Stern as Death is Love

I found this recently from the Song of Solomon written around 300-500 BC;

Set me as a seal on your heart,
  as a seal on your arm;
For stern as death is love,
  relentless as the nether world is devotion;
  its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
  nor floods sweep it away.
Were one to offer all he owns to purchase love,
  he would be roundly mocked. (Song of Songs 8:6-7)

“Stern as death is love”. This takes direct aim at a common misconception; love is likable. Yes, sometimes it is but this passage shows us a different face of love. There are 23 synonyms of “stern”, defined as “unrelenting in assertion of authority and exercise of discipline” which includes serious, unsmiling, severe, forbidding, grim, grave, sober, dour, stony and flinty. There are another 18 synonyms defined as “strict and severe, using extreme measures or terms”. And remember, the passage says not just “stern is love”, but “stern as death is love”. That’s pretty stern!

It gets worse. The next line is “Relentless as the nether world is devotion”. Relentless as “oppressively constant or incessant” gets 50 synonyms like “unremitting, stubborn, nonstop, tenacious” and 34 more under “harsh or inflexible”. Again, the passage says not just “relentless is devotion” but “relentless as the netherworld is devotion”. We’re talking about a sort of hell here.

This is a paradox. Love is dangerous; it could lead anywhere. Love is necessary; we are commanded to love each other. We must love knowing that it could land us in a hellish situation. Love, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “willing the good of the other as other”. Love is likeable when what is truly good for the someone else happens to be pleasant for me. Love is less likeable when what is truly good for someone else is painful to me. What is evil is to burden another by appealing to love in order to simply satisfy my pleasures.

The love that God commands here is the up-side-down love that Jesus shows us on his cross, where the unloved will be loved, the first shall be last, the weak shall be strong and the dead shall rise. We call it “upside-down”, but really, it is making “right-side-up” what went wrong long ago when sin entered the world.

This reading speaks directly to Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ love was “stern as death”; his love for us caused his death on Good Friday. Jesus’ devotion to us was “relentless as the underworld”; he descended into Hell on Holy Saturday. His love righted a wrong by following his Father’s will: “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 5:30). This was more than a vague obedience to an order, it was an active embrace of his mission: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.” (Jn 10:18). So, there we have it. Jesus set a high bar for me; not just to endure, but to embrace and even own the stern and relentless consequences of love in obedience to our Father in order to right an upside-down world.

Published by


I am a retired family physician from rural Iowa and have an MA in Theology from Franciscan University at Stubenville, OH. While my native language is evangelical Protestant, I am fluent in traditional Catholic as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s