Exploring the poetry, themes, and wisdom of this song from a Christocentric perspective, O’Donnell elucidates on the greatest subject of all timelove.
About the Author
Douglas Sean O'Donnell (PhD,University of Aberdeen)is the senior pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Elgin, Illinois. He is the author of a number of books, including The Beginning and End of Wisdom;The Song of Solomonand Matthewin the Preaching the Word commentary series; and Psalms in the Knowing the Bible series. He is also a contributor to Job and Song of Songs in the ESV Expository Commentary series.
R. Kent Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and former professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hughes is also a founder of the Charles Simeon Trust, which conducts expository preaching conferences throughout North America and worldwide. He serves as the series editor for the Preaching the Word commentary series and is the author or coauthor of many books. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and have four children and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
Understandest Thou What Thou Readest?
THE SONG OF SOLOMON 1:1 The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's.
UNDERSTANDEST THOU WHAT THOU READEST? is the King James version of Acts 8:30b.
Acts 8:26–39 tells the story of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. In the middle of that story, the evangelist Philip overhears this man reading from the prophet Isaiah:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
Philip asked him, "Do you understand what you are reading?" (v. 30), or as the King James Version phrases it, "Understandest thou what thou readest?" The eunuch replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?"
Like the book of Isaiah, the Song of Solomon (or the Song of Songs, as I will call it throughout this commentary) can be a difficult book to comprehend. The ninth-century Jewish rabbi Saadia likened the Song to "a lock for which the key had been lost." The nineteenth-century German Lutheran Hebraist Franz Delitzsch wrote, "The Song is the most obscure book of the Old Testament. Whatever principle of interpretation one may adopt, there always remains a number of inexplicable passages." More recently, Marvin Pope comments, "[N]o composition of comparable size in world literature has provoked and inspired such a volume and variety of comment and interpretation as the biblical Song of Songs." Daniel Estes adds, "Scholars vary widely on nearly every part of its interpretation. ... Virtually every verse presents challenges in text, philology, image, grammar or structure."
My favorite example of perspicuity angst comes from Christopher W. Mitchell, who begins his commentary, published in 2003, by reviewing the history of his study of the Song: "My fascination with the Song of Songs began in 1978 ... when I took a graduate class on its Hebrew text at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. That fascination grew under the tutelage of my doctoral advisor, Professor Michael V. Fox." Mitchell goes on to talk about how he has read commentaries and articles, preached and taught, and since 1992 worked earnestly on his 1,300-page commentary on the Song. He has worked almost thirty years on the Song, but then he writes in his preface about his desire to spend another decade to "delve more deeply into ... this most difficult book of sacred Scripture."
Scholars who disagree on much of the Song all agree it's a tough text. Thus the need for a guide to uncoil its complexities, solve its riddles, and find that lost key to unlock its door. In this first study I seek to offer some basic directions to help us navigate through the often dark (but so beautiful) waters of Solomon's Song. By means of setting four guideposts in place, I hope to open God's Word, as Philip did, and "beginning with this Scripture," teach you "the good news about Jesus" (Acts 8:35), revealing to you something of the meaning of the "mystery" of marriage (Ephesians 5:32).
Guidepost One: This Is a Song ...
We start with the first guidepost: This is a song.
Our text begins, "The Song ..." (1:1a). The significance of this simple observation is that it identifies the genre. This is not a letter, gospel, law book, prophecy, or apocalyptic revelation. This is a song. And a song (this is what I've learned after many years of study) is written to be sung. (Aren't you glad I'm your guide?)
Perhaps this Song was originally written to be sung during the seven-day marriage festival. We know that Israelite wedding celebrations lasted this long from Genesis 29:27 and Judges 14:12 and from extra-Biblical Jewish history; and we know from Jeremiah that singing was part of these festivities — "the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride" (Jeremiah 7:34).
