Great Texts of the Bible
In Praise of Love
Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm:
For love is strong as death;
Jealousy is cruel as the grave:
The flashes thereof are flashes of fire,
A very flame of the Lord.
Many waters cannot quench love,
Neither can the floods drown it:
If a man would give all the substance of his house for love,
He would utterly be contemned.—Song of Solomon 8:6-7Literature furnishes no eulogy of love more splendid than this. Some of the clauses have passed into proverbs, and are often upon the lips. Such language as this has been adopted as their own by those ardent souls with whom piety is a passion, and for whom the love of God consumes all earthly emotion and desire. Here is love not simply, and not mainly, as it shows itself in our imperfect affections for each other, but as an universal and Divine principle, the motive and supreme principle of universal being; of the love which is from God, the love which is God and in which He dwells; the love in which if we dwell, God dwells in us and we in Him. And, taken in this high sense, the hymn is surely no unworthy precursor, no mean rival even, of St. Paul’s noble and famous song in praise of charity.
The vigour, one might say the rigour, of the passage distinguishes it from nearly all other poetry devoted to the praises of love. That poetry is usually soft and tender; sometimes it is feeble and sugary. And yet it must be remembered that even the classical Aphrodite could be terribly angry. There is nothing morbid or sentimental in the Shulammite’s ideas. She has discovered and proved by experience that love is a mighty force, capable of heroic endurance, and able, when wronged, to avenge itself with serious effect.1 [Note: W. F. Adeney.]
The Demand of Love
“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm.”
The seal is the signet-ring which was sometimes carried by a string on the breast, and sometimes worn on the hand. Specially prized possessions in the way of jewels or ornaments used to be worn by the natives of Palestine, and perhaps are still, firmly sealed upon the person to prevent their being lost, stolen, or snatched away. Anything sealed in this way, whether an object of intrinsic value or not, was always precious in the eyes of the owner above all the other articles constituting the store of his worldly goods. It might be so regarded for old association’s sake as a token of special favour conferred or of honour gained, just as we to-day might wear an armlet, a ring, a locket round the neck, or some order or decoration on the breast denoting the status or exploits of the person thus distinguished. The point of every such proceeding is, of course, that there is a close individual connexion between the life of the wearer and that which is indicated by the object worn.
1. The seal is to be set upon the heart. Begin at the heart if you would begin wisely; begin metaphysically, begin a long way from the visible, the concrete, and what is called the practical—poorest, meanest of the little heaps of dust that gather around the feet of our pilgrimage! We must have Christ in the heart, a great secret, a solemn yet joyful silence. Christ and the heart must have tender communion; they have festive times that are not marked on the calendar; they muse together, they ask questions of one another, then come more intimately near; in the soul there is a mystic wedding, without which any other wedding is an oath broken at the altar.
An ancient writer said, “Christ seals us in the heart, that we may love Him; in the forehead, that we may confess Him; in the hand, that we may profess Him, and that we may practise what we profess.” Over this love time and death have no power. It burns brighter when the lamp of life burns low; it breaks forth in perfect lustre when, beyond this murky atmosphere of earth, it reaches the clear air of heaven.
2. Then set this seal upon the arm. There is a time for protest, confession, public confession of the Eternal Name; there is a ministry of symbolism; there is a way of walking which shows that the pilgrim has a sanctuary in view; there is a mysterious influence upon the attitude, the figure, the dress, the whole tone and the speech of the life. What is it? We often call it the profession of the Name of Christ. Some of us would perhaps under certain circumstances turn our clothing so that we could conceal the seal from everybody; but there is a way to be equally detested, and that is an opening and showing of the seal as if making an investment and testimonial and credential of it. There is another way, the way of true modesty, gentle but invincible love that is not ashamed of Jesus or ashamed of the Christian seal.
The high priest of old had the names of all the tribes of Israel upon his breastplate, he also carried them upon his shoulders. He was a type or representative of our great High Priest, who bears our names upon His breast, the seat of His affections; the shoulders indicating His mighty power to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by Him.
My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.1 [Note: C. W. Lepper, The Bridegroom and His Bride, 237.]
The Strength of Love
“For love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave.”
1. The meaning of this clause is obscured by the translation. The word “jealousy” should be “love”—love regarded in its ardour and inexorable force, the love that can neither yield nor share possession of its object. The word rendered “cruel” indicates the tenacity of this ardent affection, not its cruelty; it implies, not that it will torture its object, but that it will never let it go. And the word rendered “grave” is “Sheol,” the Hebrew name for that invisible underworld which so distinctly refuses to yield back the spirits which have once descended into it. So that, as we have no such synonym for the word “love” as the Hebrew use it here, we had better, to avoid repeating the same word, omit it from the second line altogether, and translate the whole distich thus:—“For love is strong as death, tenacious as Hades itself.” And, obviously, what the poet intends is to set forth this master-passion of the soul as an elemental principle of being, the sole power in us which is capable of coping with death and Hades, and of overcoming them.
