He Is Altogether Lovely | Iain D. Campbell

In remembrance of Rev. Iain D. Campbell, who passed away Saturday, January 28, 2017.

“I am my beloved’s….” —Song of Solomon 7:10

In our previous study, I tried to set the Song of Solomon in the context of biblical theology to see it as a composition by Solomon about himself. In it, Solomon celebrates his marriage, which occasions this great song. It is not designed to illustrate the beauty of marriage, but the beauty of the marriage of David’s son as a type of the marriage of Christ to His people.

I also tried to set this great book of Scripture on the line of canonical revelation to show that the theme before us in the Song of Solomon is a developing theme throughout Scripture: God, through the union of His covenant heir and another party who is a stranger to the covenant, brings that stranger into His covenant family. In the Davidic covenant, Solomon is the promised seed; eventually, he will sit on God’s throne in place of his father David. In the light of everything we are told about Christ in the New Testament we are warranted to read the Song and say, “A greater than Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42).

Part of the Song’s effect is to reveal the king’s beauty to us. So the book sets before us the king in all his beauty. Indeed, the theme of this study comes directly from Song 5:16: “He is altogether lovely.”

One of the things that Solomon does in this composition is show us how the loveliness of the king unfolds in the experience of his bride. In all that she experiences, in the situations that are registered in the Song’s development, the bride comes to discover the beauty and see the loveliness of her royal lover in different ways.

There is a refrain that runs through the Song that is, I think, crucial to this theme. In 2:16, the bride says, “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” That is echoed in 6:3: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Then, as the Song moves towards maturity, the refrain appears in a slightly different way in 7:10: “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me.” This refrain is an important element in the Song because it registers the bride’s subjective experience. This is her response to the revelation of the king’s glory. In the early chapters, the emphasis is on her possession of him: “My beloved is mine” is followed by “and I am his.” The emphasis is on what she has and what she owns. He is hers before she is his. But the emphasis changes as the Song progresses and develops. In chapter 6, the accent falls not on what she has, but on what he has: “I am my beloved’s” comes before “and he is mine.” The alteration of the refrain is significant; she has moved in her understanding of what is important. At the beginning, her experience and possession were important; now what he has become is primary. That is what comes to the fore in the end, too, as her possession hardly matters at all. What matters is that she is her beloved’s, and “his desire is toward” her. At the beginning, her desires mattered; at the end, his desires matter.

My Beloved Is Mine

There is something deeply spiritual being registered in this movement. The emphasis at the outset is on her possessing her beloved. He has called her and spoken to her; he has allured her and shown himself to her. She looks at him and glories in the fact that all that is true of him belongs exclusively to her. His loveliness, his glory—they are hers! He has covenanted himself to his bride. Everything he possesses is now hers.

In a sense, this is what grace enables us to do. It enables us to take Jesus as He is freely offered in the gospel. God breaks down all resistance by His irresistible grace. Some people have a problem with the concept of irresistible grace because, they say, sinners always resist the offer of the gospel. But it is not grace that is offered in the gospel so much as it is Christ who is offered. People do resist Christ, and they do so willingly and freely because of the power that sin has to bind them and to keep them in bondage. But when grace frees the will from that bondage, it comes with irresistible force and makes Christ irresistible, too. By nature, a sinner sees no beauty in Christ; he will not and cannot come to Him unless enabled and persuaded to do so. The natural mind is enmity to God. It is utterly impossible, left to itself, for the human heart to choose Christ. The servant song of Isaiah expresses it magnificently: there is no beauty in Him that we should desire Him (Isa. 53:2).

The problem is not that Christ is devoid of beauty; the problem is with us, with our inability to see and respond. But grace makes the world of difference: it breaks down every barrier and removes all the resistance. It opens the eyes of the understanding, illuminating the heart and moving the will. It persuades us that we must have Christ, and it enables us to have Him. When the gospel makes its impact on our soul, we see Christ in the gospel and say, “Yes! He is mine! I have Him—everything He is, I have; everything He has done, I embrace.”

