God’s Triumphant Love, Parable of the King and the Maiden

The following parable by Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) alludes to the”Song of Songs,” where King Solomon disguised himself as a shepherd to win the heart of the Shulamite w

Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden and whose heart was unaffected by the wisdom that is so often loudly preached. Let then the harp be tuned. Let the songs of the poets begin. Let everyone be festive, while love celebrates its triumph. For love is overjoyed when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes equal that which was unequal. Let the king’s love reign!

But then there arose a sadness in the king’s soul. Who would have dreamed of such a thing except a king with royal thoughts! He spoke to no one about his sadness. Had he done so, each courtier would doubtless have said, “Your Majesty, you are doing the girl a generous favor for which she could never thank you enough.” This, however, would no doubt have aroused the king’s wrath and, in turn, caused the king even more sorrow. Therefore he wrestled with the sorrow in his heart. Would the maiden really be happy? Would she be able to forget what the king wished to forget, namely, that he was the king and she a former lowly maiden? For if this happened, if the memory of her former state awoke within her, and like a favored rival, stole her thoughts away from the king, alluring her into the seclusion of a secret grief; or if this memory at times crossed her soul like death crossing over a grave – where then would the glory of their love be? She would have been happier had she remained in obscurity, loved by one of her own kind.

And even if the maiden were content to be as nothing, the king would never be satisfied, simply because he loved her so. He would much rather lose her than be her benefactor. What deep sorrow there is slumbering in this unhappy love! Who dares to rouse it?

When a believer sins he is still loved by God, God longs for him to know this, and is thus concerned to make him equal with himself. If equality cannot be established, love becomes unhappy and incomplete. The revelation of God’s love becomes meaningless, the two cannot understand each other. How then might this relationship be established? One way could be by the elevation of the disciple. God could lift the disciple up to his own exultant state and this could well divert the disciple with an everlasting joy. But God, the unselfish king, would find no satisfaction in this. He knows that the disciple, like the maiden, would be gravely deceived. For no deceit is so terrible as when it is unsuspected, when a person is, as it were, bewitched by a change of costume.

Perhaps unity could be brought about by God directly appearing to the disciple and receiving his unhindered worship. This would surely make the disciple forget about himself, much in the way the king could have appeared in all his glory to the humble maiden, making her forget herself in worshipping adoration. Alas! this might have satisfied the maiden but not the king, who desires not his own exultation but hers. Nor would she understand him, and this would make the king’s sorrow even worse.

Not in this way, then, could love be made happy. Take an analogy. God has joy in arraying the lily in a garment more glorious than Solomon. But if a flower and a king could understand each other, what a sorry dilemma for a lily to be in! She would wonder whether it was because of her raiment that God loved her. What delusion! And whereas now she stands confident in the meadow, playing with the wind as carefree as the breeze, she would then languish and cease to have the courage to lift her head.

Who grasps the contradiction of this sorrow: not to disclose itself is the death of love; to disclose itself is the death of the beloved. It was God’s longing to prevent this. The unity of love will have to be brought about in some other way. If not by way of elevation, of ascent, then by a descent of the lowest kind. God must become the equal of the lowliest. But the lowliest is one who serves others. God therefore must appear in the form of a servant. But this servant’s form is not merely something he puts on, like the beggar’s cloak, which, because it is only a cloak, flutters loosely and betrays the king. No, it is his true form. For this is the unfathomable nature of boundless love, that it desires to be equal with the beloved; not in jest, but in truth. And this is the omnipotence of resolving love, deciding to be equal with the beloved.

Look, then, there he stands – God! Where? There! Don’t you see him? He is the God, and yet he has no place to lay his head, and he does not dare to turn to any person lest that person be offended at him. It is sheer love and sheer sorrow to want to express the unity of love and then to not be understood. 

God suffers all things, endures all things, is tried in all things, hungers in the desert, thirsts in his agonies, is forsaken in death, and became absolutely the equal of the lowliest of human beings – look, behold the man! He yields his spirit in death, on a cross, and then leaves the earth. Oh bitter cup! More bitter than wormwood is the ignominy of death for a mortal. How must it be, then, for the immortal one! Oh bitter refreshment, more sour than vinegar – to be refreshed by the beloved’s misunderstanding! Oh consolation in affliction to suffer as one who is guilty – what must it be, then, to suffer as one who is innocent!

God is not zealous for himself but out of love wants to be equal with the most lowly of the lowly. What power! When an oak seed is planted in a clay pot, the pot breaks; when new wine is poured into old wineskins, they burst. What happens, then, when God the king plants himself in the frailty of a human being? Does he not become a new person and a new vessel! Oh, this becoming – how difficult it really is, and how like birth itself! How terrifying! It is indeed less terrifying to fall upon one’s face, while the mountains tremble at God’s voice, than to sit with him in love as his equal. And yet God’s longing is precisely to sit in this way.

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