Love and Death
Song of Songs 8:5–7
Daughters of Jerusalem
5 Who is this coming up from the wilderness,
supporting herself upon her beloved?
Under the apple tree, I aroused you;
there your mother conceived you;
there she conceived,
she who brought you forth.
6 Set me like a seal upon your heart,
like a seal upon your arm.
For love is as strong as Death,
jealousy is as intense as Sheol.
Its flames are flames of fire,
an Almighty flame!
7 Many waters are not able to extinguish love,
and rivers cannot drown it.
Even if a man should give all the wealth of his house as the price of love,
he would be utterly scorned.
What is love? There are plenty of potential answers to that question in the world of popular culture. According to the rock singer Pat Benatar, love is a battlefield. Many of us can relate to that perspective, especially those who have been married for a while. Just as no one has the same power to bless and encourage you as your spouse, so, too, no one else has the power of a spouse to provoke, exasperate, or even hurt you deeply. Love is not an easy pathway to tread.
On the other hand, if you believe singer Bette Midler, love is a seed hiding beneath the “bitter snows” that when exposed to the sunshine in the spring will finally become a rose. As a gardener, I find that analogy horticulturally suspect. The chances of someone’s planting a seed in the fall and getting a rose in the spring are about on a par with finding Jack’s magic beans that grow into a cloud-rending beanstalk. In the real world, roses are grafted onto existing stems and bought from nurseries, not grown from seed. But if we may deconstruct Ms. Midler, perhaps that is precisely the point of the song: love is beautiful and desirable but in the end ultimately elusive, as legendary and hard to find in this broken world as leprechauns, unicorns—and roses grown from seed. Some can probably relate to that perspective on love as well. Maybe you find it emotionally difficult to attend weddings, because when you watch the bride and groom’s love for each other, you find it hard to imagine that something like that could ever happen for you.
Another definition of love comes from Bruce Lee, the master of martial arts, who once observed:
Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.
I don’t know if Mr. Lee ever read the Bible, but “friendship caught on fire” is a good summary of the love that we have seen described in the Song of Songs. Yet there are aspects of the other definitions in the passage as well. Fire is very pretty, but the coals can burn as well as warm; a rose is one of the most beautiful of flowers, but roses have thorns as well as blooms; battlefields can be places of memorable triumphs, but battlefields can also be scenes of bitter defeat and awful death. So, too, throughout the Song, we have seen the most glorious descriptions of love side by side with stern warnings against stirring up love too soon. In this passage, as we reach the poetic climax of the Song, the glory and pain of love are once again starkly portrayed side by side in a series of distinct but related images.
Who Is This Coming Up from the Wilderness?
The passage begins with the woman coming up from the wilderness (Song 8:5). This is the second time in the Song that we have heard the exclamation “Who is this coming up from the wilderness?” Last time, in chapter 3, it described the woman coming to meet her beloved for their wedding. Now, at the end of the poem, it depicts her once again coming up from the wilderness. This time she is no longer alone, though: she is leaning on the arm of her beloved. Love starts its sequence with the wedding march, in which the woman emerges from the wilderness—the place of wandering, danger, and death—and comes to the safety of the promised land, accompanied and protected by her beloved. This is one beautiful image for love: a journey that leads from loneliness, emptiness, and chaos into a new life of blessing and hope.
The second image depicts the woman gazing at an apple tree (Song 8:5). In chapter 2, in a passage where she spoke frankly of her desire to sleep with the man, the woman described the man as an apple tree under whose shade she desired to sit and whose fruit she longed to eat. Here the metaphor is shifted slightly: the apple tree is now described as the place where she first aroused her lover. What she told the daughters of Jerusalem not to do until it was ready—arouse love—is exactly what she did at the right time with the man. Because they waited until the appropriate season, their first union under the apple tree is a joyful memory, without need for guilt, remorse, or regret. Here is the second element in the sequence of love: sex, which appropriately takes place after marriage.