Thus, following the lead of Duane Garrett, I envision the following scenario: Just as there were professional singers and musicians for temple worship (e.g., 2 Chronicles 29:28), so I envision professional singers and musicians poised to sing and play for these week-long weddings. And each day as the bride and groom come out of their chambers, the wine is served, the music begins, and the singers sing. The soprano starts, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine" (1:2). Then, over the sweet strum of the harp, the tenor softly serenades, "Behold, you are beautiful, my love" (1:15). And throughout the song, as the soprano and tenor call back and forth, from time to time other voices join in — like a chorus in a Greek play or a choir in an oratorio. These voices are comprised of the young maidens, "the daughters of Jerusalem" as our text calls them.
That's what I envision day after day for seven days, a perfect celebration of the new creation of man and wife as one. Whether or not you envision precisely what I envision matters little. What matters most is that you see the Song as a song, which means music and singing and implies some sort of public celebration.
This also means that this song is not primarily intended to be preached in church or taught in a classroom, but to be sung; and the fact that we don't sing it (or some paraphrase of it) is only to our shame. This is a God-inspired love song! So I suggest we start some new traditions. Let's write songs about the Song. Let's sing those songs at Christian weddings. Let's sing them during the reception. Let's sing them as the couple is whisked away to their honeymoon. Let's follow them to the hotel and serenade them for seven days! This is a song!
Furthermore, when you think song you must think poem or lyric poetry. "This is a song" is the same as saying, "This is a poem set to music." This is obvious everywhere, even in the first verse. Our song begins with a poetic device called consonance: "The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's." Do you hear the repeated s sound in the initial consonants: Song ... Songs ... Solomon. In Hebrew, a similar sh sound is heard: shir hashirim asher lishlomoh.
Herein the potential danger lies. We can read and teach the Song, forgetting or neglecting its poetry and quickly run from alliterations to applications. The cry for practical propositions beckons the preacher. It is important that we learn real-life lessons from each poetic pericope. But it is likewise important (nay, necessary) to first understand and feel the power and play of words, what only poetry can do to the human heart and imagination. For there is a difference between saying,
She walks in beauty, like the night Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
There's a difference between saying,
Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
If you turn that simple nursery rhyme into a statement, it loses its punch. Take the poetic structure out — 8 syllables, 9 syllables, 8 syllables, 9 syllables — the poetic devices — alliteration (the p-words), assonance (the o-sound), and the rhyme scheme (hot/pot ... cold/old) — and you take away the point of the poem: to make you laugh.
The Song of Songs is a song. Thus, as we study each poetic section, I will ask, what is the poetry doing? And together we will try to feel the poetry before we act upon its message. I'll ask you, in a sense (and with your senses), to smell the myrrh, frankincense, and aloes, to touch the polished ivory, to taste the wine and apples, to hear the flowing streams, to see the gazelles leaping over the mountains ... yes, to feel the flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord.
Guidepost Two: ... a Song about Human Love
That's the first guidepost: this is a song. Here's the second guidepost: this is a song about human love set in the context of marriage.
I'll deal with the second part of that sentence first. I've already said that this is a wedding song (also called an epithalamium), but let me now defend that claim. We know it's a wedding song from the cultural context — the sexual revolution of the 1960s hadn't yet reached Jerusalem in 960 B.C. In that place and time, there were only two kinds of love: truly free love between a man and a woman in marriage, and sexual slavery, which is found in adultery and fornication.
So we know this is a wedding song from the cultural context (i.e., in Israel only sex within marriage was celebrated), but also from the language of the Song itself. After the word "wedding" is used in 3:11 (as the wedding day of Solomon is used as a foil), the word "bride" is used of the young woman six times in the next seventeen verses, in chapters 4 and 5. This is the heart of the Song, the section that undoubtedly describes sexual relations. Further support for this marriage-song thesis is found in the language of a permanent pledge, such as "set me as a seal upon your heart" (8:6) or "my beloved is mine, and I am his" (2:16a; cf. 7:5; 8:4).
Thus this is a wedding song that is naturally about what weddings celebrate — human love. On the back cover of Tom Gledhill's excellent commentary we read these words:
At first reading the Song of Songs appears to be an unabashed celebration of the deeply rooted urges of physical attraction, mutual love and sexual consummation between a man and a woman. Tom Gledhill maintains that the Song of Songs is in fact just that — a literary, poetic exploration of human love that strongly affirms loyalty, beauty and sexuality in all their variety.
