If the enjoyments of the children of God were as firm and abiding as sometimes they are great, they would readily, with the mistaken disciples, talk of making tabernacles and of dwelling upon this earth; they would not long after heaven. But the many, great, sad, sudden and unexpected interruptions, to which their sweetest enjoyments are exposed in their pilgrimage, are sufficient to cure them of this mistake, and teach them the difference between heaven and earth.The spouse, by whom is meant the believer, is, in the words immediately preceding our text, in as happy a state as a soul on this side heaven could be. What a ravishing description she gives of it: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting-house, and his banner over me was love. Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples; for I am sick of love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.” And as her enjoyments were thus great, so her care to retain them was proportionally so, as appears by the charge she gives to the daughters of Jerusalem in the verse immediately preceding our text: “I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love till he please”. This was indeed a happy state; and happy had she been, had it continued. But it did not, for we see a sad and sudden turn in her affairs in the words of our text. She, who just before was fast in the embraces of her beloved, is now removed from Him by interposing hills and mountains, which Christ must come over before she can enjoy Him as she had formerly.
Now, to understanding the words, you must know,
Firstly, that they are the words of the bride: that is, the believing soul who is espoused to the Lord Jesus Christ and has, by faith, accepted of Him for its Lord, head and husband.
Secondly, Jesus Christ the beloved, who in the verse before had His left hand under her head and His right hand embracing her, is now at a distance from her; that is, He has withdrawn these soul-refreshing comforts which are the effects of His manifesting Himself and His love to the soul of a believer.
Thirdly, the spouse is sensible of this distance and knows that there are hills and mountains: that is, some things which have a tendency, or at least seem to have a tendency, to obstruct the gracious manifestations of His favourable presence.
Fourthly, though it is not stated what her frame and exercise were during the time of her beloved’s absence, yet it would seem, by what she says here, that she was waiting for His return – like a wife that is fond of her husband is ever looking for his return when he is away, and listening to every word she hears to know whether it be her husband’s voice, and ever and anon looking out to see if she can get a sight of him.
Fifthly, while she is in this posture, she hears His voice, which makes her, as it were, start up to see Him whom she hears. In a surprise she abruptly breaks forth in this exclamation, “The voice of My Beloved!” I hear my absent Lord speaking to me, sending me some instructions. The promises, the precepts and all the other parts of the Word of God are Christ’s voice to His Church, to His people; and when He by His Spirit awakens them to hear and know His voice in His Word, this prepares them for further manifestations of Christ.
Sixthly, she being quickened by His voice, turns about, as it were, and intently looks to see Him whose voice she heard. The believer, once hearing Christ’s word, is thereby engaged to desire a clearer manifestation of Him.
Seventhly, the spouse obtains her desire and, by the eye of faith, sees Him coming over all the difficulties and discouragements that stand in the way, here compared to hills and mountains, according to the strain of the Song.
These few remarks we conceive sufficient for clearing the meaning of the words, and therefore I shall not spend any more time upon them. According to the account we have given of their meaning, we might notice several very useful and important truths; but, that we may encroach as little as may be upon your time, we shall reduce all to one comprehensive doctrine:
Doctrine: A sight of Jesus Christ coming for the relief, support and comfort of His people, over all discouragements and difficulties, which are like hills and mountains in His way, is a very affecting sight to a believing soul that is sensible of its need of Him and languishing because of His absence.
In speaking upon this subject, we shall inquire,
1. What are these discouragements – these hills and mountains – which stand in the way of Christ coming to His own people?
2. What is so affecting to them in His coming over these mountains?
3. What are those affections which arise from this discovery?
4. Why is this sight so affecting to them?
5. We shall conclude the whole with some application.
1. The mountains and hills of discouragements that stand in Christ’s way, over which He must come if He means to give them any relief, comfort, or support.
Firstly, Here there occurs a great difficulty from the infinite excellency of the divine nature. This is a mighty mountain: He cannot save from any one evil, He cannot drop in one drop of strengthening or comforting grace into the soul of any of the lost sons of Adam, unless He step over this huge difficulty. It is almost inconceivable condescension in the “high and lofty one that inhabiteth eternity” to look upon, in the least, any of His most glorious creatures, for “the Lord is high above all nations, and His glory above the heavens . . . who humbleth Himself, to behold the things that are in heaven, and in the earth” (Ps 113:4,6). If there cannot be a look bestowed upon anything, even in heaven, unless infinite majesty stoop, as it were, how then shall man, that is crushed before the moth, get a look?
