Retaining Him: Song of Solomon 3:1–4
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service over the Internet.
The recording is long.
Before the talk, we had Bible readings from Song of Solomon 3:1–4 and John 15:5–11.
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All night long on my bed
I looked for the one my heart loves;
I looked for him but did not find him.
I will get up now and go about the city,
through its streets and squares;
I will search for the one my heart loves.
So I looked for him but did not find him.
The watchmen found me
as they made their rounds in the city.
‘Have you seen the one my heart loves?’
Scarcely had I passed them
when I found the one my heart loves.
I held him and would not let him go
till I had brought him to my mother’s house,
to the room of the one who conceived me.
Song of Solomon 3:1–4 (NIVUK)
‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: love each other.
John 15:5–17 (NIVUK)
… who was able to get away for a few days down South during the summer last year. You remember those days when you could go further from your front door and experienced time away from your living room and confines of your own home? Well, the sun was shining and I’d enjoyed a meal outdoors with my parents as the dutiful son that I am. I helped to bring in the dishes and chatted with my mum as she washed and I dried.
As we finished, and I hope I don’t embarrass her here, my mum launched herself at me and gave me the biggest of hugs. Can you believe it? A Christian lady who’d brought me up, breaking government guidelines. She said, “I know I’m not allowed to do this, but—” and that’s the last time I’d hugged my mum since the 2nd of January, 2020. More than six months had passed, and now it’s been another six months since that occasion.
This hard time of lockdown has prevented us from being with those most treasured to us. As a single person, I’ve had to choose one other person or family to bubble with so as to be allowed within two meters of another person. Even with the vaccine roll-out recently, we’re still being told to keep our distance even if we’ve had the injection.
The narrator in the reading from the Song of Solomon, Song of Songs, tells us her story of searching and finding the one that she wanted to hug. When she found him, we hear that she would not let him go. This act of holding someone, the simple act of a hug or some form of appropriate physical contact has become alien to so many in these past months.
We hear on the news about how people are craving opportunities to be with another person, or perhaps back to their social group. We’re reminded of the words the queen offered at the start of lockdown one. She said, “We will be together again.” Even the Bible records that appropriate physical contact is really important as part of human nature.
We only have to look at Jacob in Genesis 39, when he wrestles with God and he says, “I won’t let go until you bless me.” There’s some suggestion there that there’s physical scuffle because God knocks out Jacob’s hip. Perhaps one of the benefits of being the Almighty.
Whilst many, particularly people who live by themselves, are starved of all sorts of human contact, let’s remember that we can still make calls, or Skype, or Zoom, or write and remain in touch. For now, however, we continue to keep up our guard and remain disciplined in staying indoors away from those that we want to be with. For those who can, it’s a lifeline to get out and about for some exercise, remind ourselves that there’s still a world away just outside, beyond the front door.
Last week, I introduced the topic of spiritual disciplines, reflecting upon the theory that the start of such a thing was to abide or to remain in Christ. To live as closely by the words, actions and love of Jesus. The writer, John Ortberg helpfully summarized that, “A spiritual discipline means learning from Jesus how to arrange life around activities that enable me to live in the fruit of the spirit.” He goes on to say, “That a spiritual discipline is any activity that can help gain power to live life as Jesus taught and modelled it.”
That was a bit of theory. As we await the time when we are freely allowed to gather and to meet, to hug, or as one very British translation of the Bible says, “Greet one another with a Holy handshake,” I wondered whether we could dwell on something perhaps a little more practical when it comes to thinking about spiritual disciplines. As I said last week, we often think of specific spiritual activities as praying more, reading more of the Bible, or offering more service to God.
In a frenzy of faithfulness, it’s easy to over-promise that we’ll get up even earlier to fast, to pray, to do all these spiritual things, but whatever we decide to do needs to be sustainable, otherwise we end up feeling guilty about how we have failed to do stuff. That isn’t loving, that’s not encouraging. I would encourage a good read of John Ortberg’s book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, which goes through spiritual practices that we already know about, but not necessarily in a way that makes us guilty about doing our best to improve our spiritual lives.
