How does the Bible define true and godly love, the blessed intimacy and bond that unites a man and woman in the state of marriage? Here are some reflections on just this question, given as the charge to my younger brother and his new bride at their wedding last week.
Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.
If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.
(Song of Songs 8:6-7)
This text as much as any other in Scripture gives us a biblical definition of true love. People the world over have tried to define love. Every weekend at the theater a new movie opens promising to give us a fresh look at a weathered topic. For the most part, though, it seems all we can agree on is that love matters—more than money, fame, power—even though the search for many has proven futile. Love has fallen on hard times. Some have even gone so far as to declare the death of marriage, an archaic and oppressive institution. You stand here this afternoon against this unholy tide, for which I am grateful. For I believe the problem is not that marriage has failed love, but that our self-seeking, romanticized, and spurious love has failed marriage. Having slipped from the majestic vision of this God-inspired Hebrew poet, many have fallen for a cheap imitation. We need a return to truth, a way out of this romantic quagmire. The Song of Songs will give us just that.
Some will find it interesting that God has devoted an entire book of the Bible to defining true and godly love, but considering the contemporary condition, his wisdom is clear. God places a high value on marriage, as Scripture attests to uniformly. Jesus, in performing his first miracle, blessed the wedding celebration of a young couple in a tangible way, turning the water into wine and saving the new family social blushes. God himself performed the first wedding ceremony and gave the bride away. And in his infinite wisdom, God saw fit to establish as the first earthly institution not the state, not even the church, but the family. God created and blesses the marriage state. It is a sacred institution undergirded by the reflected love of God himself. In fact, the ultimate purpose of marriage is not a celebration of human love, but divine. Every marriage, whether wittingly—or even willingly—or not, proclaims the gospel of Christ Jesus. In the husband’s love for his wife, we have an imperfect reflection of Christ’s love for the church; in the wife’s devotion to her husband, we have an imperfect reflection of the church’s devotion to Christ. This is the profound mystery of which the apostle Paul writes eloquently, and this is why God devotes so much sacred scripture to the topic of love. So what does he say? What makes love true and godly? Our text today suggests at least three ideas.
First, true and godly love is invaluable. Our poet writes, “If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” True and godly love has no price. No material consideration enters the heart. In fact, within the Song we have this truth performed. The happy couple, reflecting on their courtship, remember a time when Solomon, the wise and wealthy king, sought to steal away the Shulammite bride for his harem. He promised her untold riches, but she refused because she loved her humble shepherd truly. True and godly love does not turn to marriage as a financial decision, not to provide security or tax breaks or comfort. True and godly love does not turn to marriage for any consideration other than love, really. If you are seeking affirmation or self-worth or satisfaction or thrills or whatever, you have come to marriage as a business transaction. And if you feel the other does not hold up their end of the bargain, things will fall apart. In this regard, let your way be the way of Christ. He loves his church through no merit of our own, nor to gain any end for himself, but simply because he chooses to love. When you love the other for their sake and not your own, you reflect his love. (And, I might add, when you see nothing lovable in yourself, and yet you see the other’s love, you will be forever reminded of God’s unmerited favor and relentless love.) True and godly love seeks only the other, because it delights in the other. The self and love, in contrast to much contemporary nonsense, are absolutely incompatible. Let your delight be in each other—you are delightful people, after all—and let that be enough.
Second, true and godly love is zealous. Our poet writes, “For love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.” True and godly love produces an unquenchable zeal for the marriage and for its beloved. It is passionate, like a mighty flame. As many wildfires prove every year, flames spread insatiably; in the same way should your passion for each other grow. We have largely capitulated to the idea that romance, passion, sexual desire all fade with time. Some foolish people even proclaim that marriage is the end of all the fun you used to have. This is a damnable deception. If a couple never experienced more excitement than the courtship, they never loved at all. True and godly love grows more passionate with each passing day. Kindle the flames of your passion unflaggingly. Have you ever seen an older couple out for a walk, still warmly affectionate with each other, holding hands, even flirting? May it be so with you. May your children and your grandchildren see you as tenderly and as passionately in love as we see you today. But this will not happen on its own; it will take work. You will have to sweep away bitterness at times; you will have to forgive real offenses; you will have to inject romance into the routine intentionally and often. But do so, because you love the other, you regard each other as better than riches, and because true and godly love is jealous. It is jealous for the health of the marriage, for the strength of the bond between you. Fight for it. Embrace passion. Remember the great lengths to which the Lord went in his pursuit of us, sending his son, his only son, whom he loved, to be a sacrifice for our sins. That is zeal for the other, loving passionate pursuit. Let this serve as a model of your own love. Kneel down and wash each other’s feet. Speak words of life and encouragement to each other, forsaking harsh, cutting, selfish words. Support and serve one another. Love one another zealously.
Finally, true and godly love is unending. Our poet writes, “Love is as strong as death. . . . Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.” We do not normally associate love and death, but they have this point in common: they both will persist until the end of time. With one startling exception, the dead do not rise to life; they remain in the grave. Well, one does not fall out of love any more than one falls out of death. No matter what comes—rising floodwaters, rivers of life’s vicissitudes and challenges—the flame of love continues burning. This is not today’s perspective, of course, but this is truth nevertheless. Let Christ Jesus serve as your model once more. Christ’s love never changes—it is unending and unconditional. And so must yours be. In Romans, Paul climaxes his argument concerning God’s grace with, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If none of these can separate us from the love of Christ, and you are to love each other as Christ and the church love each other, the question arises, what can separate you from your love? Nothing, the answer must be. In good times and bad, in imperfection and glory, today, tomorrow, and forever, you must love each other wholly and completely. The great prophet and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” Let the unbreakable covenant into which you are about to enter sustain you even when the choice to love—to sacrifice self, to forgive, to endure—becomes difficult, even impossible. What God has joined together, you cannot separate.
Invaluable, zealous, unending love: that is my prayer for you. At many points on your journey together you will fall short of this sacred ideal. We all do. But in those times remember the words we read together today, and renew your commitment to live it fully. Lift your eyes off yourselves—your imperfections, your trials, your sorrow, your pain—and fix them on Jesus Christ. We do not love as we ought because we do not remember the God who is love as we ought. Consider the cross, the strength of his love—its price, its passion, its endurance—and love each other as he loved us. To your happiness and his glory.