The Triumph of Love
Scripture: Song of Solomon 8:1–14
1 Oh that you were like a brother to me who nursed at my mother’s breasts! If I found you outside, I would kiss you, and none would despise me. 2 I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother— she who used to teach me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranate. 3 His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me! 4 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases. 5 Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning on her beloved? Under the apple tree I awakened you. There your mother was in labor with you; there she who bore you was in labor. 6 Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD. 7 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised.
This morning we conclude our study of the Song of Songs, a series we’ve entitled The Thrill of Love from the Song of Songs. We’ve seen that this book is about love, specifically romantic love and its physical expression. But we’ve also seen how this aspect of love between a man and a woman is important for us coming to understand the love of God for us.
I want to begin this morning by asking you to consider what the world would be like if love did not exist. It might surprise us to find that a world without love would also be a world without fear. That sounds good, but would you really want to live in a world like that? In the 1995 film, First Knight, King Arthur, played by the late Sean Connery, says to Lancelot, played by Richard Gere, “A man who fears nothing, is a man who loves nothing.” But then he goes on to say, “But if a man loves nothing, what joy would there be in his life?” So, yes, love may be a struggle, whether in your marriage or in your relationship with God. But it is worth it, because love is the pathway of life with all its joys.
This morning, as we look at the last chapter of the Song of Songs, I want us to see that love is worth all the effort. It is worth the effort because love is expressive, fierce, and enduring.
Love Is Expressive
The first thing I want us to consider is that love is expressive. Now, it certainly expresses itself in all kinds of ways. But the one thing love cannot be is silent. It is too wonderful, too full of emotion and desire and passion, to keep it contained within itself.
We see this in verse 1. “Oh that you were like a brother to me who nursed at my mother’s breasts! If I found you outside, I would kiss you, and none would despise me” (Song of Songs 8:1). You understand what is going on here. The woman is expressing her desire and her passion for her beloved even as it bumps up against cultural expectations. She intimates that in her society, public displays of romantic affection were frowned upon. If only her beloved were her brother, she could show a little PDA and get away with it.
The point is that what she feels for her beloved is real love, and love has to express itself. It has to get out. And often that means it has to get physical, which means it has to risk the shame of the public gaze. Even if there is a time and place for it, and now is not the time, the woman here still feels this way about her beloved and wants him to know it. And when she says at the end of verse 1, “and none would despise me,” she’s referring to the shame that comes from cultural expectations. But the love she has for her beloved is a love that is unashamed and willing to challenge those expectations.
She continues in this way of speaking in verse 2. If only her lover were her brother, not only could she be permitted to show some PDA in public, but she could also bring him into the privacy of her home without raising any eyebrows. Of course, the reason she wants to bring him into the private place is precisely so she can be intimate with him, as the erotic language at the end of verse 2 and in verse 3 indicates.
In verse 4, we find the third, and final, occurrence of the adjuration to the daughters of Jerusalem. If we compare it to the last time we saw it, back in Song of Songs chapter 3, we might notice something similar with the present passage. In both passages, we see the woman desiring, longing, and seeking to find her lover and bring him in to her mother’s house and make love with him. But in chapter 3, this desire is impeded by the watchmen. If the watchmen in chapter 3 can be taken to refer to societal norms about gender and sexual expression, then we find the same thing here in chapter 8.
Societal norms may be good and right, of course. The passage is not necessarily encouraging us to break them. It certainly must not be taken as an encouragement toward a transgressive view of sexuality and gender so applauded in our cultural context. And as Christians, love of neighbor requires the wisdom of knowing how to behave properly even within marriage.
But societal norms may also be bad and wrong. What is considered inappropriate might need to be challenged. It might just be the case that some here have lived in homes where your mother or father just weren’t very expressive. They rarely if ever looked you in the eyes and said, “I love you.” It just wasn’t appropriate to be that expressive. Now that is a shame.
And, for whatever reason, it is all too common for married couples to speak in a derogatory manner about each other in public, for a husband to refer to his spouse as “the wife.” You know what I mean? Maybe it would do you good, men, to call her “my love” rather than “the wife.” Maybe, just maybe, it would do you married couples some good in your homes to be a bit more expressive, dare I say inappropriate, around your kids so that they learn how appropriate it is for married couples to feel this way about each other.
When it comes to God, it might also do us some good to be a bit more expressive in public, too. Raise your hands in worship, perhaps. Get a little dance in your body while you sing? Say “amen” once or twice? Clap just a little bit? I don’t know. But it just might help stir up love.
Love Is Fierce
But doesn’t verse 4 say not to “stir up or awaken love until it pleases”? I’m glad you asked! Because we need to remember that the love we are looking for—the love we were made for—while it is expressive, it is also fierce. There is no sentimentality here. This love we are talking about is the greatest power in the world.
A Final Warning
So, verse 4 warns not to “stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” In verse 5, we find the same Hebrew word for “awaken” as we find in the adjuration in verse 4. The word means “to wake up” or “to excite.” The women of Jerusalem, and us the readers, have been strongly warned now, three times in the Song, not to “wake up” or “excite” love, but to wait for it to come. That’s good marriage advice, of course. Don’t force a relationship just because you want love. Love is a great thing. But we must not try to manufacture it. Otherwise, it will sting you. It will disappoint you.
It’s true with God as well. Some, seeing how much others enjoy a loving relationship with God, might try to manufacture it, and end up disappointed and disillusioned. If you thought you could find love with God just by doing the same things other Christians do who love God, going to church, reading the Bible, praying—you know the list—do not be surprised if you seem to have come up short. Love does not quite work like that. You can’t manufacture it.
What, then, can we do? Let’s keep reading.