If you didn't know and weren't influenced by the history of the interpretation of the Song and simply read the Song as is, you would likely surmise — with phrases like "kiss me," "his right hand embraces me," "your two breasts are like two fawns," and so on — that this is erotic poetry set within the ethical limits of the marriage bed. However, the near consensus of both Jewish and Christian interpretation for at least 1,600 years was that the Song of Songs is not about human love (at all), but divine love. That is, it sings of God's love for Israel and/or Christ's love for the Church or the individual Christian soul.
The reason for this seems to be the presupposition that human sexual love is an inappropriate topic for Scripture. Nicholas of Lyra (1270–1349) could speak of the love between a bride and groom as "proper" but not the proper subject of Scripture and thus not of this Song. Such fleshly love even within marriage has, in his words, "a certain dishonorable and improper quality about it." Similarly, Theodoret of Cyrus (c. 393–c. 457) wrote that those who give the Song a "corporeal [fleshly] interpretation" have committed an "awful blasphemy."
This explains why — from Origen of Alexandria to Charles Spurgeon of London, from the medieval mystics to the American Puritans — Christians allegorized every jot and tittle of the Song, each thigh and breast and kiss and consummation. For example, one commentator said that the phrase "while the king was on his couch" (1:12) referred to "the gestation period of Christ in the womb of Mary," and the "sachet of myrrh that lies between [the bride's] breasts" (1:13) symbolizes "Christ in the soul of the believer, who lies between the great commands to love God and one's neighbor." Those allegories are orthodox (and certainly Christ centered and thus edifying), but they are also exegetically absurd and potentially theologically dangerous.
It is dangerous when Christian commentators, theologians, and pastors think there is a radical dichotomy between the sacred and the secular — praying is sacred; kissing is secular. When we believe that sexuality is the antithesis of spirituality, and that there is a great chasm between eros and agape, we are in danger of losing not only our witness to the world — "What? Your religion has nothing to say about sex except that it is bad?" — but also vital tenets of the Christian faith — the incarnation (John 1:1, 14), the bodily resurrection (1 Corinthians 6:12–20; 15), and the new heavens and new earth (2 Peter 3:13).
Following Marvin Pope's analogy, I liken the history of interpretation to Hans Christian Andersen's children's tale The Emperor's New Clothes. Just as the emperor's ministers and subjects affirmed that he was indeed wearing clothes (when he was not), interpreters kept telling themselves and their readers that the Song is solely about spiritual love (when it's not). But just as a child saw the reality of the situation — the emperor is naked! — so do we see that the characters in the Song are naked. They are naked and unashamed. And today we should share their lack of shame. For the Song is a song that Adam could have sung in the garden when Eve arose miraculously from his side; and it remains a song that we can and should sing in the bedroom, the church, and the marketplace of ideas.
Don't get me wrong here. Its lyrics about tasting and touching are "candid but not crude." They are not prudish, but neither are they immodest. Thus, they are far removed from the sexual anarchy and idiocy of our Top 40 music, as well as the crass love poetry of the ancient Near East. The Song has this beautiful balance: it has adult content, but it is adolescent appropriate. It is not X-rated; it is rated PG — parental (and pastoral) guidance recommended. This Song guides us to see with Scriptural sensibilities that the earth is crammed with Heaven, that the way of a man with a woman is "too wonderful" (Proverbs 30:18, 19), and that marriage is not simply a concession to the necessity of procreation but an affirmation of the beauty, chastity, and sacredness of human love. Amen and amen.
This is a song about human love set in the context of marriage. There you have it. I've pounded that second (sadly necessary) guidepost into place.
Guidepost Three: ... Found in the Bible
With our second guidepost in place, let me quickly add the third lest we get off course. Just because I think this Song is about human love does not mean I think a-theologically about it, that it has nothing to say about God's love for us or our love for God.
