sacrifice on the cross and his giving of the Spirit); there will be the obstacle of death, but he will overcome it by the resurrection of his people.
His love was jealous as he observed her chasing other lovers. Today, jealousy is not regarded as a virtue because it is equated with envy. Yet jealously is an aspect of God’s character: ‘You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments’ (Deut. 5:9-10). Believers were the objects of Jesus’ love before they were converted because they had been given to him by the Father. And he deposed the alternatives that they sought instead of him.
Further, his love for each of them is very intense. His desire for each of them is never weak, even when they are backsliding. The love of Jesus to them does not fluctuate according to their behaviour, although wrong behaviour can prevent him expressing that love in their hearts. When we backslide, the heart of Jesus yearns for our return. He longs with great desire for the time when all of his people will be with him for ever.
His love could not be destroyed by a great storm. There never was such a storm as Calvary when the deep waters of God’s wrath against our sins descended in full force on the submerged Saviour. He lost a sense of God’s love to him in the storm, but he never lost his awareness of his love for God nor did his love for his people decrease even a fraction as he endured their punishment.
And his love for us caused him to prize us above his possessions. He gave up the glory of heaven in order to set us free from sin. Although he was rich, for our sakes he became poor.
Of course, our love is not only an imitation of the love of Christ, it is also obtained by spending time with Christ. The king and the disciple have been together, and as his visit comes to an end, she displays the benefit of having been in his company. The Spirit of love in Jesus was also in her, and that Spirit would remain with her through less profound and less intimate experiences.