The Price of Refusal (5:2-8)
2I slept, but my heart was awake. A sound! My beloved is knocking. ‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.’ 3I had put off my garment; how could I put it on? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? 4My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me. 5I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, on the handles of the bolt. 6I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. 7The watchmen found me as they went about in the city; they beat me, they bruised me, they took away my veil, those watchmen of the walls. 8I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him I am sick with love.
The scene in this poem is totally different from the preceding one. There, under the picture of the king visiting his garden, we had seen Jesus and his disciple sharing happy fellowship. In this new scene, things are different. The varied scenes in this book are a reminder of the diverse nature of Christian experience and we are to learn lessons from each one because they depict experiences that we will encounter at some stage on our Christian pathway.
In these verses we have a poetic recounting of a dialogue between the woman and the daughters of Jerusalem after a refusal of the woman to let the king into her room. As we have suggested throughout, she depicts an individual believer, the daughters of Jerusalem are fellow disciples and the king is Jesus. In 5:2:8, the disciple informs the other believers of what has taken place, and closes by asking them to speak on her behalf should they see the king. They respond in 5:9 by asking her why her Beloved is so important and she responds in verses 10-16. Her admiring comments of her Beloved cause the daughters to desire to accompany her in locating him (6:1-3).
There are obvious spiritual lessons in this structure. Firstly, a disciple who has failed the Master in one way or another should enlist the help of other disciples. Secondly, these other disciples should aim to get the failed believer to stop speaking about her folly and instead to speak about Jesus. Thirdly, these disciples should volunteer to spend time with her until she has recovered her spiritual composure.
In this meditation, we will focus on 5:2-8, attempting to discover ways by which spiritual distance between Christ and us can come into our experience.
The condition of the disciple
The incident takes place at night, with the woman in bed. She describes herself as being asleep although her heart is awake. The king is not with her, he is outside. His absence makes her uneasy, which may be the reason why she cannot sleep. The thoughts of her heart are keeping her from sleeping comfortably. What does this illustrate about Christian experience? She depicts a believer who has become separate from Christ in the sense that there is no active communion between him and her. This separation makes such a believer uneasy and his mind is restless.
We know that such experiences come our way for a variety of reasons. One reason is overtly sinful practices; when we fall into such activities, we will face the Lord’s chastisement unless we repent of our sin. I don’t think that is the picture of the disciple here, because the Beloved does not draw near to punish her. Instead he draws near to encourage her, therefore I would suggest that her spiritual state is one of satisfaction with the progress made. She is still able to discern his voice, which points to some possession of spiritual light. Yet her satisfaction is defective because she has lost the desire to proceed further.
The good feature of the situation is that the king knows about her problem and will not abandon her. There is a similar situation described in the letter to the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3. In that letter, Jesus describes his intention to come to the church in order to renew fellowship with backsliding disciples.
The approach of the king (v. 2)
The woman recites the words of the king to her, and we can see them as words of Jesus. His appeal, to begin with, covers a wide perspective of the permanent relationship that there is between him and his follower. He mentions four details of the relationship. First, there is a family relationship -- they are brother and sister since both belong to the family of God. Second, there is a love relationship, similar to that of a married couple. Third, he mentions her dove-like features such as gentleness and peacefulness; he commends spiritual features that are developing in her character. Fourth, he says that she is without flaw in his sight (a reference to her justification). Each of these individual details is prefixed by ‘my’, which is a reminder of what her priority should be, the realisation that she belongs to him.
Secondly, the king says that he has made a journey in order to reach her location. This journey has been made through a wet night, depicting the efforts made by Jesus, often enduring uncongenial situations, in order to come and meet with his disciples. Sometimes we focus on the travels of the good Shepherd seeking lost sheep at their conversion and of the loving patience shown by him towards them. We should not forget that often he has to show great determination and patience when seeking fellowship with his people.
So Jesus, when he draws near, reminds us of our spiritual privileges and of his willingness to make great efforts in order to restore us to active fellowship with him.
The attitude of the woman (vv. 3-4)
Initially she is reluctant to respond to the appeal of her Beloved for more fellowship. It is remarkable how lethargic a Christian can become. In her current state, the smallest action becomes unreasonable. It is amazing the number of frivolous reasons that can be made for not taking steps to meet with King Jesus. All he has asked her to do is get up from the bed of satisfied ease and open the door. But she refuses. She prefers her comfort to communion with Jesus.
While she is lethargic and sluggish in responding, the king continues his attempt to have fellowship with her. It was usual for there to be large holes in doors that were used by those wanting entrance to a house or room; they would put a hand through the hole and open the latch. This is a reminder that Jesus has the ability to open the door of our hearts, if necessary; however, he prefers that his disciple would open the door for him.
