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A Meditation on Song of Songs 2:15-17

Everything was beautiful in the real life that we meditated on last. We ended with the man beckoning the woman’s voice and wanting to gaze face to face. All that goodness may make her response to him curious.

Catch the foxes for us—

the little foxes that ruin

the vineyards—

for our vineyards are in bloom.

Song 2:15

Here, we experience the tension between the already of this true invitation with the reality of the Bridegroom breaking in, and the not-yet of our consummation. The woman teaches us that reality is complex. Think of what a gift this is: here we are in the holy of holies of Scripture, where we can experience the presence of Christ with us in the most intimate place in his Word. Here we are getting behind the veil, our senses aroused to his love with a taste of what is to come. And yet, it’s all empty sentimental platitudes if we let ourselves pervert it into fantasy.

It’s real.

And so is the fact that our preparation to get there can be filled with conflict and agony. In speaking of a Jewish Hasidic Master, Elie Wiesel, says something similar. “The beauty of Rebbe Barukh [of Medzebozh] is that he could speak of faith not as opposed to anguish but as being part of it. ‘Faith and the abyss are next to one another,’ he told his disciple. ‘I would even say: one within the other. True faith lies beyond questions; true faith comes after it has been challenged.’”[1] Can you resonate with this? So many have testified, feeling a bit of shame for it, that when things are going well, they often don’t feel as close to God. What have been the greatest trials in your life? This is when our faith is exposed. And trained. The writer to the Hebrews says it like this: “No discipline seems joyful at the time[2], but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). Our faith goes through training in the hard times. Real life training. Disappointments and losses in life can disorient us. They cause us to ask what is real. Things are often not as they seem.

The invitation is real, but the woman, being beckoned to come, beckoned to speak, is aware of these threats to their love. There are foxes in the church. They want to spoil the beauty. We can look at this in both a corporate and individual way.

The Challenge in the Church

Let’s start with the former. St. Augustine identifies the foxes as heretics in the church (vineyard). They are cunningly after division in the church to steal the bride away. He refers to another part of the Old Testament where foxes destroyed a vineyard, Judges 15: 3-5. It is quite a story that unfolds through chapters 14 and 15 of Judges. You can read for yourself the whole riddle Samson wages with the Philistines during the time of his marriage to his wife and how his wife was then given to a man accompanying him without his knowledge. Augustine sees this as a picture of heretics taking Christ’s bride, “attempt[ing] to drag the Church, Christ’s body, into their own camp.”[3]

Samson’s reaction is hard to stomach, really. He “catches” three hundred foxes, pairs them up by their tails, lights a torch between the tails of each pair, and scatters them out to burn havoc over the Philistines’ grain, vineyards, and olive groves (Judges 15:3-5). Augustine sees a picture here that the foxes must be caught and refuted so that “they do not lay waste the vineyard, the Church.” He sees the significance of the foxes tails as a metaphor of the “rear ends of heretics[.] Their fronts display a deceptive charm, but their rear ends are bound, that is sentenced, and they drag firebrands behind them, to burn up the fruits and works of those seduced by them…It is the way the foxes look from the front that those they have seduced see; and what comes behind that is fire.”[4]

The woman speaks for the vulnerability of the church. We can get caught up in the signs of spring and get manipulated by the foxes. False teachers are certainly in that category. And still today, we see how they are rampant. The fire that they bring behind their tails is so destructive!

But sometimes the front display of deceptive charm is even trickier. They may seem to confess an orthodox theology and to even be doing important, good work for the church. But manipulative and abusive behavior tells a different story about their faith. These foxes are even more difficult to catch. And maybe more destructive, because those who have been led in the faith by them and then suffered the effects of their abuse now associate the foxes with the church. Man, I can identify with the woman here, saying do you see the foxes? I can’t come out of the clefts of the rock quite yet. I’m too vulnerable. So many victims of abuse in the church, particularly women, are not believed when they come forward. Instead of receiving the help and care they need, they are often shamed for seeking it. Because the foxes have assimilated into the vineyard. They look like grape-tenders, or gatekeepers even. This is why we need to bring this to the Bridegroom who knows his sheep. Help us catch the foxes, Lord. You know they are there, coming after your bride, your church, your vineyard. I take comfort in these words from the woman. Real life can rock our faith sometimes. He wants to hear about it. He wants us to call to him. He sees. That is real life too. When you’re going through winter, spring doesn’t seem real anymore. But it is. Sunday is coming. And all the foxes will be exposed and caught.