This difficulty, one would think, were great enough to nonplus reason, but we have scarce yet got a sight of the foot of that mountain that Christ must climb over. If ever He will help, relieve, or comfort any of Adam’s posterity, He must not only stoop and look to man, but even to sinful, defiled, rebellious and apostate man. O stupendous condescension! Nay, but this is not all; He must become like one of us. What! Must majesty be veiled? Must glory be lodged in the similitude of man? This is wonderful indeed! But it is not all. He must not only take upon Him the form of man, but even of a poor contemned, reproached, and vilified sinner! Here, here, O sinners, is a mountain so high, so steep, that if the reason of men and angels had been employed in taking its height, it would have certainly been pronounced insuperable.
Secondly, a second mountain over which Christ must come before He can help any of His people, is the wrath of God. In the day that man first rebelled against his Creator, enraged justice did hurl massy and prodigious mountains of wrath between him and any that came to his relief. Had angels or men been nearby, and had they heard when the glorious plan for the salvation of sinners was first, as it were, proposed in the council of the glorious Trinity; had they then heard justice assure the glorious One of this difficulty, who was undertaking for the salvation of the Church, they would have despaired altogether. How would the sinner’s heart ache, to hear justice speak to Him thus: “Thou mayest, if Thou wilt, undertake for sinners; but if Thou dost, I shall lay upon Thee such a load of wrath as will make Thee weep and groan, and sweat drops of blood. Nay, more, I will fall upon Thee and bruise Thee, till I bruise out Thy very heart’s blood. Mine eye will not pity, My heart shall not spare Thee; in fine, I shall give Thee such a load, such a burden of wrath, as shall press Thy very soul to that degree as to make Thee cry out, ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me’.” Tell me now, if you had heard this dreadful proposal made to the Son of God, would you not have despaired of relief? Would you not have said, with the desponding Church, “Our bones are dried, our hope is lost, we are cut off for our parts” (Ezek 37:11)? And is it not a heart-affecting sight to see the Lord Jesus coming skipping over this terrible mountain?
Thirdly, there was another mountain of opposition in the way of the relief of sinners. Man, in his apostasy from God, took upon his neck the devil’s yoke, became Satan’s vassal, and sold himself a slave to hell. Therefore, whoever will attempt his rescue must needs lay his account to have hell upon his top. No doubt when the first news of this blessed design was published, it put hell into a terrible commotion. Satan did think himself secure of his prey and was triumphing over the wisdom of God as if he had spoiled all His contrivance in this lower world by seducing man; and, no doubt, when he came to understand that there was a design to rob him of his prey, he would summon together the united force of hell. This was a vast mountain in the way. Had we seen what threats, what menaces, and what bloody opposition Christ had to come over in the way He was to go for the relief of His people, we would have concluded that He would never have undertaken it. This is one of those hills He, to the astonishment of all who believe, comes skipping over.
Fourthly, another huge mountain in His way was the unkindnesses of those for whom He was to come. Had they been a people looking and waiting for His command, ready to entertain and welcome Him, this had been something encouraging to Him. But quite otherwise was it, for, among all the sons of men, none were more unkind or more mad in their opposition to Him than they. This was a fainting discouragement; and whoever could have dreamed that He should have this mountain thrown in His way or, if He had it, who would think that ever He would come over it? What, reason might say, shall He undergo not only His Father’s wrath, and lay Himself open to the united power, craft and malice of hell, but moreover, do all this for persons who will never once condescend to give Him an acknowledgement for all His kindness, but repay Him with unkindnesses and hostilities? This is a dreadful mountain!
Fifthly, once more, there is yet another mountain in the way that Christ must come over, and that is the unbelief of His people. When they have often seen Him leaping upon the mountains and skipping upon the hills, yet unbelief prevails so far upon them that, at every turn, they question either His faithfulness, willingness, or power; and is not this a great mountain? The other four that we mentioned were great and discouraging, but this we may justly look upon as the greatest. It is said that our Lord wondered at the unbelief of those to whom the gospel came, and that it was such a mountain in His way that He had more difficulty to get over it than any other. We have a remarkable Scripture to this purpose: “He could there do no mighty work, save that He laid His hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them: and He marvelled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:5,6). Elsewhere it is expressly said that it was because of their unbelief He did not many mighty works (Matt 13:58). These are the mountains that faith sees Him come skipping and leaping over to its astonishment.
