O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherds' tents.—Canticles 1.8.

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Where Christ Feeds his Flock:

Or, Where your Beloved will Feed You.

An Exposition of Canticles 1.8,

By James Durham.

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TrueCovenanter.com Editor’s Introduction.

In the first chapter of the Song of Songs, the Bride proposes a question that is much on the heart of every serious Christian in our time.  She enquires at her beloved, Tell me (O thou whom my soul loveth) where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon: and adds an argument expressing how greatly she needs to know the proper answer to this question, for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions?  In a day when the Church of Jesus Christ has fallen into so great confusion and fragmentation, we see that even the best Christians are moved to turn aside, more or less, to either the right hand or the left hand.  They are compelled to search, because they must feed.

Must they?  Some stand aloof still, and do not feed; or rather, feed upon what they find outside the pasture.  Shepherds may imagine the sheep deserve rebuke for this, when rather it is themselves that bear the guilt.  Corrupt church constitutions, practical backsliding, and teachers desensitized to the defection, will not prove inviting to those who know what kind of pasture they ought to seek.

All are driven, sooner or later, one way or another, to feed.  Perhaps it is among “the flocks of thy companions” or perhaps it is in worse circumstances, through an aversion for these flocks.  It may even be that some feed among swine.

James Durham, in his comments on the Bride’s question, explains who may be contemplated under the category of Christ’s “companions” which ought to be avoided.  We note this briefly before considering his explanation of Christ’s answer to the bride’s question.  He lists these:

  1. Heretics
  2. False Christs
  3. Lusts
  4. Idols

In sum, it is every seducing competitor with Christ, or all such as set themselves up beside Christ, with a desire to have their own followers.

Given such an explanation to the Bride’s argument, the following exposition unfolds Christ’s answer to the Bride in verse 8.  It is not presented here to drive any to a new course or resolution, nor to justify one sort of “turning aside” as opposed to another.  It does serve to keep us in mind of what the Bible presents as the official answer to a question which, though matched with new circumstances in our time, is yet an old question, and one which our Loving Lord is pleased to answer.

2018.08.31::JTK.

Verse 8. If thou know not (O thou fairest among women) go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherds’ tents.

From the 8th verse to the 12th, follows Christ’s express return to her former suit; and because it is he that speaks, we take it up as the second part of the chapter.  In the Bride’s condition there was,  1. Crosses and afflictions.  2. Sins and infirmities.  3. Snares and hazard of new failings.  Now Christ so frames his answer, as he may meet with all her necessities most comfortably and lovingly; and because she was most affected with the fear of sin, he answers that first: and so he doth,  1. In order to her being guided against snares, give a direction for her duty, verse 8.  2. In order to her consolation under her suffering, and the sense of her failings, he commends her, verse 9,10.  3. He gives her a promise, in order to her further consolation, verse 11.  The scope of all is, to comfort her; and every part of the answer being from Christ’s mouth, may be effectual for that end. {103}

In the direction, verse 8, there is,  1. The title he gives her.  2. The directions themselves, which are two.  3. A supposition, or ground upon which he gives them.

1. The title he gives her is, “O thou fairest among women,” which is much from Christ to the Bride, who immediately before styled herself black: believers who are humble under the sense of their own infirmities, are nevertheless highly esteemed by Christ; nor are always his thoughts of believers as theirs are of themselves; nay, by the contrary, blushing at their own deformity, is a chief part of their beauty.  The giving her this title, implies these three things,  1. A real worth in a believer, beyond the most noble person in the world.  2. A real respect unto, and esteem that Christ hath of them, which he hath of none other.  3. Wonderful tenderness, condescending for her consolation, to intimate these his thoughts of her to herself, now when she was otherwise sadly afflicted, and under a double distress.

If it be asked, how these excellent titles and commendations may be applied to a sinful believer:  Answer. These four ways,  1. By communication and participation of the divine nature, they have a stamp of the Spirit of holiness imparted to them, whereby they resemble God, 2 Peter 1.4, and none other in the world can compare with them in this.  2. In respect of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, wherewith they are adorned, and which they have put on, which makes them very glorious and lovely, so that they are beautiful beyond all others, through his comeliness put upon them.  3. In respect of Christ’s gracious acceptation, whereby he doth esteem otherwise of them than of the most royal and beautiful in the world, they find such favour in his eyes.  4. In respect of his design, project, and purchase; she is so, and to be made so in end; he will have his people made completely beautiful and spotless, before he have done with them, Eph. 5.26, “Without spot and wrinkle:” all which are peculiar to a believer, of whom glorious things are spoken and written, which are applicable to none other.

