Edward Taylor, Meditation Canticles 2.1
This poem by Taylor is based upon a passage in Canticles (Song of Solomon) in which the beloved is compared to “the rose of Sharon”:
I am the rose of Sharon,
And the lily of the valleys.
Song of Solomon 2:1
To understand the poem, it will be first necessary to understand the manner in which this verse was used in Puritan preaching and teaching. First, the image of Sharon was used generally of that of surpassing beauty and sweetness:
Ah, Christians! believing, believing is the ready way, the safest way, the sweetest way, the shortest way, the only way to a well-grounded assurance, and to that unspeakable joy and peace that flows from it, as the effect from the cause, the fruit from the root, the stream from the fountain. There is such assurance, and such joy that springs from the fresh and frequent actings of faith, that cannot be expressed, that cannot be painted. No man can paint the sweetness of the honeycomb, the sweetness of a cluster of Canaan, the sweetness of paradise, the fragrancy of the rose of Sharon. As the being of things cannot be painted, and as the sweetness of things cannot be painted, no more can that assurance and joy that flows from believing be painted or expressed; it is too great and too glorious for weak man to paint or set forth.
Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, Volume 2, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 359. The image was mixed with the contemplation of Jesus as the most beautiful and excellent of all:
Such an object is our Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore the joy of the saints should still be exercised upon our Lord Jesus Christ. Shall the worldling rejoice in his barns, the rich man in his bags, the ambitious man in his honours, the voluptuous man in his pleasures, and the wanton in his Delilahs; and shall not a Christian rejoice in Christ Jesus, and in that robe of righteousness, and in those garments of salvation, with which Christ hath covered him? Isa. 61:10. The joy of that Christian that keeps a fixed eye upon Christ and his righteousness cannot be expressed, it cannot be painted. No man can paint the sweetness of the honeycomb, nor the sweetness of a cluster of Canaan, nor the fragrancy of the rose of Sharon. As the being of things cannot be painted, so the sweetness of things cannot be painted. The joy of the Holy Ghost cannot be painted, nor that joy that arises in a Christian’s heart, who keeps up a daily converse with Christ and his righteousness, cannot be painted, it cannot be expressed. Who can look upon the glorious body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and seriously consider, that even every vein of that blessed body did bleed to bring him to heaven, and not rejoice in Christ Jesus? who can look upon the glorious righteousness of Christ, imputed to him, and not be filled with an exuberancy of spiritual joy in God his Saviour? There is not the pardon of the least sin, nor the least degree of grace, nor the least drop of mercy, but cost Christ dear, for he must die, and he must be made a sacrifice, and he must be accursed, that pardon may be thine, and grace thine, and mercy thine: and oh, how should this draw out thy heart to rejoice and triumph in Christ Jesus!
Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, Volume 5, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1867), 246-47. Or as David Clarkson wrote:
If Christ feast you, your souls will grow, thrive, and be well liking. This will be the fruit of these spiritual refreshments; they will make you more lively, strong, active, fruitful, in the ways and acts of holiness. You will grow in grace, &c.; go from strength to strength. Your souls will be as watered gardens, the fruits of the Spirit will flourish there. Your hearts, sometimes like a desert, will now be as Sharon; and that which was a wilderness, nothing but weeds, briars, and thorns—worldly, unclean lusts—will now be as the garden of God. The spices thereof will flow out: love, and zeal, and self-denial, and heavenly-mindedness, and contempt of the world. These will be on the growing hand, you will be outgrowing your distempers, prevailing more and more against corruption, and increasing with the increase of God. Oh, but where there is no spiritual life manifested in holy duties, no strength, no opposition, no effectual resolutions against prevailing and endeared sins, there is no sign that Christ is come in. Your souls would be in a better plight if Christ did feast them.
David Clarkson, The Works of David Clarkson, Volume II (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864), 100 (“Christ’s Gracious Invitation to Sinners”). The image was applied directly to Jesus:
Observe yet further, that whereas there is no example in all the scripture of a sign being turned into the thing signified, yet it is very ordinary in scripture-similitudes to give a thing the name of that whereunto it is likened: “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.” (Canticles 2:1.) “I am the living bread.” (John 6:51.) “I am the door.” (John 10:7.) “I am the true vine.” (John 15:1.) All these saith Christ of himself; but is he therefore turned into a rose, or lily, or bread, or door, or vine? No: the words taken literally and properly are blasphemy; but the meaning is, He is like these, as to the particular cases whereof he speaks.
