Song of Solomon 5:2–6:3

Seek and You Shall Find

Commentaries by Cheryl Exum

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Lika Tov

His lips are like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh… Solomon’s Song 5:12, 13, 2002, Collagraph; © Lika Tov, Courtesy of the artist

A Body Clothed in Metaphor

Commentary by Cheryl Exum

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The lovers in the Song of Solomon describe each other’s body in bold and unusual metaphors that are often sexual, but that, at the same time, function as much to hide the body as to display it. Lips that drip liquid myrrh, cheeks like beds of spices (Song 5:13). Is this a description of what the man’s lips or cheeks actually look like, or does it refer to the way his lover experiences them? Do the metaphors convey a particular aspect of each body part, taken on its own, or do they form a composite picture?

His lips are like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh… Solomon’s Song 5:12, 13, a print by Israeli artist Lika Tov, takes the woman’s metaphoric description of her lover’s body literally, combining similes and metaphors from the text to form a composite picture of his face. The technique used here is collagraphy (a collage print). The image is printed on a cardboard plate on which cut-out shapes are glued, as in a collage, and the lines are engraved with a pen. About twenty-five prints of His lips are like lilies were produced from this particular plate, using different colour combinations.

Following the Hebrew text, Tov pictures the man’s wavy locks as palm fronds bearing dates. Dove-like eyes frolic in brimming pools, lips are lilies dripping myrrh and cheeks are beds of spices. Is the result beautiful? Does it draw attention to an element of incongruity—even grotesquery—in the Song’s metaphors?

More than anything else, Tov’s print is a forceful reminder that metaphor cannot be reduced to something else, be it a prose paraphrase or a pretty picture. By incorporating the metaphor into her visual representation, Tov offers a mode of interpretation that allows the metaphor to stand and provoke in the viewer the variety of responses the text might provoke.



Black, Fiona C. 2009. The Artifice of Love: Grotesque Bodies in the Song of Songs (London: T&T Clark)

Tov, Lika. 2004. Mijn lief: Hooglied uit De Nieuwe Bijbelvertaling met illustraties van Lika Tov, 3rd edn (Heerenveen: Uitgeverij NBG)

Marc Chagall

Le Cantique des Cantiques II (Song of Songs II I.7), 1957, Oil on canvas, 139 x 164 cm, Museé National Marc Chagall, Nice; Photo: Adrien Didierjean; © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

A Dream of Love

Commentary by Cheryl Exum

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Marc Chagall’s five-painting series Le Cantique des Cantiques presents a visual counterpart to the poetic lyricism of the Song of Solomon, both its meandering and its habit of repeating themes and images and playing variations on them. Chagall achieves this by representing, as he so often does in his work, many different scenes within a single painting. Like the biblical poet, Chagall blurs distinctions between desire and fulfilment, and between past, present, and future.

Desire is such stuff as dreams are made on. The floating figures and dreamlike incongruities characteristic of Chagall’s painting are particularly at home in a representation of the Song, where they reflect something of the Song’s dreamlike quality, its reverie and fantasy. Le Cantique des Cantiques II, the second painting in the series, may invite the viewer to contemplate Song 5:2, ‘I was sleeping but my heart was awake. Listen! My lover is knocking!’ (own translation), a verse that blurs distinctions between sleep and wakefulness.

While our gaze is drawn to the woman’s naked body at the centre of the composition, other features of the painting compete with her body for our attention. The woman seems to be sleeping on a flowery bed atop a tree, floating above the city, and her lover is nearby, represented by only his face, seen here beneath her right thigh. In the right background an angel wearing a crown and playing a harp hovers above a throne, an allusion to King David, the sweet psalmist of Israel. The woman is represented again in the figure wearing a wedding veil in the bottom right-hand corner, almost as though she is the source of the bucolic vision of herself that dominates the painting (though perhaps she is the one being dreamed?). The lovers appear to be represented together in the top left-hand corner.

All five paintings in the series are dominated by dazzling shades of pink, rose, and red, the warm and hot hues suggesting vitality, sensuality, and the heat of passion.



