Lectures on Job

James Durham. Lectures on Job. Ed. Chris Coldwell. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books; Dallas, TX: Naphtali Press, 2018. iv + 240 pages. $30, hardback.

Though he had never seen a copy, C. H. Spurgeon nevertheless managed to include James Durham’s commentary on Job in the “recommended” column of his infamous Commenting and Commentaries. James Durham (1622—1658), a seventeenth century Scottish Presbyterian minister, was converted following a visit to his wife’s relations at Avercorn near Edinburgh, and thereafter devoted himself so fervently to theological study that before he was 25 years old “he had the appearance of an old man” who rarely allowed himself to smile (John Howie, The Scots Worthies [Banner of Truth, 1995], 219).  In his all too brief life, Durham co-authored (along with David Dickson), the vastly important work, The Sum of Saving Knowledge, and shortly before his death published the much discussed volume arguing for unity in the strife-ridden Scottish Presbyterian church of the mid-seventeenth century—The Dying Man’s Testament to the Church of Scotland or, A Treatise Concerning Scandal.

Durham died at 36, leaving several unpublished manuscripts, one of which was a commentary on Job that was published a hundred years later in 1759, probably prepared for publication by Robert Wilson. It did not see another published edition until 1997 (Naphtali Press), with textual edits (such as “spider” for the old Scottish “addercop”) by Christopher Caldwell. This edition contains a few additional revisions.

Unlike his contemporary English Puritan, Joseph Caryl, whose commentary—a transcribed series of sermons—occupy twelve volumes, Durham’s work is compact. It comprises forty-two chapters—one for each chapter of book of Job. Each chapter contains a broad exposition (2-3 pages), rarely focusing on detail, followed by several points of “Observations” (again, 2-3 pages).

Durham lived in the time following the English civil war era of Oliver Cromwell and the “occupation” of Scotland, something which he seems to refer to twice in the commentary (11-12, 239). Cromwell’s occupation he viewed as a contemporary example of how God brings trials upon his people to “evidence his grace in them, and to give a malignant and profane temporizing generation the lie,” adding by way of comment, “and this will be worth all that we can suffer” (12). Later, following his ordination and a brief period of ministry in Glasgow, he was elected Professor of Divinity at Glasgow University and Chaplain to the future Charles II, the son of the beheaded King Charles I.

Like Job, Durham was not immune to personal tragedy. He lost his wife shortly after marrying her. She was “the desire and delight of his eyes,” and in Job-like fashion, commented, “who could persuade me that this dispensation of God’s providence were good for me, if not the Lord had said it was so?” (Howie, The Scots Worthies, 217).

Durham’s Lectures on Job stays closely to the text and avoids wider theological issues—for example, the origin and on-going “problem” of evil (pain), or the relationship of Satan to the sovereignty of God and consequent issues of accountability. Nor does he take sufficiently into account that whilst much of what Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar have to say about the character of God is perfectly orthodox, the use they make of it is altogether twisted and perverse. This issue alone has enormous ramifications for the overall hermeneutical approach to Job. In particular, Durham fails to adequately address the issue of “innocent” suffering (surely the point of the three-fold attestation of Job’s piety in the first two chapters).

Interpretations of Elihu’s contribution to the Joban argument vary from one commentator to the next. Does Elihu contribute anything new to the otherwise “instant retribution” (punishment for sin[s]) point of view of Job’s three friends? Does he, for example, begin well (pain is instructive, teaching what nothing else can), but end badly (returning to the instant retribution view of the three friends)? Durham’s view of Elihu is positive. Though he makes no mention of sources he may have consulted—for example, John Calvin’s 159 sermons on Job preached as weekday sermons over a fourteen-month period in the years 1554-5, English translations of which were published and widely circulated in 1584—like the Genevan Reformer, Durham views Elihu’s contribution as more-or-less definitive, indicating early in the book “Elihu and God run almost on the same grounds” (21). On this point, Susan Schreiner has written extensively suggesting that “Calvin is Elihu.” (See, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Calvin’s Exegesis of Job From Medieval and Modern Perspectives [University of Chicago Press, 1994], and “Exegesis and Double Justice in Calvin’s Sermons on Job,” Church History, Vol. 58, No. 3 [Sept. 1989], 332-338).

Like Calvin, Durham interprets Job 4:18 and the reference to “angels” as a statement about unfallen angels: “If angels contend with God, he will find folly in them. If we look on angels’ purity and compare it with God’s, they are infinitely inferior to him in purity” (21). This point view led Calvin into theological turmoil—the problem of “double justice” (or “secret righteousness of God”) leading to the speculative and highly problematic idea that unfallen creation (ontologically) may be subject to a higher righteousness that renders it “punishable.” (Calvin repeats the notion in the Institutes, III.xii.1).

Durham’s strengths—and what makes the book essential reading—lie in application, especially in the lesson that the sovereignty of God is designed to humble us. “Observe that God and his works are never thoroughly studied, till they overcome men, and are seen to be far beyond their [understanding], and that not only in light and knowledge, but sensibly, so as men are affected with it” (210). And again, “There is nothing, not a bit of bread, nor a house to dwell in, nor anything else, but it is his. And this should [teach] people to judge well of God, and receive anything well at his hand” (233). For these applications alone, the book is essential reading.

Interestingly, David Clines’ three-volumed magnum opus commentary on Job (in the Word Biblical Commentary Series), makes no mention of Durham’s work in his seven-page summary of important works on Job in the “Christian, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries” section of the introductory section of Vol. 1 (lxix-lxxv). Surely, a huge omission.

Derek W.H. Thomas
Reformed Theological Seminary