Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. The NIV Application Commentary

By Iain Provan
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2001). 399 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
16.2 (Fall 2005) : 347-349

As in all the NIV Application Commentary series, the base text is the NIV and the treatment of each section of the text follows the general categories of “Original Meaning,” “Bridging Contexts,” and “Contemporary Significance.” The format is practical and user friendly. Provan is currently Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is also an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland.

The commentator rejects the traditional view of Solomonic authorship for both Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Provan assumes (with little demonstration or discussion) that the Hebrew of both books is post-exilic (26, 236). He ignores Daniel C. Fredericks’ Qoheleth’s Language: Re-evaluating Its Nature and Date (Edwin Mellen Press, 1988) that demonstrates a pre-exilic date for the Hebrew of Ecclesiastes.

Qoheleth’s words in the Book of Ecclesiastes are supposedly passed on by his epilogist (50, 226, 229). This editorial epilogist is the author or writer, while Qoheleth is the speaker (26). Qoheleth “explores reality ‘as if’ he were Solomon” (27). His imagination is vivid enough to place himself into a variety of times and situations in order to communicate his message (28). Therefore, the author conspires literarily with the speaker to project “the fiction of the opening chapters—that Qohelet (whoever or whatever this is) was ‘son of David, king in Jerusalem’” (28-29, 67).

Provan correctly disassociates himself from NIV’s translation of hebel as “meaningless” (51-53). Instead, he interprets hebel contextually in each occurrence, “stressing the ephemerality of existence or its elusiveness and resistance to intellectual and physical control” (57). Textual and exegetical decisions throughout the commentary on Ecclesiastes are normally sound and documented by at least one or two sources to permit additional research.

In the Ecclesiastes section of the commentary, readers will find the author’s keen insight informative and his interaction with current culture stimulating. Citations from literature and film alike illuminate his applications. His writing style is instructional and pleasant, challenging and entertaining. Pastors and teachers alike will find the wealth of both exegetical and illustrative material extremely helpful in arriving at an understanding of the text of Ecclesiastes that can be communicated to either the congregation or the classroom.

In his commentary on the Song of Songs, Provan takes the love triangle viewpoint (246). Accordingly, he makes Solomon the villain who has forced his attentions upon the maiden whose love is for another (246-47). He also concludes that the maiden had been victimized by “the anger of the men in her family” (267). Indeed, Provan treats the Song of Songs as an anti-chauvinistic drama that sometimes sounds like he has adopted radical feminist exegesis (e.g., “as feminist theologians have pointed out, when God is male, the male tends to be god,” 277). Support he garners from the writings of Phyllis Trible confirms this tendency (247 n. 15, 273 n. 15).

Through tortured exegesis and prejudicial treatment of the text, he accuses the OT legal tradition of fostering oppression and abuse of women (272, 278). His interpretation of 3:6-11 turns the royal wedding procession into a metaphorical satire depicting Solomon’s bed riding “roughshod over the daughters of Jerusalem, on the road paved with sexual acts” (303). A sacrificial fem ale victim rises from Solomon’s bed “in the way that smoke rises up into the sky when sacrifices are burnt” (303). As if that were not enough, Provan concludes that this love triangle involves the maiden’s public marriage to Solomon (under coercion) and, at the same time, her carrying on a physical relationship with her lover (321-22). Provan approves of that second relationship as “in all but legal reality a marriage” (324).

Thus, this volume is representative of two distinctly different commentaries. Careful exegesis characterizes the treatment of Ecclesiastes while an uncontrolled eisegesis characterizes the commentary on the Song of Songs. The former is commended to the readers of this review, with but a caution concerning Provan’s view of its authorship and date. The latter commentary is not without some value (e.g., Provan’s frank and open discussion of a Christian view of sexuality that permeates every section), but its exegesis as well as its application is more often flawed than not.