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In Song of Solomon 5:16, the verse in Hebrew transliteration is:

ḥikkōw mamṯaqqîm wəḵullōw maḥămaddîm zeh ḏōwḏî wəzeh rê‘î, bənōwṯ yərūšālim
חִכּוֹ֙ מַֽמְתַקִּ֔ים וְכֻלּ֖וֹ מַחֲמַדִּ֑ים זֶ֤ה דוֹדִי֙ וְזֶ֣ה רֵעִ֔י בְּנ֖וֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם׃

where maḥămaddîm is translated as "[is] lovely". But normally, in Hebrew, when the suffix "im" is added to a word, it's the use of majestic plural, that is giving respect to the entity referred to by the set of characters preceding "im". Just like "Eloh-im" (giving respect to Eloah).

So "maḥămaddîm" is translated as "lovely", and the "-im" added either means a normal plural or majestic plural, In either case, what is the reason for pluralizing an adjective like "lovely"?

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    The suffix -im is not, in itself, the 'majestic plural'. It is the normal masculine plural. Many nouns are pluralized in the Hebrew bible. Elohim is the plural form of Eloah. Behemoth is the (feminine) plural of behemah. – user2910 Jun 22 '16 at 1:17
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    my question is, what is the reason for pluralizing the word "maḥămadd" by adding "im" to it ? – user230994 Jun 22 '16 at 13:27
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    @SteveTaylor See Pluralis Majestatis. – Susan Jun 29 '16 at 8:34
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The plural noun in classical Hebrew can do other "non-number" jobs than simply the plural of "majesty". One common one is the "plural of abstraction", and that is the way maḥămaddîm is typically understood here. Waltke-O'Connor para. 7.4.2(a) further refine this as refering to qualities:

waltke-oconnor

Cf. Joüon-Muraoka, who explain it precisely the same way: a "plural of abstraction" dealing with "qualities" (see para. 134n, p. 471).

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The Idea in Brief

The plural form (maḥămaddîm) is not literary, but is to be understood in the literal sense. That is, Jewish sages over the centuries did not understand the plural form here in any literary (or abstract) sense, but in the most literal way. In this regard, the plural suffix was in reference to sweet words (plural) that emanate from the mouth of the beloved.

Targum Songs

For example, the Targum of the Song of Songs appeared between the 1st and 4th Century, and the provides the following translation from Hebrew into Aramaic.

enter image description here

Suggested translation: The words upon the palate of sweetness are like honey, and all his commands are pleasing to his wise counsellors than gold [or silver]. This is the splendor of God, my beloved, and this is the power of the strength of my Lord, my beloved, O prophets who prophesy in Jerusalem.

Rashi

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) lived in the 11th Century, and he also notes that the plural form of sweetness was the actual reference to the words in the mouth of the beloved. The following comes from the relevant cite reference on the www.chabad.org website.

[16] His palate is sweet: His words are pleasant, e.g. (Lev. 19:28): “And you shall not make a wound in your flesh for one who has died… I am the Lord,” faithful to pay reward. Is there a palate sweeter than this? Do not wound yourselves, and you will receive reward. (Ezek. 33:19): “And when a wicked man repents of his wickedness and performs justice and righteousness, he shall live because of them.” Iniquities are accounted to him as merits. Is there a palate sweeter than this? (emphasis added)

Midrash

Early Jewish Halakic (legal) midrash echos of the same. The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, which are midrash ascribed to Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai who was one 2nd-century tannaitic sage in ancient Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple. The midrash notes the following:

enter image description here

The following translation comes from Nelson (2006).

Rather, “His mouth is delicious, etc.” (Song 5:16). And Scripture says, “...to the sound that comes out of His mouth” (Job 37:2).

The midrash here makes the explicit connection between words and the deliciousness of those words as the sound [of the words] coming from the same mouth.

Conclusion

In summary, rabbinic scholars over the centuries (who were intimate with Jewish oral tradition and the Jewish understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures) had understood the plural form (maḥămaddîm) as in literal reference to sweet words, and not to something abstract.


Reference:

Nelson, W. David (2006). Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 130.

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  • Doesn't "his words are pleasant" refer to חכו ממתקים (which doesn't seem to me the most "literal" interpretation in any case) rather than כלו מחמדים? – Susan Jun 30 '16 at 4:55
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The suffix 'im' is very common in this passage and throughout Song of Songs, as there are a lot of plurals present throughout. 'His mouth is most sweet' is also conjugated in the plural here, as are many other words throughout this section of Song of Solomon. In each case, the plural isn't about majesty but rather intensity - it helps the text to flow poetically and presumably strengthens the compliments.

There's nothing particularly significant in this usage of maḥămaddîm, and the usage is very similar to what we see in Isaiah 64:11, using a slightly different plural conjugation:

"Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our maḥămaddênū have become ruins."

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  • Apologies @David, I was in error because I was relying on errant material from an apologetics source. This verse is a very popular one in Islam (and I strongly suspect that's the 'real' reason for his interest) as it's taken as a transliteration of Muhammad, fulfilling one of his claims that the Law and Prophets spoke of him in ages past. – Steve Taylor Jun 29 '16 at 22:06
  • Thanks @David - you're right, and I've made the correction. – Steve Taylor Jun 30 '16 at 9:15
  • @SteveTaylor - While you'll see I take a different line from yours :) you might still point to Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley (GKC) §124e in support of the notion of a "plural of intensification". (They treat "abstract plurals" in the preceding paragraph, §124d; they don't cite SoS 5:16 anywhwere in their treatment of the uses of plurals, though.) Hope that hepls! – Dɑvïd Jun 30 '16 at 9:28

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