By faith, we see the loveliness of Christ’s person. We take all that He is in His unique, glorious, incomparable self. John Owen reminds us that only by faith can we see this:

The Beauty of the Person of Christ as represented in the Scripture consists in things invisible to the eyes of flesh. They are such as no hands of man can represent or shadow; it is the eye of faith alone that can see this king in his beauty. What else can contemplate on the untreated glories of his divine nature? What eye can discern the communications of the different properties of his natures in the same Person?… It is in these things that the loveliness of Christ consists.

What a vision for the eye of faith! Faith sees this glorious, unique Jesus, this one who was always God, who was with God, who is the delight of God. Everything that was true of God is true of Him; there is no God but Jesus. All the luster of divine perfection and beauty resides in Him: in Him all the fullness of the Godhead dwells (Col. 2:9). His person, revealed in His human nature, shows His altogether loveliness as the God-man. This one came to be what He was not without ceasing to be what He was. He always was God, His Godhead uncompromised by the addition of a human nature by which, in humiliation, He was impoverished when He took the form of a servant. In all of this, Jesus is altogether lovely to the eye of faith. This is “my beloved”—beautiful in what He is.

But faith also enables us to see the loveliness of Christ’s work. He is altogether lovely in what He has done. In the gospel, the Son of David has mercy on sinners, so much so that every path He treads has the cross in view. “This is my Father’s will which sent me,” He says, “that of all that he has given me I should lose none” (John 6:38). To gain all of them, He has to go to Calvary where He will stand alone and be made a curse so that the blessing of Abraham will rest on the Gentiles through Christ (Gal. 3:13–14).

In this work, Christ, contracted to a span in the womb of the virgin but now grown to perfect manhood, gives that manhood over to God in an act of divine worship and sacrifice on Calvary’s cross. He came for sinners; He lived among men to give His life as a ransom (Mark 10:45). The gospel sets Jesus before me as the Savior whose life is given for me, and He is all the more attractive to me for that reason.

A colleague of mine recently published a poem in memory of his father, one of whose occupations was to weave tweed cloth on his loom. In my youth, on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, there were many people who made their living that way. The poet describes how his father used to sing Gaelic psalms as he wove the cloth:

Dad used to fill the room with praise

These hours spent bowed above his loom,

Precenting over patterns, weaving belief

Deep into both weft and warp

Till wool was flecked with psalm

As each song shuttled, threading verse

Through two-by-two or plain

Until his finished tweed retained

Rhythyms of Kilmarnock, Stornoway

Deep within the tightness of the cloth

For a stranger to put on, unaware how faith

Was sewn within the garment; bright stitch

Among both checks and herringbone;

An active work of worship, prayer

With which my father laboured to prepare

Fabric fit for other souls to wear.

As I read it, I thought instinctively of Jesus on the cross in His “active work of worship,” laboring to prepare fabric fit for other souls to wear. His work on the cross is done with an eye to His Father’s glory—His death is His supreme act of worship. All the sacrifices were ordained and appointed within the context of worship in the Old Testament; Calvary is Christ’s greatest offering, His greatest act of piety, prayer, and praise.

All the time, as Christ is engaged in the worship of His Father, He is weaving a robe of righteousness which we could never have woven for ourselves. As we lean on Him and embrace Him in the gospel, we say, “My beloved is mine, and this robe of righteousness He wove for me at Calvary!”

