“Love is a commitment that will be tested in the most vulnerable areas of spirituality, a commitment that will force you to make some very difficult choices. It is a commitment that demands that you deal with your lust, your greed, your pride, your power, your desire to control, your temper, your patience, and every area of temptation that the Bible clearly talks about. It demands the quality of commitment that Jesus demonstrates in His relationship to us.”
― Ravi Zacharias, I, Isaac, Take Thee, Rebekah: Moving from Romance to Lasting Love
A long time ago, when a man wanted to propose marriage to his beloved, he would visit her at her father’s house, where there would be a feast with her extended family in attendance. When he worked up his nerve, he would stand at the banquet table, and lift up a cup of wine toward her, like a toast. If she drank from it, she accepted his proposal. The engagement would not be official until the man and his potential fiancee’s father negotiated a dowry, and she would place a veil over her face to signify to other suitors that she was no longer available.
For the next several weeks, the groom-to-be would build a house for his new family, usually attached to his parents’ house. His father would oversee this work, and would determine when the house was finished, since if it were up to the excited groom, a tent would have sufficed. When his father finally approved of his handiwork and the home was deemed complete, the young man would go retrieve his blushing bride, usually in the middle of the night. The bride-to-be was instructed to be prepared for his arrival as a sign of love, and told to keep her lamp burning so she could navigate the rough, Middle Eastern terrain between her father’s house and his in the dark. By this, they entered into a covenant of marriage, and the entire town would celebrate for days.
On March 8, 2013, one year ago today, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. I should have known something was up when they took us to an isolated exam room to tell us the results of her biopsy the day before. The doctor sat and gravely told us the news, and the reality of a thousand stories and statistics rushed over me, like waves from every direction, and within a few seconds, I fainted. Like-in-the-movies fainted. The room spun as I began to sweat and my vision vignetted smaller and smaller, like the end of an old movie, until… black. I slowly rejoined the world a few seconds later to see my wife crying, scared that something was wrong with her husband, not of the tumor raging inside of her.
You learn a lot about what kind of man you are in a situation like that, and apparently I’m The Man Who Faints.
The next few weeks were filled with all kinds of doctors’ visits, including one torturous day at Duke Cancer Center where we sat in a windowless exam room for seven straight hours while doctors paraded through with their own graven looks and nurses with we’re-so-sorry-this-is-happening-to-you eyes. We were assigned a medical oncologist, a brilliant Jewish man who specialized in breast cancer, and whose exam room wall prominently featured a framed image of Hebrew lettering with the English translation, a prayer that was engraved on my tongue:
I begged and pleaded. Please heal her. Please do not take her from me. Please, do not leave me alone and deserted on this earth.
Hebrew is an interesting language, especially when it comes to names. In ancient Israel, your name frequently doubled as a word or phrase, not unlike Native American names.
Sometimes a name would be given as a blessing, and one such name belonged to the wife of King Hezekiah, a woman named Hephzibah. This translated to “My delight is in her”, and was based on the Hebrew root hafz, meaning “safeguarded” or “taken care of”. This mention of the name Hephzibah is the first of two in the Old Testament.
For the first few weeks of our new reality, my wife and I were inseparable. Before our diagnosis, we often stayed in our neutral corners of the house, going about our free time perfectly content to check in and mention something if needed. Afterwards, however, we spent most evenings sitting together on our couch, holding hands like we were brand new.
It was during this time that I discovered the name and meaning of Hephzibah, and it hit me really hard. I wanted to be the kind of husband who delighted in his wife, loving her in the same way that Christ loves the Church, especially during this tough time. I tried to find strength in the call to delight in my wife, regardless of our circumstance, but never perfected it, though it did help us quite a bit through the hardest parts of her treatment. I fought hard to be her hero, her champion, and when I failed, which was ugly and often, I kept coming back to this word as a rallying cry to love her, to delight in her, and to protect her.
During the aforementioned “long time ago”, a man had a Passover meal with his friends, knowing he was going to die the next day. He held up a cup of wine to them, and asked them to drink saying, “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you.” I imagine they looked at one another, confused by what looked like a marriage proposal. Then, to further drive the point home, he said that his father’s house had many rooms, and that he was going to prepare a place for them.
By drinking from the cup, we accept his proposal. The day of the Bridegroom’s return is known only to the Father, and while we don’t wear veils, we are set apart, bought with a price, the dowry paid by the blood of Jesus. He will come like a thief in the night, and we are instructed to keep our lamps burning.
It’s easy to say humans put their own rituals of marriage onto their concepts of God, but I believe the opposite is true. This ritual, and many others, act as prophecy. I’ve heard it said that biblical prophecy is not about foretelling the future, as much as it is about making sure you recognize something God is doing when you see it. In this way, Jesus does not use this imagery as a metaphor so that married (or unmarried) people will understand how he wants to relate to us. Our earthly marriages are a metaphor for the love between Jesus and his Church. Our marriages are the shadows created when light shines across the union between Jesus and his Bride.
These rituals and ceremonies are foreshadowing the big twist in the story, how the Storyteller knew all along how it would play out, and that the narrative chess pieces were being put into the all the right places so that in a single move, the twist would be revealed, and you would slap your forehead and realize the whole point of the story. It would be so obvious, so staring-you-in-the-face, that you would kick yourself for not having seen it coming.
And kick myself I did, because it was in these most difficult moments I realized that my wife was not my Hephzibah, but that I, and she, and all of us who profess faith in Jesus are his delight, his protected ones. That neither height nor depth, neither depression nor cancer, neither sin nor sacrifice, neither people nor circumstances, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, the one who paid the highest price so that he could marry us.
I said the name Hephzibah appeared twice in the Bible. The other time is in a promise God made to the Israelites through the prophet Isaiah:
“No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married.” (Isaiah 62:4)
That’s the twist: That married or single, abandoned or widowed, we will be called Hephzibah, His delight is in us. We will be called Beulah, someday married to a groom that has been preparing a place for us all this time.
Let it be so.
Please, let it be so.