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)
1I come to my garden, my sister, my bride,
I gather my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
I drink my wine with my milk.
Eat, O friends, and drink:
drink deeply, O lovers!
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,
13His cheeks are like beds of spices,
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,
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.