This is not an English poem scribbled on the New York City subway. It is a Hebrew poem, and there is no Hebrew literature of this era that is nonreligious. The Song is constructed of imagery that borrows heavily from the rest of the Old Testament. For example, when we read the garden imagery in 4:12 — 5:1, it's right and natural for us to think of Eden; or when we read about the theme of intoxicating love in 1:2, the command of Proverbs 5:19 to be "intoxicated always in her [a wife's] love" ought to come to mind. This Song of Scripture is saturated with other Scriptural language.
The Song of Songs uses Hebrew words, Hebrew names, Hebrew places, and Hebrew poetic devices and has a Hebrew author — "The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's" (1:1). That last word — "Solomon's" — sets this Song within a historical and theological context. So here's the third guidepost: This is a song about human love set in the context of marriage that is found in the Bible. What I mean is that the Song of Songs cannot be read properly if it is read outside of its canonical context. We must read its positive marriage imagery in contrast to Israel's unfaithfulness as depicted in the prophets — that while God rejoices over his people as "the bridegroom rejoices over the bride" (Isaiah 62:5), Israel spoils the honeymoon with her spiritual promiscuity and adultery: see the story of Hosea, and read the forthright language of Ezekiel (16:7, 8), Jeremiah (2:2, 19, 20), and Isaiah (54:5–8). And whether we think there are no allusions or a thousand allusions to the Song in the New Testament, we must read it in light of the person and work of Jesus, the very compass of the Christian canon, the one whom John the Baptist calls "the bridegroom" (John 3:29; cf. Matthew 9:14, 15) and Paul our "one husband" (2 Corinthians 11:2), the one whose kingdom and consummation is like a wedding feast (Matthew 22:2; Revelation 19:7).
The Song is a song about human love set in the context of marriage that is found in the Bible, and the Bible has as its ultimate reference point Jesus — his birth, life, teachings, miracles, sufferings, death, resurrection, ascension, mediation, and return.
Perhaps an illustration will help you see what I'm saying. If you were to read C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, and you didn't know that Lewis was a Christian and used Christian symbolism and parts of the plot of the Bible, then you might never see Aslan, who dies and rises and rules, as a Christ-figure. You might just think he's a lion who talks, a neat character in a nice children's tale. But those who know something about the author and his intentions see more of what he wanted his readers to see — the story beneath the story. You see, the story of Jesus opens our eyes to the subtle details of those Narnian adventures.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Song of Solomon"
Copyright © 2012 Douglas Sean O'Donnell.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Word to Those Who Preach the Word 11
1 Understandest Thou What Thou Readest? (1:1) 15
2 Better Than Wine (1:2-4) 27
3 The Metaphors and Metamorphosis of Loving Words (1:5-2:7) 41
4 The Voices of Spring (2:8-17) 53
5 Greater Than Solomon (3:1-11) 65
6 A Love Feast in the Beautiful Garden (4:1-5:1) 75
7 A Reprieve and Return to Eden (5:2-6:3) 85
8 How Beautiful! (6:4-8:4) 97
9 The Climax (8:5-7) 111
10 Virginity and Eschatology (8:8-14) 123
Scripture Index 169
General Index 177
Index of Sermon Illustrations 181
What People are Saying About This
“Doug O’Donnell is becoming one of the most edifying pastors of our time. I heartily recommend this wise and winsome set of comments on a biblical book beloved by many Christians through the ages but sorely neglected in the present. May God use this commentary to renew the courage of pastors in preaching the Song of Solomon once again.”
Douglas A. Sweeney,Distinguished Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought; Director, Jonathan Edwards Center, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
“The wisest man this side of the incarnate Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit, on a topic that always grabs attention, in poetry, in the Biblecould it get any better than the Song of Songs? You won't want to miss Doug O’Donnell’s exposition of the most sublime song.”