In John 15, Jesus encourages his disciples to remain, to abide in him. It doesn’t seem here to be the need for always rushing around doing stuff, let alone doing more. As the true vine that Jesus describes himself as, “The disciples become branches producing much good fruit.” Even here, there’s a picture of Jesus expecting his disciples to be both active and be fully present with him.
Today, I’d like to suggest that spiritual disciplines may not be about what we feel we must improve to be like Jesus, rather look at who we are now and how this fruit of the Spirit that Galatians 5 speaks about, is seen in us. Next week we’ll be looking at the issue of our wholeness in holiness, but for today, I want to take out some bits of an ancient sermon to highlight that spiritual disciplines begins with abiding.
Now, I don’t tend to read many people with sermons from bygone days, but as I was researching for last week’s message, I came across a sermon by the great Baptist preacher, CH Spurgeon, delivered on the 11th of February, 1872. He preaches using the Song of Solomon 3 as a starting point, and sees the loving relationship between the lover and the beloved as code for God and the Church.
Although this analogy fits, I’m not sure which is the primary reason that the Song of Solomon was written. However, it does seem to fit our theme of abiding, which is the start of our spiritual discipline, abiding in God. Now, I need to point out here that Spurgeon wasn’t preaching on spiritual disciplines either, but he was speaking in a way that only a Victorian preacher can preach.
One thing that got my attention was that he said this, In the context of reading that Martha brought us, “we must take care to retain him.” This phrase struck me. “We must take care to retain him.” Perhaps that’s a spiritual discipline. Is there a responsibility upon ourselves to maintain a healthy relationship with God? It’s a different approach to let go and let God analogy that was popular in the church some years back.
That’s perhaps why those wider spiritual disciplines are important. Not taking our relationship with God or with others for that matter, for granted, it may mean prayer or fasting or silence or Bible reading, whatever it takes to take care, to retain God. The inference from Spurgeon is that relationships take time to cultivate. To look back at the Song of Solomon, the lady lover says, “I found him and when I found him, I would not let him go.”
It’s like that with our relationship with our spouses, I’m guessing, and it’s no different for us who wish to communicate with God to continue in that communion. Spurgeon puts it like this. “To come to Christ and to sit at his feet is a simple thing enough for believers and many of us have attained to it, but to sit day after day at the master’s feet is quite another matter.” If I could not only learn the meaning of that text, “Abide in me.” Note, it’s not look at me or come to me and then go away, but abide in me. “It abides in the connection with the parent’s stem at all times,” he says.
The first point then because Spurgeon would always have points in his sermon. This morning, this first point is to take care, to remain in God. Take care, to remain in Him. The next more encouraging point that Spurgeon makes is that God is very willing to be held. There seems to be a sense that in abiding in God, we cling to Him, just as much as He clings to us. My granny, was one for inviting Jesus to hold her hand when she was in difficult or worrying situations. She was really quite matter-of-fact, about her faith and trusting God and would occasionally say to me, “I ask Jesus that He would hold my hands as I did whatever the situation was. He did and he’s never let me down. He held my hand.”
As we look back to that verse in Song of Solomon 3:4, “I held him and would not let him go.” There’s a strong inference that the found lover did not want to be let go. That’s the thing about a deep relationship with God, it’s safe. By getting to know Jesus longer and deeper, trust grows deeper and longer too, and we find ourselves wanting to remain and taking care to remain there with Him.
We seem to have a God who wants to be found just as that found lover was held by his beloved. He didn’t let go. He could not let go, for his love held him, as well as her hands held him. Spirituality isn’t something nebulous and out there. The whole point of Christian faith is that Jesus becomes one of us and that’s the Christmas story. The birth of a baby who grows up to show us how to live the best spiritual and whole life. God wants to be found.
You can’t hold something that doesn’t exist, although the scientists might say something different. I rather think that as Spurgeon remarks, Jesus is willing enough to be retained by hearts, which are full of His love. Firstly, we must take care to retain Him. Next, God wants to be found. Finally, Spurgeon makes the point that just as the beloved was found and cuddled, not letting go of one another’s hands, so you are able to hold him. She who held him in the song was no stronger than you are. You are able to hold him.
