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Author:Rev. G. I. Williamson
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 Orthodox Presbyterian Church - OPC
Title:The Love That Excels
Text:Song of Songs 8:5-7 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

A Relative

8:5 - Who is this coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? I awakened you under the apple tree. There your mother brought you forth; there she who bore you brought you forth.

The Shulamite to her Beloved

8:6 - Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is as strong as death, jealousy as cruel as the grave; its flames are flames of fire, a most vehement flame.

(God’s Pronouncement)

8:7 - Many waters cannot quench love, nor can the floods drown it. If a man would give for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly despised.
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. G. I. Williamson, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Congregation of the Lord Jesus, I want to begin this sermon by talking, first of all, about the language of the Bible and the levels of love that it reveals. The Greek language was a highly inflected and discriminating language. And they had at least three different words for love, while we only have one to cover the various meanings. So when they came to translate the Old Testament into the Greek language, the language of the nations, they used these three different terms in a discriminating way.

One of the most common words for love in the Greek language is the Greek word “eros.” It’s the word from which we, today, get our English word “erotic.” It is a word which functions on the level of the sensual, the bodily, and the sexual. We find it at least once in the Greek Bible in Proverbs 7. Here Solomon describes a prostitute as she seeks to entice and allure a young man of the nation of Israel into a momentary sexual relationship with her. And she says, “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let’s take our fill of love until the morning. Let us solace ourselves with love.” Well, in the context it’s quite obvious the word “eros” (translated as ‘love’ in English) means nothing more here than biological, sexual excitement. Now we’ve already seen, as we’ve gone through this book, that ‘eros’ is a legitimate part of marriage. We saw that quite clearly in the early chapters of the Song of Solomon where the elements of physical attraction, sensuality, and beauty were perfectly normal and recognized as such by the people of God. Biblical Christianity doesn’t deny that and doesn’t want to deny that; it doesn’t want to pretend that we are super-spiritual mystics like they did in the Middle Ages, as if the body were really the source of all evil. It’s not that at all. The heart is the thing out of which come the issues of life. And so the Bible is very frank in acknowledging the proper role and place of the erotic. That’s why in this Song of Solomon the Shulamite maiden expressed a great care and reserve so she didn’t separate this aspect of marriage from the other aspects. She didn’t want any one to arouse love on that level before the right time had come.

The second level of love in Scripture is found in the Greek word “phileo,” from which we get words like “Philadelphia,” the city of brotherly love, or “philosopher,” the person who loves wisdom. And you already have that right here in this book in 5:16 when she says, concerning Solomon, “This is my beloved; this is my friend.” She’s talking there about love on the “phileo” level, where there is the love of companionship, and enjoyment of each other—friendship as well as the purely erotic. And I believe every good marriage ought to have this in it. You know we sometimes look at the world in which we live, and while there is much that distress us, isn’t it true that sometimes we are truly amazed at what appear to be stable and enduring marriage among people who are not Christian at all. They have no knowledge of—and devotion to—Christ the Savior, and yet they have a marriage that seems to be enduring and even enjoyable. What is the reason? I believe it is because they have built into that marriage much more than merely the erotic. They have also a love on the phileo level; they have a community of interest; they share things together. Maybe it’s something like art or a mutual respect for music, but they do have a fellowship and a friendship, one with the other.

You know sometimes people have misunderstood what David said about the love that existed between him and Jonathan. David said it ‘surpasses the love of woman’, and a lot of people have taken umbrage at that, but you see David was the victim of an impersonal love life. He had so many wives and concubines that he never really found that fellowship of love on the phileo level with any woman. He found that kind of love with Jonathan. Jonathan was a loyal friend all through the years, through all of the pressures and the vicissitudes of life, and there was something in David that recognized that this was love on a higher level and he paid tribute to that love when he said that. It’s too bad that he missed that kind of love in fellowship with a wife. But, you see, he had too many of them. That’s why you’ll notice, in a good marriage, that there is a deepening of love reflected in their language. You notice in this Song that Solomon not only uses terms like “darling” and that sort of thing, but he calls her his sister, and she not only speaks of him in those words of sexual endearment, but speaks of him as her friend and the like. This is something that can only come when we grow in the fellowship of companionship love, the love of “phileo,” and this ought to be a part of marriage in the Christian family.

There is, however, a higher word for love in the Bible, and it is reflected in the word “agaph” (Greek Font) [agape], and the interesting thing is that the Greeks didn’t use this word very often. It’s found only a few times in the Greek writings. And I think that this is exactly why the New Testament writers—under the guidance of the holy Spirit, when they came along to write the story of the great love of God for man, as it is expressed in Jesus Christ—took this word that hadn’t been used much and filled it with a new meaning. They filled it with the glorious content of the love of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. So it became the word of the greatest importance in the New Testament Scriptures. The Greek word is “agape,” and it is only used of the love which excels. It is the love that does not depend, as the other two do, on something attractive in the other person. You can’t command your daughter to sexually love another guy; it won’t work. There has to be the spark of attraction there. She has to see some guy that somehow captures her desire. You can’t command “phileo” love either. If you don’t believe me, you try it. Say, Son, I don’t want you to be friends with John any more, I want you to be friends with Bill. I can tell you this: it’s not going to work because there has to be something in that other person that is attractive to draw out this “phileo” love as well. But the Bible does command “agape”. It does command the love which has as its sole motivating source something in the one who does the loving.

