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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Song of Solomon 1

 

 

Verses 1-17

The Song of Songs

Song of Solomon 1

"The Song of Songs" means the supreme Song of Solomon , the very best song of the kind ever known or ever sung. We have the expression "King of kings," "Lord of lords," indicating supremacy; supremacy, if it be possible, of a superlative kind; an undisputed and eternal primacy. The Hebrew delights in this kind of expression,—multiplication of words, even to redundance of assurance. This Isaiah , therefore, not only a Song of Solomon , it is the Song of Solomon , the music of music; a high degree of that which is already immeasurably high. Yet there is not a religious word throughout the whole song. It is acknowledged to be a piece of secular literature by the most spiritual and evangelical annotators. The name of God does not occur in it, in any sense signifying adoration or piety. There is an exclamation which simply recognises the greatness of God, but from beginning to end the song is one of Eastern love, and is not to be forced into religious or spiritual uses. It may be accommodated by legitimate adaptation to such purposes; on the other hand, it may be regarded as the sweetest love-song ever sung, and it need not be made to do service in the house of the Lord at all. For a long time it was uncertain whether the song should be put in the sacred canon or not; so to say, it hung in the balance; a vote either way determined its canonicity. Here we find it, however, and there are certain things which we may see in it which may prove to be practical, useful, legitimate.

We are right, for example, in associating the idea of Christ"s union with his Church as one marked by the tenderest love. There is a place for love in religion. This thought, now so commonplace, is nothing less than a revelation from the eternal God. The world has been used to awe, fear, veneration, prostration, abjectness of self-obliteration, in the presence of majestic or frowning heavens; enough of that the world has seen, with all its brood of superstition, ignorance, and uses of the most degrading kind; it was reserved for the Scriptures, as we regard them, a distinct revelation from the Father, to associate love with pity. Love is a child"s word; it is indeed the word of a little child, of a bud-like opening heart. Yet it is a word which cannot be fathomed by highest intellect; it cannot be measured by most comprehensive vision. It is like the word God itself; it has become so familiar that we think we know it, yet with all our knowledge of it we cannot define it. Who can define "God"? or "Love"? or "Home"? or "Truth"? or "Life"? Yet these are the little words of the language. In very deed the little words are the great words. As we increase syllables we seem to lose meaning. There is no thought known to us worth having and worth using which cannot be stated in the shortest words. It would seem to have pleased God that it should be so. Collect all you know, and see how far the knowledge admits of being stated in words of one syllable: the chief of these, of course, is God; the next might be Man; but surely the word that binds these two is Love. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind." The fear is lest having become accustomed to this word we suppose that it did not require a revelation to disclose it. Point out in other sacred books the function of love. Does not love mean a measure of familiarity? May not love go where fear dare not venture? May not love make great prayers, whilst fear contents itself with sighing and with trembling wonder? Does not love give boldness, courage, hope, confidence? May not love go higher than any other inquirer or worshipper? Many there are on the first step of the throne; some a little higher up; but what figure is that, highest of all, white-clothed, with a face all light, with an eye kindled at the sun? The name of that highest, purest, sweetest worshipper is Love. It is therefore not strange that there should be in the Bible even a book steeped in love, a soul sick of love, a heart without a dividing passion, a consecrated flame of affection. That such a book may be put to wrong uses is perfectly true; but what is there that may not be abused? What flower is there which a villain may not pluck and put upon his breast as a seal of honour? What bird is there which the cruellest hand may not kill? What word is there in all speech which a perverted imagination may not use for immoral or corrupting purposes? The Song of Solomon sanctified is a necessary element in the constitution of the Church"s work. Every syllable of it is needed,—not perhaps as Solomon used it, but as it may be used by a heart sanctified and sweetened by the grace of God. There comes a period in the history of the Church when it must have all signs, figures, emblems, charged with meanings that the heart wishes to convey,—yea, cypher signs which only the heart itself can make out in all their profound and tender significance.

We are right in thinking of Christ himself as the cause or origin of all this love. "Draw me, we will run after thee" ( Song of Solomon 1:4). There is a drawing force in life, a gracious impulse; not an impulse that thrusts men forward by eager violence, but that lures them, beckons them, draws them, by an unspeakable but most mighty magnetism. "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him." Observe the difference between the words to draw and to drive. It is the special function of love to attract, to fascinate, to shut out all other charms, and to fix the vision upon itself; and under that sweet compulsion men will dare any peril, face any darkness, traverse any distance, though the road be lined by ravenous beasts. "We love him because he first loved us." God does not ask from us an affection which he himself has not first felt: the love is not on our side, except as an answer; the love is on God"s part, as origin, fountain, spring, inspiration. "God is love." If God were only "loving" he might be something else—a mixture, a composition of elements and characteristics: God is more than loving, or he is loving because he is love. We say of some men, They are not musical, they are music; they are not eloquent, they are eloquence. In the one case you would but describe a feature or a characteristic; in the other you indicate an essence, a vitality, an individualism bound up with the thing which is signified. This love may be resisted; this drawing may be put aside. We may say even to him who is chiefest among ten thousand and altogether lovely, We will not have thee to reign over us; we have made up our minds to turn the day into night, and the night into one horrible revelry, and we would not have thy presence amongst our orgies and supper or feast of hell. Thou wouldst plague us; the feast would turn to poison under thy look or touch; so we banish thee, and enclose ourselves with evil spirits, that we may make night hideous. A tremendous power is thus given to man. He could not be man without it. Every man has the power to leave God, but no man has the right to do it. Am I asked what is this drawing? Hear the apostle when he puts the inquiry, "Despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?" Do not mercies break thee down in tears? Does not daily kindness penetrate thy obstinacy, and turn thy stubbornness into prayer? This is an appeal which is manifest, and not merely sentimental. The appeal is founded upon the goodness of God, and the goodness of God is the common story of the day; it begins to be seen when the dawn flushes the awakening earth with earliest light; it grows with the growing sun; it burns visibly and comfortingly in the setting day; all night it breathes its whispered gospel upon the heart of man;—it is written on the front-door of the house; it is inscribed on every window-pane through which the light comes with its needed blessing;—it is in every loaf, turning it into sacramental bread; it is in the cup, stirring the contents into holy wine, as sacramental blood;—the goodness of God was at the birth of the child, rocked the cradle of the child, watched over the growing life of the child, and will never forsake the advancing life, unless indeed that life shall grieve the Spirit, and quench the Holy Ghost. Doth not the goodness of God lead thee to repentance—charm thee, lure thee, fascinate thee? It was not meant to be a providence only, but a gospel; a gospel speaking through Providence; a great spiritual revelation incarnating itself in the house and home, and bread and garments, and all that makes life substantial and enjoyable. Where men do love the Son of God they are the first to acknowledge that their love is only an answer; they say, We love Christ, because he first loved us; when his love began to operate we cannot tell; we have searched into the history of this Man Christ Jesus, and we read that he was slain from before the foundation of the world; and verily that is true, for all his love comes to us with an impress of venerableness, a touch of eternity, a mystery not time-bound; it must be a love ancient as the duration of God.

