By Pastor Glenn Pease
Napoleon and Josephine adored violets. She often wore the extremely expensive violet scented perfume as her trade mark. Only the wealthiest people could afford it. When she died in 1814, Napoleon planted violets at her grave, and just before his exile to St. Helena he made a pilgrimage to it. He picked some of the violets and put them in a locket which he wore around his neck to the end of his life. Here were lovers who were linked by their noses, and a special fragrance kept that memory of their love alive even after death.
Solomon would not be surprised by this, for his love song is filled with the fragrance of love. From the beginning to the end the nose is playing a prominent role in the romance. Solomon may not have known that we breathe about 23,000 times a day and move 438 cubic feet of air. He may not have known that man is capable of detecting over 10,000 different odors, but Solomon knew that the sense of smell has more to do with love than most people ever dream of. His love song is filled with perfume, incense, fragrant spices, flower and spring garden smells of all kinds, and also the smells of trees, plants and fruits. I doubt if there are so many references to romantic smells, in so short a space, in any literature on earth.
Rather surprising is the fact that the first reference to perfume refers to the male. In verse 3 the female lover says pleasing is the fragrance of your perfume. Not only is his wearing of perfume surprising, but it is plural-perfumes. The male lover has more than one kind, and he is giving her multiple pleasant sensations. The mystery is easily solved by a study of the role of perfume in the ancient world. We use deodorants, after shave, and cologne today, but we are conservatives compared to the ancient world where men use more perfume than women do in our day.
John Trevenar in, The Romantic Story of Scent writes, "The men of the ancient world were clean and scented." Keep in mind, we are talking about the Biblical world where it was hot and dusty, and you could perspire at the drop of a toga. Smelling good was so much of a part of that world that we have detailed records of how they perfumed themselves, and even washed their clothes in perfume. Two of the three gifts the wise men brought to Jesus were frankincense and myrrh. These were two of the oldest and most expensive perfumes in the ancient world. When Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt they were hot, and Joseph would have used as much of the perfume as Mary, for it was vital to a man to smell good.
We could spend hours just looking at the evidence to confirm the reality of Solomon's song, but let me just share one paragraph from Diane Ackerman's, A Natural History Of The Senses, which was published in 1990.
Ancient he-men were heavily perfumed. In a way, strong scents
widened their presence, extended their territory. In the pre-Greek
culture of Crete, athletes anointed themselves with specific aromatic
oils before the games. Greek writers of around 400BC recommended
mint for the arms, thyme for the knees, cinnamon, rose, or palm oil
for the jaws and chest, almond oil for the hands and feet, and marjoram
for the hair and eyebrows. Egyptian men, attending a dinner party
would receive garlands of flowers and their choice of perfumes at
the door. Flower petals would be scattered underfoot, so they could
make a fragrance stir when guests trod on them. Statues at these
banquets often spurted scented water from their several orifices.
Before retiring, a man would crush solid perfume until it was an
oily powder and scatter it onto his bed so that he could absorb its
scent while he slept. Homer describes the obligatory courtesy
of offering visitors a bath and aromatic oils. Alexander the Great
was a lavish user of both perfumes and incense, and was fond
enough of saffron to have his tunics soaked in its essence.
Her elaborate research has led to dozens of pages of this kind of information, yet she says, as a world authority on odors, "The most scent-drenched poem of all times is the Song of Solomon." This song makes the fragrance of love a major issue, and Christians who do not heed this revelation lose a valuable tip. For centuries Christians ignored this book and did not take it seriously. They developed the idea that it was worldly to use perfume and smell good. They felt it was more holy to be dirty. The Puritans did not go that far, but they did reject perfume as worldly. To this day, the nose is not honored in romance, and the result is many a Christian couple damages their love life.
If God says the nose is part of His design for love, who are we to ignore the Designers plan? In some cultures lovers kiss with their noses, and their word for kiss means smell. They get great pleasure in breathing in the odor of the one they love. In Madagascar they believe that every soul has it own unique scent. And when they kiss they breathe in that unique odor of their loved one, and mingle their souls. They experience a spiritual and physical intimacy. In the Philippines some have so refined their sense of smell that by sniffing a pocket handkerchief they can tell if it belongs to their lover. They send bits of linen to each other when they are separated so they can keep each other in mind by inhaling each others scent.
We laugh at nose kissing, but it is because we have little awareness of the role of the nose in romance. When Ruth went to meet Boaz and stimulate his interest as taking her as a wife, her mother-in-law Naomi gave her good advice in Ruth 3:3. She told her to wash and put on perfume. A bad impression on the nose is a sure way to quench the spark of romance. William Erb put it in poetry.
The shades of night were falling
Around us thick and fast:
I stood beside Matilda
The first time and the last.
I tried to give her kisses
According to etiquette,
But she had eaten onions,
Me thinks I smell them yet.
If he kissed you once, will he kiss you again, is not a modern question. That poem was written in 1897, and similar thoughts go back into ancient history. On the other hand, it has also always been true that, "Aroma is beauty, and beauty is the stimulant to passion." The question, of course, is what does this obvious truth in the realm of romance have to do with our religious and spiritual love? The Bible makes it clear that the nose is important
in religious love, just as it is in the realm of romance. The Jews were proud of their Semitic noses. Levi Haytha said, "The Supreme Architect created man with a spout over his mouth, and it constitutes his beauty and his pride." The nose was important in the worship of God, and still is to the Jews today. Zohr wrote, "What would the world do without fragrance? We would pine away without it, and so we burn myrtle at the conclusion of the Sabbath."
