“Scorched, Yet Lovely” on Song of Songs 1:5-6 by Joe Ellis — September 17, 2023
The woman starts out saying in vs. 5, “Dark am I, yet lovely” and goes on to say that she can say this despite what her family and her friends think about her. The woman’s tone is really quite different here than in the other poems. She seems to be perhaps defiant, perhaps insecure, perhaps angry, and perhaps at peace — all at the same time. The reason for her complex swirl of emotions is found right at the end of the poem, where she confesses in vs 6, “But my own vineyard I have not kept.” She’s making a play on words — her brothers forced her to work in their vineyard as a punishment for not keeping her own vineyard.
Vineyards throughout the Song of Songs often refer to sexuality and sexual expression — after all, these fertile vines produce luscious grapes, pleasing to the taste, and become intoxicating when fermented. She doesn’t tells us exactly how she didn’t keep her vineyard, which is just as well — for it invites us to think of all the different ways there are to not keep one’s vineyard. Keep in mind that this book is not going to spell out for us rules around sexuality, but it will cause us to face the reality that our sexuality is a significant part of being human. How we steward our sexuality, how we are faithful to God in our sexuality, has real impact and real consequences for ourselves and for others, just like tending and caring for a vineyard has real consequences for the grower and for those who partake in the fruit.
Whether you are married or single, in a relationship or not, have you considered sexuality as something to be guarded, to be tended to just like a garden or a vineyard? What aspects of tending your vineyard, or guarding your own sexuality are most important to you? Have you encountered people who say you should keep your vineyard in one way, but you think they’re making too big a deal of it? Are you surprised by others’ flippant attitudes towards sex and sexuality? Are there moments in your life when you could’ve stood right alongside this woman and said, “My own vineyard I have not kept”?
She tells us that she has had to work manual labour in a literal vineyard, because her brothers were angry that she has not acted in line with their standard of sexual purity. Have you ever felt angry with someone because they betrayed your trust, let you down in their expression of sexuality? Have you ever felt judged because you didn’t live up to someone else’s standards? When are you most likely to feel judgmental of others around you the way they tend to their sexuality and sexual expression?
Likely every one of us, whether we are male or female, married or single, young or old, has a unique answer to these questions — expressions of sexuality impact community, having far reaching effects on relationships — this is true even across time. Generations are impacted by infidelity and faithfulness alike.
This is certainly true in this woman’s family. Notice that she says her mother’s sons were angry with her, forcing her into manual labour as a punishment. Notice that she calls her brothers, “her mother’s sons”, a fairly intense way of pushing her brothers away. She’s angry with them, and they’re angry with her. A snapshot of the pain that can often take over relationships of broken vineyards. Do you have your own stories of pain?
Her brothers’ punishment, working in the literal vineyard, had burned her skin. That’s what she means when she says at the beginning of the poem, “I’m dark.” Working the land burned her skin. This wasn’t a race thing, she’s a middle eastern woman whose culture held that being tanned, or sunburned, was not a sign of beauty. Instead, it was a sign that she had to work the land, a a sign of her punishment. It carried a stigma. You can hear it in her voice when she says to her city friends, the daughters of Jerusalem, “Don’t stare at me because I am dark, because the sun has scorched my skin.”
Don’t stare at me. Have you felt that? When it becomes known that we haven’t kept our vineyard, we feel vulnerable, exposed. Perhaps we don’t like the way others look at us. Maybe we don’t like the way that we look at ourselves. So we go about, ashamed, carrying the stigma of not having kept our vineyard. Can you think of such a time?
In this poem, we’ve seen two responses to a broken vineyard. In anger, the brothers punished her. With judgment, her friends looked at her with scorn. Those aren’t the only possibilities of response to a broken vineyard. There are a lot of stories of broken vineyards throughout Scripture, I think it's important we hear them.
In John 8, a woman has been caught in the very act of committing adultery, of not keeping her vineyard. The Pharisees grab her, but not the man. Here we see the heartbreaking reality that most women have historically know to be true—they carry more than their load of shame and blame when sexual boundaries are crossed. The Pharisees push her before Jesus demanding for her to be punished, to be stoned. Their desire for punishment is not about restoration, it's about making an example of her and forcing Jesus to take a stand. Instead, Jesus calls all of us to examine ourselves, to consider our own ways of not keeping our vineyard. Jesus says, “You without sin, cast the first stone.” One by one, the accusers leave. Alone with her, Jesus gently speaks words of restoration.
May we always have a sober understanding of our own sin, whenever we are confronted by the sin of another. May we always be concerned with restoration, rather than punishment to make an example of one who has fallen.
Here is another broken vineyard story. In 2 Samuel 11, King David’s army was at war, but David stayed home. He saw a beautiful woman bathing, and he was aroused at the sight. She was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. David sent his men to bring her to him, and then he invaded her vineyard. She became pregnant. David tried to cover his tracks, and when that didn’t work he murdered her husband, Uriah. This story makes you sick on the deepest of levels. In 2 Samuel 12, a man named Nathan who was sensitive to the Lord’s voice, went to tell David about a great injustice that had happened. He tells David a story of a rich man who robbed a poor man of his only lamb, a lamb whom he treated like his own child. David hears the story with outrage and cries out that this man surely must die for this sin. Nathan looks at David and says, “You are the man.” Ashen-faced, David confesses at once, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
May we have the sensitivity of Nathan. May we learn to speak with those we care for about the impact of breaking vineyards, may we learn to speak so that those we love can hear. May we learn to do this in the context of careful listening to the Lord and deep prayer for the person involved.