This is what is meant by it being "all of grace." It never occurred to the heart of man to seek God or to love God. Who can love omnipotence? Who can love omniscience; or who can love ubiquitousness, omnipresence—a mere occupation of space? Love does not answer such ideas; there may be a bowing of the head, a closing of the eyes, a wondering of the imagination, a standing back as from an intolerable glory; but love does not know that sphere, love does not speak that language. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son": now we begin to feel a new emotion, there is upon our arm a human touch; there is mingling with our fellowship a human voice; there is a shrouded Deity, a concealed God. "Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh." Accompanying that revelation there is a drawing power, and having been once drawn we wish to be closer still; our cry every day Isaiah , Draw me: there is another height to be conquered, there is another land to be seen, there are other gardens growing with all the fulness and odour of the paradise of God: draw me, and I shall not see the danger; draw me, and I shall fly where I cannot walk. This is the ministry of grace; this is the ministry of providence; this is that spiritual ministry which operates without bound or time or space---the very ghost of life; the spiritual action that invests even matter itself with a strange sacredness.

So far, then, we are right in associating this Song of Songs with the worship of Christ, with the love of God, with the right cultivation of those affections which make not men only, but religious or spiritual men.

We are right in thinking that vital union with Christ is associated, not only with joy, but with supreme joy—"We will be glad and rejoice in thee": we will be glad with gladness, joyful with joy. This is more than Hebraistic amplification of words; this redundance is necessary to the expression of our emotion. There is a joy which seems to be spread over all living things; but our gladness must be higher than that transient rapture; we must have a rational joy, an intellectual gladness, a spiritual realisation of ecstasies that lie beyond language and form. We are to "rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory." So the Greek can be as redundant as the Hebrew; it is not any one language that thus speaks, but the heart that talks, and when the heart takes to speech how rapid, urgent, impetuous, ecstatic is the eloquence! Herein the Church is not like the academy or some school of pedantic criticism, where words are measured, and where conciseness is often considered a supreme virtue; the heart wants all things to help it in its unutterable utterance; yea, it would have the floods clap their hands, it would have the hills leap up in holy dancing; yea, it would ask the sea to roar in its fulness, and infuse into the lofty song the needful bass. When the spirit of man is in high religious rapture—not lost in fanaticism or folly—he asks for organ and harp and trumpet and instrument of ten strings, and constitutes the universe into an orchestra, and says, Now begin the mighty thunder; call the everlasting doors to lift up their heads, and the eternal gates to fall back, that the King of Glory may come in. Let us beware of a cold religion, a religion of paper and mechanism and arrangement; a religion that begins, continues, completes itself, and ends in frigid decency. Religion is nothing without enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is nothing without sacrifice; across everything must lie the sign of sacrifice; the image of the Cross must have its shadow on the sun; yea, it must throw a mournful, yet tender, yet hopeful, significance upon all creation. The Church has lost enthusiasm. We have joy, but it is regulated joy; a joy that is set down in the calendar; a joy of feasting that is appointed for us by external and unapproachable authority; but if we were true to the passion, the inspiration of love, we should say, "Thy love is better than wine... thy love more than wine." These expressions we find in the opening of this song; we find in the second verse, "Thy love is better than wine"; we find in the fourth verse, "We will remember thy love more than wine": let "wine" stand for the highest earthly exhilaration or joy. The love which we are to feel towards Christ is not only to be joyous, but supremely joyous; when we have ascended the whole line of earthly love we then, so to say, take wing and become distinctively joyous in Christ; up to that point we have had a common joy with Prayer of Manasseh , and bird, and beast, and every fair thing that lives in all God"s ample house called creation, but at a certain point we begin to separate, to enter into the peculiar joy, the special rapture, and if in that high ecstasy we are alone, having left behind us all meaner choristers, yet we are not alone, for the Father is with us. Have we a supreme joy? Does the Sabbath Day brighten over the whole week like a sun beaming its blessing upon every other day with encouraging benevolence? Is the church the largest house, the highest, brightest house, the house that encloses all our little dwellings, and makes them, as it were, nests in the altar of God? Have we lost enthusiasm, joy, madness? Are men no longer beside themselves for Christ? Or have they sacrificed everything to rigid uniformity, to a scheduled bill of particulars, by which they take their motion day by day, and by which they measure their worship? In the New Testament there is no mere duty. Duty is a cold military word, which has been displaced by Love—hot as the heart in infinite pity, and spontaneous as all the blessing in which God himself lives. Let us compare ourselves with Christ, who for the joy that was set before him endured the Cross.

We are right in thinking that the love of Christ is connected with a certain quality of personal character. In the fourth verse we read, "The upright love thee." Whatever may be the varying translation of that word "upright," we seem here to touch a religious chord; here at all events is a moral line. "The upright love thee." Where the character is perpendicular there is a corresponding affection for Christ. The upright seek thee, are lonely without thee, cannot live without thee. God has always put his finger upon character, and marked it as his own when good, and written it all over with condemnation when it was self-seeking and evil.

We are right in thinking that the love of Christ does not blind us to our personal defects—"They made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept" ( Song of Solomon 1:6). Here is an acknowledgment of personal shortcoming, neglect, unfaithfulness; and yet the love of Christ is not suspended or withdrawn. Were God to withdraw his love from us because our prayer was short or meagre, because the day was marked by neglect, because we sometimes, in a cowardly spirit, evaded duty, who could live before him? Where sin abounds grace doth much more abound. Some can say, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee: though but yesterday I denied thee, though but a week ago I played the coward, traitor, blasphemer, yet deep, deep down in my heart is a passion which the sea cannot drown. I love thee, thou Son of God! Who does not know that mixed experience,—hating oneself, yet loving Christ; doing the forbidden thing, yet turning to the forbidding God with a look all tears, a sigh that trembles with contrition, and a consciousness that within us is the seed of God which cannot die? Have we this love? The signs will be clear: "Perfect love casteth out fear": "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren": "He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" Beware of the mere sentiment of love; the flower is more than the fragrance. What did Christ"s own love lead him to do? let that be the standard. O Saviour of the world, thou didst love us: what did thy love lead thee to do? Hear the answer given in the Scriptures: "He was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor"; he "gave himself for our sins"; he "went about doing good." These are the standards: can we set ourselves beside them, and abide the result? A love that is nothing but song is no love at all. A love that expires in rapture never began in reason. If we have the love of God within us, then shall there be in us the mind "which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a Prayer of Manasseh , he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth." The joy came after the sorrow; the joy was the blossom of the root of sorrow. If we have not known the same sacrificial love, we shall never know the same triumphant joy. Who shall know the power of the resurrection of Christ? Hear the apostle: "That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death." If we suffer with Christ, we shall also reign with him.

Note

"Much of the language of the Song of Solomon has been misunderstood by early expositors. Some have erred by adopting a fanciful method of explanation, and attempting to give a mystical meaning to every minute circumstance of the allegory. In all figurative representations there is always much that is mere costume. It is the general truth only that is to be examined and explained. Others, not understanding the spirit and luxuriancy of Eastern poetry, have considered particular passages as defective in delicacy, an impression which the English version has needlessly confirmed, and so have objected to the whole; though the objection does not apply with greater force to this book than to Hesiod and Homer, or even to some of the purest of our own authors. If it be remembered that the figure employed in this allegory is one of the most frequent in Scripture, that in extant Oriental poems it is constantly employed to express religious feeling, that many expressions which are applied in our translation to the person belong properly to the dress (ch. Song of Solomon 5:10, Song of Solomon 5:14; Song of Solomon 7:2), that every generation has its own notions of delicacy (the most delicate in this sense being by no means the most virtuous), that nothing is described but chaste affection, that Shulamite speaks and is spoken of collectively, and that it is the general truth only which is to be allegorized, the whole will appear to be no unfit representation of the union between Christ and true believers in every age. It may be added, however, that it was the practice of the Jews to withhold the book from their children till their judgments were matured."—Angus"s Bible Handbook.


