The Death of Marriage?
A few years ago one of my High School friends finally decided to marry his High School sweetheart after nearly two decades of dating. He asked if I wanted to perform the ceremony, to which I replied, “Are you sure she’s the one?”
Marriage used to be something people rushed into, but nowadays, they seem to be rushing away from it and out of it. People say that “Happily ever after” is an antiquated delusion. Since 1960, the divorce rate has doubled, and now, 40% of Americans believe marriage is obsolete.
On the surface, these statistics might confirm the death of marriage. But reality isn’t what it seems. The numbers are skewed. If, for example, someone has just a basic education and income, waits till marriage to have a baby, and goes to church, the divorce rate is remarkably low. Not only that, but 62% of married people are “very happy” in marriage. The ones who aren’t—if they just don’t divorce—2/3 of them will be happily married within 5 years.
So here’s my question: why is there such a disparity between the truth about marriage and reality? Why do so many people think marriage is miserable and obsolete, when married people are both very happy, and usually also, more stable in their happiness?
Today, we’re going to answer these questions from the Scripture. My hope is to help you understand God’s vision for romantic love, and how to keep that vision from becoming jaded.
“Head Over Heels”
Today’s message is the first in a series called “Head Over Heels,” where we’ll study love, sex, and romance from a Book of the Bible dedicated to all three—the Song of Songs. As you can see, we have an exciting next few weeks: This week is “The Magic of Love,”; next week is, “Love’s New Light,” and the next two weeks we’ll cover lovesickness and lovemaking.
A couple of disclaimers before we get started: first, this series does not suggest that single people are “less-than”. To do so would be to say that Jesus was “less-than”, which is blasphemy. I only want to extol God’s vision for love in such a way that people who want that can experience it, and people who choose singleness do so, not because of a jaded view of love, but because of a desire to serve God with single-minded devotion.
And now for a second disclaimer: For the bulk of church history, the church has interpreted this book allegorically because it’s just too racy to really be from heaven. Or so it was thought. But there’s only so much creativity for symbolic interpretations of breasts, french kissing, and weekend sexual escapades. In reality, this book is a love story between a King named Solomon and a Hebrew Cinderella named Shulamith. As the people of God, we should certainly not be obsessed with sex, but neither should we be embarrassed. Sex doesn’t belong to the devil, but to God. He gave it as a gift, and like all of His gifts, He gave it to be enjoyed.
Song of Songs 1:1-4
Now let’s begin by reading the first four-and-a-half verses of chapter 1: The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s. 2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine; 3 your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore virgins (or, in the words of Beyonce, “all the single ladies”) love you. 4 Draw me after you; let us run. The king has brought me into his chambers.
Love is Magical
These first four verses are meant to introduce us to the magic of love. Notice how quickly it begins. The first verse says, “I can’t wait to make out with King Solomon!” And by the fourth verse, she’s saying, “I want to consummate a marriage to King Solomon!” Just like love, this song goes from 0-60 before you can say, “Wow.”
There’s a reason we refer to love’s magic with such phrases as, “falling in love,” and “drunk with love,” and “head over heels.” Love is magical. Twice in these verses, wine is mentioned, because falling in love is an intoxicating experience. In fact, both drinking wine and falling in love flood our brains with the same neurotransmitter: dopamine. Falling in love is as intoxicating as wine and as magical as Cupid’s arrow. This should offer hope to those of us who want to be in a relationship but don’t see any likely prospect within a hundred square miles.
That’s how it was for me and Alicia. I was 21 years old at the University of Texas, and I’d concluded that I wouldn’t find love before I graduated. My church had just a few “prospects”, but I didn’t feel the “magic” with any of them. And where else was I going to meet a godly young woman, besides church?
That summer, I studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. There were 22 students going with me, from the UT Business School, and Alicia was one of them. At first, there was no magic. That came later, when—back in Austin—Alicia asked me to join her to a “formal” for her organization, “Texas Spirits.” Normally people wore tuxedos and prom dresses for this event, but Alicia and her friend Molly wanted to do something crazy—they wanted to dress up in 1800’s Southern Belle attire. She thought, “Who do I know that’s willing to be crazy?” I’m proud to say, I’m the first person that came to mind.
This is a picture of Alicia, Molly, me, and my friend Clay, all dressed up. Yes, that’s a monocle and fake mustache. This was the night we fell in love. We literally didn’t break from our country accent the whole night. I jokingly called her my Sugar Daisy, and I was her Country Stallion.
Within a short period of time, we were official. A few months after that, I told my parents I was ready to buy a ring. They didn’t even know I was seriously dating. Not because I hid it, but because it happened that fast. And also, because I was a non-communicative male.
