Believers know that the Lord Jesus cares for His people, His little flock. So how does He answer a believer when she asks His advice on how best to benefit from His care? Although each believer has a personal relationship with Christ, in the following updated extract, James Durham highlights from the Song of Solomon how Christ does not deal with His people individualistically. Instead He expects us to see ourselves as one of His flock, walking together with the rest of His people, and benefiting together from the gifts He has given His church – the gospel ministry and gospel ordinances. The role for preaching and for church membership is much bigger in this view than we perhaps appreciate in the contemporary church. Certainly there is a clear responsibility for ministers to preach Christ’s will for how we should think and live, as this is the main way that Christ has provided for strengthening the flock. Close as the relationship is between Christ and a believer, not until they get to heaven will it be face to face. Here, for the duration of our time on earth, their relationship is always mediated through Christ’s ordinances – especially the preaching of the Word by the shepherds He has sent. This should help us set a higher value than ever before on being one of the flock and on having access to Christ’s ordinances.
What advice does the Bride want from her Beloved?
In the Song, the Bride appeals to her Beloved for advice, “Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon…” (Song 1:7).
She puts to Him two petitions. The first is, “Tell me where thou feedest,” i.e., “where thou feedest thy flock” (for “feeding” here is to be understood as Him feeding others, not where He feeds Himself). The second petition is, “Tell me where thou makest thy flocks to rest at noon,” i.e., “where and how thou comfortest and refreshest thy people under scorching persecutions and trials.”
These petitions rely on the relation between Christ and His people of shepherd and flock. Providing for the sheep, and refreshing them in time of trouble, are the two great duties of a shepherd, and they are well performed by Christ (Psalm 23). She is asking Him to tell her the right way of benefiting from His care of His flock. She knows that He is tender towards His people, whatever danger they are in, whether of sin or suffering, for He is the good shepherd (John 10:11); who carries the lambs in his bosom (Isaiah 40:11); and the one who stands and feeds His flock (Micah 5:4). She knows too that He has resting places and shady places for refreshing and sheltering His people.
How does Christ respond to her request?
Christ’s reply comes in verse 8 of chapter 1: “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.”
The name He gives her is, “O thou fairest among women.” When believers are humble under the sense of their own infirmities, they are no less highly esteemed by Christ. His thoughts of believers are not always the same as their thoughts of themselves. When Christ calls them by this name, it shows that there is a real worth in a believer, beyond the most noble in the world. It shows too that Christ has a real esteem for them, which He has for nobody else. And it shows Christ’s wonderful tenderness, adapting Himself for her consolation, when He shares with her the fact that these are His thoughts of her, now, when she was in need and distress.
To answer her request, He gives her two directions – Look how the old worthies walked and follow their way; and, Stay close to the public ordinances.
Follow the flock
The first direction, “Go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock,” reminds us that all believers, in ancient times and today, are one flock, under the care of one chief Shepherd. Also, there is only one way to heaven. The substantials of faith and godliness, in which those who went before us have walked, are still the same, and those who follow after must walk in the same way, if ever they expect to reach heaven.
In all ages, God has helped His people in trying times to keep in His way, and has carried them well through all difficulties to heaven. Believers should observe these as especially worthy of imitation. They should and may follow the commendable practices of believers in former times, and not think they are unique.
In times when new opinions and doctrines hold sway, it is often safe to follow the way of those who we are sure went before us to heaven (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 6:14), although this is limited with the necessary caution that it is only insofar as their practice agrees with Christ, the ideal pattern (1 Cor. 11:1).
In a word, this direction shows that there is no other way than the good old way, to ask for, and to follow, even in the times of greatest spiritual decline (Jer. 6:16). We should keep the very print of their steps, those who were honourably carried through to heaven before us, studying to be followers of their faith.
Stay close to the shepherds’ tents
Christ’s second direction puts the believer to the right use of the ministry of the Word. This is something which He wants believers to respect. “Feed thy kids beside the shepherds’ tents.”
He is saying in effect, “Have respect to the public ordinances, and stay near to them. Then you will have direction from the Word through those to whom I have committed the trust of dispensing the Word.” It is as if He is saying, “I have no new light to give you, nor any new way to heaven to show you, nor any new means, ordinances, or church officers to send amongst you. Nor should you expect direct special revelations. Instead you must walk in the light that shines to you by the preaching of the Word by my ministers, the under-shepherds whom I have set over you. This is the way I guide by my counsel all those whom I afterward receive to glory.”
Gospel ministers are Christ’s shepherds
“Shepherds” here, in the plural, are the servants of Christ, the one Shepherd, whose own the sheep are.