Verse 5

Black, But Comely

Song of Solomon 1:5

The blackness was caused by the look of the sun—"Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me" ( Song of Solomon 1:6). The image is a very striking one. Not only did the sun glare upon the observer, but it was like the brilliant eye of a bird of prey, looking down from some great height upon that which it proposed to seize and destroy. The text is wholly Oriental in its figure, and has been thus rendered—"Dark as the Kedareen tents of black goat"s hair, beautiful as the royal pavilions with their rich hangings." The passage may be so adapted as to bring into view the twofold quality of human nature as revealed in the Scriptures: in one respect black enough; in another respect comely beyond all other loveliness. This would be fanciful and doubtful if the verse stood alone; but it does not. Throughout the Bible this doctrine is presented as the true view of human nature, namely, "black, but comely." The whole Bible preaches with unity this fundamental and sacred doctrine. To force this particular text into this particular meaning would be unjust to the writer of the song; but the contrast is so established and elaborated and illustrated by other parts of the Bible, that it becomes legitimate to seize this beautiful expression as indicating in very graphic terms the reality of the aspect which we present to heaven as men, namely, "black, but comely." Let us see if this be not Song of Solomon , and in order to make the doctrine the more apparent let us set, as it were, side by side man"s view of himself and God"s view of man as man is in Christ Jesus, and in the whole purpose and scope of grace divine. The first speaker should be man. What says he? Listen: "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me." There is a recognition of the blackness of human nature. Let the second speaker be God himself. What does he say? Listen with still more steadfastness and reverent attention: "Thy renown went forth among the heathen for thy beauty: for it was perfect through my comeliness, which I had put upon thee, saith the Lord God." Setting these two testimonies side by side, what have we but a variation of the text, "Black, but comely"? Let man speak again, "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." That indictment is severe enough; there is no line of self-exculpation in it. Let God reply: "Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged." Once more, set these two quotations, both from the prophecies of Isaiah , side by side, and we have the text in another and striking form, showing how true it is that man is "black, but comely." Let man again state his own case, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Is there any deliverance possible? Is it always with man to be in a state of bondage and humiliation and infamy? Let God reply: "These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." So the testimony is not all upon one side. There are two aspects of human nature. We must take both aspects into our view, if we would form a just judgment of the case as God regards it. Let man speak again: "The law of sin which is in my members,"—a blackness I cannot get rid of; I cannot wash out the stain; if I relieve the surface of its deepest colour all the flush of darkness returns suddenly and completely. Let God reply: "The Lord hath put away thy sin." When God puts away a man"s sin, who can find it? God says he will cast our sins "behind" him. Behind the Infinite! who has ever ventured into that locality? Once more let man utter his moan: "I am carnal, sold under sin." It is as if Christ heard that voice, and could not be silent under its appeal, for the passage which we next quote would seem to be a reply and a gospel rejoinder: " Song of Solomon , be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee." Is man yet done with the utterance of his lamentation? He speaks yet again: "I am a sinful Prayer of Manasseh , O Lord." Let God reply from heaven as to his view of the Church when it has undergone the whole process of Christ"s purification and the inspiration of the Holy Ghost: "Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair." Man has still another speech to make. It is wonderful what variety of expression may be given to the deepest convictions; such convictions seem to create their own language; whilst the one of contrition and self-abhorrence would seem to be one, yet if we listen attentively how rich and varied is the passion of the tone! Listen: "I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." Hear the Lord: "Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee." Jesus Christ will purify unto himself "a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing." Let the greatest Christian that ever lived speak, and even in his tone we should find contrition, penitence, self-despair: "In me (that Isaiah , in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing." Now for other words, "Perfect in Christ Jesus"; "Holy and without blemish"—sanctified, body, soul, and spirit: the miracle completed.

Is there no encouragement along this treatment of the subject? Does not the line lie in pleasant places? Man never yet complained justly and sincerely of himself without eliciting from God a corresponding reply: Hope thou in God; he will find water for thee in the desert; when thy way is blocked up with solid rock he will melt the stone or powder it, that thou mayest pass straight on to thine appointed destiny. Do not let us rest in the narrow and cold prison of our own shame and penitence and self-abhorrence. We might listen unto ourselves until we fell into complete despair. We are not to dwell upon the "black"; we are to look towards the "comely"; we are not to listen to ourselves beyond a given point, or our own voice of accusation will drive us mad: we must be still, and listen to Christ"s appeal. A passage like this entitles us to look at the best aspects of our nature and circumstances. Dwell upon the second part of the text, saying again and again, as if repeating the refrain of a song—"but comely"; weak, but strong. Hear how beautifully the two views have been put together in some of the apostolic statements: "Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?" See again what a contrast is here—"The poor of this world," but "rich in faith." Hear the Apostle Paul: "As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things."

Song of Solomon , then, no undue strain has been put upon the text. If at first we seemed to employ it as a mere accommodation, the choice, for this purpose, has been amply vindicated by the citations which are before us. It would seem from beginning to end of the Bible as if there were two selves in every man; two distinct aspects of character; two voices always pleading within the court of conscience, memory, and imagination. Blessed is he who listens to the clear voice of heaven—to the hopeful gospel voice. Yet in order to hear that voice in all its distinctness we must first hear our own in all the bitterness of its lamentation, in all the poignancy of its moaning: the comeliness comes out in contrast to the blackness, and we must not spoil the contrast by removing one of the elements needful to it. Again and again must we remember that we shall not know grace until we have known sin; we shall have no ear for the gospel until we have been deafened by the thunders of the accusing law.