James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, Volume 6 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 469; “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TRANSUBSTANTIATION IN THE EUCHARIST”, Rev. Edward Lawrence. In Of Communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, John Owen uses the image of the Rose of Sharon to speak of Jesus:
In the two first verses you have the description that Christ gives, first of himself, then of his church. Of himself, verse l; that is, what he is to his spouse: “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.” The Lord Christ is, in the Scripture, compared to all things of eminency in the whole creation. He is in the heavens the sun, and the bright morning star: as the lion among the beasts, the lion of the tribe of Judah. Among the flowers of the field, here he is the rose and the lily. The two eminencies of flowers, sweetness of savor and beauty of color, are divided between these. The rose for sweetness, and the lily for beauty (“Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”), have the pre-eminence. Farther, he is “the rose of Sharon,” a fruitful plain, where the choicest herds were fed, 1 Chronicles 27:29; so eminent, that it is promised to the church that there shall be given unto her the (Isaiah 33:9, 65:10) excellency of Sharon, Isaiah 35:2. This fruitful place, doubtless, brought forth the most precious roses. Christ, in the savor of his love, and in his righteousness (which is as the garment wherein Jacob received his blessing, giving forth a smell as the smell of a pleasant field, Genesis 27:27), is as this excellent rose, to draw and allure the hearts of his saints unto him. As God smelled a sweet savor from the blood of his atonement, Ephesians 5:2; so from the graces wherewith for them he is anointed, his saints receive a refreshing, cherishing savor, Song of Solomon 1:3. A sweet savor expresses that which is acceptable and delightful, Genesis 8:21. He is also “the lily of the valleys;” that of all flowers is the most eminent in beauty, Matthew 6:29. Most desirable is he, for the comeliness and perfection of his person; incomparably fairer than the children of men: of which afterward. He, then, being thus unto them (abundantly satiating all their spiritual senses) their refreshment, their ornament, their delight, their glory; in the next verse he tells us what they are to him: “As the lily among thorns, so is my beloved among the daughters.” That Christ and his church are likened unto and termed the same thing (as here the lily), is, as from their union by the indwelling of the same Spirit, so from that (Romans 8:29) conformity and likeness that is between them, and whereunto the saints are appointed. Now she is a lily, very beautiful unto Christ; “as the lily among thorns:”
And a quotation from Richard Sibbes:
With an invitation to a great and wonderful feast, the marriage feast of the Lamb. An admirable feast indeed ; wherein Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, is the bridegroom, where every believer that hath ‘ put on’ the ‘Lord Jesus, Rom. xiii. 14, ‘the wedding garment,’ Mat. xxii. 11, is not only the guest, but the spouse of Christ, and the bride at this wedding supper. Here Jesus Christ is the master of the feast, and the cheer and provision too. He is the “Lamb of God,” John i. 29, the “ram caught in the thicket,” Gen. xxii. 13. He is the “fatted calf,” Luke. xv. 23. When he was sacrificed, “wisdom killed her beasts,” Prov. ix. 2. At his death, “the oxen and fatlings were killed,” Mat. xxii. 4. His “flesh is meat indeed, and his blood is drink indeed,” John vi. 55. And that thou mayest be fully delighted at this feast, Christ is the rose of Sharon, “the lily of the valley,” Cant. ii. 1. He is a “bundle of myrrh,” Cant. i. 13, a “cluster of camphor,” Cant. i. 14 ; his name is “anointment poured out,” Cant. i. 3, and “his love is better than wine,” Cant. i. 2. In Christ are ‘ all things ready,’ Mat. xxii. 4, for ‘ Christ is all in all,’ Col. iii. 11….
The Glorious Feast of the Gospel, 2 Sibbes 440. A final example comes from James Durham’s commentary on the Song of Solomon. His entry for 2:1 reads as follows:
This second chapter contains the same scope, and runs in the same strain with the former. It hath two principal parts: in the first, Christ speaks in the first two verses. In the second, the Bride continues, to the end.
Again, in these two verses, Christ doth first commend himself, verses 1,2. He describes his Bride, verse 2. That it is he who speaks, appears thus; 1. It is clear, at first looking upon the words, that he speaks in the second verse, and who else can be thought to speak in the first? He is the ‘I’ in the first verse, who claims the Bride by this possessive particle ‘my’ in the second. 2. The words, ‘I am the rose of Sharon,’ &c. are stately, becoming him alone to speak them: like these, ‘I am the true vine,’ ‘I am the bread of life,’ &c. And so majestic is the commendation, that it can agree to none other, but to him. 3. The Bride’s work is to commend him, and not herself, especially with a commendation, beyond what he giveth her, verse 2, and therefore the first verse must be Christ’s words, not hers.