2. What is there in this sight that is so very affecting to the believer?
Firstly, there is the glory, the beauty and transcendent comeliness of His person. “Behold He cometh!” she says – He, as if everyone should know Him. There is not a grace lacking in His person, or a comely feature, that the infinite and unsearchable wisdom of God could invent. In Him is to be seen a majesty that raises itself above the clouds, happily joined to a lowliness that stoops to the very ground. In Him the glorious and radiant excellencies of the divine nature shine with a brightness exactly adapted to the eye of faith. In Him all is veiled that might wound, hurt or overwhelm our frail natures if it was seen; and all that is useful, that is comfortable, that our natures can bear a sight of in God, is in a most lively manner made known to the eye of faith. A sight of a naked God, if I may so speak with reverence to His name, would have perfectly struck sinful man blind, nay, dead; for none of Adam’s sons can ever see God, out of Christ, and live. A sight of a mere man, though a perfect man, would have given no comfort.
These who rob Christ of either of His natures, and offer Him for a saviour to sinners in one of them, will oblige all who know their need of a Saviour to groan out their “Ichabod; where is the glory?” or, “There is no glory”. It is the blessed conjunction of the two natures in Christ that has all the ravishing beauty in it which attracts the eye, inflames the heart, and raises the admiration of believers. Sinful man could never have believed that God would have any mercy upon him, if he had not seen the divine compassion melting itself down in human tenderness, and touched with a feeling of our infirmities in our own nature. Though he had been sinking in wrath, he would never have assumed the confidence to stretch forth his hand to lay hold upon the divine power if God had not held it forth to him in a human hand and arm. He would never have dared to approach God for counsel, though he should have wandered eternally, if God had not spoken out of man to him. It is only that strong union between heaven and earth, between God and man, in the person of Christ, that gives man any comfort, any strength, or courage in his approaches to God. And a sight of this beauty and glory, in the person of Christ, who is “fairer than the sons of men” (Ps 45:2), is that which mightily affects the hearts of believers when they see Him coming to them, leaping upon the mountains and skipping upon the hills.
Secondly, it is very affecting to see Him coming, in that He doth not wait till they seek after Him. No, He surprises them with His goodness when it would have well become them to have made the first step towards Him, and to have supplicated Him for relief. Behold, He stands not upon this, but comes leaping upon the mountains and skipping upon the hills. When poor sinful worms were neither deserving nor seeking relief, He comes for their help. And this is very affecting, for herein is the love of Christ wonderful, in that He loved us and gave Himself to be a propitiation for us when we did not love or know anything of Him. As it is said of the Father, “herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10); so it may be applied to the Son, and accordingly is so applied by Himself: “Ye have not chosen Me,” says our Lord to His disciples, “but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in My name, He may give it you” (John 15:16). This would have been affecting if He had bid us come to Him for relief, but this is infinitely more astonishing, that He Himself comes leaping upon the mountains and skipping over the hills to us.
Thirdly, it is very affecting to see from whence, and where, He comes. He comes from the bosom of the Father, in which, from eternity, He lay in unspeakable bliss as the darling of His soul, and object of His eternal delight, who sent that voice to Him from the excellent glory: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (2 Pet 1:17). He comes down even into the belly of hell, wherein sinners should have lain. He comes from the throne of glory, laying aside the robe of His declarative glory, and takes “upon Him the form of a servant”, making Himself of no reputation, and taking up His lodging in a manger among beasts – or among sinful men, worse than beasts. He comes from the company of angels to converse among men, who dwell in cottages of clay, defiled by sin. This is wonderfully affecting.
Fourthly, the sight of the road wherein He comes cannot but be mightily affecting to the believing soul. It is not a road like that wherein Adam did walk toward heaven, a road through a paradise beautified with pleasant streams; where the harmonious music of the newly-created birds did affect his ears with unspeakable delight; where no steep ascents, or dangerous bogs or marshes, made his way unsafe or unpleasant, which lay through the garden, beautified with the most fragrant flowers. The road wherein He comes is nothing like to this; but is a most rugged and uneasy way, that lies over huge mountains of enemies, where, on every hand, mountains of wrath threaten Him with death. In fine, the dreadful tempest of the wrath of God blows all the way full in His face, and carries along with it the stream and stench of all the filthiness and stinking sores of His friends and foes. What heart would not be affected to see Him coming in such a road as this?
