The Queen of Sheba before Solomon, by Tintoretto, 1555, Museo Nacional del Prado.
I offer my readers a draft exegesis on biblical love, described in Psalm 45 and the Song of Songs.
Happy reading and have a good holiday!
Psalm 44(45) and the Canticle of Canticles
by Ana Paula Arendt*
In ancient Canaanite culture, marriage was celebrated with tablets of Ugaritic poetry, made up of myths, tales and legends, which date back to the same period of compilation of the Psalms – and parallels have been found between some Ugaritic psalms and poems. David would have incorporated part of the Ugaritic poetry adapting the terms and verses in use at that time, so that they were compatible with monotheism and worship of YW-H, such as psalms 29 and 82.
2. Psalm 45 does not contain correspondences with Ugaritic poetry, but eventually it could have served as a text for public reading in place of the most popular Ugaritic poem in the region declaimed during the wedding blessings, about the marriage of Yarikh, god of moon, and Nikkal, mother of the Sun. The plate of this Ugaritic poem opens with the description of a moon at twilight embracing Nikkal (and the surrounding gods), asking her father Harhab to give him his daughter, while also promising a great reward. Harhab examines him and suggests that he marry another woman, but Yarikh insists. Then the moon gives the mohar (the groom's dowry to the bride's father) in front of the entire family, who examine it. The groom must insist and demonstrate the ability to support her. In the next part of the tablet, separated from the previous one by a horizontal line, some historians claim to find an excerpt from a kosher psalm; and mention is also found of El, the king of the Mesopotamian gods, who alludes to giving the gods' blessing to the couple. Its popularity is inferred because the tablet contains a gap to fill in the names of the bride and groom.
3. Unlike the Mesopotamian tradition, in which the groom takes the initiative with the bride's father, the Hebrew nuptial originates, in Psalm 45, by the bride's attraction to the groom: for his beauty and his virtues that evoke divine goods, the wife desires the groom's beauty for herself, to become one with him. Whoever loves cannot help but tell her beloved that she loves him; and from this come the term meaning to “overflow”, spontaneously (v. 2). At first, the bride tries to express what she feels by describing what she sees of special about her favorite; but quickly, because she is in a hurry, she needs the agility of a scribe; and then she delves deeper into where do all his charms come from. Seeing what enchants her, she wishes to make such attraction even greater, praising and paying homage to him: praises produce the fragrances of “myrrh, aloes and incense”. The environment is transformed by the presence of the beloved, becoming a sacred space in which the bride addresses the groom, where there is no room for external interference.
Image: David e Bathsheba, Neoclassical School, 19th Century.
4. In the background, we have what looks like an ascendant of the Roman epithalamium, which contains a song with the melody of a lily-shaped instrument and wedding lyrics (coemptio). From the Latin nuptiæ, the wedding is translated as the gesture of covering oneself with a fleece, a fine fabric: meaning lying down. The Psalm in the original Hebrew refers, however, not to a wedding song, as we find translated in most Bibles; but it describes in Hebrew a song of love, of friendship ( שִׁיר יְדִידֹ , Shyr Yëdidot). Unlike Roman and Western culture, this sacred text does not constitute a wedding song that focuses on carnal union in a legitimate bed. Psalm 45 focuses on goodwill, a feeling in the soul that feeds back between the bride and groom want to be together, and that leads them to the altar in a celebration for a life together. This comes from the word Yëdidot, which can mean both love and friendship, companionship. In Portuguese, the wedding is described as "boda" (from the Latin vote, promise). It is also expressed in a different way, by the word matrimonium: mater, the constitution of the woman as a mother, the establishment of a home and the necessary preparations for having children. In Portuguese-Brazilian culture, marriage focuses much more on the woman as the center of the celebration, and less on the feeling that unites and beautifies the spouses, as in this Psalm and in Hebrew culture.
5. Psalm 45 evokes elements to translate into words a strong feeling that the spouses nurture for each other. The symbolic elements present are: 1) the lily as an instrument of the entire song: purity, chastity, being for each other; 2) the garments in gold, the most valuable metal, the one that is preferred above all others, evoked in the image of the splendid golden garments of Ophir, gold without impurities (we also remember the golden fleece, sought by Jason and the Argonauts, which demands from Jason the demonstration of virtues and confers the devotional love of his wife, Medea); 3) in myrrh, the oils and fragrances, which will transform the ambience into a sacred environment, which should not be defiled by minor issues; 4) the lyre, the melodious word, aimed at the delight of those who hear them, without thorns or bad omens, everything aimed at the good feeling between the bride and groom; 5) ivory, famously known at that time for adorning the walls of Ahab's Palace (1 Kings 22:39), suggesting that the place and moment in which the bride and groom celebrate a union is valuable.
