- King Solomon
- The History of Colorism
- Literal or Figurative?
- A Mother and Siblings
- Does She Really Mean Black?
- Regardless of Color
- Lilies and Apple Trees
- References and Footnotes
- Other Pages to View
The first two chapters of Song of Solomon introduce us to the leading lady and her lover. Solomon switches from her point of view to his point of view throughout the book, making it important to constantly re-evaluate who is speaking to whom as we read. Within these first chapters we find much inspiration and many lessons that apply to our own lives today.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.
The first emotion presented to us is longing. The woman speaking desires to be with her love and informs us that he is sought after by many virgins. Virgins convey desirability since women who were not virgins were expected to be married and thus, not lusting after a man other than their husband. Her statement that virgins desired this man is equivalent to saying he was desired by all the single women.
This longing is probably familiar even to those who have not been in love, but have had crushes. We can't wait to see the face of that special person or talk to them about the day. When we search for deeper meaning, however, this is also the way we should feel about building a relationship with God.
The interpretation of the book hangs heavily upon Song of Solomon 1:4. Here, the king has brought the woman to his chambers and someone is both running and rejoicing. Some view this verse as saying something along the lines of "even if the king should desire me, I would seek after you and rejoice." Others see this as identification of the lover as the king, pointing to Solomon.
I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
I find Song of Solomon 1:5-6 to be interesting for lots of reasons. These verses point out the fact that the woman in question has a darker complexion than was expected and provide an explanation of why she is darker. First, it shows us something about humanity that hasn't changed. Second, it reminds us that God's people were pulled from all walks of life. And third, it gives us a glimpse of a struggle we can still relate to today.
The History of Colorism
Colorism is the issue of preferring, privileging, and uplifting people based upon the color of their skin. If you aren't familiar with the issue, you probably think that definition sounds like racism, but colorism occurs even within races.
In America (and when I say "America," I'm referring to both American continents, not just the United States), for example, this can be seen among black people, both Hispanic and non-Hispanic. When you take into account the fact that the complexion of African people varies from nation to nation, then account for Africans brought to the Americas having consensual and non-consensual relationships with people of European and Native Americans ancestry, you get a very broad spectrum of complexions. South Africa and other colonized nations have similar legacies. In these nations, lighter skinned black people were given more privileges. Whether it was because they were seen as "less black" or simply because their white or Native American parent was able to provide things two black parents could not, the fact remains that these people were seen as a special subset of their race and deemed "better" than their fellow blacks who happened to be darker. This issue still prevails in our media and mentality, even within our own communities and how we view ourselves.
As an American, it's easy to focus on the history of colorism as it relates to slavery and the ideals that black people were inferior, but there's another component to colorism that needs to be addressed before diving further into these verses. During Biblical times, it wasn't particularly common for people to migrate long distances. It's not like someone in Israel could buy a plane ticket and move to present day Russia. This means there was probably quite a bit more homogeneity in many places of the world. Israel being a prime route for trade, may have had more diversity than most nations, but let's talk about colorism in homogenous nations. Countries like Japan have almost no non-native citizens; this means the gene diversity in the country is not very high, particularly when it comes to skin color. In these countries, being darker or lighter isn't about being descended from a group of people that were beaten down and considered less than human. Instead, skin complexion told people your economic status.
Generally speaking, the longer you sit in the sun, the darker you become. A rich man who owned a farm would pay someone to do the work of upkeeping the farm. Conversely, a poor man would be more likely to work in the field to pay his bills. The person who was able to pay someone to work the fields wouldn't have to labor in the sun. As such, they would automatically be less likely to have their skin tanned due to working in the heat each day. A dark complexion was evidence of field work and this meant you were either poor or working class. Thus, coloring was a marker of status. Because of this, even in countries that do not share the tragic history of American slavery, colorism is still alive and well.
The woman in Song Solomon explains that her skin is black because of working in the fields, implying that discrimination against her is rooted in this latter cause of colorism.
Literal or Figurative?
Translations vary in using "black" vs. "dark" when translating the verse in to English, but either way, most commentaries approach the statement as a literal description. Although they agree that the woman is not literally black in complexion—just as black people are not literally black—they interpret her statement to mean she is tanned and darker than most. This is supported by her next statements, which explain that she was looked upon by the sun, and forced to keep vineyards. As I discussed previously, a tanned complexion indicated that she worked outdoors.
However, I see another layer to this. The woman compares herself to both the tents of Kedar and the curtains of Solomon. The curtains of Solomon were known for their beauty and the their exquisite design literally, but symbolically, they represent the holiness of the Temple. The curtains of Solomon were not just any curtains and they weren't just hung in any place. These curtains were built specifically to hang in the presence of God. In contrast, the Kedar is a reference to a son of Ishmael (see Genesis 25:13). In referencing these tents, the woman is drawing upon the contrast between the descendants of Ishmael, who did not inherit the covenant from God, and the descendants of Isaac, who were God's chosen people (Galatians 4).
What continues my interest in this line of thought, is the reference to working the fields. In Genesis 3, right before mankind is expelled from the Garden of Eden, God issues a series of punishments. One of these punishments is that of tilling the ground. Before the fall, everything grew from the Earth effortlessly, but upon the fall, man would have to labor to bring forth crops. The woman is stating her position in life as having to work in the vineyards, just as God commanded after the fall. She goes on to say that she has neglected her own vineyards. This reminds me of several things. In Deuteronomy 28, the Israelites are told if they do not follow God’s law part of their curse will be to essentially work a field but not reap the benefit. Also, body of Christ is also likened to a vineyard (John 15).