Even in its proper context, though, the apple tree of sexual love still has its own pains—in this case, the ones that come with childbirth. The apple tree where she aroused him is, she says, the same place where his own mother labored in childbirth with him (Song 8:5). This statement should not be taken literally, of course. People didn’t normally give birth to children under trees in antiquity any more than they do now. But the apple tree is a poetic reminder that love and marriage generally do lead to the joy and the pain of childbirth: the outrageous joy of having a child to carry on the family line, which was at the same time intimately united with the excruciating pain of childbirth without the benefit of modern anesthetics. Pain in childbirth was part of the curse on humanity that resulted from the fall (Gen. 3:16). Ever since that time, love and pain belong inextricably together as one generation succeeds the next. This, then, is the third element in the sequence: marriage, sex, babies.
Yet there is more to life than weddings, sex, and babies. Love is not just a sweet union of two souls journeying peacefully from the wilderness into the promised land of family life. It is a lifelong and unique commitment, an insatiable appetite that cannot be tamed, placated, bought, or sold. We have seen some of these challenges on our journey through the Song of Songs. Love demands to possess its beloved and to be possessed by him in a unique way. This is expressed by the woman’s desire to become a seal on the man’s heart and on his arm (Song 8:6). In antiquity, seals were among a person’s most precious possessions. They were used to sign documents and to mark ownership of precious objects. In those days, if you wanted to steal someone’s identity, you didn’t steal his credit cards; you stole his seal. So when the woman says that she wants to be like a seal that her beloved carries around his arm, the place of his strength, she wants to be constantly beside him, publicly acknowledged as belonging to him.
Yet the woman doesn’t merely want to be carried beside the man like one of his possessions. She also wants to be within him, like a seal imprinted on the soft clay of his heart, constantly in his thoughts and in his affections. The woman wants to be everything to him, inside and out, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In fact, since seals were used to mark ownership, what she is saying is that she wants to own him, not simply to belong to him. The previous verse depicted her coming up from the wilderness at their wedding, leaning on her beloved; the image of the seal describes her longing that their relationship remain inextricably bonded and exclusively committed, until death parts them.
Love as Strong as Death
Death is the only image powerful enough to be compared to such love. Love is not merely as strong as an ox, or as powerful as a speeding locomotive: it is as strong as death (Song 8:6). Just as people who enter the fierce grip of death do not emerge again, so, too, having entered the equally powerful realm of love, the woman wants love to grip them both forever. She wants their relationship to remain exclusive and unique, as unyielding and relentless in its single-minded jealousy as the parallel image of Sheol, the grave. Death doesn’t take bribes, nor can anyone buy more time for life by distracting the grave’s attention. The grave never loses its single-minded focus on swallowing people up. So, too, the poet says, is the woman’s jealousy.
We usually think of jealousy as a negative emotion, a refusal to share something that ought to be shared. Perhaps we get jealous if someone else is getting the attention that we think we deserve or if another person acquires something that we really desire. Indeed, we spend a lot of time and effort teaching our children not to be jealous, but to share. They need to let their little brother play with their toys and to rejoice when their sister gets a present that they wish they had. I vividly remember that one Christmas when I was about seven, my great-aunt gave me a plastic model kit of a World War II battleship to construct, while my sisters got cute stuffed animals. I was furiously angry and vented my feelings on all around me. I was sinfully jealous, even though my great-aunt had actually put considerable thought into providing me with a suitable gift.
But some things in life are not meant to be shared. When our kids were small, they were adorable. Yet if you had come to Barb and me and asked if you could buy them, or even just borrow them for a year or two, we would have said no. We were jealous over our children, conscious that God had given us the unique calling to raise them. We would not share the privilege of parenting them with other people. In the same way, there is an appropriate jealousy in marriage. You belong uniquely to the other person and he or she belongs to you. This doesn’t mean that you have to be together for every second of every day and can never speak to members of the opposite sex without your spouse’s permission. We were never intended to meet all the relational needs of our spouses, and it would be folly to try. But loving someone means that you have a unique relationship with your spouse, who holds your heart in his or her hands in a special way that no one else shares. No one else should know your struggles in the way that your spouse does. No one else should delight in your triumphs and joys the way your spouse does. Some things are not meant to be shared.
Love Is a Divine Fire
The woman also compares love to a flaming fire—not just any fire, but a blaze as intense as the flames of the Almighty, the Lord himself. Married love is not merely a comfortable companionship. Otherwise, we could be married to many people at the same time, just as we can have many friends. Married love is more than friendship. It is a mutual, exclusive commitment: friendship on fire. It is this aspect of fiery longing in marriage that the Song of Songs brings out so powerfully. The Song describes the desire of each man and woman to possess a unique and lastingly committed soulmate who will be not only friend but lover, someone who is madly and passionately devoted to that one person and to him or her alone. This is why proposing marriage to someone is not just a matter of calmly explaining to your intended the various strengths that you and she bring to the table and proposing a corporate merger. Marriage is intended to be a flaming, red-hot relationship.
