New York, September 4, 2011
Come, my beloved! (Song of Songs 7:11)
„Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices.” – Song of Solomon 8:14
(01) Dear brethren; our convention, our fellowship is slowly coming to an end. Tonight we will leave for our homes. Tomorrow, perhaps the day after tomorrow, or in a few days at the most, we will wake up in our own beds. In the morning, maybe even still in the evening, we will think about our daily activities. At home, at the office, in the garden, our duties are awaiting, which we have put off for a while. Some of them are nice, others – rather tedious. Some of us like our everyday life. Some, however, return to their harsh reality, which they were able to forget for a moment here, in the fellowship of the Word and God's people. Regardless of whether we will get back to our temporality with pleasure, or with a heavy heart, one thing will likely remain common for all of us (02) – we will yearn. I hope that for many days to come we will remember the discourses that we heard at this convention, the conversations we carried out here with our friends, and the warmth of the fellowship that we experienced. (03) We will yearn for the sweet savor of the heights which we were able to ascend here.
The longing for such places where we meet with our brethren is a good and constructive thing, and even somewhat pleasant. It testifies to an unfulfilled desire. (04) Although it causes some tension in the heart, and, if it is not realized for a long time, it can even be felt as pain and suffering, in its essence yearning is a noble and good feeling. Most often we miss people we love, or places where we experienced good times and where we felt good. Yearning prompts us to positive action. (05) If we miss someone we love, we write him a letter, call him or make a trip to visit him. If we long for a kindred fellowship, we will go to a Sunday or weekday meeting, or travel to a convention. (06) The reality is that for the time being the fellowship with the brethren and other beloved friends is not permanent. We only see them from time to time. Sometimes we have to accept the departure of those we love. And that's why we yearn.
In connection with this feeling of yearning, (07) I would like to tell you, dear brethren, a love story; a story about longing, about unfulfilled emotions. This story has no happy ending, but it remains open, and maybe we will be able to add to it a conclusion which we would be happy to see or hear.
Our story takes us back to the ancient times in the East, where the kings had large harems in their palaces, and their messengers would periodically travel through the surrounding lands in order to bring another young beauty for their monarch. The girl sometimes hailed from a rich and respectable family, and was brought to the palace in pursuit of political goals of the kingdom. Sometimes, however, she would come from an ordinary family and it was only her exceptional beauty that drew the attention of the king or his messengers.
In the mountainous regions of Lebanon, there lived a relatively wealthy family. They owned vineyards on the nearby hills, and their flocks of sheep and goats grazed on the mountain pastures. Among the siblings a beautiful girl stood out: with her swarthy complexion, a tall, beautiful figure and elegant movements, she gained local fame as the most beautiful among the women. The girl's brothers weren't always happy about that. They feared some local shepherd could fall in love with her, who would not be able to offer them a rich dowry. In those times and lands it was customary for the groom to pay for his future wife by presenting the bride's family with rich gifts. To dismiss the risk of an unforeseen development of their sister's love affairs, her brothers sent her away to guard the vineyard, and to herd sheep and goat kids far away from people. And the girl, by spending much time outdoors, was becoming even more beautiful, and her complexion – more swarthy and healthy.
The brothers' attempts proved useless. The pastures they chose, though distant, were still occasionally visited by shepherds. Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps deliberately, that special one and his sheep found themselves exactly where the girl pastured her goat kids. Spring love between the two burned like a bright flame intensified by marvelous nature that surrounded them. The cedars in nearby woods stood high like walls of their rooms. The young couple trod on the soft, green carpet of lush grass adorned with designs composed from colorful flowers. The vault of their chamber was sapphire by day and black by night, lit by flickering sparks of millions of stars. Thus was born the love between a guardian of vineyards and a shepherd of sheep.
Meanwhile, the messengers of the great king arrived in town, asking about the most beautiful woman. The parents and brothers quickly negotiated favorable conditions of a marriage contract. Soon, another troop of royal messengers brought gifts for the parents, promises of influential positions at the court for the brothers, and beautiful gowns and jewelry for the girl. I don't know if they asked her opinion. Perhaps she even agreed. It must have seemed a great attraction to her to be in the capital city, in the palace, surrounded by the most beautiful women in the kingdom. Maybe she dreamed of being a mother of princes and kings.
And thus she found herself in the harem of the great king. She was greeted with curiosity. Perhaps even the king himself gave her a gracious look. Nevertheless, he had a thousand other women. Then began the usual palace life. Conversations, strolls in the garden, gossip, intrigues, and the omnipresent rivalry and jealousy: – Perhaps one of the beautiful girls will manage to become the real wife of the king.
