Commentary on The Song of Solomon (498 pages)
To The Christian Reader
by John Owen
I have been desired by some interested in the publishing of the ensuing Exposition of the Canticles to peruse it, and to communicate unto thee my thoughts concerning it; upon the first request, I 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. And this he hath deservedly, not only from his personal holiness and useful labours in the work of the ministry, but also from those other eminent fruits of his study, which being formerly published, have recommended him to the thoughts of unprejudiced persons, as one of good learning, sound judgment, and every way "a workman that needeth not to be ashamed." The perusal of this Exposition hath much confirmed me in the same thoughts and apprehensions. The book of the Canticles is not in any part of it, much less in the whole, a meet subject for every ordinary undertaker to exercise upon. The matter of it is totally sublime, spiritual, and mystical; and the manner of its handling universally allegorical. So did God think meet in his manifold wisdom to instruct his church of old, whilst it tabernacled under those clouds and shadows, whose departure and flying away it so earnestly breathes after in this very book. God committed unto it then, in his oracles, the same treasure of wisdom and grace, as he doth now unto us under the gospel, only he so folded them up under types and allegories, that they could not clearly and distinctly look into them, he having provided "some better things for us, that they without us should not be made perfect."
The nature of those types and allegories, with the distinction between them, is briefly, but excellently discoursed by our author in his preface, as a necessary proeludium unto his whole Exposition. There was always then a virtual, spiritual light and heat, a mystery of wisdom in this book but so wrapt up, so encircled and enclosed in its manner of expression, and universal respect unto Christ, not then actually exhibited, as that it shines not forth, it gives not out its beauty and glory, until touched and affected by a beam of immediate gospel light, and its covering be taken off by him who removes the vail of Moses, and of all the prophets, both from their writings and the minds of them that do believe. I shall not here enquire particularly what express understanding in and of the things divinely revealed in this book, the church had under the Old Testament, whilst they "searched diligently into the grace of Christ here declared," and "which his Spirit herein testified unto them." Nor shall I stay to manifest how great a darkness as to the true and useful apprehension of the mind of God in this holy allegory, seems to have been upon some whole ages of the Christian church. This is certain, that ever since this heavenly treasure was committed to the sons of men, such a beauty, glory, and excellency have beamed from the matter contained in it, with the manner of its declaration, and the impress of the wisdom of God in both, that all who have had a due reverence unto divine revelation, have been filled with an holy admiration of it, and a desire to look into the mystery contained in it. But whereas, as was intimated; the things contained in it, are, "the deep things of God," which none can search out to perfection, but the Spirit of God; and the manner of its delivery is not only absolutely allegorical, the reducing of the just and due intendment of which kind of expression unto that which is proper, requires great heedfulness, skill, and diligence, both in things spiritual, when their subject is such, and in the nature of those schemes, or figures of speech, but also, suited unto a measure of light, and understanding which we are not thoroughly acquainted withal; these things falling in conjunction with the imperfection and weakness of all, with the curiosities of some who have undertaken this exposition, many mistakes have ensued thereon; yea, some attempts of this kind have seemed to be designed to divert the minds of men from the direct scope and intendment of the Holy Ghost throughout this whole book. The Jews in their Targum, a work of great and public esteem amongst them, are larger on this book, than any other in the whole Bible. It seems indeed to have been a later endeavour than most of their other Paraphrases, seeing express mention is made in it, not only of their Talmud, but also of sundry Talmudical fables, as of their two Messiahs, Ben-David, and Ben-Joseph, of their anti-messiah, Armillus, of their eating and drinking Leviathan with the wine of paradise in their vainly expected kingdom. But it may be these are later corruptions, and not the conceptions of the first author of that work. However, they plainly acknowledge the mystery and allegory of the whole, ascribing the things mentioned to the transactors between God and the church, partly historically, partly prophetically, with such a respect unto the Messiah, as in sundry places is not to be despised. From them, have some learned persons of late taken occasion to wrest the whole allegory into an history, and a prophecy: but with more sobriety than they, and with more respect to the analogy of faith, with the lights and times of the New Testament.
It is, in my judgment, no hard matter to evert that supposition, and cast it out of further consideration; but this is not a place to engage in that undertaking: but I do suppose, that he who will seriously consider the uncertainty and arbitrariness of their conjectures in the application of things here spoken unto, the distinct times and seasons which they would have intended, will find himself somewhat unable to give a firm assent unto their assertions, though he should be desirous so to do. The more general persuasion of learned men is, that the whole is one holy declaration of that mystically spiritual communion, that is between the great Bridegroom and his Spouse, the Lord Christ and his church, and every believing soul that belongs thereunto. This being the nearest, surest, and most firm relation that is between them, the ground of all that he did for the church, and continues yet to do, and of all the duty that he requires from it, that intercourse in faith, love, delight, rest, and complacency that is between them, is here expressed, in words suggested by and from the wisdom of God: and as the whole Song carries this design and intention evidently in the face of it; so the safe rules of attending to the true meaning of the original words, the context of the discourse, the nature of the allegorical expressions, the just period of the Dialogists, or Interlocutors, the analogy of faith, by collation with other scriptures, and the experience of believers in common, will through the supply and assistance of the Spirit upon their fervent supplications, lead humble and believing enquirers, into such acquaintance with the mind of God, in the several particulars of it, as may tend to their own, and others' edification.
This course our author steered, and that, if I greatly mistake not, with eminent success. He was no doubt liable to mistakes, as we are all; nor is his Exposition proposed, as that which should prescribe to the judgments, or give bounds to the enquiries of others, whom God hath endued with the like gifts and grace. But this, I suppose, I may say without offence, that it will be hard for any to discover, either defect in judgment, or untruth in affection, or the ommission 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. I am persuaded every reader, whose mind is exercised about, and conversant in these things, whose heart hath an experience of their power and reality, will find that light and strength added to what he hath attained, and that assistance and direction towards what he is yet reaching out after, as that he will not forbear to give that testimony to the author in this matter, as is due to a faithful and skilful labourer, in this excellent part of the harvest of the Lord; and to the judgment of such alone I do appeal: and this consideration refers me to these thoughts which I before expressed, viz. the uselessness of any recommendation of this treatise unto those who are willing conscientiously to enquire into the sacred truths treasured up in this excellent portion of scripture, and to improve them unto their own advantage in faith and obedience.
The whole of what I can contribute unto the furtherance of the usefulness of this treatise, is to recommend it in my poor supplications, unto the grace of him, who supplied this seed to the sower, that he would bless it in the hearts and minds of them that read it, with an increase unto holiness and eternal life:
So prays, thy friend and servant in the work of the gospel,
May 20, 1669.