I HARRY, take you, MEGHAN, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part; according to God’s holy law. In the presence of God I make this vow.
That was how we heard the vows spoken at the royal wedding last year. And of course those same words – or words very like them – are spoken every week by happy couples in their thousands. I guess there are quite a few in this room who’ve had occasion to say them.
But what are those words at heart? I take it what they are is a response to the two clearest statements in the Bible about God’s expectations for human marriage.
• Genesis 2:24 – ‘A man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.’
• And Matthew 19:6 – ‘What God has joined together, let no-one separate’.
When a couple takes those vows, they’re looking at the way God has designed marriage in general and saying they’re going to express in their individual marriage. That decisive step that we see in those verses - one man with one woman together forever – that’s the shape their new life is going to take in the days and years ahead.
And the vow has a particular force to it.
Because even as the vow is spoken, there’s an acknowledgment, isn’t there, that married life will have its ups and downs. There’ll be better days and worse days. Richer days, and poorer days. (To be fair, poorer is maybe relative if you’re a member of the British royal family!) Healthy days and sick days. Actually the very fact that you’re taking the vow at all is an acknowledgment of something: it’s recognising that this business of loving and cherishing the other is something you won’t always feel like doing; there’ll be times you need to resolve to love and cherish simply because you said you would.
And of course, that reality is borne out in all marriages, isn’t it?
From the vantage point of the unhappily single person, the grass may look greener over the marriage fence, but the reality you’ll likely see if you get up close is that that greenness is pretty patchy. There’s a lot of dried out lawn over there, or even areas that are caked with mud. Lots of those married are looking over your fence and your grass is looking positively luxuriant to them.
Marriage can be an exhilarating ride; it can also be a painful trudge. To use those famous words of Dickens, it can be ‘the best of times… and the worst of times; the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness; the season of light, and the season of darkness, the spring of hope, and the winter of despair.”
Or to put it another way... Some days can be Wet Wet Wet days:
I feel it in my fingers
I feel it in my toes
The love that's all around me
And so the feeling grows
But other days are Adele days. Pretty much anything Adele song, would do for those. How about.
Hello from the outside
At least I can say that I've tried
To tell you I'm sorry
For breaking your heart
But it don't matter, it clearly
Doesn't tear you apart anymore
Maybe – on second thoughts – we should stick with Dickens!
Well I think it might be time to turn to the Bible. And to this song or collection of songs known as the best song of all – the Song of Songs. This book shows us God’s beautiful design for love and intimacy in marriage, but – as we’ll see today – it doesn’t spare us from the gritty, real-life experience of what marriage can actually feel like and often does.
So if you’re married, or think one day you might be, or you want to be a good friend to someone who is, or you’d like to ponder what marriage is really about deep down, it’d be worth tuning in.
Let’s pray and then we’ll hear God’s word.
Well, as we begin these chapters, the honeymoon has well and truly ended hasn’t it? I don’t know if we’re meant to see a chronological sequence between chapter 4 and chapter 5 or not. But if there is a continuity here, then things really have come crashing down, very fast indeed. A moment ago it was ‘let my beloved come into his garden and taste his choice fruits’. Now it’s more like: ‘go away, I’ve got a headache!’
Here is the first of two of those “Adele days”, as I seem to be calling them. It’s the time when… the connection just isn’t happening.
relaxed, semi-conscious state.
I slept but my heart was awake.
But now she comes to because there’s someone at the door. I wonder who that could be, she thinks.
Listen! My beloved is knocking:
And he’s not just knocking. He’s begging.
‘Open to me, my sister, my darling,
my dove, my flawless one.
My head is drenched with dew,
my hair with the dampness of the night.’
It’s pretty clear what he’s after, isn’t it? He wants to be with her tonight.
But she’s clearly not in the mood.
‘Really?’, she says? Now? At this time? Verse 3.
I have taken off my robe –
must I put it on again?
I have washed my feet –
must I soil them again?
Well, it’s not the first time a man has made his advance; and his wife has rebuffed him. But he’s not giving up just yet. Verse 4.
My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening;
He really wants her, clearly.