He is altogether lovely in all the offices He undertakes as my Savior. He is my Prophet, the last great messenger of the covenant. He is the final word from God who would seal up the vision and the prophecy (Dan. 9:24), the great eschatological prophet of whom God said, “This is my beloved Son: hear him” (Mark 9:7). The greatest prophet of the Old Testament is eclipsed by God’s final prophet; there was no prophet like Moses to whom God spoke face to face, and the world waited for the prophet whom Moses himself foretold (Deut. 18:15). This prophet did not appear in all eras of the Old Testament. However, on the Mount of Transfiguration, where the only two prophets of the Old Testament who spoke to God on Mount Sinai appear in Jesus’ presence, God says that the last prophet has come. “Hear him!” God says, He is heaven’s final word to earth; God has no more to say, until at last the veil lifts and every eye sees Him, every tongue confesses Him, and every knee bows. In these last days, the last word has been spoken (Heb. 1:1–3).

He is also the great Priest, and altogether lovely in His priestly office. He finished a great work on earth, but the finishing of His earthly work was not the end of His work; it was only the end of what could only be done on earth. In the Old Testament tabernacle, there were two altars: one of brass in the outer courtyard and one of gold inside the veil. Only when he was finished at the first could the priest officiate at the second. That is what Christ has done for us. He first, in view of all the world, offers Himself. Once that was finished, He stepped within the veil (not without blood) and went to the golden altar of incense to offer up His intercession before the Father. That is where He is, still my Priest, still exercising that office in intercession for me (Rom. 8:32).

And He is the King, my Solomon, the son of David, crowned and exalted. God has set Him apart, notwithstanding the opposition to Him (Ps. 2:6–8; Phil. 2:5–9). The Lamb of God is now in the midst of the throne. He is Prophet, Priest, and King, complete and eminent in them all. He is altogether lovely in all of this, and I embrace Him and say, “He is mine!”

He is also lovely in the way He applies that redemption through His Holy Spirit. He actually saves us! He does so by applying to us, personally, existentially, individually, in our space/time history the benefits of the redemption that He secured for us at Calvary. The robe that He wove is a perfect fit; He puts it on me and prepares me for glory! I could not otherwise be fit for glory apart from the fact that He works on me and in me what He worked for me at Calvary. He will not stop until that work is done; where He began it, He will continue it (Phil. 1:6).

He was a carpenter once; He is a carpenter still. He is taking the raw material of my sinful heart and shaping it into something glorious. He will not lose any of those for whom He died. This is His covenanted obligation to the Father: to lose none of His people, and to raise them all up at the last day. He will redeem them, protect them, preserve them, and at last present them without spot or wrinkle or any such thing (Jude 24–25). He will account for every last one of them.

This Christ is mine! “My beloved is mine.” Can we say this? Can we say that this greater than Solomon is ours? This Son of David who calls and saves sinners in the gospel—is He ours? There is no more important issue in the whole of the world than that we should be able to echo the claim of the bride and say that we have this King as our own. Is He to us like the apple tree among the trees of the wood, under whose shadow we have sat with great delight and found His fruit sweet to our taste (Song 2:2)? Have we a testimony to tell of how this Christ became ours?

I Am My Beloved’s

To be able to say “My beloved is mine!” is a glorious response. Yet, in a sense, for the maiden of the Song, it is a very inadequate response. Not only has the king been giving himself to his bride, he has also been calling her to follow him. “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. The winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land…rise up my love, my fair one, and come away!” (Song 2:14). That is his call to his bride. She ought to have risen up and followed him, but all she has done is declare, “He is mine!”

It is never enough to stop with the mere possession of Christ. Do not misunderstand me: once you can say that Christ is yours, you are safe for time and for eternity. But the Christian life is not only about initial conversion; it is about discipleship. It is about rising up and following Him. It is not enough to stay where you are and say, “He is mine.” We are called to serve this King, to rise up from where we are, to take up our cross, and to follow Him. Here, in this Song, Solomon pictures the bride simply responding by exulting in her possession and then discovering that he has to deal with her gently, uniquely, and personally so that she will discover his beauty and loveliness all the more.

In chapter 3, the bride says, “By night, on my bed, I sought him whom my soul loveth; I sought him, but I found him not.” What was the reason for this? He had previously called her to rise and follow but she had simply stayed and said, “He’s mine.” So then he withdrew in order to teach her—and us—that the thrill of the experience of possessing Christ is not an adequate substitute for the depth of the blessing of obeying Christ.