This is a countercultural expectation, to say the least. Our culture still desires burning passion, but has largely disconnected marriage from that expectation. Our society’s image for marriage is built around the model of Tevye and Golde from The Fiddler on the Roof. In that musical, reflecting on twenty-five years of marriage, Tevye asks his wife, Golde, if she loves him. In response, she reminds him that she has washed his clothes, cooked his meals, cleaned his house, shared his bed, given him children, and milked his cow. After twenty-five years, why should they talk about love now? But when he presses the point, “Do you love me?,” she finally concedes, “I suppose I do.” This is most people’s image of married love: a good marriage is not so much a matter of shared passion as it is of shared chores. Yet the Bible joins the two together and calls us to a marriage that is not merely friendship but friendship on fire. We are meant to say not simply “I suppose I love you,” but “I love you with a burning love that is as strong as death and as jealous as the grave.” We were made for this kind of friendship on fire.
Love’s Final Triumph
Marriage, sex, babies, enduring faithfulness, and death. Is that all there is? Is love only as strong as death? Does Sheol win in the end? Not at all. The final image speaks of the inextinguishable nature of love (Song 8:7). Love cannot be swept away by many waters or drowned by deep floods. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things (1 Cor. 13:7). Death and the grave cannot have the final say in the matter. Love must win in the end.
What is more, a love of this kind cannot be bought. The alternative commercial model of love, epitomized by Solomon, involves a simple cost-benefit analysis. It supposes that you get what you pay for in life, and so to get a good wife, you must be willing to pay a great deal. If necessary, perhaps you should even be prepared to give all the wealth of your house to acquire one (Song 8:7). Yet love laughs at that calculus. True love cannot be bought, nor can it be bargained for, even at the highest of prices. Someone who pursues that route will inevitably end up as the object of pity—or, even worse, of scorn—from those who truly know love.
This passage thus sets a high bar for what to look for in a spouse. Don’t settle for marriage to someone whose best quality is that he or she is willing and available. That person deserves better than that, and so do you. Only a rich and profound love—friendship on fire—can endure the trials of life in a fallen world. Marriage is not a walk in the park, or a pleasant sail on a summer’s afternoon. If you love someone enough to marry him or her, then you will inevitably pass with that person through the turmoil of sickness, conflict, childbirth—or the painful inability to have a child—many mutual and individual disappointments, brokenness, tears, sorrow, and ultimately death itself. Marriage is indeed, as the old vows say, “for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in health, till death do us part.”
Nothing less than friendship on fire will carry you through the challenges of caring for your spouse when he becomes unable to care for himself, or of forgiving your spouse when she sins against you in deep and profoundly painful ways, of enduring together through the bad times as well as the good. Of course, the intensity of that fire will vary over the course of a lifetime. At times it will be a raging blaze, while at others it will settle back into glowing embers; sometimes you might have to dig through the ashes to find a live coal. Feelings come and go. Yet if love is going to endure all things, we need a love that many waters cannot extinguish and floods cannot drown.
This passage also sets a high bar within marriage. You are to treat your spouse like a seal. That means that he or she is to be your most precious possession, to be treasured like a pearl of great price. It also suggests that a spouse is meant to leave a lasting imprint on your heart, touching the deepest core of your being. Do you view and treat your spouse in that way? Do you nurture, cherish, and protect your spouse with an appropriate jealousy, regarding his or her highest welfare as your single-minded concern, laying down your life for that person daily? It is sometimes easy for us men to imagine giving our lives for our wives in some dramatic gesture, for example, by shielding her body from a terrorist’s bullets. Yet God far more often asks us to give our lives for our wives daily in much more mundane ways, for example, by taking care of the children so that she can go to a Bible study, washing the dishes, listening patiently to her talk about the troubles of her friends, and so on. Love graciously endures and shares in the little things, as well as giving itself in grand gestures.
