In verse 4, the lady had been brought into the king’s chambers in fulfilment of her desire to be with him and experience his love. A change has now occurred because we can see from verse 8 that he has gone to be with his flocks of sheep, and she is encouraged to go where they are in order to meet up again with him. She is sad that he is gone and she explains her feelings in verse 5 and 6 to her friends, here called the daughters of Jerusalem. Then in verse 7, she speaks to the absent king about their separation. So we have conversation (vv. 5-6), aspiration (v. 7) and direction (v. 8). It is not difficult to see how those three features apply to the relationship between Jesus and his people.
The conversation includes a description of herself and an explanation for her appearance. In the description, she says that she is very dark, but beautiful, at the same time. Indeed, she is as dark as the curtains she has seen in the palace of Solomon, or as dark as the skins used for tents in Kedar. What does she mean?
Various suggestions have been given. One is that she is referring to her place of birth, which was different from that of the daughters of Jerusalem. If this is the meaning, she is saying that her dark skin indicates that she came from another country. Of course, if we think of Christians meeting together, and each telling one another his or her story, it would be right to say that our origins are in a different country from the heavenly one. So those who hold to this idea say that the lady is describing Christian conversion.
A second suggestion is to regard the two descriptions as kind of contradictory, that from a Christian point of view she is describing a conflict within a believer, such as when the flesh opposes the spirit. So when she says she is black, she is referring to her sin, and when she says that she is beautiful, she is saying that grace has also made her beautiful. And those who make this suggestion would argue that the woman, when she says that she has failed to keep her own vineyard, is confessing something for which she was to blame. Yet she does not blame herself for this in the song. So I would say we need to look for another suggestion as to what she means.
The third suggestion is that her dark skin was caused by forced labour, and labour that took place when the sun was at its hottest. It would be unusual for a person to work at such a time – it would be customary to have a siesta when it was very hot. Instead, she says that she was forced to work, which points to cruelty, and that she was forced to work by her brothers, which points to lack of love.
The lady’s words indicate that she has been forced to be somewhere she did not want to be. Why would she not want to be in the vineyards of her brothers? Because of what normally took place in them. In addition to being places of hard work, they were also locations where people would gather together and talk about the matters that were of interest to them. But she wanted to be somewhere where she could think about the king.
Her words are a complaint, but not a confession. The complaint is that other duties have compelled her not to be in her own place, in her own vineyard, where she could have thoughts of the king. Instead she has been forced to conform to the priorities of others who don’t share her desires even if they are related to her, and working in the sun has affected her. Yet she is not backsliding because she has retained her beauty.
What is there in such situations that would make a believer comely? We should know because it is an aspect of life that we cannot avoid. After all, we know that often we cannot get to Christian events because of other legitimate duties. Here are some suggestions?
First, although she is compelled by others to engage in such activities, she remains determined to find the king. Second, she remains dedicated to him even although his presence is not as real as at other times. Third, she is marked by submission to his providence. Fourth, she wants sympathy and not condemnation from the daughters of Jerusalem.
That last point is very important. She says to them, ‘Do not gaze upon me. I was not able to avoid what happened to me.’ Sometimes, Christians can be very quick to jump to conclusions without knowing why something has happened to another Christian. Here she says, ‘Do you want to know what my heart’s desire is?’ It is to meet the king, which she proceeds to describe in verse 7.