Chagall, Marc. 1976. Musée national Message biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, trans. by C. de Chabannes (Paris: Ministère des affaires culturelles; Editions des musées nationaux)

Exum, J. Cheryl. 2019. Art as Biblical Commentary: Visual Criticism from Hagar the Wife of Abraham to Mary the Mother of Jesus (London: T&T Clark)

Harris, Nathaniel. 1994. The Life and Works of M. Chagall: A Compilation of Works from the Bridgeman Art Library (London: Parragon)

Edward Burne-Jones

Scene from The Song of Songs , 1862, Stained glass, St Helen's Church, Darley Dale, UK; Photo: Frederic Griffiths Photography

A Woman Attacked

Commentary by Cheryl Exum

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This panel is one of twelve in a stained-glass window depicting scenes from the Song of Solomon designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. The window, located in St. Helen’s Church, Darley Dale, England, was commissioned from Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company between 1861 and 1862 by Colonel William James Gillum in memory of his great uncle, Raphael Gillum.

Burne-Jones, a partner in the firm, completed the designs in 1862. The window is arranged in three lancets of four panels each, with citations from the biblical text. Burne-Jones gives prominence to the themes of longing, seeking, and the frustration of not finding, in preference to the text’s many references to the uniting of the lovers. This panel is in the centre of the bottom row, nearest the eye level of a viewer standing directly in front of the window.

The words ‘they smote me, they wounded me’ (Song 5:7 KJV) inscribed at the bottom of this panel are more severe than what the panel actually shows. The woman is crouched low in what can be read as a defensive position, but the watchman leaning over her is not delivering any blows. He grabs her wrist with his left hand and shines in her face a lantern, which he holds with his right.

It is easy not to recognize the lantern for what it is. The visual impact of what looks like a clenched fist pointed at the woman’s face is so strong that viewers might take the scene to be more violent than it is. But the fact is, this watchman cannot beat the woman without either releasing her or putting down the lantern. Burne-Jones has thus both drawn attention to the beating as it is described in the biblical text and toned it down by making it difficult for his watchman to carry it out.

We might speculate at what point Burne-Jones captures the scene. Has the attack already happened, and now the watchman hoists his victim to her feet, inspecting the effects of his rough treatment? Or is an assault about to happen now that he has pushed her to the ground?



Black, Fiona C., and J. Cheryl Exum. 1998. ‘Semiotics in Stained Glass: Edward Burne-Jones’s Song of Songs’, in Biblical Studies/Cultural Studies: The Third Sheffield Colloquium, ed. by J. Cheryl Exum and Stephen D. Moore (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press), pp. 315–42

Lika Tov :

His lips are like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh… Solomon’s Song 5:12, 13, 2002 , Collagraph

Marc Chagall :

Le Cantique des Cantiques II (Song of Songs II I.7), 1957 , Oil on canvas

Edward Burne-Jones :

Scene from The Song of Songs , 1862 , Stained glass

Seeking and Finding the Beloved

Comparative commentary by Cheryl Exum

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The Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, is the Bible’s only love poem. Throughout the poem, lovers engage in a continual game of seeking and finding in anticipation, enjoyment, and assurance of sensual gratification. The Song looks at what it is like to be in love from both a woman’s and a man’s point of view, and it relies exclusively on dialogue, so that the reader learns about love through what lovers say about it.

In Song 5:2–6:3 the woman describes a night-time visit by her lover that can be read both as a missed encounter and, through double entendre, as a veiled account of sexual intercourse. An erotic interpretation is suggested by the pace, the imagery, and the choice of terminology (e.g. in Song 5:2, 5 and 6 the repeated use of ‘open’ without a direct object draws attention to its sexual sense). On the literal level, it appears that the man is outside the woman’s chamber at night, seeking admittance. He departs before she can get up to let him in, and she goes in search of him in the city streets, where she is found and accosted by the city guards.

Edward Burne-Jones captures this moment in one of twelve panels in a stained-glass window based on the Song. The panel shows a watchman assaulting the woman. The text beneath it, taken from the King James Version, reads, ‘The-watchmen-that-went-about-the-city-found-me-they-smote me-they-wounded-me’ (Song 5:7a). The Song is ambiguous regarding the severity of the watchmen’s attack, which also involves taking the woman’s wrap from her. This is a disturbing event to find in a love poem, and the poem offers no justification for it. It is also an unexpected scene to find represented in a church window. Perhaps it serves in the biblical text or the window or both to illustrate the trials of true love.

