Ever had to rebound from rejection in order to save the day? You're not alone. Fly through the green wood with the nightingale as she battles the cruelty of comparison and societal dismissal, and courageously faces off against death itself.
Where did I get all these facts about nightingales?
Shield Maidens: Episode 3
“The Nightingale”: Uncaged
Welcome to Lost in the Woods: Finding Your Way as God’s Daughter Through Fairy Tales ™. I’m your host, Autumn Woods, and I’m so excited you’re here. We’re continuing our exploration of stories that show us what it means to be a warrior woman on the spiritual battlefield. Tales of women who protect those in their charge and use their skillsets to defeat the evil that would destroy them and all they love. Last time, we talked about community and treating people with love and kindness in order to rescue them from darkness. In this episode, we will focus on the strength and courage it takes to love others when they reject you. How do you find the will to fight for someone who casts you aside? Is it possible to keep covering them as an ezer kenegdo if they don’t want you around or want to ensnare you with unhealthy boundaries? Does the world’s rejection nullify the gifts God gave you?
Hans Christian Andersen’s beautiful story, “The Nightingale,” captures all the facets of these conflicts exceptionally well. It is the tale of a little bird with a large gift and a lack of commercial marketability. She is honest and genuine and does what she is created to do as no one else can—on her own, humble terms. We’re taken on the journey with her, as she sets others free from weariness and despair, battles the cruelty of comparison and societal dismissal, and courageously faces off against death itself.
So, let’s get lost, as we read the story of (The Nightingale).
The story I am going to tell you happened a great many years ago, so it is well to hear it now before it is forgotten. The emperor’s palace was the most beautiful in the world. It was built entirely of porcelain, and very costly, but so delicate and brittle that whoever touched it was obliged to be careful. In the garden could be seen the most singular flowers, with pretty silver bells tied to them, which tinkled so that everyone who passed could not help noticing the flowers. Indeed, everything in the emperor’s garden was remarkable, and it extended so far that the gardener himself did not know where it ended. Those who travelled beyond its limits knew that there was a noble forest, with lofty trees, sloping down to the deep blue sea, and the great ships sailed under the shadow of its branches. In one of these trees lived a nightingale, who sang so beautifully that even the poor fishermen, who had so many other things to do, would stop and listen. Sometimes, when they went at night to spread their nets, they would hear her sing, and say, “Oh, is not that beautiful?” But when they returned to their fishing, they forgot the bird until the next night. Then they would hear it again, and exclaim “Oh, how beautiful is the nightingale’s song!”
Travelers from every country in the world came to the city of the emperor, which they admired very much, as well as the palace and gardens; but when they heard the nightingale, they all declared it to be the best of all. And the travelers, on their return home, related what they had seen; and learned men wrote books, containing descriptions of the town, the palace, and the gardens; but they did not forget the nightingale, which was really the greatest wonder. And those who could write poetry composed beautiful verses about the nightingale, who lived in a forest near the deep sea. The books travelled all over the world, and some of them came into the hands of the emperor; and he sat in his golden chair, and, as he read, he nodded his approval every moment, for it pleased him to find such a beautiful description of his city, his palace, and his gardens. But when he came to the words, the nightingale is the most beautiful of all, he exclaimed, “What is this? I know nothing of any nightingale. Is there such a bird in my empire? and even in my garden? I have never heard of it. Something, it appears, may be learnt from books.”
Then he called one of his lords-in-waiting, who was so high-bred, that when any in an inferior rank to himself spoke to him, or asked him a question, he would answer, “Pooh!” which means nothing.
“There is a very wonderful bird mentioned here, called a nightingale, said the emperor; they say it is the best thing in my large kingdom. Why have I not been told of it?”
“I have never heard the name,” replied the cavalier; “she has not been presented at court.”
“It is my pleasure that she shall appear this evening,” said the emperor; “the whole world knows what I possess better than I do myself.”
“I have never heard of her,” said the cavalier; “yet I will endeavor to find her.”
But where was the nightingale to be found? The nobleman went upstairs and down, through halls and passages; yet none of those whom he met had heard of the bird. So, he returned to the emperor, and said that it must be a fable, invented by those who had written the book. “Your imperial majesty,” said he,” cannot believe everything contained in books; sometimes they are only fiction, or what is called the black art.”
“But the book in which I have read this account,” said the emperor, “was sent to me by the great and mighty emperor of Japan, and therefore it cannot contain a falsehood. I will hear the nightingale, she must be here this evening; she has my highest favor; and if she does not come, the whole court shall be trampled upon after supper is ended.”
“Tsing-pe!” cried the lord-in-waiting, and again he ran up and down stairs, through all the halls and corridors; and half the court ran with him, for they did not like the idea of being trampled upon. There was a great inquiry about this wonderful nightingale, whom all the world knew, but who was unknown to the court.
At last they met with a poor little girl in the kitchen, who said, “Oh, yes, I know the nightingale quite well; indeed, she can sing. Every evening I have permission to take home to my poor sick mother the scraps from the table; she lives down by the sea-shore, and as I come back I feel tired, and I sit down in the wood to rest, and listen to the nightingale’s song. Then the tears come into my eyes, and it is just as if my mother kissed me.”
“Little maiden,” said the lord-in-waiting, “I will obtain for you constant employment in the kitchen, and you shall have permission to see the emperor dine, if you will lead us to the nightingale; for she is invited for this evening to the palace.” So she went into the wood where the nightingale sang, and half the court followed her. As they went along, a cow began lowing.
“Oh,” said a young courtier, “now we have found her; what wonderful power for such a small creature; I have certainly heard it before.”
“No, that is only a cow lowing,” said the little girl; “we are a long way from the place yet.”
