Whether or not you watch HBO’s Game of Thrones or read the books on which it is based, it is hard to ignore the cultural impact of that series, in which the Stark family has as its motto the phrase “Winter is coming.” The words communicate a warning to be prepared for the worst, because the worst will happen.
By contrast, we encounter in Song of Solomon 2:10-13 a message of hope and optimism about the future:
“Winter is past.”
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
The Bible’s love poetry
Some people are shocked to find love poetry in the Bible, because they expect to read in the Scriptures only what they consider “holy” or “sacred.” But the Song of Solomon (also titled “Song of Songs”) is included in our sacred scriptures, tucked in between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, and its inclusion in the Bible importantly affirms human sexual love. Although at face value these poems describe the human experience of love, some interpreters relate the Song of Solomon to the divine-human encounter.
I happen to think that both views are appropriate and that we can interpret this book on two distinct, but interrelated, levels. With this book we have within the Bible a celebration of human sexuality. This is especially important because sexuality has been denigrated at various times in the history of Christianity. We can call this a “level one” approach to the book.
Without denying this important perspective, we can also see a “level two” approach, which recognizes that the human experience of love and desire gives us language for talking about our relationship with God. Because our identity as sexual beings is a gift from God, we can speak of our relationship with God through the language of sexual desire. These two levels support each other.
The poetic portion found in Song 2:10-13 expresses a lover’s desire for a beloved. At level one, these are two anonymous individuals who love each other and want to be together. A level two approach views the dialogue of the Song of Solomon as a conversation between divine and human figures. Traditionally, Christianity views the male as either God or Jesus and the female as either an individual seeker or the body of believers (the church).
Winter is past
The setting for this love poem is springtime. As April approaches in Pennsylvania, where I live, we eagerly anticipate the end of winter’s snow, sleet, and ice. We look for signs of spring—crocus and snowdrops, which sometimes sprout up through a layer of snow.
By contrast, in the eastern Mediterranean region where our passage originates, there are only two main seasons: winter and summer. Winter is a rainy season, and summer is dry. To say that “winter is past” in the Mediterranean means that the rainy season has ended. The description in the Song of Solomon holds meaning no matter which “winter” we are talking about. Following winter is a season of beauty, fruitfulness, and abundance.
This passage captured the attention of our Anabaptist forbears, who related these verses to new life and the flowering of a new age for the people of God. The Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Philips (1504-1568) describes the ending of winter as an experience of God’s grace, when he writes, “The land has become fruitful in faith and the knowledge of God; the plants of the Lord sprout forth.” Reflecting on this passage in light of Dirk Philips, we might ask ourselves, “Where does our world demonstrate faith and knowledge of God? Where do we see crocuses springing up through the snow?”
Composers have set the words of this passage to music. The Anglo- Canadian musician Healey Willan (1880-1968) based his song “Rise Up, My Love, My Fair One,” on this section of the Song of Solomon. The colonial American composer William Billings (1746-1800) weaves together the language of Song of Solomon, chapter 2, in the anthem “I Am the Rose of Sharon.”
Take a listen
You can find this music on YouTube and at Hymnary.org:
- William Billings, “I Am the Rose of Sharon”
- William Walker, “Hark, Don’t You Hear the Turtledove!”
- Healey Willan, “Rise Up, My Love, My Fair One”
The voice of the turtledove
The “voice of the turtledove” (v. 12) signals change. English versions vary on how they translate the Hebrew word tor, which refers to a migratory dove that appears in the eastern Mediterranean region in mid-April. Some (the New International Version, for example) simply call the bird a “dove,” but others (such as the New Revised Standard Version) specify that this bird is a “turtledove.” (The King James Version famously has “turtle,” a now archaic term for a turtledove.) Devotional writers use the term “turtledove” to symbolize faithful love, because turtledoves mate for life.
In “Hark! Don’t You Hear the Turtledove,” a song by 19th century Baptist musician William Walker (1809-1875), the turtledove symbolizes the redeeming love of God: “O Zion, hear the turtledove, the token of your Saviour’s love!”
My Elizabethtown College colleague Jeff Bach has written about turtledove symbolism in the 18th century Ephrata (Pa.) religious community (Voices of the Turtledoves: The Sacred World of Ephrata). Pairs of turtledoves appear in the Ephrata art known as fraktur (as in the image accompanying this Bible study). In this art, pairs of turtledoves symbolize the love that binds Christ and his followers.
As readers of the Bible, we often want precise meanings for everything we encounter in the Scriptures, but poems often elude the precision we seek. Rather, they elicit emotional responses, and they have the power to call forth from our souls new poems, songs, and art.
Winter is past! The voice of the turtledove is heard in our land!
To learn more
In Lamentations; The Song of Songs (Herald Press, 2015), part of the Believers Church Commentary Series, Wilma Ann Bailey and Christina Bucher discuss ways the Song of Songs (an alternate title for Song of Solomon) has influenced Christian spirituality through hymns and devotional writing. In an insight session at Annual Conference on Friday, July 6, the two authors will focus on the intersection of faith and the human experiences of desire, love, loss, and mourning, which can be found in those two books of the Bible.
Christina Bucher is professor of religion at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.