Chances are you have never been part of an extended study of the Old Testament book, The Song of Solomon. If you have, you’re the exception. And what is that book all about anyway?
Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, executive editor here at Books At a Glance, and today we’re talking to Iain Duguid, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary and author of the new Reformed Expository Commentary on the Song of Songs.
Dr. Duguid, welcome! And thanks for talking to us today.
Thank you for having me.
First, just explain for us the title of this biblical book, Song of Songs. Most of us are more familiar with the title Song of Solomon. What is the significance of this expression and title, “Song of Songs”?
Song of Songs is actually what the Hebrew text itself calls it and the construction “song of songs” is a superlative in Hebrew just like the “holy of holies” is the most holy place and the “Lord of lords” is the Lord of all lords. So the “Song of Songs” titles this the greatest of all songs. So that should immediately whet our appetite for this because this is going to be good stuff.
What is the song all about? Who are the main characters?
Okay, here’s where actually during my research I’ve shifted my understanding of the Song as I came to get into it because as I entered it I assumed, along with many people, that the hero of the Song was Solomon and there was a story of Solomon’s love for young woman. But the more I studied the Song, and the more I studied the rest of Scriptures the more confusing that appears. Because as you look at Solomon and the rest of the Bible, he would be a very odd model to pick as the ideal figure for somebody who shows us what lifelong, unique, committed, one to one marriage is like. When we see Solomon in I Kings, particularly in chapter 11 we see him as a man who married hundreds of women, many of them foreigners. Many of them were married in a desire to build political and economical stability through treaties, not love. And I said I started to read the song and read some of the other research that has been done on the song, I came to realize that actually the Solomonic model of love is really a foil in the song for what true love looks like. Solomon has his vineyard as he tells us in chapter 8 at a place called Baal-hamon which literally translated means “the lord or master of a crowd,” which is a pretty good description of the way Solomon goes about marriage. He has this vast crowd of wives. But in contrast the woman in the song says, “My vineyard is my own and I give it uniquely to the one I love.” So I think you have a contrast here between a young couple who are genuinely in love and the contrast between what true love, true, unique, committed and monogamous love looks like. In the Solomonic model of love which treats love and marriage as a means to some other end whether that’s political or economic or some other end.
How has the song generally been understood through the history of the church? And today? How do you position yourself in all of this?
In the history of the church, the most common method of interpreting the song has been allegorically. That is, taking it as a figurative description of the relationship of the Lord and his people in Jewish circles, Christ and his church in Christian circles. I think this has been derived largely by a good desire which is the desire to find Christ in the Old Testament and not quite knowing how to find Christ other than making this leap for what the song appears to be about, which is a human love relationship, into talking about Christ.
More recent scholarship has tended to go in the opposite direction and to see it as purely a description of human love. Sometimes it’s gone equally astray from the text. I mean there have been evangelicals who have got all kinds of dating advice and tips out of it that’s really stretching the text as much as any of the early fathers ever did. But I think if you read the song as part of wisdom literature, which is where I think it fits, like Proverbs 5 tells husbands to delight in the wife of their youth and to enjoy the physical pleasures that go with that, then there are ways where you can appropriately get to Christ. Who, if this is going to be the song of songs, it has to tell us something, surely, about God’s love for his people but in a different way. And the way that you get that is that if the song depicts this perfect love relationship, it is going to convict all of us, indirectly, of our sin and failure. Whether we were married or single or widowed or divorced, as we look at this relationship we can see ways in which we have failed and have fallen short. And that should convict us of sin.
And as it does so it should therefore drive us to Christ who is the perfect husband, the one who is always loved us in the ways that we have failed to love our spouses, the ways we have failed to love those around us, the ways we have misused love to try to pursue or procure other things. So I think he gets us to Christ and to the gospel but in a way that does justice and reflects appropriately the meaning of the text in its original context without having to stretch it as the early church fathers did to the point where the sachet of myrrh lying between the two breasts of the beloved is Christ coming between the two testaments, Old and New. That just stretches belief. That’s not what the writer had in mind.
Is there a way to know what the author himself had in mind beyond the immediate? Did he see the Love of God for his people? The love of Christ for his church?
I think, again putting it in the context of wisdom, which means that we put it in the context of the covenantal faith. You can’t understand the book of Proverbs without Proverbs 1:7 the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And so you can’t understand the Song of Songs without that fundamental overarching commitment – the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the working out of wisdom involves all kinds of practical realities. If I’m fearing the Lord, then it means that sometimes I need to give a soft answer turns away wrath and remember that harsh words stir up strife. Covenantal wisdom is life lived in the light of our relationship with God. And so I think the original author certainly had in view the reality that the Lord is the perfect husband of his people, and that’s such a prominent motif throughout the Old Testament.