Then some frogs began to croak in the marsh.
“Beautiful,” said the young courtier again. “Now I hear it, tinkling like little church bells.”
“No, those are frogs,” said the little maiden; “but I think we shall soon hear her now,” and presently the nightingale began to sing.
“Hark, hark! there she is,” said the girl, “and there she sits,” she added, pointing to a little gray bird who was perched on a bough.
“Is it possible?” said the lord-in-waiting, “I never imagined it would be a little, plain, simple thing like that. She has certainly changed color at seeing so many grand people around her.”
“Little nightingale,” cried the girl, raising her voice, “our most gracious emperor wishes you to sing before him.”
“With the greatest pleasure,” said the nightingale, and began to sing most delightfully.
“It sounds like tiny glass bells,” said the lord-in-waiting, “and see how her little throat works. It is surprising that we have never heard this before; she will be a great success at court.”
“Shall I sing once more before the emperor?” asked the nightingale, who thought he was present.
“My excellent little nightingale,” said the courtier, “I have the great pleasure of inviting you to a court festival this evening, where you will gain imperial favor by your charming song.”
“My song sounds best in the green wood,” said the bird; but still she came willingly when she heard the emperors wish.
The palace was elegantly decorated for the occasion. The walls and floors of porcelain glittered in the light of a thousand lamps. Beautiful flowers, round which little bells were tied, stood in the corridors: what with the running to and fro and the draught, these bells tinkled so loudly that no one could speak to be heard. In the center of the great hall, a golden perch had been fixed for the nightingale to sit on. The whole court was present, and the little kitchen-maid had received permission to stand by the door. She was not installed as a real court cook. All were in full dress, and every eye was turned to the little gray bird when the emperor nodded to her to begin. The nightingale sang so sweetly that the tears came into the emperor’s eyes, and then rolled down his cheeks, as her song became still more touching and went to everyone’s heart. The emperor was so delighted that he declared the nightingale should have his gold slipper to wear round her neck, but she declined the honor with thanks: she had been sufficiently rewarded already. “I have seen tears in an emperor’s eyes,” she said, “that is my richest reward. An emperor’s tears have wonderful power, and are quite sufficient honor for me;” and then she sang again more enchantingly than ever.
“That singing is a lovely gift;” said the ladies of the court to each other; and then they took water in their mouths to make them utter the gurgling sounds of the nightingale when they spoke to anyone, so that they might fancy themselves nightingales. And the footmen and chambermaids also expressed their satisfaction, which is saying a great deal, for they are very difficult to please. In fact, the nightingales visit was most successful. She was now to remain at court, to have her own cage, with liberty to go out twice a day, and once during the night. Twelve servants were appointed to attend her on these occasions, who each held her by a silken string fastened to her leg. There was certainly not much pleasure in this kind of flying.
The whole city spoke of the wonderful bird, and when two people met, one said “nightin,” and the other said “gale,” and they understood what was meant, for nothing else was talked of. Eleven peddlers’ children were named after her, but not of them could sing a note.
One day the emperor received a large packet on which was written “The Nightingale.” “Here is no doubt a new book about our celebrated bird,” said the emperor. But instead of a book, it was a work of art contained in a casket, an artificial nightingale made to look like a living one, and covered all over with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. As soon as the artificial bird was wound up, it could sing like the real one, and could move its tail up and down, which sparkled with silver and gold. Round its neck hung a piece of ribbon, on which was written “The Emperor of China’s nightingale is poor compared with that of the Emperor of Japan’s.”
“This is very beautiful,” exclaimed all who saw it, and he who had brought the artificial bird received the title of “Imperial nightingale-bringer-in-chief.”
“Now they must sing together,” said the court, “and what a duet it will be.” But they did not get on well, for the real nightingale sang in its own natural way, but the artificial bird sang only waltzes.
“That is not a fault,” said the music-master, “it is quite perfect to my taste,” so then it had to sing alone, and was as successful as the real bird; besides, it was so much prettier to look at, for it sparkled like bracelets and breast-pins. Three and thirty times did it sing the same tunes without being tired; the people would gladly have heard it again, but the emperor said the living nightingale ought to sing something. But where was she? No one had noticed her when she flew out at the open window, back to her own green woods.
“What strange conduct,” said the emperor, when her flight had been discovered; and all the courtiers blamed her, and said she was a very ungrateful creature.
“But we have the best bird after all, said one,” and then they would have the bird sing again, although it was the thirty-fourth time they had listened to the same piece, and even then they had not learnt it, for it was rather difficult. But the music-master praised the bird in the highest degree, and even asserted that it was better than a real nightingale, not only in its dress and the beautiful diamonds, but also in its musical power. “For you must perceive, my chief lord and emperor, that with a real nightingale we can never tell what is going to be sung, but with this bird everything is settled. It can be opened and explained, so that people may understand how the waltzes are formed, and why one note follows upon another.”
“This is exactly what we think,” they all replied, and then the music-master received permission to exhibit the bird to the people on the following Sunday, and the emperor commanded that they should be present to hear it sing. When they heard it, they were like people intoxicated; however, it must have been with drinking tea, which is quite a Chinese custom. They all said Oh! and held up their forefingers and nodded, but a poor fisherman, who had heard the real nightingale, said, “it sounds prettily enough, and the melodies are all alike; yet there seems something wanting, I cannot exactly tell what.”
And after this the real nightingale was banished from the empire, and the artificial bird placed on a silk cushion close to the emperor’s bed. The presents of gold and precious stones which had been received with it were round the bird, and it was now advanced to the title of Little Imperial Toilet Singer, and to the rank of No. 1 on the left hand; for the emperor considered the left side, on which the heart lies, as the most noble, and the heart of an emperor is in the same place as that of other people.