He leaves her yearning for him, pining for him. She has nowhere to go but about the city streets, seeking the one whom her soul loves. She seeks him, but she does not find him. She finds the daughters of Zion who are rejoicing in the king’s crowning, but the bride in this Song does not belong to the number of the daughters of Zion. The more she goes on, the more she feels alienated and like a stranger in Jerusalem. She longs to know that this king loves her. He speaks about her in chapter 4, still calling her to follow. By the time we reach chapter 5, she is conscious not only of his voice calling, but also of the loss of his nearness and presence; she says, “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had withdrawn himself and was gone” (Song 5:6).

Sometimes, in order to make us obedient disciples, our Beloved withdraws Himself. We lose our conscious sense of His nearness and presence; He leaves us seeking Him in order to draw us into living and vital obedience. I know that it is true that those who seek Him find Him, but it is also true in the life of grace that those who find Him seek Him. There are times when those who have found Him are seeking Him not because they do not have Him, but because they do. His withdrawal and seeming absence is training them to seek Him and follow Him all the more earnestly. So here is the bride, in the middle of the Song, when she ought to be enjoying His conscious presence and fellowship, going about the city streets, longing like Mary in the garden to recover her absent King (John 20:13).

Let us bear in mind the principle of the previous study; this is poetry. We do not have to interpret this literally, as if there was a point when Solomon’s bride actually went about the streets of Jerusalem saying the things she says in the Song. This is a magnificent portrayal of being in love with David’s Son, and there are rich depths of spirituality here. The bride is portrayed as being lost and alone; she does not know where her Beloved is. She calls and there is no response; the watchmen on the city walls wound her and take away her veil. She simply says, “If you find my beloved, tell him that I am sick of love” (Song 5:8).

It is interesting that she had used this language of lovesickness in 2:5. But in chapter 2 she was sick with love because of how much she had of these first waves of excitement and of discovery and the freshness of her possession of him. Now she is sick with love not because of his nearness, but because of his absence.

The contrast could not be more stark. In chapter 2, she tells the daughters of Jerusalem where he is; in chapter 5, she asks the daughters of Jerusalem where she might find him. In chapter 2, she is sick with love because she has so much; in chapter 5, she is sick with love because she has so little. In chapter 2, she is sick with love as he calls her, but she does not respond. In chapter 5, she is sick with love as she calls him, and now he does not respond. In chapter 2, she is sick with love because of how much she had around the banqueting table in the banqueting house of her beloved, but in chapter 5 she is sick with love out on the streets, and there he is—on the other side of the door. In chapter 2, she is sick with love because he is so close to her; in chapter 5, she is sick with love because he seems so far away.

In his hymn “O for a Closer Walk with God,” William Cowper asks these questions:

Where is the blessedness I knew

When first I saw the Lord?

Where is the soul-refreshing view

Of Jesus and His word?

It was all so bright at the beginning, that first moment when my dungeon filled with light and my chains fell off; when I was freed to follow Jesus, the sense of Him was so overwhelming. But maybe it is not like that now—then we were overcome with love because of how much we realized we had in Christ; now we have been on the pilgrimage some time, and we do not seem to have so much. Time seems to have robbed us of many of these blessings and feelings and experiences and senses of His nearness. We are now sick with love and cannot even put our feelings and experiences into words. All we can say is, “Just tell my beloved that this is how I am.”

I do not know of anyone who has expressed this more beautifully than Ralph Erskine in his “Paraphrase on the Song of Solomon”:

The love, the love that I bespeak,

Does wonders in my soul;

For, when I’m whole, it makes me sick,

When sick, it makes me whole.

More of the joy that makes me faint

Would give me present ease;

If more should kill me,

I’m content To die of that disease.

