Many years ago, while reading through J. I. Packer’s profoundly important book, The Quest for Godliness, I happened across a reference to Sinclair Ferguson’s 1979 Banner of Truth article “John Owen on Christian Piety (Part 2).” This little known article is important for a quite a few reasons. First, it gives us insight into Ferguson’s own thoughts about the question of Christology and the Song of Songs–a book through which he never preached an expositional series. Second, it gives us a magnificent digestion of Owen’s Christological exposition of the Son in his Communion with God. Finally, it gives us one of the most remarkable insights into why Owen held to a Christological interpretation of the Song–namely, out of a desire for true progress in Christian piety. “Here is this man,” writes Ferguson, “with his massive intellectual equipment, his great grasp of theology – and what is he looking for most of all? It is the sense of the love of Christ for him. That is what he sees he needs if he is to progress in Christian piety.” Here is Ferguson’s full summation of Owen’s exposition of the Song:
What did Owen think he was doing in his exposition of the Song of Solomon? He did not think he was creating his doctrine of Christ from its pages. But he did think it was an illustration of the fellowship which the believer enjoys with his Lord, and of the vicissitudes of his relationship with Christ. It is, in other words, a transcript of the affections of the child of God. Not only piety in the outward behavior, in moral rectitude, which he emphasizes elsewhere, but piety in the cleansing and substantial healing of the very emotions of the child of God.
The theme of Canticles is this, essentially: This sense of the love of Christ, and the effect of it in communion with him, by prayer and praises, is divinely set forth in the Book of Canticles. The church therein is represented as the spouse of Christ; and, as a faithful spouse she is always either solicitous about his love, or rejoicing in it.
In brief, this whole book is taken up in the description of the communion that is between the Lord Christ and his saints; Now, Owen was really a Welshman who happened to be born in England! And there is, no doubt, a ‘Celtic’ flavor to his emphasis here on the importance of the affections and senses. But I wonder if there is not more to it than that. For here is this man, with his massive intellectual equipment, his great grasp of theology – and what is he looking for most of all? It is the sense of the love of Christ for him. That is what he sees he needs if he is to progress in Christian piety. Surely there is something for us to learn here. We eschew the false dichotomy between the Person of Christ and the Bible which reveals him. We know of no other Christ than the one we meet in the pages of Scripture. But it is all too possible to search the Scriptures which testify of Christ, and never actually to discover the power of their truth in coming to Christ, and drinking in his love for us. It was not a theological axiom that God sent to die for us. It was the Son of his love. And it is communion with him which leads to progress in piety. This, after all is the teaching of Paul- knowledge without this, he says, puffs up: it is love which build up. Owen seems to have been conscious of the danger of the massive intellectual satisfaction to be gained from the gospel- that in it all, instead of finding ‘Jesus lover of my soul’, a man might find himself crying out in spiritual sterility: ‘Where is the blessedness I knew, when first I saw the Lord? Where is the soul refreshing view of Jesus . . . ?’
The theme of Canticles is worked out in this way: Christ and the Christian are the two main characters. The daughters of Jerusalem represent ‘all sorts of professors’. The watchmen represent office-bearers in the church, and the city represents the visible church itself. And while, occasionally, the corporate aspect of the Christian life appears in his exposition, the major concentration is on the individual’s experience and the communion he enjoys with his Lord Jesus.
Owen develops this theme in several central passages:
2.1-7: Here Christ is seen, describing his own character and significance to the Christian. He is the Rose of Sharon, the Lily of the Valley. That is, he is pre-eminent in all his personal graces, just as the Rose abounds in perfume, and the Lily in beauty. Indeed, the Rose is from the fertile plain of Sharon, in which the choicest herds are reared.
What does all this mean? Christ ‘allures’ the Christian, says Owen – there is an irresistible attraction to him; the believer enjoys the scent of him as the Rose.
But there is more, for Christ goes on in the passage to describe what the church means to him – she is a Lily among thorns, (2: v.2) – and here Owen draws this exquisite lesson. The believer is one with Christ – he is the lily; but the believer, through faith in Christ, is the lily to Christ. He is the lily of the valleys. But we are the lily among thorns! Christ looks upon you, in all your trials, in all the opposition there is to you – but do you not see what he thinks about you? He sees you as his lily!
This conversation and communion between the lover and the beloved continues. He is compared to the apple tree, (2: v.3) – it provides fruit for food, and shade for protection. So with Christ; all others are fruitless to the hungry soul, but he provides shelter, ‘from wrath without, and … because of weariness from within . . . From the power of corruptions, trouble of temptations, distress of persecutions, there is in him quiet, rest, and repose’.