The Greater Treasure
Even at its very best, though, human marriage cannot and will not ultimately satisfy the desire that God has built into our souls for friendship on fire. Marriage is wonderful, but it is not enough. It was never intended to be enough: if marriage is all that we have, even the best marriage in the world will not satisfy our craving for love. Nor are we incomplete people without marriage. After all, according to the Bible, marriage was made in the beginning to give us the primary picture of Christ’s relationship with the church (Eph. 5). It is in our relationship with Christ that we truly find the friendship on fire that we all need.
This is wonderful news because in this fallen world, we do not all have great marriages. Some people are single and may remain so throughout their lives. Yet they, too, long for a friendship that is on fire and face the temptation to search for that fire in all kinds of illicit directions. This temptation may take the shape of the allure of sexual pleasure outside marriage, whether acted out or kept in our hearts and minds in the form of lust.
Those of us who are married also repeatedly fall very far short of the high standard set by Scripture. We may be wrongly jealous of our spouses when we should trust them, or we may settle into dull and humdrum relationships because we cannot be bothered to love our spouses with the kind of passion that the Song describes. It is hard work to love someone like that. Maybe you have never experienced such a fire in your marriage, or the fire has long since gone out. Perhaps your attempts to express love receive an angry response from your spouse or an icy-cold rebuff. Yet God is able to light or relight that fire in the coldest of contexts. Even the best marriages have many painful moments and difficult experiences. There are times in every marriage when the fire seems to have grown cold. We are all sinners who repeatedly wound one another, both with our carelessness and through deliberate acts. Yet in our relationship with Christ, there is a true and burning love that we can all experience, whether we are happily married, unhappily married, divorced, widowed, or single.
In Jesus, we truly experience friendship on fire. For Jesus to win his spouse, it was not enough for him merely to humble himself and come to earth to be our friend. If he had simply come into this world to model true friendship and to show us what that kind of love looked like, we would simply have been condemned all the more for our failure as friends. His perfection in being patient, being kind, keeping no record of wrongs, and so on with a people who were cold and unresponsive would simply have highlighted all the more our sin and failure. Jesus had to do far more than that in order to win us as his friends forever. As Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus didn’t just live the life of perfect love to give us an example to follow; he lived it for us, in our place. Then, in order to pay the penalty for our sins and restore our broken friendship with God, Jesus went to the cross to atone for all our sins and failures, including our failure to truly love God and love one another, whether within our marriages and families or more broadly. At the cross, love deliberately entered the power of death. Love lay down and died. It was the ultimate sacrifice.
Is love merely as strong as death? Is love’s jealous desire to own someone simply on a par with the power of the grave? We might think so, if all we had to go on were human experience. When a couple gets married, they pledge their love to each other until death. A couple may love each other passionately for fifty years, and then suddenly she is gone and he is left behind. Soon he, too, will die, and then what will happen to their love? Does death really win in the end? Does the grave gain the final victory?
For three days after Christ entered the tomb, the heavens held their breath, and watched and waited. But then Christ, the very embodiment of God’s love, emerged triumphantly from the grave and conquered death forever. He came up from the wilderness of the tomb, with his chosen bride, his church, leaning radiantly on his arm. Because of that victory, God could say to his people in the book of Isaiah:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isa. 43:1–3)
Because Christ is risen, Paul can exclaim:
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:55–57)
This incredible, passionate love story is what every page of the Bible is about. Isaiah’s words about God’s faithful love transcending rivers and floods were written for people who found themselves in exile for their sin, far away from the land they had been promised. So, too, God’s friendship on fire pursues us right where we are, with all our lostness, brokenness, and coldness, with all our failures to love him and others, and all our sins both outside and within marriage. The Lord is jealously calling you to an exclusive relationship with him, whether for the first time or returning from a far country yet again. God does not merely tolerate your presence; he is not just mildly fond of you; he loves you with an incredible, passionate love. Through his amazing friendship on fire that took him to earth to endure the agony of the cross and a shameful death for you, Jesus Christ has done everything that is necessary to win you as his bride and to restore you to deep and lasting friendship with your Father God.
