Great Texts of the Bible
Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth,
Where thou feedest thy flock, where thou makest it to rest at noon:
For why should I be as one that is veiled
Beside the flocks of thy companions?—Song of Solomon 1:71. The popular poetry of Israel would be a blank had there not been handed down to us the beautiful poem, springing out of the very life of the people, which is named The Song of Songs. This exquisite production reveals to us that, while the poetic genius of the Hebrew nation soared to its highest flights in the expression of religious emotion, there were also poets capable of giving utterance in song to the most universal of all human emotions. The Sacred Canon abounds in writings which view the religious aspect of human life in manifold ways, but the reader may be thankful that one piece has been included which gives lyric expression to what has inspired poets in every age and every country. Old Testament literature would have been incomplete without this poem of human love.
From indications contained in the poem itself, we can easily see the drift of the story which lies behind it, and on the basis of which it develops its action. The little town of Shunem (now called Solam) in the tribe of Issachar, five miles from Mount Tabor, lying among the mountains which overlook the fruitful plain of Jezreel, was the home of the heroine, the “girl from Shulem” (l and n being interchangeable in Hebrew). To the north and east the roads lead to the Galilean mountain region full of variegated charms, to the lordly Tabor and the beautiful shores of the Lake of Gennesaret. South and west the prospect extends over the once richly cultivated highland of Ephraim and the noble wooded headland of Carmel, falling into the Western Sea. Not far away at Baal-hamon, King Solomon had a large and profitable vineyard. In this little town of Shulem lived a family comprising a mother, an only daughter, and two brothers. The father is not mentioned and presumably was dead, since the brothers appear as the natural guardians of their sister. The family were possessors of vineyards and gardens. The girl was remarkable for beauty and grace, and possessed a fine voice. She had won and returned the love of a young farmer living not far away, the possessor of flocks of sheep. Their first happy meeting had taken place under an apple tree not far from the girl’s home, and joyful meetings had followed under overarching trees, and at other pleasant places of resort. The relation had been a happy and a pure one: he calls her “sister betrothed,” she thinks of him as “like a brother.” The brothers, however, anxious for their sister’s honour, and disliking a relation somewhat opposed to Oriental strictness in such matters, sent her away from home, to be a watcher in the vineyards. The time was the early spring, and she had been long enough in this employment to be scorched by the sun. One day she had gone down to the nut-garden to observe the new growths of the spring, when her attention was caught by a glittering train, “the chariots of a prince’s retinue,” namely, King Solomon, with a large number of the ladies of his court. These ladies saw and admired the country beauty; she wished to withdraw, but was called back by the admiring ladies. What happened next is not told except in its unhappy sequel, “The king has brought me into his apartments,” and it is there we find her as the poem opens, longing to run away.
It will be seen that the poet presents here a most interesting complication to be unravelled in his poem. The king is set against the young farmer. Will the majesty of the king, the glory of his surroundings, his presents, and his flattering persuasions, and the praises of his court ladies, prevail against this country girl, or will she be able to resist these allurements and remain faithful to him whom her soul loves? Will her country lover have the devotion and courage to follow her to Jerusalem, seek out where she is detained, and find an opportunity of strengthening her resistance and animating her courage? Is the end to be that the Shulammite girl is to become one of the “innumerable girls” in a royal harem, or the honourable wife of a farmer in Galilee? The poet makes us feel that a moral issue is involved, and prepares us to follow with the liveliest sympathy the fate of the pure girl in her struggle against overwhelming odds.1 [Note: W. W. Canon.]
I have been told, by the friend to whom the interesting statement was made by the late Laureate, that Tennyson was so impressed by the literary beauty of the Canticle, and by its evident intention to represent the victory of a loyal human love over strong temptation, that he confessed his desire to write a dramatic work on the theme of the Song, which might help the English reading public to become better acquainted with the invaluable teaching of the Old Testament poem. In his West-Östlicher Divan, Goethe also expresses his sense of the incomparable charm of the Canticle, which he characterizes as the most tender and inimitable poem that has come down to us of impassioned expression and graceful love. He laments the fragmentary nature of its poetry, but dwells with delight on the vivid glimpses it gives us of rural life and love in ancient Canaan. Its chief theme, he says, is the glowing mutual attraction of youthful hearts, which seek and find one another, separate and draw together again, in a manner absolutely unique. He confesses that he had often thought of doing something to bring out more clearly the meaning of this exquisite entanglement of songs, but deemed it best to leave the little piece with its own aroma of enigma and its uniqueness.2 [Note: H. Falconer, The Maid of Shulam, 11.]