And we have seen that right here in the Song of Songs, in its highest expression, in the way Solomon dealt with his wife when she had been unloving, and unlovely. That was exactly when instead of retaliating, instead of replying in kind, he showed her agape love. And I pointed out to you at the time that it had to be this way in the Song of Solomon. It had to be a one-sided story, with all of the faults in the wife and all of the virtues in the husband, because behind it stands the ultimate image of love, which is Christ and the church. There are no faults in Christ, and there are a lot of them in the church. And we—all of us, men and women alike—are the church, and we all have faults, but the point is that the love that excels is the love which not only has the erotic level and the companionship level, but it rises up even higher. It rises up to the level of the love that excels, the love patterned after the love of Christ for the church, the love patterned after Solomon for the Shulamite even when she wasn’t lovely. It is the love that is described in the passage before us tonight. And this also ought to be in growing in every one of us, and ought to be reflected in our marriages.

Now what does this passage teach us about the love that excels? What is so special about it? I suggest first of all that agape love, the love at the highest level, is unique because of its willingness to endure pain and suffering.

Who is this coming up from the wilderness,
Leaning upon her beloved?
I awakened you under the apple tree.
There your mother brought you forth;
There she who bore you brought you forth.
Set me as a seal upon your heart.

Now, again, it doesn’t make any difference who this speaker is in this rather rhetorical question in verse five. God is the author, and he wants us to ask the question, What’s so special about this? And then right away you’ll notice the imagery of the tree. Now maybe that tree again is the symbol of character. But maybe it's also a symbol, as it is in many cultures, of that place in the realm of nature where true love had its beginning. I can’t say that I met my wife under the apple tree, but I can say that during World War II when I played in a big band, one of the popular love songs was exactly that.

Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me,
Anyone else but me, anyone else but me.
No, no, no,
Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me
Till I come marching home.

The apple tree obviously serves as a symbol of the place where these lovers met—where they fell in love, where they had a bit of romance—and now he’s gone off to war and he’s saying, ‘Don’t you go and sit under that apple tree with anybody else but me’. And I think that’s really the idea that’s right here in our text. That was the apple tree where it all began, he says.

But not only that, it’s the apple tree—the same symbol—which involved your mother in labor, conception, and childbirth. In other words, it also involved pain; it involved the unpleasant; it involved self-denial and suffering. And in the Biblical way of thinking, those who enter the realm of marriage accept that willingly as part of the purpose of God. You know one of the great tragedies in our civilization and society today is that so many people are rejecting this aspect of marriage. Fine, we’ll have the erotic. Sure, we’ll develop a fellowship and friendship sort of thing, but none of that childbearing for me. We’re both going to be career people, and we’re not going to get involved in any of that hassle. No, thank you. Or if we do, we’re going to keep it to a very low minimum. Put them in a all-day care center, if possible. Get away from them as much as possible. Let somebody else suffer those tantrums, and the weary work of bringing up those children. There’s a lot of that today in our culture and society—an unwillingness to bear any pain or tribulation or suffering as a part of God’s plan for sex and love and marriage. But it is part of God’s plan—ask any father or mother who has raised children, and we all were children at one time, so we know that this is true. There are plenty of pains, plenty of sorrow and suffering. But the wonderful thing about love is that you don’t regret it for one moment, not at all. It was in reality a joyful suffering in the deepest sense of the word, and that’s what agape love is. You heard Paul describe it—it never gives up, never wears out, never gives out—because that love is like the love that God had for his people and Christ had for the church. And that is the love that excels, isn’t it?

Now the second thing that we see about this love is that it arises out of unshakable covenant commitment.

Place me as a seal over your heart,
Like a seal on your arm;
For love is as strong as death,
Its jealousy is as unyielding as the grave.
It burns like a blazing fire,
Like a mighty flame.

In other words, it is covenanted love that rises up to the level where God is involved in the vows and commitment, in the way it ought to be in a good marriage. There’s something unbreakable in this love. Sure, there is sorrow as well as joy, pain as well as pleasure, bad times as well as good, but you just don't think of giving up and walking out—that is agape love.

I think the greatest picture I ever saw of agape love was some years ago when I was serving in Kansas as a pastor in a little Reformed Presbyterian church there. What a tremendous exhibition of love. No, it wasn’t two young people caught up in the tremendous heat and passion of eros. And it wasn’t two people forty years of age really making it in the realm of phileo. No, it was two old people. I saw them in a rest home where we used to go to preach the Gospel once a month, and every time I went there I saw this couple. It really wasn’t a very pleasant sight because you didn’t have to look long to see that she’d had a terrible stroke. She didn’t even recognize the man beside her. And she said some unkind and hurtful things to him. Sometimes she would even suddenly slap him. And he was a distinguished, wonderful looking old gentlemen. I didn’t even have to ask if he was a Christian—I knew it from what I saw. He just talked to her gently and kept combing her hair, and telling her what he’d been telling her for fifty years and more: I love you, darling. That was the most beautiful exhibition of agape love I ever saw anywhere in this world. And that’s the love that excels, the love that rests on covenant commitment. Now I’m sure that this couple that I saw there in the rest home had once known the erotic. I’m sure they must have known the fellowship kind of love, too, but these were now gone. But agape love wasn’t gone. I never saw it stronger than right there, and the pain that was there didn’t destroy it at all. It only made it stronger.