It’s the magic of love. You can be minding your own business, you can be doing your own thing, you can dismiss all possibility, and then BAM—you’re “twitterpated.” To those in the room who’ve written off the possibility of love, I would remind you: love is every bit as magical as cupid’s arrow. It can happen like that.
Which leads us to our next point: love is magical, but not automatic. Love is magical, but not automatic.
Love is Magical, but not Automatic
We tend to equate “magic” and “automatic” because we reason that God has a soulmate stored in heaven’s goody bag, and we are helpless until He opens the bag. That’s not the way it works, though. There are obstacles to overcome. Let’s return to the passage.
The second half of verse 4 introduces us to Shulamith’s peers: “We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine; rightly do they love you.” Apparently, it’s not just Shulamith who’s in love with Solomon. It’s “all the single ladies”! We learn from this verse and the surrounding context that Shulamith’s fantasy about falling in love is really just that—a fantasy. She’s just another one of Solomon’s fangirls. To say she wants to marry him is like a teenager saying she wants to marry Brad Pitt. Shulamith’s competition is the first obstacle her love will face. Now let’s read verses 5 for another: 5 I am very dark, but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.
Not only does Shualmith have competition, but she has what ancient Hebrews considered to be a “flaw.” She says, “I am dark.” This had nothing to do with race—they were all Jewish—it was an indicator of social status. To be “dark” meant you were a peasant, a day-laborer, and not part of the aristocracy. When she says her skin is like the “tents of Kedar,” ladies, just ask yourself: would you ever want your skin to be described as a leathery sun-baked teepee?
Then in verse 6, we see that not only does she have competition and physical flaws, but her competition is cruel. She feels their harsh glares and compares them to the beating sun: 6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has looked upon me. Next, she offers an explanation for her flaws: My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!
Her flawed leathery skin is the result of injustice and loss. Her brothers had been caring for her, which in her culture meant that her father had died or had left. Unfortunately, her brothers’ idea of “caring for little sister,” meant, “making her slave away in our fields.” Before there was ever a fatherless Cinderella and her evil step-sisters, there was the fatherless Shulamith and her evil brothers. Any ancient Jew would naturally ask at this point, “How in the world will this flawed and fatherless peasant ever find love at all—much less, from the King of Israel?”
Love is magical, but not automatic. There are obstacles to love before it even blossoms. Shulamith has suffered the loss of a father, the injustice of her brothers, the injury to her beauty, and contempt of her peers. Some of us have suffered too, and if we’re not careful, it will jade us. This is what’s happening in our culture. People are writing off marriage because it didn’t work in their broken home, and now they assume, it won’t work for them. Others have convinced themselves that they have too much baggage, too many scars, and too many flaws to be truly loved. Before love can blossom, they convince themselves they’re damaged goods.
Has this happened to you?
It almost happened to me, before I fell in love with Alicia. There’s a reason the magic didn’t spark right away, when Alicia and I met in Scotland.
Right before we hopped on the plane, I found out that my ex-girlfriend of two years was enrolling at the University of Texas. We’d broken up because I didn’t want to do the long-distance thing anymore. It took me a while to “get over her,” and as soon as I did, I received this phone call and questioned everything.
When Alicia met me, she thought I was completely disinterested and almost gave up on the possibility of something happening between us entirely. Then she had friends chirping in her ear that I wasn’t into her. If I was going to experience love, it wasn’t going to be automatic. I had to overcome the obstacles in my own heart. And in the wisdom of God, this makes perfect sense. Because if we don’t deal with our baggage before we meet someone, we bring it with us into the next relationship. God wants us to be healthy so that we can experience healthy romance.
So how do we overcome those obstacles within our own heart? How do we keep from becoming jaded, and experience the magic of love—for the first time, or the hundredth time? I’ll offer three ways.
The first one is: talk yourself into love, not out of it. Talk yourself into love, not out of it.
I’m directing this specifically at those who are single and would like to be in a romantic relationship. This is what we see Shulamith doing, when she has so many obstacles, so many reasons to feel jaded. But she doesn’t let her mind go there. When people criticize her skin for being dark, she says in verse 5, “Yes, it’s dark—but lovely.” When people criticize her skin for being like a nomad’s tent, she says, “I prefer to say it’s like the curtains of Solomon’s palace.”
Don’t let the haters and doubters tell you it can’t happen. Don’t give your inner critic the loudest voice; give God and His love the loudest voice. The only ones who fall in love are those who don’t talk themselves out of it. Talk yourself into love, not out of it.
Second, put yourself out there. Put yourself out there. Let’s read verses 7: 7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you pasture your flock, where you make it lie down at noon; for why should I be like one who veils herself beside the flocks of your companions?