2. Now, if the dramatic character of the Canticle is taken for granted, it may be asked, Did its author intend it to be read only as a story of human love? Did he not also mean it to be symbolical of spiritual things? To that question no certain answer can be made, though some considerations give to the affirmative reply a distinct colour of probability. Yet if the author intended only to tell the story of the Shulammite’s love, why should his intention hinder us from regarding that story as an apparent sign of things unapparent? Since the poem is part of the great unity of Scripture, it may well be typical, looking forward for its ultimate explanation to that full-orbed revelation of the Divine love which it is the purpose of Holy Scripture to reflect. A type so exquisite will help, not hinder, faith.
Saintly souls like George Bowen of Bombay, have declared that when their heart burned within them no Scripture was found so fit as the Canticle to express the fervour of their aspiration and communion with God. It were weakness on the part of Christian faith to waive its claim to a symbol so well adapted to its ends. “Nothing in nature,” says Emerson, “is exhausted in its first use.… When a thing has served an end to the uttermost, it is wholly new for an ulterior service.” Air is given us to breathe, but who shall blame us if we also frame it into words that shall be airy servitors of the soul? Love is admirable for its own sake, but why should not a perfect human affection be to us a parable of the Love transcendent and immanent of which it is a manifestation? Whoso has felt the Spirit of the Highest should be quick to discern His presence and token in every lovely thing.1 [Note: H. Falconer, The Maid of Shulam, 30.]
The text, then, taken as the human analogy of a love that is Divine, suggests
I. The Ideal Shepherd of Men.
II. The Soul’s Longing for Fellowship with Him.
1. The most mysterious figure in the Canticle is that of the Shepherd. He does not make his appearance through the whole course of the drama except in the trances of the Shulammite; and when in the last act he comes forward for one moment in company with her, it is only to ask her for a song, to hear her voice; then he vanishes. The dwelling-place of this mysterious being is no less aerial than himself. We must look for him amidst the “gardens of balsam,” the “fields of lilies,” and the spiced mountains. And his character is ideal as well as his dwelling-place. He has all the attributes that constitute perfection in the opinion of the Hebrews: perfect beauty, boundless liberty, absolute wisdom. It is through these qualities that he eclipses in the eyes of the Shulammite even the magnificence of Solomon; so much so, that one may truly say that “the Shulammite loves in her shepherd the ideal and the prototype of her people.”
But if we recognize this ideal character of the shepherd, we are compelled to go one step further. The Israelite ideal is not a mere idea; it is a living, a Divine Being. It is Jehovah Himself, the Being whose Name signifies not only “He who is,” but “He who shall be,” Jehovah manifesting Himself in this lower world, in order to realize in it the absolute good; it is God emerging from His condition of transcendence (as Elohim, or El-Shaddai), to draw near to the world, to unite Himself ever more closely with humanity, to make His appearance at last in person, in a human form, on the scene of history. This was the living ideal of the Israelitish consciousness, which it has pursued without intermission through all its trials, and which it can never give up without self-contradiction. This is the Shulammite’s beloved one. He it is who pastures His flock in the ethereal regions above these gross realities of terrestrial existence in which His loved one is still living; He it is who descends from time to time from these heights, and in prophetic visions appears to her who has given Him her heart; taking her, as it were, by surprise; He it is who loves her with a holy and austere love, offering her nothing for the gratification of the senses, but giving Himself to her with the most entire devotion; He it is who in return for His infinite condescension asks no more of her than the sound of her voice, the worship of the heart inspired by love.
The benediction pronounced by Jacob on Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, is perhaps the finest ever uttered by dying lips. Jacob puts into it his most thankful and joyful thoughts about God. He invokes Him as the God who has shepherded himself all his life long—the God of providence; as the Angel who has redeemed him from all evil—the God of grace; and he prays Him who has been all this and done all this to bless the lads. Jacob’s Shepherd, who has been tending and leading and feeding him so long, will do just the same for the lambs of His flock. Our English Version misses something of the beauty of Jacob’s words. The translation “who hath fed me” is too meagre. We need to say, “who hath shepherded me.” The same word is the keynote of the finest of all the Psalms: “The Lord is my shepherd.” It is a beautiful metaphor, which comes with an exquisite pathos and a profound significance from the lips of a dying shepherd. The poets of a later age could only echo his words: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock.” All the tender grace of the Old Testament religion is found in this lovely conception. It was not one man or two, but a whole nation that learned to believe in God as a Shepherd: “We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” No other ancient nation ever expected from God such loving care and unerring guidance, no other nation ever promised such meek submission and faithful following. And while the Hebrew temple and sacrifice and priesthood have passed away as the shadows of better things, the Hebrew thought of a Shepherd-God will live for ever.1 [Note: J. Strachan, Hebrew Ideals, ii. 147.]
