Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
George Herbert’s book of devotional poems The Temple (1633), one of the best-known collection of devotional poems in the English language, concludes with this poem. “Love (III)” follows poems entitled, “Death,” “Judgment,” and “Heaven.” Leland Ryken explains, “It is obvious that the poem is about God’s welcome of the sinner into heaven when his or her earthly life is over,” (The Soul in Paraphrase, p. 97).
The Bible tells us, “God is love,” (1 John 4:16). Here, this central attribute of God is personified as a host entreating the reluctant guest, the author, to stay and share a meal. Immediately, however, the author’s guilt and sin leaves him feeling disqualified from the feast. But “quick-eyed love” sees the hesitation and rushes in to serve, “sweetly questioning” if the speaker lacks anything.
“A guest, I answered, worthy to be here,” the speaker laments. “You shall be he,” says Love. And back forth the speaker and Love go through the poem, the one curling further inward in his guilt, leading the other to continually reach further down to pull him up and out of himself. Eventually, after a final confession of his shame, Love replies, “And know you not…who bore the blame?” This finally gets some purchase on pulling the speaker out of his misery. There is a substitute, Jesus Christ, Love incarnate, who bore the blame of our sins, bore our iniquities, “and with his wounds we are healed,” (Is 53:5).
“My dear, then I will serve,” the speaker responds. We know this is the speaker, not Love, because of the “my dear” (see the second stanza). The speaker, moved by Jesus’ sacrifice for his sins vows to then earn his spot at the table, to serve. But Love replies simply, “You must sit down…and taste my meat.” This is likely a reference to Luke 12:37: “Verily I say unto you, that [the Lord] shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them,” (KJV, the version used by Herbert).
What do we do in light of the cross? When we arrive in Heaven, will we be put on a payment plan to pay God back? Will we be put on a probationary trial period where God will test us out to see if we deserve to be there? In many ways, that would feel natural. If you lend me a small amount of money and say, “Don’t worry about it,” when I try to pay you back, that’s not a big deal. But if you give me exorbitant sums of money to save me from complete financial ruin and say, “Don’t worry about it,” I won’t be okay with that. I need to do something to pay you back, to somehow make it right. That’s what feels natural.
But Love will have none of it. He doesn’t welcome us into Heaven as servants, but, wonder of wonders, He serves us. “Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.” (ESV). What can we do in light of this? Exactly what our Lord tells us and what Herbert ends with, humbly accepting our Lord’s Love: So I did sit and eat.
Consider this poem the next time you come to the Lord’s Table where the Lord Himself serves you through the sacraments.