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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Good Shepherd Who Pastures His Flock Among the Lilies

The Relationship between Song of Songs and John's Writings 

My beloved is mine, and I am his; He

pastures his flock among the lilies (Songs 2:6 NASB).

By Lawrence Fox


Bible commentaries and concordances seldom (if ever) identify direct connections between the Song of Songs and the New Testament. Some commentators see allusions between the Songs and the good shepherd Psalm (23), the wedding Psalm (45), and the wilderness Psalm (63) which includes the language, “When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches.” The author of the Song of Songs writes, “On my bed night after night I sought him Whom my soul loves” (Song 3:1; 5:2). This post proposes that certain language and forms within the Song of Songs also appear in the writings of John the Evangelist, also known as the disciple whom Jesus loved. Such a proposal is not something new. See end note [1]. This post looks at two passages in the Gospel of John and two passages in the Book or Revelation which seem to reflect a re-reading of the Song of Songs by the beloved disciple (Cf. Jn 1:3;10:1-30; Rev 1:12-16;3:20). But before jumping directly into such matters, this post considers the manner in which the Song of Songs introduces a paradigm shift  within the theme of spousal love which opens and closes Scripture. 

Genre of Love and History

    The author of the Song of Songs composes a genre of love using language and images which run across a major part of Israel’s history. There is the image of the tower of David (Songs 4:4; 7:5), the image of a column of smoke rising up from the desert (Songs 3:6), the language about the catching of foxes, the little foxes (Song 2:15), the abundance of wine, milk, and honey (Songs 5:1), the tension of watchmen around the city (Song 3:3; 5:7), the image of a dazzling masculine shepherd who is ‘ruddy’ (Song 5:10), the motion of hands dripping with myrrh and fingers with flowing myrrh, (Song 5:5), the command “Go forth, O daughters of Zion” (Song 3:11), and the prophetic language “My own vineyard I have not cared for” (Song 1:6). These are only a few such examples. I leave it to the reader to associate such things within various other Old Testament texts. Memory is an essential part of inspired revelation. The Song of Songs is the language of memory. It is also the language of spousal love. 

Memory and Spousal Love 

    The opening chapter of Sacred Scripture describes the natural union of one man (groom) and one woman (bride) in the garden (Cf. Genesis 1-3). The prophetic chapters present the language of spousal love between the Lord God and His People (Cf. Ex 6:7; Jer 24:7; 30:22; Is 51:16; Ez 36:28 and etc). The closing epistles and apocalyptic literature of the New Testament portrays Jesus Christ as groom and the Church as Bride (Cf. Jn 2:1; 3:29; 1 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25-33; Rev 19:6-9; 22:17). Students of Sacred Scripture correctly observe the manner in which the language of spousal love increases as salvation history moves closer towards the “Incarnation” in the “fullness of time” (Cf. Jn 1:14; Gal 4:4,5). The Word of the Lord comes to the people of God, “For as a young man marries a young woman, so your sons will marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so your God will rejoice over you” (Is 62:5 BSB). And again, “Then I passed by and saw you, and you were indeed old enough for love. So I spread My cloak over you and covered your nakedness. I pledged Myself to you, entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine, declares the Lord GOD . . .” (Ez 16:8-12). In the last chapter of the Book of Revelation, the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come” and “Come Lord Jesus” (Rev 21:17, 21). Human love becomes more and more drawn into divine love. Based upon what has been said, can the Song of Songs remain simply an “inspired” erotic dialogue between an unnamed Shulammite woman and a dazzling and ruddy human shepherd? I don’t think so. Neither do the Rabbis in the Midrash Rabbah, or the Church Fathers Origen (184-253 AD) in his two homilies on the Song of Songs, and St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan (340-397 AD) in his text, On Isaac and the Soul, and St. Bernhard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) in his Sermons on the Song of Songs. The language of the Songs both hides while anticipating a future glorious and everlasting nuptial union.

Kiss Me with the Kisses of Your Mouth 


    Salvation History identifies the Lord God seeking to dwell amongst His people in a more manifest manner. “Behold, I am going to do something new, Now it will spring up; Will you not be aware of it?” (Is 43:19). The voice of God in the Garden (Cf. Gen 3:8), later becomes the more intimate sharing of His “Sacred Name” which emanates from a burning bush on Mount Sinai. “I AM WHO AM” (Ex3:14). 

