A Marriage Unlike Any OtherOctober 03, 2016
by Iain Duguid
In Song of Songs 3:6–4:7, we read of a man entirely fixed on his spouse-to-be. He is captivated by her beauty: he finds her overwhelmingly, entrancingly attractive. Nor is it just her physical beauty that attracts him. The speech of her mouth and the strength of character evident in the way she holds herself are also attractive to him. He shines the spotlight entirely on her and delights in who she is. Meanwhile, as seen in a later chapter, she shines it right back at him. The back-and-forth of mutual praise that we read of in chapter 1 of the Song, which is echoed in his opening words, is the common thread running through the story of their love. She thereby becomes a true partner with him in building a lasting and loving house together—a house that may lack Solomon’s material wealth and vast progeny but that has a splendor of its own that Solomon in all his glory cannot match. On this model, marriage is two people’s becoming one flesh: a single unit that rises and falls together, and that sticks together for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in health, till death parts them. She submits to him as the church submits to Christ; he gives himself for her as Christ gives himself for the church (Eph. 5:24–25).
The only way to make this kind of other-centered commitment to a spouse is to find your security and significance somewhere other than in that person.
The only way to make this kind of other-centered commitment to a spouse, of course, is to find your security and significance somewhere other than in that person. As long as your spouse is your idol, you will need that person too much to be able to serve him or her well. You will place a heavy burden of expectation on your spouse to fulfill your needs, a burden that he or she will never be able to bear and may well come to resent. Meanwhile, your spouse may be placing his or her own expectations on you. That pathway, with which every relationship will struggle to some degree or another, leads to conflict and disharmony, as you each seek to use the other person to serve yourself. Marriage becomes a competitive sport with winners and losers, rather than a team event in which you work together to serve each other.
But if you begin to find your security and significance in the Lord, you will start to be freed to delight in the unique ways in which the Lord has gifted your spouse and fitted her or him for you. Perhaps your beloved’s shining features are not hair like a flock of goats and a neck like the tower of David but her fair skin and her dazzling smile. Maybe there is a reason why the man in the poem doesn’t mention the woman’s nose here (though he will in chapter 7)! Yet he delights in her features and her character and celebrates the one whom he is about to marry and to whom he will commit his life forever. He isn’t just in love with being in love; he is in love with her. The terms he uses to describe her body show that he anticipates this marriage as being a movement for both of them from an arid wilderness to a promised land—a fertile, lush, and fruitful environment that is filled with every blessing.
Does the expectation and anticipation of joy in this passage seem a little overblown to you? Maybe it doesn’t, if you are not yet married. Perhaps you anticipate your marriage as being a permanent paradise of pleasures, a constant garden of delights, in which each day is better than the one before. It is true that marriage can be great, with many pleasures and delights. It is a wonderful blessing and gift of God. Yet marriage can also be very hard and painful, as two sinners crash against each other, bruising and wounding each other with competing idolatries. There may be times when that beautiful regal bearing actually appears to you more like stiff-necked obstinacy, and when that delightful mouth utters hurtful and harsh words. There may also be times when you hurt her in ways that you did not think yourself capable of, bringing hot tears to those dovelike eyes. In reality, even in the best of marriages you will discover that she is not “altogether beautiful” and without flaw—and neither are you. We are all deeply broken idolaters to the core.
Yet this hyperbolic language, which we are most tempted to use on the day of our wedding to the one whom our soul loves, is actually intended to lift our gaze beyond any human relationship. Marriage, even the best marriages, don’t really transport the bride from the wilderness to the promised land. Even though on her wedding day the bride may look radiantly beautiful—in some cases, almost unrecognizable from her usual “jeans and T-shirt” attire—she is still the same sinner underneath, and so is the groom. Only one marriage can effect such a radical change in our status, clothing us in an imputed perfection and bringing us into a new and enduring inheritance. In only one marriage are our needs for security and significance met at a deep and satisfying level: the marriage of Jesus Christ and his true bride, the church.
A Marriage of Freedom
Our heaven-made match with Jesus Christ is a marriage in which the groom was not by any means “all about himself.” Even though Jesus was physically descended from the line of David through Solomon, and was therefore of royal descent, he did not come to earth to acquire a fortune and assert his status. On the contrary, Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). He did not come to be served himself but to serve others, loving and caring for them even when he was tired and weary from a long day of ministry. He was not safely protected at night by sixty armed men against any and all dangers. On the contrary, Jesus came to give his life as ransom for many, submitting to the pain and ignominy of the cross in order to free us from the eternal death that we deserved. The Good Shepherd came to lay down his life for his sheep (John 10:11).
In this act of self-sacrifice, Jesus was fulfilling a long history of the one-sided relationship between the Lord and his people, in which the Lord loved and cared for the children of Israel and they spurned him in favor of their idols. So, for example, the Lord sent the prophet Hosea to act out the story of his love for his people by loving a prostitute, Gomer. Even though she was persistently faithless and abandoned him, following a lifestyle that took her out into the wilderness, Hosea was told to go after her and win her back, continually showing love to her among the shattered ruins of her life.
Rooted and grounded in God’s love, you can finally enter relationships not for what people can do for you but in order to show that same love for them.
Here is where your true security and significance may be found. The God of the universe so loved you that he sent his only Son to come into this world and die for you. You matter to him. He cares for you, even though you have not cared for him and have run from him, perhaps finding yourself today in a spiritual wilderness far from home. His gaze is nonetheless fixed on you, not just as one human being out of a teeming mass of humanity, but as an individual creation of his hands. As the psalmist said, “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13). The Lord chose your hair, whether it is like a flock of unruly goats or barely there at all anymore. He painted the color of your cheeks, gave you your teeth, and assigned you your body shape. He created your personality, with all its quirks and charms. If you are in Christ, he is at work in you by his Holy Spirit, remaking you into a new creation whose final splendor and glory will be a dazzling thing of wonder for all eternity. God loves you!
Do you see how that reality frees you genuinely to love others, whether you are married or single? You, too, are a broken sinner with Solomonic strivings to use love to serve your own agenda. Yet God’s love is what assures you that you matter in this world. His care is forever. He will never leave you or forsake you. You are secure in him. The more you grasp this truth, the less you will need to milk these things out of your relationships. You will be set free actually to serve those around you: your spouse, your children and your friends. Rooted and grounded in God’s love, you can finally enter relationships not for what people can do for you but in order to show that same love for them.
This piece is adapted from Iain Duguid, Song of Songs. Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2016), 77–80. Used with permission of the publisher.
A 7-Point Biblical Theology of MissionOctober 03, 2016
by Jonathan Gibson