Fifthly, the design He comes upon is mightily affecting to them who behold Him coming, leaping upon the mountains and skipping upon the hills. He comes not, as we might have expected, to destroy rebellious sinners. “I came not to judge the world,” says He, “but to save the world” (John 12:47). He comes “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Those He came to save had nothing amiable in them. What could attract His eye when they were all lying, like the wretched infant, wallowing in their own blood, ugly, miserable and deformed, full of “wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores”? And all this was misery purely of their own procuring: “they destroyed themselves” (Hos 13:9), and so they were the less to be pitied. He came to save them who were not seeking salvation, who were fond of their chains: “they loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:19). In fine, He comes to save them of whom He has no need, “for can a man be profitable unto God, as he that is wise may be profitable unto himself? Is it any pleasure to the Almighty that thou art righteous? Or is it gain to him, that thou makest thy ways perfect?” (Job 22: 2,3). “If thou sinnest, what dost thou against Him? Or if thy transgressions be multiplied against Him, what doest thou unto Him? If thou be righteous, what givest thou Him? Or what receiveth He of thine hand? Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art; and thy righteousness may profit the son of man”, says Elihu (Job 35:6-8). Now, to see Him coming to save such is wonderfully affecting to the beholders.
Sixthly, the swiftness of Christ’s coming is very affecting to them; He comes leaping and skipping; He runs so swiftly that He prevents their ruin who are swift in running to mischief. The children of God are running to destruction before the Lord lays hold upon them by His grace, and the wrath of God is, as it were, in a proportionally swift motion toward them for their destruction; but so swiftly doth Christ come to them that never one of them is lost. How soon was He at Adam in Paradise? The sin was scarce committed when He is come for the relief of the poor sinner. Indeed, sometimes His mistaken people, when they do not see Him, are ready to say with the mother of Sisera, “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariot?” But they talk foolishly, for, whenever they see Him, they find their mistake and see Him leaping upon the mountains and skipping upon the hills.
Seventhly, the seasonableness of His coming is very affecting; He comes just in the time when He is needed; and this affects the beholder mightily. This is evident, not only in the first revelation He makes of Himself to believers in their conversion, but in all the after-sights they get of Him during their abode in this vale of tears. When is it that they first see Him coming? It is just when they are ready to sink under the weight of their burden, when they are weary and ready to give over and succumb under the weight of a load of guilt; and will not the seasonableness of this coming extremely affect such a soul? And the case is perfectly the same in all the after-revelations He makes of Himself.
Eighthly, the cheerfulness of His coming is very affecting; He comes skipping and leaping, He is not dragged to their relief, but He comes very cheerfully, and with great delight. When all that man could do was rejected by God, then He cheerfully undertook the work of redemption. “Sacrifice and offering Thou didst not desire, Mine ears hast Thou opened: burnt-offering and sin-offering hast Thou not required. Then said I, Lo I come: in the volume of the book it is written of Me; I delight to do Thy will, O My God”. He comes with delight over all these mountains; and when a believer sees Him thus skipping and leaping, it affects Him extremely.
In fine, the strength, the majesty and the triumph of His coming is very affecting; He comes vigorously, easily and triumphantly over all interposing mountains, treading down not only the remoter enemies, but the neighbouring and most dangerous enemies of His people. How is the Church affected with this, in Isaiah 63, when she sees Him coming from Edom, the land of the Edomites, who here are put for all the enemies of the Church – and from Bozrah, the principal city of that land, as an evidence of His having entirely ruined them! She looks upon Him, and she is wonderfully taken with the majesty of His gait, who stepped like a conqueror fearing no after-assaults from entirely-vanquished enemies. “Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah,” says the wondering Church, “this that is glorious in His apparel, travelling in the greatness of His strength?” He answers, “I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save”. And then He afterwards triumphantly exults over His enemies, as being fully and entirely vanquished. These are the things which the bride, in the words we have read, is so much affected with in the coming of her beloved.
1. This sermon has been taken, with some editing, from volume 1 of the new edition of Halyburton’s Works. The other part will appear next month, DV. Halyburton (1674-1712) became Professor of Divinity in St Andrews. Hugh Martin rated him one of Scotland’s greatest theologians. For a review of Halyburton’s Works, vol 1, see the previous issue of this magazine. The book is available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom.