A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by G. T. Tran
Summary of Content
Preaching the Song of Solomon is challenging, and Douglas Sean O’Donnell is not hesitant to acknowledge that. In his commentary, The Song of Solomon: An Invitation to Intimacy, O’Donnell perceptively asks, “[H]ow does one preach through a book in which every section raises structural questions, every phrase has philological complexities, and every verse contains metaphors that leap like seven young stags in seven different directions (metaphorically speaking, of course)?” (13).
O’Donnell divides the Song into ten sermonic units which form the ten chapters of the commentary. In chapter 1, O’Donnell briefly covers background issues and offers some principles for interpreting the Song. He subscribes to Solomonic authorship and takes the Song to be written in Solomon’s old age as an act of contrition (23). It was probably sung during a seven-day wedding feast by professional singers and musicians (16-17).
Further, O’Donnell provides four guideposts for reading the Song. He notes that the Song is 1) a song, 2) about human love, 3) found in the Bible, 4) written to give us wisdom (25). Since the Song is a song, its message must be felt (17-18). In addition, although the book talks about human love, its canonical placement means that it also has something to say about God’s love for us and vice versa (21). In fact, later in the commentary, O’Donnell explains that his attempt to make connections between the Song and Christ is neither allegorical (37) nor typological (71) but rather thematic (37, 71). This methodology is based on Eph 5:32 and other passages, such as Heb 1:8-9 (37). Moreover, while the Song’s intended audience includes the married, the primary audience is the unmarried (esp. young women) (24-25). Thus, the Song’s wisdom is twofold. On the one hand, it exhorts the unmarried to wait for marriage, and on the other hand, it admonishes the married to continue warming up their love for each other (25).
Having made these remarks on Song 1:1 in the first chapter, chapters 2-10 exposit and apply the rest of the Song (1:2—8:14).
Evaluation of Content
This commentary is commendable for three reasons. First, O’Donnell rightly rejects the allegorical approach to the Song which plagues the history of interpretation. That hermeneutic is influenced by a “Neo-Platonic dualism” which distorts the Song’s message (98). His evaluation is right on: “There is no dichotomy between spirituality and sexuality, between loving God with heart and soul and loving one’s wife or husband with heart and flesh” (99).
Second, the commentary is well-researched. O’Donnell has done his exegetical homework. In fact, even though the commentary section (chaps. 1-10) runs approximately 120 pages long, the Notes section takes up about 36 pages, which amounts to almost a third of the commentary’s length. These extensive notes, said O’Donnell, were necessary “both to explain more fully how and why I reached my conclusions and to acknowledge the scholars whose shoulders I gratefully and gleefully climbed upon to complete this work” (13).
Third, the commentary provides many thoughtful reflections and practical applications. For example, commenting on the woman’s desire for her beloved in Song 1:2-4, O’Donnell points out that both character and chemistry matter in love, and it is foolish to forgo one for the other (34-35). Further, regarding the couple’s mutual words of praise (1:5—2:7), O’Donnell encourages spouses to complement one another (47-49). Lastly, I find the connection between virginity and eschatology intriguing (chap. 10). What both have in common is waiting (132). Just as the unmarried waits for marriage, the church is now waiting for the marriage of the Lamb (132).
At the same time, I have two critiques, one of which is the imbalanced presentation of the explanation of the text and its application. The application or reflection portion tends to dominate each chapter while the explanation often receives a brief treatment. To be fair, O’Donnell supplies many exegetical notes in the endnotes, but perhaps he could have incorporated more of that into the main section of the commentary. Doing so would help the reader better grasp the text’s meaning before diving into its application or thinking about its connection to Christ.
The second critique has to do with O’Donnell’s assessment of the Song’s climax. He claims that 8:5-7 is the book’s climax. However, earlier in the commentary, O’Donnell already provides ample evidence arguing that the Song’s center is the couple’s wedding which covers 4:1—5:1 (80). Unless he insists on a distinction between the book’s center and its climax, this assessment may confuse the reader.
Overall, these critiques are minor compared to the contribution O’Donnell makes in this commentary. Those wishing to get acquainted with the Song as well as those needing a jump-start to preach this book will find O’Donnell’s commentary helpful. For these reasons, I recommend the book.
G. T. Tran
Buy the books
THE SONG OF SOLOMON: AN INVITATION TO INTIMACY, by Douglas Sean O’Donnell