The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Whither is thy beloved gone, O thou fairest among women? whither is thy beloved turned aside? that we may seek him with thee.Christ and His Church
Song of Solomon 5-8
The Song has a double action: sometimes the Church praises Christ, and sometimes Christ praises the Church. The most noticeable feature is that the praise on both sides is equal. Not one word does the Church say of Christ that Christ does not in his turn say of the Church. So there is no idolatry in Christian worship when that worship is directed to God the Son. God the Son does not take from the Church all praise and honour without returning to his Church a response which proves the dignity of the Church herself. The occasion is always double, or reciprocal. A worship that is unreturned would be idolatry; but the worship that is returned in recognition and honour and love and benediction is a reflected and re-echoed love; it is the very perfection of sympathy. An idol does nothing in return; there is a short and easy test of idolatry. A wooden deity makes no reply; it takes no interest in the worshipping or adoring life; it may be said to receive all and give nothing in return. To pour out the heart to such an unanswering presence is simple and fruitless idolatry. This is not the relation in which Christ stands to his Church. It would be difficult to say whether the Church more praises Christ than Christ delights in the Church. He speaks of the Church as if he could not live without it. He redeemed it with his precious blood; he comes to it for fruit, for blessing,—may we not add, for comfort to his own heart? that he may see of the travail of his soul and be satisfied: he looks for beauty on our part, for all manner of excellence; and when he sees it does he stint his praise, does he speak with merely critical and literal exactness? Is there not a redundance of recognition, as if he could never say too much in return for the worship we render him, and the service we conduct in his name and to his glory? If we doubted this we should only have need to refer to the great rewards with which he crowns our humble, but sincere, endeavours: we cannot give any disciple of his a cup of cold water without receiving recognition from Christ; we cannot watch one hour with him without feeling that, having had participation in his sufferings, we shall have also triumph in his resurrection. Observe, therefore, the reciprocal action as between Christ in heaven and his Church on earth: how they love one another, and communicate with one another, and live in one another. This is the marvel of grace.
We may learn much from this Shulamite. This high privilege, this most sacred and tender joy, brings with it a reflection full of sadness. When the love is so tender, how sensitive it must be to neglect, or disobedience, or wavering! A love like that cannot be neglected with impunity. It is a solemn relation in which the Church stands to Christ: a breath may wound him; an unspoken thought may be a cruel treachery; a wandering desire may be a renewed crucifixion. To have to deal with such love is to live under perpetual criticism. Whilst the recognition is always redundant, yea, infinite in graciousness, yet even that species and measure of recognition may be said to involve a corresponding sensitiveness to neglect or dishonour. The very fact that our poorest service is looked upon with the graciousness of divine love also suggests that our neglect of that service leaves that love wounded and despondent.
Look at the case. The Church which goes into such rhapsodies of admiration as we find in the Canticles breaks down at one point. Whose love is it that gives way? It is not the love of Christ. When a break does occur in the holy communion, where does that break take effect? Look at the image in the fifth chapter. The Church is there represented as having gone to rest, and in the deep darkness a knock is heard at the door, and a well-known voice says: "Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night" (Song of Solomon 5:2.) What is the response of the Shulamite—or, as we should say, the Church? The answer is: "I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?" Thus we are caught at unexpected times, and in ways we have never calculated. It is when we are asked to do unusual things that we find out the scope and the value of our Christian profession. How difficult it is to be equally strong at every point! How hard, how impossible, to have a day-and-night religion; a religion that is in the light and in the darkness the same, as watchful at midnight as at midday; as ready to serve in the snows of winter as amid the flowers of the summer-time! So the Shulamite breaks down. She has been sentimentalising, rhapsodising, calling to her love that he would return to her; and now that he has come she says: "I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on?" How hard for human nature to be divine! How difficult for the finite even to urge itself in the direction of the infinite! How impossible to keep awake all night even under the inspiration of love, unless that inspiration be constantly renewed by intercourse with heaven! Keep my eyes open at midnight, O thou coming One, and may I be ready for thee when thou dost come, though it be at midnight, or at the crowing of the cock, or at noonday: may I by thy grace be ready for thy coming!
The whole subject of excuses is here naturally opened up. "I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on?" What a refrain to all the wild rhapsody! When the Shulamite cries that her loving and loved one may return, always add, I have put off my coat: how shall I put it on? I have laid myself down; how can I rise again to undo the door?—Oh that he would come at regular times, in the ordinary course of things, that he would not put my love to these unusual and exceptional tests: for twelve hours in the day I should be ready, but having curtained myself round, and lain down to sleep, how can I rise again? Thus all rhapsody goes down, all mere sentiment perishes in the using; it is undergoing a continual process of evaporation. Nothing stands seven days a week and four seasons in the year but reasoned love, intelligent apprehension of great principles, distinct inwrought conviction that without Christ life is impossible, or were it possible it would be vain, painful, and useless. Have we any such excuses, or are these complaints historical noises, unknown to us in their practical realisation? Let the question find its way into the very middle of the heart. There is an ingenuity of self-excusing, a department in which genius can find ample scope for all its resources. Who is guiltless in this matter? Who is there that never was called upon in his conscience to rise and do Christ's bidding under exceptional and trying circumstances? We may not have love making its demands by the clock; we must not have a merely mechanical piety that comes for so much and for no more: love is enthusiasm; love is sacrifice; love keeps no time; love falls into no sleep from which it cannot escape at the slightest beckoning or call of the object on which it is fastened.
