(Photo by Øyvind Holmstad)
The second volume of Richard Sibbes collected works contains a series of 20 sermons on Canticles, better know as the Song of Solomon. The title of this work is called “Bowels Opened”, which is rather unfortunate to our ears. It means the depth of compassion which was believed to be in the gut. A Greek word for compassion or mercy was “σπλάγχνον”, which means the gut or heart (I have no idea what the word would be in modern Greek).
While these sermons are textual (they are based upon the text), they wouldn’t sound much like a modern expository sermon. Sibbes reads the text in an allegorical manner, but I’m not precisely sure that allegory really covers his understanding.
He takes a text, draws a generally allegorical reading — and then he proceeds to consider the way in which a image or theme is developed in Scripture.
For instance the first sermon begins by developing this text:
‘Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits,’ Cant. 4:16.
He first draws out a general basis for the allegory, Christ and the Church. And then he asks questions about the “wind” and the Spirit. He meditates upon the garden and spices. He considers the pleasant fruits. The structure is different than what one would learn at a seminary which would still hold to the Gospel which Sibbes preached and which still held Scripture to be inerrant and sufficient, as Sibbes did.
What is quite remarkable in this methodology, is the profundity of Sibbes’ understanding and exegesis. Although he has a generally allegorical reading, he never wanders off into nonsense or speculation.
And while I am not completely comfortable with an allegorical reading of the text (this being my own admitted prejudice here), I do believe that there is a deep structure between divine and human love — because human love in marriage between a man and woman was given as a basis upon which we could begin to understand divine love. And while there is certainly no identity between the two loves, there is an analogy which makes the one comprehensible in terms of the other.
Another thing about Sibbes’ sermons must be noted: the sheer volume of insight and beauty he mines and reveals. Spurgeon’s comment on Sibbes is certainly true, “Sibbes never wastes the student’s time, he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands.”
Sibbes begins his discussion of Canticles with the general observation that the book concerns the most profound love between Christ and the Church. He deals with the obvious topic of a prurient reading of the text (as was infamous done by a preacher of some note who has taken up shop in a new city and of whom I will nothing more to say).
He then comes to the purpose of the book of Canticles. Why was this discourse written in a such a beautiful manner? Why doesn’t the Scripture just tell us plainly that Christ loves the Church, rather than give us this drama and poetry? The purpose of the Spirit inspiring the text
is by stooping low to us, to take advantage to raise us higher unto him, that by taking advantage of the sweetest passage of our life, marriage, and the most delightful affection, love, in the sweetest manner of expression, by a song, he might carry up the soul to things of a heavenly nature. We see in summer that one heat weakens another; and a great light being near a little one, draws away and obscures the flame of the other. So it is when the affections are taken up higher to their fit object; they die unto all earthly things, whilst that heavenly flame consumes and wastes all base affections and earthly desires. Amongst other ways of mortification, there be two remarkable—
- By embittering all earthly things unto us, whereby the affections are deaded* to them.
- By shewing more noble, excellent, and fit objects, that the soul, issuing more largely and strongly into them, may be diverted, and so by degrees die unto other things. The Holy Spirit hath chosen this way in this song, by elevating and raising our affections and love, to take it off from other things, that so it might run in its right channel. It is pity that a sweet stream should not rather run into a garden than into a puddle. What a shame is it that man, having in him such excellent affections as love, joy, delight, should cleave to dirty, base things, that are worse than himself, so becoming debased like them! Therefore the Spirit of God, out of mercy and pity to man, would raise up his affections, by taking comparison from earthly things, leading to higher matters, that only deserve love, joy, delight, and admiration. Let God’s stooping to us occasion our rising up unto him.
- That is, ‘deadened.’—G.
Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 2 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet And Co.; W. Robertson, 1862), 5–6.
And so ends the introduction to this sermon.