Weekly Update 37 – The Song of Songs (1)

Prior to the reprinting of most of Durham’s corpus in the past few years the one work that was easily available was his commentary on the Song of Solomon.  This was thanks to a reprint by the Banner of Truth in 1982.  All of 10 years ago I got and devoured my copy and have been a Durham fan ever since.  In a very real sense Durham’s commentary of the Song is responsible for the thesis I’m working on today!

Now, what has Durham’s commentary on the Song got to do with the free offer?  Honestly, not very much.  I am posting on it here, not because it is related to the free offer, but because it gives valuable insight into mid 17th C Scottish hermeneutics and because I believe there is much to commend Durham’s approach to interpreting the Song.

To start at the beginning, so to speak, I want to look briefly at the introductions by James Durham’s wife Margaret and by John Owen.  Both are interesting. 

Margaret Durham’s essay shows her to have been a very capable theologian in her own right!  She places Durham’s work in the context of a larger series of Scottish commentaries designed “for the benefit, not only of scholars (who have many large helps in other languages;) but also, yea, principally… [for] families, that can read… for their edification…” (p12).  I assume, given the historic Presbyterian emphasis on a “learned ministry,” that she would place ministers in the “scholar” category who would at least at a minimum have Hebrew, Greek and Latin.  The important point here is that Scottish theology was not formulated in isolation from the larger development of Reformed theology.  The leading Scottish theologians had access to, and developed their theological outlook in interaction with, the great European, Medieval and Patristic works of theology – “large helps in other languages”.  I foolishly passed up the chance to do Latin in my final year in school  -what a mistake that was!

John Owen’s introduction sheds light on the reputation Durham had among his contemporaries, as well as Owen’s own view of the Song.  Owen was asked to write a foreword to the book but was initially reluctant because he “judged this labour altogether needless, on the account of that reputation, which the known piety and abilities of its author, have in the Church of God” (p19).  Owen was obviously persuaded and goes on to commend Durham “… as one of good learning, sound judgement, and every way ‘a workman that needeth not to be ashamed'” (p19).  Not a bad recommendation to have.  Owen particularly esteems Durham’s distinction between types and allegories which I will discuss next week, DV. 

For Owen, the Song of Solomon is “totally sublime, spiritual, and mystical; and the manner of its handling universally allegorical” (p19).  In Owen’s opinion, along with the generality of expositors in his day, “the Song is one holy declaration of that mystical spiritual communion, that is between the great Bridegroom and his Spouse, between the Lord Jesus Christ and his church, and every believing soul that belongs thereunto” (p21).  While Owen would not bind future expositors to the detail of Durham’s commentary he notes, “it will be hard for any to discover, either defect in judgement, or untruth in affection, or the omission or neglect of any rule,  means or advantages that might, or ought to be used in enquiry after the mind of God, in this work, or a want of perspicuity, and plainness in the discovery, or expression of his conceptions upon it” (p22) – high praise indeed!

With such a fulsome commendation from Owen, Durham’s interpretation of the Song is surely worth studying.  I will post on Durham’s view of the Song and his reasons for interpreting it that way next week, DV.

5 Responses to “Weekly Update 37 – The Song of Songs (1)”

  1. Steven Carr Says:

    I’m glad you are posting on this. The Puritan interpretation of Canticles or Song of Solomon needs to be revisited. The spiritual significance of the book has been downplayed by feminist interpretation and by those who strictly adhere to the critical-grammatical-historical approach. In this critical age, allegorical interpretation is not viable. I’ve never read Durham’s commentary. I’ve always wanted to, and maybe now I will. But a freind of mine read it and relayed some of the material to me. I remember how greatly that alone helped me in my spiritual walk. I am going to a college right now where they claim that Song of Solomon is about the right relationship between a husband and a wife, and nothing else. How sad.

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Steve

    Yes, I think the abandonment of the Puritan view of the Song of Solomon is a backward step. It may be a great mystery, but I am persuaded that the Song of Solomon speaks primarily “concerning Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:32). I know that view won’t endear me to many OT Profs, even in reformed seminaries, but there you have it.

    In the Highlands in the old days the ministers were most esteemed who could preach well on the Song of Solomon. It was said to be a sign of a Pastor walking closely with God that they could preach an experiential, Christ centred sermon from the SoS.

    Every blessing

  3. thomasgoodwin Says:

    I have a wonderful sermon series on the Song of Solomon from the best preacher I know. He takes …. the biblical view … sort of like Durham 🙂

    That’s a good point about the SoS and walking closely with God.


  4. Greg MacDonald Says:

    The Song is a favourite book of mine. Durham is excellent on it. But so too is the other Geneva series commentary by Burrowes. We have no need to be reticent in our view here. ON the road to Emmaus Christ expounded to the two in ALL the Scriptures the things concerning himself. So a mere textbook on marriage cannot be a sufficient explanation. Also, it would a strange marriage guidance manual where the husband never makes a mistake…!
    And yes, I am married. so I can assure you we do.

  5. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Mark

    When I was being interview for my MPhil one of the questions I was asked was on my take of Durham’s view of the Song. I didn’t know at the time but the questioner (the OT lecturer) had written a commentary taking the opposite view. He was very gracious in his questioning!

    Hi Greg

    I actually don’t have the other Geneva series commentary. I think both are out of print now. I couldn’t find either on the Banner website. Hopefully they will keep a good commentary on the Song of Solomon in the Geneva series.

    Every blessing

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