Here is another broken vineyard story. In Acts 8:26-39, one of the Apostles named Philip is instructed by the Lord to go down a particular road. Philip doesn’t know why, but he’s being sent on a divine appointment. Philip hears a man in his chariot reading this passage aloud from Isaiah 53:7, “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter.” Philip starts talking with this man about the passage pointing to Jesus. Now, this man that Philip was sent to meet, is both a high ranking official, but also a eunuch. He had been castrated, dismembered. Biblical scholar Ben Witherington says the eunuch's genital condition left him “permanently on the fringes of the religion in which he was showing great interest.” When the eunuch asks Philip, “Is there anything keeping me from being baptized?” the eunuch was likely aware of his inability to be circumcised prevented his full inclusion into Judaism. That doesn’t matter. They went down into the water and Philip baptized his new friend.
As we encounter people who have not kept their vineyard in ways that make us uncomfortable, perhaps even triggers disgust, may we still show the grace of Philip and show them hospitality and welcome.
Here is another broken vineyard story in Genesis 16: Abraham and Sarah were married and without children, but they wanted children. Sarah persuaded Abraham to trample her slave’s vineyard to produce a child for them. Their slave’s name was Hagar. Abraham did it. After this violation of Hagar’s vineyard, Sarah hated her slave. She pushed Abraham to send Hagar away into the wilderness, with her child to die of exposure. It is there, in that hostile wilderness, having had her vineyard broken into and wanting to die, that she encounters God Himself. He speaks to her with boundless compassion. He nourishes her with water. He gives her courage to live. He speaks words of hope and promise. Hagar is so moved from this encounter, she becomes the first in all Scripture to offer a name to God: “You are the God who sees me,” she says in Genesis 16:13.
May we learn to see those we might be prone to dismiss. May we have courage to sit with them in the pain, the injustice, the hopelessness. In that space, may we see one another, and find encounter with the God who sees.
Here is another broken vineyard story. From Genesis 3, Adam and Eve were filled with shame, after they ate the fruit in the garden. They had always been naked, but for the first time they felt naked, shamefully naked, and they hid their bodies from God. God came looking for them calling, “Where are you?” Adam replied, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” Of course, God’s heart was broken. God shared with Adam and Eve the real consequences that would follow from this broken vineyard. But hear this from Genesis 3:21, God covered their nakedness. “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” Out of love and compassion, the Lord God covered their shame.
May we grow such sensitive hearts, hearts that are able to both talk about what has happened, and hearts that can carefully remove the shame of a broken vineyard through the clothing of forgiveness.
Here is another broken vineyard story, I chose this one for it reminds me of our friend in the Song of Songs. In Luke 7:36-50, a woman with a broken vineyard found out where Jesus was dining, and brought him a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. She kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!” Then Jesus answered his thoughts. “Simon,” he said to the Pharisee, “I have something to say to you… Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume. I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”
In all these stories, all these people who have broken vineyards find themselves seen, find themselves in God’s healing gaze. They are embraced, sometimes challenged, they find forgiveness, they find healing. The past is not minimized, nor is it dismissed, but it is understood, addressed, and healed. All of these men and women with broken vineyards experience being seen, known and loved. And so the woman in our poem in the Song of Songs is able to say, “I am dark but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem.” She is able to say, Despite my stigma, despite this sign that I carry in my body which says “I have not kept my own vineyard,” despite that — I am lovely!
How could this happen? How can she say I am lovely when she bears this stigma? She doesn’t tell us, but I have a guess. It's what we’ve been seeing over and over throughout Scripture: the relentless pursuit of the love of the Lover. It's what we see throughout the Song of Songs: the one who loves her continually says, “You are lovely, you are lovely, you are lovely.” He says, “How beautiful you are, my darling, how beautiful.” It is through love that our stigma is removed. Through the encounter of the Other, the one who is able to offer deep, healing, forgiving love — it is through love that our stigma is removed. God is not a God who punishes forever, He is a God of restoration, a God who removes stigma, a God who offers healing and wholeness.
In these stories, we’ve seen two different needs for healing. We’ve seen people carry the stigma of poisonous righteousness, who practice nothing but condemnation. And we’ve seen people who carry the stigma of condemnation. Whatever the stigma is that we carry, the cure is the same. Let us carry our stigma before our Beloved Lord, and there let us rest in His presence. Often, we need to share the stigma that we carry with another human being, someone who can speak words of forgiveness over us in the name of Jesus Christ. Let us practice confessing to one whom we trust, and let us learn to stay in God’s presence and we will see Him look at us with healing, healing love. After all, it is His look of love that will heal us. He will wash away all of our sin and lead us into a place where we can stand alongside the bride in the Song of Songs and say with her, “I am dark… but Oh, I am beautiful.”