In a new article for Themelios on interpreting the Song of Solomon, Doug O’Donnell—author of The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job and a forthcoming preaching commentary on the Song of Solomon—cites some representative commentators on the difficulty of interpreting the Song:
Franz Delitzsch: “The Song is the most obscure book of the Old Testament. Whatever principle of interpretation one may adopt, there always remains a number of inexplicable passages. . . .”
Marvin Pope: “[N]o composition of comparable size in world literature has provoked and inspired such a volume and variety of comment and interpretation as the biblical Song of Songs.”
Daniel Estes: “Scholars vary widely on nearly every part of its interpretation. . . . Virtually every verse presents challenges in text, philology, image, grammar or structure.”
Christopher W. Mitchell: “My fascination with the Songs of Songs began in 1978 . . . when I took a graduate class on its Hebrew text at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That fascination grew under the tutelage of my doctoral advisor, Professor Michael V. Fox.” O’Donnell comments, “Mitchell goes on to talk about how he has read commentaries and articles, preached and taught, and since 1992 worked earnestly on his 1,300 (!) page commentary on the Song. He has worked almost thirty years on the Song, but then he writes in his preface about his desire to spend another decade to ‘delve more deeply into . . . this most difficult book of sacred Scripture.'”
At the very least, this calls for a bit of epistemic humility on the part of anyone wanting to preach this biblical book! In other words, be suspicious of anyone who thinks that the details of this book (characters, structure, timing of the marriage, etc.) are patently obvious.
So how does one interpret and preach a form of erotic poetry to a gathered congregation? O’Donnell offers a framework for interpreting the book. Here’s a summary from his conclusion:
The four guideposts presented in this article—this is a song (guidepost one) about human love (guidepost two) found in the Bible (guidepost three) written to give us wisdom (guidepost four)—cannot explain every image or solve every philological, grammatical, and structural riddle, but hopefully they can give us greater confidence to read and teach this holy book that is wholly applicable today.
You can read the whole thing here.