When she saw his hand, she was deeply moved (the bowels were regarded as the seat of the emotions). What does his hand signify? She would have recalled what he had previously done with his hand. For example, she would recall that his hand had given her provision from his table, had guided her through his possessions (the garden and palaces), and had caressed her when she had fainted for love. The sight of his hand would have revived pleasant memories and created a desire for renewed experiences with him.
Her surprise at his absence (vv. 5-6)
So she rises to open the door. On the way she dips her hands in myrrh taken from one of the bottles containing fragrances that would have been in her room. She would have done this to make herself attractive to the king. Yet when she opens the door, he is not there, and she is devastated. Here we have a picture of a common Christian experience, that of discovering that sometimes Jesus absents himself at unusual times.
Her actions here of rising from the bed and the putting on of myrrh depict repentance. Repentance is an active grace and does involve believers leaving their places of illegitimate rest. Often this repentance is a sore experience in a spiritual sense and the believer may have a sense of crushing (myrrh was a fragrance produced from a crushed substance). Yet at the same time, such repentance has a sweet smell. As the believer moves to open to the Saviour, she will be saying to herself, ‘How foolish I was in delaying to open.’ And the extent of that folly she is about to discover. Jesus, who had been asking for fellowship, is not there now that she wants to meet him. He had withdrawn and she was distressed. Why does Jesus withdraw himself from a penitent disciple? One reason is for her to appreciate the folly of her action, another reason is to test the genuineness of her new desire.
Her searching for her Beloved (vv. 6-7)
The poem now describes her search for him. She begins looking for him near to the house before moving out into the city. I think this illustrates a believer searching for Jesus in private means of grace (prayer, meditation, self-examination) and then in public means of grace (the roads of the city are like various sources of public blessing: preaching, sacraments, fellowship).
She found him silent in the private means (v. 6). Is this not often our experience? For example, we read a promise in the Bible and desire to experience its power; we pray earnestly and persistently, yet something is lacking. We discover that the means of grace are not the same as Christ himself.
She found seriousness in the church. In a previous encounter, the watchmen had helped her when she was looking for Jesus (3:3-4). But on this occasion, the result was different. Some commentators find fault with the watchmen here. They suggest that they depict ministers who are insensitive to the sad state of the disciple who is seeking for Jesus through the public means. No doubt, Christ’s servants can be in a wrong state of soul and misread a situation. Yet I suspect that while we should look at the watchmen as depicting ministers we should do so from another point of view. They wound a believer in the sense that they stress to her the solemnity of her sin in showing lethargy to Jesus. He enables his watchmen to speak appropriate words to her condition of soul. Her repentance is to be made deeper, although it will result in painful awareness. As she listens to them, she becomes aware of a sense of shame (to remove a woman’s veil in public was to disgrace her). Her sins are uncovered by the watchmen. This does not mean that the watchmen should be cruel or unkind. But part of their role is to cause the citizens of Zion to have intelligent repentance when they have sinned.
Her response also indicates development in humility. She is willing to be rebuked, even though it causes her pain. It was her pride that had caused her to imagine that she did not need communion with Jesus; it is her humility that acknowledges that she had been wrong.
What we see here is the consequences of spiritual laziness of any kind in a Christian. Failure to respond to the loving appeal of Jesus may lead to his withdrawal, and this withdrawal can continue even after the believer has regained a measure of spiritual health. The biggest danger to our spiritual fervour may not be the glaring sins that do not attract us but the little sins that merely affect us a little.
Her sharing of her desire (v. 8)
There is one other source of help for her. At a time when personal devotions cannot locate Jesus, and when his servants are deepening her repentance, she is to turn to fellow-disciples for comfort. This is illustrated by the words of the woman to the daughters of Jerusalem. She wants them to bring her case to the king, which is a clear picture of a seeking disciple asking other believers to pray. Her message for Jesus is that her love for him is revived and needs to be communicated to him. As yet she does not have joy restored to her, but her love has returned. Love, whether in recovery or in continued development, is not a grace that goes inward but outward, towards either Jesus or his people.
Here we see a method for gracious recovery for a sluggish Christian soul. First, there is personal repentance (depicted in her leaving the bed); second, there is persistent resolve (seen in her use of private means, of public means, and of brotherly intercession). If that is where we are, keep on searching.
Here we see a miracle of grace. Her separation from him, described at the beginning of the poem, had reduced her love for him. His separation from her, in response to her failure, had increased her love for him.