How, then, stands the case as presenting a contrast? It may stand thus: a man may say, I had a body, a physical frame; but that body seems to be but a sphere in which pain can have all its own way; at best it is a dying body, at best I am but a leaseholder, and the lease is running out most rapidly; nay, I can hardly call myself a leaseholder, for were I such I could lay claim to a certain definite period of time; I am rather a tenant-at-will, I may be dismissed to-morrow. So a man might moan about his body; but the text, and all the collateral passages which are before us, entitle us to say, We have a body, but we have also a soul; whilst looking at the one we become melancholy, we hardly care to live; all life is shadowed by a coming tomb. A melancholy figure at the end of life throws its adumbration upon all the path we tread, and we walk through darkness: that is one view; but we must not give way to that unhappy spell; at best that view is only a half truth; we must be encouraged to look at the other aspect: there is a voice which tells us that we are not all body; we are mind, we are spirit, we are will; we were made in the image and likeness of God: "Dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul." How many men need this encouraging voice to be all day ringing in their ears! So prone are they to take the dark view, and to yield to all fleshly burden and temptation and difficulty. It is the business of the Church, of all its gospel ministers and gospel services, to cheer them, to present the large view, to introduce the light. So a man might say, Why should I live? I am more localised than the birds of the air; they can fly, I can only walk; where I stand before a river unable to cross it the tiniest bird that flutters its weak wing can fly over the stream, and would seem in doing so to mock my feebleness. I am a prisoner of space; I feel the burden of space; I would willingly give up this spark of consciousness that I might have rest in forgetfulness. So a man might talk. A man talking so is on the highway to melancholia or suicide. Is there no other aspect? You are localised, but you have imagination—that wondrous faculty which creates new heavens and a new earth, in which dwelleth righteousness; that divine power that knows no limit. There is no searching of the capacity of an inspired and purified imagination; even shadows are wrought into the wizardry of its parabolism; even pain, weakness, suffering—these are dragged on its chariot-wheels, and made to grace the day of its festival. We have not yet used our upper selves; we have been content to be kept down, humbled, scorned, degraded. What a feast we might have had of reason! What intercourse with all the higher spirits that minister subtly and invisibly in all the economy of life! What a forecast of destiny we might have enjoyed! We might have been in heaven! There is no reason why even now men should not mingle with the white-robed saints in light, with the sons of the morning: what little drawback there is to this high banqueting is but a reminder that yet we have to encounter the last foe, and throw him in the final wrestling. It is again the business of the Church, and all its ministers and services and functions, to bring men to see the larger view, to draw them away from dwelling mopingly upon the blackness of the case, that they might see somewhat of the comeliness and loveliness and brightness and glory with which God has enriched the universe. By a right exercise of mind and will and imagination the poorest man may roll in wealth—not factitious wealth, but real spiritual wealth; the wealth that will enable him to forget poverty, and hunger, and difficulty, and suffering. There is a possibility of being so spiritually elevated, morally ennobled, as to forget the pain that otherwise would distract the attention and kill the body. When we commune with God we forget all labour, all toil, all pain. There are transfiguration days even in our poor little life, when we see Moses, and Elias, and Christ, and heaven. To realise one such day enables a man to come down into the common week, and fight all its beasts, all the lions that can be let loose upon it, for the power of God rests upon his soul. So a man may talk about his ignorance. How little the best man can know; he may say, The wisest man is but a variety of a fool; what can the keenest mind discern? We cannot see into to-morrow; we may put a finger upon our eyes, and thus block out the sun: we are always correcting ourselves; the science of to-day is corrected by the discoveries of to-morrow. We live at best a life of varied ignorance—now in full tide, now receding, but still the action is tidal, and we can hardly tell whether the tide is coming in or going out. So a man may talk, but in so talking he would but express his folly; whilst there is no doubt a distinct limit to intellectual attainment, is there not a sphere called by the mysterious, yet well-understood, name of faith? When men count their senses, they should make faith a kind of sixth sense. The five senses can go but a little way, and they walk so tremblingly and hesitatingly, as if they would wish to return and enjoy the security of their own ignorance; but faith goes out at night-time; the darkness and the light are both alike to faith; faith finds a hand in the black night, and clings to it, not with despair, but with trust and love, and passion of thankfulness and devotion. Faith says, I cannot answer your questions, but I feel and know that your questions are vain; I have no elaborate explanation to give of myself, but I feel in myself rational, because moral, satisfaction. Lord, increase our faith! Believest thou that I am able to do this? Be it unto thee according to thy faith.

Then the text should rebuke those who see only the black, not only in themselves but in other people. We are not only black, we may be comely. Hear the wondrous words of the prophet Obadiah: "Thou shouldest not have looked on the day of thy brother in the day that he became a stranger; neither shouldest thou have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction; neither shouldest thou have spoken proudly in the day of distress. Thou shouldest not have entered into the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; yea, thou shouldest not have looked on their affliction in the day of their calamity, nor have laid hands on their substance in the day of their calamity." But that is the day when some men Will be rude to us. They delight to look upon our distress; they find a kind of cruel enjoyment in seeing us writhe in our speechless agony: they want to see how we bear the pain, how we endure the yoke, how we take to the new discipline of poverty. There are times when men should not look upon us in any sense of criticising us or endeavouring to estimate our quality; they should be tender; they should be marked by the spirit of reserve; they should turn aside that we might at least spend some moments in solitude when we wrestle with our most poignant agony. But who can shut out curiosity? Who can refine the demon of vulgarity? Who can keep at bay the beast that longs with thirst insatiable for our destruction and ruin? Do not gloat over the blackness of other men. Do not whisper in deadliest criticism concerning their faults and their slips and their misadventures in life. Do not suppose that God is deceived by whispering, as if by lowering our voice to a whisper we were really not speaking about the thought at all, when in stern reality we are speaking of it with the strongest emphasis. In such a case a whisper is our power. "Thou shouldest not have looked on their affliction in the day of their calamity." How few people know how to treat others in the day of calamity! how fond they are of reproach! how mocking is their tone! how cruel is their very countenance! they do not understand the aching human heart. But we are not left to one another. "Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?" Is there no one who understands this double nature, this wrestling and struggling going on always within the human life? Yea, there is One who knows it all: "We have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." He knows what is in man; he watches the daily fight. At last which shall be uppermost? Let each man answer for himself in the fear and strength of God. What shall it be at the last—"black," or "comely"? That is the question. Has my will anything to do with answering that great inquiry? Certainly. God proposes to reason with men. He pleads constantly with erring ones; he comes down to those who are lost in lamentation, and speaks comfortably to them; he says, "For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee." When Jacob says, "My way is hid from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God," he says: No; I have been watching thee in all the darkness, and at the last thou shalt be more than conqueror. Let us then not fail or give up heart or cease the godly struggle. He who fights that he may win Christ shall surely win the Son of God. "Fight the good fight of faith." "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." "He that endureth to the end shall be saved." The day cometh when the blackness will be forgotten, and the comeliness shall be sealed with immortality.

Note

"Kedar, the second son of Ishmael and founder of one of the most distinguished tribes of Arabia ( Genesis 25:13, Genesis 25:16). The word Kedar signifies "black," and the tents of the tribe, like all those of the Bedawin of the present day, were black ( Song of Solomon 1:5); hence some have supposed that the name was given to the tribe because of the colour of their tents. Others think that the name originated in the darkness of their complexion (Bochart, Opera, 1:216). This is all mere conjecture. The name was first borne by the son of Ishmael; but whether it originated, like that of Esau, in any peculiarity in the child, or in any event in his after life, we cannot tell. The tents of the nomad tribes of Arabia are black, and the colour of their skin is uniformly of a light bronze hue, so that the name Kedar was in these respects no more applicable to one tribe than another. The "children of Kedar" ( Isaiah 21:17) were well known to the Israelites, and are more frequently spoken of in Scripture than any of the other Arab tribes.... They were also celebrated as warriors. Isaiah , when foretelling their fall, says, "All the glory of Kedar shall fail, and the residue of the number of archers, the mighty men of the children of Kedar" ( Isaiah 21:16-17)."—Kitto"s Cyclopædia of Biblical Literature.


Verse 8

The Safety of Christian Fellowship

Song of Solomon 1:8

What would you say to a little child who had gone forth with his mother and brothers and sisters to see some great and exciting spectacle in the streets, and had wandered away from his guardians and companions, and had become lost in the crowd? In what speech would you address him? You would say to the little vagrant, You should not have left us, you should have kept close beside us: did I not tell you not to go away from me? why did you not take hold of me, and then you would not have been lost? And your speech, not angrily but pathetically spoken, would probably leave a happy impression upon the mind of the young offender. What would you say of a man who appears in the bankruptcy court, and concerning whom it is discovered that he set aside all precedents, all the acknowledged and established canons and laws of business, and separated himself wholly from all that had ever been done in the business world? This would be your speech: Foolish fellow, what else could he expect? he never acted as any other person did; he despised all that had been tested in the commercial circle: he took the whole case into his own wild head and wild hands, and it has come to this: anybody with a head upon his shoulders could have foreseen the short gallop into this bitter ruin. Your speech would have sense in it. Few wise men would attempt to gainsay it.

