I was 23 years old when I finally saw what is possibly the greatest romantic movie ever made: Pride and Prejudice (2005). It’s a tender, human film. Unquestionably, the best scene comes near the end. A repentant Darcy comes striding over dawn-pink, fog-veiled fields toward a humbled Elizabeth. At this moment, they are both cleansed of their biting words, shame, and disgrace. It would be hard, I think, to both possess a human heart and feel no yearning as you watch that scene.
Perhaps the sudden onset of profound loneliness I experienced was due, in part, to watching this film during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or perhaps the story simply has that power to provoke emotion.
I remember begging my mom to let me, then 9 or 10 years old, watch another version of Pride and Prejudice when it was broadcast on PBS as part of a BBC special. All my friends had seen it, I argued.
“Do not awaken love before it is time,” she replied.
I did not know at the time that she was quoting Song of Solomon, the great love song of the Bible and perhaps one of the most under-taught passages of Scripture. I’ve probably heard a dozen sermons about Ephesians 5 from every possible angle. But I cannot remember a single sermon about Song of Solomon. I think it’s worth examining, even, perhaps for someone who is single.
Song of Solomon
The Song opens with the voice of the Bride, calling to her betrothed. She is the primary speaker for eight verses before we hear from the Groom. She remains the driving, pursuing voice of the poem. Again and again, she searches for her Groom. In verse 8, she playfully asks where he pastures his flocks. But her search becomes more urgent at the beginning of chapter 3, where she dreams that she has lost her beloved and ventures into the night to search for him.
“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” she asks the watchmen (3:3).
They are soon reunited. But in chapter 5, the Bride awakens or dreams again to find her beloved gone. She again goes out into the streets and comes upon the watchmen. But this time, the watchmen “beat her, bruise her, and take away her veil” (5:7). The removal of the veil is significant. In ancient tradition, the veil was symbolic of modesty, purity, and a husband’s guardianship. Without it, our heroine is alone and exposed. Still, she stumbles on, calling for her beloved, praising him, begging passersby for news of him. She goes on 12 more verses before the Bridegroom speaks again. No further mention of what she has suffered in her search is made.
The poem ends with the Bride calling to the Bridegroom to “make haste, my beloved” (8:14).
Beginning to end, it is a song of searching, chasing.
I had thought of the Song of Solomon as a song between two people who had found each other. For that matter, I thought it was a song from Solomon to his bride. But it is a Bride’s song, full of sacrifice, longing, and confusion. And it is at least as much a song of searching as of finding. It is, therefore, as applicable to the single as it is to the spouse. Indeed, it traces a path for someone longing for love to find blessing in the search.
The Blessing in the Search
First, the search awakens in us a keen awareness—a true knowledge—of that which we love. The passages of the Song that are not spent in searching are spent describing.
In Chapter 5, after the second encounter with the watchmen, the Bride describes her beloved from the crown of his head to his legs. In his turn, the Groom begins chapter seven by praising his betrothed from the literal soles of her feet to her lips. The details which sound so foreign to our ears—“your teeth are like a flock of ewes that have come up from the washing; all of them bear twins” (6:6)—should not be swiftly dismissed as antiquated metaphors. The lavish way the author heaps metaphors on these passages suggests that this way of describing one’s loved one is unusual, even in its context. The celebration of details is an extraordinary testimony that the Groom knows his Bride, and his love is evidenced in his knowledge of her. She expresses her physical flaws and insecurities at the very beginning of the poem (1:6). Her betrothed, however, knows her—every aspect of her. It does not matter.
What if we, even in our single seasons, sought to notice and know the people around us? We could transform mere seeing into love.
That selfless sight that sees the beauty not just in those attributes that please us, but in the whole person, is the first step to tempering our love.
Once we see someone for their beauty, their own preciousness, independent of our desire, we stop searching for potential spouses based on our qualifications and expectations. We experience freedom from the pride and the prejudice that are bred, like bacteria, in a selfish search. Rather than solely seeking someone who will love us, we will look for someone we are called to love.
I have known happy young couples who have met and married at the very dawn of adulthood. But I wonder if selfless love is easier to learn by living with your discontent. If we tend the cactus of an unsatisfied hope, we might learn that personal satisfaction is not only not particularly necessary, but not even the most joyous end we can pursue. I imagine many master gardeners begin with a cactus.
And finally, my mother was right, love is governed by seasons, subject to larger stories and greater purposes. It does no good to rush things.
Do Not Awaken Love…
The phrase my mother quoted occurs several times (2:7 and 8:4), along with numerous references to vineyards, flocks, ripe fruit, harvest, and migratory animals. The word-picture in the first instance is particularly beautiful—“I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” Instantly, our mind’s eye beholds a savannah plain, and we are reluctant to disturb the natural order of it.
However urgently, justly, and truly the Bride and her Groom desire to be together, they must hold to the proper times. It is as if the whole order of the world is keeping step with them. To rush their part would be to throw off the dance.
The idea of love, and life in general, being bound to seasons is not original to Solomon. Some scholars have pointed out many similarities between the writings of Solomon and an Egyptian sage named Amenemope. Solomon’s theme in Song of Solomon mirrors the themes of what is arguably the foundational Egyptian myth—that of Isis and Osiris.
In that story, the great god-king Osiris rules a united and peaceful Egypt with Queen Isis by his side. But Osiris’ jealous brother, Set, tricks the king, killing him and flinging pieces of his mutilated body to the four corners of the earth. Though faced with a hopeless situation, Isis sets out to find her husband and mend him. She searches far and wide, enduring dangers, and eventually resurrects her husband. But he must always belong partially to the underworld, integrated somehow into the annual cycle of the harvest—the death and resurrection of seeds.
Themes of suffering and trials in payment for the restoration of a loved one are ubiquitous in the love stories of the ancient world. And Solomon’s strange and shocking inclusion of an assault in his great love poem makes me wonder if Solomon was, if not necessarily imitating known stories, perhaps expressing a truth everyone knew: love is costly. In its purest form, you can set it on the scale across from the weight of the whole world and make it balanced. Solomon says as much in 8:6-7:
“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered love for all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised.”
It is nearly impossible, I think, to have a human heart and read a passage like that and not see, and yearn for Christ.
It is the tremendous power of true love that makes it necessary to bind it to proper seasons. For all true and perfect love flows from Christ and reflects him. Therefore, true love will sacrifice. True love will wait. True love will not grasp, however confused or desperate it may be. True love will surrender to the current of the larger story, the one strong as death that is gathering up the weight of the world to be measured against a bruised, holy heart. It will be enough. And it will come at the right time.