The man in this love story compared his beloved to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots (Song of Solomon 1:9). Only the best and most handsome of mares would have been chosen for important processions, and they would have been well-adorned with jewels and ornaments. This was the man’s way of saying that his beloved’s beauty is incomparable.
Purple cloth was associated with royalty because the purple dye was very difficult to produce in large quantities. Most of the purple dye came from a shellfish called the murex. It took more than 8,000 murex shellfish to extract one gram of dye.
The woman addresses the daughters of Jerusalem four times throughout this book, creating a refrain that ties her “songs” together (Song of Solomon 2:7; 3:5; 5:8; 8:4). She urges them not to “stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” In other words, they should wait until the appropriate time to enjoy romantic love.
Vineyards, fields, and palm trees.
The Song of Solomon takes place in a rural setting, and the lovers describe each other using images drawn from this context. The man is a shepherd, and the woman works in her family’s vineyard.
The Holy One of Israel is Isaiah’s main title for God. The phrase occurs 25 times in the book, but rarely elsewhere in the Bible. The word “holy” describes the Lord’s absolute moral purity and his being far greater than all that he has created.
Pruning hooks (Is. 2:4) were used to cut away newly formed leaves and shoots from grape vines. The blade curved into a sharp hook at the tip, allowing it to capture and cut new growth more easily than a straight blade.
The tinkling of feet mentioned in Is. 3:16 is probably the ankle bracelets many women wore in the ancient world. They were usually made of bronze and were attached permanently.
Ten acres of vineyard would normally produce 10,000 gallons (37,850 liters) of wine yearly. Isaiah says that the Lord’s judgment upon Israel would be so severe that ten acres of vineyard would produce only one bath, or six gallons (23 liters). See Is. 5:10.
Being forced to shave was a mark of humiliation (7:20). In some nations of that time, the hair of slaves was shaved in a particular way to identify them as their owner’s property.
A sanctuary and a rock?
Elsewhere in Scripture, the Lord is described as a “rock” that provides a place of “sanctuary” or “refuge” (see Ps. 61:2–3). Here, however, he is a “sanctuary” for his people but a “rock” over which his enemies will stumble (Isa. 8:14; compare Rom. 9:33).
Yokes were wooden frames placed on work animals such as oxen to harness their power. When Israelites heard prophets like Isaiah speak of the yokes placed on them by their oppressors (Is. 10:27), they would readily understand what he meant.
The idea of tame farm animals living in harmony with wild animals such as lions and bears (Is. 11:6–9) would have been a startling thought for the people of Isaiah’s day, for whom such predators were a frequent threat (see also Is. 65:17–25).
For many centuries, the “cedars of Lebanon” were hauled away by powerful empires like Assyria and Babylon. When Babylon is defeated, those trees will rejoice that “no woodcutter comes up against us” (Is. 14:8).
Payment in lambs.
The people of Moab offered to pay the Israelites to protect them from their enemies. Such tribute was often paid in goods rather than with money; since the Moabites had many sheep, that’s how they paid (Is. 16:1).
Olive harvesting was very similar to grain harvesting. The olive harvesters would beat the branches of the tree with long poles, knocking the olives to the ground. The uppermost branches were left untouched so that the poor could gather what remained (Is. 17:6).
Competing Pharaohs. Beginning in about 1000 b.c., Egypt fell into a period of decline and royal feuding that lasted nearly 400 years. During Isaiah’s time, there were four rival pharaohs claiming the Egyptian throne.
The key to the house of David was carried by the steward, and it opened every door and gate in the palace. It was probably bronze and was large enough that it had to be worn around the neck (“on his shoulder,” Is. 22:22). For the steward, it was a status symbol.
Cyprus (Is. 23:1) is the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Seafarers like the people of Sidon (Is. 23:12) would have valued it as both a seaport and a place of refuge.
Chalkstone is a type of limestone that, when crushed, can be used for things such as whitewashing and as mortar for brick-laying. Because it was so easy to crush, Isaiah used it as a visual example of how the Lord will destroy the altars and high places of idol worship (Is. 27:9).
Details about farming. While a farmer “scatters” seeds like dill and cumin, other seeds, such as wheat and barley, had to be planted “in rows . . . in its proper place” (Is. 28:25). The Bible is accurate and trustworthy, even in such agricultural details.