Song of Solomon i. 5
Black But Comely
by John Dickie
THESE are the words of the spouse, and, like many of her other expressions, seem to indicate that this precious little book is a spiritual allegory, for in actual life what beloved bride would so describe herself to her companion? But though they are the words of the great body which constitutes the "bride the Lamb's wife," they are equally the heartfelt utterance of every individual member. For as in a crystal, the unity of the mass is composed of an infinite number of smaller crystals, each one of which is identical in figure with the great one which it helps to build up; so is it also in the Church. The Church is composed of an immense number of individual saints; and the saint and the Church differ from each other, not in character but in magnitude. The Church is but, as it were, an enlarged believer and the believer is but a miniature Church; and equally on the larger platform of a dispensation and on the smaller platform of a solitary human heart, are the same forces waging their gigantic struggle, with precisely similar ebbings and flowings,—-and on both alike tending toward the same assured victory.
And, perhaps, the very deepest conviction which the Holy Spirit produces in every soul given up to his teaching, is that of its own frightful depravity. No word whatever does the saint utter with a fuller assurance of its truth than this, "I am black." The un- converted man, nay, the ordinary Christian has no conception whatever of the self-loathing which fills the soul that abides in the light of God's presence. Ah! if anyone will keep his good conceit of himself, let him, as old Adam says, "keep the Holy Ghost out of his heart." For he shows us that our natural life is one wholly "alienated from the life of God" (Eph. iv. 18), being "filled with all unrighteousness" (Rom. i. 29); and that even what it counts its very righteousnesses are only "filthy rags" (Isa. lxiv. 6). Others, as well as the lively saint, confess freely that they are sinners; but oh how different their felt apprehension of personal vileness! For while the world acknowledges itself unclean, defiled by careless walking, it has the feeling that greater watchfulness might have kept it clean, and that even yet, with due effort, it could make itself at least a little fairer. But the well-instructed saint knows better. He has consciously done his utmost, and it has all worse than failed. He has watched against falling into his besetting sins, and, by seeming success perhaps, has fallen into pride. He has striven to destroy the publican within him, "and has only succeeded in strengthening the Pharisee. He has always been—-
"Worse for mending, washed to fouler stains;"
and slowly but surely has he learned that it is not merely dirt on the skin that disfigures him, but that the skin itself is jet black. All his washing with soap, and nitre, and snow-water, has only made him more conscious of his "blackness." Blessed depths, out of which to cry unto God, for it is down among them that the soul most easily finds that gracious Saviour, who came to seek and to save the lost, and who always brings the birth of heavenly hope out of our utter self-despair. Yes, "I am black," is the universal cry of the true heaven-born soul. Therefore, says Abraham, "I am but dust and ashes." "Less than the least of all thy mercies," says Jacob. "Behold, I am vile;" " I abhor myself," says Job. "I am a worm," says David; "a beast," says Asaph; "more brutish than any man," says Agar. "Woe is me, for I am undone," says Isaiah. "I am not worthy to bear his shoes," says the Baptist; "not worthy that he should come under my roof," says the centurion; "a dog," says the Syrophoenician. "I am the chief of sinners," says he who was nothing behind the very chiefest apostles; for every member of the bride is taught to feel, "I am black." And it is so still. "Much broken under a sense of my exceeding wickedness, which no eye can see but thine," says M'Cheyne. "The vilest dunghill worm that ever went to heaven," says the dying Baxter. "I think I am the most vile, ungrateful servant that ever Jesus Christ employed in his Church," says the amiable Pearce. "All that I am, is odious in thy sight," says Pascal, "O what a horrid depth of pride and hypocrisy do I find in my heart," says Andrew Fuller. "I know not how to express better what my sins appear to me to be than by heaping infinite upon infinite, and multiplying infinite by infinite," says Edwards. "I think I grieve the Lord more than any other; I have a harder, blinder, and more carnal heart than others," says Frazer of Brea. "I know that I am everything that is bad summed up in one, and that I deserve ten thousand times over the hottest place in hell," says Payson. "For my part, I feel the most vile of any creature living; and I am sure sometimes there is not such another existing on this side hell," says Brainerd. And so on; for just in measure as each soul is truly taught of God, it abhors itself, and confesses, "I am black," till the world wonders at what it counts extravagance, and often suspects the self-loathing one to be guilty in secret of awful sins. But nay, O world! be easy on this score. The evils that cast down the spiritual man to the belly of hell in penitence and shame are evils thou never dreamest of—-evils in thy estimate so infinitesimally small that thy microscopic search could never detect them in thee. What thou countest thy virtues are the very things that break the heart of thy weeping neighbour. But though thus black, O with what boundless joy does the believer add, "I am comely," or I am beautiful, as the same word is rendered in chap. vi. 4; black in myself, but beautiful in my Saviour; black as the dingy tents of the Kedar Arabs, but beautiful as the snow-white draperies of the most tasteful of monarchs. For God "beautifies the meek with his salvation," Ps. clxix. 4; yea, he makes such an one "perfect in beauty through his own comeliness, which he puts upon him" (Ezek. xvi 14). Surely the soul that has the "beauty of the Lord" upon it cannot but be "satisfied with his mercy" (Ps. xc. 17, 14).