What would you say of a man who never took anybody"s advice upon any subject that ever occurred to him? You would say, He is a genius, or a fool. These inquiries and illustrations give us the solemn teaching of this text. Keep on familiar ground; do not stray away from the line of footsteps; be near where you can hear the pipe, or the flute, or the trumpet of the camp. Do not go away upon barren rocks and into dreary sands. Do not detach yourselves from the great company of the Church, but, wherever you are, see that your method of communication is in good working order: if you go a mile away, be sure you leave the road open that you can return to the main body in the event of danger surprising you in your loneliness, or pain befalling you in the silence and helplessness of your solitude. Of course, if it can be proved that you are a genius, then take the license of genius; but first let the case be twice proved; do not take the very first impression that may be given to you of your inspired and infallible genius; rather suspect the flatterer than flatter yourself.

If it could be proved once, twice, and again, and six times over, that you are an appointed herald of God to go away on lonely seas and up inaccessible mountains, make your calling and election sure. But to the rank and file, to the commonalty of the Church, we say: Let us go forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed our kids beside the shepherds" tents: let us not lose the benefits of community and companionship: forsake not the assembling of yourselves together as the manner of some is: do not attempt the genius if you have only the name and not the fire.

There is some need that this occasional word should be spoken, when every man is determined to strike out his own path in religious thinking. I repeat, I have nothing to say to some few daring prophets, who seem to be called to wildernesses far away, and to make lonely roads over towering and barren rocks; wherein they fulfil their election, strength and comfort will be given to them from heaven: but, speaking to the general company of the Church, I stand by the general exhortation of the Church. Nor is this the exhortation of fear; it is the precept of sense; it is the dictate of reason; it is the calm, strong, solemn view of history and experience.

Let us imagine that we go into a foreign land—any party of six. We cannot speak the language: we go in a small band that we may keep one another in countenance, and in various ways supplement and cheer one another. But there is suddenly developed amongst us a daring genius. One of the six is absent. Where is he? No information can be obtained. An hour passes, and still he does not appear. We want to go, we cannot move comfortably without him. Another hour, and two more, and the eventide comes and it is night, and still the genius arrives not. But see, yonder he comes—he went out nearly six feet high, he comes back little more than five. He went out comparatively young, he comes back all aged and worn. Where have you been? "Been? do not ask me." But what have you been doing? "Why, like a fool, I strayed away down there, and I could not ask my way back again, for I did not know a word of the language: I made signs, and pointed this way and that way, and have wandered miles and miles. Pity me, forgive me—you will never lose sight of me again until we return to our native land." It is even so in the Church. There are persons who go off alone, that never tell where they are going: they know nothing of the language of the provinces into which they are moving: they are called, perhaps too harshly, heretics and religious vagrants, and other epithets not respectful are attached to their names when they are mentioned. Yet they are blameworthy: they ought not to have left the party; it was unjust to their fellows, it was perilous to themselves, and nothing but mischief can come of this self-detachment and this disloyalty to the spirit and genius of the commonwealth of Christ.

Sometimes it may be legitimate to go off a little way alone, when you are upon the mountains. It is a delight of my own: I like to escape noise and chatter: when I am in the church of the mountains I do not want little questions upon little subjects, and small remarks upon infinitesimal topics. I love the awful silence. Going down on one occasion from the Wengern Alp to Lauterbrunnen I went off alone, and the mists came on suddenly. What did I look for? For the footsteps. As the mist thickened, I bent more closely to the ground. While I could see footsteps I had no fear. Here and there they seemed to get confused, so that I could not follow the line of my journey, and at these points of confusion my fear was excited, and I dared scarcely move. I looked back; I listened; I longed to be near the tents of the shepherds. But footsteps are companions: you cannot tell what a picture of a footprint is until you are left lost among the mountains: to come suddenly upon a line of footprints is to be at home.

We live in a day of religious adventure, of high and daring enterprise. Man after man is going off to carve his own way through the mountains, or to navigate his ship by a course of his own devising. Be careful. If you are a genius, twice baptised, thrice anointed from heaven, with a cloven tongue upon your head, go—but make very sure about these signs before starting. The lamp of genius is not often kindled in one century, and there is no fool so gigantic and so pitiful as the man who mistakes himself for a genius. Little boats, keep near the shore; little children, take hold of your mother"s dress; poor scholars, wait upon your teachers; feeble and timid, never go out of sight—forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is. "Brethren," says Paul, "be ye followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample."

Loneliness has its perils in the religious life. We hear now and again of a man who says he is going to give up all religious associations of a public kind, and is going to remain at home. Some men are now boasting that they are Christians unattached; independent Christians. What is this religious independence as interpreted by these men? Not one little gaslight is independent; every one of them is a blink of sunlight. Here is a star independent of the universe. If we saw it coming we should get out of its road. Tell me that all the stars are caught in one great scheme, and that not a sparkle of the glory of the least of them can be lost, and I am proportionally at rest. Loneliness, I repeat, has its perils in the religious life. When the devil gets a man absolutely alone, who will win? Not the man—in the vast proportion of cases. There was only one man that won in single fight, and that man was the Lord from heaven. Oh, let us shelter one another; let us be mutual protections; let us have a commonwealth of interest and sympathy; let us live in one another"s prayers and sympathy and love. Union is strength; two are better far than one—if the one fall, he can be lifted up gain; but if he fall alone, who will assist him to his feet? Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is.

"Go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherds" tents." This poor woman in the song had lost her loved one, and she was told that if she wanted him she would find him on accustomed beats and familiar paths. God leaves his footsteps on the earth, and if we follow his footprints we shall find him. He has built his churches, raised his altars, and he says, "Where my name is recorded, there will I meet thee, there will I bless thee." Be in the way of blessing: if you cannot find God himself, find his footprints; go to his altar and say, He ought to be here; he has sworn to be here; and whilst thou art yet speaking the apparently dead cold ashes will glow, and on that altar there shall rise up a living flame, and out of the fire thou shalt hear the voice of thy God.

Feed thy kids beside the shepherds" tents. Then we shall have communion. We must speak to one another now and then, or the poor aching heart would die. They that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it. Christianity institutes a fellowship, a community of interest and purpose. We are the complement of each other. No one man is all men. You have something I want; I have something you want In these higher meanings, let no man call aught that he has his own. Let us have all our highest thoughts and sympathies in common, so that there shall be no poor man in the Church—the poorest scholar having access to the richest thoughts, the dullest ear the opportunity of listening to the sweetest music.