This is a most remarkable insight into our spiritual experience. This is where we are so often: more of the joy that we cannot bear would actually help us in our present condition! The love that so overwhelmed us when we first saw Christ and embraced Him in the first moments of faith seems to have disappeared. These heightened feelings and exaggerated experiences seem a thing of yesterday.

The nineteenth-century Scottish preacher, John MacDonald of Ferintosh, wrote a Gaelic elegy in memory of his father, a deeply spiritual man. He says that his father never wanted to be alive merely on his feelings, but he did want to be alive in them. There are such things as religious affections—“whom having not seen you love” (1 Peter 1:8). You fell in love with Christ once, when the brightness of His person and glory and work became so radiant in the gospel and it was blessed to your soul. You danced when your burden rolled away and said with Bunyan’s Pilgrim:

What a place is this!

Must here be the beginning of my bliss?

Must here the burden roll from off my back?

Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?

Blest cross! Blest sepulchre! Blest rather be

The man that there was put to shame for me!

You do not want to live on your feelings, but you would love to dance with spiritual joy again.

Sometimes, however, you simply cannot put your experiences into words. A remarkable thing happens at this point in the Song. When the bride in the Song tells the daughters of Jerusalem that they should tell her beloved that she is sick of love, they ask her, “What is your beloved more than any other beloved?” (Song 5:9). In response, this bride, who previously found it so difficult to put her experience into words, cannot stop the torrent of words that comes out in answer to the question, “What does he mean to you?”

When she cannot speak about herself, she will speak of her king: “My beloved? You want me to speak of him and tell you what he means to me more than any other beloved? He is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand…. Supposing you were to fill the arena with ten thousand of the choicest men of Jerusalem, my beloved would stand head and shoulders above them all. He has a head like most fine gold in its preciousness and value; his hair is raven black; there is no hint of age or grayness in his hair because he retains the beauty and glory and dew of his youth. His eyes are so gentle, like doves’ eyes—they have a way of piercing my soul right through to the very depths.” Have you ever experienced that? Do you remember how Peter experienced it? “The Lord turned and looked upon Peter” (Luke 22:61). Christ who was dumb like a lamb before the shearers spoke more in His silent look at Peter than He could say with words!

And still the bride speaks. She describes the cheeks of her beloved as a bed of spices; his lips are like lilies; his hands that bless and caress and do not break bruised reeds, perhaps because they are bruised hands, are like gold rings set with beryl. His legs are like pillars of marble; his face is like Lebanon, and his mouth—ah! It is the sweetest mouth! Grace is poured into his lips (Ps. 45:2)! All he has to do is open his mouth and grace comes out—that is the experience of the bride.

That is your experience of Jesus, too, is it not? No man spoke like this man (John 7:46). “Whom have I in heaven,” said the psalmist, “but thee?” (Ps. 73:25). Of all the choice saints in glory, some we know and many we do not, Christ stands out in the company. Maybe some of you have been on the pilgrim way a long time, and now you count more of your Christian friends among the dead than among the living—you have more in glory than on the earth—but still, none compare with Him.

“This is my beloved…this is my friend” (Song 5:16). Do you see? The bride cannot find words to convey her own experiences, but when she is asked what her beloved means to her, she cannot stop talking! There are not enough words! She cannot explain her own heart, but when she is asked to explain her king, she paints a word portrait that conveys the excellence of his attractiveness and the brilliance of his person. She finds him altogether alluring and desirable and attractive.

I have to confess that I am on something of a campaign to stop testimonies—at least, the kinds of testimonies that people often tell. I hear people standing up to give their testimony, and they tell us about things that happened ten, twenty, or thirty years ago when they could say, “My beloved is mine!” That is good, of course; I am not decrying it. But I want to know how much more beautiful Jesus has become with the passing of the years. I want to hear how He sometimes dimmed the lights with dark providences and robbed you of much so that you were left with nothing but Him. I want to know how much more beautiful He has become to you, when God in His providence removed so much else on which you leaned once, and left you leaning only on Him. I want to hear of how altogether lovely He has become as He has brought you along roads that made you say, “O that I knew where I might find him! I look up and He is not here. I call to heaven and heaven is silent. On my left hand and on my right hand, and He is not there. O that I knew!” Those moments when He left you saying, “But he knoweth the way that I take” (Job 23:1–10).