This is a wonderful statement, when we remember that at the time it was spoken people looked upon death as practically the end of everything. The Hebrew Sheol was a dismal place, the place of all departed souls, bad and good, and without much that was hopeful or interesting in the kind of existence it allowed. In the later and higher developments of Jewish thought about the state of the so-called dead, some attempt was made to differentiate between the lot of the righteous and that of the wicked in this gloomy underworld. But it was not so at first, and it is very doubtful if it was so even at the time this text was written. It was believed that at death the Divine principle—the breath of God, as it were—was withdrawn from the human personality which, thus bereft, though it went on living in Sheol, did so without experiencing any of the former zest and joy of life; it was but a poor, shadowy, attenuated sort of existence that was left to the soul deprived of the body and of the animating spirit of God. Hence, the thought of death was always a sad one to these people, and was to them synonymous with the end of everything worth calling life so far as the individual was concerned.1 [Note: R. J. Campbell, in The Christian Commonwealth, Nov. 13, 1912.]
2. But the poet says truly that love is strong as death, tenacious as the grave. That which we love in any one is the eternal, and love once manifest can never die or even diminish, whatever may be its fate on earth through the mutability and inconstancy of our fleshly nature; the rapport once established is indestructible; the affinity must fulfil itself as surely as the rosy light of the dawn must culminate in the splendour of the sun’s meridian. Did any one ever yet dare to say that they would love friend, wife, husband, sweetheart, child, for just a certain length of time, and that then that love should altogether cease to be? By the exigencies of its very nature it takes for granted that it is eternal. Whenever it is true and noble—and, indeed, in proportion to its nobility and truth—it deepens and strengthens as the days go on. It implies, all the more the truer and nobler it is, the interlinking and interdependence of thought and heart and character. This is apart from all mere external circumstances; it is a phenomenon of our being—soul linked with soul; it is a spiritual fact, not a temporal one. And what has it to do with the chance of passing accidents of space and time? The stars may shine in brightness or be wrapped in gloom. Two living beings may be together with joy or separated with sadness by a vast expanse of rolling sea; the sun may be shining above them, or the storms may be out; variations of joy or sorrow may pass over them according to the blessings or trials of life—the blessings of nearness, or the trials of separation; but one thing remains untouched by circumstance, unsubdued by change; soul is bound to soul—they love. Here is a phenomenon above all changeful accident; here is a fact perfectly human, yet really Divine; here is an assertion, if ever there can be one, of eternity; here is a power which smiles, even if it be through tears, at the accident of death. Love, the strongest as well as the most lovely thing known to human experience, is “as strong as death”—nay, stronger; and it asserts the life beyond the grave.
Death is an accident in immortality, a terrible accident, a heartbreaking accident if you like, but still an accident; and do you think that that immortal thing which has descended sun-flushed from the heart of the Creator, and illuminated and glorified and possessed the life of an immortal, can trouble to stand bandying words with a mere accident in immortality? “Love is as strong as death.” Why, the wise man has spoken with a cautious restraint. We may surely say that love is stronger than death and mightier than the grave.1 [Note: Canon Knox Little, The Outlook of the Soul, 333.]
Dante says, in one of the finest passages of the Purgatorio, that it is love that evokes individuality and compels it to its highest and best, and in so doing draws it home to God. The whole of the Divine Comedy is, in fact, the allegorical story of the poet’s own salvation through the upward reaching power of a great personal love. He shows this love as greater and stronger than both the lust of the flesh and the gates of hell, triumphing over every force that would tend to degrade or destroy it. He makes Beatrice speaks thus from heaven:
When from the flesh to spirit I ascended,
And beauty and virtue were in me increased,
I was to him less dear and less delightful;
And into ways untrue he turned his steps,
Pursuing the false images of good,
That never any promises fulfil;
Nor prayer for inspiration me availed,
By means of which in dreams and otherwise
I called him back, so little did he heed them.
So low he fell, that all appliances
For his salvation were already short,
Save showing him the people of perdition.
For this I visited the gates of death,
And unto him, who so far up has led him,
My intercessions were with weeping borne.
The thought here is, as you see, that a mighty and unquenchable human love becomes God’s instrument on both sides of the grave for disgusting the soul with the filthiness of the flesh, refining its dross, and enabling it to fulfil itself in the eternal bliss.1 [Note: R. J. Campbell, in The Christian Commonwealth, Nov. 13, 1912.]