Without any reference to her encounter with the watchmen, the woman suddenly initiates a dialogue with the women of Jerusalem. Now her search for her lover continues in another mode, as she, with their help, engages in the process of ‘finding’ him by praising his attributes. She describes them one by one, in densely metaphoric language until she has successfully conjured him up on the page before the reader, a body clothed in metaphor.

Striking and unusual metaphorical descriptions of the body are not uncommon in love poetry, and they appear throughout the Song (e.g. 4:1–5; 5:10–16; 6:4–7; 7:1–9). Here in Song 5:10–16 the woman describes her lover part by part, investing each part with meaning through a simile or metaphor whose import cannot be reduced to prose paraphrase. The images are highly visual, treating the reader to a superfluity of sensory impressions. Lika Tov’s His lips are like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh, which adopts the Song’s metaphors to depict the man’s face, has the same effect. Without giving access to what the man actually looks like, text and image trigger the imaginations of readers and viewers about his appearance.

Having conjured her lover up by means of the language of praise, at the end of the dialogue the woman reveals that she knows where he is. He is in his garden, which is both the setting where their erotic encounters take place and a metaphor for the woman herself (Song 4:12–5:1).

The theme of searching, with which Song 5:2–6:3 begins, and finding, with which it ends, are drawn together in Marc Chagall’s Le Cantique des Cantiques II. Although the five works in the Le Cantique des Cantiques series do not correspond to any particular scene in the Song or to one scene only, this second painting calls to mind the text’s ‘I was sleeping but my heart was awake’ (5:2). The woman on a flowery bed could be dreaming of her lover, whose presence is represented by his face. Perhaps she is in the process of conjuring him up.

The woman is a lily in Song 2:1 and her belly is a heap of wheat encircled by lilies in 7:2. In the Hebrew text of 6:2 no ‘flock’ is actually mentioned, and thus the one grazing among and gathering these lilies appears to be the male lover himself. Chagall’s painting makes that impression a vivid one, as the man’s head is positioned intimately close to the woman’s body, and he seems to feed in the ‘beds of spices’ which is the site of their union.



Exum, J. Cheryl. 2019. Art as Biblical Commentary: Visual Criticism from Hagar the Wife of Abraham to Mary the Mother of Jesus (London: T&T Clark)

_____. 2005. Song of Songs: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press)

Next exhibition: Song of Solomon 8

Song of Solomon 5:2–6:3

Revised Standard Version

Song of Solomon 5

2I slept, but my heart was awake.

Hark! my beloved is knocking.

“Open to me, my sister, my love,

my dove, my perfect one;

for my head is wet with dew,

my locks with the drops of the night.”

3I had put off my garment,

how could I put it on?

I had bathed my feet,

how could I soil them?

4My beloved put his hand to the latch,

and my heart was thrilled within me.

5I arose to open to my beloved,

and my hands dripped with myrrh,

my fingers with liquid myrrh,

upon the handles of the bolt.

6I opened to my beloved,

but my beloved had turned and gone.

My soul failed me when he spoke.

I sought him, but found him not;

I called him, but he gave no answer.

7The watchmen found me,

as they went about in the city;

they beat me, they wounded me,

they took away my mantle,

those watchmen of the walls.

8I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,

if you find my beloved,

that you tell him

I am sick with love.

9What is your beloved more than another beloved,

O fairest among women?

What is your beloved more than another beloved,

that you thus adjure us?

10My beloved is all radiant and ruddy,

distinguished among ten thousand.

11His head is the finest gold;

his locks are wavy,

black as a raven.

12His eyes are like doves

beside springs of water,

bathed in milk,

fitly set.

13His cheeks are like beds of spices,

yielding fragrance.

His lips are lilies,

distilling liquid myrrh.

14His arms are rounded gold,

set with jewels.

His body is ivory work,

encrusted with sapphires.

15His legs are alabaster columns,

set upon bases of gold.

His appearance is like Lebanon,

choice as the cedars.

16His speech is most sweet,

and he is altogether desirable.

This is my beloved and this is my friend,

O daughters of Jerusalem.

6Whither has your beloved gone,

O fairest among women?

Whither has your beloved turned,

that we may seek him with you?

2My beloved has gone down to his garden,

to the beds of spices,

to pasture his flock in the gardens,

and to gather lilies.

3I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine;

he pastures his flock among the lilies.