But for this comeliness, the believer goes even out of himself to Christ as "the Lord our righteousness" (Jer. xxiii. 6). He "puts on Christ (Rom. xiii. 1 4). And so adorned, no wonder that even among the "brightest and best of the sons of the morning," he wears "the best robe" (Luke xv. 22), for there are no angel garments like the garments washed "in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. vii. 14); and no seraph's beauty like the beauty of the soul made "whiter than snow" (Ps.li. 7). For faith's righteousness is the righteousness of God (2 Cor. v. 21); and the wonder-working hand which has begun to adorn her shall never cease till she be presented worthy of her Lord, without spot or wrinkles, or any such thing, all glorious within, and having her clothing without of wrought gold (Ps. xlv. 13).
And the blackness and the beauty are now both present. Her cry is not, "I was once black, but I am comely now "—-it is, "I am black now, and yet I am comely too." Just like Paul in his last and ripest days on earth, who yet says, "Sinners of whom I am chief." For faith never gets rest in self, and never sees anything but hideous blackness in self, blackness ever growing more hideous as her eyes in the light of God's presence grow increasingly keen to discern it. And so driven out of all confidence in the flesh, she rejoices simply in Christ Jesus (Phil iii. 3). And drawing near, "accepted in the Beloved," she keeps herself wrapped in this "linen clean and white," and can feel without terror that the eyes of flame are searching her through and through, for she knows that the laver of blood has made her clean "every whit," and that in Christ her head, she is "perfect in beauty."
Ah, my reader, what do you know of this dealing with God daily and hourly in the name of his Son? It is well to know all the theory of God's way of peace, to be able to explain it to others—-but how do you find yourself able to use Christ, not before men, but before God in the Holy of Holies. It is by thus dealing constantly with God in Christ Jesus, by thus dwelling within the veil, that we are taught to utter in other fashion than most of us do, "I am black but comely;" and to realize in a fulness of power that few enjoy, God's amazing grace that has stooped to such a depth to raise creatures so guilty to such a height.
When the Holy Spirit trains a soul, he teaches it both these branches at once. The one is needed to check the abuse of the other. What God has thus joined together, let not man put asunder. Yet, alas, it is often done, but always to the spiritual loss of those who do it. If we dwell too exclusively on the blackness of self, and some are doing it, we lose the spirit of adoption, and are driven away out of God's warm and life-giving presence into the cold, dismal, chilling regions of legal bondage, where we are benumbed with fears and doubts, and joy and strength die out, and life itself is all but gone. While again, if we dwell too exclusively on the beauty and the privilege in Christ Jesus, and some are doing it, we forget what we truly are, and lose the deep, deep humility that becomes us before God, and the tenderness and graciousness that becomes us before men. But the Holy Spirit keeps us under the power of both these needed truths, humbled always but not depressed, happy always but not intoxicated; most reverent when we are brought most nigh, most confident when we are laid most completely in the dust, humbly, happily singing ever, "I am black but comely."
June 24, 1864