A Mother and Siblings
The woman immediately identifies herself as having a family. While she doesn't mention her father, she does mention a mother and siblings. We learn that her siblings were angry with her and it is because of them that she was forced to keep the vineyards. Another place in the Bible where we see siblings angry with a particular sibling and subsequently punishing that sibling, is in Genesis 37 with the sons of Jacob (Israel) punishing Joseph.
Further, in the Bible a woman usually represents a church (Jeremiah 6:2). When you look into prophecy, you will find two main women discussed in Revelation. One is described in a manner befitting the church of God and is persecuted, while the other is described as the "whore of Babylon." The whore of Babylon represents a wayward church filled with sin and following it's own desires. Not surprisingly, this woman is also described as the mother of harlots (Revelation 17). From this wayward church, springs other wayward churches, and together, they persecute God's faithful people. The woman in Song of Solomon is experiencing a similar fate. She is forced out of the comforts of a home or simple job and not the hot, sun laden fields at the persecution of her mother and siblings.
From a symbolic point of view, the phrase "black but comely" could actually be saying that she is a sinner (we all are sinners), but she has been redeemed into beauty through faith. Many believe the song to be about the remnant church of the end times, and here I see how that could be a possible interpretation.
Does She Really Mean Black?
Now, me being an African-American, I really want to say that the leading lady in Solomon's song is declaring herself to be a radiant beauty with beautifully dark skin and African features. I'm seeing someone like Khoudia Diop or Nyakim Gatwech.
However, my experience with people of different races reminds me that this may not necessarily be the case. I had a friend from China once declare she was "black" after being in the sun for a day. Her tanned skin wasn't even as dark as me and I'm often mistaken for being mixed... Apparently "black skin" is relative.
That being said, the fact that Israel is so close to Africa and Arabs at that time would have been more brown (since they hadn't intermarried with Europeans yet), I think it's reasonable to assume she was much darker than a tanned white person.
Regardless of Color
The beauty of the woman's admission is that she is still the star of the story Solomon tells and God chose to preserve that story. It is a statement that despite mankind's tendency to diminish darker and poor people, God still views us as beautiful ("comely") and worthy of being included in his kingdom.
Whether the woman represents God's church/people, or is merely a woman, her beauty is not limited to physical beauty. She is setting the stage by revealing that she has been mistreated and is looked upon as lowly by society. This mirrors the statements given in the Beattitudes (Matthew 5) as well as the laws concerning the less fortunate. God reveals this information about the leading lady to remind us that it is not the color of our skin that matters, but the character of the person beneath it.
Song of Solomon 1:8-11 is told from the point of view of the lover. He reassures her that she is beautiful. His words are followed by similar words of praise from the woman. What is important here is not that either person was physically attractive, but the fact that feelings were mutual and appreciation is flowing in both directions. Relationships are most successful when the people involved love and respect each other equally.
Lilies and Apple Trees
Song of Solomon 2 begins with two interesting metaphors and juxtapositions. The woman says she is a lily among thorns and an apple tree among forest trees. In both cases, the woman compares herself to something of pleasant and useful among the unpleasant and useless. My study Bible interprets this to mean that love represents safety in our dangerous world. I think it is also about standing out.
In the New Testament, we are charged with shining Jesus' light in the world. We are also called to be set apart. If we are following the Will of God, we will subsequently bear the fruit of the Spirit, which is good fruit. Meanwhile those who do not surrender to God will be known for their bad fruit. Thus, we are like lilies among thorns and apple trees among barren trees.
God is love, and our relationship with Him is about love. Thus, this metaphor should apply to love itself as well. Love is rare, but a beautiful sight to behold when spotted. I also think it might indicate that love is obvious. We often say love is blind, because we allow our self to love thorns whose purpose is to injure us. However, when we follow and trust God, love should be obvious, like a lily or an apple tree.
The woman, though longing for her beloved, asks that no one wake him. Although she can't wait to spend time with him, she desires for him to get his rest and join her on his time. This patience apply to both earthly relationships and our spiritual relationships.
We are often impatient in the pursuit of love. We want our knight in shining armor to appear right now, and we want him to be ready to be our knight that instance. We want to fall in love overnight like a Disney movie and be swept away in a whirlwind of romance. However, it doesn't always happen like that (does it ever happen like that?). Each of us is a work in progress, so our beloved will not be perfect when we meet him (or her, for my male readers). Also, it may take time. As the person is developing, we have to give them room to grow. We cannot pressure someone to return our affections simply because we want them to.
Similarly, we become impatient with God. Whether it is because He has not returned yet, or because we have asked for something and not received it yet. God works on His own time. He knows when He should "wake" and will be happy to see us when He does. It is up to us to be patient in our pursuit of Him.
References and Footnotes
- "Song of Solomon 1:5 Commentary". Bible Hub; visited November 25, 2017
- Andrius. "Girl Was Bullied For Her Incredibly Dark Skin, Now She Became A Model And Internet Sensation". Demilked. November 2016
- Siofra Brennan. "'You are beyond beautiful': Sudanese model dubbed the Queen of the Dark encourages black women to love their skin - after an Uber driver asked if she'd bleach herself for $10K". Daily Mail. July 4, 2017
- "Song of Solomon 1:5". Bible Hub; visited November 2017
- "Song of Solomon 1:4 Commentary" Bible Hub; visited November 26, 2017
- Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible, pg. 1113. 2014
- Lori L. Tharps. "The Difference Between Racism and Colorism". Time. October 6, 2016
Other Pages to View