The Song of Songs: Exploring the divine romance
Cleverly's section by section commentary on the entire Song
The Song of Songs. Exploring the divine romance
By Charlie Cleverly
Hodder and Stoughton, £13.99
Reviewed by Pieter Lalleman
You can read the Song of Songs in two ways: it is either a rather explicit description of the love between a man and a woman, or a description of the relationship between God/Jesus and the Church/the soul of the believer.
For a long time Christians were too embarrassed to think the first view was possible, so they went for the second; in other words, they read Song of Songs in an allegorical way. C.H. Spurgeon was one of them. Nowadays the majority of interpreters think option one, the literal reading, is what was intended. The great reformer John Calvin led the way in this approach and I agree with it: the Song of Solomon is basically about human love and sexuality.
However, in this book Charlie Cleverly argues for the second view (although he says he also acknowledges the first) so I began to read with a lot of scepticism.
The author basically offers a section by section commentary on the entire Song. In doing so he includes loads of quotes from known and unknown Christians of all times, an approach which is most likely to appeal to well-educated readers.
Sometimes the book reads like a string of quotations. Cleverly also suggests that there is a kind of progression in the Song, whereas most interpreters say that it is a loose collection of songs without a storyline. My scepticism was confirmed: I found much of the interpretation fanciful.
At the end of each chapter Cleverly, who is rector of a church in Oxford, includes ‘spiritual exercises’, good and penetrating questions to help the reader to own the message. That message is about the importance of an intimate relationship with God. I don't have problem with this message and the exercises are good and useful – but I don’t think these things follow from the Song of Songs.
One other comment: although the author professes that the Church as a whole is the bride of Christ, the book addresses individuals rather than communities.
The Revd Dr Pieter J. Lalleman teaches Bible at Spurgeon's College