In the tent of the shepherd there was always some instrument that could be used for the soothing of fear and the excitement of hope. It might be a poor small instrument, but it was of infinite value in the lonely places. It is related how the commander of the ship Fox, when his crew rose almost in mutiny, and his passengers accorded him nothing but the coldest looks, when he reached land, said, "Thank God, there was one relief, and one only: I had a fiddler on board." That musical instrument brought the hearts together when nothing else could. A snatch of a song a strain of some forgotten music, one touch of nature—and that did far more than all the captain"s orders, exhortations, and attempts to persuade his all but mutinous companions that all was right. Do not stray away from the music of the Church: do not suppose you can hum tune enough for your own soul, or whisper yourself into victory and triumph: your mouth will dry, and your tongue will cleave to the roof of your mouth. Oh, there are times when I love the dear old tunes! They redeem common metre from commonplace, and lift up ordinary words into high meanings, and send the soul a-throb and a-swaying with such a hearty, happy rhythm. This I never feel so much as when in foreign lands, where there is no Sabbath, no church that is cared for, no voice attuned to gospel messages. To get back again to the old Psalm -book, to hear the old Scripture read in the familiar tones, to unite in holy prayer together—this is partial heaven. Thus I again repeat the exhortation, Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together; beware of loneliness, beware of the independence which is isolation; seek for communion, for music, for protection, for security, for all that comes of organised life, household delight and trust; and thus the enemy will never find you alone and at a disadvantage, but always surrounded by those who can recall the sweetest memories to your recollection, and enrich your hearts by reminders of the infinite promises of God, and thus a commonwealth shall be the basis of victory.

What footprints are we leaving behind us? Where have we been? Should we really like the young to put their feet in our footsteps? Some of us dare not tell where we have been. Are our footprints on the threshold of the house of evil? If they could be tracked one by one, to what destinations would they conduct? Do they lead to the house of God? Have we but one track in life, and is its goal the altar? Blessed be God; once we went with a multitude to do evil, once we had gone astray; but now we have returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. All we, like sheep, had gone astray; we had turned every one to his own way, an independence in evil, self-illumined, self-destroyed. We must leave footprints somewhere. No man can come into life, and live thirty, forty, fifty, or seventy years, and go out without leaving the mark of his feet somewhere. Let us put our feet into the footprints of Jesus Christ. Whither do those footprints lead? To Gethsemane, to Golgotha, to Bethany, and after Bethany—Heaven. We can have no difficulty in finding the footprints of Christ if we really want to discover them. His were feet not to be mistaken for any other. They all pointed to the Cross, they moved evermore towards the Cross; they never turned towards selfish delight, never to the palaces of luxury, always to the lightning-struck, the thunder-cursed tree, the Cross.

Let us see that our footprints are all shaping towards home, that the foot is always set in that direction. Do not let us deceive and mislead anybody who may put their feet into our footprints under the impression that they are going home, when they are really going to their ruin. Let every step be heavenward—

There are desolations in which a footprint is a friend, there are solitudes in which the mark of a human foot is as the signature and pledge of God.

Wanderer, return! You have been out a long way on the high barren mountains, and you have got nothing. Come in again, and be commonplace. You started a genius, you come back with your true name on your forehead. You went forth to reform and conquer the world, and you are all bespattered with mud, you are hunger-bitten and thirst-fevered, and your cheeks are shrunken in; come back and be wise. Come back; there is room for thee, and bread enough in thy Father"s house, and to spare—yea, when all the angels have done, and all the men have partaken, there is more bread at the end than there was at the beginning.

I wish to be found at last where the good old fathers of the Church were found. If I have made a small detour, who has not done the same? I never remember to have gone off from any point of departure without wishing myself safely back again. There is no wine like the old wine, there is no house like the old house, there is no bread like the old bread; no Prayer of Manasseh , having drunk old wine, straightway desireth new, for he saith, The old is better. What say you to a general, unanimous, loving, loyal, immediate return? There would be joy in the presence of the angels of God over repentant thinkers, errant geniuses, self-mistaken self-idolaters.

Am I asked the question, "Where is Christ? Where is God? I am like the woman in the Canticles—I have lost him; I would I could find him?" My answer Isaiah , Go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherds" tents. Keep in the accustomed familiar paths and ways, and, if he is not there to-day, he will be more than there to-morrow. Be thou in the right place. He may have gone after some wanderer, but he will return, and if he has abandoned thee for a small moment, it is that he may gather thee with everlasting kindness.

Note

Design of the Book.—"The design of this charming poem is to teach us a lesson of practical righteousness by the record of an extraordinary example of virtue in a young maiden in humble life, who encountered and conquered the greatest temptations from the most exalted personage in the land. The simple story, divested of its poetic form, is as follows:—A village girl, the daughter of a widowed mother of Shulam, is betrothed to a young shepherd, whom she met whilst tending the flock. Fearing lest the frequent meetings of these lovers should be the occasion of scandal, the brothers of the Shulamite employ her in the vineyard on their farm. Whilst on the way to this vineyard she one day falls in with the cortege of King Song of Solomon , who is on a spring visit to the country. Struck with her great beauty the king captures her, conveys her to his royal pavilion, then conducts her to Jerusalem in great pomp, in the hope of dazzling and overcoming her with his splendour, and eventually lodges her in his harem. But all is in vain. True to her virtuous love, she resists all the allurements of the exalted sovereign, spurns all his promises to elevate her to the highest rank, and in the midst of the gay scenes assures her humble shepherd, who followed her to the capital, that her affections are sacredly and inviolably pledged to him. Song of Solomon , convinced at last that all his advances are in vain, allows her to quit the royal residence. Hand in hand the two faithful lovers return to her native place, and on their way home" visit the tree under which their love-spark was first kindled, and there renew their vows of constancy and fidelity. On their arrival they are welcomed by their companion shepherds, and she is rewarded by her brothers for her exemplary virtue."—Kitto"s Cyclopædia of Biblical Literature.

