Passionate Love: a reflection for Valentine’s Day

The Song of Solomon is an incredibly erotic book. Largely ‘Bowdlerised’ in our English versions, the language is actually very strong.  No more so is than in Song of Solomon 8.5-7 NRSV – described by Tremper Longman III as “the most memorable of the whole book”.

“Under the apple tree I awakened you” (v5) declares the woman. It sounds pretty tame stuff – until we turn to the commentaries. There we discover that it is all about sex, for in the cultures of the Near East the apple tree was a great symbol of fertility. It was there, under the apple tree, that the girl aroused her lover. It was there that they stripped off and made passionate love to one another. In so doing they were but following the example of the man’s parents, for it was under the same oak tree that his mother had conceived (Tremper Longman suggests that the English translations which speak of birth are probably incorrect). It may come as a surprise to some people outside the church – or even inside the church – that the Bible never advocates Platonic love. Even the Apostle Paul urged his converts not to engage in sexual abstinence, once they were married. Young people – and not so young people – will love one another. They will love one another passionately. That’s a fact of life.  God has made us to mate.

But God doesn’t want us to love one another indiscriminately. When it comes to passionate sex, God wants us to love one another only within the context of a committed relationship. This is the context in which the woman says to her lover: “Set me as a seal over your heart, as a seal on your arm” (v6). A seal is a sign of commitment and of belonging. In the Ancient Near East there were two types of clay seals: the stamp and the cylinder. Both were symbols of possession. The woman is saying here “possess me” – not just in a one night stand, but” possess me forever”. “Take me, own me, make me yours”. Gosh, it must have been a leap year!

For all the love-making under the apple tree, the woman is a little old-fashioned, when it comes to the seal or sign of belonging. And of course, that is the way in which marriage used to be; there was only one ring. The man owned the woman. She belonged to him. Thank God, we have moved on – we now have two rings. A couple belong to one another.

“Set me as a seal over your heart” (v6). The heart in those days was deemed to be the place where you not only loved, but you also thought. Make me, says the woman, the centre of your inner world. “Set me as a seal….upon your arm” (v6). She is not talking about walking out together, arm in arm.  No the arm is a symbol of the man’s actions. “Not just in your thoughts, but also in your actions make me the centre of your world”. She doesn’t want just to live with the guy. She doesn’t’ just want sex; nor does she just want companionship.  She wants commitment and security – she wants marriage!

It has been said: ‘Love is the whole history of a woman’s life; it is only an episode in man’s’ (Anna Louise de Stael):  i.e. a man may often compartmentalize his life so that he devotes his full attention to each of his interests in turn, whereas a woman can multi-task; her love relationship suffuses every part of her existence, job, career whatever.  Perhaps this kind of thinking lies behind the woman’s intense pleading to the man to own her, well and truly.

Within the context of this passionate, intense, jealous form of loving, three statements are made about love:

  1. “Love is as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave” (v6).  The point is this: we all have to die.  But just as nothing can stop death, so nothing can come in the way of true love.  True love is irresistible, unshakeable, totally resolute.
  2. “Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” (v6)  The “fire” and “flame” represent the intensity of passionate love. Scholars tell think there may well be a reference to the divine name:  true love is ‘God-awful’ – it burns with such fearful heat, that nothing can put it out.  The “waters” and the “floods represent the disappointments and difficulties of life: where there is true love and passionate commitment, there is nothing in this life which can undo the bond.
  3. “If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s home, it would be utterly scorned” (v7). Sex can be bought any night of the week, but love is more than anything money can buy. Money can buy many things – but it cannot buy the heart.

True love must not be confused with the ‘schmalz’ of Valentine’s Day. Love – the love that really counts – is as strong, if  not stronger (so Tremper Longman), than death; burns more strongly than fire; and is worth more than anything money can buy.

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