Book Review: Ecclesiastes and The Song of Songs by Fredericks and Estes
Iain M. Duguid
Ecclesiastes & The Song of Songs. By Daniel C. Fredericks and Daniel J. Estes. Apollos Old Testament Commentary. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2003.
I have noted before that in general terms, commentaries fall into two classes: academic commentaries that are full of scholarship but often not very helpful to preachers, and devotional commentaries that are intended to be helpful to preachers but often make academics wince. As a professor who also pastors a church, I am constantly looking for commentaries that address both of the roles I fill. The Apollos series claims to bridge that gap: it is written by academics (Fredericks teaches at Belhaven College and Estes at Cedarville University) but designed, according to the dust jacket, “primarily to serve the needs of those who preach from the Old Testament.”
The format of the series is rather similar to that of the Word Biblical Commentary: author’s own translation and notes, followed by “Form and Structure”, “Comment” and “Explanation.” While both authors use a verse by verse structure for the more academic “Comment” section, Fredericks has a flowing “Explanation” section that feels more sermonic, while Estes has individual notes of application on particular verses. Both writers have the academic background and skill to deliver solid reflection of their respective books.
Unusually among academic commentaries, Fredericks defends the Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes. He lays weight on the internal evidence: the claim that the book was written by a son of David, who ruled in Jerusalem and was greater than any king before him. He dismisses the usual argument about the lateness of the Hebrew language (though not without considerably more discussion that the average pastor will find of interest, reflecting his earlier monograph on the subject), suggesting that it is a transitional form between earlier and later Biblical Hebrew, or perhaps a form of vernacular speech. He notes that the language of the book could also have been updated at the point at which the oral tradition crystallized in written form.
Fredericks argues that Qoheleth is not trying to answer the ultimate question of the meaning of life but rather the much more specific question of toil: “Why should one work so hard and wisely?” The main reason is because working hard results in joy and pleasure, as well as in the satisfaction that is encountered even in the work itself. Fredericks understands the key word hebel (traditionally “vanity”) not as a pejorative term but merely as describing the temporary nature of existence “under the sun.” This results in a much more positive reading of the book than is common, in contrast to those who find Qoheleth to be skeptical or even cynical in outlook. Moreover, contra Longman’s idiosyncratic proposal, he sees the work as a unified whole, albeit with a structure that matches its message of repetitive cycles rather than a smooth linear argument.
In a book “primarily designed for preachers,” many will have high hopes that the Explanation sections will help with appropriate application of the Biblical material. Indeed, Fredericks does have thoughtful and timely observations to make, and those preparing sermons on these passages will find his ideas helpful. Yet at the same time, from our perspective, we might wish for more Christ and gospel centered application, which is often a challenge with wisdom literature.
In contrast to Fredericks, Estes acknowledges the traditional claim of Solomonic authorship of the Song of Songs but does not defend it. For him, the character of the book as belonging to the wisdom tradition sufficiently explains the references within the book to Solomon, even the apparent reference to authorship in v.1. However, he too defends the unity of the book (once again in contrast to Longman’s atomistic approach to the text), albeit as a literary unity of an impressionistic song cycle, rather than a story (or drama) with a specific plot. He argues for implicit temporal and thematic development through the Song but not a precise linear or chiastic structure.
Estes argues in favor of the literal interpretation of the book, quoting Garrett’s assessment: ‘The Song achieves something that medieval Christian culture could not fathom and that modern and postmodern culture cannot artfully attain: a man and a woman who maintain passionate desire for each other in the context of conventional morality” (293). It depicts a mutual and exclusive relationship between a man and a woman, which evokes the purpose for which God created marriage. Yet Estes is also sensitive to the theological significance of such a depiction, as “a pointer to the inestimable quality of love that God has for his people” (299). It is not a matter of reading the Song allegorically, or even typologically: rather in addition to its literal meaning it “also yields legitimate theological and ethical significance that illustrates truths taught explicitly elsewhere.” In other words, to paraphrase the point in Westminster Seminary language, the Song is not merely a book about how to experience great sex within marriage; it may also have something to say of the sufferings of Christ and the glories that will follow (Luke 24:44-47).
In practice, however, the bulk of what Estes has to say in the “Explanation” sections (and these are significantly shorter than Fredericks’) focuses more on “maximum sex” than it does on the gospel. This is not surprising, since this is by far the easiest application to make, unless one heads for the old pathways of allegorical exegesis. But many pastors will be wishing that there was more help here to guide their thinking as to what legitimate theological insights about the relationship of Christ and his church they should be deriving.
In sum, this is a helpful volume that would be a good addition to the shelf of a pastor preaching on one of these books. If I were preaching through Ecclesiastes, I’d also add Greidanus’ Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes and Ryken’s Ecclesiastes in the Preach the Word series to my reading list. In terms of Song of Songs, the list of books suitable to help the preacher is considerably shorter, with only Hess (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament) and Garrett (Word Biblical Commentary) to be recommended.
Grove City College, Grove City, PA