James M. Hamilton Jr.,Professor of Biblical Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; author, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment
“Song of Solomon is a delicate portion of Scripture, and Christians in our sex-crazed culture desperately need a biblical perspective on love and intimacy. Doug O’Donnell is a thoughtful, knowledgeable, reliable guide to this seldom-preached book. O’Donnell is himself a poet and scholar, sensitive to both the art and academic rigors of Solomon’s Song. He hits the mark of being exegetically accurate, thoroughly canonical, and boldly Christological.”
James A. Johnston, Senior Pastor, Tulsa Bible Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma
“These days the Song of Solomon is often treated on the one hand as merely a manual of practical teaching about sex and relationships that says nothing about Christ or, on the other hand, as a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church that says nothing to the marriages of ordinary men and women. Doug O’Donnell has given us a masterful exposition that unfolds the book’s very real wisdom for human relationships in a way that constantly and without allegory points us to the gospel. Highly recommended!”
Iain M. Duguid,Professor of Old Testament and Dean of Online Learning, Westminster Theological Seminary; author, Song of Songs (Reformed Expository Commentary)
“It is a rare commentary that stirs the emotions. But then it makes sense that a commentary that ably presents the Song of Solomon would lead the reader not only to think deeply, but also to feel deeply and to worship whole-heartedly. O’Donnell’s insights are fresh, clear, and personal, equipping readers to communicate the love of Christ for his bride from this ancient book in a compelling way.”
Nancy Guthrie, author, Even Better than Eden: Nine Ways the Bible’s Story Changes Everything about Your Story
“Our culture treats sex as an idol and the church often treats it as a taboo, rarely talking about it. This situation is a formula for disaster. We need more preaching and teaching in our churches, and the Song of Songs is an essential biblical resource that God has given us to lead us toward a godly theology and holy practice of sexuality. Doug O’Donnell has given us a profound, rich, and witty reflection on the Song that will encourage depth of understanding and motivation for right thinking and behavior. I recommend this book enthusiastically for everyone, but particularly on those who preach and teach the book in a church context.”
Tremper Longman III, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies, Westmont College; author, Confronting Old Testament Controversies
“Doug O’Donnell unfolds the Song of Solomon with personal and pastoral delightand with attention to the poetic text and the biblical context. Into his exposition are woven warm-hearted exhortations, rich literary allusions, and a great deal of wit. This volume helps us celebrate the Bible’s celebration of married love.”
Kathleen Nielson,author; speaker; Senior Adviser, The Gospel Coalition
“Simply brilliant! This is the book on the Song of Solomon I’ve been waiting forfunny, moving, powerful, provocative, rigorously faithful to the text, and utterly Christ-centered. Doug O’Donnell explains and applies this trickiest of books in a way which is always fresh, responsible, and captivating. As you read, you will be delighted and deeply challenged, and you will gasp at the incredible intimacy which God gives to his people, both in marriage and in knowing him forever. I know of no more helpful work on the Song of Solomon.”
J. Gary Millar, Principal, Queensland Theological College, Australia; author, Calling on the Name of the Lord and Now Choose Life; coauthor, Saving Eutychus
“How absolutely refreshing, challenging, and affirming is Pastor O’Donnell’s in-depth study of this love songthis Middle Eastern, centuries-old, wedding song celebrating the truly free love between a man and a woman in marriage. It is God’s provision to sustain loving marriages and renew loveless ones. This Song was written to give wisdom to the unmarried to wait and to give the married the wisdom to warm up to each other again and again. Pastor O’Donnell lays down his own soul and writes in places, not only expositorily but also experientially, and the reader gasps. Here is a man who is as tender and as bold as the author of the Song of Songs. So with testimony and Biblical insight we are wonderfully led to the gospel, to God-breathed love that changes everything.”
Wendell Hawley, Pastor Emeritus, College Church, Wheaton, Illinois; author, A Pastor Prays for His People
“Douglas O’Donnell has a special gift in integrating careful exegesis, poetic sensitivity, theological reflection, and relevant application, all seasoned with vivid language and winsome humor. His commentary on the Song of Solomon opens up the richness of this delightful book, which unfortunately is too little preached and too little understood today.”
Daniel J. Estes, Distinguished Professor of Old Testament, Cedarville University