Spices in the Song of Songs
Permeating the sweet story of the Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon, “Shir Hashirim“, is the equally pleasant presence of the fragrance of spices. Without the spices mentioned in this book of love between the Messiah and his Bride Israel, one could hardly imagine the prophesied marriage, or the communion of believers with their God. Authors for centuries have made only mild mention of the spices, though one author Hannah Hunnard provides an allegory in a book entitled, Mountain of Spices , referring to the ascent to the heights of Israel and pointing to enraptured heights of being in the presence of the Lord and Savior. Conspicuously, the spices are found in the presence of both Bride and Bridegroom, and in the ‘garden enclosed’—a virtual garden of each delicate and holy spice. Most of the spices mentioned are the spices of the Tabernacle, the use and purpose of each spice commanded by God to Moses and Israel, and pointing to the pleasant,beautiful realm of Heaven and the throne of God. A deeper look at each spice though, shows not only the symbolic value of each substance, but the nature of the spices which point to the incarnate Messiah and his suffering.
The spices in the Song of Songs are mostly found also in many other places in the Word of God: occasionally they are the ‘semantics of Salvation’, though sometimes they are only mentioned as a rich and elegant accoutrement to Kings and the very wealthy. The spices of Myrrh, Aloes, Frankincense, Saffron, Calamus, Cinnamon and others weave and waft through the Scriptures telling the history of God’s way with mankind in a subplot as portent as the history that is recounted, though somewhat hidden from view in the mystery of the Tabernacle, the light and presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant, and the ministry behind the vail of the High Priest until such time that the vail is torn. (Matthew 27:51)
Spices attend two significant journeys into Egypt of those loved by God; spices are present as Joseph is carried captive into Egypt by the Midianites for the forthcoming deliverance of Israel; and spices attend the early postnatal years of Yshua, who like Joseph son of Jacob, was also on his way down into ‘Mizraim’.
The Bible’s mentions spices as additionally as adorning the garments of the Levites, and are present with each covenanted sacrifice. Spices adorn the communion between the betrothed in Songs, but are mockingly used in the emulated enticements of harlot in Proverbs.
(Proverbs 7:17 I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon)
We hear of the substances early in Genesis, and three thousand years later find them in the burial and the resurrection of the Lord,
Luke 24:1 Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.
later noting that in Heaven, they are expressed as the sweet scent of the prayers of the saints.
Luke 5:8 And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.
To ignore the attribute of glory given the spices in Scripture, robs the believer of the extra edge of understanding of the depths of the love and grace of God, and the intricate sculpting of prophecies and similitudes pointing to the finished work on the Cross. While we will consider each spice independently and its role in Song of Songs as well as the comparisons and contrasts in scripture, we will also begin in this first section, to understand the concept and framework of the spices as a whole and how they undergird more obsequies truths.
- First and Last Mention
The term ‘spice’ or (spices ) is first mentioned in Genesis43:11, although Genesis 37 mentions ‘myrrh’ as one of the spices borne by the captors of Joseph on his way down into Egypt. Spices play an important role and symbol throughout the scriptures, so that while they do not appear called by name earlier, they do appear in the first book of the Pentateuch, marking one of the first foreshadowings of a Jewish son, rejected by his brethren, and sold into captivity and brutal treatment, the history of which will wind and turn its way into their salvation. The first mention of the general term ‘spices’ in Genesis 43:11 is found among the gifts that Jacob sends to Pharaoh:
And their father Israels aid unto them, If [it must be] so now, do this; take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds:
How early do spices appear in mankind’s history? It is almost impossible to say, but we do note that in the Garden of Eden, there are distinctions made regarding edible plants— those that are seed bearing vs. those that are not, and we can suppose that the fragrance of spices permeated the Garden.