2. The shepherd devotes himself to the sheep. He leads them to pasture in the morning and makes them lie down to rest at noon. In a true sense he gives his life daily for the flock. This pastoral image is one of singular beauty and force, and to an Oriental was even more powerful and suggestive than it is to us. Among us the connexion between a shepherd and his sheep is one of pecuniary interest. An English shepherd values his flock simply at its market value, and as a means of gain. But in the East the relation evokes higher and more generous feelings. The dumb, helpless creatures form a strong affection for the man who has often to risk his life for their safety. They are every moment exposed to danger, and may be swept away by some mountain torrent, carried off by hordes of robbers, or torn in pieces by wild beasts. The shepherd must be constantly on the watch against these foes, and must often climb high rocks and ford deep streams to preserve his flock alive. And the sheep cling to him with a feeling of trustfulness, follow him, and do not need, as our sheep need, to be driven. They are discontented and restless when he is out of their sight. He knows each of them by its special name; he calls out a name, and the sheep which bears it will run to his side. The love of the strong and willing protector is flashed back in the gratitude and trust of the protected. In the light of this fact we must interpret this Oriental image. Christ is the Good Shepherd, as shepherds are known in the East, whose sheep are the companions of their daily life, and are valued by them the more in proportion to the risks they have endured for them. The image calls to mind a love of infinite condescension and grace; a love which stoops from its lofty height in heaven and remembers us in our low estate; knows the name, the character, the trials, and the needs of each one of us; thinks for us, cares for us, dies for us, that we may be saved from our adversaries and guided to the heavenly Kingdom. This is a love which thinks of each separate sheep with a care as minute and a self-denial as complete as if there were no other need in all the vast universe to be supplied.
The sword in the world, the right eye plucked out, the right hand cut off, the spirit of reproach which those images express, and of which monasticism is the fulfilment, reflect one side only of the nature of the Divine missionary of the New Testament. Opposed to, yet blent with, this ascetic or militant character is the image of the Good Shepherd—favourite sacred image of the primitive church—serene, blithe, and debonair, beyond the gentlest shepherd of Greek mythology; the daily food of whose spirit is the beatific vision of the kingdom of peace among men. And this latter side of the Divine character of Christ, rightly understood, is the final achievement of that vein of bold and brilliant hopefulness in man which had sustained him so far through his immense labour, his immense sorrows; and of which that peculiarly Greek gaiety, in the handling of life, is but one manifestation. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, of these two contrasted aspects of the character of Christ have, in different ages and under the urgency of differing human needs, been at work also in His “mystical body.”1 [Note: Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean.]
“Christ feeds His people,” says Cruden, “by His word, grace, fulness, redemption, ordinances, providences”; but no one of these can, of itself, make life stronger. We must stir up ourselves to meet them. The words of Scripture may simply encumber our memories, because we have not adventure of heart to lay hold upon them. There is an indolent and sulky habit of mind to which nothing seems right, just as there is a frank and eager attitude to which every new experience comes as a benediction.2 [Note: W. M. Macgregor, Some of God’s Ministries, 9.]
3. This shepherd seeks to develop character in his flock. For it is not sheep that God cares for first, and a great deal which might be imagined as to a shepherd’s work and way is out of all relation to the Divine guidance of men. “Ye, my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, are men,” says Ezekiel; and the difference is enormous when that is borne in mind. Sheep are to us the very pattern of creatures without judgment or foresight, and the whole business of managing them proceeds on that footing. They must be thought for, and guarded against their own folly, whilst men are best led by practising them in leading themselves, and sometimes they can be finally delivered from folly only by being permitted to taste their folly to the end. Sheep are driven on unknowing, whilst men have every moment to choose, decide, adventure for themselves. If it were possible, over any lengthened period, to have the life of a community ruled as sheep are, we should have, in the end, not men but sheep—helpless, planless, characterless, a race destroyed. Sometimes an effort has been made to break away from this principle of life, and, as in the Jesuit rule, to put one man absolutely in the hands of another, the passive instrument of his will, perinde ut cadaver: but such experiments have never worked for good. Both human nature and the thought of God the Shepherd are clean against them.
