This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2007 vol. 164 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
The Song of Songs: A Theological Exposition of Sacred ScriptureConcordia Publishing House, St. Louis January 1, 2003
In this book Mitchell, Old Testament editor for the Concordia Commentary series, focuses on three levels of interpretation or application. First, he follows a literal approach, viewing the Song of Songs as a series of love poems surrounding the “courtship” and marriage between Solomon and the Shulammite. From this basis he makes application for modern-day readers concerning love and marriage.
Second, he follows a Christological approach. “A Christological hermeneutic recognizes that God’s activity in judgment and salvation—Law and Gospel—often is narrated in the OT subtly through accounts of his people, not only within the context of marriage” (p. 23). He views Solomon as a type of Christ (e.g., p. 36), recognizing that Old Testament types are adequate if not perfect representations of truth about Christ. But Mitchell deals inadequately with the problem of Solomon’s polygamy on pages 120–27. He applies a standard Lutheran interpretation of “Law and Gospel” and of the church as the true Israel, the wife or bride of God.
Third, he follows an analogical approach. “Hermeneutically the book [of Hosea] closely resembles the Song because a historical human couple, Hosea and Gomer, act out an earthly drama intended by Yahweh to portray his relationship with Israel. God expressly intends the prophecy to be read with reference to both the human relationship and to the theological relationship. The hermeneutic is analogical because throughout the book God explicitly compares Hosea’s relationship to Gomer with his own relationship to Israel” (pp. 44–45). Thus Mitchell relates the nuptial theme of the Song to the marriage motif in the Bible, from Genesis 1–2 to Revelation 21–22, also drawing on the “garden” imagery of the Bible. By these means he discusses marital relationships for believers and the relationship of Christ to the church.
The introduction of the book fills the first 543 pages, on standard introductory problems, and the theological and interpretational problems the author’s approach faces. These problems include “The Gospel Message and Pastoral Applications of the Song” (pp. 155–250), “Theological Themes of the Song” (pp. 251–428), and the “Churchly Use of the Song” (pp. 511–43).
Mitchell divides the Song into two major sections. The first section covers 1:2–5:1 in which there are four cycles, each of which focuses on the separation and reunification of the lovers (1:2-17; 2:1-17; 3:1–4:7; 4:8–5:1). The second section (5:2–8:14), which focuses on married love, has three cycles (5:2–6:10; 6:11–8:4; 8:5-14), also with each cycle moving from separation to reunification. From 8:6–7 Mitchell concludes that the love the Song celebrates is ultimately the love of Yahweh. Mitchell does not see that the book unfolds as a story as such, but it does present a movement from courtship through marriage (3:7–11) to problems in the marriage, always advancing from separation to reunification.
In the exposition of the book he includes Textual Notes and Commentary. In the Textual Notes he comments on a wide variety of subjects, including the parsing of most of the words in the Hebrew text, but his notes also include theological and applicational matters. The commentary section concentrates on the exposition of the Song in its literal context, as well as the Christological and analogical application of the Song. In both sections Mitchell includes surveys of the history of Lutheran interpretation of the Song, focusing on Luther, Glassius, Delitzsch, and Hengstenberg.
How does one evaluate such a large and far-ranging book in a brief review? Hermeneutically Mitchell avoids allegorizing the book, though he admits that interpreting the book Christologically might imply allegorizing. He argues that a Christian exposition of any Old Testament book must necessarily consider how that book contributes to one’s understanding of God’s work in Jesus. Mitchell’s analogical approach is helpful, for he says that throughout the Bible God uses events and life experiences of His people to reveal, as in living parables, deeper insight into His way of relating to humanity. One may also note that the bibliography is extensive, listing more than two hundred works.
However, the way the book is organized results in much repetition. Issues discussed in the introduction, especially in the “Theological Themes of the Song,” recur constantly in the succeeding exposition, both in the Textual Notes and in the Commentary. In this reviewer’s opinion the author spends too much time discussing issues that have little or no direct bearing on the interpretation of the text, such as the discussions on Hebrew verbal stems. Also, while seeking to avoid allegorization, Mitchell’s approach may still go too far in his discussions of Christology. The commentary sometimes makes a point that seems the opposite of what is in the biblical text. An example is his treatment of 2:14, in which the Lover calls for the Beloved, pictured as a dove, to come away from the clefts of the rock. He says the dove “stood for the soul finding a safe rest in the wounds of Christ” (p. 729). However, the Lover is calling the dove not to the cleft but from it. Much of the Christological interpretation in this book is overplayed. Also it may be appropriate to relate the garden motifs of the Song to the broader garden imagery of the Bible, but the connections are not a strong base for the interpretation and application of the Song.
Mitchell’s book seems too long and too diffuse to make it a solid contribution to the literature on the Song of Songs. Those with limited resources for book-buying and busy pastors might consult Tremper Longman’s commentary (Song of Songs, New International Commentary on the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001]) or other recent evangelical commentaries. Those who are interested in the specifically Lutheran approach to the Song, though, will find no better source than this book.
—James E. Allman