The Challenge in Our Own Souls

This is a challenge for each individual in the church as well. The foxes can serve as a metaphor to our own sin, disillusionment, and doubt that wants to disintegrate our faith. Do we see them, or are we ignoring them? God may be calling us out because we have turned inward. Our love for him dulls. Maybe we are just going through the motions, praying on occasion, getting to church, trying to live a moral life, but our hearts are somewhere else. We aren’t looking and listening. We are not attentive to his Spirit. Or to his people. We are living our own lives, with Christianity sprinkled in. We are not living into the faith that we confess. We can’t seem to mesh the world of the habitual self (borrowing this term from John Keats)—who goes to work, the grocery store, schleps the children around, keeps the house clean, laundry done, maybe can stay awake for a movie before bed, only to wake up the next morning and repeat—with the world that we sing, hear, and talk about on Sunday mornings. It seems so disconnected.

Or maybe there is a sin-pattern that we just can’t seem to free ourselves from. You never thought you’d still be dealing with this now. Instead of spiritual maturation, you have merely become better at masking it, maybe even to yourself. Sin is like the destructive foxes with firebrands on their tails. It likes to pair up with other sin and set off through the vineyard. It won’t stop there, as it moves to the grains and the olive groves. From the front, it makes you think you’ve got everything under control and then it leaves you destitute.

Then there’s the disillusionment. Christianity turns out not to be the happy formula that you thought it was—I live this kind of life, hang out with these kinds of people, make these “good” decisions, and God will bless me with a great life that blesses others. You’ve lost the joy. You’ve lost the plot. You may find out that those you looked up to are not who they presented themselves as. Your parents may get divorced. Your spouse may leave you for another lover. You find out that the easy answers you thought you had about justice, life, wealth, and mercy are more complicated and nuanced. Turns out you aren’t changing the world for Christ like you thought. Maybe you find that there is a lot you must unlearn. Perhaps you’ve lost sight of any meaningfulness in it. You have new questions that can’t be satisfied with an apologetics lesson. You or someone you love may get a life-altering illness way too early in life. Or worse. What if you lose someone you love? What if it’s a child? How can we bear these burdens and tragedies and still know God’s goodness and faithfulness? How can we begin to imagine and see beauty again?

There are a lot of foxes. I’m so glad the bride says this for us. We can say it too.

But her next line reveals a faith that is assured of the spring invitation that she received.

Rehearsing Our Vows

In his invitation to wed, the man reminds his love of his promises and faithfulness to her by echoing Isaiah 35 and Hosea 14. She was listening. After bringing the foxes before him, she echoes the very covenant promise that God reverberates throughout Scripture. She knows the spousal love of God.[5]

My love is mine and I am his;

he feeds among the lilies.

Song 2:16

These are words we can hold deep in our souls and sing to God. They are rehearsal for the Big Day. They echo his vow to us. Beginning in Genesis:

“I will confirm my covenant that is between me and you and your future offspring throughout their generations. It is a permanent covenant to be your God and the God of your offspring after you.”

Gen. 17:7

He will be our God. We belong. We are his. He will love us. But we keep forgetting. When your faith is challenged, go to these promises. He doesn’t forget us.

“I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” (Ex. 6:7)

“I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” (Lev. 26:12)

“You established your people Israel to be your own people forever, and you, Lord, have become their God.” (2 Sam. 7:24)

“You will live in the land that I gave your ancestors; you will

be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezek. 36:28)

“My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Ezek. 37:27)

This is the covenant formula, as theologians call it. I like to think of it as our wedding vows because we get to participate in the covenantal love of God. It’s where Paul went to address the challenges for the early church in his day:

And what agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, as God said:

I will dwell

and walk among them,

and I will be their God,

and they will be my people. (2 Cor. 6:16)

Revelation reveals its consummation:

I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God.” (21:2–3)

Do you see that? This covenant God made with his people isn’t just some contract that he fulfills. It is spousal love. We see it unfold throughout Scripture:

I will take you to be my wife forever.

