What is Love?

I vividly recall a day in my tenth grade biology class when my eyes landed on the most beautiful sight I had ever seen – Debbie. My heart began to beat out of my chest and I wondered, “Could I be in love?” As a teenager, I was clueless as to what it meant to be in love or to really love someone. My perspective of true love was a little distorted, but I did have feelings of love, and these feelings were really good. After courting Debbie for several years, we were married and I began the exciting journey of learning what it means to love her as my wife, my life’s partner. I say ‘learning’ because this subject of love requires a lifelong classroom. However, after extensively studying scripture and practicing a loving relationship with my wife for 38 years, I have not arrived, but I have gained a much better understanding of what love entails.

I want to invite you to join me as I look at one of the most stunning and dramatic descriptions of love found in the Bible. As the curtain is about to close on the stage of the most beautiful musical ever written, God gives a magnificent poetic depiction of what love is, when Solomon’s wife describes her love for her husband (Song 8:5-7). (To get the full impact, you might want to follow along in your Bible.) If you are not familiar with the Song of Solomon, checkout these two short videos I did that give some helpful background:

An Introduction to the Song of Solomon

How Can Solomon be used as an Example?

The final scene begins with the chorus asking the question “Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?” Solomon and his bride have just taken a vacation in the country and are strolling down the road by the home place where her mother raised her. Their conversation implies that Solomon will soon depart for a business trip, so Shulamite is hanging on to her husband as they walk. Her arm is wrapped around and resting on his arm while her head is leaning against his chest. She is drawn to him and desires an affirmation of his love before he leaves. I know whenever I pack my suitcase to leave on a trip when Debbie is not going with me, she doesn’t want to let go. She wants hugs, kisses and promises that I will be careful and remember to call. She makes certain I know she loves me and wants me to hurry back to her arms.

In this scene, it’s as though Shulamite is considering the trip that her husband is about to take. As king, he will be wined and dined and in the company of elegant, attractive people. This can stir anxiety in a young bride who lacks confidence in her ability to compete for the attention of her man. So in verse 6, Shulamite asks Solomon to set her as a seal upon his heart, and as a seal upon his arm. Seals were used to make a stamped impression to identify the object of the seal as the property of the seal’s owner. Her desire was to be stamped or engraved upon his heart and arm, expressing ownership of her as Solomon’s most prized possession.

Shulamite requested that Solomon engrave her upon his heart because his affections belonged to her. When her husband was away, she wanted him to remember the responsibility that accompanied his committed love for her. For example, the names of the tribes of Israel were engraved in the twelve precious stones on the breast plate Aaron wore as high priest so he would be continually reminded to be concerned and to passionately pray for the specific needs of his people (Exod. 28:11). Knowing that her name is sealed upon her husband’s heart assures Shulamite that of his constant affection and loyalty. Next, she asks him to set her as a seal upon his arm. Often a wife will hold her husband’s arm to demonstrate her desire for security and protection, safety and comfort. The arm seal is a promise to always fulfill these responsibilities. When a husband places his wife as a seal upon his heart and arm, he acknowledges that he belongs to her and he is committed—in thought and action—to lovingly care for her. The seal is an incredible bond that withstands the trials of separation.

To enforce this request, Shulamite assumes the role of a defense attorney who makes a case for the love which has constrained her to ask him for these seals. Her intriguing opening statement proclaims, “Love is stronger than death.” No doubt, death is strong because one day, every person will face it. We’ve all heard, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Physical death is unavoidable and cannot be ignored. It is final and irreversible. Death ends a physical life and abandons those left behind. But love is stronger than death because rather than abandon relationships, it encourages and enhances them. True love fights and sacrifices for the well-being of loved ones. True love takes a stand for loved ones while death forsakes them. Love offers hope. Love is stronger than death. Shulamite may have been mulling over the fact that the couple will be separated for a period of time. Death is a separator—the most permanent, definitive separator of two individuals. But love is stronger than death because true love will abide in a lover’s heart after the death of the loved one. Just because someone dies does not mean love for that person will end. Love withstands separation, even death. The greatest love, that of Jesus Christ, overcomes death. Without Him we are spiritually dead, but His love rescues us and leads us into life. We will never be separated from Him because His love is stronger than death. Shulamite is telling her husband he can legitimately apply the seal of ownership on his heart because her love for him is genuine and stronger than death. Nothing can keep her from loving him.

As Christians, we have Christ’s “stronger than death” love available to give to our spouse. We can allow Him to empower us so that nothing can keep us from loving our mate.

