THE Song of Songs, with its unashamed expression of erotic love, would never have found its place in Jewish and Christian scripture had it not been allegorised. For the Jews, the Song depicted God’s covenant with his chosen people, Israel. For Christians, it represented Christ’s love for his bride, the Church. But Gillow Reynolds insists that if this Song, now much neglected, is to be correctly understood, its literal sense must first be established. Otherwise, we end up “building castles on air”.
The author dates the Song to 350 BCE, though admits that it may be later. Rejecting the idea that it is a series of independent poems, he reconstructs it as a dialogue between the Shulamite and Solomon in ten episodes. This does not mean that the king wrote it, but that his personality, as literary tradition has shaped it, is the key to its interpretation and accounts for its centrality in the wisdom literature.
Gillow Reynolds holds that the poem covers a single day played out in different settings. He sees it as a conversation between two people, in which a concubine of exquisite beauty seeks a real but hopeless relationship — which political and social conventions prohibit — with the king. He sets about a reconstruction of this conversation, which he describes as a “near-operatic tragedy”.
Masterfully, Gillow Reynolds draws out the tension in their doomed relationship, as the king, trapped by his royal position, rejects his lover’s plea to sacrifice everything for their love — even his kingship. Yet, as the lovers walk away from each other, they know that, though separated in body, they are yet united in love.
Finally, Gillow Reynolds discusses the possible symbolic sense of the narrative, noting that there is nothing in the text to indicate that it should be read as a parable. Its meaning is in its words, which, even if allegory is ruled out, still need to be read imaginatively. The Song is about falling in love. There is no evidence that the relationship was consummated. Rather, it relates to a brief recovery of Eden, of being “naked and unashamed”.
The Song, though, does have a spiritual meaning, “but the spiritual is in the human”. The Shulamite personifies divine wisdom, because she is humanely wise. It is she who teaches Solomon that there is no wisdom without love. So, Gillow Reynolds sums up: “The love of God can be seen, tasted, smelt and touched in the human beloved. The Song offers an embodied experience of wisdom because it teaches the wisdom of love.”
This biblical book, currently neglected, save for an occasional reading at weddings, deserves more attention. Beautifully produced and enhanced by its illustrations, Gillow Reynolds’s distinctive interpretation, drawing on his wide general learning, including psychology, the church Fathers, and literature, would be a good place to start.
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.
The Wisdom of Love in the Song of Songs
Stefan Gillow Reynolds
Hikari Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50