2. The directions are two.  Wouldst thou know, saith he, how to be kept out of snares? then 1. Look how the old worthies walked, and follow their way.  2. Have respect to the public ordinances, and hold near them, that you may have direction from the word, by these to whom I have committed the trust of dispensing the same: I have (saith {104} he) no new light to give you, nor any new way to heaven to shew you, nor any new means, ordinances, or officers to send amongst you, nor yet must ye expect immediate revelations; but walk in the light that shines to you, by the preaching of the word by my ministers, who are the under shepherds, which I have set over you: for thus I guide all by my counsel, whom I afterward receive to glory.

The first direction (“go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock”) holds forth, 1. That all believers, of old and late, are of one flock, of one common concernment, and under the care of one chief Shepherd: this is the flock of verse 7, whereof Christ is Shepherd.  2. That there is but one way to heaven, for the substantials of faith and godliness, in which they that went before have walked, and these that follow after must walk in the same way, if ever they think to come there.  3. That there are many in all ages, whom God hath helped in trying times to keep in his way, and have been carried well through all difficulties to heaven.  4. That believers should observe these beyond others, as being especially worthy of imitation.  5. That they should, and may follow the commendable practices of believers in former times, and not affect singularity.  6. That it is commendable, and often safe in times when new opinions and doctrines bear sway, to follow their way, who we are sure went before us to heaven, Heb. 13.7; 1 Thess. 2.14; Heb. 6.14.  This imitation of others, is to be limited with that necessary caution, in so far as the practice of others agrees with the first Pattern, Christ, 1 Cor. 11.1.  In a word, this direction shews there is no way, but the good old way to be asked for, and followed in the most declining times, Jer. 6.16, and that we should keep the very print of their steps, studying to be followers of their faith, who have been honourably carried through before us.

The second direction puts them to the right use and improvement of the ministry of the word, which he will have them to respect; “feed thy kids beside the shepherds’ tents.”  Shepherds here in the plural number, are the servants of that one Shepherd, whose own the sheep are: so ministers are called often shepherds, or pastors, both in the Old and New Testament, 1. Because of their relation to Christ, by whom they are intrusted to feed his sheep; he is the owner, they are but shepherds, Ezek. 34.  2. Because of their relation to the flock, which {105} is committed to their care, and for which they must give an account, Heb. 13.17.  3. Because of the nature of their charge, as being assiduous, difficult, and tenderly to be gone about; for, such is the work and care of a shepherd, as we may see by what Jacob speaks of himself, when he had the charge of Laban’s flock, Gen. 31.40.  4. To shew the necessity of that ordinance.  And 5. The respect people ought to have to them who are over them in the Lord: no flock needs a shepherd more than a congregation needs a minister; people without labourers, being like sheep without a shepherd, Matt. 9.36, under a sad necessity of wandering and being lost.  Next, “shepherds’ tents” are mentioned, with allusion to these parts where shepherds in the wilderness carried tents about with them; and so to be near the tent, was to be near the shepherd: it is like they kept lambs and kids nearest unto their tents, because they needed more oversight than the rest of the flock; for a lamb to be at its liberty in a large place, was dangerous, Hosea 4.16.  By “kids,” we understand young, unexperienced believers or professors, whereby it is clear, l. That there are kids and young ones in Christ’s flock.  Yea, 2. That the strongest believers, even the Bride, have their own infirmities; and there are some particulars wherein they are weak: for this direction is given to the Bride, as a particular and experienced believer; and seeing ordinarily weak believers are called lambs, and unrenewed men goats, it may be kids here are mentioned to point at the relics of sinful nature, even in believers, which is the reason why they need still oversight.  3. It is clear, that the office of the ministry, is a standing, perpetual, and necessary office in the church, otherwise this direction would not always satisfy the believer’s question here proposed.  4. The strongest believer’s, have need and use of a ministry.  5. It is a great part of a minister’s charge, to keep believers right in snaring and seducing times, Eph. 4.12,13, &c.  6. Believers should make use of public ordinances, and Christ’s ministers, especially in reference to snares and errors; and they should take their directions from them, and in their difficulties consult with them, and their counsel should be laid weight upon.  7. Allowed dependence on a ministry, is a great means to keep souls from error; whereas on the contrary, when no weight is laid on a ministry, unstable souls are hurried away.  8. Christ hath {106} given no immediate, or extraordinary way to be sought unto and made use of, even by his Bride, in her difficulties; but the great means he will have her to make use of, is a sent ministry, and therefore no other is to be expected: it is no wonder therefore the devil (when his design is to cry down truth and spread error) seeks to draw the Lord’s people from the shepherds’ tents; and no wonder souls, who once do cast off respect to their overseers, be hurried away with the temptations of the times, as in experience hath often been found a truth.  9. Ministers should have a special eye on the weakest of the flock, their care should be that the kids may be next them; our blessed Lord doth so, when the lambs are carried in his own bosom, Isa. 40.11.  And therefore, seeing weak believers have most need of Christ’s oversight, if they begin to slight the ministry and ordinances, they cannot but be a ready prey; and the devil hath gained much of his intent when he hath once gained that.  O that men would try whose voice that is, that saith, come back from the shepherds’ tents (when Christ says, abide near them.)  It is as if a wolf would desire the lambs to come out from under the shepherd’s eye: and lastly, when Christ gives this direction to his own Bride, we may see he allows none to be above ordinances in the militant church; it will be soon enough then, when they are brought to heaven, and put above the reach of seducers.[1]

