The Bible speaks not only of ardent love between men and women, but it presents God himself as a lover and his courting of creation as the Great Romance.
The symbol seems a strange one, considering the Christian reluctance to embrace romantic love. Yet it is distinct throughout Scripture. God desires Israel for his bride: "For, as a young man weds a maiden, so you shall wed him who rebuilds you" (Isa. 62:5; all quotations from the NEB). He fondly recalls the days of harmony, "the love of your bridal days, when you followed me in the wilderness" (Jer. 2:2). Yet Israel is unfaithful—God is the unrequited lover. "Will a girl forget her finery or a bride her ribbons? Yet my people have forgotten me over and over again. How well you pick your way in search of lovers!" (Jer. 2:32). God is a passionate lover, and passion can fuel anger. Like the country singer who wonders, "if I saw you, would I kiss you or want to kill you on sight?" God storms at his lover for her prostitution.
After all, he rescued her as a newborn baby lying in her own blood, raised her to full womanhood, gave her fine clothes and jewelry, provided for her the best of foods, and presented her with sons and daughters (Ezek. 16:114). In return, she imperviously fornicates. "How you anger me!" shouts God (Ezek. 16:30). He threatens to turn her over to her many lovers, to strip her naked before them. The lovers will rob her jewelry, stone her, and hack her to pieces (Ezek. 16:39-40).
Which is it, then, kiss or kill?
Wait, for God is the perfect lover. He vents his anger, then whispers: "But now listen, I will woo her, I will go with her into the wilderness and comfort her" (Hos. 2:14). He follows her through fires, floods, dark woods, wherever she goes, then pleads "How shall I deal with you? Your loyalty to me is like the morning mist, like dew that vanishes early." Don't you see, he adds, "loyalty is my desire, not sacrifice" (Hos. 6:4-5). Love will heal: it will reveal the eternal identity and make all things new. Come, God says, and Israel may be "fair as the olive" and "flourish like a vine" (Hos. 14:6-7).
Then the persistent lover takes another tack. He is not out to woo only one tribe, one people, but all, and all of creation. This wild lover will stop at nothing. He condescends and assumes the nature of a slave. He walks among us and heals and proclaims peace and routes demons (and takes up a whip to show some of that old anger too). He demonstrates his power over death by raising the dead, he tells story after story to win our trust. He looks on us adoringly, and yearns, "How often have I longed to gather you children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings: but you would not let me" (Luke 13:34).
And still we will not let him. He is embarrassing us. He keeps company with prostitutes, for one thing. Sometimes he acts too happy, and he eats and drinks more than a holy man should. Worst of all, he makes outlandish claims that he is the same God who has been chasing us all along. Finally, cruelly, we turn our backs on him once more, and nail his back to a cross.
But he is God, and mad in love enough to bear it, to take all our anger and guilt. Three days later, he is backand this shocks us into trying to love him better. Our infidelity is long and habitual, though, and we still slip often. There are yet many other gods winking at us, seducing us. Our resolve to be unfaithful is weakened, just the same.
We have been betrothed to our "true and only husband" (2 Cor. 11:2). We have seen that love really is stronger than death, stronger than life or angels or principalities or powers or anything else. In the end, there is no fighting it. We already hear fiddles scratching away at a distant feast, and we wonder more and more why we ran so hard from this lover. "Happy are those who are invited to the wedding-supper of the Lamb!" (Rev. 19:9).
We hear much of the wedding day, of great, jubilant crowds rumbling like a dozen waterfalls or rolling thunder. They have stopped running and, at long last, accepted true love. "Alleluia!" they cry. "The Lord our God, sovereign over all, has entered on his reign! Exult and shout for joy and do him homage, for the wedding-day of the Lamb has come! His bride has made herself ready, and for her dress she has been given fine linen, clean and shining" (Rev. 19:7-8).
Ah: the bride. Finally she is made new. God's people bear renewed bodies; bodies sown in humiliation but raised in glory, mortal bodies clothed with immortality (1 Cor. 15:43 and 53). And so suns and moons, rocks and trees, all creation drawn into the heart of God, consummating the praise for which it was made (Ps. 148:5-6). Consumation is what weddings are all about.
Soon, very soon, the wedding of all weddings will begin. Heaven will crash open and the bridegroom appear on a white horse. God's people may yet be panting from their headlong dash away from him, but they will gather breath to shout.
"'Come!' say the Spirit and the bride.
"'Come' let each hearer reply" (Rev.22:17)
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 3, 1984, issue of Christianity Today. At that time Rodney Clapp was CT's editor of arts and sciences. He is now editorial director for Brazos Press.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
For more information on Valentine's Day and it's history visit Christianity Today's Holiday area and read "Then Again, Maybe Don't Be my Valentine | Does Saint Valentine's Day have its origins in Christian tradition?"