The past four sections reveal the wisdom on how to bear up against suffering, how to worship, how to behave, to live; now this book offers biblical insight on a fifth topic on how to love. This book is also known as Song of Songs or canticles and is written by King Solomon. The love he describes is the one within marriage between man and wife.
The coming together of male and female is so significant that it is one the top metaphors in the Bible to illustrate God’s relationship with his people. God speaks in His sacred book by telling us we are our Beloved’s and our Beloved is ours. The book of Hosea depicts an unfaithful wife (an analogy pointing to the Israelites) and God as a forgiving, pursuing husband. In the book of Isaiah, it is the Bride, and God as the Bridegroom who rejoices over us. Jeremiah portrays a faithless wife deserving divorce, and God, once again, is the faithful Husband who pursues reconciliation. In the New Testament, marriage points to Jesus as the Bridegroom and the Church as his Bride. This union between husband and wife becoming one is a picture of Christ’s self-sacrificing love for Church and in turn the Church’s surrender to that love.
Like in the book of Esther, the name of God is not mentioned in Song of Solomon. God is there none the less. This book on relationships can’t be an independent read when the entire Bible is about God’s relationship with his people. In biblical circular cross reference fashion, Ezekiel 16:8 describes a covenant between Man and God. It rings similarly to “I belong to my beloved, and his desire is for me.” (Sg. 7:10).
Solomon’s ended up with him living his life in what seems contrary to this poem so it probably is not autobiographical. It’s a reminder that who among us are not susceptible to humanly stray periodically to the other side of God’s will, be it adulterous, evil thoughts of racism, stereotyping, self-centeredness, or living in a lie? Solomon at one point had 700 wives and 300 concubines. The wives are foreign princesses, to include Pharaoh’s daughter plus Moab, Ammon, Sidon and Hittite women. As mentioned in the chapter on the book on Kings, Deuteronomy 17:17 instructs not to take multiple wives. Polygamy brought problems to Old Testament biblical leaders. Abraham’s household experiences a fissure because of jealousy between his two wives. Jacob endures rivalry among his four wives. David’s adulterous tendencies with Bathsheba were his downfall. In considering everything associated with Solomon (wisdom, wealth, and a large family), his writings show he is the appointed author of most of the wisdom literature. It appears he could add the statement “Do as I say not as I do.” That decree is hardly a success principle but still, it can lend itself to be edifying and noteworthy that the man is writing from a source of knowledge and or experience on what is the better way to behave, live and love.
Marriage, the bedrock of society in accord with God’s design, particularly for procreation is profiled in Song of Solomon in three sections: the courtship, the wedding, and the maturing marriage. Based on the known outcome of Solomon’s relationship plights it’s safe to say that marital monogamy is the best kind. Perhaps that is why this book is called the “Song of Songs”, a Hebrew way of expressing the best of the best like (like Holy of Holies, King of Kings). It is also thought that Proverbs 31, written during the same time as the Songs, could be about this same one same woman if not a depiction of Ruth.
There is a female (the Beloved) and a male narrative voice in this poem. This poem’s theme is about love, desire, physical attraction, and seeking and finding. The poem is an allegory about Christ and his beloved the church that Paul writes about in Ephesians 5: 25-33. It’s about God’s gift of love, a transcendent gift that points to his love for us that is an unending love much like the end of the poem which is open-ended.
People often think they are experiencing love discovered in that first flowering stage of infatuation. This couple in Song of Songs felt similar emotions. But they did not marry because of this. In fact, the woman sends him away two times. Since ancient era, people also considered love as a decision (like in arranged marriages for example, or those who taking commitment serious in marriage). To achieve the enduring kind-of-happily-everlasting-kind of love, it is to acknowledge this is part of the formula.
C. S. Lewis describes the emotion of love in Mere Christianity:
“But, of course, ceasing to be ‘in love’ need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense-love as distinct from ‘being in love’ – is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other at those moments when they do not like each other. They can retain this love even when it would be easier if they allowed themselves, be “in love” with someone else. ‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.”
Comparable to his describing faith, Martin Luther says even if we don’t have a feeling or are experiencing a feeling of faith does not mean it is not there. Faith (and love) does not ease when asleep, preoccupied with work or overworking strenuously.
There is a pattern in my life of unrequited love, from my first girlhood love to a most recent one. I hang on too long in a relationship, long after it’s over. I think this pattern manifested back to my early home life (me not feeling particularly loved or nurtured yet still treated with just enough kindness to be hopeful).
To quantify that last sentence. Once my sisters were blaming my mother for the how their lives didn’t turn out the way they expected. It was her fault. Mom would remark with wonder at what age it would be when they would begin to be accountable for their own lives (they were in their forties still blaming mom). Lest you think my unrequited love pattern and where it manifested from is to place blame on my parents, it’s not. It’s my observation of my insecurity of not feeling loved or attaching the value of my identity on receiving or not receiving love from someone.
