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Chapter 1 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

first wordthink8989Sanct. in loc. and Psellus in ibid. that these are the words of the chorus of virgins or daughters of Jerusalem, by whom she is called “the fairest among women,” in chapters 5:9 and 6:1 who here instruct and direct her where she might find and come at the sight of her beloved; but the note of R. Solomon Jarchi is much preferable, which is, that “this is the answer of the shepherd;” for it was to him, and not to the virgins, that she made her application; nor were they capable of giving her any directions in this case, but rather stood in need of some from her, as is manifest from chapters 5:9 and 6:1. In this answer of Christ’s unto the church, are these three things:

I.The commendation he gives her; “O thou fairest among women!”

II.A supposition of her ignorance: “if thou know not.”

III.A direction to her; “go thy way,” etc.

I.Christ in these words gives the church an excellent commendation, “O thou fairest among women;” in what sense the church is fair and comely has been shown, on verse 5 who, tho’ black in herself, and in her own eyes, yet having Christ’s righteousness imputed to her, and his grace wrought in her, is fair and comely: which commendation here, both in itself. and as it follows upon the account which she gave of herself and state, in the preceding verses, may teach us the following things: 1. That the beauty of the church is very great and exceedingly admired by Christ; as some men are eminent for their strength, courage, and valor, so are some women for their beauty and comeliness; and she being said to be “the fairest among women,” shews that her beauty must be excellent rind surpassing; as he is fairer in her eyes than all the sons, so she is fairer in his than all the daughters of Adam. 2. That believers are fairest in Christ’s eyes, when blackest in their own: she had asserted of herself, in verse 5 that she was black; but here Christ says, that she was “the fairest among women.” The humble believer that has low and mean thoughts of himself, on the account of the. corruption of his nature, the imperfection of his obedience, the weakness and insufficiency of his righteousness, is much more esteemed and valued by Christ, than the proud, haughty and vain-glorious Pharisee; an instance of this we have in Luke 18:13, 14. An humble soul is one that looks upon itself as the least of saints, and the chief of sinners; the countenance of such an one blushing at its sins and infirmities, is beautiful and comely in the eyes of Christ, and is a sight exceeding desirable to him; and therefore he says, in chapter 2:14, “Let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice, for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.” 3. That Christ’s thoughts of believers are not according to those which they have of themselves, nor according to those which the world entertains of them; he “seeth not as man seeth,” neither does he look upon, or judge according to the outward appearance: the believer oftentimes looks upon, and judges of himself, according to his indwelling corruptions, and the inward frames of his soul, and draws black conclusions against himself: the world looks upon the outward, mean, and abject appearance of the saints, and so they become black and contemptible in their eyes; but Christ views them in himself, and in his own righteousness, and considers them in all that glory in which he saw them in the glass of his Father’s purposes and decrees, which glory he has fully, resolved on, and designed to bring them to the actual possession of; and on this account they appear exceeding fair and beautiful in his eyes, 4. This excellent commendation of the church given by Christ, shews his amazing and unalterable love to her; he loved her now as well as ever; notwithstanding all her blackness thro” sins and sufferings, she was as fair in his eyes as ever, nay surpassingly fair, fairer than all others; though she had been negligent of her duty, and had sinfully complied with false and superstitious worship, with the doctrines and traditions of men, and thereby wandered from Christ and his ways, and knew not where he fed and caused his flock to rest; yet upon her first application to him, he gives her such a character, as expresses much love and tenderness, as well as manifests a very great regard to her, in directing and instructing of her: O matchless love! boundless grace!