I think the speaker in the first part of verse 5 is the chorus, the daughters of Jerusalem, and us, the readers. They—we—are responding to the adjuration in verse 4. Verse 5 is very similar to the verse that followed the previous adjuration in Song of Songs 3:5. There, the next verse begins, “What is that coming up from the wilderness?” (Song of Songs 3:6). Here we again look out to the wilderness and see the woman “leaning on her beloved.” And then, we listen in on what she says to her lover. “Under the apple tree I awakened you.” There it is. What happens, then, when love is aroused, awakened, excited? This is also the answer to the question we’ve been asking all along, the question about how to find the love we’re looking for when we have been warned not to manufacture it.
Something remarkable happens here at verse 6 and in verse 7. Love has, for the woman, been aroused, and it is at this point that we find the only instructive pronouncement in the entire Song. Something like the thesis statement, “what the poet has been showing us all along.” Let’s listen to her:
“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.” Notice carefully what she says. She does not say, “Put a seal on your heart for me,” as if she wants there to be some symbol of the love she and her beloved share. Rather, she says, “Set me as a seal upon your heart.” She is asking to be the seal, the mark of his very own identity. She is asking him to make her “as intimately bound up with his identity, as his seal might be.”
“How romantic,” you might say. Well, yes. But don’t you see what this means? The woman is asking her lover “to take full possession of her.” In doing so, she will have full ownership of him, having been set as a seal on his heart and on his arm, on his whole person. This is what love requires, indeed, what love demands. It requires and demands a whole-life commitment.
This becomes even clearer in what we read next: “for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave.” Right here, at this crucial moment in the Song, the woman has personified love, turning it into “a force that contends with cosmic powers.” And she seems to be telling us that we must not give ourselves to anything we might call “love” except this one that is strong enough to go toe-to-toe with the greatest foe of humanity, to death itself. The second line makes the point in parallel. “Jealousy” is another word for love as the grave is for death. Here is the real cosmic battle going on day after day. It is not the battle between life and death, but rather the battle between love and death.
As one commentator has put it, “That love and death are indeed involved in a struggle is vividly illustrated in the fact that both are trying “to possess the same object, the loved one.” Every single day, death is pulling at you with a gravitational force that you know will eventually prevail over you. But there is a rival power, a power that is “strong as death.” And that power is love.
The Flame of God
The final lines of verse 6 tells us that the “flashes” of love “are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD.” Nowhere else in the Song of Songs do we find mention of God’s personal name, and it may only be used here to turn the word flame into a superlative, “a mighty flame” as the NIV translates it. Regardless, the point is to continue to paint the picture for us that love is fierce, intense, dangerous. Dangerous enough to threaten death itself.
Now we see why the Bible says that God is love. Because, God is trying to possess us, the people he made, the people he loves. And that quest to possess us is life itself. Should God not succeed in his quest, the only result is to be possessed by death. So, because God is love, God must also be jealous. Only in marriage and in God’s relationship with us is jealousy not only appropriate but absolutely essential. If God stops being jealous for us, we die.
That’s how fierce real love is. Yes, love is a struggle. Yes, it can burn you. And many people give up on God for the same reasons they give up on their marriages. It’s just too hard, too painful, to love him anymore. But where else will you go? Where else will you look for love? As C. S. Lewis wrote, “The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
Love Is Enduring
Yes, love is a struggle. But to love God is worth the struggle. Because God is love, and “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor 13:7-8). Love is expressive and fierce, but it is also enduring.
Life Out of Chaos
Let’s look now at verse 7. “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” This is a clear symbol in the ancient world of about absolute chaos and destruction. In Genesis 1, we are told that God created the heavens and the earth, but the earth was without form and void. Complete chaos. No life. Just destruction and chaos. What could possibly come out of all this?
And the Bible’s answer is that life is what can come out of it. But how? Here’s how: “And God said…” You see, when God speaks, worlds come into existence, teeming with life. The world did not come into existence by random chance but by love. And the new world, the new creation will also not happen by random chance; it will also come about by the love of God, a love that simply has to express itself.
Ready for Love
The woman is the speaker in verses 8-9. The “little sister” is a foil to let her say something about herself. And what she says about herself is in verse 9, where she says that she does not need to make preparations for love; she is ready for love because she has met and committed herself to her lover.
And the result of that commitment is peace, shalom (v. 10). It is Solomonic prosperity. When we encounter the love that we were made for, we must give ourselves to it, because it is the love of God that we were made for.
Worth the Cost
The man speaks in verses 11-13, using his own foil of Solomon’s vineyard to say something about himself. Solomon’s vineyard may well refer to his royal harem. If so, Solomon had quite a vineyard! And in order for Solomon to maintain this vineyard, he needed a lot of guards. It would cost him a lot to keep it going!
But the man is saying, “Solomon may have his vineyard, but I have mine as well. Solomon can have his thousand, but I found my one, and I’ll give everything to have it for myself.” That’s what lovers say. And when a person comes to see who Jesus is and what he has done, bringing into reality the kingdom of God—an everlasting kingdom that will not end and will go toe-to-toe with death itself, and prevail—that person will give themselves to him completely. And why not? There’s nothing left to lose when you’ve come into a kingdom that will never end.
The song ends with the female voice saying, “make haste, my beloved.” But the verb here means “flee” or “run away.” The Song ends with the woman telling the man to flee, but it is unclear if she is telling him to flee away from her or flee to her. The ambiguity is intentional. “Thus, again, we get a pattern that we have seen and will see repeated numerous times in the Song: absence and longing leads to search and discovery, which results in intimacy and joy.”
The ending also invites us then to go back to chapter one and let the Song start all over again. It’s an eternal song. This is a song we must keep going, forever. Because the song of love is the only way to live.
Let us keep singing this song, a message of love to sing to one another and to the world, a love that is strong as death and will triumph in the end.
 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 156.