Time was passing. The girl, separated from her familial environment, was more and more often reminiscing upon the beauty of mountain pastures, the aroma of vineyards and herbs – the lost sense of freedom. She began to yearn. (07a) Surrounded by the high walls of her palace and the city, she could only view the nearby desert hills through barred windows. Also, that one special shepherd appeared in her dreams more and more frequently. With the advent of every spring she pondered the unrealized feelings. In her dreams, the swarthy young man arrived with his sheep to the hills turned verdant in spring. When the wind sometimes blew the fragrance of vineyards and herbs from the fields into the city, the pain of yearning became so poignant that she would run and stand on the walls, and the guards would bring her back to the palace chambers.
Sometimes it even seemed that her beloved shepherd arrived at her door at night. She would jump out of bed, quickly put on the robe to let him in. But no one stood on the other side of the door. Sometimes she could almost smell the scent of his oils on the doorknob. Again she would run by night to the city walls, lamenting to the girls she encountered, telling them of her love. Or maybe she actually didn't see anybody – except the impervious wall guards, who forcibly dragged her back to the sleeping chambers inside the palace.
The shepherd also dreamed of his girl, also longed for her. Looking towards the distant land, to which she was taken, he remembered her beauty, the way she moved, her scent, the virtues of her body and spirit. He probably also dreamed of seeing her again...
And this is where this romantic tale actually breaks off. I don't know what happened next. Perhaps life added some conclusion – or maybe not. The only thing that remains for us from this story, is the beautiful poetry of the biblical book titled „Song of Songs” – the book of love and yearning. (07b)
The author of these verses could have been King Solomon himself. In the midst of his harem, among a thousand women there were probably many girls uprooted in this way from their environment. Or, perhaps, such a story never happened, and Solomon in his wisdom created this parable to describe the love of an Israelite towards God, or a Christian's love for Christ, the longing of an earthly man for the spiritual world of enduring freedom and holiness.
If any of you, dear brethren, have thought at this moment that the story I told does not come directly from the Biblical record, but is rather my paraphrase, you were probably right. The Song of Songs is a book of poetry, and in poetry there is no clearly defined plot. The purpose of its verses is to describe feelings, the beauty of love and longing. Still, somewhere at the root of poetic expressions we discover the story of the author's experiences, at least a trace of his imagination, his observations pertaining to the actual spiritual experiences of people around him.
Let us quote a few verses from Song of Songs to discover some of these traces.
(08) The king hath brought me into his chambers...I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem. ... My mother's children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept. Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest? (Song of Songs 1:4-7)
(09) While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof. A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts. (1:12-13)
(10) Our bed is green. The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir. (1:16-17)
(11) Behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice. (2:9)
(12) O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs. (2:14)
(13) By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not. I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not. The watchmen that go about the city found me. (3:1-3)
(14) Behold his bed, which is Solomon's; threescore valiant men are about it, of the valiant of Israel. (3:7)
(15) A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed. (4:12)
(16) A well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon. Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden. (4:15-16)
(17) I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night. I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?
(18) My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him. I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock. I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone:
(19) My soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer. The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love. (5:2-8)
(20) There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number. (6:8)
(21) Before I was aware, my soul set me among the chariots of my princely people. (6:12 New American Standard)
(22) Return, return, O Shulamite; return, return, that we may look upon thee. (6:13)
(23) O that thou wert as my brother, that sucked the breasts of my mother! when I should find thee without, I would kiss thee; yea, I should not be despised. (8:1)
(24) Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? (8:5)
(25) Solomon had a vineyard at Baalhamon; he let out the vineyard unto keepers; every one for the fruit thereof was to bring a thousand pieces of silver. My vineyard, which is mine, is before me: thou, O Solomon, must have a thousand, and those that keep the fruit thereof two hundred. (8:11-12)
(26) From the above verses we can deduce the following: the girl's name was (26a) Shulamite; (26b) she came from Lebanon and (26c) had dark skin, (26d) she was a shepherdess and a guardian of vineyards. Without her knowledge and maybe against her will she was on the „chariots of her princely people” (26e) and was placed in the palace among many queens, concubines, and virgins of Solomon, whose bed (palanquin) is guarded by 60 soldiers. (26f) She longs for someone who is not in the palace, and her love for him causes contempt and even physical suffering; (26g) she looks for her beloved through the lattices in the window, (26h) and she is reminded of him, even at banquets with the king, by a little bag of aromatic spices, hidden under the coat.