6. The ivory perhaps also recalls the youth of the bride and groom's complexion, as couples used to marry when they were young: the sanctification of the place where they are is also the sanctification of their bodies. The terracotta and stone surfaces become white, smooth and refined: the place where they stand becomes, with love, a sacred temple. The sounds of the lyre produce a melody in the soul, a bond for revelation: for thousands of years, the lyre, or the canora tuba, has been the instrument with which the poets of Antiquity revealed the thoughts of the gods, so that men would know their divine fate. The desire for bodily touch, ivory, is the substance that makes thoughts concrete.
Image: David e Bathsheba, by Paris Bordone, 1540-1549, The Walters Art Museum
7. In Psalm 45 we also read an expressed preference of the bride that covers the groom with joy; a divine attribute for having been chosen as the bride's favorite by fate, among the friends he considers equally worthy. As Saint Thomas Aquinas states: man and woman pre-existed in a reality created by God. Although fascinated, without being able to explain the reason for her preference, the groom continues to consider his equals worthy, which is why he retains the royal scepter of equity (v. 7).
8. There does not seem to be a predefined rite in substance felt by the bride and groom; but a spontaneity that, even repeating steps already followed before, fills every moment, making it unique and eternal (“eternal blessings”, v. 3), for a mutual delight (v. 9). It is the woman's choice and devotion to the hero (v. 4) that begins the love song. The groom is a hero because he saved her, fulfilling her desire for truth, justice and glorious deeds (v. 5). The forces of the world try to dissipate such nurturing, bringing adversaries, reservations, highlighting defects (v. 6). But they are not even mentioned: we only see the passionate love of the bride for the groom, which gives him victory over criticism, without the attacks having any effect (“his arrows are sharp”). He becomes even more attractive by overcoming these difficulties with an active spirit, seeking to dispel what could diminish her feelings and interest.
9. At this point, despite not mentioning a dowry, as in the Ugaritic poem used at the ancient Canaanite wedding, the groom demonstrates his merit. But the man's love, in this Psalm, is to allow himself to be loved and fight to continue being loved by the woman, overcoming the opposition that arises to such. The bride credits God with victory, having chosen him (which recalls, in part, Yarikh's insistence and El's blessing); whereby the groom sits on an eternal throne as the one who will dominate and govern her (v. 7). With the woman who loves him, he is no longer just a man: he becomes a king.
10. In verses 8 and 9, there seems to be a transitional encounter between the song, from the bride to the groom, where the verses become confused and it is no longer possible to distinguish to whom the singing voice belongs. Was there a fusion of the souls of both into only one soul? We can no longer know who is writing the Psalm, whether the female or the male side. In this we remember the points of union of the triangles, in the Star of David: the triangle facing upwards, representing the male side, and the triangle facing downwards, representing the female side. United they form a star. The gematria of the Psalm in Hebrew would deserve a separate study, to analyze whether there is an intention on the part of the author.
Gilbert Sheedy / King David and Bathsheba / Stained glass / 1950, Sacred Heart and St Teresa, Coleshill
11. In the second part of the Psalm, however, the gaze turns from the groom to the bride, in order to correspond to the first part of the song; because of intensity, the bride seems exhausted from having donated her desires completely. But after taking the first step of declaring her love, she feels insecure about facing the unknown and abandoning those who initially nursed and protected her (v. 11). The groom then seeks to assure her so that she will not be saddened by the sacrifice of leaving her paternal home and her people, to join in marriage with the one she loves so much. The bride feels insecure once again and hesitates: because she does not think she is beautiful, despite having also been chosen in a match: she has inner modesty (v. 12). New happy events are foreseen on the horizon to encourage her: she will play an important role alongside her loved one, sharing his life; the praise she gave will be transformed into reciprocity, and from her merit there will be free gifts; she will be placed by the groom above the heroes, the founders of his country, and even his parents. After getting married, she will not just be a woman either: she will become a queen – and based on the requests she will receive from her subjects, she will also be queen of the groom's parents. This is a very contrasting and much more complete text when compared to all the other wedding poems and epithalamiums, inasmuch a female spouse in Roman culture is expected to play a domestic role and to be subjected by love.