The music-master wrote a work, in twenty-five volumes, about the artificial bird, which was very learned and very long, and full of the most difficult Chinese words; yet all the people said they had read it, and understood it, for fear of being thought stupid and having their bodies trampled upon.
So, a year passed, and the emperor, the court, and all the other Chinese knew every little turn in the artificial bird’s song; and for that same reason it pleased them better. They could sing with the bird, which they often did. The street-boys sang, “Zi-zi-zi, cluck, cluck, cluck,” and the emperor himself could sing it also. It was really most amusing.
One evening, when the artificial bird was singing its best, and the emperor lay in bed listening to it, something inside the bird sounded “whizz.” Then a spring cracked. “Whir-r-r-r” went all the wheels, running round, and then the music stopped. The emperor immediately sprang out of bed, and called for his physician; but what could he do? Then they sent for a watchmaker; and, after a great deal of talking and examination, the bird was put into something like order; but he said that it must be used very carefully, as the barrels were worn, and it would be impossible to put in new ones without injuring the music. Now there was great sorrow, as the bird could only be allowed to play once a year; and even that was dangerous for the works inside it. Then the music-master made a little speech, full of hard words, and declared that the bird was as good as ever; and, of course no one contradicted him.
Five years passed, and then a real grief came upon the land. The Chinese really were fond of their emperor, and he now lay so ill that he was not expected to live. Already a new emperor had been chosen and the people who stood in the street asked the lord-in-waiting how the old emperor was; but he only said, “Pooh!” and shook his head.
Cold and pale lay the emperor in his royal bed; the whole court thought he was dead, and everyone ran away to pay homage to his successor. The chamberlains went out to have a talk on the matter, and the ladies-maids invited company to take coffee. Cloth had been laid down on the halls and passages, so that not a footstep should be heard, and all was silent and still. But the emperor was not yet dead, although he lay white and stiff on his gorgeous bed, with the long velvet curtains and heavy gold tassels. A window stood open, and the moon shone in upon the emperor and the artificial bird. The poor emperor, finding he could scarcely breathe with a strange weight on his chest, opened his eyes, and saw Death sitting there. He had put on the emperor’s golden crown, and held in one hand his sword of state, and in the other his beautiful banner. All around the bed and peeping through the long velvet curtains, were a number of strange heads, some very ugly, and others lovely and gentle-looking. These were the emperors good and bad deeds, which stared him in the face now Death sat at his heart.
“Do you remember this? Do you recollect that?” they asked one after another, thus bringing to his remembrance circumstances that made the perspiration stand on his brow.
“I know nothing about it,” said the emperor. “Music! music!” he cried; “the large drum! that I may not hear what they say.” But they still went on, and Death nodded to all they said. “Music! music!” shouted the emperor. “You, little precious golden bird, sing, pray sing! I have given you gold and costly presents; I have even hung my golden slipper round your neck. Sing! sing!” But the bird remained silent. There was no one to wind it up, and therefore it could not sing a note.
Death continued to stare at the emperor with his cold, hollow eyes, and the room was fearfully still. Suddenly there came through the open window the sound of sweet music. Outside, on the bough of a tree, sat the living nightingale. She had heard of the emperors illness, and was therefore come to sing to him of hope and trust. And as she sung, the shadows grew paler and paler; the blood in the emperor’s veins flowed more rapidly, and gave life to his weak limbs; and even Death himself listened, and said, “Go on, little nightingale, go on.”
“Then will you give me the beautiful golden sword and that rich banner? and will you give me the emperor’s crown?” said the bird.
So, Death gave up each of these treasures for a song; and the nightingale continued her singing. She sung of the quiet churchyard, where the white roses grow, where the elder-tree wafts its perfume on the breeze, and the fresh, sweet grass is moistened by the mourners’ tears. Then Death longed to go and see his garden, and floated out through the window in the form of a cold, white mist.
“Thanks, thanks, you heavenly little bird. I know you well. I banished you from my kingdom once, and yet you have charmed away the evil faces from my bed, and banished Death from my heart, with your sweet song. How can I reward you?”
“You have already rewarded me,” said the nightingale. “I shall never forget that I drew tears from your eyes the first time I sang to you. These are the jewels that rejoice a singer’s heart. But now sleep, and grow strong and well again. I will sing to you again.”
And as she sung, the emperor fell into a sweet sleep; and how mild and refreshing that slumber was! When he awoke, strengthened and restored, the sun shone brightly through the window; but not one of his servants had returned; they all believed he was dead; only the nightingale still sat beside him, and sang.
“You must always remain with me,” said the emperor. “You shall sing only when it pleases you; and I will break the artificial bird into a thousand pieces.”
“No; do not do that,” replied the nightingale; “the bird did very well as long as it could. Keep it here still. I cannot live in the palace, and build my nest; but let me come when I like. I will sit on a bough outside your window, in the evening, and sing to you, so that you may be happy, and have thoughts full of joy. I will sing to you of those who are happy, and those who suffer; of the good and the evil, who are hidden around you. The little singing bird flies far from you and your court to the home of the fisherman and the peasant’s cot. I love your heart better than your crown; and yet something holy lingers round that also. I will come, I will sing to you; but you must promise me one thing.”
“Everything,” said the emperor, who, having dressed himself in his imperial robes, stood with the hand that held the heavy golden sword pressed to his heart.
“I only ask one thing,” she replied; “let no one know that you have a little bird who tells you everything. It will be best to conceal it.” So saying, the nightingale flew away.