And God said, Behold, Ihave given you every herb bearing seed, which [is] upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which [is] the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. Gen 1:29
The term used for ‘spice’ or ‘spices’ is :
or ‘nekot’ referring to a fragrant powder.[Gesenius, in BLB*]. Following, the term used the next most frequently for ‘spice’ is
or ‘besem’ which can refer particularly to balsam wood or to any sweet smelling fragrance or spice. The first mention of ‘spice’ is in Exodus in which it is referred to as a substance in the Tabernacle of God:
Exodus 35:52 And spice1314, and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense.
…although it is mentioned twice before in Ex 25:6 and 30:23 where it is translated as the plural,‘spices’. Beside the gift to Pharaoh from Jacob during the famine, and the mention of spices accompanying Joseph, a type of Christ into Egypt, spices are mentioned eminently early in the Bible as the redolent component of worship and the Tabernacle: its sacrifices, incense, scent of the priests’ robes and furnishings, but most centrally, the special spices commanded of God to attend the Shekinah glory of God behind the vail of the Holy of Holies.
The Bible mentions the general words ‘spice’ (besem) 29 times in 25 verses, and ‘spices’ (nekot), 29 times in 31 verses though that is not an entirely accurate picture since the same words are at times translated both as singular and plural. ‘Besem’, ‘Basam’and nekot are all used, and the tally is large if one includes all the variations of the individually named spices such as spikenard, calamus and myrrh. The last mention in the Bible of the word ‘spices’ is in the gospel of John at the burial and resurrection ofChrist:
Thent ook they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.
The greek word,
ἄρωμα or ‘aroma’ is used.
The aroma of spices then is seen on the wind of Eden, as Adam and Eve are cast out into the world where nothing grows, and immediately following the rejection of Joseph by his brothers; Joseph as the one who would save Israel is taken to Egypt, attended by myrrh and spices. Within 400 years of that departure, those spices and others will adorn the Tabernacle and the presence of Elohim in the Ark of the Covenant. How beautiful a picture of the fragrances of paradise weaving on the wind and the Word, and attending the worship of Israel for her God. Each spice shall be considered in this study for its significance in the Song of Songs and in the whole of the Scriptures as well.
Spices: Types &Purposes
Whatever the fragrances of Eden were, we cannot tell, but we see the spices designated by God winding and wafting throughout the Old and New Testament, through the history of mankind, always attending the Word of God, and his Promise of a forthcoming Messiah. Spices in general can be:
- A Real substance for a particular use, such asfood or medicine, taken from nature
- A Sanctified or ‘set apart’ substance, for worship or to attend God’s presence, e.g.
- The Tabernacle and its Furnishings
- The Anointing of Priests
- The dedication of the Ark of the Covenant &
- The Mercy Seat
- A substance accompanying and indicative of an acceptable offering (e. g. frankincense on a meat offering) or incense attending the prayers of saints in heaven (Revelation 8:5:
And the smoke of the incense, [which came] with the prayers ofthe saints, ascended upbefore God out of the angel’s hand.)
- Attending the Shekinah Glory or an epiphany of God:
- in the case of the Shekinah Glory of God which appeared on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant, the sanctified perfume set apart was to be placed. (Exodus 30:34-38)
- or an epiphany of God (Exodus 24:5,10, because the burnt offering’s blood of 24:5 was always to be placed upon the altar of sweet incense, and the epiphany of 24:10 appears afterward),
- Or the presence of God in a communion between man and God, such as in the ‘Garden inclosed’ of the Song of Songs.