Prayer

Almighty God, thou art great and we are small, and we are the work of thine hands, and thou hast numbered the very hairs of our head, and set a watch about every step of our life, and thy love hath made us precious unto thee. Behold, we cannot tell what we read in thy word because of its great mystery of light: we hear mighty thunderings and see flamings of ineffable glory, and we hear the sound of a going which we cannot follow, and yet again dost thou come to us in gentle speeches and in visions which the heart can seize, and thou dost drop upon our life thy word, which is sweeter than honey, yea, than the honeycomb. We would see somewhat of thy majesty and thy glory, that we may be ennobled thereby, and lifted up, as it were, with the ascension of the angels. But specially would we pray evermore to have access to thy power, grace, Wisdom of Solomon , and love, for the supply of daily necessity, for the direction of continual perplexity, and for the satisfaction of every hunger of the soul. We bless thee for the revelation of thyself in Christ Jesus, who was found in fashion as a man; we thank thee for all his words of truth and beauty; we bless thee for his discourses, for his miracles, and above all for his sacrificial death and for his resurrection and ascension to glory, where he now Isaiah , praying for every one of us, and covering our weakness with his infinite strength. Enable us to follow him as we may be able; according to the littleness of our power and opportunity may we study his life, put our feet in his footprints, undertake to do his will, and may we be found at last as his commended servants. We bless thee for a life we cannot understand; its joys are keen, its pains are often intolerable. Thou hast given to our life day and night, beautiful light, sweet spring times and summer hours, occasions of rapture and of heavenly vision and divine absorption; then hast thou sent a great darkness upon us like a judgment, and there have been sounds of thunder in it as of great wrath, and the stars have been withdrawn, and thou hast caused us to feel the gloom and the burden of night. Do with us what thou wilt: not our will, but thine, be done, but take not thy Holy Spirit from us; in our deepest distresses may we be able to say, Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him. May there be no extremity in our life which shall be as the victory of the enemy, but in our greatest exigencies may we find thy grace more than sufficient, in our keenest pains may we know how all-healing and all-comforting is the balm of thy pity. We give ourselves to thee again in the name of Jesus Christ, our Mediator. We yield ourselves to thee, body, soul, and spirit, our flesh and our will, our imagination and our supreme desire, all the energy of our souls, and all the helplessness of our life; we would lay these at thy feet; they are thine, thou knowest their highest uses: purify us as vessels are made pure for the use of the sanctuary. Whether our days be many or few, may they all be thine, and may we so spend our little time as to have created within us a burning desire to know what is to be revealed beyond. Regard thy servants who have come to this resting-place from business, from occupation of divers kinds, from many tumults, vexations, and trials of the world. Give them rest awhile, a little breathing time, and may there be rents amid the clouds of their life through which the light of the heavens shall shine. Regard those who are given to the study of thy Word, and who are preparing themselves under the dispensation of thy Spirit for the unfoldment of heavenly riches; be the Lamp shining upon their book, the Spirit inspiring their understanding and their heart. Be with those who live lives of weary monotony, the night as the day and the day as the night, the whole year one pain of weariness; draw such forth into the light of thy sanctuary, and inspire such with a desire to do the work of thy vineyard. Look upon all little children, and grant unto them blessing according to their necessity, salvation from sin, protection from every temptation and snare; may they live to a good old age and be better than were their forefathers. The Lord be with our sick ones, with great comforting, developing in them all sweetness of patience and completeness of resignation, so that the strong may learn from the weak, and the sick chamber may be the church of the house. Be with our friends who are far away, and yet in sympathy and love near at hand; unite us in the fellowship of common trusts and common anticipations; may we know the unity of the spirit and the sweetness of the bond of peace. Let the land receive of the rain of thy blessing. Spare not the cloud, but pour it forth in refreshing showers upon the whole country. God save the Queen; multiply the days of her life, and establish her throne in righteousness, equity, and all honourableness. Direct our leaders; inspire those who create and foster the national sentiment; save us from all tyranny, oppression, and from all unholy and disastrous weapons and instrumentalities, and send upon the land the spirit of patriotic contentment. May the blessing of the Lord be turned into blessings for all mankind. The earth is thine; we pray for every corner of it, for its broad continents and its little islands, its centres of light and its places of gloom; for the shepherd upon the hills, for the sailor upon the waves, for the prisoner in his cell, for the wanderer in the jungle and the wilderness,—for all mankind; we are all thine. Make the earth thine house, light it with thy glory, and may it be the centre of thine approbation, having fixed upon it the love of its Creator-Father. Amen.


Verse 9

Chapter59

The Use and Abuse of Parables

Song of Solomon 1:9

It is thus that love multiplies itself by many images. Love consecrates all things beautiful by turning them into symbols and pictures and suggestions of its own idol. There is no end to the creations and appropriations of love. Love sees the image of its dearest one everywhere, and claims it as its own. As Jesus Christ has found in this chapter images of the kingdom of heaven everywhere, so love in all ages and in all places has created for itself new heavens and a new earth, and has given a new reading to all the things therein, and has thus multiplied the literature which no eyes but its own can accurately read. I want to look at the power of fancy, this creative and symbolising power, this power of reading the inner mysticism and ideality of things, as a Joy, a Danger, and a Responsibility. Let us look at it first as a joy.

In finding new symbols we find new pleasures, and in the inspiration of our love we turn all things visible to new and sacred uses. Love turns water into wine at every feast: that which was a miracle at the first is a commonplace in the long run: love widens ever. We give a language to flowers, we make the stars talk, we turn the horses in Pharaoh"s chariots into meanings which the proud Pharaoh never saw. We make business itself into a religion, and write upon our gold an image better and purer than the image and superscription of Cæsar. This love embodies itself in all things lovable. We own what we love. We have only the meanest property in things that we do not love. Now this is the joy of Christ himself in this thirteenth chapter of the Gospel by Matthew. The object of his love was the kingdom of heaven, and day by day he compared it with new comparisons, and so gave his Church the treasure of his parables. Jesus Christ said, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto..." That is the entrance to the great picture-gallery, the great paradisaic beauty by which he imaged that wondrous and immeasurable quantity. Like unto a sower, a goodly pearl, treasure hid in a field, a hidden haven, a grain of mustard seed, a net cast into the sea, a king travelling into a far country, virgins going forth to meet the bridegroom—by so many images did he make plain to us that manifold kingdom of his.

This is the way of love: it is a parable-making power, it lives in poetry, it delights in the creation of new images, it yokes itself into new relationships, and calls all ministries and agencies to yoke themselves into its chariot, and draw its chariot forward in triumphant and right royal progress. Wondrous in this way have been the creations and adaptations of love. Who could pluck a little rosemary and make anything of it but rosemary? Love could. Love says, "You shall be a symbol of remembrance and affection." Thus poor Ophelia gathers to her madness a new pathos—she plucks and gives the rosemary. What is a pansy? Nothing to him who has nothing in him, but to the man who has the seeing eye, the cunning, all-interpreting love, the pansy is the English for pensee, the French thought. So when I cannot tell you all I want to say I slip the little meek-eyed pansy, pensee, into my envelope, and you read all the meaning, great utterances of heart speech—you understand the little parable of the pansy.

The timid youth whose love almost chokes him when he is going to speak it does not know what to do till the florist tells him to pluck an acacia leaf, and he says to him, "She will understand that parable. The acacia leaf stands for platonic love—the acacia leaf which stands for such love does not admit of vulgar interpretation. You slip in the acacia leaf, and she will understand all about it."

I cannot speak to my friend yonder, bowed down with a thousand distresses, burdened with affliction. He has lost again and again the lives he loved most, and his life is now a process of grave-digging, and any words of mine would but augment the grief which I would seek to alleviate. But I am cunning in the use of floral eloquence: I know what I will do, I will pluck a sprig of amaranth, and send it to him. When he sees it he will see in that sprig of amaranth a symbol of the everlastingness of God, the immortality and unquenchableness of the true life, and in that amaranth he will see revelation and parable and sacred vision. When I cannot tell all my affliction to my dearest friend I will put in some bitter aloes, and the heart that receives the token will understand the sad sign.

So we too have our parables. I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh"s chariots. The kingdom of heaven is like unto a sower, like unto treasure, like unto a goodly pearl, like unto a net, like unto virgins going forth to meet the bridegroom. My love hath ten thousand images and symbols, infinite jewellery of expression—who then can be poor who really loves? If we loved more we should have more. This is the alchemy that transforms the base into the real and intrinsically valuable. Encourage the soul in its love of beauty. You cannot go too often into the garden if you go to turn every flower into a speaking angel. It will be a dark day for you when beauty ceases to talk to your heart and preach the sweet gospel of hope. Well said Festus, "Some souls lose all things but the love of beauty: by that love they are redeemable, for in love and beauty they acknowledge good, and good is God, the great Necessity."