The servants now came in to look after the dead emperor; when, lo! there he stood, and, to their astonishment, said, “Good morning.”
Hands down, this is one of my favorite Andersen stories. The ending is not truly sad. The nightingale is wise enough to know that she is not meant to sit obediently on a pedestal and perform on command. Her freedom is found in simple quiet living, so that she may listen to what goes on in the stillness and exercise her giftings as a guardian of the heart effectively and beautifully. Don’t wander away from the campfire. We’re about to shed some light on the incredible treasure hidden in this story, after a brief message.
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Alright, back to the analysis. We begin in a new place and time: imperial China. From the beginning, Andersen sets a scene of beautiful fragility and artifice. Like the kingdom under the sea in “The Little Mermaid,” the emperor’s palace is superficially crafted. It is made of expensive porcelain, but it is so brittle that one false move could crack the entire structure. Even the flowers in the garden, lovely enough by themselves, are harnessed with little bells to draw attention to them, as if everyone is too busy to stop and discover their God-given splendor without an alert going off. Already, we see the foreshadowing of the nightingale’s rejection at court. In the palace, good is never good enough. It must have manufactured pizazz and flair added to it in order to be acceptable. This setting sharply contrasts with the noble, lofty forest which leads down to the sea, where the nightingale lives. Her realm is one of natural strength and beauty, which God has called good. It contains a simple, rejuvenating loveliness. In the palace, one must walk on eggshells to preserve order. In the forest, one can be set free by sitting still. The comparison between the palace and the woods is similar to the parable of the houses built on sand and on the rock. The foundation makes all the difference in the world as to which one will remain standing in the end. Worldly kingdoms come and go, but God’s kingdom and creative power remain, and nature reflects this as surely as a piece of art reflects the personality of its maker.
The nightingale’s little world is full of life, and therefore limitless. As mentioned last week, water and trees represent life and renewal. Birds themselves are often Holy Spirit figures in fairy tales, as are bodies of water. Trees are connected to the death and resurrection of Christ. Our heroine is strongly in touch with the spiritual realm because she is surrounded by physical reminders of it in creation. She herself is poured into by the beauty of her home and shares her joy with others in songs that touch their hearts and give them the courage to persevere. Her strength and authority come from her Godly environment. She knows that “[her] song sounds best in the green wood” and does not see leaving it for the palace as a steppingstone to greatness. Deep down, she knows she must return to the source of her strength, or her song will die.
Have you noticed a difference in your effectiveness in the days or weeks that you saturate yourself with God the most? The more we chase Him and the longer we spend in His presence, the better we understand His will for us and the thinner the veil gets for us between the natural and the spiritual. We can discern the truth and look at the nature of the spirit behind words and events that affect our lives. We get the courage to call things what they are and pray with confidence. It becomes easier to speak life over those we come in contact with. And our gifts get stronger so that we can rescue others who are hurting or held captive.
Anyone brave enough to cross the limits of the artificial world of the palace knows that if they journey far enough into the woods, they will hear the enchanting song of the nightingale. While studies show that it is mostly the male of the species that sings, some females have been known to. This makes the nightingale in our story that much rarer and more fascinating. Knowing that her music can save a human heart from despair, she happily shares her gift with anyone who passes by, including the fishermen working at night, who enjoy her serenades for a moment, forget them when returning to work, and take joy in them all over again the following evening. Her songs encourage them in their labor and invigorate their spirits, fighting their fatigue. The idea comes across that she will sing whether or not anyone is present or remembers what she has done. She makes music because that is what she is created to do, not for fame and renown. Those are merely byproducts of her faithfulness with what she has been given. She is a guardian of the human hearts in her domain, and that is enough.
Travelers who come to the emperor’s lands easily discern that the nightingale’s sweet song is lovelier than the porcelain palace and vast but walled-in garden. Like David outstripping Saul in fame and glory, the nightingale and her songs supersede the emperor’s finery in the books, poems, and stories told of his empire. The deluge of praise poured out for the tiny songstress is anthologized and sent to the emperor of China by his counterpart in Japan. Astonished that such a wonder could exist in his backyard without his knowledge, the emperor insists that the nightingale be brought to him this evening to perform for him. He speaks of her as if he owns her, stating that “the whole world knows what [he possesses] better than [he does himself].” It is ridiculous to think of the emperor owning a creature he has never met, but celebrity and power can do strange things to people. A nasty sense of entitlement can creep in when people are not used to humbling themselves before a higher power. Oddly enough, it is the emperor, perched on his throne, who is imprisoned in his palace like a bird in a cage, while the literal bird in our story is free to fly about wherever she pleases. If anything, he lives in her dominion and as an ezer kenegdo, she is in charge of protecting him.
The reaction of the lord-in-waiting to the lack of information about the nightingale is also laughable. His pride wounded at not being able to produce any evidence of the nightingale’s existence, he intimates that perhaps she is a fantasy of literature and one cannot always believe what they read in books, because they may contain trivial fiction or black magic. I’m guessing the lord-in-waiting doesn’t have much in his very practical and serious library, if he has one at all. In the natural, Andersen means for us to lump him in with that fascinating group of people who cannot understand artistic endeavors and have no patience for imagination and fantasy, because they themselves have lost their sense of wonder. These are the same people, by the way, who will turn on the radio on their commute home, watch their favorite television program at dinner, and read a new book before going to bed. From a spiritual standpoint, this high-ranking servant represents pharisaism. He is so concerned with appearances, rules, decorum, and practicality, that there is no room for joy and discovery. In fact, anything outside of his understanding becomes offensive. God despises that stony kind of heart because there is no room for relationship in it. That’s why He tells us we have to come to Him like children. Children are always learning new things. They stand on the truth they know but are willing to accept that there is much to learn. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways, acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
It is fitting then that only the little girl who carries the scraps out of the kitchen knows where to find the nightingale and can tell the members of the court firsthand of the bird’s prowess. When the girl becomes weary on her journey to her mother’s house by the sea, she stops in the nightingale’s wood to rest. The sound of the nightingale’s beautiful song heals her heart and strengthens her body so that she may continue the long walk home and care for her sick mother before returning to her toil in the palace.