3. The supposition is in these words, “If thou know not,” &c. which is not any upbraiding answer, but tendeth to insinuate the direction the more; I have given you means (saith he) and so he puts her back to the serious use of these, as he sent Paul, Acts 9, to Ananias, to have his mind made known by him: which implies, 1. That a believer may be in many things ignorant.  2. That Christ pities the ignorant, and hath compassion on them who are out of the way, or in hazard to go out of the way, Heb. 5.  3. That believers should not in praying to Christ, neglect the ordinary means in seeking knowledge: nor in using them, neglect him: she prays to him, and he directs her in them.  4. Directions for a believer’s walk, given by Christ’s ministers from his word, are his own, and are accounted by him as if he did immediately speak them himself.  5. Christ would have his ministry and ordinances kept up in esteem and request amongst his people; therefore, he will not be particular in giving {107} answer to his Bride, but sends her to them, that she might know the usefulness of them, and learn to know his mind from them.  6. They cannot expect to make great progress in religion that neglect the ministry, seeing it is to them that Christ recommends his own Bride; if people were enquiring at Christ, what should they do now in a time, when temptations to error and defection abound? no other answer were to be expected, than what he gives to his Bride here: yea, if Abraham were entreated to send some from the dead, to advise people to abhor profanity and error: his answer would be, they have Moses and the prophets, they shall have no other, and no other would prevail, if these ordinances do not: people should conscientiously, and thriftily use the means and light they have; for, it is by such the Lord trains his own Bride: and though he will admit her as a courtier to his chamber, yet this familiarity he admits her to, is in the use of ordinances, and he will have no believer above ordinances and need of ministers, while he keeps them within the compass of snares.


Footnotes:

1. Given the times and changes which have ensued since Mr. Durham wrote his commentary, it is necessary to make a fair observation on behalf of those who have found themselves obliged to seek means for the support of their Christian faith outside the ordinary direction urged above.  It is one thing to forsake ordinances; and it is another thing to be forsaken by ordinances, or by their administrators.  It may happen in a given parish or congregation, and it may happen in a whole nation, as history has demonstrated.  Other Presbyterian authors from the time of Mr. Durham did contemplate circumstances when an individual might be obliged to live above ordinances, such as Mr. Case in his Mount Pisgah:

There is a living above Ordinances, which hath a good Sense in it: {218} (1.) When God hath taken away Ordinances, or permitted Men to take them away, then to live above them, i.e. to be able to live immediately upon God, as knowing, that though God hath tied us to Means, yet he hath not tied himself to Means: He that converts and saveth by Ordinances, can do his Work without them; the Means can do nothing without God, but God can do what he will, without the Means: So to live by Faith is exceeding precious.

Such things observed, those who have been compelled to live “above ordinances” can attest to the validity of Mr. Durham’s concerns and warnings.  We must beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, and of hirelings within the organized Church, but those who have been in the wilderness will be ready witnesses to confirm the dangers of dwelling among the forest wolves and other dangers.  Our times do not afford us an easy standard answer for pursuit of healthy pasture.  Schism within, and contention without, are undeniable.  For a defence of the sheep who have been abandoned in the wilderness, and chosen to support one another rather than seeking after the shepherds who abandoned them, the reader may see an explanation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church’s view of Schism, extracted from Plain Reasons for Presbyterians Dissenting. This publication includes the above quote from Thomas Case as well as many others.—JTKer.