In Spike Jonez’ bracing (though peculiar) cinematic adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, young Max is transported to a land full of misfit monsters who initially threaten to eat him. They stop—but only because Max tells them that he’s actually a king. A king? They are at once mollified and intrigued. They need a king, you see, to keep things in line. “What about, y’know, loneliness?” One of the monsters asks. When Max looks puzzled, another monster clarified: “Will you keep out the sadness?” Max promises, “I have a sadness shield that keeps out all the sadness, and it’s big enough for all of us.”
Of course, Max the child-king is unprepared for adult emotions. You can’t be happy all the time, he discovers, even in the fantastic kingdom of the wild things. But for most of us, this is what our hearts long for: a “king,” someone who—if we identify with them strongly enough—can help us find happiness, comfort, or significance.
In psalm 45, we find a fascinating combination of two great themes: kingship and marriage. The whole psalm serves to glorify a king as he prepares for his wedding.
PRAISE FOR THE BRIDEGROOM (Psalm 45:1-9)
The psalm opens by focusing on the nature of the king himself—how great he is, and how wealthy and powerful.
To the choirmaster: according to Lilies. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah; a love song. My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe. 2 You are the most handsome of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever. 3 Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one, in your splendor and majesty! 4 In your majesty ride out victoriously for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness; let your right hand teach you awesome deeds! 5 Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you. 6 Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; 7 you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions; 8 your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad; 9 daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.
And, as you might have guessed, while this psalm finds its most immediate application in the ancient kings and customs of the ancient near east, the psalm points forward to the day when Jesus, the true king, would pursue his bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:23-25).
Jesus is the true and better bridegroom, just as he is the true and better king. Some years ago, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard told a story of a king who fell in love with a beautiful maiden. Unfortunately, she was a peasant, and the king’s various courtiers voiced concern about the class division their union might represent. How could true love exist between unequals? The king could elevate the maiden to his own status—but she might love this lavish gift more than the man who gave it. He could reveal his majestic, kingly splendor—but this might evoke fearful admiration rather than genuine affection. The king realized that “the union could not be brought by an elevation,” therefore “it must be attempted by a descent.” He shed his royal robes; he donned the tattered clothing of a peasant. This, says Kierkegaard, is love—the same love that God showed us by putting on the tattered clothing of our humanity. As a German writer would later put it, “sinners are beautiful because they are loved; they are not loved because they are beautiful.”
ADVICE TO THE BRIDE (Psalm 45:10-17)
Next, the psalm turns its focus to the bride.
10 Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear: forget your people and your father’s house, 11 and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him. 12 The people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts, the richest of the people. 13 All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. 14 In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her. 15 With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king. 16 In place of your fathers shall be your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. 17 I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations; therefore nations will praise you forever and ever.
Just as the king points to the ultimate king of Jesus, so too does the bride here reflect God’s people in today’s Church.
Whenever I perform a wedding, I’m prone to quote Stanley Hauerwas, a professor from Duke University—a quote I discovered while reading Pastor Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage. He says that “we always marry the wrong person…Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it.” That’s not cynicism. Hauerwas is offering a helpful corrective to a culture that’s turned marriage into yet another means to self-fulfillment. In her book Divorce Culture, Barbara Defoe Whitehead argues that divorce rates are skyrocketing because we have lost a shared vision of marriage’s true purpose:
“More than in the past, satisfaction in [marriage and family] came to be based on subjective judgments about the content and quality of individual happiness…People began to judge the strength and ‘health’ of family bonds according to their capacity to promote individual fulfillment and personal growth.”
If you say, “I’m doing things my way,” you are not destined for a healthy marriage. The same applies to your spiritual health. I often have people tell me, “I tried Christianity. It didn’t work for me.” Or, “It’s my life. My choices are my own.” We serve self before we serve God. What’s in it for me? How much does God really expect me to change? And like any marriage, we never truly know.
In his famous account of his conversion to Christianity, G.K. Chesterton confronted the conflicting views on marriage in his day:
“…the opponents of marriage…imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being…a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words—`free-love’—as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.”
A few years ago, a friend of mine got engaged. As the day approached, he began to notice all the little freedoms he’d be “forced” to give up. Late-night runs to the drive-thru. Drinking milk straight from the carton. Yet he couldn’t possibly weigh these freedoms against the lasting benefits of marital faithfulness.
Could it be that your reluctance to truly follow Jesus has less to do with your doubts, and more to do with your fears? Let it go. You never know where faith will take you any more than you know where your marriage will end up. Follow your own twisted heart, and you’ll only find more emptiness than ever before. Follow Jesus, and you’ll find everything you never knew you wanted.