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Exploring Romantic Themes in Song of Songs Chapter 5

Andrea has been an online writer for over five years. She's a dating consultant who gives advice on relationships and couples' issues.

Walking around an old city at night.

Walking around an old city at night.

A Less Romantic Chapter, A Song That's Maybe a Dream

In Song of Songs chapter 5, the beloved addresses the daughters of Jerusalem. She tells them a story about her missing lover. We're given no indication as to where he has gone.

  • The lover begins the chapter in some versions.
  • The woman has woken up in her bed to the sound of someone knocking on the door.
  • The woman refuses to welcome the man into her room at night.
  • She changes her mind and goes to the door.
  • But he has already left.
  • The women goes into the streets searching for him.
  • The watchmen beat her.
  • The woman cries out to her friends to help her find her missing partner.
  • She describes in similes and metaphors what her partner looks like.

This chapter is closely related to chapter 3. In both, the woman goes out into the streets at night and searches for her lover. In both, it's unclear whether the song is based in reality or a dream. The watchmen appear in both, but in chapter 5 they hurt the woman. In chapter 3, the watchmen didn't harm her. They appeared before she found her partner.

In chapter 3, she takes her lover to her mother's home, but in chapter 5, she didn't find him.

There's a lot to unpack here, so let's get started.

Questions and Answers about Song of Songs

Q. What does the Song of Songs teach us?

  • On a base level, Song of Songs teaches us about romantic love in ancient Israel. We can learn about the customs of the time from around 10th century BCE to the 2nd century BCE. We learn that romantic and physical love is meant to be enjoyed and isn't evil. We learn a lot about the geographical areas of the Middle East and we learn about the flora and fauna of the areas. We also learn about the poetic language of the time and some of the more prized and aromatic spices, flowers, and perfumes of ancient times. We learn that human expression and intimacy hasn't changed dramatically overtime. Some Jews sees the text as an allegory of God's love for Israel, and Israel's need to be patient. Christians use the text sometimes to teach about Christ and his bride, which is considered the church.

Q. Is Song of Songs about marriage?

  • In a sense, yes. I would argue it's more about the intimacy shared between two people. There are symbols of marriage and even weddings in the text, but there is less focus about the rituals of union and more the enjoyment of time spent together. It's about the birds and the bees, quite frankly. The text is about lovers and their appreciation, joy, delight, curiosities, and even anguish of each other. The book likely isn't a unified whole or narrative. The collection may have been used as traditional wedding songs. I think you can learn from the text some properties of a marriage or a monogamous relationship. It's about passion, privacy, exclusion, and desire. The beloved often calls on the daughters of Jerusalem to not arouse or awaken love until it so desires -- there is a call to be patient and respect that serious love is mature and not something to toy with.

Q. Does Song of Songs mention God?

  • It doesn't! This book is unique in that it isn't about law or covenant to a god. And yet this book appears is in the Bible. Some scholars believe it was included in the anthology because of its association and possible attribution from King Solomon. Many see the book as a allegory to God and his relationship to people, but for others that is kind of a stretch. It's unclear whether King Solomon wrote this or not. There are reasons to believe he didn't -- some of the language would be anachronistic for his time.

Q. Who is Song of Songs written to?

  • It is a collection of love poems that go back and forth between a man and a woman. The man and woman are not necessarily the same people in each song.

Notes on the End of Chapter 4 and 5

There is hot debate as to whether the first lines of chapter 5 from the lover actually belong to the 5th song or the 4th song.

Modern English Version (MEV) breaks up chapter five as follows:

  • The lover comments on a romantic / passionate experience with the beloved.
  • Friends of the man comment and give their blessing.
  • The beloved tells a story, possibly a dream.
  • Friends of the woman inquire about the woman's missing partner.
  • The beloved speaks again; she gives a detailed description of the man's looks.

The man's comments don't really fit chapter 5. It makes a lot more sense for the first verse to actually belong to the end of chapter 4. The rest of the focus of chapter 5 comes from the woman and her restlessness at night. What the man says doesn't really pertain to that, unless the woman was thinking of him in a dream and woke up.

Alone and contemplative.

Alone and contemplative.

Dreaming as a Traditional Storytelling Technique

Dreaming is used throughout the Bible and other ancient texts. It's a device that can help forward the story along and also doesn't have as many restrictions as real life. Dreams can also be used as warnings, premonitions, prophecies, or for abstract reasoning.

The woman may have woken up and realized her lover is gone or she is in the middle of a dream. It's unclear. What we do know is the Bible has dozens of tales pertaining to dreams. Joseph's interpretations of dreams turned him into one of the most powerful people in Egypt right next to the pharaoh. Daniel interpreted dreams for King Nebuchadnezzar.

Dreams are full of symbols. We often process our day in our sleep and it helps us to better understand what we're going through in our waking lives. Sleep gives us a chance to rejuvenate, and the dreams help our minds to better understand things -- like replaying images in your head after skiing, learning languages, or understanding emotions better. Good sleep before a test can help you get a better grade.

Dreams can help you fine tune your direction in waking life. Of course, you should take dreams with a grain of salt. Not everything that happens in your mind when your asleep will play out in reality.

  • In Ancient Egypt and Greece, dreams were considered a bridge to the supernatural. In dreams people could communicate with the divine. Those who could interpret the dreams were said to have spiritual powers.
  • The ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia left evidence of dream interpretation that dates all the way back to 3100 BCE.
  • Gilgamesh has several dreams in the epic poem.
  • In the modern day, the majority of people believe dreams reveal people's unconscious desires and hidden truths.
  • Freud argued that all dreaming was wish fulfillment.
  • Carl Jung thought wish fulfillment was too limited. He argued dreams show a person's mental complexes. He felt dreams revealed more about what a person had absorbed in waking life.

Where Is Her Partner?

So is the woman's dream a wish fulfillment? Maybe all of Song of Songs is a dream from a woman desiring to be with a handsome man. Maybe this dream sits in the unrealized unconscious and speaks more to observations in society and not just love.

Her dream symbolizes her fears. She is worried that the love she has will be taken and she will be left alone, wandering, and even violently beaten. Her greatest fear and anguish is to be without love.

For some reason, the woman's lover isn't inside the house. We're not really given a reason why. His hair is wet, so maybe it has been raining. She takes her time getting to the door to unlock it.

I think this whole section could be a metaphor for the woman not opening up to him physically. Women biologically do respond slower in terms of intimacy and this can sometimes make for some awkward situations with their partners. By the time she is ready for him, the moment has passed for him.

The Woman's Fears Escalate

The woman goes out into the streets in search of her lover. We should all be asking -- where did he go? The watchmen for some reason decided to beat her. She was bruised, likely bloodied up. They also stole her cloak. This contrasts from chapter 3 where they didn't beat her. Let's be honest for a moment -- this is a full on nightmare.

There is no reason the watchmen should have beat her. She was assaulted for her gender or as a person simply moving about at night. This shows just how violent things were in the past. This kind of nightmare was a living reality for the women of this time. The fear of being abandoned, the risk of violence on you because you're feminine, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the fear of being alone and ruined.

The watchmen should have helped her, but they scorned her. They should have protected her, but they attacked her. She is one of the people of the city, but she was treated like garbage. Some see this as an allegory about the people who should protect and be part of the church but scorn it. Some see it as the continual conflicts of Israel and the people who continue to engender the nation.

It takes some mental gymnastics to see this sad, sobering poem as part of a collection of love poems. It's based in so much fear and anguish that it shows more of the finite nature of our lives. It's a song about existential crisis -- and about the horrors of society on women. All she wanted was to be with her lover.

