"I Sought Him, But I Did Not Find Him" (Song of Solomon 3:1-5)
"These verses are to be taken as a unit," says commentator Roland Murphy of Song 3:1-5, "because they are clearly separate from what precedes (a reminiscence about a past visit) and from what follows (a description of a procession). The lines are certainly spoken by the woman.... The woman evokes an extraordinary scene in vivid language. The fourfold repetition of 'whom my soul loves' (cf. 1:7), and the repeated emphasis on the theme of seeking/finding bind these verses together" (The Song of Songs, Hermeneia Commentaries, p. 146, note on 3:1-5).
In the imagery here the woman speaks of desperately searching for her beloved at night. Commentator Tom Gledhill notes: "If we try to link 3:1-5 with the literal scenario of 2:8-17, then we might suppose that the girl's pre-arranged rendezvous with her lover did not materialize. He did not show up, and she is in great agitation, longing for her absent lover. However, since it is impossible to be certain of any progression in the events lying behind 2:8-17, it is better to think of 3:1-5 as an independent unit. 2:17 represents, at a metaphorical level, a longing for intimacy. 3:1 shows a similar longing that has not been fulfilled. Unfulfilled dreams and fantasies lead to a desperate fear of isolation and loss" (The Message of the Song of Songs, pp. 143-144).
We should note the poetry of the segment in line with the repetition mentioned above. We see her statement that she would "go about the city" (verse 2) paralleled with her then encountering the watchmen who also "go about the city" (verse 3). The phrase "watchmen who go about" is translated from the alliterative Hebrew words hassomerim hassobebim. She four times says she sought or would seek her beloved and twice remarks that she did not find him (verses 1-2)-but the watchmen instead found her (verse 3). Then, after passing them by, she at last found him (verse 4)-making four mentions of finding to match the four mentions of seeking and the four mentions of "him whom my soul loveth" (verses 1-4, KJV). After finding her lover, she won't let him go until she brings him to her mother's house or room (verse 4)-after which she reiterates the charge to the daughters of Jerusalem that ended the first major section of the Song (verse 5; see 2:7).
What is going on here? Are we to understand this literally? Did she really get out of bed and go searching about the city for her beloved? Are we to understand that her mother's house was in this city? Is this city Jerusalem since the daughters of Jerusalem are addressed? Some do take it all literally. Followers of the bizarre cultic-mythological approach claim that this segment represents the goddess Ishtar's search for her beloved Tammuz in the underworld-a view for which there is zero evidence. (Indeed, those who accept the Bible as the Word of God and the Song of Solomon as part of that Word are right to reject such a notion out of hand-as God would never espouse or sanction idolatrous myth.) Most commentators, though, take this section to be a troubled dream or dreamlike imagining of the woman, and there is much to support this view.
First of all, we should note that the phrase often translated "by night" in 3:1 is literally "in the nights" (plural). The New English Bible renders it "night after night." So this was evidently a recurring episode-which makes far more sense if the events here took place in her head.
Second, consider carefully the wording of verse 1. Some imagine that the woman is thinking about the man in bed and then rises to go searching for him. Yet verse 1 actually says that she sought her lover while on her bed. This is obviously not speaking of lifting up the sheets. He is nowhere around. Her seeking in bed in verse 1 must refer to her search about the city in verses 2-3-which necessarily puts it all in her mind.
Third, the whole unit here is parallel, in the symmetrical arrangement of the Song, to a very similar sequence in 5:2-8-complete with the woman searching for her beloved at night, encountering the city watchmen and ending with a charge to the daughters of Jerusalem-and that sequence is introduced with the statement that the woman is sleeping.
Fourth, it is difficult to imagine a young woman in ancient Israel being free to roam the city streets at night on her own-as women were then rather cloistered. This is especially problematic for those who assume that the girl was Solomon's fiancé or a woman in his harem. And it is most difficult if this was a recurring circumstance, as indicated in verse 1.
Fifth, the woman's expectation that the watchmen would know her love by that distinction seems odd if the storyline here is real. It seems especially odd if her love was Solomon, for why would she not merely inquire as to the whereabouts of the king-and would this even be a mystery?
Sixth, the speed of the action here seems too compressed for an actual event. No details at all are given of the discovery, as she passes the watchmen and immediately runs into her beloved. It reads more like: "Where is he? Where is he? Is he here? Is he there? Have you seen him? Oh, there he is."
Seventh, the conclusion with the adjuration to the daughters of Jerusalem is probably a literary convention as in 2:7. It is, again, a poetic refrain and a way to communicate something to the audience.
Thus, it seems best to view this section as a dream or dreamlike thoughts. Murphy argues for the latter: "It may be too much to insist that this is a dream. It is more like 'daydreaming' [though at night] than a dream, the fantasy of one who yearns to be with an absent lover. Psychologically, this may be only a slight degree removed from the expression of the unconscious in dream. The description internalizes an adventure, a quest, which is always going on within the woman when she is apart from the man. In any case, one is dealing with a literary topos [i.e., a figurative geography or setting]: the search for and discovery of the beloved" (p. 145, footnote on verse 5).
It is still left, though, to comprehend the substance of her thoughts. No doubt this section expresses the woman's relationship insecurities-perhaps during the engagement period just prior to the wedding that marks the next section. Some assume that the couple here is already married, this being seen as the reason she is wondering while in bed why her lover is not with her. Yet this is reading something into the passage, for it does not say she is confused about his absence from her bed-merely that she is seeking him in her thoughts while she is on her bed night after night. Gledhill states: "Obviously, the lovers are not married, for it is his continuous unexplained absence that causes her yearning" (p. 144).
