In 2018 fate has put Ash Wednesday on the same day as Valentine’s Day. Men nervously scour the pink laden aisles of Target and Kroger for last minute gifts for their wives or girlfriends, thereby observing Valentine’s Day as the national holiday of romantic love. Simultaneously, this year Christians will begin Lent, that solemn journey of penitence and remembrance that culminates at the Cross of Jesus. A smudge of ash on the forehead is an odd juxtaposition with the arrows of Cupid.
Yet the Bible more than once waxes nearly erotic in describing God’s longing for a
relationship with his wayward people. The Presbyterian theologian and preacher Francis Shaeffer once remarked, “This is the biblical picture, one that we would not dare use if God himself did not use it.” More on this in a moment.
In the Old Testament, one need look no further than the “Song of Solomon”, a poetic book full of sexual imagery, which is generally interpreted as a metaphor for God’s love for us. The book opens with the maiden (God’s people) waxing rhapsodic about her lover (God):
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
for your love is more delightful than wine.
Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
your name is like perfume poured out.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament we see numerous passages likening God to the husband of Israel. God’s relationship, his covenant, is essentially that of marriage. Isaiah 54 states “For your husband is the One who made you.” Hosea 2:15 states “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.”
In the New Testament, Christ also compared himself to a bridegroom. For example, when the Pharisees criticized Jesus for not fasting, he replied: “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” (Mark 2)
In Ephesians 5, we have a clear statement of this metaphor:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband (Ephesians 5:25-33).
Here is a more expansive version of that earlier quote from Francis Schaeffer:
The picture here is overwhelming. As the bride puts herself in the bridegroom’s arms on the wedding day and then daily, and as therefore children are born, so the individual Christian is to put himself or herself in the Bridegroom’s arms, not only once for all in justification, but existentially, moment by moment. Then the Christian will bear Christ’s fruit out into the fallen, revolted, external world. In this relationship, we are all female. This is the biblical picture, one that we would not dare use if God himself did not use it. (From The Church Before The Watching World, 1971; text available here).
Unfortunately, in this relationship we humans have long been the unfaithful party. As Jeremiah stated (in his eponymous book, chapter 3):
Then the LORD said to me in the days of Josiah the king, “Have you seen what faithless Israel did? She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there. … Go and proclaim these words toward the north and say, ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD; ‘I will not look upon you in anger For I am gracious,’ declares the LORD; ‘I will not be angry forever.
This topic would not be complete without a mention of the strange case of Hosea the prophet. As the book of Hosea opens, the prophet is asked by God to marry an actual prostitute, as an object lesson of the relationship between God and Israel:
When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.”
At the outset of the covenant, God knew that we would blow it. From the beginning, therefore, He planned a drastic measure to try to get us back. The Cross of Jesus is the end of that journey. It is God’s ultimate valentine to the world.
As Francis Schaeffer stated in his meditation on those opening verses of the Song of Solomon:
We will remember the love which suggested the sacrifice of yourself; the love which, until the fullness of time, mused over that sacrifice, and longed for the hour of which, in the volume of the Book it was written of you, “Lo, I come.” We will remember your love, O Jesus, as it was manifested to us in your holy life, from the manger of Bethlehem to the garden of Gethsemane! We will track you from the cradle to the grave, for every word and every deed of yours was love. You, wherever you did walk, did scatter loving kindnesses with both your hands. As it is said of your Father, “God is love,” so, surely, you are love, O Jesus! The fullness of the Godhead dwells in you; the essence of love, nothing else but love, is your incarnate person.
And specially, O Jesus, will we remember your love to us upon the cross! We will view you as you come from the garden of your agony, and from the hall of your flagellation. We will gaze upon you with your hands and your feet nailed to the accursed tree. We will watch you when you could, if you had willed it, have saved yourself; but when you did, nevertheless, give up your strength, and bow yourself downward to the grave that you might lift us up to heaven. We will remember your love which you did manifest through your poor, bleeding hands, and feet, and side.
We will remember this love of yours until it invigorates and cheers us “more than wine,”-the love, of which we have heard, which you have exercised since your death, the love of your resurrection, the love which prompts you continually to intercede before your Father’s throne, that burning lamp of love which will never let you hold your peace until your chosen ones are all safely housed, and Zion is glorified, and the spiritual Jerusalem is settled on her everlasting foundations of light and love in heaven. We will remember all your love, from its beginning in the eternal past to the eternity that is to come; no, we will try to project our thoughts and imagination, and so to remember that, long as eternity shall continue, even forever and for evermore, so long shall your love exist in all its glory, undiminished in its luster or its force. “We will remember your love more than wine.”
(Schaeffer’s sermons on the Song of Solomon are available at GraceGems).