Jowett says, “We should speak of conscience, duty, obligation, not of development and evolution; because we desire to strengthen that side of man which raises him above nature, not that which identifies him with it.” And the real glory of God the Shepherd can only be seen when we do justice to our human liberty. An absolutist God would have nothing but a race of puppets, and thus He would be a little God; but our God is a great God, and His creatures are men; and the wisdom by which He guides them, in their liberty, is a wisdom that is inexhaustible.1 [Note: W. M. Macgregor, Some of God’s Ministries, 7.]
We find our outside world by acting always as if it were there, assuming that it is what it professes to be; and by finding our action always justified by results. And in the moral sphere it is the same. We act here as though we were morally free agents, able to choose between good and evil, and we find that the moral system responds to our action. It justifies our faith. The moral struggle assures us that we are not machines, but free agents, creating our character by a moral volition. By doing, we reach the conviction of a world above nature, a world of the inner life, whose laws are other than those of force and necessity—above them, using them for its higher ends. In our contact with the visible world, as in our contact with the invisible, we live by faith. For action is simply faith in operation. It were impossible except for a belief in the truth of things; and it is rewarded by the response which all things, visible and invisible, make to it. “So long as we strive we believe, and so long as we believe we strive.” It is, in fact, in doing things that we create ourselves. Action is the proof, the declaration of our freedom. By it we bring into being something that was never in the world before—our character, our personality. And when, in the exercise of our free volition, in obedience to the inner call of the spirit, we go on choosing the good, we find in the act itself the assurance of a foothold in a higher realm, a possession there, from which no reasoning can shake us, for it is rooted in the deeps of consciousness. We know ourselves as of a kingdom of the Unseen, whose laws are above those of matter, and whose possessions are secure from all material assault.1 [Note: J. Brierley, Religion and To-Day, 258.]
The Cry for Fellowship
1. The thought of the shepherd awakens the passionate love of the soul. As there are attributes in God which fill us with a sense of reverence and awe, which command our homage, and vindicate our faith and submission, so there are others which appeal directly to our love; and in view of His condescension, long-suffering, and self-sacrifice, it is impossible not to feel the glow of a responsive affection. Our nature is so framed that in the presence of certain objects it inevitably displays certain feelings. There are correspondences between the world without and the world within. One class of objects is fitted to awaken our admiration, our approval and delight; another class creates a sense of aversion and disgust. To be true, to be just and upright, is to have affections which truth, justice, and integrity call into play whenever we are brought into contact with them; as there are other affections which are inevitably awakened by gentleness, compassion, and generosity. If we are brought into contact with these qualities as they exist in men, the feelings which correspond with them are at once aroused—we admire, revere, and love. Can such feelings, then, be dormant when we apprehend these high qualities as they exist in God, when He who possesses these attributes of truth, righteousness, and mercy in an infinite degree reveals them to us?
Bishop Butler, who was certainly no enthusiast, and who looked at every subject in the dry light of the intellect, is yet filled with intense emotion as he discourses of the love of God. “Love, reverence, desire, and esteem—every faculty, every affection—tends towards, and is employed about, its respective object in common cases; and must the exercise of men be suspended with regard to Him alone who is an object, an infinitely more than adequate object, to our most exalted faculties, Him of whom and through whom and to whom are all things?” It cannot be. To suppress such feelings, in the presence of the majesty and condescension of God, would be to violate our nature and reduce ourselves below the level of Man 1:1 [Note: J. Stuart.]
2. The soul naturally seeks the presence of the shepherd. “Tell me where thou feedest thy flock.” It is a perfectly legitimate thing to desire a close, personal intimacy with our Saviour. We may without presumption aspire to dwell in the light of His countenance, to receive the choicest gifts of His grace, to be nourished and refreshed in His pastures. There is no virtue in spiritual timidity. High and holy aspirations are not Pharisaical conceit. We ought not to be contented with a dwarfed and maimed Christianity, with an imperfect righteousness or a disturbed peace. The poorest man that lives has a perfect right to open the doors and windows of his house to the light of the sun and to the fresh and healthy atmosphere. In everything we should seek to attain the highest and to do the best. And if Christ is a Saviour at all, we ought to desire His best and choicest blessings. If He welcomes us in our sin and sorrow, He will not spurn our endeavours to be always near Him. Rather does He bid us follow Him and so act, in obedience to His commands, that His love may be manifested in us, and that we may know whom we have believed.
I am in no doubt whatever of the loving intention of the Father to me, His very frail and wilful child. Sin and doubt and fear very often overcome me, and I know how little reason I give to others to be recognized as a Christian; but I do recognize Christ as my Lord and master, and would keep His will, if I could; and though I go astray like a sheep that is lost, I do indeed know that my Shepherd follows me and seeks me; I discern Him moving towards the dawn; His hand guides me, puts aside the thorny branches through which I could not press, leads me beside the waters of comfort. I can dare to be joyful beneath His eye. I do not know what the end will be, or what eager energy of life lies beyond the dark river; but I am redeemed and fed, and shall some day be satisfied!2 [Note: A. C. Benson, Thy Rod and Thy Staff, 95.]