I will take you to be my wife in righteousness, justice, love, and compassion.

I will take you to be my wife in faithfulness, and you will know the Lord. (Hos. 2:19–20)

“Then I passed by you and saw you, and you were indeed at the age for love. So I spread the edge of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I pledged myself to you, entered into a covenant with you—this is the declaration of the Lord God—and you became mine.” (Ezek. 16:8)

“Indeed, your husband is your Maker—

his name is the Lord of Armies—

and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;

he is called the God of the whole earth.” (Isa. 54:5)

For as a young man marries a young woman, so your sons will marry you;

and as a groom rejoices over his bride,

so your God will rejoice over you. (Isa. 62:5)

When Paul speaks of this spousal love of God in his epistle to the Ephesians, he reveals that marriage is but a picture of the love of Christ for his church. “This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church,” (Eph. 5:32) And so Paul could also say, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy, because I have promised you in marriage to one husband—to present a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2).

Maybe you are starting to see that the Song of Songs enfleshes this covenant love. The bride gets it. She gets what all of Scripture is about. And she is teaching us as she sings of this spousal, covenantal love of God. She repeats these vows three times:

My love is mine and I am his;

he feeds among the lilies. (Song 2:16)

I am my love’s and my love is mine,

he feeds among the lilies. (Song 6:3)

I am my love’s,

and his desire is for me. (Song 7:10)

Twice, she follows with saying he feeds among the lilies. We’ve already learned that the lily represents his people, the bride/church. “Like a lily among thorns, so is my darling among the young women” (Song 2:2). Perhaps you are picking up on to the bride’s echoing with the promises in Hosea 14 here as well. It’s almost as if the bride and the Groom are finishing one another’s lines as they rehearse their vows to one another. He just said, “The blossoms appear in the countryside.” She picks up on that saying that he feeds among the lilies. In Hosea we learn that Israel will “blossom like the lily and take root like the cedars of Lebanon” (Hos. 14:5). Here, the picture of their love unfolds. Israel/church is associated with the lily and the temple (Lebanon). What a promise to meditate on again when our faith is challenged—God’s people will not only blossom again, but take root in his very presence with them. When we are lost and looking, when the foxes look like they may destroy the vineyard, he comes to us. He feeds among us. He’s with his people all along. And we are growing roots. We see the foxes, but we have the promise that we will “blossom like the vine.” Our “renown will be like the wine of Lebanon” (Hos. 14:7).

Preparing Our Souls for Love

Challenges to our faith are soul-shaping. We need to keep rehearsing our vows. Let’s go back to that quote about faith and anguish being intertwined. Faith is called forth in anguish. This is where we learn of its substance. Have we been holding onto appearances? Having the “right” doctrine, living the “Christian” life? Who is your Jesus? What causes does he support? Which communities does he get behind? Or, as Christopher Ash summed up the big question in Job, how does God treat the people he loves?[6] Why do we have to anguish? The woman already told us that she is lovesick. And that is it, right? The substance of faith is Christ himself, where our affections are and our trust rests. It is all about what we love. We learn this when it is challenged.

Don’t get me wrong, doctrine and obedience are important. But if they have no substance of Christ himself and his love we are merely confessing and acting upon the appearance of truth and sanctification. They are foxes with firebrands if they are not filled with Christ’s presence. Do we really believe, down in our bones, what we say? Do we crumble when we are deprived of what we are seeking? What are we toiling for?[7] What do our good works get us?

Part of the sickness and ache of human love is the vulnerability in it. God seems to be slipping out of this woman’s grasp over and over again in the Song. We must wrestle with her on this question of divine presence in our lives—Does God show up for us? Can we really be comforted by him when he seems so transcendent? Are his promises real? Many of us know the ache of the absence of a loved one. How can we take the anguish of an absent God? It’s like he is here, but he isn’t. The very framework of the Song highlights this: we don’t see God in a narrative or hear about him in didactic teaching. He is in the allegory. He is in poetry, song. Even in her dreams. And like a dream, the scenes keep shifting faster than we can process and experience them. As Chloe Sun says about what we learn in the Song, “God’s presence does not conform to human expectations or even to his own norms of presence.”[8]

It doesn’t. We know how we want him to be present. We want light from darkness. We want the morning to break through the shadows. We want Christ to take our pain away and to fix our problems. And we certainly don’t want to be wavering in our faith, finding a hollow middle in our living it out. We still see the darkness of night until the day breaks. Our troubles can be like mountains that divide us from Christ. How can we get to him? We can’t.