Ministers are often called shepherds or pastors, both in the Old and New Testament. They have this name for various reasons. For one thing, it is because of their relation to Christ, who has entrusted them with feeding His sheep. He is the owner, and they are only shepherds (Ezekiel 34).
It is also because of their relation to the flock. A flock is committed to their care, and they must give account for it (Hebrews 13:17).
Another reason is because of the nature of their work – it is laborious, difficult, and something to undertake with tenderness and sensitivity.
It is also because of the respect which people ought to have to those who are over them in the Lord. No flock needs a shepherd more than a congregation needs a minister. Without one, they are like sheep without a shepherd, sadly doomed to wandering and being lost.
Gospel ministers should have a special care for the little ones
The mention of “shepherds’ tents” is an allusion to the custom of the shepherds who carried their tents around with them in the wilderness. So to be near the tent was to be near the shepherd. Probably also the shepherds kept the lambs and kids nearest to their tents, because these needed more oversight than the rest of the flock, for clearly it is dangerous for a lamb to roam freely in a large place (Hosea 4:16).
By “kids” we understand young, unexperienced believers. Christ’s flock does include lambs and young ones. At the same time, even the strongest believers have their own infirmities and weaknesses. This direction to stay close to the shepherd’s tent is given to the Bride, an experienced believer.
The office of the ministry is a perpetual and necessary office in the Christian church. The strongest believers have need of the ministry. It is a major part of the minister’s responsibility to keep believers right, especially in ensnaring and seducing times.
Believers should therefore make use of the public ordinances, and Christ’s ministers, especially when there are snares and errors to beware of. They should take direction from them. In their difficulties they should consult with them, and lay weight on their advice. The appropriate kind of dependence on the ministry is an important means of keeping our souls from error, and when no value is attached to a ministry, unstable souls are hurried away into danger.
However, ministers should have a special eye on the weakest of the flock. They must take care that the kids would be closest to them. This is just what our blessed Lord does, when He carries the lambs in His own bosom (Isaiah 40:11). Weak believers have most need of Christ’s oversight, so if they begin to slight the ministry and ordinances, they become easy prey. The devil has achieved most of his objectives if he can just achieve this. If only people would verify whose voice it is that says, “Come away back from the shepherd’s tent,” when Christ says, “Stay near by!” It is just like a wolf wanting the lambs to come out from under the shepherd’s eye.
Gospel ordinances are enough for every believer
In the Bride’s difficulties, Christ does not send her to seek any extraordinary way of getting help, or any direct special revelations. What He wants her to use is the ministry He has sent. We can therefore expect help from this source, but not others. No wonder the devil, when he is aiming to drown out the truth and spread error, seeks to draw the Lord’s people away from the shepherds’ tents! No wonder too, that souls who stop respecting their ministers are hurried away with the temptations of the times.
When Christ gives this direction to His own Bride, we can see that He does not regard anyone as being above the ordinances in the Church Militant, the church on earth. It will be soon enough when they are brought to heaven – when they are out of reach of the wolves.
What should the Bride know?
Christ’s words in verse 8, “If thou know not,” etc., does not make this a reproachful, upbraiding answer. Instead it only reinforces the directions He gives her. “I have given you means” (He says), and so He sends her back to making a serious use of these means.
This reminds us that a believer may be ignorant in many things. Yet Christ pities the ignorant, and has compassion on them who are out of the way, or are at risk of going out of the way (Hebrews 5).
When believers pray to Christ, they should neither neglect the ordinary means in seeking knowledge, nor, in using the means, neglect Christ. The Bride prays to Christ, and Christ directs her in the means.
Indeed, directions for a believer’s walk, given by Christ’s ministers from His Word, are His own directions, and He counts them as if He had spoken them directly Himself.
Christ wants His ministry and His ordinances to be kept in esteem and respect amongst His people. He does not give a detailed answer even to His own Bride, but sends her to the ordinances, so that she would both see the needfulness of them, and learn to know His mind from them.
Anyone who neglects the ministry cannot expect to make great progress in religion, seeing it is the ministry that Christ recommends to His own Bride. Imagine that in our time, when temptations to error and defection abound, people inquired from Christ what they should do, just like the Bride did. What answer could be expected? No other answer than what He gives the Bride here. Nothing else will help, if the ordinances don’t.
Therefore people should conscientiously and thriftily use the means and the light they have. This is how the Lord advises His own Bride. Yes, He will admit her to His chamber, but she has this familiarity in the use of His ordinances. He will not allow any believer to be above the ordinances or beyond the need of ministers, for as long as He keeps them in this ensnaring world.
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