Next, she interjects that her jealous love proves her commitment (v.6b). Just as the grave relentlessly holds a body, this divine jealousy will not release its lover. It never gives up or fails! This is not to be confused with the distorted jealousy that is prevalent in our culture. In a negative sense, a jealous lover is someone who does not trust you, even if you are trustworthy. The motive of this person is to control and benefit self. If unchecked, the relationship can become abusive. Contrast this with God’s loving jealousy that is referenced six different times in Scripture. In fact, Exodus 34:14 records that God’s name is “Jealous.” The reason for His divine jealousy is that He wants our hearts to remain pure and fixed on Christ—not distracted by or shared with another (Exod. 20:1–6, 2 Cor. 11:2). He jealously protects His bride and will not allow anyone to steal her from His love (John 10:28). This love insists on complete devotion—for our good and for His glory. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones states, “It is a characteristic of love always to demand certainty. Love not only gives, love also demands. Any hesitation, any doubt, any query in the love relationship leads to misery; love demands certainty.”[1] Shulamite’s divine jealousy proves the certainty of her love, which is another reason for Solomon to seal her on his heart. She refuses to allow anyone or anything to intrude on her love for him. Godly, jealous love gives each spouse security and protections from outside threats seeking to destroy it. It does not strive to control the object of its love, but provides unyielding devotion for the good of the one being loved. Our marriages should be sealed with this divinely jealous love.

Several years ago, we arranged for the local fire department to burn down a dilapidated old building near our home. As the building burned, the flames grew to such magnitude that no one could stand within fifty yards of the fire. The flames actually reached up and melted some of the insulation off of the nearby electric lines. The heat was so intense that leaves on trees twenty yards away turned brown and crumpled. Soon the ugly structure was gone, and only ashes remained! In verse 6, the Shulamite continues to describe the power of love by using the analogy of hot coals with a blazing flame, burning within her soul for her lover. The phrase literally refers to “the fire-flame of Jehovah” (Heb. 12:29). This is the only reference to the name of God in the Song of Solomon. His love is like a raging fire that consumes imperfections and leaves a much purer specimen. This type of love Shulamite is defending has its source in God, for He is love (1 John 4:8). It consumes all that is ugly and replaces it with the beauty of holiness! Writing to the believers at Laodicea, Jesus describes their love to Him as lukewarm (Rev. 3:16). He urges them to buy gold tried in the fire so they will be rich and be clothed in white garments (Rev. 3:18). The Lord desires that the love of His bride be like gold refined in a fire, where extreme temperatures draw out and eliminate all impurities. This love is so powerful that it does not let up until everything in its path is devoured. Such committed love is the greatest force known to man. When manifested in marriage, this love creates a pure relationship untainted by distractions that blemish its beauty. Shulamite reminds Solomon that the flaming love she shares with him is sourced in none other than Jehovah God! When marriage is fueled by the flaming love of God, the result is a pure untainted love. Tim Keller aptly states:

If your spouse is the main source of love and happiness in your life and you either don’t have a relationship with God or the relationship with God is not existentially real to you, it’s something you subscribe to but it’s not a real present reality in your life … If your real source of meaning and hope and love and joy is your spouse, then when your spouse stops giving you the love he or she should give you, when the spouse criticizes you or has a problem or goes through a rough patch, you’re going to melt down. Do you know why? You can only keep giving love as long as you’re getting it. As long as you’re giving love to your spouse and your spouse is giving you love back, fine. But when you have to give love and your spouse isn’t giving you much back, you’re going to freak out. Why? You don’t have any other source. When your spouse criticizes you, if he or she is the main source of love in your life, you’re going to freak out. You’re going to melt down.[2]

We often counsel couples where one spouse has had a meltdown because he or she asserts that the mate is not loving correctly or completely. They are indirectly stating that the source of their love is their spouse. They have made their spouse their functional savior by continually requiring from them only what God can give. I remind them that it’s only when they are obsessed with God’s love that they will have an abiding source of love that will overflow to their spouse regardless of how they have been treated. When the source of our love is found in God, we are enabled to love our spouses even as Christ loved us. To practically live this out, we must continually preach the gospel to ourselves, reminding ourselves of the perfect spousal love of Jesus Christ. Keller continues:

Jesus made us. The Lord created us. Then, Genesis says, we turned away from him. We went away from him. What did Jesus do? Did he say, “Well, you’re not being the spouse you should be; I’m not going to be the spouse I should be”? No. He came to earth. He emptied himself. He went to the cross. He gave himself for us. Husbands, wives, look at how Christ loved us and gave himself for us, the ultimate spousal love. When he was up there on the cross looking down at us being terrible spouses … killing him, betraying him, denying him, mocking him … in one of the great acts of spousal love in history, he stayed. He spoke the truth in love to us, and he didn’t leave us.[3]

Even though we were a depraved sinful bride, JESUS STAYED on the cross. The same supernatural love that held Christ to the cross is available to us so we can love each other despite how we are or aren’t treated. It is not a love based on feelings, but a committed covenant love. It is a love that requires the sacrificial death of self for the good of the one we enter into covenant with. Throughout the Old Testament, in His unconditional covenants, God promises to never abandon the relationship and to love His children with an unending, everlasting love. He demonstrates this love repeatedly. When the Jewish people time after time, assert their independence, disregarding God, living life the way they see fit, failing to honor the covenant, God allows them to realize their wickedness and experience hopelessness, then He loves them, instructs them and draws them back into relationship. He consistently displays this loyal, unending, everlasting love. Nothing deters covenant love. God expresses this love regardless of the behavior and attitude of the ones he entered covenant with. The Hebrew word that conveys covenant love is hesed. Paul Miller in his stirring book, A Loving Life, explains how we should express hesed love in marriage:

Hesed love combines commitment with sacrifice. Hesed is a one-way love. Love without an exit strategy. When you love with hesed love, you bind yourself to the object of your love, no matter what the response is. So, if the object of your love snaps at you, you still love that person. If you’ve had an argument with your spouse in which you were slighted or not heard, you refuse to retaliate through silence or withholding your affection. Your response to the other person is entirely independent of how that person has treated you. Hesed is a stubborn love[4].