II.Here is a supposition of her ignorance, “if thou know not:” which is not to be understood, either by way of hesitation or reprehension, as if Christ either doubted of her ignorance, or reproved her for it, but by way of inference from what she had suggested; for this particle if, is not always hypothetic or conditional, but is sometimes illative (see Phil. 2:1), and thus the words may be rendered, “seeing thou knowest not,” so Junius; or “because thou knowest not;” and may be considered as a reason why Christ gave her the following direction and advice, and will lead us to observe these two things: 1. That believers may, in some measure, be ignorant of a great many things in this life; this life is a state of imperfection, both with respect to holiness and knowledge; the greatest believer knows but in part, and sees things but through a glass, darkly; he is ignorant of himself in a great measure, though he may know much of the plague of his own heart, of the corruptions and treachery of it, yet he does not know all; for the heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?” These words may be rendered from the Hebrew text, thus,9090dl y[dt al µa eja<n mh< gnw~v seauth>n Sept. nisi cognoveris te, Ar. Montan. “If thou know not to thee, or, for thyself,” so Ainsworth; or, “if thou knowest not thyself;” it is generally looked upon as a pleonasm, yet it may intend, not only the ignorance which was in herself, but also her ignorance of herself. Again, a believer maybe in some measure ignorant of Christ and his gospel; he may not so fully know his relation and union to him, and interest in him: many of those truths, which concern Christ’s person, grace, and kingdom, may be but obscurely revealed unto him; he may have but a small insight into them: tho’ he may have been long in Christ’s school, yet he may be but a babe in knowledge, and need to be taught “the first principles of the oracles of God:” our knowledge of these things at best is but imperfect, and when compared with that which saints shall have in glory, is very dark and obscure: also believers sometimes may be at a very great loss to know where Christ feeds his church and people; and this has been the case of the saints, as it was the church here, in times of persecution, darkness, and superstition; they have not only been at a loss for his presence, but they have also been at a loss for his ordinances; they have not only been ignorant where he was, but also they have not known where his gospel was preached in the power, and his ordinances administered in the purity of them. 2. That though Christ’s people are ignorant of a great many things, and of such which, as one would think, they should not be ignorant of, but should make it their principal business to be acquainted with, yet Christ does not upbraid them with it; for “he has compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way;” as their merciful and faithful high priest, he has atoned for their sins, both of ignorance and presumption; and as their prophet he instructs them by his word and Spirit, and “guides their feet in the way of peace;” and therefore the most ignorant soul need not be discouraged from going to Christ for wisdom, counsel and direction; but let him that “lacketh wisdom, ask it of him, who giveth liberally to all men, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him,” James 1:6.

III.Here is a direction which Christ gives her, in answer to her request, which consists of two parts; First, To “go forth by the footsteps of the flock. Secondly, To “feed her kids beside the shepherds” tents.”

First, The first thing which Christ directs and advises her to, is, to “go her way forth by the footsteps of the flock.” Some9191Foliot & Alcuin in loc. consider these words, not as a direction to the church, but as spoken by way of resentment to her. Christ, observing the church was growing uneasy under her trials and temptations, and, as it were, threatening that if he did not relieve her, she would join herself to the flocks of his companions; being ignorant, both of her own beauty, which she had received from him, and of that relation which she stood in to him; as also, that she must expect to meet with more troubles, temptations and trials with him and for him; Christ, I say, observing and resenting this froward temper of hers, and the ignorance that was in her, bids her be gone from his presence, and follow the steps of those flocks which she had mentioned, and see what would be the consequence of it, and whether she would find her account in it or no; and “feed her kids,” that is, give a loose to, and indulge her carnal lusts and corruptions among those persons whom she seemed to have an inclination to: but they seem rather to be spoken by way of direction than resentment; and there are some, who, though they look upon the words as a direction of Christ to the church, yet by “the footsteps of the flock,” understand the paths and ways of those sheep and shepherds, among whom she was, and by whom she was in danger of being carried away, and read the words thus, “Go out of those footsteps of the flock,9292Egredere a vestigiis illis gregis; but then it should have been ybq[m and not ybq[b. so Junius and Tremellius. But though, no doubt, the church is here directed and exhorted to depart from the ways of sin, to leave all superstition and idolatry, and come out from among false worshippers; yet I cannot but think that the “footsteps of the flock” are the rule and mark by which she was to go, and keep her eye upon, in finding Christ: and it may be enquired, 1st, What is meant by “the flock.” 2dly, What by “the footsteps” of it, by, and in which the church was to go.

1st, What is meant by “the flock;” and by it we are to understand, the flock which the Father has committed into the hands of Christ, which he has purchased with his own bloods and continually feeds like a shepherd; this is called a flock in the singular number, in opposition to the numerous flocks of those other shepherds mentioned in verse 7, for as there is but one shepherd, who is Christ, so there is but one flock, which is the church; of which flock I have given a more large account on the former verse.

2dly, By “the footsteps of the flock,” are meant the ways and ordinances in which saints by faith walk, in obedience to Christ Jesus; he has left us an example that we should follow his steps; so far as believers walk therein, we should follow and walk in the steps of the same faith which they have done, and in so doing, may, and shall find the presence of Christ Jesus. From whence may be observed, 1. That we have no reason to expect a new gospel nor new ordinances; but we should enquire for the good old way, which the saints in all ages have trod; no new lights nor new revelations, that have no foundation in the word of God, are to be regarded by us; for “we have a more sure word of prophecy, to which we do well if we take heed.” Christ has in his word established the order of his churches, fixed the ordinances thereof, till his second coming, and marked out the paths in which he would have his people walk; and these are the footsteps of the flock, which saints in all ages should go by. 2. That the faith and obedience of God’s children, as to the substance of them, have been the same in all ages: There is but “one faith, one Lord, one baptism;” the object of faith has been always the same; so have the Spirit and Author of faith, and also the grace itself, as to its nature and actings: there has been but one Lord, who has established laws and ordinances, has a power to require obedience, and to whom, in all ages, it has been given by his saints, both in a way of doing and suffering. 3. That the practices of former saints, both as to their faith and obedience, are to be imitated by us (see Heb. 6:12, 13:7): but always with this limitation, given by the apostle Paul, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ,” (1 Cor. 11:1) and indeed, no farther should we follow the most eminent saints, for faith and holiness, than as they have trod in those steps which Christ has marked out for them and us. 4. In so doing, we may expect to have our souls fed and nourished, as theirs were, and to enjoy the presence of Christ, as they did; for though our faith and obedience deserve none of all this, yet in walking in Christ’s ways, we have most reason to expect it, being encouraged both by Christ’s promises, and by those many instances and clouds of witnesses that have gone before us. The Targum and R. Sol. Jarchi, understand this part of the direction, of the righteous, in whose steps those that come after should tread.