This “Sacred Name” descends and indwells the Ark of the Covenant. “Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Ex 40:34). A large stone temple in Jerusalem is constructed as a resting place for that “Sacred Name.” But will God indeed dwell on the earth? “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built!” (1 Kg 8:27). The Ark is placed in an area marked off as the “Holy of Holies.” A long prayer is recited and the glory of God enters Holy of Holies built by human hands in the days of King Solomon. “And it happened that when the priests came from the holy place, the cloud filled the house of the LORD” (1 Kg 8:10). 

    With each divine manifestation there remains a degree of separation. The first man and woman are forced to leave the garden (Cf. Gen 3:24). The people of God dare not touch the Holy Mountain. “Then speak at Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but do not have God speak to us, or we will die’” (Ex 20:19; Heb 12:18). The majority of the people of God remain physically excluded from the Holy of Holies. “But into the second, only the high priest enters once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance” (Heb 9:7; Ex 30:10; Lev 16:2,3,11,12, 15, 34; Num 15:25). Prior to Judah’s exile into Babylon, God’s unique presence leaves the temple built by human hands. “Then the Glory of the Lord rose from the threshold of the Temple, moved to the place over the Cherub angels, and stopped there” (Ezek 10:18). His leaving of the temple gives rise to a new longing. The author of the Song of Songs dares to speak about a corporeal desire and encounter with God, “Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth” (Songs 1:1). He dares to speak about a face-to-face union with God which does not bring death (Cf. Ex 33:20). The language “Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth” is more affective than Solomon’s rhetoric, “But will God really dwell with mankind on the earth . . . how much less this house which I have built!” (2 Chron 6:18). The author pushes the envelope of revelation, “Will God really dwell with mankind on earth with no separations.”

Kiss, Face to Face, and Worship

    If one digs into the Hebrew root forms of the words “mouth” and “kisses” there is room to consider a face-to-face encounter between the human and the divine. This encounter precedes and anticipates beatific vision. God informs Elijah the prophet, “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal and every mouth (Hebrew | peh) that has not kissed (Hebrew | nashaq) him” (1Kg 19:18). 

Mouth and kiss identifies a face-to-face encounter with God in worship. The inspired author of the Songs seeks a face-to-face encounter with the living God. This encounter may be in the temple. It may also be in a river, a mountain, a wedding, a vineyard, in one's own home, during a last supper, or in a trial which leads to death. Man’s final end is to behold the essence of God face to face. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then (Koine | prosopon pros prosopon) face-to-face” (1 Cor 13:12). See end note [2]. Desire along with disappointment is addressed by the Lord God, “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?” (Is 5:4). The answer dares to be spoken, “Assume flesh and blood.” Human beings were created with a rational and sensual nature which possesses the power to sense corporeal reality while abstracting and contemplating the invisible. The invisible God assumes the visible through the Incarnation as a means of drawing human nature back towards spousal love in beatitude. The beloved disciple writes, “And the Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us and we saw His glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). Not only did men and women see the Word made flesh but touched Him as well, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life” (1 Jn 1:1). With these things in mind, this post now considers the manner in which the genre of love in the Song of Songs reaches the writing of John, the beloved disciple. Again this is not a new idea. See note [1].

My Beloved is Dazzling and Ruddy

    The Shulammite woman in the Song of Songs provides a step-by-step description of the one whom she loves. Her language is placed side-by-side with John’s description of the Son of Man as found in the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse):

Song of Song

Book of Revelation

Cant 5:10  My beloved is dazzling and ruddy

Rev 1:13 Someone like the son of man.

Cant 5:11 His head is pure gold, locks are wavy black

Rev 1:14 His head and hair like white (leukos) 
Note: Dazzling is translated as white in LXX.

Cant 5:12 His eyes like doves

Rev 1:14  His eyes like blazing fire (pyr)

Red (adom) is translated as (pyrros) in LXX with the root being fire. The word ruddy is translated as reddish like fire.  

Cant 5:13 His cheeks are like gardens . . . his lips like lilies

Rev 1:15 His feet like bronze

Cant 5:14 Hands cylinders . . . belly plate of ivory

Rev 1:15 His voice like the sound of rushing waters

Cant 5: 15 His legs columns of alabaster . . his appearance like Lebanon

Rev 1: 16 His right hand he held seven stars

Cant 5:16 His mouth is sweet all of him is desirable, this is my beloved

Rev 1:16 His mouth came a double edge-sword

Cant 5:10  My beloved is dazzling . . .

