“Love is as strong as death, and jealousy as Sheol.” A fine sentiment, but what does it mean?
Maybe it means that love is as inevitable as death. We’re all going to die; our last resting place in this creation is the grave. Perhaps Solomon says that love is inevitable in the way death is.
But is it? Many go through life longing for love, hoping for love, feeling brief stirrings of love and receiving brief affection in return, but then go to the grave without ever really knowing love. People grow up in loveless homes, stumble through a loveless childhood, reach a sexually promiscuous loveless adolescence, endure a loveless marriage followed by a loveless divorce, raise children they resent and who resent them in turn. Love as inevitable as death? That’s laughable.
Maybe Solomon means that love endures even after death.
But does it? For a time, we remember our mother, father, wife, child, friend after they die. For a time, we are so distraught that we refuse to continue business-as-usual. But sooner than we like to admit, memories fade, grief softens, and before long it can be difficult to conjure up the dead at all. We try to keep love alive by looking at photos, listening to recordings or watching home movies, but it becomes harder and harder to recall what it was like to be in their presence.
For a year, maybe two, we think of them every hour, every day. Then memory fades to every month, and sooner than we like to admit we hardly even miss them anymore. The world has gone on; death, which left a gash in the world, triumphs and we accommodate to its victory. We rebuke ourselves for letting love cool, but we can’t stop it.
Love doesn’t seem to be strong enough to endure death. Death kills the ones we love, and then it kills memory too. Love endures forever? Gimme a break.
Love is a flame that even many waters cannot quench. So Solomon says.
But what about the mighty flood of debt or unemployment? What about the overwhelming waters of unruly children, or the death of a child? What about the flood that comes after the revelation that a husband or wife has been unfaithful? What happens to love when all these flood in at the same time?Most of our love is so weak that it doesn’t take “many waters” to quench. A little trickle will do – a few reproving glances, a few harsh words, a broken promise, the mere passage of time, the sheer fact of intimacy and familiarity – these are enough to quench the tiny flicker of our love.
Perhaps Solomon is talking about the potency of love, its relentlessness.
When death begins to crawl up our limbs, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Death gets his grip on us, and we die. Death is the sickness that none of us will be able to shake. Perhaps love is like death in that sense: We can’t control desire, and cannot predict or fight off those attractions. Passion shoulders prudence, reason, morality, out of the way and takes possession of us, becomes obsessive. Love is like death is that both capture, ravish us, and leave us victims. That seems to be closer to the analogy Solomon has in mind: But is that a good thing? Is it a good thing for passion to so overwhelm us that we lose control, lose ourselves?
And besides, is most human love really like that? We read about such love, the great loves of literature and legend. But most of our loves are much more mundane, far more comfortable and comforting, far more rational and prudent. We domesticate our passions, and for us relentless passion is as much the stuff of horror movies as of romances.
However we understand Solomon’s claim, it doesn’t seem to be true, and we begin to wonder how this sentimental nonsense, this wishful thinking, ever get into the Bible. What were they thinking? What was Solomon thinking when he said it?
To be continued, if not answered…