Song of Songs – How Great is the Love of God

 How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!
(1 John 3:1-3).

Who can fathom the depths of God’s love? His love is surely beyond human comprehension. In extolling the steadfast and unfailing love of God, the psalmist writes twenty-six times in Psalm 136 “His love endures forever.”

The word of God uses the analogy of marriage, the most intimate of human relationships, to describe God’s love for his people:

“For your Maker is your husband – the LORD Almighty is his name – the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54:5).

The apostle Paul uses the same analogy to describe Christ’s unfailing love for the Church:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless . . . ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:25-32).

Nowhere is the intimate love between God and his people more beautifully expressed than in the Song of Songs. The traditional interpretation, both Jewish and Christian, is that this ancient love song is an allegory of the union between God and his people. Alfred Edersheim notes that in the Talmudic passage (Sheb.35b), the principle is laid down that wherever Solomon is named, except in chapter 8 vs.12, it applies, not to Solomon, but to Him Who was His peace (a play on these words and on the name of Solomon). It is surely no coincidence that the Song of Songs is read at Passover, for woven into this beautiful poem describing the passionate love between a shepherd King and a Shulammite maiden, is the story of God’s unfailing love for his people whom he has redeemed to be his treasured possession with the ultimate sacrifice of the Lamb of God (Titus 2:14, 1 Peter 2:9).

The full extent of God’s love for us is demonstrated in the sacrifice of Jesus who willingly laid down his life to take away our sin: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Yet in spite of this his love is not revealed to all men, for many spurn the love of God revealed through Jesus Christ. Although the events of that Passover so long ago have been retold throughout the world in virtually every known language to every generation yet it remains a profound mystery, revealed only to the meek and contrite in spirit.

Who would not choose to be associated with the King Messiah when he is revealed in all his splendour and majesty? Yet of the Messiah’s first appearing it is written, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). This is how the LORD tests the hearts of his people to set apart a people for himself who are truly devoted to him. The love that is manifested in Jesus Christ is hidden from the wise and learned, yet revealed to little children. It is a love that can only be known by those to whom God reveals it by His Spirit.

At the start of a relationship romantic sentiments often blind people to one another’s faults, but sadly many relationships do not withstand the testing of hardships and disappointments. Their first love is often overshadowed by feelings of disappointment, betrayal, suspicions and doubts. The LORD knew from the beginning that Israel would be unfaithful and he did not demonstrate the full extent of his love until the extent of Israel’s unfaithfulness and unworthiness was fully manifested.

People often have difficulty in reconciling the love of God with the wrath of God. God is love, but his love does not overlook the gravity of our sin, nor allow rebellion to go unpunished. Those whom God loves he chastises and disciplines in order that they may develop godly character. The Rabbis have taught that Sinai represented the marriage covenant between God and his people, but it can be better understood as the betrothal. The Law that was given to Moses provided for outward cleansing but was not able to cleanse the consciences of the worshippers. Before the marriage could be consummated, sin had to be finally dealt with. This is why the LORD spoke through the prophets of a new covenant which he would make, and at which time he would reveal the full extent of his love to the true and faithful Israel of God, those who would be cleansed through the washing of his word. Only then would they really come to know God (Jeremiah 31:34), or rather, be known by him, suggesting the intimacy of the consummation of marriage.

“In that day,” declares the LORD, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked. . . . I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD . . . I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God’” (Hosea 2:16-23).

The bride of Christ makes no secret of the fact that she was defiled and soiled by sin, but she knows the joy of one who has been cleansed, restored and forgiven. Like the Shulammite she speaks with the confidence and assurance of one who is secure in the love of her lover:

“I am very dark, but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon. Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has looked upon me.”

The love described in the Song of Songs is a love that is stronger than death:

“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” (SS 8:5-7).

Likewise, the love revealed through Jesus Christ is a love that is stronger than death: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). We were not redeemed with perishable things such as silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ. His love has conquered death itself:

“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” (Romans 8:39).

Throughout the Song of Songs there is a recurring metaphor of the fragrance of myrrh and other spices, both in relation to the bridegroom and the bride: “Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out” (SS 1:3). This same metaphor is used of the Messiah King in Psalm 45; “All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.”

Myrrh and other fragrant spices were commonly associated with love and with nuptial ceremonies, but were also used to embalm the dead. The connotation with death is clear in the account of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet at the banquet held in his honour at Lazarus’ house:

“Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3).

Mary’s action was the response of one whose heart was overflowing with love for the Saviour. The sanctimonious reaction of Judas Iscariot, incapable of comprehending such pure devotion due to the greed and selfishness of his own heart, was to question the extravagant wastefulness of her deed, feigning concern for the poor. Jesus responded by saying, “Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.”

Many follow Christ with impure motives – for the gifts he bestows rather than for love of the giver. True love is prepared to forsake everything for the sake of finding him and to identify with him in his suffering and humiliation as well as in his glory. The Apostle Paul expressed this longing thus: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10).

In the Epistle to the Ephesians Paul speaks of Christ’s sacrifice as a “fragrant offering” to God (Eph. 5:2). To those who can grasp the infinite love of God in Christ’s death it is the fragrant aroma of new life, but to those who do not believe, it is the stench of death:

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life” (2 Corinthians 2:14).