As I pondered this, I remembered the faith of the lady written about in Luke 8:43–48. The lady who just knew that if she could touch the hem of Jesus’ robe, she would be cured of her 12-year long illness. In the middle of the crush of so many people trying to see Jesus, she merely wants to touch the edge of Jesus’ cloak, and she does. She manages to do what she thinks will heal her.
The extraordinary thing that we often pick up here is that her desire is granted as soon as she touches Jesus’ robe. Then the next most extraordinary thing is that Jesus is so spiritually switched-on that he knows something about someone within the crowd that he stops. He asks, “Who touched him?” Which is a bit of a weird thing to ask you when you’re in the middle of a crowd and you’re the centre of attention with everyone clamouring around you, in this instance, there’s something more.
I wonder why it was that Luke says that the lady came forward because she could not go away unnoticed. Was she popular? Was her previous condition such that everyone would know instantly that she had been cured? Was it the delight on her face that made her so different from the crumpled-up look that she’d had for decades? Is that what made her so noticeable? Nobody knows.
Luke doesn’t say, but for this lady, holding Jesus’ robe was enough. She didn’t have to have a bear hug from him like the lady in the Song of Solomon. She didn’t even need to have Jesus take her by the hand like Jairus’ daughter had in the next miracle. The lady here had the presence to know that, for her, she needed a simple touch of Jesus’ robe to be whole again.
What an encouragement it is that Spurgeon points out that we are able to hold Jesus. However weak or strong, your faith and our faith seems to be right now. We have permission to hold Jesus, or just touch the edge of his robe if that is better for us. Whichever, he knows we’re there wanting to be with him. Spurgeon goes on, “Hold him fast by your faith. Trust him implicitly, rest in him for every day’s care. For every moment, know that God is there.”
God is here. The presence of God can be tangible, is meant to be. Somehow, very cleverly, Spurgeon goes on to say that this newness and gracious action towards others show obedience of faith. “Hold him to by your obedience,” he says. “Watch his words. Be careful to obey them all. Be very tender in your conduct so that nothing grieves him.”
I believe that where there is prayerful, careful, wholly loving, believing walk towards Jesus. The fellowship of the saints towards his Lord will not be broken but may continue for many months and years. “There’s no reason,” Spurgeon goes on, “except in ourselves, why fellowship with Jesus should not continue through an entire lifetime.”
This is my favourite message or bit of Spurgeon’s message. He says, “Oh, if I did have an entire lifetime of Jesus, if it did, it would make earth into heaven and lift us up to the condition of angels, if not beyond them. We should be the people who would bring Christ into the church and through the church into the world. The church would be blessed and God would be glorified and souls would be saved if there were some among us who thus held him and would not let him go.”
There are many things we hold precious and dear in life. People we love. Situations and circumstances we hold up in prayer that we want to see changed. Just like a child, we are able to crawl into the lap of God and offer these heartfelt hopes and desires. We can hold the hand of God. There’s nothing to stop us from ever letting go.
What’s this got to do with spiritual disciplines? I think it’s about the importance of abiding, the importance of remaining. The actions of abiding and remaining may be that we know that we are both held by God, loved by God, and can also hold on to God because we’re humans. We so often need something practical to do to help us with this abiding.
These activities that John Ortberg talks about in his book are to do with praying and praising in times of solitude, and slowing and pondering upon the Bible. Not because there are things that God wants us to do for their own sake or merely because Jesus did them. It isn’t about feeling guilty that we’re not doing more spiritual disciplines. All of this is so that we be transformed and that’s a continual process.
We remember that disciplines that are spiritual are simply those that help me live in the fruit of the spirit. That a spiritual discipline is any activity that can help me live life as Jesus taught and modelled it. As disciples of Jesus, we follow in his way. We abide in him. We do not let him go. He does not let us go. He holds our hand as we hold his. We can make this the mark of our life. Just like my mum launched her surprising big hug at me in her kitchen, we will hold him and that we will not let him go. May God bless His words to us today.
Ortberg, John, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).
Spurgeon, C. H. “The Real Presence, the Great Want of the Church.” Pages 85–96 in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons. Vol. 18. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1872. [Sermon delivered on Lord’s Day morning, February 11th, 1872, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington.]
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