I am almost used to feeling unrequited love, I have adjusted to it knowing that there is one love, an enduring unconditional love, that I have. That’s where I put my identity, in God’s love for me that is in turn requited by me. I no longer put my identity in my marital or relational status, or on sex. Knowing where someone’s identity lies can help those who are caught up and focus on their sexual identity. I know I still carry this “torch” of love but I don’t act on it, because in some cases it would be wrong biblically (like committing adultery). It appears I have chosen to live alone. I am comfortable with that now. But that’s not to say if it organically happens, I am not open to that one last great romance (humankind), I just no longer pursue it.
Another allegory that runs through the Songs is our love for God initially during something akin to courtship, the developing relationship together, to the maturing relationship. Like the Beloved, we often hesitate in loving God. The reasons are often the same. We invite God into our lives but perhaps are afraid to obey him completely. It may be because we are selfish or lazy. It may be we are uncertain, maybe frightened, on what God may want us to do. Or we may be afraid that we will fail. We forget God is always encouraging us to trust in him. He wants us to become better than we are. He wants us to become mature (Heb. 6:1) in our relationship with Him which takes intentional work and worship. What’s wonderful about this is God love does not change. It doesn’t grow stronger nor does it become weaker. This life-altering love confessed in the Bible is as the church’s devotion who submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything and husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church and gave Himself up for her (Eph. 5:24-25). Both loves described here for the man and woman are the same as dying to self. Marriage is a complicated dance between people.
Today there is much commentary, first alarming now status quo, on the rise of the divorce in western society. One trite response is it’s because we are living beyond middle age, longer than our ancestors did. One hundred years ago, the average man lived to age 47. Couples may have married at a younger age than now but seldom did they hit the 30-year anniversary mark due to a lower age in death rate. Now 40 to 50 years together in a monogamous marriage is rare so our longevity is used as one reason couples don’t hold their nuptial vows until death do they part in the current day. The divorce rate is slowing down. But not for those over 50, it’s called the gray divorce phenomenon.
To date, I had been married more than half my life. I am grateful for the experience of love that ebbs and flows (described below) in that marriage. Mine ended up not being the happily-ever-after-kind. And in retrospect, I was not married to the love of my life but do hold to promises and vows of marriage.
Multiple stages of love, in my opinion, begin with the initial infatuation, then the stage of learning about each other through understanding, to that one thing you thought was endearing becoming an irritant. Then you can’t seem to agree on anything, try to mold the other into what you think you want. There are the bonding periods, the romance, the amazing miraculous moments. The stages of working hard to ensure your marriage works, the sacrificial love resulting in the falling out of liking each other back in love again stage. Marital love is the fun, the happy period, the loneliness point, the completing each other’s thoughts and sentences phase, and the companionship stage. Love that is not in the initial blooming stage can be just as intense in the mature stages in terms of loyalty and commitment to the other.
After a divorce, there is collateral damage of craziness and mourning (more intense the longer the marriage). Untangling from love is not easy which to me is what sex is meant to be an expression of and not to engage into lightly. I can’t help but think those who have a hard time finding that special someone to love (with all that it encompasses it) usually are the ones who resort to recreational sex along with all its twisted travesties and lies about the satisfaction of a one night stand.
It takes a trifecta to save a marriage: husband, wife, and God. If one isn’t all in, then it is doomed. In Ecclesiastes 4:12 it states “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands (however) is not quickly broken.” The three cords represent God’s original braided knot. One of my cords broke and would not be rewoven back into the relationship.
Whyte writes “…regret may, in fact, be a faculty for paying attention to the future, for sensing a new tide where we missed a previous one, for experiencing timelessness with a grandchild where we neglected a boy of our own. To regret fully is to appreciate how high the stakes are in even the average human life. Fully experienced, regret turns our eyes, attentive and alert to a future possibly lived better than our past.” It is transparent when a person says they have no regrets in life.
Divorce is a version of death for someone who was authentically and intimately connected to another. If still connected through mutual children between you it is not really ever over. One way some deal with a broken relationship is by shunning. I do not agree in shunning anyone (ever) and admire the maturity of those families who remain civil (even if the elephant is in the room) with each other, maybe even friends after the postmortem of marriage. The latter is not my case. There are days I feel more widow than divorcee what with the complete absence of communication from people I was connected with for over thirty years. The hurt creeps back in because of the mutual children we created and their connection with what was once family for me. I don’t begrudge the kids that, I just miss the relationships. Since then I have acquired more extended family filling the void. I worry the kids might get hurt emotionally by the revealing tendencies of the extended family. At the end, things were even more exasperated with the timing of menopause (and andropause).