And so in the verses that follow, our communion with the Lord Jesus is delineated for us: It is marked by 4 things:
(i) Sweetness of fellowship. ‘He brought me to the banqueting-house’, v. 4, where he reveals all the treasures of his grace in the Gospel. Indeed, says Owen, we find in this book (1.2) – that his love is better than wine – since it is righteousness, peace, joy in the Holy Spirit. What does wine do? It cheers the heart, it makes us forget our misery; it gives us a glad countenance! And so it is with the wine which flows from the grace of our Lord Jesus, and our fellowship with him.
(ii) Delight in fellowship. The maiden is overcome with all this, and she wants to know more of the love of her beloved. She is ‘sick of love’ – v.5; ‘not (as some suppose) fainting for want of a sense of love,’ but, ‘made sick and faint, even overcome, with the mighty actings of that divine affection, after she had once tasted of the sweetness of Christ in the banqueting-house’.
(iii) Safety. v.4 – his banner over her was love – a symbol of protection, and a token of success and victory. And here is Owen’s application: Christ’s banner stands over the believer – anything that comes upon the believer must first press through the love of Christ. Only what Christ gives to us in his love for us will ever come to us. It is the great argument of Romans 8.32 – he that spared not his own Son, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? This is our resting place and safety!
(iv) Support and Consolation. v.6. His left hand is under her head, and his right hand embraces her. What is this? asks Owen. It is the picture of Christ supporting the church, and at the same time cherishing it and nourishing it! And so, v.7 – their fellowship together is continued and sustained. He that has much, to him will more be given. There is an increase in capacity, and in desire for Christ. This is how Owen puts it, in another comment on 2.7:
A believer that hath gotten Christ in his arms, is like one that hath found great spoils, or a pearl of price. He looks about him every way, and fears everything that may deprive him of it.
In Canticles 2.9 Christ reappears. In the Song, the lover shows himself through the lattice, and this is interpreted as follows: ‘our sight of him here is as it were by glances – liable to be clouded by many interpositions.’ There is ‘instability and imperfection in our apprehension of him’, that is our present mortal state; ‘In the meantime he looketh through the windows of the ordinances of the Gospel.’ When the Christian has turned away in heart, Christ comes, searching and longing for the loving service of the Church. If he does not receive it, he will withdraw. It would be impossible within the general framework of Owen’s theology to suppose that this involves severed relationships; but it does imply disjointed experience and broken fellowship. Christ is still the Christian’s possession and vice-versa, but the sense of this has gone.
In chapter 3 the spouse discovers that her lover has withdrawn. She is perplexed. Owen is not clear whether this is the cause or the effect of the ‘night’ in which she discovers herself, but points to application: ‘in the greatest peace and opportunity of ease and rest, a believer finds none in the absence of Christ: though he be on his bed, having nothing to disquiet him, he rests not, if Christ, his rest, be not there.’ So the soul searches for Christ, first of all in the ordinary duties of faith, but ‘This is not a way to recover a sense of lost love,’ rather there must be ‘Resolutions for new, extraordinary, vigorous, constant applications unto God,’ – ‘the first general step and degree of a sin-entangled soul acting towards a recovery’. It is evident that here the soul has lost its sense of forgiveness, and that the search for its restoration involves two things: first, a search of one’s own soul to discover the cause of Christ’s absence, and,. second, a search of the promises of God to discover the means of his return. Self examination must be followed by a reapplication to the Covenant of Grace. If this yields no success, the solution is to be found in extraordinary duties, as Owen has already hinted. So the spouse goes about the city (the visible church) looking for her lover. If Christ is not found in private, it is the Christian’s duty to make a special search for him in public, through worship, the preaching of the word, and the sacraments. In her search the maiden is found by the watchmen, (office bearers in the church visible) – ‘it is of sad consideration, that the Holy Ghost doth sometimes in this book take notice of them to no good account. Plainly, chap. 5.7 they turn persecutors’. Owen finds support for this view in Luther’s sentiment “Nunquam periclitatur religio nisi inter reverendissimos”, a reason he gives for his dislike for the title ‘reverend’! But in fact in this instance the watchmen take notice of the plight of the spouse. This is the duty of faithful office-bearers. Exactly how Christ is discovered is not indicated in the passage, but Owen detects some significance in this too. When Christ comes, it is in his own mysterious way by the Spirit.
By chapter 5 the spouse has sunk again into sloth and indolence. The shepherd-lover comes to meet with her, but she excuses herself by the unsuitableness of the time and her lack of preparation for her duties.23 Christ, thus rebuffed, leaves the believer and ‘long it is before she obtains any recovery.’2’ He returns later in the chapter and the description given in 5, v.10-16 provides Owen with a further opportunity to describe what the Christian finds in his Savior.
