Finding Love Outside the City
JANUARY 7, 2021
“Love is love,” we commonly hear today.
But the Bible has a very particular definition of love, and even more a particular view on where that love is found geographically, and that is, outside of the city. But the point here isn’t to throw shade at actual cities, but instead to show how the theme of city limits symbolically drives us ahead to the resolute, saving love of Jesus Christ.
We see this theme arise in an Old Testament love poem: the Song of Solomon. In Chapter 3, we meet an engaged woman in distress because she can’t find her fiancee. An abridged reading of the first 11 verses says:
On my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him but found him not.
I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares;
I sought him but found him not.
The watchmen found me as they went about in the city.
“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”
Scarcely had I passed by them when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him and would not let him go.
What is that coming up from the wilderness, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense?
Behold, it is Solomon…on the day of his wedding!
For some initial clarity, there are two overlapping poems here, one where she finds her fiance outside the city, and one when she sees him (Solomon) coming up out of the wilderness on the day of his wedding. Both have to do with the joy of marital union, but together they underscore some significant themes that — when we clarify them with the gospel — help us understand the greater storyline of Scripture and how it moves us from problem to solution.
A royal wedding
King Solomon, here, is a type (or a forerunning symbol of) Jesus Christ. Both are sons of David. Both are wise kings. Both spend time in the wilderness. Both are associated with myrrh and frankincense. And both are husbands who are parted from — but then united with — their wives. With Jesus, however, these things are heightened and spiritualized. As our king, he fought our battles and protected us most fully when he died for our sins. When he spent time in the wilderness post-baptism, it was a time of suffering and expulsion to point ahead to when he would die for hungry and exiled ones like us. When he was gifted myrrh by the magi, it forecasted his death as well, as myrrh was a burial spice. And even with the theme of marriage, the way we are spiritually wedded to Jesus is through his death, similar to how God put Adam to sleep (a figurative death) to produce Eve from his body.
These are beautiful truths because they mean that Jesus loved us so much that he willingly gave up his own life for us. Love is sacrifice. And he’s the initiator, not us — like a groom initiates the covenant of marriage with his bride by entering the room first before she does. Notice that Songs 3 helps us see movement from the woman searching and finding him to it really being Solomon who ends up finding her. The Bible moves us from foggy to clear, like this very passage does, in explaining how, exactly, we are reconciled with God. It might look at first like we find him (but like the woman struggles to find him on her own and despairs, so do we). But then we see it’s Jesus all along who is searching for us, coming up out of the wilderness to die in our place on a tree.
There are many correlations between Solomon and Jesus, but one more needs further explication, and that is they both are “outside-the-city”-type kings.
Crossing the “city limits” of the Law
As previously mentioned, the Song makes it clear that the woman finds Solomon “when she passes by” the watchmen, i.e., when she leaves the city. And later, Solomon is shown to be coming up out of the wilderness, again, from outside the city. The reason this is so important is due to what the city proper — Jerusalem — represents in the Bible, namely, the old covenant itself and the laws and commandments therein, a system of “do this and [then] you will live” (Lev. 18:5).
And that’s why it’s so important that she finds Solomon outside the city. The woman is a picture of the bride of Christ leaving the city of the law to embrace her king. She found love apart from the city like we find love “apart from law” (Romans 3:21) and instead in the loving hands of the second Solomon.
This is also why Jesus was born in Bethlehem and not Jerusalem; the salvation he inaugurated through his birth was outside of the bounds of the old covenant. It’s why some sneered at his association with no-name country towns (“Nazareth? Pshht…”), just like religious, law-embracing ascetics of our day scoff at the simplicity of empty-handed, gospel-believing Christians.
We see this principle most explicitly stated, however, in Hebrews 13:11-12 where it says, “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.” This is so important: look at how big of a deal he makes of the location of Jesus’s death. Jesus died outside the city, not inside. Dying inside would be to say that he died in a way “blended” with the law or the old system as if his death helped to make up for our deficiencies but still kept us under the commandments themselves — the “do this and you will live” system. But instead, he dies outside and apart from all of that. He was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Galilee, and died outside the city gates to show us that it’s his blood alone that saves us, and it’s his blood alone that defines our everyday Christian spirituality. We are saved by grace, not by works, by the Spirit, not by the law, by love, not by our performance.
Like the so-called “mob” of people who “knew nothing of the law” but who still stayed close to Jesus in John 7, so does the Song of Solomon call us sinners to “hold him and never let him go.” So, go to Jesus outside the city, like the woman in Songs 3. Go to him with empty hands, as needy sinners without money, and cling to him. Move from the aimless despair of being under the law to the simple joy of seeing Jesus die for us apart from it, and breathe in the free air of the gospel forever.