Isaiah 50:4 says “The Lord God has given Me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him who is weary.” In Matthew 11:28-29, Jesus says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” While these verses refer to Jesus, we are told by Him in John 14:12 that we who believe in Him will do the works He does and greater. We are meant to revitalize the weary by speaking life over them, which we have flowing inside of us because we receive it from God in the still, quiet moments of our day. We can defeat depression, despair, and heartache, slicing through them with “the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). This is what the nightingale does for those who listen to her gift. She reaches through the darkness and misery surrounding the human heart and breaks through it with her joyful song. She is humble and small but knows the precious victory of a heart set free.
Like the nightingale, the little girl would have been considered unimportant in the palace until now. She is the lowest of the low, not even on the radar of the emperor or the snooty members of his court. Yet it is she who has intimate knowledge of the most precious gift in the entire country. Jesus tells us that the least on earth will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Unless we come to Him with the openness and guilelessness of a child, we cannot even enter the Kingdom. We will be too proud to hear the King when He speaks. In her innocence, the little girl is greater, wiser, and more knowledgeable than the silly members of the imperial court, who cannot distinguish the lowing of a cow or the croak of a frog from the melodious song of the nightingale. They are so concerned with appearing knowledgeable and unimpressed before the kitchen maid, that they cannot allow the wonder of creation to permeate their porcelain hearts.
The members of the court are so jaded that when they at last come face to face with the nightingale, they are at first arrested by her ordinary appearance and allow this shock to poison their natural reactions to the joy of her singing. They look only “at outward appearance, while the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). They remind me of legalistic Christians sneering at alternative looking worship singers and of people who take the glamorous rules of celebrity as gospel, dismissing anything that is not aesthetically pleasing. One day, those cultures will pass away and God’s truth will be recognized as the only correct ideology. Until then it is easy to be blinded and distracted from His voice by the stringent rules of the world we adopt because we do not know better. If we listen to the lies of the enemy long enough, when we finally do hear the truth, we mistake the sweet song of the nightingale for the unnerving croak of a frog in the pond.
For her part, the nightingale has no trouble mistaking the haughty lord-in-waiting for the emperor. She does not concern herself with worldly affairs and does not think it strange that a king would humble himself to come to the woods to experience peace and refreshment. Despite the insults of the lord-in-waiting, she happily sings for the company. When they invite her back to the palace to sing before the court, the little bird hesitates. She is wise enough to know that her song sounds best where she is the freest. Nightingales are loners by nature. They will hide in bushes and sing their hearts out, concealed like the mechanisms of a music box. But she is willing to take a chance and try something new because she has been asked for. It is always an honor when you are asked to share your gifts because part of the reason you have them is to minister to other people.
When we return to the palace with the nightingale and the courtiers, we are reminded of those ominous bells tied to the flowers as we pass through the elaborate garden to the great hall. In fact, the noise of manufactured beauty is so loud that people cannot talk over it. But nightingales have the ability to project boisterously over background noise. Undeterred, she takes her place near the emperor and opens her mouth. The purity of her song drowns out the cacophony and pierces the hearts of everyone present. Anything we do for the glory of God changes the atmosphere around us, but praise and worship alters it radically. It is one of our greatest weapons because it focuses our attention on God and His mighty works. It requires us to shift our concentration from our problems and despair and come into the presence of the one being who is greater than anything we could ever face. Songs sung with the right heart transport our souls. They drive out demons. They shatter chains and crumble prison walls. They set captives free.
The emperor is moved to tears by the nightingale’s music. He is so touched that he does not know how to reward her and offers her the absurd gift of his golden slipper to wear around her neck. Respectfully, she declines. Not only is the gift impractical, it is dangerous. It would be a yolk around her neck and weigh her down so that she could never fly freely again. Symbolically, she would be surrendering her authority by consenting to wear it. Like Daniel and his friends in Babylon, the nightingale will not accept anything, however well-intentioned, that could threaten her life, spiritual freedom, or joy, because it will render her ineffective. She does not “store up… treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). By the tears on the emperor’s face, she knows that she has reached his heart with her song, and that is her true reward. She has done what she is meant to and done it well. “An emperor’s tears have wonderful power.” They are evidence that beneath the façade of finery, he is a human man with a heart of flesh. If the leader of a nation humbles himself before God, the people will be encouraged to follow suit and allow transformation to occur, permitting God’s will to be done on earth as they willingly draw near to Him. As warrior women, the human heart is our fortress and battleground and we are created to defend it. This may mean that we prick the hearts and consciences of those in our charge simply by living a life contrary to what has become widely acceptable. Our “quiet example” can start a spiritual revolution.
Although the nightingale has opened the door for internal rejuvenation, the callous court misses the opportunity and begins selling her like a product. She becomes a trend, a fashion statement. People name their children after her, although they are devoid of her singing abilities, turn her name into a common greeting, and women go about trying to imitate her gift by gurgling water in their mouths when they speak. Instead of receiving the ministry of the nightingale’s humbleness and healing voice, they capitalize on it and cheapen it by making her a pop culture icon. The church and the world are both guilty of idolizing people who are gifted and talented and subjecting them to cruel standards for the sake of “quality” entertainment. The crime here is not only that it is a form of dehumanization, it removes God from the equation. Gifts and talents are given to individuals to remind us of God, of our future eternal home and life with Him. The extraordinary invades the ordinary like bright roses bursting through barren ground to remind us that this current world is not perfected yet and the best is yet to come.