The Yearning Doesn't Stop

Even after this horrible beating, the woman is still crying out for her lover. She asks her friends to help her find him. She isn't crying out for a safe place. She isn't demanding for a sanctuary.

This passage is about gender violence and trauma. Sometimes when we have gone through trauma we refuse to acknowledge it. We continue forward with our goals not recognizing the horrors we witnessed or our own victimization.

Femicides are a real and terrible reality even in the present. Women are targeted in the streets simply for existing. I think this song is meant to be reflective, it's supposed to turn your heart and make you empathize with women, for wives and daughters. There will be no song and dance until there is justice for women. There will be no peace until there is equality. There will be no jubilation until women are free.

The beloved doesn't seek protection from her friends either. Instead she begs them to help her find the man -- who appears to be AWOL. Why did her lover leave her in the first place? Why did the guards beat her? Why is she abandoned in the streets?

This song is far darker than the others. It speaks to the reality of how women were treated in ancient Israel. The beloved hesitated to answer her lover when he was at the door, maybe in part because what happens outside the door was dangerous at night.

Why should she wake to not find him? Why should she have to go outside to try and find him? Why did this song have to be a potential dream?

These are all important questions for us to explore. Ones that I encourage you to explore rather than for me to provide answers.

Street of Tel Aviv, Israel.

Street of Tel Aviv, Israel.

Distressed the Beloved Finds Comfort in Remembering Her Lover's Beauty

Overall the chapter 5 song is incredibly sad. Not only has the woman been beaten, she is overwhelmed and grieved that her lover is missing. He could have been kidnapped. He seems to have vanished into thin air. She is in anguish and her heart is searching for him. The watchmen wouldn't help her find him -- no one seems to want to find him. Even her friends don't understand why she is so desperate for this man.

She asks for her friends to help find him. We're not given an indication of time. We don't know how long this woman has been waiting for her lover's return. She could have been beaten and then over days, weeks, months, if not years later she is still waiting for this man.

Her friends ask for a description of him and what makes him so special. They comment on how the woman is so beautiful; they act as though one man is just the same as any other man.

The Beloved Describes the Lover

The woman describes her lover from head to toe in a wasf or descriptive poem. She uses flora and fauna to describe his head. The rest of his body is made up of precious metals and stones. She describes his handsomeness in an appreciative way and not lurid.

  • "He is radiant and ruddy." A similar description is given in Samuel 16:12 describing a man with handsome features. Radiant means to shine brightly. Ruddy means having a healthy red color -- something about this man appears reddish. He stands out among tens of thousands. You would notice him among others.
  • "His head is purest gold; his hair is wavy and black as a raven." He has a nice complexion and his hair is dark, like hers.
  • "His eyes are like doves" -- his eyes sparkle. "Washed in milk" -- the whites of his eyes are pure and noticeable. Distinct eyes.
  • "His cheeks are like beds of spice" -- his cheeks are handsome and full. He has a pleasing and alluring scent.
  • "His lips are like lilies dripping with myrrh" -- delicate distinct lips when it comes to shape and wet.
  • "His arms are rods of gold set with chrysolite" -- his arms are handsome and strong. He has a golden hue, tan. Chrysolite is a yellow-greenish or brownish variety of olivine, a gemstone. Peridot is one variety. Again, he is handsome. He is stylish. He has a healthy look.
  • "His body is like polished ivory decorated with sapphires" -- his body is smooth, strong, and glinting.
  • "His legs are like pillars of marble set on bases of pure gold" -- he has golden, tan colored skin. His legs are strong. She describes them as pillars, so he is likely tall.
  • "His appearance is like Lebanon choice as it cedars" -- The cedars of Lebanon were renowned throughout the ancient Near East, and their wood was desired for adorning temples and palaces. He is a beautiful sight. He is easy on the eyes.
  • "His mouth is sweetness itself" -- he is a man with clever words. He speaks with flattery which he has given her. He is affectionate.

© 2020 Andrea Lawrence

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