Despite her obstacles, Shulamith puts herself out there. When she tells Solomon she wants to know where his flocks graze, she’s not suggesting that Solomon—a king—is also a literal shepherd. She’s using metaphor to say, “I want to know you, not just as a powerful celebrity, but as an ordinary guy.” When she adds that she doesn’t want to be like a veiled woman—to be a veiled woman was to be a prostitute. She didn’t want to just know him as a fangirl having a sexual rendezvous (Solomon had a reputation—more on that next week); she wanted a real friendship with the real Solomon. This was a bold request. Shulamith puts herself out there.
One interesting fact about the Song of Songs is that it’s just as often—if not more often—the female who puts herself out there. Even after they’re married in chapter 4, the woman is often the one who initiates sexually. “Putting yourself out there,” never really stops. Even in marriage, when one partner never initiates—romantically or sexually—the other one begins to feel like his/her advances are unwanted. Rejection settles in. The magic of love becomes jaded.
Another issue I want to address on this subject is the modern phenomenon of online dating. I often meet people who met online, and it’s like they’re embarrassed to tell me. As your pastor, I am hereby declaring that online dating does not come with a stigma. In the old days, people met in the town square. In the Saved By the Bell Days, they met at the Max. But where do they meet today? 40% of couples meet online. You shouldn’t feel confined to finding love at work or church. Love is magical but it’s not automatic—you still have to put yourself out there.
Now for the last one: consistently praise your partner. Consistently praise your partner.
We’re going to skip forward a little bit. To fill you in on the content we’re passing over: Solomon affirms his affection in verse 9. Then the two lovers enter into a “dance of praise”, almost outdoing each other in compliments. Now let’s pick it up in 2:1, with Shulamith.
2 I am a rose[a] of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. [Now he speaks] 2 As a lily among brambles, so is my love among the young women. [She has just claimed to be a beautiful flower—so she’s continuing to talk herself into love—but she doesn’t yet feel unique. She’s one among many lilies in the valley. Solomon won’t stand for it. He says, “No, you make every other so-called flower look like a thorn bush by comparison.” Now she responds by pointing out Solomon’s uniqueness to her:] 3 As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
One of the greatest themes of the Song of Songs is that the lovers consistently praise each other. This is God’s way of teaching us what a magical love looks like. Nobody ever tires of receiving praise, but the longer we’re together, the more we tire of giving it. Instead of compliments, we give criticisms. Instead of loving our partner as he/she is, we make our love contingent upon change, and we see ourselves as the primary agent for bringing that change.
By the way, married folks: how’s that going? Has nagging and griping changed your partner yet?
What I want you to see next is the transformation that takes place in Shulamith as a result of Solomon’s consistent praise. Once Solomon convinces her she’s unique to him, she claims to find shade—a reference back to the burning heat she once felt. No longer does she feel the burning sun that marked her as a hopeless peasant; no longer does she feel the burning anger of her brothers that enslaved her; no longer does she feel the burning criticisms of her sneering competition. Instead she feels the shade of Solomon’s love, expressed through praise.
That’s what you call “the magic of love.” Not just the intoxication of puppy love, but the satisfaction of secure love; not chemicals in our brains, but shade from the beating sun. Not just dopamine, but mutual devotion, expressed and enjoyed through praise.
Write Love Letters!
When Alicia and I started dating, we praised each other all the time, and I hate to admit, but in 15 years of marriage, we haven’t kept pace. This journal right here, we jokingly called, “The Journal O’ Love,” but that’s really what it is. We used to exchange love letters to one another and then leave it for the other. Given what we’ve said today about the power of praise, I’d like to issue a challenge to anyone in a romantic relationship: this very day, start a Journal O’ Love. And throughout this series, I’m asking you to commit to at least one love letter per week.
There’s power in your words. Love is not automatic. But praise is the “abracadabra” that sparks the magic of love. Now, I want to show you just one last picture. [Show picture]
A Picture of Magical Love
This is the 103-year-old DW Williams and his 100-year-old wife, Willie. They just celebrated their 82nd year of marriage. Together they’ve survived the Great Depression, World War II, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and 9/11. After all they’ve been through, they still consider each other best friends.
Doesn’t that picture just move your heart? What would you say is more magical: the world’s vision for hopping from lover to lover and home to home, or 8 decades of being each others’ best friend and only lover?
The reason this picture is so “magical” is because—like every love story—it points to the most magical love story of them all. That love story goes like this: Before we had anything to bring to the table, despite our flaws and scars and baggage, Jesus loved us. And He loved us so much that He left His heavenly home to be united to His bride, His people. This was not just dopamine, but devotion. Not just chemicals, but covenant – sealed in His precious blood – so that we might rest in the shade of the tree He died on. Three days later Jesus rose again so that we might live happily ever after with Him.
Every love story points the world to that one, so that they might live happily ever also.