A Bruised Saint Seeking Rest from Jesus (1:5-8)
She. I am very dark, but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon. Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has looked upon me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!
Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you pasture your flock, where you make it lie down at noon; for why should I be like one who veils herself beside the flocks of your companions?
Daughters of Jerusalem. If you do not know, O most beautiful among women, follow in the tracks of the flock, and pasture your young goats beside the shepherds’ tents (1:5-8).
The encounter with the King described in the preceding verses has come to an end because he has left to look after some of his flocks, which is a reminder of the many roles performed by him. In the Song, sometimes he is described as a king, at other times as a shepherd, at other times as a traveller. Similarly the the bride is described as performing various tasks: here she is a vinedresser, but elsewhere she is a shepherdess or a princess.
The bride in verses 5-7 addresses the two objects of her love: in verses 5 and 6 she speaks to the daughters of Jerusalem and in verse 7 she turns and talks to her Beloved. Here is a picture of Christian fellowship on the horizontal level with God’s people and on the vertical level with the Saviour. Her words here are the words of a believer and not an unconverted person. This is important to note when thinking about how she describes herself.
Her self-assessment to other believers (v. 5)
The bride describes herself as black and beautiful simultaneously; her blackness she compares to the tents of Kedar and her beauty she compares to the curtains of Solomon. Regarding her describing herself as black, there are at least three suggested meanings.
First, the colour of her skin could reveal her origin, that she came from another country than Israel, which was the homeland of the daughters of Jerusalem to whom she is speaking. Some of the early church fathers suggested these were the words of a Gentile Christian addressing Jewish believers. In any case, they are appropriate words for every Christian, to say that they come from another place that is so different from where they now are. Nevertheless I don’t think this is the meaning described here.
A second interpretation is to see the blackness as a reference to indwelling sin and the beauty or comeliness as a reference to the believer’s desire for holiness. It is certainly the case that all believers know this twofold assessment of themselves. We can think of the believer in Romans 7 struggling against sin. Paul refers to the inner conflict in a believer when he says that the flesh lusts against the Spirit. This interpretation regards her mentioning of her own vineyard as a confession that she has failed to develop spiritually. Yet I think that she has something else in mind.
The third interpretation takes note that she says that her dark colour was due to being forced to work hard in the heat of the sun – her skin had been burnt and become dry and weather-beaten (like the tents of Kedar). This work was not voluntary, for she likens it to forced labour, to slavery in a dry and barren desert. Her description also indicates that this forced activity occurred in a loveless world – it was her brothers who had caused her bondage. This opposition caused her to neglect her own vineyard.
What is being described here, I think, is the effect of worldly opposition on a child of God. The people of the world, who are related to her by nature, are oppressing her because she is no longer one of them. Vineyards were common in Israel, and were an important source of income. They were places that required hard work to produce the grapes. Those who had them focussed all their energy and interests in them. Vineyards were also places of fellowship and joy; this use is referred to in Micah 4:4: ‘But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it.’ When she says that her brothers forced her to work in their vineyards, it is a picture of the world attempting to force a believer to have the same priorities and interests as they do.
This suffering from the world has prevented her from focussing on producing a beautiful place, which I think she had anticipated being a location where she could meet her Beloved. I don’t think she means that she has become a backslider – which is often the meaning that is given as an explanation of not keeping her vineyard – because she says that she has kept her beauty despite the opposition.
What comely features does a believer show in times of opposition? There is the grace of perseverance by which he or she continues in the faith; there is the grace of loyalty to a Master whose presence she may not be able to sense; there is the beauty of a broken will by which she submits to her Master’s providence; there is the longing for a better world. But there may be a lack of some other graces of the Spirit. For example, Peter says that persecution can cause heaviness instead of joy: ‘Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations’ (1 Pet. 1:6).
Her request of her fellow-believers
The harassed believer seems from her own perspective to be a contradiction. This is illustrated by the difference between the black tents of Kedar and the gilded tents of King Solomon that were decorated with jewels. The black tents were weather-beaten and dry, a picture of a believer who needs heavenly refreshment. True, she had some features that resembled the rich possessions of the heavenly Solomon: she was persevering, loyal and dissatisfied with where she was. But her troubles have prevented her attaining her heart’s desire and she is apprehensive that her experience will discourage the people of God. She is concerned that they might think that she is not as fragrant as she should be and assume that she has been disloyal to Jesus.
There is a lesson here about judging other Christians who are going through troubles of soul. Unless they tell us, we cannot see if their soul is going through a desert experience. Opposition can have a draining effect and the last thing a tried believer needs is for fellow believers to stare at the effects of her trials. Don’t look at her frailties, instead listen to what she says to her king.
