The Explanation of the King (6:11-13)
11I went down to the nut orchard to look at the blossoms of the valley, to see whether the vines had budded, whether the pomegranates were in bloom. 12Before I was aware, my desire set me among the chariots of my kinsman, a prince. 13Return, return, O Shulammite, return, return, that we may look upon you. Why should you look upon the Shulammite, as upon a dance before two armies?
There is disagreement as to who is speaking in these verses, with some arguing that it is the woman whereas others say it is the king. The decision as to the speaker must be made from the content of the verses. Moody Stuart, who regards the woman as the speaker, says that these words indicate her longing for the coming of spring, for signs of life, for evidence that the Spirit has returned to her. As she did so, she found herself being drawn speedily into the king’s presence (v. 12). This interpretation means that the speakers in verse 13 are the daughters of Jerusalem. They saw her seeking for the Messiah and were attracted to her; they now want to see her attractiveness now that she has found him again. What they will see is likened to two armies, which Moody Stuart says is a picture of the spiritual conflict in the believer.
What that author describes is certainly a picture of Christian experience. Yet two details in the description point to the speaker not being the woman. First, it would be very surprising that other disciples (the speakers in verse 13) would ask her to leave the king’s presence (after all, this is where they wanted her to be). Second, it is not obvious that the reference to two armies points to a battle within the woman. Therefore, I want to look at the passage to see if the speaker can be the king.
In the context, as we saw in the previous study, the penitent disciple has returned to the King’s presence along with her fellow believers. She has come to the garden which we suggested is an illustration of the church with its variety of means of grace. She has heard him there describe her as spiritually strong, healthy and unique. He continues to speak, and we have to ask to what is he referring. When did he go to his garden to see the condition of the various items in it?
I would suggest that he is speaking retrospectively. What these verses describe is what the king was doing during the time that his disciple was not in intimate contact with him. Since that evening, when she refused to open the door to let him in, we have been focussing on what the woman was doing as she sought to recover her lost intimacy. But what was he doing? He tells us in these verses. In verses 4-9, he gives his estimation of her as a restored backslider; in verses 11-13 he gives an explanation of where he went when she refused to let him enter on that occasion. He says that he went to his garden, the church.
The king here describes the garden as being full of abundant fruit. Its name (the Garden of Nuts) suggests that it was full of them, as well as being a vineyard and an orchard. The idea is that there was plenty fresh provision there for those who fed in it. In picture language, the Saviour says that when his disciple would not have fellowship with him he went to where communion could be enjoyed with other disciples. This is a reminder that Jesus does not become inactive merely because a disciple’s spiritual energy is low. He has a garden that requires his constant care.
Although he went to the garden disappointed that she did not want his fellowship, he did not leave her in anger but in anticipation because he knew that eventually she would come there in the company of other disciples. Nevertheless, while he was in the garden he was overcome by a strong desire to be with her, a desire that would be speedily executed when she reappeared. He likens it to the speed of fast chariots. It is not clear where the word translated ‘Amminadib’ in some versions is a proper name of a well-known charioteer or if it should be translated as ‘chariots of the people of the Prince’. The imagery tells us three things. First, when a believer backslides, there is in the heart of Jesus a strong desire for her company. The Saviour misses one of his people when such a disciple is far away spiritually. Second, Jesus is always ready to respond quickly the moment that disciple comes to meet with him. Third, it indicates that Jesus is aware of the initial desires of the disciple to be restored to intimate fellowship with him.
Call for repentance
In verse 12, the king mentions that he called to her to return in order that he and his companions could look upon her. Four times he cries out, ‘Return.’ While the repetition highlights the depth of longing in his heart, we must recall that the words of a king are always with power. This is the effectual working of the King of love, not merely imploring, but also enabling his backsliding disciple to come back to him. This is the secret as to why the disciple was so eager to find her King. She imagined she was initiating each of the stages in her recovery, whether in seeking him privately, or in the city, or enlisting the help of fellow disciples. But behind each scene, he was crying, ‘Return.’ This was why she found herself seeking for spiritual recovery.