It’s all good though, once I decide to venture to another place in life. I am at the younger age spectrum for being in old age. I did have a wake-up call when the empty nest and divorce (what Sharon Greenthal calls the result of midlife adolescences) all hit me at one time. Then came my midlife ennui, a phrase coined by psychologist Elliot Jacques. Little did I know about the grace God had in store for me to fill that void with future families from my children’s marriages. Someone leaving can end up for the other person the opportunity to arrive (as Whyte writes in ) to a new place. The greatest difficulty to overcome in a relationship ending is the abandonment of the dreams that was held by the couple for their futureSometimesme those dreams transfer to another partner. Sometimes they become your solo dream.
On one of my graduation announcements, I included George Eliot’s quote: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” Her quote of universal truth has been evoked around the world since the 6th century Taoism: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
Once a minister graphically depicted a picture of divorce during a homily. She took red and blue construction paper and glued them together. Then she ripped them apart and the colors from each page were stuck on the other permanently. People in a marriage make an imprint on each other and not only by having children. Relationships go through stages: first to be dependent on someone, then independent of them and finally the ideal: inter-dependency within a married relationship.
Today, 90% have sex before marriage and 40% (it’s been as high as 58% in recent years) have premarital childbirths. The old saying has changed. “First comes love, then comes baby and followed by marriage, maybe”. That does not say there aren’t successful families when the order of sex is first then followed by marriage. The National Marriage Project and the Institute for Family Studies research show that level of commitment to marriage isn’t gauged anymore by a couple’s status at the county clerk’s office. However, couples who “slide” rather than “decide” their way through life, changing biblical paradigms by practicing living together, having prenuptial sex, then conceive are less likely to report high-quality marriages. Couples who decide rather than slide into marriage because of childbirth are saying “our relationship is important; the public nature of the commitment strengthens our marital quality.”
Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran says it lyrically: “Sing and dance together and be joyous but let each one of you be alone. Even the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Stand together yet not too near together for the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other shadow.” Maintaining a relationship is figuring out how to dance with each other. Gibran’s reputation is dubious, and he loved to write in paradoxes. I can get obsessed with a paradox, an ambiguity, or an oxymoron in communication. They are like nectar to me. I think it is one of the places to find God, somewhere in the tension of the two truths of conflicting paradoxes. The father God of the triunity is unperceivable. He is otherworldly, of the cosmos yet He revealed himself partly through His son. Who could ever conceive of the plan of the crucifixion then resurrection to secure our salvation by giving up his own son? Through Jesus, we get a partial glimpse of who this immanent yet unknowable God.
Today we read about horse whispers or dog whispers. Those who can communicate and relate effectively. Song of Solomon shows different kinds of communication going on between the main characters. It’s their love language to each other. In The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman, outlines ways our affections are communicated or whispered. It is shown with the proclivity of one communicating through giving gifts, sharing quality time, words of affirmation acts of service and physical touch. I shared the idea of love language once with a daughter. She thought what I was talking about was outdated, more of a generational thing, not for today. I disagreed based on personal experience and observations. The aim is for the most effective way to communicate with someone is to speak to them in their love language, not in your own preference. It is a high endeavor to achieve learning how to speak to your special someone in his love language. Without thinking, because it’s so innate, we often speak in our own innate love language. It takes deliberate concentration and sincerity to execute. I spoke so often in my own love language (of helps) that I had to be asked by another to consider complementing with kind words which was their love language. Part of the reason for my proclivity not to compliment came from the growing up where we were not demonstrative in physical or verbal affection. (Not. At. All). I see now my parent’s love was through service. I developed the habit of expressing affection in words once wed along with my love language of service. This love language concept extends itself to all types of relationships, with family members, business associates, and relationships, platonic or otherwise.
While mom was in the nursing home, I would write her letters, along with my visits that included a kiss on top of her head. She didn’t like using cell phones versus the land lines she was used to plus her hearing was diminishing. The letters were chatty ones about family, but I kept it real and would let her know of my personal disappointments and worries. I would say (when I saw her) and reminded her that I loved her. That was when she’d say the sentiment, echo-like.
Then it dawned on me what little affirmation she probably receives at this point in her life if not before. In one letter, I intentionally told her how proud I was of her for never completely quitting on life, and how now at this stage of her life she had managed her plans to be just solvent enough financially to cover her needs. Losing her sense of independence was the hardest thing for her.
A young couple about to celebrate their first anniversary penned this beautiful statement that captures the mystery of love: “A lifetime of ‘I love you’ would hardly put a dent in the depth of what that statement means in actuality.”