The scope is, (for her instruction and comfort now in affliction,) that he may make her know himself:, the very knowing of Christ is comfortable, and it is one of the most excellent, rare, and ravishing things he can show his Bride, to show her himself, or to make her know him: neither can he choose a subject more profitable in itself, or more welcome to her, to insist on, than to display his own beauty, whereby she may see her blessedness in such a match.
In the first verse then, Christ comes in commending himself, ‘I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.’ The rose is a sweet savouring flower, and so is the lily: Sharon and the valleys are added, because the roses and lilies that grew there, were the best that were to be found. He is said to be that ‘rose,’ or ‘the rose’ and ‘the lily,’ as if there were no other, to distinguish him, as excellent and singular from all others. He thus sets forth himself to show, 1. That Christ Jesus hath a most lovely savour, and a most delightful and refreshful smell, to them that have spiritual senses to discern what is in him. 2. That there is nothing refreshful in creatures, but is more eminently and infinitely in him; therefore he is called the rose and the lily. 3. That whatever excellency is in Christ, is singularly and incomparably in him; there is no other rose, or lily but he; and what excellency is to be found in others, doth not deserve the name, being compared with him. 4. That he is never suitably commended, till he be lifted up above all. 5. That none can commend Christ to purpose but himself; he takes it therefore on him, ‘I am,’ &c. He can indeed commend himself effectually and none but he can do it. 6. That he manifests more of his loveliness to those who have gotten a begun sight and esteem of it: for, she had been commending it formerly, and now he discovers more of it to her. 7. That it is one of Christ’s greatest favours to his Bride, and one of the special effects of his love, to set out himself as lovely to her, and to bear in his loveliness upon her heart; and this is the scope here.
In the second verse, he describes his Bride. Here we have these things to consider, 1. What she is; a ‘lily.’ 2. What others of the world beside are called here; the ‘daughters’ (so men without the church are to the church, and corrupt men in the church are to believers) that is, daughters of their mother the world; no kindly daughters to her, they are thorns. 3. The posture of Christ’s Spouse, she is ‘as a lily among thorns,’ a strange posture and soil, for our Lord’s love and lily to grow in.
The lily is pleasant, savoury, and harmless; thorns are worthless, unpleasant and hurtful. The lily’s being compared with them, and placed amongst them, sets out both her excellency above them, and her sufferings from them. In general, Observe. 1. Christ draws his own beauty and the Bride’s together, thereby to show their kindred and sibness (so to speak) she is not rightly taken up, but when she is looked upon as standing by him; and he not fully set forth, nor known without her. 2. He took two titles to himself, and he gives one of them to the Bride, the ‘lily;’ but with this difference, that he is ‘the lily,’ she ‘as’ or ‘like the lily:’ setting forth, 1. Wherein her beauty consists, it is in likeness to him. 2. From whom it comes, it is from him, her being his love, makes her like the lily. 3. The nearness of the mystical union, that is between Christ and his Bride; it is such, that thereby they some way share names, Jer. 23:6, and chap. 33:16. 4. He intermixes her beauty and crosses together, drawing them on one table, to give her a view of both; and that for her humbling, and also for her comfort; it is not good for believers, to look only to the one without the other.
More particularly, Observe. 1. Christ’s Bride is very lovely and beautiful. 2. The children of the world are natively hurtful to her. 3. In Christ’s account the believer is exceedingly preferable to all others, of whatsoever place, or qualifications in the world. 4. Christ’s relation and affection, doth not always keep off outward afflictions from his own Bride. 5. It is native to believers to have a crossed life in the world, their plantation here among thorns speaks it. 6. That the crosses are of more kinds than one, which believers are environed with, thorns grow on all hands beside Christ’s lily. 7. Holiness and innocency will not always prevent wrongs and injuries from others, thorns will wrong even the lily. 8. Christ observes here, how she looks in her sufferings, and so he takes special notice, how his people carry in a suffering lot. 9. It is commendable to keep clean under sufferings, and to be lily-like, even amongst thorns.
Thus, in fixing upon this imagery, Taylor worked with an instantly understandable image of Christ as the Rose of Sharon. That image was mixed with the idea of surpassing beauty and good.