Weekly Update 38 – Song of Solomon (2)

“Few can read this Song, but they must fall in love with it”
James Durham

For James Durham the Song of Solomon “treats of Christ and his church in their most glorious, lively, and lovely actions, to wit, his care of and love unto his church, and that in its most eminent degree; and also of her love unto him in its various measures and workings” (The Song of Solomon, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1982, 63).  But what led him to take this approach?  Why did he not see it as a book about marriage and human love?  Well, he patiently explains why in his Clavis Cantici or A key, Useful for Opening up the Song which form the introductory chapter to his commentary.  There is much in there worth careful consideration.

Durham begins by outlining the characteristics necessary in an expositor if they are to understand the Song correctly.  They are:

  1. A knowledge of the whole scriptures, but especially the book of Psalms and other Songs in scripture. (p24).
  2. It is of vital importance “that one have some experimental knowledge of the way of God towards his own heart: he who is so wise as to observe these things, even he shall understand the loving kindness of the Lord”.  Durham observes, “such kind of experience is one of the best commentaries upon this text”. (p24).
  3. To be in a “lively frame” toward God i.e. not to be backslidden. (p25).
  4. “Much conversing with the Bridegroom, especially by prayer…” (p25).

 How many academic commentaries place these qualifications foremost?

After summarising the case for the canonical nature of the book Durham argues that “this Song is not to be taken… literally, that is, as the words do at first sound; but is to be taken and understood spiritually, figuratively and allegorically…” (p27).  Durham gives four reasons (some of greater weight than others):

  1. The aim of Scripture is edification.  Without a spiritual application, i.e. unless the book speaks of more than human love, that aim would not be met. (p28).
  2. The excessive nature of this love, if it were human, is unsuitable for Christian imitation.  Where is love to Christ in all this? (p29).
  3. Many actions here are inconsistent with modesty & propriety if understood literally. (p29). Therefore Christ and the Church and their love must be spoken of here. (p28)
  4. Other allegories in Scripture must be compared to the Song.  Consider Ps 45, Matt 22, Jer 3, Hos 2:3, Ezek 16, Luke 14, 2 Cor 6:1, Rev 19:8).  These refer to Christ and the church and so must the Song. (p33).

But is the Song a type or an allegory?  I.e. is it a historical account that foreshadows Christ (type), or is it a “parable” that has no grounding in actual history (allegory)?  Durham argues forcefully that it is an allegory, giving a few reasons:

  1. There is scriptural warrant for allegories i.e. Matt 22:2 (p30).
  2. It cannot represent Solomon’s marriage because to which of Solomon’s historical marriages does this refer? (p32).
  3. The New Testament does not make Solomon’s marriage (which one?) a type of Christ and “it is hard to coin types without scripture authority” (p32).
  4. Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter was against divine law (p32).

In reading Durham argue that the Song is an allegory we must not confuse this with, what Durham regards as, the error of “many fathers and schoolmen” where they “allegorize plain scriptures and histories, seeking to draw out some secret meaning… and will so fasten many senses upon the one scripture” (p43).  Durham points to Origen, the common example of this fault, commenting that “many more [than Origen] be guilty” of this (p44).  Durham gives general rules as how to gauge whether a scripture is allegorical:

  1. “When the literal proper meaning looketh absurd…” i.e. “pluck out thy right eye,” “eat Christ’s flesh”. (p44).
  2. When the literal meaning does not promote edification. (p44).
  3. When a literal sense makes Scripture false e.g. “destroy this temple and I will build it in three days.” (p45).
  4. When a literal sense contradicts other scriptures and the “analogy of faith” (p45).
  5. When a literal sense does not agree with the meaning or intention of the speaker e.g. John in Matt 3:10 “the axe is laid to the root of the tree”. (p45).

So then the Song expresses: “the mutual love and spiritual union, and communion that is betwixt Christ and his church, and their mutual carriage towards one another, in several conditions and dispensations.” (p32-33).  When speaking of the Church it can be understood as visible, invisible, catholic or an individual believer (p37-38).  Because of these differences, “there is need of wariness in application, that the word may be rightly divided, and the divers cases of the church and particular believers would be rightly taken up…” (p39).

Durham considers helpfully how to apply allegorical scriptures and how to be sure we have arrived at their true meaning.  I want to skip over these to consider a few of the objections Durham notes to viewing the Song as speaking of the love between Christ and the Church. 

  • One objection is that “the raising of gospel doctrine, makes this Song look more like the gospel of the New Testament, than a song of the old” (p55).  Durham’s response it twofold.  First he asks “Is it the worse, that is looks like the gospel?” (p55).  In essence he is asking, are you seriously saying it is a bad thing to see the Gospel in the Old Testament?  Secondly, he highlights that believers’ spiritual experiences in the OT are the same as the NT for: “Their faith and communion with God stood… in the exercise of inward graces, faith, love &c. which are the same now as then.  Was not Christ the same to them as to us? had then not the same spirit, covenant, &c.” (p55).
  • Another objection is that some may “doubt, if Solomon knew or intended such doctrines as these” and they complain that to interpret the Song as between Christ and the Church make Solomon “speak beyond his mind and meaning” (p55).  Durham replies by stating that our concern is to know the mind of the Spirit and not the mind of Solomon.  Our understanding is not to be limited to Solomon’s.  But his main reply is that “there is no ground [not] to think that Solomon knew much of the mind of the Spirit” (p56).  Given that OT believers have the same experiences as we do there is no need to doubt that Solomon understood the experiential love between Christ and believers that the Song unfolds.  Durham cites Athanasius, Origen (with qualification), Jerome Zanchius etc. in support of drawing the Gospel from the OT.

Durham concludes his introduction by explaining how to benefit when reading the song:

  1. We must understand who is speaking in each passage (Bridegroom/Christ, Bride/Church, Bridegrooms friends/ministers, Daughters of Zion/weak & ready to stumble, Mother/the universal visible church, &c.) (p61).
  2. We must ponder what the purpose of the Spirit in each passage is. (p61).
  3. We are to beware of getting too caught up in all the details. (p61).
  4. We are to understand the “Bride’s frame” (love/despair etc). (p61).
  5. We must apply the text correctly depending on who is speaking/being spoken of. (p61).

So then.  That is Durham on the Song.  In conclusion, here is Durham extolling the excellence of the Song:

It is a most excellent song, in respect of its comprehensiveness; here is an armory and store-house of Songs in this one, where there is something treasured up for every case, that may be edifying and comfortable, which will not be so found in any other Song; there being something here suiting for all sorts of believers, under all the variety of cases and dispensations, wherewith they are exercised; and also all the relations under which the church standeth: all which, should commend this Song unto us. (p63).

John MacLeod in his Some Favourite Books sums things up well, “Durham on The Song of Solomon has long been looked upon as the standard Scottish work on the subject. It is rich in its statements of experimental godliness…” (p30).

Durham cites: Andrew Rivett p28. St Bernard p36.

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