Rev 1: 16 His face like the sun shining in all brilliance

Divine and Human Nature

    This language in the Songs, “My beloved is dazzling and ruddy” is significant since David (a type of the Messiah) is identified in the Book of Samuel as being handsome and ruddy (reddish). Jesus’ human nature is “ruddy.” He is the Son of David. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Lk 18:38). Jesus Christ is Son of God (Cf. Mk 1:1; Lk 1:32). Jesus’ divine nature is “dazzling.” When Samuel encounters the young David he observes: “So Jesse sent for his youngest son and brought him in. He was ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance” (1 Sam 16:12). 

Three of the Gospel authors describe the appearance of Jesus Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration as dazzling (white): “His clothes became radiantly white, brighter than any launderer on earth could bleach them” (Mk 9:3) and “And his appearance was like lightning (Koine | astrapé), and his clothing white as snow” (Matt 28:3), and finally “And as He was praying, the appearance of His face changed, and His clothes became radiantly white” (Lk 9:29). Jesus Christ (the Incarnated Word of God) is both “dazzling and ruddy.” He is also a shepherd who fulfills the language unlike no other, “My beloved is for me and I am for him, the Shepherd within the lilies” (Songs 2:16; 6:3). See also end note [4].

Good Shepherd Among the Lillies

    John the evangelists identifies Jesus Christ as both the “Good Shepherd” and as one walking within the portico of Solomon. In the Old Testament, there is a description of two columns dedicated to Solomon and both having a lily design, “the capitals which were on the top of the pillars in the porch were of lily (Hebrew | shushan) design . . . the set up the right pillar and named it Jachin, and he set up the left pillar and named it Boaz. On the top of the pillars was the lily design. So the work of the pillars was finished . . . He also he made the Sea of cast metal ten cubits from brim to brim . . . and its brim was made like the brim of a cup, like a lily blossom . . .” (1 Kg 7: 15-26). It seems the lily motif runs within various features of the first temple. The expression “lily” is used (also) quite frequently in the Songs (2:1,16; 4:5; 5:13; 6:2,3; 7:2). 

The first temple was destroyed and rebuilt under the guidance of Ezra and Nehemiah. Its grandeur could not reach the wealth of the first temple. King Herod the Great (72-4 BC) began the re-furbishing of the second temple in Jerusalem. The effort took so it seems 46 years. “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and yet You will raise it up in three days?” (Jn 2:20). Part of the Herod’s efforts included the construction of porches alone the entire interior wall of the temple. Such things were called porches, porticoes (cloisters). It seems that along the southern interior wall, the porticoes consisted of four rows of Corinthian columns made of white marble; and there were 162 columns in all. The smaller eastern cloister was also constructed with Corinthian columns and became known as “Solomon's Porch” (John 10. 23; Acts 3: 11, 12). The tops of the Corinthian columns would have the flower design much like lilies. Archeologists have found “lily” mosaics associated with second temple construction. See end note [3].

Beloved, Shepherd, and Porticoes

    In the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus Christ identifies himself as the “Sheep Gate” and the “Good Shepherd” (cf. Jn 10:1-16). The beloved disciple then goes on to observe, “At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon” (Jn 10:23). In essence, the beloved disciple observes the Good Shepherd moving among the lilies of Solomon’s Portico. 

The beloved disciple captures the sentiment in the Songs, “My beloved is for me and I am for him, the Shepherd within the lilies” (Songs 2:16; 6:3). It is a virginal love. John is a eunuch for the Kingdom of God (Cf. Math 19:12). It is in the Book of Revelation that this virginal love appears again: “These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they are virgins (Koine | parthenoi). They follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Rev 14:4). This next example deals with an observed repetition of terms dealing with searching, seeing, and finding both within the Songs and John’s Gospel. 

Seek and Find 


    In the Songs, the Shulammite woman is restless, “Upon my bed in the nights, I sought him whom my soul loved, I sought him and did not find him. I should wake . . .I searched but did not find him . . . The guards found me . . . they saw the one my soul loves. I found him and I will not let him go” (Songs 3:1-4). A similar pattern of seeing, search, and finding exists within the first chapter of the Gospel of John, “The next day he saw Jesus coming to him . . . John testified saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him . . . ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” And Jesus turned and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So they came and saw where He was staying . . . Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which translated means Christ) . . . The next day and He found Philip . . . Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him. Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him . . . Jesus answered . . . under the fig tree, I saw you.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And He said to him, . . . you will see the heavens opened . . .” (John 1:29-51). This the fourth next example considers the use of the terms “door,” “voice,” “knock (or call),” and “open” in both the Song of Songs and John’s  Book of Revelation.