The nightingale’s purpose is being thwarted by the harmful constraints put on her by the court. Her personal freedom begins to be compromised when she agrees “to remain at court, to have her own cage, with liberty to go out twice a day, and once during the night.” And even when she does get the chance to spread her wings, “twelve servants [are] appointed to…[hold] her by a silken string fastened to her leg.” Remember that twelve is the number of government and though the silken string may look luxurious, it is no better than a prison chain. Through her good intentions, the nightingale has betrayed herself and submitted to the wrong kind of authority for the chance to share her gift. These limited excursions crowded by servants are not conducive to the nightingale’s health or happiness. She has a migratory instinct that cannot be ignored. In fact, many nightingales have committed suicide in captivity because they could not escape their cages and follow their God-given urge to travel for their safety and well-being. She must be free to soar and refresh herself in the green wood by the sea and her other seasonal homes, or her spirit will break, and she will die.
Like a migratory instinct, we have an immovable desire for eternity in our hearts. God put it there in hopes that we would come running to Him willingly, longing to spend time with Him and allowing Him to restore our souls. When other people and demands stomp on the time we need to refresh our hearts in His presence, we get weary and irritable because we have been away from our source of life for too long. We snatch a few moments here and there and hope they are enough to get us through the day, the week, or more. It is rushed and unfulfilling and it makes God seem further away than He really is. There is “not much pleasure in this kind of flying.” It’s exhausting. And you can’t wield a sword if you’re too tired to pick it up. You become vulnerable to attack when you are worn out, unable to protect yourself or anyone else. That’s when the enemy likes to pounce. Remember that even Jesus had to cope with temptation, and the devil waited until the Son of God was physically exhausted to make his move. Fortunately, Jesus was armed and ready for confrontation on the spiritual battlefield, but even after wrecking the devil’s plans, He needed time to refresh His spirit in the company of angels before going out to face the world again (Matthew 4:11).
Our heroine has been away from her source for far too long. She has had precious little time to quietly renew her own heart in the midst of the discord of palace life. A startling wake-up call comes for the nightingale in the form of an insulting gift. The Emperor of Japan, who initially sends the book praising the nightingale’s song, now delivers a casket containing a glittering, mechanical imitation of the “celebrated bird” with a nasty note, which reads, “The Emperor of China’s nightingale is poor compared with that of the Emperor of Japan’s.” This clockwork nightingale can sing only one song, and it must be wound up in order to perform, but this hardly matters to the superficial courtiers, who are in awe of the bird’s bejeweled appearance. The haughty master-of-music prefers this artificial songstress to the real one because it is more easily controlled and consistent, none of this free will and natural, varied delivery that distinguishes inspiring artistic expression from mind-numbing, commercialized dreck. He insists that the two birds sing together, which is a complete disaster because no one has ever tried to manipulate the nightingale’s natural ability before, and she cannot conform to the relentless mechanical march sung by the glamorous knock-off. The music master declares that the new bird must be allowed sing by itself.
Have you ever had too many cooks telling you what to do with your gifts? It starts of well enough with someone acknowledging your abilities, but then experts and rule makers get called in to make you more palatable. Since God didn’t make you to fit any mold but the one He designed in your mother’s womb, you are naturally resistant to the changes they suggest. You agree to this and that to be amicable, but your freedom is being chipped away like the edges of an ice float until the day comes when you are standing on a 2’x2’ block of ice bobbing in the water and they insist on taking one more inch. Then you snap. It’s snap, take back your authority, and paddle your little ice cube to shore, or give in and drown. I’m not just referring to the entertainment industry. This happens in ministries, churches, families and careers everywhere. It is one thing to quickly agree with someone for the sake of harmony. It is another to mistakenly surrender your authority and drain the holy anointing out of your purpose until you are nothing but dry bones.
Realizing that there is no longer a place for her at the emperor’s court and that her protection and life-giving songs are no longer wanted, the little gray nightingale takes her leave, flying unnoticed back to her beloved green wood as the golden bird is wound up repeatedly to sing the same song over and over again. After the 33rd time the waltz has played, the emperor finally remarks that “the living nightingale ought to sing something.” He makes this observation too late, for she is already gone. The cattle-minded courtiers viciously assert that she is a “very ungrateful creature,” and turn their hearts wholly to this graven image of artificial beauty.
This terrible scene is not unlike what happens in “Thumbelina” with the May-bugs. Thumbelina is described as being very beautiful throughout the story. She does not transform into a beast simply because of the vicious comments made about her appearance by the lady May-bugs. But she is wounded inside. Although her feathers are brown and gray, the nightingale has a beautiful voice strong enough to shatter the stone walls around a human heart. It is her natural, divinely appointed gift, and it cannot be taken away by the arrival of the beautiful new bird or the disdain of the court. But the rejection still hurts. It is unreasonable to stay where you are not wanted, and if she had not left, the nightingale would have sunk into the despair from which she fights to save others. Extricating herself from the palace and going home to heal is the best choice she could have made. Before sending them out to minister, Jesus told His disciples “And whoever will not receive you, when you go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet as a testimony against them” (Luke 9:5). The reason we are to shake the dust off of our feet is that when the spirit of rejection clings to us, it prevents us from being effective at the next available opportunity. It’s hard to be kind and selfless and protect other people when you’re still choking to death on the ashes of ruin. Take it from someone who’s still scraping grit from between her toes. The nightingale has not lost her gift, but it has been rejected in spite of her best efforts. So, she brushes the glittering porcelain dust from her feet and takes off.