Marc Chagall, David et Bath-Schéba (David and Bathsheba) from The Bible, 1958
12. The bride's faltering steps are overcome by promises, and that serve to demonstrate the groom's interest in her. Her clothes are embroidered in gold again because she is the favorite and her favoritism does not cease, with the gold being reserved for the champions (v. 14); multicolored clothes also, because she does not become boring: the groom examines her at the altar and he finds new aspects of beauty in her, those he had not noticed before (v. 15); she is accompanied by virgins, because her companions do not jeopardize that preference, nor compete with her (v. 15); they are happy for her. Her friends remain virgins because the groom only looks at the bride, showing his complete self-control and maturity, because of her love.
13. At the end, the Psalm sings about the purpose of the union between the groom and the bride: to give continuity and succession to life, providing a sublime beauty extended to the next generations, through praises (v. 17 and 18). It will be their task to repeat such moment for their descendants, “the princes on earth”, precedents and special among all, because they were born from a perfect, legitimate and authentic love, and they must continue it.
Image: The Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon, Lucas de Heere, 1559.
14. The Song of Songs, which is longer, and richer in poetic images, seek to describe the unparalleled beauty and unspeakable delight of loving and knowing oneself loved. It is reputed to King Solomon, and it also begins with the woman's voice. It is longer than the Psalm 45, because it talks about all the phases of a relationship between spouses. In biblical texts, the love of a couple is always marked by banquets: Jacob said to Laban, to marry Leia: “ “Bring my wife, for my days are complete, and I will return to her”. And Laban gathered together all the people of that place and made a feast.” (Genesis, 29, 21-22); “And there Samson made a feast, for that is what young men do.” (Judges, 14, 1, 7-8, 11). In Greco-Roman culture, Cadmus is considered the first to perform a wedding ceremony, described in literature as a festival of harmony, with many gods participating in it. In both Hebrew and Greco-Roman cultures, food and drink have a special importance in celebrating love between bride and groom; hence from that comes the abundance of poetic images that evoke food and drink in several passages of the book.
15. The verses from the book of Jeremiah (Jer 33:10-11), “The voice of joy, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride” were integrated into the text of the seventh blessing in seven blessings, and has become one of the most popular readings at Jewish weddings today. In the Song of Songs, the presence of the voice of the bride and the voice of the groom is also noted throughout the entire book; and in all sections, they report expressions of beauty and joy.
16. The first chapter begins with a fulminant nuptial passion. Everything is far more breathtaking than one can describe. Love, in addition to being poetic, also manifests itself in a carnal way between them. A feast for the soul, a place of pleasure and union where the soul delights.
17. In the second chapter, the enamored spouses, still drunk with happiness, dialogue in verse; the seasons come, the repetition of ways and things; and the couple, in a communion of alternating verses, escape the dangers, even though they are surrounded by thorns. At the mercy of predators, love is represented in the vulnerability of the deer.
18. In the third chapter, the husband disappears; his wife has to look for him and sees him dedicated to other tasks, related to combating opponents, in a litter protected by a complex combination of government forces, including women. He's closed to her. The wife, however, does not allow herself to be shaken by abandonment or jealousy; and she encourages the “daughters of Zion” not to bother him and to please him by beholding and praising him. This will repeat twice more.
Image: Piero della Francesca- Legend of the True Cross - the Queen of Sheba Meeting with Solomon, 1452-1466
19. In chapter 4, the husband, realizing his abandonment and the perfection of her love, falls back in love with his wife. She gains new sublime features and, remaining his partner, is now also a sister (v. 9-10). The husband also wants to win her back, realizing her unblemished fidelity (v. 7), delirious to see that she joined him in his efforts, even when those efforts excluded her. There are the “delicious fruits” (v. 16) of a love relationship that, even in moments of distance and absence, persists.
20. In chapter 5, there is conflict and vicissitudes. The beloved is no longer available to enjoy the delights of love; and his wife's love for him is rejected by his guards as something undesirable, which makes him vulnerable; her friends no longer want to help her bring him back to her side, as they don't see anything different in him from other men. However, the wife does not feel used and she is completely focused on the first memory she retains of her husband, which for her is more vivid and his true image, given the present hardship and difficulty. From not being able to see the face of the beloved: “Tell him that I am sick with love.” (v. 8). But the beloved does not want to show her his face, without being able to give her something worthy of the memory she retains of him. He loves her too much to disappoint her, or to present a love that is not sincere.