The search within the woman's mind nearly turns to panic until she passes the mysterious watchmen. Who are they in this frantic fantasy? Perhaps they are her own sensibilities-the mental and emotional governors of her own mind. Their patrolling and then finding her would seem to indicate that she finally "got a grip on herself," as the expression goes, which is why she was then able to discover her lover immediately afterward. That is, she calmed down and, thinking more rationally, realized exactly where he was in relation (in this case relationship) to her. (The watchmen, it should be noted, play a more negative role in chapter 5.)
The Shulamite determines on finding her lover to bring him straightway to, as she says, "the house of my mother, and into the chamber of her who conceived me" (3:4). What is this all about? Some see it as a general reference to her family home. (Is this in Jerusalem rather than in a country village as has been supposed? There is no way to know.) In this view, some believe her home is referred to as the house of her mother since her father is nowhere in the picture in the Song, he evidently having died long before (compare 1:6). Yet others recognize that the mother's house was a more common designation for the home of young women, who were evidently seen as having been reared by their mothers (compare Genesis 24:28; Ruth 1:8). One thought here is that the woman is thinking of her home as the place of greatest security-that bringing the man there will bring him into and keep him within her sphere. Some, by the way, point to this as proof that the couple is as yet unmarried, but in Song 8:2 the woman desires to bring the man to her mother's house within a passage that has a sexual context showing they are there married. Thus, the unmarried status of the couple in 3:1-5 must be based on other criteria.
Some see the woman's family home in 3:4 as intending a wedding context. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament says: "The Sumerian love songs talk about the 'entry into the bride's house as the first formal act of marriage, after which came the union of the couple'; so [notes] Y[itzhak] Sefati, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature (...1999), pp. 3-5. He further comments....'the groom is the one who goes or is brought to the house of the bride's parents. By contrast, we find only one example in which the lover brings his beloved bride to his home, and it does not belong to the marriage ceremony'...p. 104" (p. 129, footnote on 3:1-5; p. 131 footnote on verse 4). In this perspective, the woman sees marriage as the only resolution to the anxiety of separation she has been going through. The visit to the mother's house, though, would not be actual yet-only part of the woman's imagining. Incidentally, some point to Isaac bringing Rebekah into his mother Sarah's tent as a possible parallel here (Genesis 24:67)-but in that case the man's mother's dwelling is in view and the circumstance appears to be a special one of Rebekah literally and figurative filling an empty space left by Sarah, who had died. Anyway, a wedding context is possible in 3:4 if the desire for visiting the mother's house in 8:2 can have a different meaning.
In a possible parallel, it is worthy of note that in Jesus' parable of the ten virgins, the groom is pictured showing up near the bride's residence late in the night before their wedding (Matthew 25:1-13)-which seems to indicate that this was established custom in Jesus' day. Maybe the idea in Song 3:1-5 is that the woman wants to get this process rolling right away. And how interesting it is that verses 6-11 then appear to describe a wedding. We will note more about this in conjunction with our next reading.
Some commentators see the charge to the daughters of Jerusalem in 3:5 as an implication that the visit to the mother's house in verse 4 is for the purpose of physical relations-seeing this as parallel to 8:2 followed by a similar charge to the daughters in 8:4. And the contention among some is that 3:4 concerns the woman's intention to have premarital sex. The New American Commentary counters: "It is difficult to see her taking her boyfriend to her mother's house for a sexual liaison (v. 4). A woman was taken into the man's household at marriage. This is not to be understood as outside of marriage since taking the man to her parents' home for that purpose would be unthinkable in Israelite society" (p. 396, note on 3:1-5).
Of course, this may cause us to wonder why this would be the chosen site for sexual union after marriage in 8:2. Likewise we may wonder why mention is made of not just the mother's house but of her "chamber" or room-her bedroom, as it is specified to be the place where the woman was conceived. Different answers are offered. The New International Commentary says, "It is the place of the previous generation's romantic liaison and thus an indirect way to indicate that the woman's intention is to make love" (note on 3:4). Yet the same commentary also presents the suggestion that some other commentators make here-that the reference is anatomical. As The New American Commentary says: "The mother's house, 'the room of the one who conceived me,' must represent the idea of the womb. This is the room in which all are conceived" (p. 399, same note). Gledhill concurs: "'The house of my mother' could be translated more exactly as 'my mother-house,' with the possessive 'my' qualifying the compound unit 'mother-house.' Then 'mother-house' could literally be the chamber where motherhood becomes a reality, that is, her womb" (p. 145). The idea would be that she is determined to have sexual union with the man-which implies marriage (rather than premarital relations, as some argue). A problem with this identification is that in specifying the womb of the one who conceived her, the Shulamite would be referring to her mother's womb rather than her own. Yet it is possible that she is implying "the same chamber within me as that wherein I was conceived within my mother." If that is valid, which is by no means clear, then the identification with her mother could perhaps be a recognition that her mother before her went through the same turmoil and resolution that she is going through-which could be a source of strength to her in that she is dealing with a common experience. It should be recognized, though, that being born of one's mother is a theme elsewhere in the Song (see 6:9; 8:5). This would seem to impact the meaning in 3:4, yet the usage here could be a double entendre. (Even in 8:5, the meaning seems to refer to being reborn through the awakening of love.)
In any case, whether the mother's room is a geographical or anatomical location, there does appear to be a sexual and marital context to the man being brought here at the end of 3:4. And though he is not truly brought here yet, as all is still in the woman's head-the process of feelings here recurring often over multiple nights-the conjugal thoughts are likely what prompt the repetition of the charge to the daughters of Jerusalem (representing all young women) in verse 5. Don't stir up or awaken love with its physical desires and expression until the time and occasion is right, she is apparently saying. Wait until you find the right person-and wait until you are married to each other.