Secondly, The other part of the direction is, to feed her kids beside the shepherds” tents. It was common in the eastern countries, as Philo says of the Arabs,9393De Vita Mossis, 1. 1. p. 610. not for men only to keep flocks, but women also and young virgins; of women keeping flocks (see Gen. 29:2; Ex. 2:16), the same Josephus says of the Troglodites;9494Antiq. 1. 2. c. 11. s. 2. and it was an early custom for shepherds to have tents where they fed their flocks: they were as early as the days of Jabal, who was the inventor of them (Gen. 4:20). Hence the Arabian shepherds, who dwelt in tents, and moved them from place to place for the sake of pasturage, were called Scenites; and, 1st, By shepherds may be meant such who are called the companions of Christ in verse 79595Vide R. Sol. Jarchium, Junium & Ainsworth in loc. who only had the appearance of shepherds, but were inwardly ravenous wolves: the words may be rendered, “Feed thy kids above the shepherds tents, or above the tents of other shepherds;” so R. Aben Ezra and Junius; that is, go beyond their tents, and do not pitch thine where theirs are, but carry thy kids farther, into other pastures, and feed them with better and more wholesome food than they give: or else, by them, may be meant the ministers of the gospel, who are Christ’s under-shepherds, whose business is to feed Christ’s sheep and lambs, with the soul-refreshing doctrines of the everlasting gospel; who receive their commission from Christ to feed the flock, are furnished with abilities from him for that work, and must give an account unto him; and by, or near the tents of these shepherds,9696Juxta, V. L. Piscator. Michaelis; apud, Mercerus, Cocceius. the church is directed to feed her kids. 2. By the tents of these shepherds, may be meant those places of divine worship, where the ministers of Christ usually preach his gospel, and administer his ordinances; which tents or tabernacles are amiable and lovely to believers: the Jewish writers generally understand them of their schools or synagogues.9797Targum in loc. and Zohar in Leviticus fol. 7. 3, and in Numbers fol. 69. 4. and 80. 1. It is an allusion to shepherds” tents, which are usually pitched where they feed their flocks. 3. By kids may be meant young converts, who, though they are desirous of the sincere milk of the word, that they may grow thereby, yet are but weak in faith, and have but a small degree of knowledge; and therefore should be near the shepherds” tents, that they may be under their immediate care and inspection; as Christ himself has the strongest affection for these, and takes a special care of them, as in Isaiah 40:11, so he would have his ministers and churches be particularly careful and tender of them: these kids R. Aben Ezra calls hnma ykfq ojligopi>vouv, “persons of little faith;” the very character which Christ gives of his disciples (Matthew 6:30), young converts are not only called kids, because of their faith and knowledge; but kids being young goats, lascivious and of an ill smell9898Hoedi petulci, Virgil Georgic. 1. 4. 5:10. lasciva capella, Bucolic. eclog. 2. 5:64. Horat. Carmin. 1. 2. ode 15. v, 12. olet Gorgonius hircum, Horat. Satyr, 1. 1, sat. 2. 5:27. may intimate, that notwithstanding the grace which is wrought in them at conversion, yet there still remains sin and corruption in them, disagreeable to themselves and others; as also, that being called by divine grace out of the world, and having separated from the men of it, they did male olere, smell ill, and were become abominable and contemptible to them; and therefore needed much refreshment and encouragement from the church and ministers) that they might not be discouraged and cast down at their own corruptions, nor at the frowns and reproaches of the world. This direction to the church, to feed her kids beside the shepherds tents, where the gospel was preached by Christ’s ministers, shews the necessity and perpetuity of a gospel-ministry, and of gospel-ordinances; and what a value saints should have for them, and also what use they should make of them, as well as informs us of the wretched mistake of those persons who think themselves above hearing the word, and regarding ordinances.

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