What one deems more precious than anything this world could possibly offer, another deems worthless. The apostle Peter illustrates this same truth by drawing from the psalms and the prophets:

“‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’ Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,” and, ‘A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall’ ” (1 Peter 2:6-8).

God’s love revealed in Christ remains veiled in mystery, for it is the secret and hidden wisdom of God that appears foolish by the standards of this world. Three times in the Song of Songs the bride says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (Song of Songs 2:7; 3:5 & 8:4).

True love cannot be aroused or awakened by mere romantic sentiments. Some are induced into making a commitment to Christ with emotive words or stirring music, without having really understood Christ in his suffering and death. Such a commitment is often shallow, stemming from selfish desires rather than a genuine love for Christ. At the first sign of persecution their love is abandoned. Many have an idealised view of love that is removed from reality. Even the most ideal relationships must contend with the little foxes that ruin the vineyards (SS 2:15).

Before the trial and crucifixion Peter was full of bravado, imagining that the strength of his devotion to Jesus was such that he would die for him. He neither perceived his own weakness of character nor understood that it was Jesus who must lay down his life as a sacrifice for all. His human frailty and fear was soon exposed, to his utter shame and sorrow, when he denied the Lord three times. When Jesus reinstated Peter he asked him three times, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” True love for God can only be in response to his infinite and overwhelming love shown to us in the sacrifice of Jesus. We are only able to respond to the love of God when his love for us is shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given to those who believe (cf. Romans 5:5). “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Peter was eventually martyred for the sake of Christ, having truly understood this love and having come to trust in God’s strength alone.

The apostle Paul prayed for the believers at Ephesus that they would begin to grasp the extent of God’s love:

“I pray that out of the Father’s glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God”(Ephesians 3:16-19).

True love is proven faithful and steadfast by trials and testing:

“I slept, but my heart was awake. A sound! My beloved is knocking.
‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.’
I had put off my garment; how could I put it on? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them?
My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me.
I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, on the handles of the bolt. I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. The watchmen found me as they went about in the city; they beat me, they bruised me, they took away my veil, those watchmen of the walls.”
 (SS 5:2 7).

The bride is initially slow to respond, having already retired for the night, and when she does open the door she finds that her lover has departed. This can be an allusion to the present time in which Christ has departed and has gone to prepare a place for us. It also serves as an admonishment to believers not to become complacent, having forgotten their first love (cf. Rev 2:4). The Lord desires intimate communion with his people. This is alluded to throughout the Song of Songs: “He has taken me to the banquet hall, and his banner over me is love” (SS 2:4). Every true believer enjoys an intimate and personal relationship with him. Jesus said,

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelations 3:20).

Jesus said to his disciples in anticipation of his death and resurrection,

“I am with you for only a short time, and then I go to the one who sent me. You will look for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come” (John 7:33).

On another occasion he said:

“In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.” . . . Jesus said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:16-28).

While she is left alone she endures the taunts from the other maidens:

“How is your beloved better than others, most beautiful of women? How is your beloved better than others, that you charge us so?…Where has your lover gone, most beautiful of women?” The midrash on this passage suggests that it refers to the nations taunting Israel: Where is your God to help you? (cf. Soncino commentary on Song of songs 6:1). Persecution and trouble for the sake of Christ is the experience of all true believers. The world cannot fathom our devotion to Christ. It has its own demands and seeks to consume all our energy. Often the fiercest opposition and demands for our loyalty come from our own family members: “My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!” (Song 1:6). The prophet Isaiah also writes of the mocking and persecution experienced by those who remain faithful to Christ that comes from their own brethren: “Your brothers who hate you, and exclude you because of my name, have said, ‘Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy!’ Yet they will be put to shame” (Isaiah 66:5).

While her lover has gone to prepare the place where he will take her to be with him forever she is mistreated and beaten by her own countrymen, but she affirms her love and faithfulness to him: “I am my lover’s and my lover is mine; . . .”

The love between Christ and his bride is a love that surpasses all others. This love demands our devotion to the exclusion of all others. We know that we have truly come to love Christ when we love him more than our own fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, children and even our own lives. We know that we love him when we forego worldly pleasures, delighting rather in his presence. We know that we love him when we keep ourselves from being defiled by the world as we await his glorious appearing: “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). The apostle Paul wrote: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (2 Corinthians 11:2). We know that we truly love him when we are so overwhelmed by the love of Christ that we are moved to love our brothers and sisters with the same self-sacrificing love: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16).

Having proven her love and faithfulness the Song of Songs ends with the people asking, “Who is this that appears like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, majestic as the stars?” . . . “Before I realised it, my desire set me among the royal chariots of my people” (SS 6:10;12).

When the shepherd King returns to take his bride he will appear as the King of glory and his bride will appear with him in glory: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelations 21:2).

This is the glorious outcome and certain hope of this divine love song:

“Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints. Then the angel said to me, Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’ And he added, ‘These are the true words of God’”(Revelation 19:6-9).