In Rossetti’s sweet poem, The Blessed Damozel, the poet pictures a maiden in paradise, with whom the ten years which have passed since she left her earthly home had scarcely seemed a single day, for time is not there what it is here. But she does not give herself up much to the enjoyment of her surroundings; her heart is filled with the memory of one she has left behind mourning her loss; and amid all the delights of the higher work she is thinking, thinking, thinking of him and planning what they will do together when he rejoins her:
She gazed and listened and then said,
Less sad of speech than mild,—
“All this is when he comes.” She ceased.
The light thrilled towards her, fill’d
With angels in strong level flight.
Her eyes prayed, and she smil’d.
(I saw her smile.) But soon their path
Was vague in distant spheres:
And then she cast her arms along
The golden barriers,
And laid her face between her hands,
And wept. (I heard her tears.)
Yes, there was room for tears, in spite of all the gladness, for she wanted him there before heaven could quite be heaven.1 [Note: R. J. Campbell.]
The Origin of Love
“The flashes thereof are flashes of fire, a very flame of the Lord.”
This is the only place in which the name of God appears throughout the whole poem. The “flame of the Lord” may be compared with “the voice of the Lord,” which is described in Hebrew poetry as connected with the fury of the storm. The flame, therefore, would be lightning and the voice thunder.
1. It is startling to find such lofty teaching in an age when polygamy was still tolerated, and in a land where, after centuries of religion, woman was commonly regarded as man’s servant and plaything, and even as a creature incapable of knowing God’s law. The light shed by the Song on the heavenly origin and significance of true love amply justifies its inclusion in the record of Divine revelation, and gives it a place of pre-eminence in the poetry of the ancient and the modern world. Other elements in human passion have been analysed and embodied in many a creation of literary genius, but it is strange that the highest element of all should have been most neglected. What other thing in love can be so ennobling as the consciousness that, in that experience, God Himself is present, to bring us into actual relation with the unseen and eternal.
In the poems of Sappho and Anacreon, of Catullus and Virgil, Horace and Ovid, you see at once the gulf that separates their representations of love from that of the Hebrew poem. With them love is a human passion, beautiful, happy-making, ecstatic, or tormenting, maddening, tragic, a prism that breaks up the light of human feeling into manifold colours bright and dark; with the author of the Canticle, love is the immediate presence of the living God in a human life raised by an inspired affection to a loftier plane of moral being. No doubt in the noble dramatic literature of Greece, for example in the Antigone and in Alcestis, the higher moral and religious aspects of human affection are recognized; but, for the most part, classic literature associates love with the gods or goddesses only in an ornamental and mythological fashion, and shows no trace of the faith and ethic so characteristic of the Song. The classic writers say, not with the Shulamite, but with the Chorus:
Among all the delights how fair
And how passing pleasant is love.
Even Shakespeare’s miraculous fabric of Sonnets and Plays, resplendent with a thousand lights on human thought and feeling, gives no indication of the higher teaching of the Canticle. With the exception of Dante, the Brownings, and a few others, poets in the Christian era have seldom expressed appreciation of the immediate presence of God in all true love between man and woman, and of the lofty ethic to which this faith gives birth.1 [Note: H. Falconer, The Maid of Shulam, 107.]
2. If the heart be opened to that mightiest of mighty motives, the love of God, then there is a new force in human life, powerful enough to withstand many an onslaught of the fiercest temptation. Love, after all, is a personal matter. We never really love things; persons alone we love. We can stand and withstand; we can work and suffer, and even die, if the stimulus for action or the stimulus for endurance comes from a great love; and in the mystic arena of the spiritual life, where battles the severest and most deadly are fought out to severe conclusions, if strength be a duty, if we are to do with our might that which indeed we find to do, then, let us remember, no effort is foolish or futile which is made to throw open our understanding, our heart, or our will, to that mighty energy, “the love of God.”
Since penalties so fearful
Thou didst to sin award,
How can our heart be cheerful,
How can we love Thee, Lord?
Because Thou still art gracious,
Lord, even in Thine ire,
Round blissful Heaven spacious
It is protective fire.
Fear makes our souls the fitter
To prize Thy love and Thee;
For if the curse be bitter
Sweet must the blessing be;
Oh, sweet to hear Thee saying,
Peace, heart, be ever still;
Oh! sweet the full obeying
Of Thine eternal will.
To Thee our heart is crying
Amid deceiving sin,
And worldly fears defying
The faith that rules within.
We from estranging error
Our love to Thee would guard;
To us the chiefest terror
Is lest we lose Thee, Lord.