21. In the sixth chapter, the friends are moved, since the wife doesn't want anyone other than her beloved; and the virgins help her find him. Her friends start to praise he wife's virtues; which attracts her husband's attention back to her, more than his problems. The beloved then recognizes in his wife military virtues, of fighting for her objectives, until they are completely achieved; and he is overcome by her love. Knowing his wife's temperance, he realizes the fickleness of his mind and his desires, when he claims to have placed his soul in the chariots of Amminadab (v. 12). A relationship of confidence regarding their own weaknesses is finally established between them.
22. In the seventh chapter, the husband realizes that to achieve everything he most desires, he must first conquer her: “I am my beloved's, and his desire is toward me.” (v. 10). By loving her, he made everything that was his hers. Now, to enjoy and dispose of what he has, he must first desire her. He cannot be happy if she is not, since his happiness is intrinsecal to hers. When he strives due to health problems, she brings him mandrakes to heal his spirit (v. 14). A partnership is established, motivated by mutual love and full sharing of the best and the worst.
17th-century AD painting of the Queen of Sheba from a church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, now in the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa
Image by A. Davey from Where I Live Now: Pacific Northwest - The Queen of Sheba. Uploaded by Elitre, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21918820
23. In the eighth and final chapter, the love relationship is extended publicly; the bride wishes that her beloved was a brother, so that she would have fewer worries, and so that she would not need to protect herself from other men, retaining the exclusivity of love only to her husband. However, he wants to remain a husband, not a brother, to continue satisfying her expectations; It is then necessary to protect the bride, ensuring that she remains inside a wall with well-protected towers, so that the city is not invaded. Also to dispose of happiness (wine), the groom must take care of the vineyard; and the bride's vineyard does not belong to the groom, but to herself, who sovereignly decides to offer it to the groom, to dispose of it. Other friends are needed, however, to tend the vineyard and protect it; they will receive attention from her, although to a much lesser extent than the groom. This attention for friends is given through the happiness of seeing the couple's happiness prosper. Therefore, the bride invites her beloved to love her, in order to inspire others, and she thanks them for the protection they have received. The love of the bride and groom, being spontaneous, docile and disarmed like a deer, remains vulnerable; it needs a constant effort of protection and mutual coordination. There is no end to this labor of love, but in the end, it was preserved.
24. The sacred and poetic images in Psalm 45 focus on the moment of the wedding, the celebration, the decision of the bride and groom. The Song of Songs demonstrates the constant work that goes into the wife's effort and the husband's openness to keep love alive in a relationship. Mutual praise and devotion to each other, expressed in compliments, preference and reunions, mutual care, led their relationship to a lasting balance, which demands constant supervision from each other; but he finds this a reason for great satisfaction.
25. The beauty of these two great jewels of universal literature, quite popular in Sacred Scripture, is not just in their content, however. Although, at first glance, the female figure stands out in the main role in both texts, there is a beauty also outside the texts: because the male side is probably who would have thought and narrated the sublime verses in which the female side is the protagonist doing everything necessary for love to last and persevere. Having not included complaints, nor withheld anything thorny, in the dialogues that the bride and groom have with each other, the masculine side stands out as the author who keeps good memories and records only what is sweet and beautiful in the love between them. What seems infinitely naive, sugary and romantic is, therefore, the result of an inexplicable and almost supernatural effort on the part of the person in love, to forget everything that is not contained in the happiness of both. The result of the perfect renunciation of oneself are those texts of sublime, eternal, sacred love. Christ is not in these texts: but He seems to show His presence already in the authors.
26. In the Talmud there is an interpretation of Solomon's marriage in the Song of Songs. According to the commentary of Rabbi Akiva (? AD-132 AD), a Hebrew Tannaite who introduced from Halacha (oral law) the Mishnah (record of oral law), the Song of Songs is "the Saint of Saints" and everything that is written in it would be a parable and not a simple description. According to the Rabbi, the book would not refer to King Solomon's wedding, but would be rather a metaphor for the “marriage” of the people of Israel, when they received the Torah on Mount Sinai, with God. The parallelism that is made between Mary, in the Gospel of Luke, and the Ark of the Covenant, in the Book of Samuel, also produces a great wealth of images if we accept this rabbinic interpretation: in the New Testament, the woman is made, with her loving presence and availability, a reference and constant reminder of God's commandments and his mercy. After Christ, as Saint Luke suggests, the woman becomes the ark of Law.
* Ana Paula Arendt is a Brazilian political scientist, poet, and diplomat.