And finally his tenacity seems to be winning her round. She finds herself smiling. Maybe I could be up for this, she thinks.
my heart began to pound for him.
They say that – when it comes to intimacy – men are like gas ovens (they’re ready to go in a moment), but women are more like electric ovens (they get to the same temperature but need a bit more time to warm up). They need their heart to be touched, their minds to be touched, but their bodies are ready to be touched. Well I don’t know if that’s always right, but it seems to be the case here.
She’s slowly getting there. She hauls herself out of bed. Verse 5.
I arose to open for my beloved.
But first things first. On goes the perfume. And all the other preparations. And eventually she’s ready to fling open the door and let him in. Only to find – what? Verse 6
I opened for my beloved,
but my beloved had left; he was gone.
He’s given up on her. It’s a classic case of lack of connection. When he was ready, she wasn’t there yet. Now she’s good to go, he’s history. Desire Discrepancy Syndrome, I think they call it in the marriage counselling world.
And she’s left just distraught.
My heart sank at his departure.
In fact it’s about to get worse. Love does have a habit of making people do foolish things. Well, in her case, she decides to head off into town searching for her man. Forgetting perhaps that she’s wearing nothing but a skimpy robe, and made up and perfumed up to the eyeballs. Hardly a surprise then, that when the police find her, they take her for a common prostitute and treat her accordingly.
I looked for him but did not find him.
I called him but he did not answer.
7 The watchmen found me
as they made their rounds in the city.
They beat me, they bruised me;
they took away my cloak,
those watchmen of the walls!
This is awful, isn’t it? The fairytale midnight liaison has turned into a nightmare. She’s left to nurse her bruises and try and work out how things turned out this way.
It’s not unusual, though, for relationships to fall into this kind of pattern. When the connection just fails to happen. When the timing is just off.
Sometimes it’s to do with physical intimacy. One partner forgets that their body is no longer their own and frankly can’t be bothered to go to the effort of getting aroused. So the answer is no.
Well it’s their call. If it’s no, it’s no. That passage in 1 Corinthians 7 about one person’s body belonging to the other: that’s not an invitation to stake your claim on your partner; no it’s an invitation to voluntarily give yourself to the other. There are actually plenty of good reasons why the answer might be no. But maybe there might be some not-so-good reasons too:
• I can’t be bothered
• I’d rather read my book
• I want to punish him / or her
But it’s not just sexual intimacy where couples experience this lack of connection. It can just as easily be an emotional intimacy. She needs to talk through her day; but he needs time to himself. She gets angry at his lack of interest. He responds by withdrawing further still. It’s a commonplace pattern. It’s been played out any number of times in marriage relationships.
And actually even normal friendships can have a hint of this, can’t they? The old Friends theme tune: ‘I’ll be there for you ‘cause you’re there for me too.’ That expectation can prove to be false, can’t it? I was there for you, but at my moment of need, when I really needed someone to hang out with, to get something off my chest, when I needed you to be there and listen, you were too busy, you had something else on, you needed some time to yourself – or whatever it was.
In every case, the timing’s just not there. Your expectations of each other don’t line up. The connection doesn’t happen. And like the woman here, you end up feeling battered and bruised. The whole relationship is under threat.
What’s needed to get a relationship like that back in sync? Back to where God wants it to be?
Look on to chapter 6 and see what each of our lovers now does:
It’s ladies first apparently. So what does she do? She assures him of her availability.
When her friends ask her – verse 1 – where he’s gone, she gives a slightly strange answer. It turns out he’s exactly where he’s meant to be. Verse 2.
My beloved has gone down to his garden,
to the beds of spices,
to browse in the gardens
and to gather lilies.
You may recognise that language of going down to the garden and browsing among the lilies. We’ve heard it a couple of times already in the book. And it clearly it’s a picture of the couple enjoying an intimate relationship.
So what is happening here? She’s acknowledging that in truth he hasn’t really gone anywhere. The relationship is still on. Maybe it was just her insecurity that led her to think it was off. But that’s all gone now. Because she pledges afresh that she really is there for him:
I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine;
he browses among the lilies.
She assures him of her availability.
And there might be some of us here this evening who need to do that afresh. And not just with words, perhaps, but with actions.