Wow, did you get it? Hesed love is love without an exit strategy! What an amazing supernatural love! Spouses who have their marriage founded in God’s hesed love can continually love each other so well that divorce is never an option. The great news is this love is available to everyone who puts their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior.

Shulamite continues to plead her case for the power of love by declaring that the wonder of love cannot be displaced by the sounds or sight of mighty waters (v. 7a). Niagara Falls is one of the greatest natural wonders in the world. Anyone who has seen the falls will attest that it is an awesome, breathtaking experience. Each second, more than 600,000 gallons of water flow over the nearly half-mile-wide crest line, at approximately twenty miles per hour. The force generated by the water would demolish a house into splinters! The noise produced by the falling water is so incredible that it drowns out all other sounds. Observers are forced to direct their attention to its magnificence. Surrounding nature pales in comparison to the splashing display. As a result of harnessing this mighty force, no other natural phenomenon in the world produces more electric power. Shulamite is claiming that the intensity of her love consumes, evaporates, and dispels all thundering streams or floods that come against it, even if they were as powerful as the Niagara Falls. Her love is so powerful that it echoes within her heart, continually resounding in the recesses of her inner being. It seeks out and searches every empty crevice and hollow hole within her, replacing indifference and coldness. Such is the power between two married people who allow God to permeate their souls with the burning fire of His love. It becomes a fire that cannot be quenched! In the New Testament, Paul emphatically states that neither tribulations, distress, persecution, death, life, angels, rulers nor anything else can extinguish the love of God (Rom. 8:35–39). How comforting to know that His love is greater and will empower us to overcome any marital struggle or trial we face! We can draw upon His divine love to help us conquer whatever we face in marriage or family. God’s love cannot be quenched.

Shulamite concludes her defense of the power of love with one last argument (v.7b). She states that all of a rich man’s wealth would be inadequate to purchase the love she has for her husband, a love sourced in Jehovah God! Her love cannot be bought at any price, and to suggest the possibility is an insult! The Beatles were correct in their popular song titled, “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The song pled a case for someone who couldn’t give a diamond ring or money to their lover because they had nothing to give but love. It’s marvelous to know that in the melody of marriage, the love required to set the relationship on fire is available as a gift from God. The flame of Jehovah’s love is free to all who will come and receive it (Rev. 22:17). God’s love cannot be purchased by any human effort or works, but is only received through faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (Rom. 6:23). In addition, no offer is great enough to persuade the Lord to abandon His bride, the church (Rom. 8:38-39). Satan offered fame, fortune, and power in an attempt to persuade Jesus to forsake the Father’s purpose, but He refused (Matt. 4:8-10). A spouse who emulates this love relationship will despise and reject anyone who offers an enticement that would lead to abandonment or betrayal! Shulamite presented the case that Solomon could be confident she belonged to him since no one could offer anything that would entice her to forsake him. Her love was non-negotiable because its source was the steadfast love of God.

What is love? God is love, and His love is not based on feelings or what we do or do not do. It is a covenant love that when applied to marriage requires the death of self for the good of the we enter into covenant with. It is a promise of not just present love, but future love no matter what the circumstances might be. Do you know this love? Are you living out this love in your marriage?

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Have you experienced God’s love through a relationship with Jesus Christ? If not, will you take time to read this article on Knowing Jesus ?
  2. Do you affirm your love to your spouse through terms and tones of endearment? Suggested Resource: War of Words.
  3. Can you describe your love for your spouse as ‘stronger than death’? Suggested Resource: A Loving Life.
  4. Are you daily preaching the gospel to yourself, reminding yourself of the spousal love of Christ for you? Suggested Resource: A Gospel Primer 
  5. Are you experiencing ‘mighty waters’ that are trying to quench the love in your relationship? How are you dealing with them? Suggested Resources: Choosing Forgiveness, Trusting God, The Meaning of Marriage, Time for Three Couples Devotional
  6. Is something or someone attempting to purchase the love you promised to your spouse? What do you need to do to protect from this temptation? Suggested resources: What is Marriage?, Finally Free, Building a Family Fortress

 

[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Exposition of Chapter 8:5-17 Romans (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), 384.

[2] Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, 2012-2013. New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

[3] ibid

[4] Paul Miller, A Loving Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 24.