The Nature of love
This Valentine’s Day, about 250 million roses will exchange hands. Not every nation celebrates Valentine’s Day on the exact same day or in the exact same way, but despite our differences, every single culture has this one thing in common: flowers are the symbol for love.
Why do you think that is? Why do Bachelors and Bachelorettes hand a rose to their “choice” rather than a house plant, or a coffee maker, or a ball-in-chain?
Traditions don’t form without reason, especially across cultures. There’s something about the nature of a flower that closely resembles the nature of love. And this is of utmost importance for us to understand, because—hear this—nature always determines nurture. For example, the nature of a baby requires you to care for it in a way that’s different than the way you care for a Pit-Bull. The nature of a backyard shrub requires you to care for it in a way that’s different than a Bonzai Tree. Love and flowers are like that too. Both of them share the same nature, and both must be nurtured in much the same way. My hope today is to help you understand, from the Scripture, the nature of romantic love, so that you can nurture it in a way that not only lasts, but also, thrives—like a flower in rich soil.
We’re in the second week of a series called, “Head Over Heels,” a study in the Song of Songs, a book of the Bible entirely dedicated to sex and romantic love. Last week, we talked about the “magic” of love. This week is, “Love’s New Light,” – that is, the light of new possibilities if we nurture love in accordance with its nature. Next week is “Lovesick,” where we’ll look at working through conflict in such a way that we are sick without each other—rather than being sick of each other. In the last week, we will talk about lovemaking.
Song of Songs 2
So let’s get started. We’ll pick up the passage in Song of Songs 2, verse 6. For context, King Solomon and his Hebrew Cinderella have fallen head over heels in love. As we read, I want you to especially pay attention to verse 7, because this is where Shulamith, the woman, teaches us about the nature of love. Now let’s begin with verse 6, where she longs for intimacy.
6 His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me! 7 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, (that is, “Swear to me…”) by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases. (Now the scene shifts to Solomon – after being away for a season, probably with kingly duties, he returns to invite his lover to enjoy the Spring countryside…) 8 The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills. 9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Behold, there he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, looking through the lattice. 10 My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, 11 for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. 12 The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing[d] has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 13 The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.14 O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. 15 Catch the foxes[e] for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.” 16 My beloved is mine, and I am his; he grazes[f] among the lilies. 17 Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on cleft mountains
A Life of its Own
We’ve been saying that the nature always determines nurture. So what is the nature of love? That’s what Shulamith tells us in verse 7, when she says, “do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” What she means by this is that, just like this rose, love has a life of its own. It blooms whenever it “pleases”, and it doesn’t ask permission. This is exactly what we see in verse 8, when King Solomon is leaping over the hills like a gazelle. Love was “pleased” to come alive in his heart, and suddenly the dignified king doesn’t look so dignified. There’s a bounce in his step and a sparkle in his eye. Love has a life of its own. You can’t force it to bloom, but when it blooms—like this rose—you come alive to love’s new light.
Beautiful, Delicate, and Precious
The idea of “not forcing” love also appears in verse 7 when she says, “Swear to me by the gazelles and the does of the field…” Notice how she doesn’t say, “Swear to me by the lions and bears…” Yes, love is powerful like lions and bears. But does and gazelles more perfectly communicate the nature of love. Just like does and gazelles, and just like this rose—the nature of love is beautiful, delicate, and precious. These qualities should guide the way we treat loving relationships: not by smothering or neglecting, but by nurturing.
This all reminds me of an old friend who fell head over heels for a girl who was 10 miles out of his league. Gorgeous, great personality, she loved Jesus, and she loved my friend. Everyone thought they were going to get married. But one day she confessed to him about some past “indiscretions” from before they were together. It rattled him. He felt like she wasn’t the same person he fell in love with. He tried not to be judgmental, but condemnation doesn’t have to be stated to be communicated. She felt the change in his demeanor, and she broke it off. By the time my friend realized he was being judgmental, the rose had already been crushed.
Love has a life of its own. You can’t control when it blooms, but you can smother it. Love is beautiful, delicate, and precious. It must be handled with care, like this rose. Nature determines nurture. So how do we nurture love, without smothering or neglecting it? Three ways stand out in this passage, which we’ll address, each in turn: be patient, be sensitive, and be protective.
Let’s start with “be patient.” I could go a lot of directions with this. Singles must be patient for the flower of their love to bloom, or else they’ll try to force something that’s not there. Married people must be patient through Winters of Love or else they’ll bail out early when Springtime is around the corner. Nurturing love is all about patience and timing.
In the immediate context of verse 7, however, the focus is not so much on the aforementioned expressions of patience, as it is about patiently waiting on the right timing for sexual intimacy. In verse 6, she expresses a longing for that intimacy, and then in verse 7, she counsels herself and others to wait patiently, lest they crush the rose of a beautiful, delicate, and precious love.