Her request of her Well-Beloved
The daughters of Jerusalem hear an earnest prayer from the harassed bride. As they listen, they discover the aspirations of her heart. Our aspirations give better evidence of our spiritual temperature than do our attainments. The daughters of Jerusalem had not been through a desert experience and seemed content with where they were. In a sense, they were almost like the church in Ephesus with its great attainments, but it was a church with no aspirations after Jesus, a church that the Saviour states had lost its first love (Rev. 2:1-9).
The Christian life has been likened to climbing a mountain. We can imagine a believer who has climbed half-way up. He stops and admires the view and decides that this is a good place to stop. He has understood some deep truths, known some answers to prayer, and made some progress. Sadly he has no aspirations to go higher. But down below him is a believer who does not understand as much as him, who struggles in prayer, and takes one step back for every two steps forward. But she has a desire to reach the top. Which one is the healthiest? We are not to judge a person’s vision as healthy if all they are seeing is what they saw twenty years ago. And we are not to dismiss a believer who cannot see as much as that person – what is important is that they are seeing more than they did before.
This is an illustration of Paul’s teaching in Philippians 3:13-15: ‘Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.’ And he continues: ‘Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.’ We are not to despise our attainments (‘Only let us hold true to what we have attained,’ v. 16), but we must have aspirations.
What are the aspirations of the bride? First, she wants to hear her Beloved’s voice. I would take this to be a desire for personal communion. It is a request for guidance, but it is for guidance to meet with Jesus.
Second, she speaks out of a heart that is full of love to Christ. She does not know where he is or why he has allowed her to be harassed (after all, he is the king with total power), but she does know that she loves him. Here is proof that many waters cannot quench love. There are many examples of such love in the Bible. Think of Job as he cries, ‘Oh that I knew where I might find him,’ and listen to him as he says, ‘When he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.’ Think of Mary of Bethany after her brother has died. She knows that Jesus could have prevented it (‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’), but puzzled Mary fell at Jesus’ feet because she loved him. There is also Peter who experienced greatly the testing of the world. And when Jesus publicly questioned him about his commitment, he cried out, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Love cannot be alive and well in a backsliding heart, but it is alive and well in a heart that feels dry from desert experiences.
Third, she wants strength and rest from her Beloved. No matter how much she loved the daughters of Jerusalem, they could not give her these blessings. Only Jesus could. She addresses him as One experienced in providing such rest, as One who will personally provide such rest, and who can provide rest at the hottest time of the day (noon). Her troubles, instead of causing her to despair of help from Jesus, make her more determined to receive help from him. This is an illustration of what Jesus promised in Matthew 11:28-30: ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
Fourth, she does not want to have to continually hide the effects of her troubles. If things keep on as they have been, she will have to veil her dark face from the friends of Jesus. She has turned her concern into a prayer.
The response from the daughters of Jerusalem (v. 8)
There is disagreement about who speaks in verse 8, with many suggesting that it is the Chief Shepherd. If that is the case, then what we have here is his estimation of her, which is markedly different from her own assessment. Jesus regards each of his people as beautiful, it is true.
Yet I think a case can be made for saying that verse 8 is spoken by the daughters of Jerusalem. The phrase ‘O most beautiful among women’ also occurs in 5:9 and 6:1, and on both occasions it is spoken by the daughters of Jerusalem. If they are the ones speaking in 1:8, then we see that the opinion fellow believers should have of another believer coping well with difficult situations is that they do not see her faults but her comeliness. Her fears were groundless.
Advice is given as to where to meet the Chief Shepherd. The way to meet with Jesus is not to go off into a secluded place, but instead to go where he meets with his people. He is to be found where two or three meet together in his name.
One common temptation for individual believers when things get difficult is for them to avoid meeting with other believers. There may be various reasons for this, such as embarrassment on the one hand or the attempt to improve oneself before returning to meet with the Lord’s people. Yet the best thing a harassed believer can do is go to church or to another place where fellowship is being enjoyed. Although she had been isolated from them, she was urged to join them as soon as possible.
The impression is given that their tracks would be easy to find. What are the tracks but the paths of righteousness? Believers in every age have taken the same path to heaven.
There is a wonderful picture of the church here – shepherds’ tents. These tents would be pitched in a suitable place, usually near fresh water, which pictures for us a congregation meeting alongside the water of life. It is from this water that the shepherds draw to refresh weary sheep longing for spiritual provision.