• If you’re married, what does it say when your partner comes to bed and sees you just glued to your smartphone, maybe even messaging a friend. Generally speaking, I’d suggest your bed is good for two things: sleeping and sex, or for things which help with one of those things.
• And if you’re single, what does it say when your friend gets in touch with you and for the third time in a row you just haven’t got space in the diary or energy or willingness to meet up or engage? Friends are important. We need each other.
So she assures him of her availability.
And he in turn assures her of his commitment.
You are beautiful – verse 4. Your eyes, your hair, your teeth, your temples,
Sixty queens there may be, (v.8)
and eighty concubines,
and virgins beyond number;
9 but my dove, my perfect one, is unique,
‘I know I don’t always appreciate you’, he’s saying, ‘I know it might seem like I take your for granted, but the truth is: you could offer me all the leading ladies of Hollywood, all the contenders for Miss World. But they wouldn’t do anything for me. They have nothing on you. You are the one, the only one, for me.’
I wonder if your partner, your friends, know that your commitment is solid. Have you told them recently? Have you demonstrated it recently?
So there’s one common theme in many relationships. Here’s a second. It’s not this time that the connection is not happening; it’s just that the comparisons are unsettling.
Turn back to chapter 5 and verse 8. I just want to pick up where we were before. Here is our young bride. Out in town in the middle of the night. She’s desperately searching. She’s received no help at all – in fact, only harm – from the people who she might have expected to help her. The local police force. So now she turns to her friends.
8 Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you –
if you find my beloved,
what will you tell him?
Tell him I am faint with love.
But they are hardened cynics, by the sound of it. They know men, or so they think. Men – they’re all the same. Verse 9.
9 How is your beloved better than others,
most beautiful of women?
How is your beloved better than others,
that you so charge us?
You can’t miss the sarcastic tone, can you? ‘You better learn something fast, my innocent young friend. Or you’ll end up getting hurt even more. Men are men. None of them are any different. What’s yours got that sets him apart? He might seem special. They always do. But believe us, he’s not.
It’s not exactly a positive model of supporting your married friends, is it?
That wedding service for Harry and Meghan last year included a line for the congregation too. They were asked:
WILL you, the families and friends of HARRY and MEGHAN, support and uphold them in their marriage now and in the years to come?
I hope we’ll do a better job with our married friends than the daughters of Jerusalem here.
Because you see what they’re offering, don’t you? It’s an invitation, isn’t it, to play the comparisons game. It’s a game any number of married people find their minds getting drawn into. Was he actually as good a catch as I thought he was? Was he really the right choice for me? I’m not so sure now. Now the hormones aren’t flying around quite as much and I can actually think clearly, was she really anything special?
It’s a terrible game to play for married people, the comparisons game.
And it’s even worse when the one you’re comparing your spouse is not people in general but someone with a specific face.
• Somebody from your past, maybe. Someone you got intimate with – more intimate than you should. And now, the image of that person or that experience is just there in your mind like an open tab on your browser, ready to be flipped across to at a moment’s notice.
• Or somebody from your present. That person you see at work or at the gym or – dare I say it – at church. And you find your mind just wandering, maybe to your horror or at least your surprise!
• Or maybe it’s some image from the world of porn that we thought about last week. How does my partner compare to that?
The comparisons can be unsettling. And sometimes overwhelming.
If we know our Bibles a bit, we’ll remember that benchmark set by the apostle Paul. Philippians 4:13.
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,
That’s where we want to be, of course. We want to be content.
• The single person wants to be content in their situation, but finds it difficult. Maybe that’s something you know a lot about.
• And the married person wants to be content in their situation – that is, not just married, but married to this person.
Well, ‘Choose your love’ – goes the saying – ‘then love your choice’. Choose your love and then love your choice. That’s what we need to do. And doing that is up to us. Falling out of love or having your heart directed elsewhere isn’t something that just happens to us (despite the line we’re always hearing); no it’s the culmination of 1000 things you decided to do, or not to do. Someone once said ‘Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.’ I think there’s some truth in that.
