by Robert W. Jenson. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, John Knox Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8042-3117-6. 106 pp, $24.95
“It may be,” says the author, “that the chief purpose of a commentary on (the Song of Songs) is not to provide interpretation but to provoke it” (p. 12). In this masterful commentary, Robert Jenson does both.
From the author’s engaging preface, through a most informative introduction that makes one eager to read on, and throughout the commentary, Jenson leads the reader on an extraordinary adventure in the study of Scripture.
He urges that we begin by reading the Song of Songs aloud several times and, in order to hear it as “the Word of the Lord,” approach it “with prayer for the love the song praises.” He quotes Bernard of Clairvaux: “… It is everywhere love that speaks. If anyone hopes to grasp the sense of what he reads, let him love. Whereas someone who does not love will hear or read this song of love in vain” (p. 15).
The commentary follows a three-step pattern. First, in each of the poems that make up the Song, Jenson has us attend to the overt sense of the text. What is it in the poems themselves that evoked the theological allegory through which the church sought to understand the Song? The author leads us through the text of each poem in a thorough way that both increases our understanding, and also allows us to appreciate the mysteries in the text that leave us listening and looking, wondering and probing … and waiting for the Holy Spirit’s illumination.
The second interpretive step proposes theological allegory. Jenson cites Gregory of Nyssa: “We must first draw out the sense present in the lines as they stand, and then connect these inspired words to what is to be envisioned” (p. 14). Here the author’s wide-ranging knowledge of the history of Christian thought provides a wealth of arresting insights from the rabbis, the Church Fathers (both early and Medieval), and the Reformers.
Here we learn to appreciate the possibilities and limits of theological allegory — what it is and what it is not; so also with the use of analogy between divine and human actions and characters. We see how modern historical criticism clarifies, and occasionally corrects, some of the older readings, even as we discover that modern scholarship has as much to learn from its elders as it has to teach them. In all this we discover that a rich, mysterious poem of lyrical theology is able to express the love between God and his people as passionate desire analogous to that between a man and a woman.
The third interpretive step considers what the analogies in the various poems suggest about our own human sexuality as an aspect of God’s good creation. Here Jenson offers clarifying, refreshing insights into passionate human love — insights that again and again confront the sexual immaturity, egocentricity, and superficiality of our culture with a faith-grounded understanding of human sexuality that could deliver even the characters in “Desperate Housewives,” and their voyeuristic audiences, from their sad deprivation.
On page after page, the author’s zest for and delight in his task shines through and draws us into conversation with a great cloud of interpretive witnesses from the biblical poet down to our own day.
A group of adults in my own church is studying the Song of Songs with this commentary. They are being stretched, and they are warming to the task! It is a rich resource for preaching and teaching. Parts of it would make good material for use in premarital counseling! As Jenson contends in his introduction: “… The Song, after its way through theological allegory, provides the chief biblical resource for a believing understanding of … the lived meaning of ‘male and female he created them'” (p. 14).
Editors Mays and Miller are to be commended for their invitation to a systematic theologian of Jenson’s caliber to write this final volume in the fine Interpretation Commentary Series. Now, how about an Interpretation Commentary — Series II in which all of the authors are trained in systematic theology? I would sign up for every volume in that set also.
John B. Rogers Jr. is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, N.C.