In all these afflictions and trials, in the things that came into your life since you came to Christ, in the things that shaped you, not by the choices you made for yourself, but by the providences you would never in a million years have chosen for yourself—I want to know how much more lovely He has become in these things. That is the testimony I want to hear. What have you learned in your pilgrimage that makes Him attractive still? You have left behind so many of your dreams and prospects in what has gone by of your wilderness journey. He has stripped you just as the bride in the Song seems to have lost everything in her search for her beloved in the way he has dealt with her. Yet all the time for her, and for you, the experience is designed to elicit an even more sweet appreciation of His beauty and loveliness and magnitude.

So if, with all these valleys behind you, you can still say that “he is the chiefest of ten thousand to my soul,” then I will listen to your testimony gladly. In Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan has his pilgrims pass over Enchanted Ground and come into Beulah land, out of the reach of Giant Despair; they could not even see Doubting Castle. But they did hear the voices from the Celestial City saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, Thy salvation cometh.” And with a more perfect view of the city and the streets of gold, Christian with desire, began to grow sick, and Hopeful also had a fit or two of the same disease and said, “If you see my beloved, tell him that I am sick with love.”

Having been in Doubting Castle, having come through the Slough of Despond, having your heart weaned away from the world and all its prospects, do you have a clearer view of the City now? And does that leave you with a soul sickness of love for Christ? Is your testimony now not so much “He is mine,” but “I am His”? Have you come to realize that you would gladly continue the pilgrimage knowing that you are in His hands? Your maturity and growth of grace are seen precisely in this: whatever the cost of following Him has been in real terms, with the loss of your initial experiences and of much else, too, you can still rejoice to know that you still belong to Him.

His Desire Is for Me

But the refrain will change again. In 7:10, she is going to say, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is towards me.” How does she know that? She knows it because virtually everything that is said in chapters 6 and 7 of the Song are his words, describing her beauty to him. She knows now that his desire is for her.

I think there is a sense in which this is the end of all our Christian experience: that we will know that the King’s desire is for us. We discover Christ in the gospel to be altogether lovely, and we discover Him in our experiences to be altogether lovely. But the Song points us to this: His loveliness has the end in view that we will be His entirely, for His desire is for us. He has a testimony, too, of what He did to save souls, of the work that He performed in human lives. He says, “See that man kneeling down to pray? I did that! See that woman over there weeping over her sins? I did that! She never wept before, but she cannot stop now! I did that! See this person who has sacrificed it all to take up the cross and yield his life to me? I did that”—that is His testimony. If a conference on the beauty and glory of Christ does not leave us marveling at what He did and the claim He has upon us now, then we have not begun to see Him clearly. His desire is that we will give everything about us and everything in our lives—all our dreams and hopes and aspirations—to Him who gave His all for us.

What a blessing it would be for us if our meditation on the beauty of Christ would leave us longing that His desire would be accomplished, and leave us saying as He said Himself, “Not my will but thine be done!” (Matt. 26:39). He wants you, my Christian friend, because He loves you. His desire is for you every day. He wants to give Himself to you, and He wants you to give yourself to Him.

Supremely, He wants you to be with Him where He is, to see His glory (John 17:24). Here, we see through a glass, darkly, but then we will see face to face (1 Cor. 13:8). We have begun to glimpse Jesus’ loveliness amid earth’s shadows, but one day we will see it in its fullness in the glories of heaven. May we through the gospel anticipate the day when all desires will meet and be fully satisfied around the marriage supper of the great King!

Iain D. Campbell, The Beauty and Glory of Christ