The Gardener and the Beloved, (Part 2)

Click HERE for Part 1.

The details of this story call the attentive reader back to the drama of Solomon’s Song of Songs. And the Song of Song’s alludes to, ties us into the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden and the promise of a coming Messiah that will victoriously crush the head of the Serpent, bringing deliverance to the woman and a restoration of the Garden of. The first thing that Adam sees when he wakes in the garden is the bride for whom he has “died” (Genesis 2:18-23). So too with the Last Adam; when he rises from his three-day sleep in death he encounters the Bride for whom he has died.

For the reader of John’s Easter narrative who knows the Old Testament the Song of Songs is evoked by images, words, and allusions to the poem in this story. This is particularly striking example of what biblical scholars call intertextuality. One is not able to appreciate one text without the other. The details of the text of John 19:38-20:18 will frustrate and baffle a reader who does not connect it up with the text of the Song of Songs.

St. John piles up the allusions. He even includes details that cause us to scratch our heads in frustration, like Mary’s search in the dark for her Lord. Why search in the dark? And what about her multiple “turnings”? She turns around once (v. 14). Then she turns again (v. 16). Her spinning around has baffled commentators that do not have the eyes to see that prophetic typology is being fulfilled here (Song of Songs 6:13). These are anomalies that hint at something deeper for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. These “bumps” serve as clues, verbal winks and nods to the reader to look at another text for help in deciphering its meaning. John expects us to know the OT, to see and understand his clues.

So why does Mary turn and turn? Pay attention to Song of Songs 2:16-17 and 6:1 and 6:5 and 6:13.

My beloved is mine, and I am his;

he grazes among the lilies.

Until the day breathes

and the shadows flee,

Turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle

or a young stag on cleft mountains.

. . . .

Where has your beloved gone

O must beautiful among women?

Where has your beloved turned,

that we may seek him with you?

. . . .

Turn away your eyes from me,

for they overwhelm me—

. . . .

Turn, turn, O Shulammite,

turn, turn that we may look upon you.

Why should you look upon the Shulammite

as upon a dance of Mahanaim?

Mary Magdalene’s actions are remarkably parallel to that of the Shulammite girl who seeks her beloved Gardener King and longed for Husband, turning this way and that until she hears his voice! The young woman in the Song of Songs who searches for her husband at night, mostly in a dream state, is symbolic of daughter Israel looking for Yahweh, particularly Yahweh’s Messiah to come to her.

On my bed by night

I sought him whom my soul loves;

I sought him, but found him not.

I will rise now and go about the city,

in the streets and in the squares;

I will seek him whom my soul loves.

I sought him, but found him not.

The watchman found me

as they went about the city.

“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”

Scarcely had I passed them

when I found him whom my soul loves.

I held him, and would not let him go

until I had brought him into my mother’s house. . .

(Song of Songs 3:1-4)

Just like the Shulammite, Mary searches by night for her beloved and when she finds him holds him fast and will not let go. But unlike the Song of Songs, Mary will not take her Beloved to her mother’s house, but Jesus will take her to his Father’s house. But we won’t go there yet. We read on in Song of Songs 3, picking up at verse 6:

What is that coming up from the wilderness

like columns of smoke,

Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,

with all the fragrant powders of a merchant?

Myrrh and spices? At least 15 verses in the Song of Songs refer to myrrh, nard and other fragrances (1:3, 12, 13; 2:13; 3:6; 4:6, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16; 5:5, 13; 7:9, 14). The woman’s beloved is all spiced up. But now remember Jesus’ entombment—he is perfumed with spices, about a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes (John 19:38). What can this mean? What is the connection?

The Bible associates myrrh with love and marriage. To be spiced up with myrrh and aloes is to be ready for love-making, especially the love which crowns the first night of marriage.

My heart overflows with a pleasing them;

I address my verses to the king;

my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome of the sons of men;

grace is poured upon your lips;

therefore God has blessed you forever.

. . . .

your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia

(Psalm 45:1-3, 8).

Myrrh is found eight times in the Song of Songs and each time it is linked with the prospect of love between the woman and her beloved (1:13; 3:6; 5:1, 5, & 13):

While the king was on his couch,

my nard gave forth its fragrance.

My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh

that lies between my breasts.

. . . .

What is that coming up from the wilderness

like columns of smoke,

perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,

with all the fragrant powders of a merchant?

. . . .

I came to my garden, my sister, my bride,

I gathered my myrrh with my spice,

I ate my honeycomb with my honey,

I drank my wine with my milk.

. . . .

His cheeks are like beds of spices,

mounds of sweet-smelling herbs,

His lips are lilies,

dripping liquid myrrh.

So if myrrh and aloes are associated with the consummation of marital love (see also Song of Songs 4:6; 14 and Esther 2:12), why was Jesus embalmed in about 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes? John tells us that it was a burial custom of the Jews. What did they think it symbolized? Perhaps it was a ritual reminder that upon death the faithful Israelite would experience the consummation of his marriage with Yahweh in heaven. One thing was certain. These two scents would have permeated Christ’s flesh as it reposed in the tomb. When He rose from the grave, He was all spiced up, smelling of myrrh and aloes. Is it any surprise, then, that we have a woman searching for him in the garden? And that he appears to her as her Gardener-Groom prepared for his bride?

Jesus and Mary are in a garden. Remember, Jesus was betrayed and crucified in a garden. Now we learn that he was placed in a tomb in what was likely the same Garden (19:41) And his first encounter, therefore, with the representative of his church, Mary, takes place in this garden. A woman in a garden aromatic with spices searching for her Master is at the very core of the Song of Songs. How can we miss it? Almost the whole of the Song of Songs is set in a garden (4:12, 16; 5;1; 8:13). The groom even calls his beloved “a locked garden” in Song of Songs 4:12. In 5:2 the man says, “I came to my garden, my sister, my bride.” And in 6:2-3, the woman says “My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to graze in the gardens, and to gather lilies. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he grazes among the lilies.”

Mary even mistakes Jesus for the Gardener! But is she wrong? A. W. Pink cites Bishop Hall’s assessment: “Devout Mary, thou art not much mistaken. As it was the trade of the first Adam to dress the Garden of Eden, so it is the trade of the last Adam to tend the garden of his church.”

Song of Songs 8:6 also lies behind the resurrection story here in John 20. The woman says of her beloved: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is as strong as death, jealousy is as fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of Yahweh.” Here the church, the Bride, symbolized by Mary Magdalene, knows that the beloved’s love is “as strong as death and as fierce as the grave.” The Husband’s love for her, his bride is that of Yahweh himself. In John’s resurrection morning story Mary is a woman who searches in the night and finds the one she loves only to discover him in the midst of a spice-filled garden. He has conquered death and burst forth from the grave. Indeed, he is the spiced Gardener King, the one she longs to embrace. She turns and turns. And then he speaks.

Jeff Meyers is Senior Pastor of Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. This is the second of a three-part essay.

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