There are many people who are given different varieties of the same gifts and talents. Each of us is equipped uniquely because not everyone likes the same things or receives the same way. It speaks of the limitlessness of God that He continues to create people with such fascinating variances on even the most basic traits. We are designed by God to thrive and succeed and glorify Him in the environment He sets us in, using the gifts and talents He has given us. The body is made of many parts, and no part should despise another or discount itself as less important, according to 1 Corinthians 12. Verse twenty-two tells us that “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”
This Kingdom mindset does not reconcile well with a world that weighs everything on the scales of gain and commercial marketability. I’m not saying that God is passively handing out participation trophies to everyone who shows up on earth, but I am pointing out that He sees value in everyone He creates because He took the time to lovingly craft us, weaving different pieces of Himself into our being. David says in Psalm 139, “My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.” All through Genesis, every time the Lord makes something, He calls it “good.” He’s a God of intimacy and He enjoys the little things about you that not everyone gets to see because you’re not blaring them from a flashy platform. I’m still learning this, believe me. We grow up in a celebrity culture that presents us with the idea that if people don’t recognize you and what you’re doing, it’s like the proverbial tree in the forest: are you really doing it? I’m trying to remind myself that the answer is yes. No one saw David kill the lion or the bear threatening his father’s sheep with his bare hands, but God did. God trained David in the quiet of the field so that when the time came to raise him up as Israel’s warrior and king, he was ready, and his heart already belonged to God. But it isn’t easy to remember that when people who seem to have authority in this world are constantly telling you that you aren’t capable of what God has put in your heart to do.
It’s hard enough experiencing rejection on any level as a flawed human being. Imagine facing it as the God of the Universe. It isn’t limited to the crucifixion of Jesus, either. It’s been happening from before the creation of man until now. One third of his angels, led by a prideful and ambitious former music minister, desired to put themselves above God. We weren’t even on the scene yet, and the angels were already deciding that God’s leadership was not good enough. Imagine the delight Satan experienced in the Garden of Eden when He convinced God’s newest additions to creation to fall under the same delusion. A war has waged over our hearts ever since, and even those who love God dearly find themselves putting idols ahead of Him without realizing it. I can’t help comparing the golden nightingale to the golden calf of Exodus. Israel had gotten a taste of life and protection from the Great I AM, but they grew impatient and complacent and turned back to the dead gods of Egypt—which God had already shown to be powerless.
Notice that the artificial bird arrives in a casket. While we know that caskets can be small boxes containing treasure and jewels, the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear that word is a coffin. The golden bird arrives in a box of death while our heroine is referred to by the emperor as “the living nightingale.” The people of China are presented with life and death. This is bigger than technology versus nature. This is a physicalization of the eternal choice each of us is given. In Deuteronomy 30:19, God explains to Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.” Earlier in the passage, He makes it clear that if the people turn their hearts away from Him, giving themselves over to idols, they are removing themselves from the protection of the Living God, and inviting death to cut them off from Him and His best plans for them. He won’t force Himself on us. If we choose to chase after everything but Him, the Lord will graciously step back and let us experience life without Him, since we seem to want it so badly. It never ends well, unless we wholeheartedly choose to come back to Him.
At first, everyone says good riddance to the true nightingale and praises the new bird. It’s high priest, the master-of-music, extolls the golden bird for being constant and easy to understand, complaining that with the living nightingale, “we can never tell what is going to be sung.” This is the same attitude held by the lord-in-waiting when he first hears of the songbird’s existence. The people like what they can limit and understand. Anything unknown frightens and offends them. They are closed off to the joy of discovery and the wild wonder that comes from a childlike willingness to experience more. This is why many people couldn’t stand Jesus. He was life, wild, free, and uncaged. No one could tame Him or make Him behave according to the bonds of religion. He came to deliver people from the constraints holding them back from experiencing abundant life with the Father. The religious leaders of the day rejected Him just as the imperial court shuns the nightingale.
After everyone agrees upon the suitableness of the artificial bird, the emperor orders it to be displayed before the people that Sunday. “When they [hear] it they [are] like people intoxicated,” completely enthralled with the bejeweled pretender, except for one poor fisherman, who has had the privilege of hearing the real nightingale. He acknowledges the technical proficiency of the bird’s song but declares that “there is something wanting.” What is wanting is the valiant heart of the nightingale powering the song. The waltz is pretty enough but no better than ear candy. It cannot nourish the heart and restore the soul. Stubbornly refusing to admit this truth, the emperor banishes the true nightingale from the empire and sets the false one among jewels on a silk cushion by his bed. The decree is ludicrous. The emperor cannot prevent the nightingale from coming and going throughout the land because he never leaves his gilded cage. Those who are farther removed from the court still love and respect the nightingale and would never turn her in anyway. This edict is a lie to keep the emperor’s ego from being bruised. Deceit and hypocrisy abound in the empire without the nightingale’s guardianship. The master-of-music writes a 25-volume defense of the artificial bird which is pompous and frightfully boring, and everyone pretends to have read and understood it “for fear of being thought stupid” and trampled underfoot. This is a common Andersenian motif: hypocrisy versus innocent honesty. Once again, we find the courtiers treading carefully about the palace, pretending that complacency is revitalizing and does not lead to death. But they are in for a rude awakening.
