Saturday, June 27, 2015

Song of Songs: an allegorical take on it

I am a big fan of the Focus on the Bible commentary series. They’re relatively short—the ones I’ve read were under 200 pages. This makes them accessible to everyone. There’s a reason I’ve never read all the way through my 1,000+ page commentary on Acts. It’s too long for that!

I recently had the privilege of reading through a review copy of their newest volume on Song of Songs by James M. Hamilton, Jr. The author happens to be a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where I am currently studying for my M.Div, but as of now I’ve yet to take any classes with him. He’s written numerous books including God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, a popular-level commentary on Revelation, and a commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah. Hamilton writes not only as a professor, but also as a pastor. Song of Songs was born out of a sermon series he preached, and a quick Google search would likely lead you to the recordings that form the foundation of his book.

The book’s subtitle is telling: A Biblical-Theological, Allegorical, Christological Interpretation. Those are probably the biggest words in the book, so don’t let that scare you off. What he means is that his commentary looks at how Song of Solomon fits into the whole Bible. He takes a more traditional view of the book as an allegory; first, referring to God and Israel in the Old Testament, and second, referring to Christ and the Church. The book comes on the heels of other popular explanations that view the book as little more than a celebration of love and sex within marriage. Mark Driscoll, who was a controversial yet popular pastor until his resignation last year, preached a very explicit sermon series on the book that led to criticism from John MacArthur, another pastor, in a multi-part blog series titled The Rape of Solomon’s Song. A commentary that addresses the text without sounding like a bunch of over-sexed boys in a men’s locker room is a welcome reprieve.

Much of what Hamilton says, especially after the first few chapters, is insightful and helpful for understanding this book of the Bible. His explanation of the allegory squares with many sermons and messages I heard growing up in a small, traditional Baptist church. I’m just not convinced by everything (and in some sections, hardly anything) he says from the allegorical approach. My disagreement is merely a matter of degrees in some instances, but other times I wholly reject Hamilton’s insinuations. I agree that there is definitely a parallel between the groom and the bride and God and Israel. Yet Hamilton presses in on the details and makes assertions that stretch the bounds of reason.

For example, at one point the groom, in praising his bride, says that her eyes are like doves. Hamilton says, “With all the land imagery in this passage, perhaps this comparison is meant to recall the dove that Noah sent out from the ark after seven days to see if the waters had receded from the new creation after the flood.” Apart from the word “dove,” in what way and for what reason would this passage be hearkening back to the story of Noah? As my father likes to say, “Evel Knieval couldn’t make that jump!”

Early on he states, “I don’t remember being taught to read the book as a member of the bride of Christ waiting for Jesus the bridegroom. As a Christian, that came naturally.” It may come natural to someone raised in a Christian environment who is trying to understand Song of Songs in terms of what he’s already seen in the Bible. But many of the places where Hamilton sees Solomon alluding to another passage is only visible to people who want to see it. It’s telling that his first chapter has footnotes about other, more detailed commentaries, stating, “I disagree with Garrett’s suggestion…” and, “I say this in spite of the fact that…” and, “Against Estes…” Garrett, who is also a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written two commentaries on Song of Songs, both of which are much more in-depth. Although I haven’t read either of his commentaries, I’m much more inclined to check them out before returning to Hamilton’s volume.

If your leaning is more towards the allegorical approach, however, I don’t think you’ll find a more straightforward and concise treatment of the book from a trustworthy theologian than this one.

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