Whilst most of us have entered somewhat, or at some time, into the passion of this rapture, and have created a thousand images and symbols by which to typify our love and our supreme ambition, I have now to remind all such that not only is this power of fancy a keen and thrilling joy, but it is a positive and an immediate danger. The danger arises from the fact that we may consider our duty done when we have instituted a beautiful comparison. Our religion may perish in sentimental expressions—you may die in words—you may say, "A bundle of myrrh is my beloved unto me: my beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of En-gedi." Christ is the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley—as an apple-tree among the trees of the woods. We may see him coming out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchantman, and yet our love may pass off as an evaporation, and never embody itself in one act of sacrifice or in one attempt at service. That is the danger of living wholly in the fancy, or largely in the higher range of the creative faculties of the soul. We may create wit for the laughter of others and forget to keep any of it for the rejoicing of our own house. The danger is that if we live the parabolical life, contenting ourselves with making parables, that we may never advance to Gethsemane and Golgotha. We may create a kind of artificial life and thus miss the great utilities of our being. Not the heart that is swiftest and surest in the creation of symbols is always to be trusted in the hour of pain and distress. This love-sick woman in the Canticles writes her own condemnation as the victim of supineness and indolence. How lovingly she yearns over the absent one, how she charges others to take care of him and watch for him, and yet once he came to the door and knocked, saying "Open to me, for my head is filled with the dew, and my locks with the drops of the night,"—he was actually at the door, his hand upon it, his voice sounded through it, and what answered she? This was her mean reply. "I have put off my coat, and how can I put it on?" See how great is the danger of the fancy-power, of the parable-making faculty, how possible it is to get into high ecstasy of poetry, and to forget the courtesies and rigid duties of life. Says she, "I have put off my coat, and how can I put it on?" and though finally she roused herself, and put on her coat, her beloved had withdrawn, and was gone. She called, but she could not find him, she sought him, but no answer came back through the air, and the watchmen mocked, and the keepers of the walls joined with the watchmen, and they smote her and wounded her, and tore off her veil, and left her—she who was wild in poetry, so grand in the creation of high sentiment—she who lay in the midst of the gardens of flowers, and spoke beautiful things about her absent one, saying, "I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses in the king"s chariot."

There is then a great danger in living the poetical life. You praise your parents—do you obey them? You sentimental, rhyming, filial poet, do you obey your venerable father, your aged and loving mother? I do not ask if you send them a little blank verse now and then, or a verse of rhyme—do you study their comfort, anticipate their wishes, and show the devotion of real sympathy, gratitude, and love? I have heard many a young man talk about his parents in polysyllables, and thus make a fool"s ineloquent speech about them, who has yet not had the grace to obey a single commandment. Take away your poetry, eat it and choke yourself with it—it is a lie. We seek for one poetry only, and that the blossoming and the fragrance, and the fruitfulness of real duty and obedience.

There is also another danger which many young men would do well to take heed to, and that is the danger of reciting poetry and living prose. Be very careful, you devotees of poetry and you reciters and treasurers of miles of jingling rhyme, take care that you do not recite your poetry and live your sapless prose. It would be a disastrous irony, it would be the most perfect and cruel sarcasm. Rather on the other hand say no poetry but live much. If it must come to a choice of one or the other, let this course be mine to live the poetry, to prove the sublimity by many a gentle, loving action. If I can unite the two and be as eloquent in service, so be it; but if the one only can be adopted, let me urge you to adopt the eloquence of loving obedience and noble self-sacrifice.

How possible it is to sing hymns and to be acting blasphemies. It is possible. Consider that for one moment, because at the first blush it would seem to be utterly beyond the bounds of possibility to sing in an oratorio and then to act dishonestly, to sing an anthem and then to tell a lie, to utter a hymn and then to perpetrate a cruelty. The poetry is at the wrong end in such cases. O let me have prose climbing up into poetry and not poetry sinking down into contemptible prose; see to it that though you have many crucifixes in the house you have a cross in the heart, though you compare your beloved to a company of horses in Pharaoh"s chariot, you also transfer that love into noble charity and sacrifice and sweet service which will benefit mankind, as well as enchant their fancy and please their literary taste.

Not only is this power of making parables and comparisons a joy and a danger, it is also a responsibility. To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin. If the Master is beautiful, so must the servant be. Shall the Master be a sweet rose and the servant a stinging nettle? Is that not very often the case? Shall the master be a fruitful tree making the city glad and the servant be as a upas, casting its deadly shade upon all living things? Let us understand that every compliment we pay to Christ is an obligation we lay upon ourselves if we are his faithful followers. Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself even as he is pure, that is the sacred law. Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. We are to be transformed by the beauty we admire. This is the great law, namely, we shall be like him, for—mark the reason—we shall see him as he is. The sight will be transfiguring: to look at beauty will be to be made beautiful; to see God will be to be made divine, the fair vision shall make us also fair, otherwise it is wasted upon us, and we do not really see it. It will be impossible to see Christ as he is without being transformed into his beauty. But do we not all see Christ as he is when we come into the sanctuary? Far from it. We see sections of Christ, phases of Christ, we hear something about Christ, but we do not see the whole Christ in the absoluteness of his integrity and the ineffable-ness of his beauty, or we should be caught in a transfiguring and transforming power, and the very visage of our face would be changed.

Here, then, are abundant lessons for us all. The power of comparison is to be cherished and developed. Compare your living Saviour to all things beautiful, make every flower of the field into a parable, the summer will grow too few flowers to set forth all his beauties. Go out this coming summer and attach to every flower some name that shall indicate some beauty in your Lord; watch for the coming stars, and according to the beauty of each name it, and, so to speak, baptise it in the Lord"s name, that when you see it again it may remind you of some high ecstasy of the soul. All that is wise, beautiful, legitimate, it gives ennoblement to the mind and enlargement to the whole sphere of the imagination, it refines and elevates the taste by great purification and enrichment, but do not rest there. Not every one that saith unto me "Lord, Lord," shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Are we not all witnesses to the wasting power of rapture, to the enervating reaction of high rhapsody in any service? Have we not been on the hill of transfiguration and desired to build tabernacles there, and never to come down into the cold and tumultuous world again? Mark the danger. Life is real, sad, tragical, a great daily pain, as well as an occasional rapture and a high realisation of the noblest intellectual conceptions and experiences.

In comparing Christ with things beautiful, noble, grand, we are writing a heavy indictment against ourselves if we profess to be his followers, and do not rise to the grandeur of the occasion. Shall we be found in the king"s procession who have about us anything that is mean, worthless, vile, corrupting? Shall we not make it our endeavour to be in some sort worthy of the royal procession and worthy of its high meaning? Herein is the responsibility arising from the power we have of seeing the beautiful and acknowledging it. This is our calling in Christ Jesus: as he was so are we in this world. Men are to take knowledge of us that we have been with Jesus and have learned of him. As he who passes through a garden of roses brings with him part of the fragrance breathed from the beauteous flowers, so we who come forth from the fellowship of Christ are to show somewhat of the radiance of his countenance, and to speak somewhat with the eloquence of his accent. This is the incarnation which he desires at our hands, not only to compare him with things royal and beautiful but to incarnate him in actions more eloquent than the pomp of speech or the melody of music.

Who can carry out that high vocation? Who would not rather sit in his garden and make parables and blow them from the pipe of his imagination like gilded bubbles into the summer air? That would be easy, that would be a pious luxury; but to cut off the right hand, to pluck out the right eye, to slay the inner offence, to test the soul as by fire, who can submit to this inexorable discipline? And yet, if we fail here it will but go to the aggravation of the account against us that we have compared our Saviour to a company of horses in Pharaoh"s chariot, and have talked about him in foaming poetry, but have lived mean, petty, worthless lives. The God of the heavens give us wisdom.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Song of Solomon 1:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/song-of-solomon-1.html. 1885-95.

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