Yet how cold our hearts so often still are! What will ignite the wet tinder of our souls with an unquenchable love for God? Paradoxically, it happens as we see more and more our own brokenness and sin. If we view ourselves as a great acquisition and think that surely God must be blessed to have followers like us, then our love to him will indeed be small. But when the truth about our hearts becomes visible to us as the height and breadth and depth of our sin starts to be exposed, and we come to realize that God loves us still and that he died to pay even for the sins of someone like us, then our hearts start to warm. As we grow in our grasp of the magnitude of how much we have been forgiven, then our hearts begin to spark into flame, for as Jesus said, “He who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47).
Perhaps human love can only be as strong as death, but God’s love is greater still, stronger than Sheol. God’s love for us in Christ has triumphed over the grave once and for all, and so in him we, too, can one day triumph over the grave, through the solid hope that he gives of the resurrection of the dead. In heaven, spouses, friends, and families will be reunited, with all their former sins and brokenness gone, replaced with a purity of love that for now we can only dream about. In Christ, we have a relationship with God and with one another that extends beyond this life into eternity and onward, a friendship on fire that we can never lose because it depends on his perfect, jealous love that will never let us go. Our love comes and goes, but his love never fails. Our names are inscribed in the wounds on the palms of his hands; they are impressed on his heart like a seal so that he can no more forget us than a mother can forget her nursing child (Isa. 49:15).
The Bible calls us all to respond to such incredible love and become friends on fire toward one another. If we are married, such self-sacrificing and passionate love is to mark out our relationship in an exclusive and powerful way. Whether married or single, we are all to love the God who calls us his bride with that kind of friendship on fire, seeking first his kingdom and laying down our lives daily for one another in obedience to his commands. Sometimes we may succeed in being such a friend; often, we will fail. In those many moments of failure, we will need to return constantly to the perfect obedience of Christ in our place, and to the cross, the place where God demonstrated his friendship on fire for us. There Jesus paid for our many failures to be the spouse that we were meant to be, and for our spouse’s failures to love us as he or she ought. There Jesus paid for the coldness and indifference that we so often show to our heavenly Spouse, to Jesus himself. There at the cross and especially in the resurrection, God’s fiery love triumphed forever over the grave and won the victory for his people.
In that truth—the truth of God’s victory in Christ over sin and death and hell—we can find the faith to step out once again in trying to show friendship on fire to one another after we have failed many times, as well as faith in God’s unbreakable love for us in Christ. There at the cross we find hope: the hope of an eternal future together with Christ from which even the flooding waters of death cannot separate us. There at the cross we find something even greater than faith and hope. We find the greatest of these, love—God’s amazing, fiery love to us in the gospel.
7a The property that equates fire with death and Sheol is here revealed to be its unstoppable character; love is a fire that cannot be doused. Ordinary fires are extinguishable and only extraordinary conflagrations can traverse rivers; but love-fire yields to no power and cannot be quenched. Thus love is not only as strong as death, but also it triumphs when death threatens to extinguish love.
8:6–7 / This segment, in which the woman is still speaking (as the niv indicates), is remarkable in both tone and vocabulary. Throughout the book, love has been celebrated exuberantly. Occasionally there have been hints of danger: the resistance of the brothers, repeated warnings about arousing love before its time, the beating by the city guards, and even the use of military imagery. Yet throughout the rest of the book, to celebrate love is to celebrate life. Only here is the strength of love compared with death and Sheol and raging flames. This is not to suggest that love is no longer celebrated; but the fierceness of love is recognized as being deadly serious.
8:7quench … despised: The point of this powerful verse is that true love cannot be destroyed, and neither can it be purchased.
8:7b. The final statement about the love depicted in the Song is that it is priceless. All one’s wealth would be totally inadequate to purchase such love. In fact such money would be … scorned, because love cannot be bought. Any attempt to “buy” love depersonalizes it.
If love is priceless, how then can it be obtained? The answer is that it must be given. And ultimately love is a gift from God. The epilogue explains how the beloved received this priceless gift of love.
 Duguid, I. M. (2016). Song of Songs. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & I. M. Duguid, Eds.) (pp. 143–154). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Schwab, G. M. (2008). Song of Songs. In T. Longman III, Garland David E. (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Proverbs–Isaiah (Revised Edition) (Vol. 6, p. 426). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Huwiler, E. (2012). The Songs of Songs. In W. W. Gasque, R. L. Hubbard Jr., & R. K. Johnston (Eds.), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (p. 288). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 802). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
 Deere, J. S. (1985). Song of Songs. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 1024). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.