If you’re interested in researching the science, you can discover the truth for yourself, but publications such as the Economist and the Journal of Family Psychology report that people who don’t have sex outside of marriage ultimately have better sex and longer lasting relationships. Research also shows that people who cohabit before getting married are more likely to divorce. The world says, “Try before you buy,” and although it seems logical, it doesn’t actually work. Patience is how you nurture a love that’s beautiful, delicate, and precious.
Now, let’s come back to Shulamith’s pledge in verse 7. We’ve already seen that she doesn’t say, “Swear to me by the lions and bears.” Now notice what else she doesn’t say. She doesn’t say, “Swear to me by Almighty God,” which would’ve been a typical vow in her culture. Rather than appealing on the basis of morality or spirituality, she appeals on the basis of love’s nature—which is beautiful, delicate, and precious, just like gazelles and does. If we act on sexual urges—in dating, in engagement, or beyond our marriage bed—we threaten to crush the rose of love.
This is highly relevant for us today. Over the last few years, I’ve been noticing across social media and in blogs-gone-viral a backlash against what’s called “Purity Culture.” This refers to certain evangelical church programs from the 1990’s that emphasized to teenagers—through public commitments, ceremonies, and promise rings—the need to remain abstinent until marriage. There were certainly times in which this was done with grace, and without the sexist emphasis on female purity over male purity. But oftentimes it wasn’t. Two decades later, thirty-five-year-old moms are blogging about the way they were shamed into public promises with dire warnings about STD’s and a God who was ready to smite their misdeeds. Rather than being taught that sex was a beautiful thing, they were taught that sex is terrible and dirty, until of course you’re married, at which point it’s wonderful and amazing. Unable to flip the switch, these women now struggle to not feel dirty making love to their own husbands.
It matters how we talk to our kids about sex. I’m not suggesting there’s something wrong with appealing to morality and spirituality as reasons for abstinence. But if we don’t appeal also to the beauty of love, we might undermine what we’re actually trying to achieve. The goal is not merely “no sex outside of marriage.” The goal is for our children to one day know how beautiful, delicate, and precious love is—including its most sacred expression of lovemaking. The power of sex can easily crush the rose of precious love if we don’t display the tender patience that love deserves. I wish we could spend more time explaining what is so sacred and beautiful about sex, but you’ll have to be patient!—we’ll discuss it in two weeks.
Okay, now let’s move to the next one. How do we nurture romantic love, rather than smothering it or neglecting it? First, be patient. Second, be sensitive. Be sensitive.
This is the other side of “do not stir up nor awaken love.” On one hand, we need to NOT stir up love before the right time. On the other hand, at the right time, we must stir up and awaken love! This does not just mean sexually, but also, romantically. Just like gazelles and does are sensitive to their surroundings, and just like flowers are sensitive to sunlight, we must be sensitive the seasons of love.
This is what we see in verses 8-13 when Solomon shows a sensitivity to the Springtime they’re entering into. The fact that they are entering a Springtime suggests that prior to this, they experienced a Winter. This is probably alluded to by the fact that he’s coming “over the mountains”—that is, obstacles in their relationship. Commentators say that most likely their obstacle was situational. Solomon had kingly duties to tend to, and because they weren’t married and living together, this meant he’d be away for a time.
Winters of Hardship, Springs of Newness
Every romantic relationship requires a sensitivity to the season. I experienced this recently in my marriage. 2019 was a Winter for us. As with Solomon and Shulamith, our Winter was situational. Alicia got a paying job for the first time in 12 years, and it was a massive adjustment to schedules, to the balance of chores, to everything. If it was only the at-home adjustment, that would’ve been enough, but of course she had workplace stresses to add into the mix. More stress meant it was easier to be short with one another, to crush the rose of our love. Sensitivity to the season required Alicia and I to show each other extra grace. Thankfully, we made our adjustments, and as it happens—our Winter has given way to Spring.
Winters are typically situational—they are tied to a hardship that one or both of you are enduring. This could be a breach of trust, a health crisis, a difficult teen, or even just an insane schedule. If you don’t want to get stuck in a perpetual Winter, you have to be sensitive to that season. If you are, Spring will come naturally, right at the conclusion of one of these obstacles.
Once Spring arrives, however, you can’t just take “good times” for granted—there’s another kind of sensitivity required in Spring, which we see in verse 14: “O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.” When he says, “Come out from the clefts of the rock,” he means, “Your heart is still hidden. Come out and trust me. Let’s get to know each other.”