3. In seeking the shepherd’s fellowship, the heart can present a powerful plea. “Why should I be as one that is veiled” (or, possibly, “one that wanders”) “beside the flocks of thy companions?” This image must be interpreted in the light of Oriental customs. The shepherds are often found in companies, and go forth from the city with their flocks massed together as if they formed but one. Then, when they are clear of the city, they take each a separate path, call their sheep after them, and go to their own pastures. There are, therefore, several flocks tended each by its own shepherd. But there is only one flock to which the Hebrew maiden could repair, one shepherd to whom she belonged; and she desired to hear his voice and follow him. The flocks of his companions have necessarily to be regarded as alien and even rival flocks, with which she has no right to associate. Her question is, “Why should I be as one that turneth aside by these alien flocks; asking for thee, as if I were a wanderer and a deserter; under a temptation to desert thee, and to be seized upon as prey by others? Tell me where thou feedest, that I may dwell with thee, and may be known as thine.”
In actual life other lords than Christ claim to rule over us. There are rivals to His throne, usurpers of His honour, who promise to us pleasure and delight in the pursuits of sin and worldliness; or assure us that we do not need the aid of Christ’s mediatorial work and supernatural revelation; that we cannot know God as He is here declared; that we need only follow the guidance of reason and of common sense; that science, philosophy, and political economy are adequate means of instruction, and set before us “the whole duty of man”; that the idea of personal fellowship with God is a chimera; that the aim of life is pleasure or profit, and that it is folly to spend our thought in care for the future. There are intellectual and social influences at work around us, some of them apparently harmless, which are profoundly hostile to the reign of Christ in our souls; and we can be kept free from subjection to these only by living in the spirit of the prayer of our text, and having that prayer answered. We need the personal guidance of our Lord: “Why should I be as one that turneth aside?“—not knowing where to find Thee, and being compelled to ask others, as perchance they reproach me, “Where is now thy God?”
When Tigranes and his wife were both taken prisoners by Cyrus, Cyrus turning to Tigranes said, “What will you give for the liberation of your wife?” and the king answered, “I love my wife so that I would cheerfully give up my life if she might be delivered from servitude”; whereupon Cyrus said that if there was such love as that between them they might both go free. So when they were away and many were talking about the beauty and generosity of Cyrus, and especially about the beauty of his person, Tigranes, turning to his wife, asked her what she thought of Cyrus, and she answered that she saw nothing anywhere but in the face of the man who had said that he would die if she might only be released from servitude. “The beauty of the man,” she said, “makes me forgot all others.” And verily we would say the same of Jesus. We would not decry the angels, nor think ill of the saints, but the beauties of that Man who gave His life for us are so great that they have eclipsed others, and our soul only wishes to see Him and not another.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
Long did I toil, and knew no earthly rest;
Far did I rove, and found no certain home:
At last I sought them in His sheltering breast,
Who opes His arms, and bids the weary come.
With Him I found a home, a rest divine;
And I since then am His, and He is mine.
Yes, He is mine! and nought of earthly things,
Not all the charms of pleasure, wealth, or power,
The fame of heroes, or the pomp of kings,
Could tempt me to forego His love an hour.
Go, worthless world, I cry, with all that’s thine!
Go! I my Saviour’s am, and He is mine.
The good I have is from His stores supplied:
The ill is only what He deems the best.
He for my friend, I’m rich with nought beside;
And poor without Him, though of all possessed.
Changes may come—I take, or I resign,
Content, while I am His, while He is mine.2 [Note: H. F. Lyte, Poems Chiefly Religious, 75.]
Cannon (W. W.), The Song of Solomon , 2.
Falconer (H.), The Maid of Shulam.
Godet (G.), Biblical Studies: Old Testament, 265.
Lepper (C. W.), The Bridegroom and His Bride, 35.
Macduff (J. R.), The Shepherd and His Flock, 205.
Marston (A. W.), Joined to the Lord, 32.
Rainsford (M.), The Song of Solomon, 33.
Spurgeon (C. H.), New Park Street Pulpit, vi. (1860), No. 338.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xi. (1865), No. 636; xix. (1873), No. 1115.
Stuart (J.), Church and Home, 140.
Christian Age, xxvii. 116 (T. de W. Talmage).