Well, how does this woman react to the comparison question that’s planted in her mind? She reacts by taking it at face value. And exploding the comparison by calling to mind just what it is that sets her man apart.
My beloved is radiant and ruddy,
outstanding among ten thousand.
11 His head is purest gold;
his hair is wavy
and black as a raven.
12 His eyes are like doves
by the water streams,
washed in milk,
mounted like jewels.
13 His cheeks are like beds of spice
His lips are like lilies
dripping with myrrh.
14 His arms are rods of gold
set with topaz.
His body is like polished ivory
decorated with lapis lazuli.
15 His legs are pillars of marble
set on bases of pure gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon,
choice as its cedars.
16 His mouth is sweetness itself;
he is altogether lovely.
This is my beloved, this is my friend,
daughters of Jerusalem.
I’m not sure how helpful the description is for identification purposes. I’ve got a Bible study guide to Song of Songs, and at this point, there’s a question that says: ‘Draw a picture of the woman’s beloved based on this description.’
Er, I’m not sure where I’d go with that. A sketch of a raven and some doves, a still life picture of a glass of milk, a little map of Lebanon. I can see the police identikit person struggling a bit here.
But you get her point. She’s calling to mind what it is that draws her to him.
And in chapter 7, he returns the compliment. Last time, he worked from the top down; now it’s from the feet up.
How beautiful your sandalled feet,
O prince’s daughter!
Your graceful legs are like jewels,
the work of an artist’s hands.
2 Your navel is a rounded goblet
He’s looking at her. And she’s letting him. She’s visually generous to him, which is a great gift to most men. And a particularly wise gift to men in this porn-saturated world and the temptations to find visual stimulation there. She doesn’t allow her insecurity about her own body to rob him of his proper delight in her.
The comparison question was there. But they’ve each in turn reminded themselves of what it is they appreciate in each other. They’ve taken the decision to fill their horizons with attraction they feel for each other in such a way as to block out the view of anything else or anyone else. They explode the comparison.
And no surprise where they end up after that.
7 Your stature is like that of the palm,
and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
8 I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree;
I will take hold of its fruit.’
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
the fragrance of your breath like apples,
9 and your mouth like the best wine.
Well, I hope there are some helpful pointers for married people, and potentially future married people, and those who’d love to be a good friend and supporter to someone who’s married.
But I hope in the background too, you’ve begun to pick up echoes again of Jesus himself.
We talked about those occasions when the connection in our relationships doesn’t happen. When the timing is off. The wonderful thing with Jesus, though, is his timing is never off. Galatians 4v5
But when the time was right, God sent his Son, and a woman gave birth to him. His Son obeyed the Law, 5 so he could set us free from the Law, and we could become God’s children.
He came to us just when he was needed. And he will be there for us for all eternity: ‘I am with you’, he said ‘to the end of the age.’
So when our relationships do misfire, whether it’s friendships or family or marriage partners, or whatever it is, when they misfire, when the timing is wrong, when there’s a disconnect, when someone we counted on withdraws from us or isn’t there for us, Jesus will be there. Ready and waiting. With arms outstretched.
‘When you search for me with all your heart’, said God to his people Israel, ‘you will seek me and find me’. In Jesus, God is good to that promise.
We may or may not get back in sync with the one we love. We may or may not even have someone to love and get in sync with. But we do have Jesus.
And we talked too about those occasions when comparisons – especially perhaps visual comparisons – might be unsettling for us. They bring strain into a relationship.
Well that will never happen with Jesus. It can’t, can it?
I mean, where does beauty comes from. It comes from God himself, doesn’t it? All beauty comes from him. And not just visual beauty, but moral beauty, beauty of character.
‘One thing I would ask of the Lord’, sang the psalmist, ‘to behold the beauty of the Lord’.
Well in Jesus, it’s request granted, isn’t it? All the beauty of God himself – all his perfections – his wisdom, his grace, compassion – all of it – is focussed in on the person of Jesus. And when we see him face to face, we won’t be able to take our eyes off him, such is his beauty.
And through his death, we who are in and of ourselves unlovely, as ugly as sin, will be made clean. Ready to meet our groom: ‘prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.’
There will be no more comparisons. No more mental distractions.