Rethinking the Relationship Between Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, & Song of Songs

Saying that you have a favorite book of the Bible kind of feels as wrong as saying that you have a favorite child. It is all God’s inspired Word, so we should love all of it equally, right? Well, maybe favoritism is the wrong way to think of it; nevertheless, I do think that certain verses, passages, books, and genres of the Bible will resonate differently with different individuals. For me, the wisdom books hold a special place in my heart. I have a deep, deep love for Ecclesiastes, and I read a chapter from Psalms and Proverbs each day. My intimacy with Job and Song of Solomon is somewhat kept at arm’s length by the intimidation of stepping onto holy ground while reading.

Even so, I have recently begun thinking more about Solomon’s greatest Song. To be specific, I have been rethinking the modern notion that Song of Solomon is purely a God-inspired romance poem and considering anew the allegorical interpretation, especially since most theologians throughout church history seem to have read it as a allegory for Christ and his church. I was encouraged to find people like J. A. Medders are traversing a similar line of thought.

A few weeks back, I read the first chapter of Daniel Akin’s commentary on the Song of Songs to take a glance at his thoughts on the matter. While he certainly emphasizes the earthly, marital nature of the Song, he also leans upon Ephesians 5:32, which explicitly tells us that all earthly marriages are living metaphors for the true and everlasting Marriage between Christ and His bride. Therefore, he takes a both/and interpretation rather than either/or. And I think that is where I am landing on the matter as well.

Also, while reading Akin’s commentary, he gave a quotation from Douglas O’Donnell that caused me to start rethinking the structure of the Bible’s wisdom literature, particularly Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Here is the quote:

The book of Proverbs can be called “a book for boys.” The word “son” is used over forty times; the word “daughter” is never used. “My son, stay away from that kind of girl, and don’t marry this kind of girl. But marry and save yourself for that girl–Proverbs 31:10-31.” That’s how the book ends, quite intentionally, for Proverbs is a book for boys. The Song of Songs is a book for girls. And its message to girls is, “patience then passion” or “uncompromised purity now; unquenchable passion then.” I’ll put it this way: In Proverbs the young lad is told to take a cold shower. In the Song of Songs the young lassie is told to take a cold shower.

P. 7

Despite a few qualifiers, I think O’Donnell is correct. Of course, he does not say that Proverbs is a book exclusively for boys or that Song of Songs is exclusively for girls. That would be unmistakably false. Yet parts of Scripture can certainly have a particular intended audience, while still speaking for the benefit of any given reader. Just look at the household commands of Ephesians. There is truth to be gleaned by everyone in those verses, even if you are not married, do not have children, or are not a slave.

Yet I would modify O’Donnell’s statement just a bit. It would say that Proverbs 1-9 is a boy’s book, Song of Songs is a girl’s book, and they form bookends to a wisdom chiasm that meets in Proverbs 31. Here is the chiasm: 

a – Proverbs 1-9
    b – Proverbs 1-30
        c – Proverbs 31:1-9
        c’ – Proverbs 31:10-31
    b’ – Ecclesiastes
a’ – Song of Songs

As O’Donnell suggests, Proverbs 1-9 and Song of Songs certainly can be seen as giving a similar message with emphasis toward boys and girls respectively. Yet rather than seeing Proverbs 31 as a boy-centered conclusion to Proverbs, I believe it provides a significant meeting of those two themes. Though the whole chapter is an oracle that Lemuel’s mother taught him, verses 1-9 capture the essence of chapters 1-9 (and particularly chapters 5-9), for they tell how a kingly man ought to conduct himself. Verses 10-31 give similar wisdom to the woman who would be the wife of such a man. If Song of Songs is a guide to proper desire for women, then this Excellent Wife Poem is a guide for becoming the ideal wife.

Sandwiched between Proverbs 1-9 and 31 is the collection of proverbs in chapters 10-30, which in general give guidance on how to behave wisely in God’s wisdom ordered world. On the other side of the chiasm is Ecclesiastes, which explores how to find God’s wisdom in this sin-scarred world. The first, therefore, is learning to live according to God’s ordering of reality, and the second is wrestling with sin-induced chaos. Here we could take the Taoist approach that order is masculine, and chaos is feminine. On this matter, Taoism, like most other philosophies and religions, only sees a piece of the truth. This is how I would formulate the reality.

Chaos is not feminine because under the biblical worldview, chaos is not an eternal force to be harnessed. Chaos is the beginning state of the cosmos, which God is placing into order over the course of history. God began this process during the days of creation. In the first three days, he formed the formless, and in the last three days, He filled the void. That twofold structure of putting order to chaos is reflected in the masculine and feminine nature of humanity. Consider the creation mandate or first commission that God gave to Adam and Eve:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Genesis 1:28

Those commands are for humanity as a whole. They could only be obeyed together, by the man and woman working in tandem. Yet Eve’s specific feminine role would be to fill the earth with God’s image-bearers by birthing and sustaining each of their children with her own body. Adam’s specific masculine role would be to form the earth, to work the ground and make the rest of the earth like the garden that God planted for them in Eden. Thus, through the joint workings of man and woman, God would use humanity to continue putting the earth into its beautiful order and fill it with His image. Of course, these masculine and feminine roles are further displayed in God’s curse upon Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:16-19.

All of that is to say: order is not masculine, and chaos is not feminine. Forming and putting things to order to masculine and filling what is being ordered is feminine. From that biblical lens, I believe that we could call Proverbs 10-30 more masculine and Ecclesiastes more feminine. Proverbs 10-30 is about giving form to our formless ways, and Ecclesiastes is about filling our existential void. Proverbs 10-30 is largely focused on the more masculine question of how to live, while Ecclesiastes gives answer to the more feminine question of why we should even care about living.

But, someone may say, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs were not together in the Hebrew Bible; therefore, that chiasm could not be intentional. True. Yet Christ’s coming into the world radically expanded how God’s people understood the Old Testament, is it not possible, then, that God providentially guided even the reordering of the Old Testament books in order to reveal greater depths of their beauty to us? And even to reveal new depths of usefulness?

For example, imagine with me the great benefit that might come from fathers and mothers or older saints using these three books as guide for discipling young men and young women. What benefit would come from a young man being intentionally discipled through the truths of Proverbs 5-7 and of a young woman receiving her view of sexuality from Song of Songs? What benefit would come from the reverse: a young woman being instructed in the mentality of men through Proverbs and a young man of women through Song of Songs? Would it not be a tremendous blessing to send teenagers into adulthood with a deep familiarity with these books of wisdom?

Of course, to give a final caveat, I am not suggesting that this masculine/feminine chiastic structure to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs ought to be the primary lens through which we interpret these books of Scripture; I am simply presenting it as one possible lens for us to keep in mind, a lens that would be of particular benefit to young men and women.


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