Song of Songs. Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms

By Richard S. Hess
Grand Rapids : Baker (2005). 285 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
20.1 (Spring 2009) : 108-109

The commentary series of which this volume is a part targets primarily the needs of “scholars, ministers, seminary students, and Bible study leaders” with clergy and seminary students most in mind (8). It is confined to Psalms (3 vols. by John Goldingay), Proverbs (by Tremper Longman III), Song of Songs (by Richard S. Hess), Job, and Ecclesiastes. Hess is Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies at Denver Seminary (1997-present).

Preachers characteristically ignore or avoid one Bible book in the pulpit—the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon or Canticles). The number of good commentaries available today should encourage more attention for this unique and beautiful poetic book. Like the other volumes in this series, Hess’s commentary is purposely more exegetical than expositional. Compared with other good commentaries, this one is generally lengthier, more up-to-date, and more detailed and scholarly. An exception would be Tremper Longman’s commentary in the New International Commentary on the OT (Eerdmans 2001), which excels in the area of literary analysis. G. Lloyd Carr’s commentary in the Tyndale OT Commentaries series (IV P 1984) tends to be more evangelical, but is less detailed. Duane A. Garrett’s well-written commentary in the New American Commentary series (Broadman, 1993) inclines to the expositional rather than exegetical, though founded on solid exegetical grounds. One of this reviewer’s favorite evangelical treatments of the Song of Songs is A Song for Lovers: Lessons for Lovers in the Song of Solomon by S. Craig Glickman (IVP, 1976), whose exegesis rivals Carr’s and whose treatment of implications goes beyond Hess’s. Pastors and seminarians alike have many good commentaries on the Song from which to choose. The current commentary should be considered among the best on the text, even though Hess is weak on Solomonic authorship, overly enamored with liberal scholarship on the Song, and his theological implications normally fall short of sound application.

Hess opens his commentary by declaring that “this song offers the hope that couples today . . . may see in their love that which is beautiful and good, from the good God” (11). In his brief introduction (17-36) to the Song of Songs, he refrains from identifying Solomon as its author. As he discusses the contents and nature of the book, he observes that “the female voice in the Song accounts for 53 percent of the text, while the male voice accounts for 34 percent” (19). This statistic indicates a stronger feminine element in the Song of Songs than in any other biblical book, placing it in a class with Ruth and Esther, which contain smaller amounts of text in a female voice. As far as Hess is concerned, the Song consists of two primary characters, refusing to take the three character view that depicts a love triangle (24). Aware of many abuses of this book, he includes two helpful pages about “How (Not) to Read the Song” (34-35).

Following his seven-part outline of the song (35-36), the author separates the commentary into seven sections. Each section commences with his English translation from the Hebrew text with technical footnotes dealing with matters of Hebrew grammar, text, and translation. Next, he explains the interpretation of the text. Lastly, he engages in a brief presentation of theological implications. In this third section the author attempts to find some sort of spiritual lesson connected to the NT’s depiction of the relationship between Christ and the church. For 5:10-16 Hess associates the male’s strength with protection and security, using it as an analogy for the love of Christ for His church in Rom 5:6-8 (191). At the same time, the author relates the mutual respect of the two lovers in the text to the marriage relationship between two Christians (ibid.).

The author’s reluctance to identify Solomon as the author of this song fits with his treatment of the direct reference to Solomon in 3:6-11, which he takes as a common bride and groom envisioning themselves as king and queen on their wedding day (123-24). Hess does not avoid the sexual connotations in the text, but he refuses to associate sexual overtones with parts of the text that other commentators make into more explicit references. Such texts include 5:4 (161 n. i, 172) where he disagrees with Longman and 5:14 (164 n. f, 185) where he disagrees with Longman and Goulder. Likewise, Hess emphatically denies that the two lovers in the Song engaged in erotic sexual encounters outside of marriage (237). On 8:6 (“Its flames are flames of fire, / A flame of the LORD”), he concludes that “flame” is a compound with “Yah,” the shortened form of “Yahweh,” placing its single occurrence in the Song at the climax of the book (240).

This volume concludes with a substantial bibliography (253-69) and indexes (subject, 271; author, 273-76; and Scripture and other ancient writings, 277- 85). The target audience will appreciate these aids that make the book user-friendly.