Christ is described as being ‘white and ruddy’. ‘He is white in the glory of his Deity, and ruddy in the preciousness of his humanity.’ White is the color of glory; red is the color of man made from the dust of the earth, yet in the image of God, man being originally called Adam because of the redness of the earth from which he was made. So the expression here ‘points him [Christ] out as the second Adam, partaker of flesh and blood, because the children partook of the same, Hebrews 2.14.’ He is also white in his innocence, and ruddy ‘in the blood of his oblation’ – ‘by his whiteness he fulfilled the law; by his redness he satisfied justice.’ Further, the excellence of his administration of the Kingdom of God is expressed: he is white with love and mercy to his own people, and red with justice and revenge upon his enemies. It is this excellence, through the union of the ‘white and ruddy’, that fits him to be the Savior, and brings salvation through union and communion with him. This is exegesis in the allegorical tradition, and we may note that Owen has gathered the doctrines of the two natures of Christ, his one person, his work as second Adam, in his active and passive obedience, as the source of man’s salvation, out of this one phrase! But perhaps his stress on Christ’s humanity is most worthy of note.
In the following verses the maiden goes on to describe Christ more fully. His head is as fine gold – conveying the splendor and durability of Christ as the head of the government of the kingdom of God. His locks are said to be ‘bushy’ or curled, ‘black as a raven’. To first appearance the hair is tangled, but in fact it is well and precisely ordered, thus representing the wisdom of Christ in his mediatorial administration. The hair is black to indicate that his ways are past finding out, and, in a natural sense, emphasizing his comeliness and vigor. His eyes are like those of the dove – not a bird of prey – indicating the wealth of his knowledge and discernment. They are tender and pure as he discerns the thoughts and intentions of men. His cheeks are like beds of spices, sweet of savor, beautiful in their orderliness ; so the graces of Christ, in his human nature, are gathered by Christians in prayer, from the Covenant promises of God which are well ordered. (2 Samuel 23.5) These graces are eminent indeed, like ‘towers of perfumes’ (marginal reading adopted by Owen). His lips are like lilies, dropping myrrh – a description of the riches of Christ’s word. His hands (v.14), refers to the work he has accomplished, as the fruit of his love. His belly (in the sense of bowels) reminds us of his tender mercy and loving affection. His legs, countenance and mouth (v.15) remind us of the stability of his kingdom, the grace and faithfulness of his promises. He is completely worthy of the desires and affections of his followers (v. 16) in his birth, life, and death, in the glory of his ascension and coronation, in the supply of the Spirit of God, in the ordinances of worship, in the tenderness of his care, in the justice of his vengeance on his enemies, as well as in the pardon he dispenses to all his own people. And this Christ, says Owen, often comes by surprise to the Christian: when he is engaged in ordinary occupations, he finds his mind drawn out in love for Jesus. Weigh these experiences against those times when Satan invades the mind with worldly thoughts, says Owen -lest you be led to despair.
And so the believer is led to the prayer of 8.6 ‘Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm; for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave’. The worst thought believers have of hell, then, says Owen ‘is that they shall not enjoy Jesus Christ’. Here, as elsewhere, he distinguishes between unbelief, and what he calls spiritual jealousy, in which it is the individual’s own sense of unworthiness, breeding insecurity, which gives rise to jealousy. Do not only come to love and trust Christ, he says, but see that you are his beloved; he loves you, he adores you as the apple of his eye. He has married himself to you!
Now, what is the point of this? It gives a better perspective on Owen. Most of us will never read him until we see he has something to say to us. Owen was a pastor, and a preacher. Do not think he was interested in academic theology, but was not interested in Jesus!
And that is really the point, is it not? Owen did not for a moment build his Christology on the Song of Solomon. And in a sense it is of secondary importance how far we follow his exegesis of these passages. What is significant is this: at the heart of his teaching on progress in Christian piety lay loving fellowship and company with Jesus. It was Jesus he loved – not in some maudlin denigratory sense, but in the sense of our Lord’s full deity and glory! And that was the great and necessary balance to his mighty intellectual theology. He loved his Lord, and companied with him. One need hardly point up the application. Is this what we are? Is this what we are known for? Is this why people sit under our ministry? Is this what we teach in all the Scriptures? Faith in Christ that works by love for Christ, and in him, for others? This is piety!1
1. Sinclair Ferguson “John Owen on Christian Piety (Part 2),” Banner of Truth Magazine, Nov. 1979. pp. 10-15