Perhaps based of the above information, it wasn't unreasonable of us to create a story that, although not explicitly recorded in the Bible, can constitute a backdrop for the wonderful poetry of love and yearning composed by Solomon in the „Song of Songs.”
(27) Song of Solomon, in Hebrew Shir ha-Shirim, or „Song of Songs”, is in many respects unique. Nowhere does it explicitly mention God, spirituality, religiousness, or prayer. Therefore, Jewish scholars for a long time speculated on what basis this text found itself in the canon of sacred books, and whether it really belongs there. Finally, the dispute over the canonicity of this book was resolved during the Sanhedrin of Yavne in 90 AD. Rabbi Akiba said then: "The world was never as worthy as on the day that the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, whereas the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy.” (Rashi)
Another rabbi described the holiness of the Song of Songs in the following manner: "To what can this be compared? To a king who took a se'ah [about three and a half gallons] of wheat and gave it to a baker. He said to him, 'Extract for me so much fine flour, so much bran, so much coarse bran, and you shall produce enough fine flour for one white loaf, sifted and superior.'” (Rashi)
(28) This book is nowhere explicitly cited by the writers of the New Testament. In several comparisons one could detect certain connections, but still they are not direct references to this book. And we need to add, that this is the only book of the Old Testament which is not quoted or mentioned in the New Testament.
(29) Despite these initial doubts, among the Jews „Song of Songs” is the favorite and probably the most frequently read and discussed book of the Bible outside the Torah. It constitutes the first part of the „five scrolls” collection (five megiloth), and is read during the spring festival of Passover, in the days of Unleavened Bread. (30) Its words accompany – which is quite natural – almost every wedding ceremony. Passages from the Song of Songs are also pondered on Fridays, when the Sabbath is being welcomed. (31) According to some traditions this book is read in its entirety every Friday evening. In the mystical branches of Judaism, this book has become the basis for more reflection, interpretation and meditation than any other book.
(32) The main protagonists of the poem are (32a) Shulamite and her beloved, in Hebrew, „Dodi”. The name "Shulamite” (Song 7:1) is derived (32b) from the core Sh-L-M, the same, which is the basis of the word Shalom (peace, prosperity), and also the name of Solomon. (32c) The Hebrew word „Dodi”, translated „my beloved”, first of all resembles (32d) the name "David”, which in Hebrew is spelled with the three letters: D-V-D, while (32e) „my beloved” – „Dodi” is written in Hebrew as D-V-D-I, which could also be translated as „my David”. The same word, written as „Dodai” occurs in 1 Chronicles 27:1 as a proper name, while in Isaiah 5:1 "Dodi” is symbolic of God: "Let me sing now for my well-beloved a song of my beloved [Dodi] concerning His vineyard.” [New American Standard]
These two characters in „Song of Songs,” are joined by the chorus of „daughters of Zion” (for example Song of Songs 5:9), and the brothers of Shulamite (Song 8:8-9,11-12). In the above interpretation, where the beloved shepherd and the king are two separate individuals, we also have, as a secondary character in the background, Solomon, the master of the harem.
There are various explanations of the symbolism of these protagonists and their relationships. The Jews believe that this poem describes the love between God (shepherd Dodi) and Israel (the beautiful Shulamite). At a ceremony welcoming the Sabbath, it is the Messianic Sabbath that becomes the Bridegroom, and the bride anticipating his arrival is the believing Israel. In the believing Jewish homes on Friday evening they sing a song whose words were written in the sixteenth century by Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz. It's called ”Lecha Dodi” – „Come, my beloved,” which could be the title song of our discourse. Let's quote just a few of its verses in literal translation:
(33) Ref. Let's go, my beloved, to meet the bride
and let us welcome the presence of Shabbat.
3. Sanctuary of the king, royal city,
Arise! Leave from the midst of the turmoil;
Long enough have you sat in the valley of tears
And He will take great pity upon you compassionately.
4. Shake yourself free, rise from the dust,
Dress in your garments of splendor, my people,
By the hand of Jesse's son of Bethlehem,
Redemption draws near to my soul.
6. Do not be embarrassed! Do not be ashamed!
Why be downcast, why groan
All my afflicted people will find refuge within you
And the city shall be rebuilt on her hill.
(33) („Lecha Dodi” music)