In our age, we have recovered the original meaning of the Song of Solomon as a celebration of romantic love between a man and a woman. But for centuries, the church has also rightly understood romantic love as a symbol of the love between God and his people—for example, Bernard of Clairvaux published 86 sermons on this biblical book, waxing eloquent on just this theme.
Bernard came by this interpretation honestly and biblically. Perhaps the most well-known use of the metaphor is found in the apostle Paul’s discussion of marital love, saying that it pictures the love between God and us:
As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. (Eph. 5:31–32)
For your Creator will be your husband;
the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name!
He is your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel,
the God of all the earth.
For the Lord has called you back from your grief—
as though you were a young wife abandoned by her husband,” says your God (54:5-6).
Perhaps the most famous and extended use of the metaphor comes from Hosea:
I will make you my wife forever,
showing you righteousness and justice,
unfailing love and compassion.
I will be faithful to you and make you mine,
and you will finally know me as the Lord (2:19–20).
Jesus often used wedding imagery in his parables to picture our relationship with God in the kingdom of heaven. “The Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a king who prepared a great wedding feast for his son…” (Matt. 22:2).
And as with the nourishment metaphor, this is carried through to the end of the Bible, in the vision of the culmination of all things:
“Praise the Lord!
For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.
Let us be glad and rejoice,
and let us give honor to him.
For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb,
and his bride has prepared herself.
She has been given the finest of pure white linen to wear.”
For the fine linen represents the good deeds of God’s holy people. (Rev. 19:6–8)
It is no wonder then, that Bernard, among other church writers, exploits this metaphor as he opens his sermonic Commentary on the Song of Songs. In sermon 3, in explaining the meaning of “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth,” he says:
… anyone who has received this mystical kiss from the mouth of Christ at least once, seeks again that intimate experience, and eagerly looks for its frequent renewal. I think that nobody can grasp what it is except the one who receives it. For it is “a hidden manna,” and only he who eats it still hungers for more.
In short, the desire for God is not unlike falling in love, in which the love-struck desire nothing else but to be with the beloved. It’s like the physical passion young lovers feel for one another. And it’s like the ecstasy of sexual union that momentarily satisfies ever so deeply but before long grows into a desire to know ecstasy again.
He is all that I need, all that I long for. My God and my help, I will love Thee for Thy great goodness; not so much as I might, surely, but as much as I can. I cannot love Thee as Thou deservest to be loved, for I cannot love Thee more than my own feebleness permits. I will love Thee more when Thou deemest me worthy to receive greater capacity for loving; yet never so perfectly as Thou hast deserved of me.
To encounter the living God is to meet with two realities at the same time. The first was expressed no more eloquently than by the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, when he haltingly transcribed in what became known as his Memorial, his stunning vision:
The year of grace 1654,
Monday, 23 November, … from about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
Many a saint has experienced this reality, if not in a direct, overwhelming vision, certainly in some encounter that they can never shake. They can never shake it because of the second reality that accompanies an encounter with the living God—its insatiableness. In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis talked about such an experience:
It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me. … It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? … An unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.
The cardinal mistake in some Christian circles is telling people that knowing God will bring us peace. Yes, in the sense of knowing forgiveness and purpose in life. But in a deeper sense, an encounter with God brings us not only satisfaction but also deep dissatisfaction, not just fulfillment but also longing, and a longing that can never be fulfilled.
ノリッジのジュリアンは『神の愛の啓示』（Revelations of Divine Love）でこの感覚を「耐えがたい望み」とした。「神が恵み深くもそのお姿を少しでも見せてくださるのなら、私たちは同じ恵みで、もっとすべてを見たいという望みに突き動かされるのです」。いちばんうまく言い表しているのは、「私は彼を見て、彼を求めた。彼を得て、彼を欲した」という一文だろう。
In her Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich called it “an unbearable desire.” She wrote, “If he graciously lets us see something of himself, then we are moved by the same grace to seek with a great longing to see him more fully.” She put it best when she said: “I saw him and I sought him, I had him and I wanted him.”
We are longing for the infinite, for that which all other desires only point. And when our desires are fulfilled, however briefly, we recognize how much more there is in God’s beauty and wonder and love. We can never exhaust its wonder and glory—and for that very reason, it is the most precious of longings.
Again, a person like me is tempted to say that longing is given only to a few naturally spiritual people. They have a unique desire for God, but most of us desire concrete realities and have special passions for, perhaps, food and drink, or romance and love, or fine music or fine art, or to be in the splendor of creation, and so forth. To each his own. This spiritual passion isn’t for everybody, I think.
And yet, Jesus says it is, in that he commands that we all pursue the love of God, and pursue it the fullest extent. This, like all commands, is not as much a “should” as it is a promise: Do this, and you shall live. Really live.
In our restlessness, we flit from one thing to another as we follow our desires, hoping against hope to find something, anything that will cure our boredom and satisfy our longings. Everything we pursue—financial security, love, fulfillment in a calling, the joy of a hobby or pastime, meaning work, and so forth—are mere pointers to something more true, more good, and more beautiful. We remain restless precisely because we mistake these shadows for the real thing.
At our worst, we make idols out of the penultimate things we desire. At our most innocent, we are like confused travelers who rejoice in reaching a milestone, mistaking it for our destination. In either case, there is something better that awaits us. The great Augustine, in reflecting on his youth in Confessions, said, “I sought pleasure, nobility, and truth not in God but in the things he had created, myself and others. Thus I fell into sorrow and confusion and error. Thanks be to Thee, my Joy and my Glory and my Hope and my God: Thanks be to Thee for thy gifts.”
In commenting on this, Augustine scholar Michael Foley noted that this passage outlines Augustine’s theology of desire: “The appetite for physical pleasure is ultimately a groaning for happiness in God, and thus the attempt to satisfy it with created goods instead of the Creator ends in sorrow rather than joy.” The same applies to the yearning for nobility and truth.
Thus there is no one who is not “into God,” so to speak. The only thing at issue is whether we are aware of what our desires are for and where they are designed to lead us. As Augustine famously and succinctly put it, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
To desire God—this is the sum and substance of life. It’s not just one injunction of many but the greatest commandment. It’s not merely a duty to fulfill but the fulfillment of life itself—to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. There is no greater blessing than to give oneself to this pursuit, and to enjoy the everlasting longing it produces in us. This is what the Westminster Catechism is getting at when it says that the chief purpose of men and women is “To glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”
So the psalmist is not neurotic or an emotional wreck, but the sanest of human creatures. If it is a mental illness, then let us all share in it. The church is not only a hospital for sinners but also an asylum for those disturbed saints who are monomaniacs for God, who want nothing but to seek after him, knowing full well that the pursuit will never end, and yet knowing too that there is nothing better to do with one’s life—“I saw him and I sought him, I had him and I wanted him.”