Flame of Yah

John Coulson, Deputy Principal and Academic Dean. Lecturer in Bible.

At the recent wedding service of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Bishop Michael Curry preached a sermon about love from Song of Solomon 8:6-7 (NRSV):

6 Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
7 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.

Rev Curry’s message was about the power of love to redeem and change the world. He explained that love is from God. The theological centre of his sermon was the command to love God and one’s neighbour, and how this was demonstrated in Jesus’ self-giving love for others, a redemptive love that changes lives and can transform the world. The purpose of the sermon was to inspire all who were listening and watching, especially the young couple, to pursue a life of love.

The sermon inspired me to look into the verses that were read and think more deeply about their powerful description of love. While what is said here about love can be applied generally, in its context it is talking about the love between a husband and wife, and is thus very appropriate for use at a wedding. Within the love poetry of the Song, the words are spoken by one spouse to the other. If we assume for a moment that the wife is speaking, when she talks about a seal, she is saying, “I want you to be mine, exclusively—heart and body.” If the description of love is understood positively, it is describing the unfailing power of love that remains passionately committed to the beloved alone; it is a jealous love (“passion” in the NRSV is literally “jealousy”) that loves exclusively.

You may wonder about the title of this article. The Hebrew word translated “raging flame” is literally “flame of Yah,” where Yah is a contraction of Yahweh, the covenant name of God. Many scholars understand the phrase to be a superlative, thus meaning something like “raging flame.” Some scholars argue that it should be understood as referring to God. Thus, the powerful passion and jealousy of true love comes from God himself, whose jealous love for his people—both Israel and the church—is an unquenchable “fire” and “flame” (note verbal parallels with Deut 32:21-22, pointed out by Richard Gibson).

I wondered about how the Septuagint (LXX—the Greek translation of the Old Testament) translates “love” in verses 6-7. It uses the word agapē, the Greek word used most often in the New Testament to refer to God’s love. The use of agapē in the LXX shows the great impact of Israel’s theology on its understanding of love. The LXX translators did not use erōs—the Greek word normally used for romantic love—to translate the Hebrew word for love in verses 6-7. Erōs is love that “desires to have or take possession” for its own fulfilment (NIDNTT, 2: 538). Agapē is love that gives and acts for the sake of others. This is the kind of love that God expressed to Israel and that he taught them to practise as his people. It is also the love that married couples must practise if they are to know deep and lasting love for each other.

Unfortunately, many people today are trying to build their marriage with erōs. It will fail. Only agapē is “strong as death, its . . . fire the flame of the LORD.” “Agapē never fails” (1 Cor 13:8). Agapē is not only the love that Christians are to express to their brothers and sisters in Christ. It is also the love that God gives within marriage that enables a marriage to be rich and lasting. It is the “fire” of self-giving love. Let us “fan into flame [this] gift of God” (2 Tim 1:6).