Jesus can use different means in order to say ‘return’. With David, he sent Nathan the prophet to say ‘return’. With Peter, Jesus said ‘Return to me’ when his disciple turned and looked at him after his denial; he said ‘Return to me’ in every tear that Peter shed after he realised what he had done; and he said ‘Return to me’ when the angels told the women to go and tell Peter that the tomb was empty.
The king calls her by a very precious name. ‘Shulamite’ does not say much in English, but it is the feminine form of the name Solomon. He gives his own name to her, signifying that his assets are hers. We see a beautiful example of this in Jeremiah’s use of the divine title, ‘The Lord our righteousness.’ In Jeremiah 23:6, he speaks of the days of the Messiah: ‘In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”’ That is his divine title. Jeremiah uses very similar words in Jeremiah 33:16 about the same period, except he uses the same name of God’s people: ‘In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”’ Both Jesus and his people have the same name because they have been given his righteousness.
Another example of this sharing of names is found in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13: ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.’ Both Jesus and his people are meant in Paul’s usage of the term ‘Christ’ in verse 12.
As we know, Solomon means ‘peace’. The environment of peace usually means the existence of no conflicts; if they increase, the enjoyment of peace is often lost. She had created a situation of conflict by her refusal to meet with him for fellowship. Yet Jesus says to her that although she was not enjoying his peace because of her folly, he still regarded her as being in a state of peace. He did not call her by this name after she was restored, but it was how he regarded her before she repented, during the period he was calling on her to return. A believer never loses the standing of justification which brings peace with God. Jesus never says about a backslider, ‘I wish they did not have this status of peace with God.’ Instead, he sees them as those who should be experiencing the inner peace that is given to those who have the standing of reconciliation with God.
Some verses from elsewhere in the Bible describe this desire of Jesus to give the experience of peace to backsliding disciples. Psalm 85:8: ‘I will hear what God the Lord will speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: but let them not turn again to folly.’ Isaiah 48:18: ‘Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea.’ The disciples were in a bad state of soul in the upper room, but Jesus said to them in John 14:27: ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’ How great is the desire of Jesus that each of his people, including his penitent ones, to have his peace.
The fourfold use of the term ‘return’ also indicates the degree of welcome that penitent disciples will receive from Jesus. Of course, these meetings are often secret. I would like to have observed Jesus and Peter when they met on the Resurrection Day. But it is actually better to have our own experience of Christ’s restoration than to have the privilege of observing another’s restoration.
Why does he want her to return? He wants her restored so that he and his companions can look upon her. She now possesses great beauty because the grace of repentance has deepened in her heart. In every feature of her soul, sorrow for her sin has left its gracious effect. This is not morbidness; such a negative response to failure does not bring a person to repent. Instead, when Jesus and his companions see her, they see penitent love, penitent joy, penitent peace, penitent gentleness, penitent perseverance. It is a sight worth looking at it.
Of course, we are not to imagine that there is only one penitent believer in the church. The truth is that a healthy, attractive church is composed entirely of penitent believers. Jesus says to us to return to him so that he and his companions in the garden, whether the daughters who accompanied her (fellow believers) or the retinue that accompanied him (the angelic host), could admire her beauty.
What will they see when she returns? It seems that the reference to ‘a company of two armies’ is to a dance that would take place when people gathered together. The people in general were not dancing; instead they observed mainly young women dancing. The picture seems to be that her happy experience of restoration is like the dance of joy that would take place when there were peaceful gatherings. Spiritual restoration is a time for great celebration, it takes place among the peaceful gatherings of God’s people, and the restored person should be expressing joy. Her heart should be dancing with delight.
These verses teach us two important details. One is that Jesus, the spurned Lover, is involved in the process of his Beloved’s recovery. The other is that a great welcome is given every time a backsliding believer returns. A backslider does not have to be a public sinner nor does backsliding describe only a long period away from Christ. It can happen in our hearts and may not last for long. Whatever its length, Christ should be given the praise for our recovery, and whatever its recurrence, we should rejoice in his wonderful welcome to us.