Enduring the Winter will mean that, rather than being short and angry, we show each other some extra grace. Making the most of Springtime means that, rather than being hidden and hesitant, we make ourselves physically and emotionally available. This is exactly what we see in this song. As soon as Solomon’s schedule allows, he doesn’t double-down on work or hobbies; he makes time for Shulamith. More than that, asks her to to come out of emotional hiding, to trust him. If you’re in a romantic relationship, you have to fight to be physically and emotionally present. This is true in every season of course. But in those post-Winter seasons when hardships pass away and schedules open up, you have an opportunity to fall in love all over again, if you strike while the iron is hot. In contrast, if you stay in the clefts of secrecy and hiddenness, the rose of your love will die of neglect—in the very season when it should be most fruitful. Without the proper sensitivity to love’s seasons and lovers’ hearts, love can grow cold. Next week we’ll talk about how to overcome once that’s already happened.
Now let’s return one more time to the passage, to verse 15, for our final point: 15 Catch the foxes[e] for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.”
Here Solomon asks his future bride to pledge with him, that they might protect the love they’ve enjoyed. Just like a rose cannot be placed in the mouth of a dog or near the hand of a toddler, love is too beautiful, delicate, and precious to not be protected. Our last point is: be protective.
Protect Love From Little Problems
There are a couple of dimensions of this protection I want you to notice. First, we must protect primarily from the little problems – the little foxes. Foxes are small, but they’re also stealthy. Given enough time, they can slowly ruin an entire vineyard—and decades of love. Little foxes are the little problems that creep into a romance. If you see the collapse of a marriage, it might look like Redwood Tree tumbling mightily to the ground, but in reality, it was death by a thousand papercuts. Big vineyards die not because of big bad wolves, but because of little foxes. Before the big act of divorce is demanded, there are little moments, little choices, little facial expressions and tones, and little rejections where love is smothered or neglected. This is not to suggest that working hard at a romance always means it will work. You might do all the right things, but it takes more than just you. Which brings us to next observation about protection.
Protect Love by Mutual Devotion
The second thing I want you to notice is that it takes a mutual devotion to catch those little foxes. A marriage is too much for one person to do all the fox-catching. He asks her to swear to him that they might catch these together. A successful romance is not, “You have a problem, so fix it,” but—especially in marriage—“We have a problem, so let’s fix it.” The more serious a relationship becomes, the more life is shared. Sharing life means more than sharing affection or living space; it means sharing burdens. Such an approach will protect your love from little foxes.
Now, let’s summarize everything that’s been said, and then I’ll close with a story. We began by discussing the nature of love: just like this rose, it has a life of it’s own. That life is beautiful, delicate, and precious. In order to nurture love in accordance with its nature, we must be patient, sensitive, and protective.
Are you treating love as it deserves to be treated? Are you smothering it with force and anger and judgments? Are you neglecting it to the slow-working will of little foxes? Or are you nurturing romantic love so that it not only lasts, but thrives, as a flower in rich soil?
The story I want to finish with comes from a viral clip of a Pastor named Matt Chandler from a few years ago. In it, he tells the story of a 26-year-old single mom who was in an adulterous affair and knew nothing about Jesus, besides what Matt and his friends had been telling her. They’d been trying to convince her of God’s grace and redemption, and an opportunity arose for inviting her to a church service where one of Matt’s friends was leading worship.
She responded to the invitation, and the worship was great. Then the preacher stood up and said, “Today, we’re going to talk about sex.” And then he took a red rose, smelled it, showed how pretty it was, and then he handed it to one of the thousand people in the audience, and he said, “While I speak, I want you to pass this around to everyone in the room—I want you to smell it, to touch it, to feel it’s texture.” While the rose went around, the sermon began, and in the words of Chandler, it was “fear-mongering at its best.” It was threats of STD’s and the filth of fornication, and the shame of sexual abominations. At the end of his sermon, the preacher gathered the rose back up, and predictably, it was broken and mangled. His big crescendo was to hold up the rose as an illustration of someone who’s committed such abominations. With great emotion he said, “Now look at this—who in the world would want this rose?!”
Matt says, “I remember feeling anger, like real legitimate, I want to hurt him anger, and it was all I could to not scream out, JESUS WANTS THE ROSE!! THAT’S THE POINT OF THE GOSPEL!!”
The Bible is full of helpful advice, and we’re wise to apply it to our lives. But at the end of the day, all of us have smothered or neglected the rose of love for God, love for our significant other, and love for our neighbor. The Gospel is not, “You’d better be holy or no one can love you,” but rather, “Jesus wants the rose.”
Jesus wants you!
He wants you in all of your brokenness and all of your shame. And He wants you so much that He came and died on a Cross to forgive you for all our rose-crushing sins. Three days later, He rose again to call you out of the rocks of brokenness and shame, to be made new, and to enjoy an eternal Springtime of Divine Love. Like Solomon, the risen Jesus calls to each of us: “Arise, my love, my beautiful One, and come away.”