It’s not as if Paul invented that in Ephesians. So that certainly the background of his mind and the Lord is a forgiving God. But he also wanted to teach us something about human relationships. We’re called as husbands to live with our wives in an understanding manner. Well, what does that look like? What does it mean, actually, to live with our wives in an understanding manner? What are the challenges for wives and loving their husbands well? You see that in the scenes of searching where the wife shuts her husband out and he goes away and then she starts running to the town looking for him. No I don’t think we’re intended to view that as a literal description of something that actually happened. I think it’s a dream sequence, but it’s a dream that relates to that. What a married couple has never had a fight that ended up with one of them walking away and the other one feeling, “have I lost them forever?” And of course once we start to think about that, that also starts to make us grateful for the fact that when we behave that way to the Lord he does not walk away and leave us forever. He is forever faithful to us. He is out there searching for us not waiting for us to go searching for him.
Is there a way to summarize the message of the Song for Christians today?
Yes, I think it has something very profound to teach us about marriage and I summarize it using some words actually from a quote Bruce Lee, the master of martial arts of all people. He says, “love is like friendship caught on fire. In the beginning, a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce but still only light and flickering. As love grows older our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep burning and unquenchable.” And so this image of love as friendship on fire as what marriage is intended to be is countercultural both in the culture at large, but also for many of us in the church. I think many of us in the church have kind of settled into the view of marriage that Golde and Tevya have in Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye says to his wife, Golde, “Do you love me?” She says, “For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, I’ve cooked your meals, I’ve cleaned your house, I’ve shared your bed, I’ve milked your cow; after 25 years why talk about love now?” So we settle into this view of marriage as shared chores.
And the Song of Songs says, “No, marriage is supposed to be friendship on fire.” There’s that element of fire, of flame that is intended to characterize what married love looks like. Which blows away our culture. Our culture cannot imagine the combination of marriage and passion. You look at Hollywood movies. There’s lots of passion there but it’s not with married people. The implication is that if you want passion you have to leave marriage behind. Passion is for relationships outside of marriage. The song gives us this remarkable picture of a couple who are passionately in love with each other, but it’s not just physical, it’s much more profound than that. It’s a very deep and rich friendship and relationship that grows and grows and leaves you challenged at the end that love is as strong as death. Does that mean that death is the end of love? That’s where the gospel says that there is a love that lasts beyond even physical death. The end of the best love story is not simply “and he died, and she put flowers on his grave.” There’s a relationship that goes on and on and on beyond that.
Tell us about your own experience preaching or teaching through the Song of Solomon. And can you give some advice to a preacher who is considering making his way through this book for the first time?
It took me a long time to work up to it. I was a bit afraid of it, I assume because that’s what everybody told me it was full of all of this erotic stuff. Which is actually a misconception. The song is very restrained in the way it depicts sex and sexuality. It talks about sex but it does so in a way that’s very cautious, very modest. So I spent quite a while studying it and discovered that while there were some fairly good academic resources, I didn’t find a lot to help preachers on the subject. So part of my passion for writing these commentaries is to provide some help for preachers.
I preached it first in Grove City. Our church was full of college students, so that certainly didn’t hurt our attendance amongst college students. They wanted to come and hear more about this. But I think people found it a very helpful series. Wisdom literature is where the rubber meets the road for people. This is real life. Relationships is a huge area of both joy and sorrow and challenge for our people, and how are they to navigate that? How are they to negotiate that? People are out buying books on Amazon to try and help them, you know, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. All the best sellers are about wisdom literature topics. And in the process they are missing out on much of what the Bible has to say. And if we let our people’s view of wisdom be shaped by our culture instead of by the Bible then we’re going to reap the consequences of that, which is not going to be pretty.
So I would really encourage people to tackle this book; to wrestle with it; to see what it says to married people, to single people. There’s a strong cautionary note in the Song of Songs. Don’t stir up love too soon. How different is that from a culture that has slow dancing at Valentine’s Day events for five-year-olds? We’re a culture that wants to stir up love at the earliest possible moment for anybody and everybody. The Song says be careful, love is powerful; don’t put yourself in those kind of contexts. So there’s all kinds of very practical teaching, but again it’s constantly, because of this primary metaphor of Christ’s relationship with the church as our perfect husband, it’s constantly calling us back to the reality that even though we have all failed in these relationships and in the way we view love, God has loved us in Christ and he has perfectly lived out what the song demands of us. He gives us that righteousness is a free gift. And that’s what enables us to be welcomed into this loving relationship with God.
This is not your first commentary on Solomon’s Song – can you describe this new one for us just in broad overview? How does it differ from your first Song of Solomon commentary? What audience do you have in mind?
Yes, I have two separate commentaries. There’s the Tyndale Old Testament commentary series which is more on the academic side. So that’s more of an academic assessment of the song and interacts more with academic materials. Whereas the Reformed Expositor commentary is a series of sermons. So this commentary is more accessible to laypeople. It works out in more detail what preaching it would actually look like so hopefully more helpful therefore in that regard to preachers. It takes all of the academic work I did in the first book and puts it into the pulpit context. So it’s very accessible and anybody could read this.
We’re talking to Dr. Iain Duguid, author of the new Reformed Expository Commentary on the book of Song of Solomon. We encourage you to check it out and – finally! – learn what this Old Testament book is all about.
Dr. Duguid, thanks for talking to us.
Thank you very much.
Buy the books
Song of Songs (Reformed Expository Commentary)