28 January 2014

Book review — Song of Songs: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, by A. Boyd Luter

by Dan Phillips

(Logos Bible Software, 2013)

Logos' Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series continues to churn out worthwhile volumes. I reviewed the first volume by Gary Derickson first, then the commentary on James by Will Varner. Refer to the Derickson review to understand the aim and focus of this series. I continue to appreciate both the design of the series and the structure of each volume.

The author, A. Boyd Luter, is Adjunct Online Professor of New Testament at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He has already written books on Ruth, Esther, preaching and other matters, as well as scholarly articles in periodicals such as BibSac and JETS.

Now to the part where I confess my weakness. Normally, when I review a commentary, I've already used some or many on that particular book. Not in this case. Song of Songs is a topic on which I'm not agnostic, but am unsettled. I could claim a position if you held a gun to a loved one's head, but once you eased off the trigger, I'd acknowledge others as having value, and admit indecision.

So I read this, my maiden voyage (if you'll pardon the minor pun) in the hopes that it would settle everything everything for me. Did it? Let's see.

Luter's tone is mature and reasonable throughout. He isn't in excited pursuit of any strange theory, and has no interest in bringing in readers with lurid discourses on erotic particulars. In fact if anything he's a bit (just a bit!) squeamish on the topic; that's all right, since others have clearly made up for that hesitance.

As to the topic of the Song, Luter says:
the overall movement of this ancient “love song” is from the early longings and expressions of affection of a young couple to their wedding day and night, then through the continuing growth of their relationship in the face of various problems that could easily derail their passionate love.
Very helpfully (and persuasively), Luter sees the book as composed of seven sections in chiastic structure. The first three and the last three frame the central section, which focuses on the wedding day and night. He also notes seven uses of the name "Solomon": two at the beginning, two at the end, and three in the middle.

As to authorship and date, Luter provides a good section on dating by language, in which he issues an overdue challenge to the old evolutionary model of the development of the Heb language, suggesting that so-called “classical” and “colloquial” Hebrew, which included extensive use of Aramaisms, developed side-by-side." He mounts an aggressive, positive case for Solomonic dating. He notes and responds to the various challenges to this position.

As to the opening words, Luter grants the wording could mean it was composed for or in the honor of Solomon, but then reminds that the goal of exegesis is finding the most likely meaning, not just possible meanings — and "the most natural meaning of 1:1 is certainly that Solomon is the author of the Song of Songs."

If you're like me, the big issue to you is how Solomon is in any way qualified to write this book. A tome titled "On the Virtue of Selfless Truthfulness In All Things" and written by Bill Clinton would receive nothing but derision and mockery, and rightly so. How is this different? And anyway, what is the Song actually about? King Solomon and one woman? Other figures? Christ and the church? Yahweh and Israel? Celebrity bloggers and hit-count?

Luter faces the question (well, most of it) squarely and at some length, though frankly I wished the section was longer and dealt more fully with objections. Here's the core of his response on the issue of Solomon's fitness:
    At this point, consideration of one of Solomon’s more widely accepted compositions, Prov 1–9, will be helpful in two respects: 1) the wisdom laid out there for his son to follow (e.g., 1:8; 2:1; 3:1) was clearly not followed by Solomon’s son Rehoboam, whose behavior in 1 Kgs 12:1–17 reflects anything but the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, and which likely is at least partly attributable to Solomon’s parenting; and 2) his own recorded wisdom in regard to the exclusivity of marriage in Prov 5:15–20 was followed only partially. There is no evidence that Solomon ever went after prostitutes (5:20), though he apparently married virtually any and all women he desired, whether for pleasure (1 Kgs 11:2) or political advantage (e.g., 3:1; 11:3–8).
    The key point here is that it was not necessary for a biblical author to be an exemplary figure with regard to the subject matter of the book in question. Under the dynamics of divine inspiration stated and implied in 2 Pet 1:21, the Holy Spirit sovereignly chose particular biblical authors and guided what was said. Relevant examples are Peter, who denied Christ three times, and Paul, who described himself as “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an arrogant man” (1 Tim 1:13). In addition, the Spirit chose David, the author of many of the psalms, in spite of his adultery and blood-guiltiness (2 Sam 11–12; Pss 32, 51).
    The Lord chooses whom He will—sometimes irrespective of what many contemporary readers would consider to be major lifestyle blind spots—to accomplish what He wills. It appears He did exactly that with the flaws of character and practice of Solomon in his authoring of the Song of Songs.
Luter argues that the book was framed and written earlier in Solomon's life, during a possibly three-year coregency w/David, allowing for the freedom of movement the Song seems to reflect. Still, he thinks it unlikely that the Song depicts Solomon's first marriage.  There were at least two marriages during coregency. First-mentioned marriage, to Naamah the Ammonite, was probably political.

As to the purpose of the Song, the book
was intentionally crafted to portray God’s perspective on the romantic and sexual love between a man and woman. No other extended treatment of this subject, introduced as early in Scripture as the conclusion of the creation accounts (Gen 2:24–25) as a major aspect of man and woman coming together in marriage, is found elsewhere in the whole of Scripture. That is indeed a worthy purpose for the composition of the Song of Songs.
He notes that the "Interpretation of the Song of Songs is more varied than that of any other book in the biblical canon, other than possibly Revelation." Indeed. Luter alludes to "very long history of fanciful allegorical and blushing typological approaches," then discusses "The five major interpretive approaches to the Song of Songs," which "are the allegorical, typological, dramatic, cultic, and literal/natural." Each is explained, documented, discussed in turn. He concludes in favor of a consistently literal/natural approach. The book has many echoes of Gen 2–3 in the Song of Songs, as well important aspects of Gen 1 and Gen 4, and part of Gen 3 before the curse in 3:16, which he says have not received significant relevant discussion to this point.