The Unquenchableness of Love
“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”
This represents the Divine principle of love as triumphing by its inherent might over all the forces that oppose or may oppose it. Fire is the symbol of love, and therefore its antagonistic element, water, is used to set forth the powers that are hostile to love, but which must in the end be overcome by it. You can extinguish flame with water, if only you can pour on a sufficient quantity; but this flame of love no amount of coldness or opposition will cool in the least degree. Let Satan and his legions do their very utmost to lessen the intensity of this heavenly flame, their labour is vain. They only prepare for themselves a bitter disappointment. Or let the Hoods of human vice and human antagonism rise as they may, they can never rise as high as this heavenly flame. The finite can never overmaster the Infinite. The love of God to men is a sacred principle, an integral part of the Divine nature. There is nothing outside God to be compared in potency with what is within Him. As the creature can never be a match for the Creator, so no kind of opposition can ever injure or diminish the eternal love of God. Just as nothing on earth or in hell can diminish God’s power or tarnish His righteousness, so also nothing can lessen or dim the fervent flame of His eternal pity. “Many waters cannot quench love”; yea, love turns all human hatred into fresh coals to feed the flame.
Do we not read in the Pilgrim’s Progress how the enemy was seeking to extinguish the fire by pouring on pails of water; it became a matter of astonishment how the fire continued to burn, even with greater vehemence. But the Interpreter explained the secret, seeing that from behind the scene there was another hand pouring oil upon the flame. So it is with the Bride of Christ. There is much to discourage her. There is much to cool her ardour. There are many who would drown her love if they could, but, thanks be unto God, it lives on. She survives all.
The Unpurchasable Sanctity of Love
“If a man would give all the substance of his house for love, he would utterly be contemned.”
1. The thought of this final distich is the sacredness of love. It is not a commodity to be bought or sold in the market; no money can purchase an affection so priceless, because so holy and Divine.
One reading of this passage is, “If a man would give all the substance of his house instead of love, he would be utterly contemned.” The Lord does not want our gold. The gold and the silver are His. He wants ourselves; and if He gets us, our two mites or our two millions will soon go into His treasury. There appears to be a great lack of means for missionaries and others at the present time. The question is often asked, “Why is it so?” Various answers are given, but the true answer is the lack of that consuming love which will place our all at the feet of Him who sold all that He had that He might win us to Himself. If we give our substance, vainly thinking the Lord will accept of us because of our offering, it is a gross mistake. He wants not ours, but us. What God requires is that we first take His gift, His unspeakable gift, and then lay ourselves without reserve at the feet that once bled for us. If we do, all else will follow. “First they gave their own selves to the Lord.” This is the primary offering, but if truly laid upon the altar it includes all the rest.
Love is by nature outgoing, enlarging, quickening. The sign of its genuine arrival is seen in one’s longing to share with others an outreaching in sympathy and joy. Those who fail to move outward and forward into completer life are inevitably drawn in the opposite direction. But the one who responds, moving outward with the new wave of life, finds the possibilities of existence developing without limit. This quickening power of love, delighting us by its noble surprises, is the greatest wonder of the heart.1 [Note: H. W. Dresser, Human Efficiency.]
2. If love is to be purchased, it is love and not money that must be paid for it; “the substance of a man’s house” is no equivalent for the priceless treasure. Gratitude and service may be bought, but love is beyond the value of jewels and of gold. We are taken into another region than that of market value and of merchandise.
John Woolman’s gift was love,—a charity of which it does not enter into the natural heart of man to conceive, and of which the more ordinary experiences, even of renewed nature, give but a faint shadow. Every now and then, in the world’s history, we meet with such men, the kings and priests of Humanity, on whose heads this precious ointment has been so poured forth that it has run down to the skirts of their clothing, and extended over the whole of the visible creation; men who have entered, like Francis of Assisi, into the secret of that deep amity with God and with His creatures which makes man to be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field to be at peace with him. In this pure, universal charity there is nothing fitful or intermittent, nothing that comes and goes in showers and gleams and sunbursts. Its springs are deep and constant, its rising is like that of a mighty river, its very overflow calm and steady, leaving life and fertility behind it.2 [Note: Dora Greenwell.]
There may be many things that pertain to a Christian man, and yet all those things are contained in this one thing, that is love; he lappeth up all things in love. Our whole duty is contained in these words, “Love together.” Therefore, St. Paul saith, “He that loveth another fulfilleth the law”; so it appeareth that all things are contained in this word “love.” This love is a precious thing: our Saviour saith, “By this all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye shall have love one to another.” So that He maketh love His cognizance, His badge, His livery. Like as every lord, most commonly, giveth a certain livery to his servants, whereby they may be known that they pertain unto him; and so we say, “Yonder is this lord’s servant,” because he weareth his livery; so our Saviour, which is Lord above all lords, would have His servants to be known by their liveries and badge, which badge is love. Whosoever now is endued with love and charity is His servant; him we may call Christ’s servant, for love is the token whereby you shall know such a servant that pertaineth to Christ; so that charity may be called the very livery of Christ; he that hath charity is Christ’s servant.1 [Note: Bishop Hugh Latimer, Sermons.]