One day, the artificial bird breaks down from overuse. In his ignorance, the emperor summons his physician to treat it, but doctors are meant to treat the living, not the dead. A watchmaker arrives and does his best to mend the device’s inner workings but warns that the gears are so tired out that the emperor must be careful when using it. Sorrow seeps into the hearts of the people. Eventually, the bird can only be wound up once a year and even that is risky. Proud to a fault, the music master insists that the broken-down bird is “as good as ever; and, of course no one [contradicts] him.” We are not so different when it comes to our comforts and vices that we run to instead of turning to God for help. The longer we curl up with these things, the harder it is for us to see that they are speeding up our destruction.
Five years after the bird’s breakdown, a profound grief takes hold of the emperor, sickening him to the point of death. All the people mourn for him and inquire about him but receive only the disdain of the lord-in-waiting as a response. Everyone outside the palace walls hopes for his recovery, while inside the imperial grounds, the servants and courtiers behave as though the emperor has already died. They all “[run] away to pay homage to his successor,” distracting themselves with a new trend. No one comes to comfort the emperor in his final hours. He is abandoned, unprotected and alone. At last, Death himself slinks into the emperor’s bedchamber, places the imperial crown on his head, grabs hold of the sword of state and royal banner, and leaps onto the poor man’s chest. The great equalizer has come, and he now holds court on the throne of the emperor’s heart.
Faces both kind and evil loom in the gloomy, moonlit room. The emperor is surrounded by visions of the good and bad deeds he has committed over the course of his lifetime. They taunt him and prick at his conscience, working him into a fevered frenzy. Desperate for relief, he calls in vain for music to be played to drown out the whispers and accusations. Turning to the golden idol at his bedside, he pleads with it to sing for him, recalling all of the offerings he has made before it, but the artificial bird cannot answer him.
Just when all seems lost, a familiar voice shatters the terrible stillness of sin and Death. The living nightingale stands outside the open window, boldly singing to the emperor of hope and trust, things that have been absent from his heart and his kingdom since her departure. Bravely, she has overcome her own wounds and grief, and chosen to resume her post at the emperor’s side upon hearing of his illness. She recognizes that even though he cast her aside, he is still under her care, and she must battle to rescue this man’s heart from Death. With each healing note of her song, the shadows are dispelled from the room. Life returns to the emperor’s body as his blood is quickened. And Death himself stands still, transfixed by the power and simple majesty of the nightingale’s song. She stops. He begs her to continue. She agrees, if he will turn the symbols of imperial authority over to her. Death surrenders the treasures in exchange for her song, which she now uses to remind the mesmerized being of his garden in the churchyard, filling him with a longing for home. He dissolves into mist and returns to his garden, leaving the emperor in peace.
We know that Jesus conquered sin and death by becoming a curse for us on the cross. After this was completed, He declared, “All authority has been given unto Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). At the moment, all the authority of the empire has been surrendered to the nightingale. She has defeated Death and defended the heart of the emperor, and the symbols of sovereignty have been placed at her feet. Even the ruler himself offers her any reward she could desire. Gently, she reminds him that she does not need any material gift, because tears “are the jewels that rejoice a singer’s heart.” She stands sentry over him all night, singing sweetly until he relaxes and falls into a rejuvenating sleep.
There is no payment for being an ezer kenegdo. No publicity or prizes. It is something built naturally into every woman’s being. We rescue troubled hearts because we are designed to. There is a part of each of us that fights to protect those we love and anyone the Lord leads us to who needs our help. You don’t even have to be a believer to feel the pull in your spirit to defend and encourage the weary and downtrodden. We all have a God-given allergy to injustice in one form or another because our creator hates injustice. Our effectiveness as guardians of the heart is determined by the proximity of our own hearts toward God. The more united we are with Him, the better we can do what we are born to do.
When the emperor awakens, he discovers that none of his servants or courtiers have come to see about him. Only the faithful nightingale remains by his side. He begs her to stay with him always, offering to give her leave to sing whenever she likes and smash her clockwork rival “into a thousand pieces.” Graciously, the nightingale turns him down on all points. She is not bitter toward the artificial bird, knowing that it has done what it could during its existence. It’s not its fault that is was made into an idol and valued over truth, hope, and love. And she isn’t going to move back into the palace, either. If she spends all of her time there, she won’t be able to take care of herself and be free to have a family, travel, or linger in the green wood refreshing her own soul. The people who need her songs the most will be deprived of them.
Instead, she gently but firmly sets boundaries with the emperor. She will come and go as she pleases, and appear not in the great hall, but at his bedroom window in the evenings, to sing to him “that [he] may be happy, and have thoughts full of joy.” Having proven herself to be an honest friend, the nightingale promises to sing to the emperor of the goings on in his province, apprising him of those who are well and those who need help, and “of the good and the evil who are hidden around [him].” She values his heart and friendship and recognizes that he has been placed in authority by a higher power. She will continue to encourage him and help him become the best emperor he can be, while staying true to herself and her purpose, protecting the hearts of all in her charge against assault and despair. All she asks in return is that he lets no one know that he has a little bird who tells him everything. Their arrangement agreed on, the emperor rises with renewed strength and surprises all of the servants with a jovial, “Good morning.”
Like the nightingale, we must set boundaries to ensure that we do not get weary ourselves in our efforts to protect others. It is important to spend time with God and listen to His voice, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us in the stillness so that we can act decisively in the chaos. It’s a guarantee that we will suffer our own wounds in this war, and it’s okay to step back to heal. But afterwards, we must make the hard choice to forgive and pray for the ones who hurt us, because they are in our charge and need rescuing as much as we do. We have each been given a unique skillset by God to reach the people in our immediate spheres and beyond. And it doesn’t disappear because someone rejects you. It is woven into the foundation of the woman God calls you to be. Sharpen your sword, ezer kenegdo, and use the tools you have to set captives free and speak God’s kingdom into this earth.
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