Our meditation reveals that he comes to her, reminding her of his presence, reminding her of reality of his promises, inviting her into that life, beckoning her voice and participation in it. And we get the wedding vows, spoken by the voice of the bride to be. It gives her a new confidence. It has substance. She is good with her vulnerability. So with his proposal, she begins to come out of the crevices of the cliff and remembers that the young stag who came barreling over the mountains and hills to get to her is with her as she perseveres to the Big Day. The scene ends with her faith in the promise:

Until the day breaks and the shadows flee,

turn around, my love, and be

like a gazelle

or a young stag

on the divided mountains.

Song 2:17

By repeating “gazelle,” “young stag,” “my love,” and “mountains,” she conjures back up her alert to look and listen (2:8-9). Spring is here, but day is still breaking. We can acknowledge and face the shadows because even if we can’t see it yet, we are taking root in God’s presence. This is soul-shaping business. But be assured, he’s approaching, coming, leaping, bounding, standing, gazing, peering, and even more intimately, feeding among the lilies. He is preparing us, revealing the substance of our faith, as we get ready to metaphorically walk the aisle.

Nineteenth century pastor Charles Spurgeon preached that this verse is the one most frequently on his heart as the darkness in the world lays heavy on him.[9] If one of the world’s most beloved Baptist pastors can admit to the darkness he feels, maybe we can too. And maybe we can really be present ourselves when our brothers and sisters in the faith are experiencing it. How do we do that? We look and listen. We don’t make them feel less of a Christian because their faith is being challenged. We don’t downplay the darkness they are in. We see and name the foxes with them. We sit with them. We lament with them. We don’t try to fix them. And for goodness sakes, we don’t fill their ears with “shoulds.” A friend once consoled me as I was talking about something I should do better by telling me that should is an asshole. Perhaps this line should be edited out because Christian authors shouldn’t say asshole. But that has helped me so much. Shame will never get us out of the crevices of the cliff. Shame is part of the shadows. We need the invitation to look and listen for the signs of spring, the day breaking, our spouse coming for us. We need help to see our roots growing. And we need to help one another petition Christ like the woman does to turn around. That’s what we can give each other. And in that, we become part of Christ’s presence with them through it.

And a funny thing happens. Those mountains that we thought were dividing us from Christ’s love, that made him seem so far off, weren’t what we thought they were. Things are not as they seem. He’s been so close all along. In fact, the body of his bride testifies to the holy realm of Mount Zion, sacred space. Just as she uses his vows speaking of her belonging in verse 17, he uses these very lines we see in verse 18 on their wedding day. After praising her beauty from head to toe, he says, “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, I will make my way to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense” (Song 4:6). There’s that temple language again; she is rooted in his presence. She is the mountain and the hill. The temple mountain of Jerusalem. The expectation has built to its climax and they will consummate their love.

[1] Elie Wiesel, Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle against Melancholy, (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978), 59.

[2] profound understatement!

[3] Augustine, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, trans. and ed. Richard A. Norris Jr., The Church’s Bible, paperback ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019),129.

[4] Augustine, Song, 129.

[5] For more on this see Aimee Byrd, The Sexual Reformation: Restoring the Dignity and Personhood of Man and Woman (Grand Rapids: MI, Zondervan Reflective, 2022), 90-94.

[6] “The book of Job is not about suffering in general, and certainly not about sufferings common to men and women the world over. Rather it is about how God treats his friends.” Christopher Ash, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross, Preaching the Word, series ed., R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 42-43.

[7] Ecclesiastes, anyone?

[8] Chloe T. Sun, Conspicuous in His Absence: Studies in the Song of Songs and Esther (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 80.

[9] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Darkness Before the Dawn (SS2:17),” in Charles Spurgeon on the Song of Solomon: 64 Sermons to Ignite a Passion for Jesus! Christian Classics Treasury (2013), Kindle ed., 337.