I come to the garden alone,While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
He speaks, and the sound of His voiceIs so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
In the first two stanzas and chorus displayed above, the narrator speaks of the sweetness of time spent with God in the garden. In that early morning quiet, they enjoy a special time between just the two of them. They fellowship together, and it seems that nothing can compare with the precious sound of the Savior's voice and the assurances of His love.
In Song of Solomon, the garden is a special place where the king and his beloved wife go to share especially sweet and personal times. This special picture begins in their betrothal stage, when the king excitedly describes the beauties of the spring and invites her to come with him to observe. (2:10-13). When the king later describes the ecstasies of intimacy with her, he compares her to a private and fragrant garden that he enjoys (4:12-15). She responds with an open invitation for him to enjoy this garden (4:16). When later there is a rift in their relationship, the bride desperately seeks her husband. She wanders aimlessly through the city, and then she remembers that the place she will find him is the garden (6:2). There the two are reconciled and again spend special time together. The gardens are both a symbol of their love and a habitual trysting place (7:12).
This picture from Song of Solomon fit very well into my understanding of the hymn. I even noted the line from the hymn, "and He tells me I am His own," and linked that to the repeated realization of the king's love for his bride. "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" (6:3, variations in 2:16 and 7:10).
We know what it is like to have those special times with God. Sometimes they happen during times of intense struggle and difficult testing. When we have special communion with God during those times, we can have an inexplicable joy and even an illogical radiance on our faces, all due to the pleasure of that time with God. As the hymn-writer stated, it is so special that it seems like no one else could possibly understand. Surely no one else could know what it is like to have God personally minister in such a way.
This is how I understood the hymn, but I struggled with the final stanza.
I'd stay in the garden with Him,Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.
It troubled me to present the idea that God would have me leave when I want to stay. When would He ever ask me to leave? There is a phrase in Song of Solomon that denies this could happen. "Do not arouse or awaken my love until she pleases" (8:4, variations in 2:7 and 3:5). This repeated phrase comes at times when the bride has chosen to be close to the king, and he has responded by urging that no one disturb them. He does not want the time to end, and as long as she is willing to stay, he is desirous of her continued presence. I reconciled my conflict by acknowledging the general concept behind the stanza - that if my time with God ever had to end, it would be with sadness.
As I prepared to write this blog, intending to focus on the sweet fellowship that is possible and on the truth that, in fact, God would never send us away, I looked up the hymn text and found the story that accompanied its writing.
As it turns out, I was completely wrong. Although there are a number of hymns that draw from Song of Solomon, this one does not. The hymn-writer was inspired by reading John 20 about the encounter in the garden between Mary Magdalene and the resurrected Savior. She did go to the garden (tomb) early in the morning (v. 1) and then ran to tell the disciples that the stone was moved. Peter and John accompanied her to the empty tomb; when they left, Mary remained (vs. 10-11). Mary was distraught, weeping and inconsolable, not understanding what had happened. First angels spoke to her, and then the Savior Himself (vs. 15-16). This would indeed have been a wonderful, special experience for Mary to have this unique time with Jesus, something that no one else shared.
This encounter calmed and comforted Mary, but as the third stanza of the hymn recounts, this special time did have to end. "Jesus said to her, 'Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father' " (v. 17). I believe the hymn-writer takes some liberties regarding the duration, activities, and timing of this encounter, but it is true that Jesus had to separate from Mary temporarily.
I prefer my interpretation based on Song of Solomon; it invites application to all Christians rather than focusing on one slice of the Resurrection story. Truthfully, though, God's love is expressed in both stories. He wants to have special times with us, and He wants to comfort us in our times of pain. There is indeed a distinct pleasure found in enjoying the love and presence of God.