The Song of Songs: An Introduction and Commentary, by Iain M. Duguid. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015, 160 pages, $18.00, paper.

This volume is number nineteen in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries series. Iain M. Duguid offers a general introduction to the book of Song of Songs with discussion of its title, authorship, date, approaches of interpretation, canonicity, themes and message, and structure and unity. This introduction is then followed by an analysis, translation, and commentary on the text.

Duguid touches on issues related to arguments for and against Solomonic authorship, which correspond to early and late dates respectively. He concludes that a date after the exile may be regarded as more likely, and that Solomonic authorship is not necessary. For Duguid, it seems more plausible that the authorship is unknown.

Duguid spends some time laying out the variant hermeneutical approaches to the Song. Taking the book as a love song, Duguid briefly discusses the allegorical, natural, typological, and the three-character interpretations. He does not, however, mention the Song’s history of interpretation and how it was understood in Jewish tradition and through the early church fathers. Duguid adopts as his hermeneutical approach the twofold interpretation, combining natural and spiritual meanings. He argues that the book should be read against the backdrop of wisdom literature, and as such, it is designed to show us an idealized picture of married love in the context of a fallen and broken world. Yet at the same time, Duguid regards the book as “parabolic,” in that it speaks of our imperfection as humans and as lovers and thus it drives us into the arms of our heavenly husband, Jesus Christ.

While Duguid does not rule out the typological reading of the book, he prefers to couple it with the allegorical interpretation where both comprise the spiritual meaning. He then wishes to divorce this spiritual interpretation from the book’s literal meaning—what Duguid calls “natural” reading. One is left wondering, to what extent can we divorce the spiritual and natural readings? Is it even possible to separate the two at all? And what constitutes the “natural” reading of any Scripture if it does not include any typological or spiritual sense?

A more helpful hermeneutical approach is the analogical and canonical reading, which seriously takes into consideration the book’s immediate context and literary genre as wisdom literature. According to this reading, the book is read following Proverbs and Ruth in the Hebrew canon. Proverbs 31:10 speaks of אֵשֶׁת־חַיִל (’eshet-hayil) “virtuous woman” (cf. Prov. 12:4), and then comes Ruth as an example and embodiment of this virtuous woman, thus she was called אֵשֶׁת חַיִל (’eshet hayil) (Ruth 3:11). The Song of Songs follows this motif as it presents the celebration of the virtuous woman’s love with her lover. Proverbs describes the ideal wife, which Ruth is. Song of Songs describes the bliss of love and applies to Boaz and Ruth by its canonical proximity. This canonical consideration sets the stage for the analogical reading, once we consider the wider canonical context. In this context, we learn that Yahweh’s relationship with his people is often couched in the language of the covenant of marriage. This is one of the primary ways this relationship is portrayed in the Scripture. Thus, when the Song is taken canonically, and by analogy, it speaks of this divine-human marriage relationship. This relationship finds its ultimate expression through the covenant mediator’s work on the cross.

Duguid summarizes the main themes and message of the book, which are centered on love and sex within a committed marriage. The Song also speaks against asceticism. Once the book’s message is identified through natural or literal reading, Duguid wishes to see a message beyond marriage that looks to the heavenly bridegroom through the work of Christ.

Although not arguing for a strict narrative behind the Song or a chiastic structure, Duguid sees a broad development and logical flow where there is a movement that leads up to and away from the marriage. Duguid rightly observes that the Song leaves the couple (and us) at the end longing for something more complete.

The second major part of this book has an analysis (in which Duguid outlines the book), Duguid’s own translation of the book, and then a commentary. The commentary discusses the context of each passage at hand, then Duguid offers comment on the passage, highlighting some key phrases and words, and finally there is the meaning that explains the passage from a practical perspective with spiritual life applications.

Duguid offers some helpful considerations from the Song’s title. The compound form “Song of Songs” is best understood as a superlative title, like “King of kings” or “Holy of Holies.” The title introduces and guides interpretation, identifies the book, and provides a frame of reference that orients the reader to the material that follows. The singular form, שִׁיר (shiyr) “song,” suggests that this book comprises a single song, rather than being a diverse collection of disparate materials. It also focuses our attention on the unity and the genre of the book. It tells us that what follows is a song rather than some other genre of writing, such as a proverb, a prophetic vision, or a historical narrative. Although the book is a poetic song in its genre, this does not negate the possibility that it might reflect a story that took place in history. In other words, it could be a historical account written poetically in the form of a song, in the same way Genesis 1, for example, is written in a poetic style but communicates history.

An important discussion on the poetic style of the text is missing in Duguid’s treatment. One expects Duguid to spend some time analyzing the poetic features of the Hebrew terse utterances, cola, which are generally grouped in pairs (bicola) or triplets (tricola). These in turn form larger constellations: the strophe and the stanza. This kind of Hebrew textual analysis highlights the main message of a given passage and explains its function within the whole book.

Another genre fallacy that Duguid seems to have fallen into is his assumption that poetry does not communicate doctrine and does not have logical connections. This is shown in Duguid’s quotation of C. S. Lewis’s comment about the Psalms (72).[1] If the Song of Songs is taken as Scripture, then it must communicate theological truths. As Scripture, the Song cannot simply be devoted to the joys of physical love with no theological significance. As Christians, we do not approach the Song of Songs as “a code to be cracked,” or with the belief that its imagery needs to be subordinated to a general interest. Rather, we approach the Song with the presumption that it is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). To come away with the idea that the Song is a poem about human sexuality appears rather to shortchange the interpreter of Scripture.

Duguid takes the approach that the man in the poem is an idealized figure, a poetic persona rather than a historical individual. For Duguid, the focus of the Song is not on the specific identity of the lovers so much as it is on the nature of their love. He understands אֲשֶׁר לִשְׁלֹמֹה (’asher lishlomoh) “which is Solomon’s” (1:1) not as designated authorship, rather as possession. Thus, according to Duguid, the Song’s title suggests that this book is in some general sense about “that which belongs to Solomon.”

Duguid’s book is good for pastors and preachers. It is not academically technical as one might expect, rather it is practical and handy. It relies on many resources and ancient Near Eastern comparisons. Closing comment or a conclusion is missing in this book. It ends with a discussion on the last two verses of the Song (8:13–14).

While there are spiritual applications, this book lacks a coherent presentation of the Song’s contribution to biblical theology. Since Duguid adopts the view that Solomon is neither the subject of the Song, nor its author, he sees the Song’s primary significance as describing human relationships. He fails to read the Song canonically in its final shape and place within the canon. This canonical hermeneutic operates within a theologically articulate interpretive method that opens the door for reading the Song, which belongs to Solomon, in light of the Davidic covenant and the promise for David’s son and everlasting throne (2 Sam. 7). The Song also has borrowing images borrowed from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2–3) that one cannot neglect if we are to understand it canonically. These images not only connect the Song to the first garden, but also look forward to the consummate garden in the new heavens and new earth.

Failing to read the Song canonically means failing to read it as Christian Scripture. Only the canonical reading would allow one to see the Song’s messianic hope. This hope is rooted in the soil of the promise that the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent, watered by the expectation of a king from the seed of Abraham via Judah, and fertilized by anticipations of an eschatological return to the Garden of Eden.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958), 3.

Sherif Gendy is a licentiate in the Presbytery of the Midwest (OPC) and a PhD student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania and serving as Arabic Theological Editor for Third Millennium Ministries in Casselberry, Florida. Ordained Servant Online, October 2015.

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Ordained Servant: October 2015

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