Shall we go a little into detail? or do we shrink from the thumbscrew and the rack of cross-examination? Will not pulpit and pew go down in a common condemnation? The ailment that would not keep a man from business will confine him all day when it is the Church that requires his attendance, or Christ that asks him to deliver a testimony or render a sacrifice. Who can escape from that suggestion? Who does not so far take Providence into his own hand as to arrange occasionally that his ailments shall come and go by the clock? Who has not found in the weather an excuse to keep him from spiritual exercises that he never would have found there on the business days of the week? How comes it that men look towards the weather quarter on the day of the Son of man? It is not a little matter; this is not a detail that is insignificant: within limits that might easily be assigned the detail is not worth taking notice of; but even here we may find insight into character, revelation of spiritual quality, the measure of enthusiasm. We can only test ourselves by the criticism of our own day: it is in vain for us to say whether we should have risen or not when the knock came to the door, and the speaker said that his head was filled with dew and his locks with the drops of the night; into such romantic circumstances we cannot enter; but there are circumstances by which we can be tested and tried, and by which we can say to ourselves definitely, Our prayer is a lie, and our profession a rhapsody. It is not enough that we should be usual, regular, mechanical; that we should have a scheduled order of procession, whereby a duty shall come at a given hour, and be discharged at an indicated time. We are not hirelings; we ought not to be mere slaves, serving as men-pleasers serve in the domestic and commercial circles; we should be slaves in the sense of love that keeps nothing back, that delights in its golden chains, because every link binds the soul more closely and tenderly to the infinite heart of the universe. Where do we begin to economise? do we begin in the region of luxury? Where is there a man who can truthfully say that when he begins to economise he begins in the wine-cellar? Where is there a Christian man, how rhapsodic soever his piety—and the more rhapsodic the less likely—who can say that when he economises he begins by putting a bridle upon his own appetites and indulgences and worldliness: and that before he will take anything from Christ the last rag must be stripped from his own back? Yet how we sing, how we praise the hymn, how we admire the poet, how we ask him to go higher in his ascriptions and to be broader in his consecrations! Alas, if it be all rhapsody! We shall never know whether it is so or not by mere argument. What have we done? How often have we risen at midnight to help the poor, the helpless, the lost? Of how many meals have we denied our hunger that we might help a hunger greater than our own? How often have we put ourselves out of the way to do that which is good, benevolent, and helpful? Not what have we done by regulation and schedule, and bond and stipulation, and the like; but what irregular service have we rendered, what unusual devotion have we paid? These are the questions that try us like fire; these are the inquiries that mow down our rhapsody and sentiment, and soon discover how much there is left in the field of life for that which is good and solid and useful.
But the Church will repent: the Shulamite will cry; yea, the tears will burst from her eyes, and she will go out after she has had a fit of reflection. Let her go! "I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock. I opened to my beloved; but------" we saw in how awful a relation the soul stands in regard to Christ; we saw how hard a thing it-is to live clearly up to the point of that infinite affection of his—"but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone." When he goes, who can measure the emptiness which he leaves behind? Hear the sad word—"gone." What is there left? Only emptiness, nothingness, disappointment, mortification,—now cry and spare not thy tears, thou indolent Shulamite who did not spring to answer the call that was made by him whose head was filled with dew, and whose locks were heavy with the drops of the night! What a picture of forsakenness! He was gone—"My soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer." Has he not left a shadow behind? No. Is there not a sound of his retreating footfall in the night air by which the forsaken one may discover at least the direction in which wounded love has gone? No. Herein we stand in jeopardy every hour. Let the Shulamite now examine her reasons, and she says, I would not rise to put on a garment, and therefore I have lost him who is fairest among ten thousand and altogether ever lovely; I would not put myself to any inconvenience, and therefore I have lost the king and his heaven. Strip all this soliloquy of its orientalism, and still there remains the solid time-long fact, that to neglect an opportunity which Christ creates is to lose the Christ who graciously created it. "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in": "Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation." Did not the disciples sleep in the garden? Are we not all sometimes overborne with sleep? Is Christ, then, harsh with us? No: yet only by these forsakings can he get at some of us, so to say, with anything like healthful and permanent effect: argument is exhausted; appeal is lost. The ministry of abandonment plays an important part in the dispensation under which we live. We must be left to ourselves awhile; we must be given to feel how great a thing is the light which we do not value or which we neglect to use. When the light goes what is left? A great burden of darkness. And what does darkness mean? It means imprisonment, destruction. Darkness practically destroys every picture that the hand of skill ever painted; the night roots out all the flowers of summer, so far as their visibleness is concerned. Darkness undoes, limits, appals, imprisons. There is no jail like the darkness. In other prisons you may try to find crevices in the wall, flaws in the building that may be turned to advantage; but in the darkness there are no flaws, it is a great wall which cannot be broken up by our poor human strength: if we should strike a momentary light in its midst it would only be to discover that the prison is vaster than we had at first supposed. When Christ leaves the soul, the soul is sunk in night Not one ray of light has it of its own. All it can do is to cry bitterly, penitently, contritely; but all the crying of the gathered distress and agony of the world cannot dispel the darkness of night.