- As a Kingly Gift or as a fragrance or substance associated with kings, or particularly with the Messiah of Israel, either directly, (such as in the attendance of frankincense and myrrh at the nativity of the Lord and Savior,) or in the Spikenard of anointing for burial, or in the myrrh-laced vinegar offered on the Cross, or indirectly in a type and kind of the King of Israel such as Joseph being carried to Egypt by spice merchants, no doubt the aroma of frankincense and myrrh drifting in the desert air, or in the gifts brought to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba, kingly aromas for the King of Israel. Lastly, spices in the Bible are associated with
- The riches of the world: over and over the mention of various spices are intertwined with the finery of wealth which merchants brought to major ports and the outer regions of Israel: in deed in the end of time, as the ‘Whore of Babylon’ meets her demise in the ‘smoke of her burning’ and the merchants in ships at sea watch the city destroyed in one hour, they bewail the elegant cloths and woods, the precious metals and the spices, fragrances and perfumes which accompanied and defined wealth and power.
With relevance to the Song of Songs, probably more than any other book, save perhaps for the instructions in Exodus for the use of the scents ‘of the apothecary’ in the Tabernacle, spices play the greater role anointing the eight chapters of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, which is the story of Israel and her Bridegroom, the church and her beloved, and God restoring to mankind perfect communion with him: each spice mentioned bears a particular significance pointing to the love and work of God, Salvation and his Messiah.
Spices as a Common Substance
The first mention of the word ‘spices’ asa lready mentioned, is among the gifts of Jacob to Pharaoh, sent by his sons who go down into Egypt to attempt to buy corn during a famine. The gifts are sent in part to appease the anger of some elevated steward, he thinks, who has falsely accused his sons of double dealing, though unbeknownst to Jacob, it is his son Joseph, thought to be long dead, playing a little with the minds of his treacherous brothers. (Genesis 43:11)
And their father Israel said unto them, If it must be so now, do this; take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices and myrrh, nuts and almonds;
Used as a gift, it is given to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian queen in I Kings 10:2:
And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart.
It is also seen among the items gifted to him by his people. (See also, ‘Kingly Gifts)
Hezekiah’s treasure house contained the spices in 2 Chronicles 32:27; and Isaiah 39:2 among other riches. In Ezekiel 27:22, one notes the role of merchants in the trade of spices. While most spices were costly, the first way to view them in the Bible is as a natural substance, used for many purposes, but the two most salient uses of spices have to do with their use in the Tabernacle and in the Presence of God, both holy and sanctified uses so intense and specific in purpose that a violation or general use of certain mixtures of the substances could cause banishment and death.
30:38 Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people.
The‘general’ uses of spices though are also mentioned throughout scripture, as myrrh’s sedative powers in the gall offered to the crucified savior,
Mark 15:23 And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not.
or in the healing powers of balms and ointments. Many of these substances continue to be used today for medicinal as well as worship purposes including such as saffron, cinnamon, calamus, frankincense, myrrh and others.
- Spices in the Tabernacle
The spices of the Tabernacle are unique in that they are commanded by God, and they mark the Word , Work, and presence of God in the Holy of Holies and Ark of the Covenant. There are several uses within the Tabernacle of the Spices:
- Asa garnishment on certain Sacrifices, (e.g. Meat Offering was adorned with frankincense), or
- As an anointing oil for the physical tabernacle altars and furnishings/tools (Exodus 30:23-25)
Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred shekels, 24 And of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin; 25 And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil.
- As an anointing before the Testimony of the Tabernacle, before the Ark of the Covenant, a slightly different , but set apart and holy spice/ointment not to be replicated since it adorned the presense of God in the Shekinah glory on the Mercy Seat between the cherubim:
And the Lord said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum: these sweet spices withpure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight 35 and thou shalt makeit a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together,pure and holy; Exodus 30:34 (also35-38)
The remarkable thing about these spices are that both the spices of the Tabernacle and its furnishings, and the fragrance to attend the Ark, were not commanded as mere perfumes with a specific purpose, but oil fragrances that God marked as holy, and for which the penalty for profaning their use was being cut off “karet”in Hebrew, or even death:
Exodus30;33 Whosoever compoundeth any like it, or whosoever putteth any of it upon a stranger, shall even be cut off from his people.
Exodus30:38 Whosoever shall make like unto that to smell thereto shall even be cut off from his people.