Neither Hot or Cold

    The Shulammite woman is sleeping and she hears the voice of her beloved. She hesitates and delays coming to the door. “I was sleeping but my heart was awake, the voice of my beloved, knocking (Hebrew |ḏō-w-p̄êq), open to me my sister . . . I had put off my garment; how can I put them on? I washed my feet: how can I soil them?” (Song 5:2, 3). The voice at the door is inviting the beloved to come to his garden, “Eat, O friends, and drink; drink freely, O beloved” (Songs 5:1). In the Book of Revelation, Jesus Christ states, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock (Koine | krouō); if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev 3:20). The immediate context of Jesus’ language is the situation of persons being neither hot or cold, “I know your deeds, that you are neither hot or cold. I wish you your were one or the other” (Rev 3:15). The Shulammite woman’s hesitation prevents the beloved from entering the room or more correctly from her going out and sharing in his feast. She searches for him only to be ruffed by the city guards. There are other tempting allusions between the Song of Songs and the Gospel of John including the events surrounding the anointing of Jesus' head and feet, and Mary Magdalene’s behavior when reaching the empty tomb: seeing the angels, going back to find the apostles, and her encounter with the risen Christ. Such things are for another day. 

Final Thoughts

    Jesus Christ told the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that everything in Moses and the Prophets was written about Him (Cf. Lk 24:44). For many people it seems that no such re-reading exists between the Song of Songs and the Jesus Christ except by way of allegory. This is partly due to the reduction of the Song of Songs to an “erotic” dialogue between a Shulammite and a dazzling and ruddy shepherd. This post proposes that since the Holy Spirit is the author of all inspired text, there can exist a re-reading of the Songs especially when placed within the whole of Salvation History -- which opens and closes with spousal love. The author of the Gospel of John is identified as the disciple whom Jesus loves. He captures the essence of spousal love between God and Man in the person of Jesus Christ. The beloved disciple identifies Jesus’ first miracle as being performed within the circumstances of a wedding in Cana (Jn 2:1-11). This was not a coincidence. The beloved disciple remembers the language of John the Baptist (a prophet) identifying Jesus as bridegroom. “The one having the bride is the bridegroom; and the friend of the bridegroom . . . Therefore, this joy of mine is fulfilled (Jn 3:29). The beloved disciple understands that in marriage both spouses gain an extended family, “Woman behold your son . . . behold your mother” (Jn 19:21), and again “In my Father’s house there are many rooms . . . I go to prepare a place for you” (Jn 14:1-3). The Song of Songs and the writings of John (the beloved disciple) were inspired by the same Holy Spirit. It seems reasonable there would exist a correlation between all three authors which is more than allegorical. 

End Notes:

[1] Reference the Article by Andrew R. Evans titled, “Allusions to the Song of Songs in John’s Gospel and Revelation.” (Foundations 64, May 2013, 38-63). Reference also www.andysstudy.org

[2] John’s 2nd Letter and 3rd Letter keep true to the original Hebrew: “mouth-to-mouth” equals “face-to-face.” He writes, “But I hope to come to you and speak mouth (Koine | stoma) to mouth (stoma), so that your joy may be made complete.” (2 Jn 1:12; 3 Jn 1:13). This explains how God could speak to Moses face-to-face and later read (hear) Moses asking God, “Show me your glory” (Ex 33:18-23). 

[3] Around the entire interior of the temple were porticoes or cloisters. The finest were those on the south. They consisted of four rows of Corinthian columns of white marble; and there were 162 columns in all. The ceilings were of carved wood (Antiquities by Josephus. 15. 11, § 5; "B. J." v. 5, § 2). The eastern cloister was known as "Solomon's Porch" (John 10. 23; Acts 3. 11, v. 12). Reference Temple of Herod by the Executive Committee of the Jewish Encyclopedia Editorial Board. George A. Barton, https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14304-temple-of-herod#anchor3.

[4] Jesus Christ identifies Himself as the good shepherd. In this way, He fulfills the words of the prophets, “He tends His flock like a shepherd; He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart” (Cf. Is 40:11, Ps 23:1; Ez 34:2, 11-14; Jer 23:3). He fulfills the language in the Song of Songs, “My beloved is for me and I am for him, the Shepherd within the lilies” (Songs 2:16; 6:3).