Back to structure, Luter's most persuaded by a "grand chiasm" adapted from David Dorsey:

    A (1:1–2:7) Opening words of mutual love and desire
         B (2:8–17) The young man’s invitation to join him in the countryside
         C (3:1–5) The young woman’s first nighttime search for the young man
             D (3:6–5:1) Their wedding day and night
         C′ (5:2–7:11 [ET 7:10]) The young woman’s second nighttime search for the young man
         B′ (7:12 [ET 7:11]–8:4) The young woman’s invitation to join her in the countryside
    A′ (8:5–14) Closing words of mutual love and desire

In addition to this chiastic structure of seven sections, each structure itself is internally chiastic. (Jim Hamilton will love this book!)

On theology of love in the book:
the overarching theological focus of the Song is love and desire that has these characteristics: it is headed toward marriage (1:2–3:5), it involves making a very public commitment and having a very private consummation (3:6–5:1), and it includes working through the “growing pains” of a marriage relationship—including “baggage” brought into the marriage and tensions which develop within the marital bond (5:2–8:14).
   The theology of the Song of Songs sets forth a marriage-related love. Also, it is important to observe that the Song does so while honestly depicting the full bloom of youthful infatuation (Song 1–2), against the dark backdrop of the selfishness (5:2–4) and disappointment (5:5–8) of “real life,” life worked out against the shadowy unavoidable prospect of death (8:6)—in other words, love in a fallen world!
On that, a further and very interesting note:
    At this point, a careful consideration of Song 6:8–9 serves to reinforce and expand that general point. There, the contrast that is drawn between “the one” (the Shulammite) and the women (queens/concubines/young women) “without number”111 may well have affinities to another part of Gen 1–3. If Genesis 2:24–25 is almost certainly antecedent “marriage theology” for the Song of Songs, what about the immediately preceding verses: Gen 2:18–23? Is it stretching things to hear an echo of Adam going through the process of moving from his aloneness (2:18) to being introduced to his exact counterpart (2:21–23), against the backdrop of the differentiation that came from naming all the animals (2:19–20), in Solomon proclaiming the Shulammite—whom he may have given the name of his exact counterpart (Song 7:1) for the purpose of the Song—as “the one” (6:9) against the backdrop of women “without number” (6:8)? If nothing else, in both cases Adam and Solomon went through a process to come to their points of insight and appreciation for the counterparts Yahweh provided them.
I give the lion's share of this review to those general features since I consider them most important, and I think readers will agree. I also learned a lot of interesting particulars; for instance, I hadn't noticed a feature of the names "Solomon" and "Shulamith":
Solomon and Shulamith, likely the male and female versions of the same name, may echo “man” and “woman” in Gen 2:23 as being perhaps as close to the ideal human couple that there have been since the fall in the poetic depiction of the Song of Songs.
His commentary is detailed and frequently studded with references to the literature and to modern writers. I often wished, nonetheless, for more. For instance, on 8:6, which he renders as "a flame of Yahweh," this is his comment in a footnote:
It remains lexically unclear whether the ending of שַׁלְהֶ֥בֶתְיָֽה (i.e., -yah) should be understood as an intensive (“most powerful flame”) or as “a superlative formed with the divine name” (“flame of Yah” [Estes, 407]).
Yet he doesn't really discuss or defend his translation very much beyond that.

I felt this a few times, as in his interpretations of 8:4 and 9 and elsewhere, where he doesn't fully explain or defend his view (to my mind). But that is not at all the rule, as Luter often notes and comments on points of syntax and lexicography, even relating to geography, as well as flora and fauna of the time.

The book is full of helpful tables and charts. Also, I noted the fewest typos of any EEC volume I've read so far, so something is improving in the editorial process!

In his final words of commentary, Luter gives what he thinks the book is about:
    This is how the Song of Songs ends: from 8:6–7 forward, the closing section paints a picture of silence where commitment needed to be by the man (8:6–7). This created an emotional and spiritual vacuum that was filled by the growing perception of domination (8:11–12) and distanced disenchantment (8:10, 13) on the part of the woman. In spite of all this, the desire for each other they both had exhibited through the book continued to the end (8:14).
    There it is: a struggle of domination and desire. In the end, the picture of the tension between wives and husbands portrayed in Gen 3:16 goes on, because the ongoing theological reality is that their mutual love must be played out in a fallen world.
CONCLUSION: do I recommend the commentary? Yes. Will I use it if I ever teach the book? Absolutely, it will be a first point of reference. Did it answer all my questions satisfactorily. No. But it made a great contribution towards an eventual conclusion.

AFTERWORD: I accidentally mis-typed the title at one point as "Song of Snogs." British readers would have had a merry time over that.

Dan Phillips's signature

3 comments:

Alex Philip said...

Dan, how would Luter suggest a preacher point to Christ from this book of the Bible?

Kerry James Allen said...

Alex, Spurgeon's book "The most holy place" contains the majority of the no less than 63 sermons he preached from the Song.

The book is fairly hard to find in print form but can be accessed in Logos or all of the sermons at Spurgeongems.org.

Reading them is a rich spiritual feast that I would highly recommend.

Greg Lawhorn said...

Boyd was a professor of mine in 1991 at the Talbot School of Theology. He taught a class on Daniel and Revelation, with a focus to preaching those books with present, not simply future, application. He always struck me as a man who believes that the Word of God changes us today in very powerful ways.