In language, be it English or another language, we use figures of speech far more often than we realize. Recently, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) released a campaign to change animal related idioms in the English language. Instead of “Kill two birds with one stone,” they advocate using “Feed two birds with one scone.” They replace “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” with “Don’t put all your berries in one bowl.”
In my opinion, PETA doesn’t understand the idioms because their replacements don’t quite communicate the same, but the same could be true of English translation of Hebrew figures of speech. We will see a lot of these through the remainder of the Song of Songs, so it’s important for us to read this book (as we should all books) doing our best to understand what the author intended to communicate.
If I said to my wife, “Your hair looks like a flock of goats,” or “Your teeth look like freshly shorn sheep that just walked up out of the river,” needless to say, I probably wouldn’t receive “husband of the year” honors. However, if you look at each of the figures of speech that Solomon uses in chapter 4, you will notice that each one points to tenderness, (doves, sheep, goats, deer, thread of scarlet) while many of his wife’s idioms in the book refer to Solomon’s strength.
One thing in this passage that seems especially odd to us as English readers, is Solomon’s reference to his bride time and again as “my sister, my spouse.” The Hebrew word for sister was a common term of endearment. In English, we might say “honey,” “sweetheart,” or “pumpkin,” all of which might seem weird if you weren’t a native English speaker. Solomon is expressing his deep tender affection for his wife.
From a practical side, let’s look at Solomon’s words in 4:12-15. He refers to her as a closed in garden where there is delicious fruit and refreshing water. Think about a really tough day you’ve had: you are stressed out, there seems to be no end to the pressure, and it seems like everyone is against you. Wouldn’t it have been nice to just escape from all the pressure into a walled off garden where nothing could bother you? In this garden, there’s a nice cold natural spring pouring out water so that you can take a drink while you relax there. There’s also some delicious fresh fruit for you to enjoy. All of a sudden, that stressful day just melts away in that protected environment. Would your spouse compare you to a safe place of refreshment and enjoyment? When your husband or wife comes home from a stressful, pressure filled day at work, where it seems like everyone is against them, do they feel safe and refreshed in your presence or do they still feel the pressure of the day?
This book may seem a bit strange at times to us as English readers, but its principles are just as applicable in our culture as they were in the Ancient Middle East.