If we go back to the Old Testament days, we see that the sacrifices of animals was a major part of their worship. If you enjoy meat cooking on a grill, then you can imagine the delicious odors as cattle and sheep were cooked on the altar by the hundreds and even thousands. The smell was magnificent. We know this for Scripture indicates that God enjoyed the smell of the offerings. When Noah left the ark, and made his sacrifices to God, we read in Gen.8:21, "And Jehovah smelled the delicious odor and said I will never do it again." He promised never to destroy the world again with a flood.
All through the Old Testament sweet and delicious odors were to fill the temple. Incense was to mingle with the sweet-smelling offerings. The reason we enjoy a good roast cooking, and sweet perfume, is because we are made in the image of God who also delights in pleasant fragrance. He is the author of sense of smell, and all the fragrant aromas in the world of nature. He is also the author of the very first perfume recipe known to man. It was a very exclusive secret formula to be used in the temple, and for anointing holy objects, and the priests. The formula and the description of its uses can be found in Ex. 30:22-28. It was a sacred formula that could only be used for the special purposes that God stipulated. Any other use was strictly forbidden.
Worship and pleasant smell were linked together. When the Jews went after other gods, they would burn incense to them. They could not conceive of any truly religious love and devotion without the presence of pleasant fragrance. There are hundreds of text in Scripture dealing with various kinds of perfume and aromatic materials. The main point of it all is, pleasant smell is associated with religious love just as it is with romantic love. Prov, 27:9 says, "Oil and perfume rejoice the heart." All relationships are made better with the presence of pleasant odor.
When we move into the New Testament, we discover that Paul had a real nose for nice smells. He expressed his thanks to the Philippians Christians for their support by writing in Phil. 4:18, "I am filled, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God." Paul connected spiritual love, and the sacrifice of Christ, with a sweet smell in Eph. 5:2. "And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." Our great Shepherd lover was never more fragrant than when he breathed out His last breath and said, "It is finished." God did not let His Son see corruption in the tomb. Lazarus was stinking after four days in the tomb, but no foul odor was permitted to come upon the body of our Lord. He became, by His death, the eternal lover, whose fragrance is like that of an eternal rose.
When Jesus came to the home of Mary and Martha just shortly before the crucifixion, we read of this unique event in John 12:3, "Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair, and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment." Here was a great act of love, with great symbolic meaning. Jesus said it was for the day of His burial. Many other spices and perfumes were put upon the body of Christ when He was buried, but this event hints that death would never leave its ugly smell on Christ, for He was the very embodiment of love and fragrance.
In Him all excellence is found.
His name a fragrance sheds around,
Like that most costly oil of nard,
Which Mary poured upon her Lord.
The Shulamite girl says her lover's name is like perfume poured out. That is exactly how the church, the Bride of Christ, feels about Him and His name. Bonar wrote,
I love the name of Jesus,
Immanuel, Christ the Lord,
Like fragrance on the breezes,
His name abroad is poured.
The most significant passage in all the Bible which relates to smell, love, and the Gospel of Christ, is II. Cor. 2:14-16. "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life." In this passage Paul links the very issues of heaven and hell to the nose. To
spread the Gospel is to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. Has anyone ever told you, you smell like a Christian? How is a Christian suppose to smell? According to Paul, he is to smell sweet and pleasant, like the perfume of God in Christ.
Billy Graham has every one of his counselors put a mint in their mouth, just as he gives the invitation, for it is hard to lead a soul to love Christ if you smell like onions, or have some other foul odor. Religious love is aided by pleasant smell. Pleasant odor was very important to Paul, for he was dealing with people in Greek culture, and if you study how the Greeks love perfume you will understand Paul's concern. Listen to Antiphones as he describes the bath of an Athenian man of fashion.
In a large gilded tub he steeps his feet
and legs in rich Egyptian unguents.
His jaws and breast he rubs with thick palm oil,
and both his arms with extract sweet of mint,
his eyebrows and his hair with margoram,
his knees and neck with essence of ground thyme.
Descriptions of a Greek banquet are unbelievable in the costly perfume used. Xenophones describes an unique method by which all were showered with it.
He slipped four doves, whose wings were saturate
With scents, all different in kind-these doves,
Wheeling in circles round, let fall upon us
A shower of sweet perfumery, drenching, bathing
Both clothes and furniture and lordlings all.
The Romans were also fanatics for perfume, but time does not permit us to explore. In a world like that, Christians had to have a pleasant appeal to the nose of people in order to win their attention. The pleasant appeal was, of course, the name of Jesus. His was, and is, the only name on earth that rid men of the foul odor of sin. All though the Bible the word stink, and the word stank, are used to describe sin and its consequences. Hate is linked to a stench in the nostrils. Every man either stinks before God, because he is a sinner, and has no deodorant that can cleanse him, or he is like perfume before God,
because by his faith in Christ he has covered himself with the sweet-smelling sacrifice of the cross. A rotten breath can hurt romance, and a rotten soul hurts your relationship with God. Jesus Christ is God's only remedy for the foul breath of the sinful soul. If you put your trust in Him you can come out of this foul world smelling like a rose.