The Shulamite went forth, and was wounded by strange hands. "The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me" (Song of Solomon 5:7). Poor Church! That is thy lot when away from Christ! The world hates the Church; the world only awaits an opportunity to wound the Church. This is not only circumstantial; it is philosophical, it is necessary, it is inevitable: there is no communion or congeniality between them; they live in different universes, they are lighted by different flames—one the eye of day, the other the baleful fire of hell. The worldly man cannot esteem the Christian. It is a difficult lesson to learn. The Christian is more frequently deceived upon this point than is the worldly man. The Christian speaks of his geniality, his neighbourliness, his evident disposition to return courtesies and to live upon friendly terms. There can be no friendly terms between the soul that prays and the soul that never prays! What communion hath Christ with Belial, or light with darkness? Not that the Christian may set himself in hostility against the world in so far as it would prevent his having an opportunity of revealing the kingdom of heaven. Certainly not. That, indeed, would be unwise generalship, that would be obviously insane and absurd piety; we are now speaking of the solemn fact that if the world should get the Church into its power, the world would wound the Church and kill it; if Christ were to descend the world would slay him every day in the week: and so doing the world is acting logically; it is in perfect sequence with itself; the inconsistency is not in the world. What if there be less inconsistency in the world than in the Church?
There is one expression to which allusion may be made: "Jealousy is cruel as the grave. the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame" (Song of Solomon 8:6). There is an unreasoning and unjust jealousy. There is a jealousy which every man ought to condemn and avoid as he would flee from the very spirit of evil. But there is a godly jealousy. "I the Lord thy God am a jealous God": "Thou shalt worship no other God: for the Lord whose name is Jealous is a jealous God." The Apostle Paul avails himself of this same sentiment when he says: "For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ." When we condemn jealousy we must understand the direction in which jealousy operates. Let us never forget that there is a jealousy which is born of the very pit of perdition; but let us be jealous for truth, jealous for honour, jealous for domestic sanctities, jealous for mutual reputation. Let us feel that what injures a brother injures us. Never let us forget that when one minister is spoken against the whole ministry is involved. Do not imagine that some particular minister can be the object of jealousy without the whole brotherhood to which he belongs being in some degree involved in the tremendous blasphemy against human rights and human liberties. There is a fine scope for jealousy, if we want to be jealous, and it we are endowed with a jealous disposition. Let us beware of the serpent Jealousy: it will destroy our home, our love, our life; it will turn the sweetest, purest cream into the deadliest poison; with the fumes of hell it will mingle the incense of piety. It is the perversion of a sublime sentiment, and is without either the dignity of justice or the serenity of reason. "It doth work like madness in the brain." We must be jealous of ourselves, and not of others. There is a fine range for jealousy—for a man to sit jealously in judgment upon his own motives, and desires, and aspirations, and to be severe with himself. That is the way to become gracious to others. Let us be jealous of our jealousy; be jealous of our prayerlessness, our illiberality, our mean and despicable excuses. Along that line our jealousy may burn with advantage, but along every other line its proper figure is that of a fiend, and its only passion is thirst for blood. But we should not have jealousy excluded from the action of the Shulamite or from the spirit of Christ, wherein jealousy means regard for the principles of love, the integrity of honour, the flawlessness of loyalty, the completeness of consecration.
How healthful is the lesson, and what a range of application it has—namely, let us be jealous in regard to ourselves. Let us say to the self-saving self, This is diabolical on your part, and ought to be punished with the heat of hell. When in the morning we would escape from religious discipline that we may mingle with the greater eagerness in the dissipation of the world, let us stop ourselves and say, Bad man, disloyal man, you have robbed God! What a field for jealousy! When we have neglected the poor and hungry, and listened not to the cause of those who had no helper, then let us be jealous of ourselves, and punish ourselves with anticipated hell. This would be a life full of discipline, but full of blessedness; it would check all evil-speaking, put an end to all malign criticism, and constrain the soul towards all graciousness and gentleness of judgment with others, for it would show others to advantage, and compel us to say, Compared even with them, how poor a figure we cut! To be severe with ourselves is the surest way to prepare for being gentle with our fellow-creatures. I keep myself under; I smite myself in the eyes, lest having preached to others I myself should be a castaway,—so said the chief of us all, the loyalest, noblest Christian that ever followed the Saviour; and if he, so mentally strong and spiritually rich, needed so much self-discipline, what do we need, who feel how small we are and frail, and how easily we are moved about by every wind of doctrine and by every subtle temptation? My soul, hope thou in God!