And you know there’s a book in the Bible about that. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book of Hosea with sharp-eyed attention to detail. Hosea married a woman, and he loved her and had three children by her. Gomer was her name. And then after a while she decided she didn’t like all the pain involved in being a mother, so she left home and went off and gave herself to one man and then another. At first she seemed to enjoy it, but then gradually began to realize that it wasn’t so wonderful just to be loved for the erotic, and then left high and dry. There was no fellowship in it anywhere, nothing enduring. So, after a while she began to think, I wish I was back with Hosea. Finally she got up the nerve and went back to Hosea, a defiled image of her former beauty and glory. What would you have done if you were Hosea? Would you open the front door and say, ‘Get lost’. Well, if the only thing you ever had with her was eros, that’s exactly what you’d say. Who wants used merchandise like that? You might even say it if you’d never known anything better than companionship, because that’s been down the tubes also, and for a long time. But if you ever had agape love—the love of covenant commitment—like the commitment we have from God in his holy and everlasting covenant of grace, like the love of Christ for the church, then you might understand Hosea. Because it was still there. It was there because many waters cannot quench ‘agape’ love, nor will rivers overflow it. No, it wasn’t destroyed, and so Hosea took her in again and loved her all over again and washed her filth away, just as Christ is washing his church with the water of the Word, bringing her out of the gutter of sin into the glorious presence of the love of God. That is the love that excels.

When you see that, you’ll agree with the third thing I want to say about that love—it’s incomparable value, for many waters cannot quench love; rivers can’t wash it away; if one were to give all the wealth of his house for agape love, it would be utterly scorned. In other words, the moment you try to put a price tag on the love that excels you reduce it to absolute zero; you can’t do that. You know, young people, you can buy erotic love in this world. One of the real shocks to me in coming back to America from overseas was the want-ads in some of the papers up and down the land in America. When I left this country it wasn’t true, but now in every daily paper in the big cities you have columns of sex for sale. It’s legal now. No one does or says anything about it. For a few dollars you can buy erotic love, and they say in some cultures you can buy companionship love too. I rather doubt that it was all that innocent, but I’ve heard it said that the purpose of the Geisha girls in Japan was not ‘eros’, but ‘phileo’. They were cultured and educated, and the wives weren’t. They were good enough for erotic love, but for companionship love you went to the Geisha girls. And you sat around drinking tea and talking about art and literature.

So, supposedly, you can even buy that—companionship—but you can never buy covenant love. It’s not for sale, anywhere. The kind of love that Hosea had for Gomer. The kind of love that Solomon showed to the Shulamite after she’d been unkind to him and he loved her anyway. The kind of love that Christ had for the church. You can’t buy that love. So let me just ask you tonight, all of you that are married: Do you know love on the highest level? Of course you do if you’re a Christian, because if you’re a Christian you know you’re a sinner, you’ve gone astray, you don’t deserve the favor of Christ any more than the wife of Hosea did, for the Bible says, ‘All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way’. And what did Christ do? The Bible says, ‘having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’. He loved them to the uttermost. He did not cast them out. He did not give up on them. And so though our sins were as scarlet, he made them as white as wool, and he came and conquered our hearts, as fallen creatures, with his love—not with his wrath and judgment, but with his love. For you were not redeemed with corruptible things like silver and gold and precious stones—no, but by the precious blood of Jesus which he shed that you might come back home and be his bride. And so he says to you, ‘Listen, you have been redeemed, you have been purchased, and therefore I expect you—when you go home to your husband or to your wife—to love them with that same kind of love’. The nearest Christian to you is your husband and your wife. The place to begin to live out Christ’s love as a Christian is right there with that person that’s nearest to you. And you know I believe that that’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in the Kingdom of God. You don’t see it too often today, but how beautiful it is when you do.

Here’s a woman, for example, who in my opinion is very difficult to love, even for me as a pastor, and yet her husband loves her. He really does, and he shows that he does, steadfastly and faithfully. That’s something, and vice versa. And you see that in the Kingdom of God with people that aren’t easy to love, and yet they go on loving them, and that is the love that excels. And that is the love that God wants us to manifest in our Christian marriages, so that these Christian marriages can be the covenant foundation of God’s household and family, and so the church can be a beautiful thing in this world because it sets before men the image of the love of Christ for the church.

We’ve all sinned and come short of the glory of God, but with the help of the holy Spirit in dependence upon Christ, more and more we can know the love that excels.

May God grant it for his name’s sake.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. G. I. Williamson, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. G. I. Williamson

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