7 I will tell of the decree: the Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Act 3: Christ speaks. The Word of the Lord is here recounted by Christ himself. According to Paul, this decree was fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection and enthronement in heaven (Acts 13:33). This “generation” of Christ does not have to do with his coming into existence, but with his coming into possession of a universal reign.
Confirming this are the subsequent words of the Lord which grant to Christ “every power … in heaven and on earth” (Mt. 28:18). Whether they want to or not, the very nations which opposed him will become subject to him. The imagery of the rod of iron that smashes earthen pots in pieces conveys the idea of decisive judgment in response to the rebellion of the nations. In terms of the whole sweep of the biblical narrative, however, this judgment ultimately serves to fulfill God’s redemptive purpose to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3, 49:10). The final goal of judgment is to put the world into order, and to this end it must sweep away all that contributes to disorder.
Incredibly, Christ will grant his saints to participate in his authority over the earth at the time of his return (Ps. 149:6-9; Rev. 2:26-27; 19:15). Meantime, those who are seated with Christ on his heavenly throne in virtue of their union with him can intercede on behalf of the nations, asking God to make them Christ’s inheritance in salvation (Eph. 2:6).
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Act 4: The worshipper speaks. With his final exhortations, the psalmist challenges our concept of worship. Remembering that this psalm, like all the psalms, is a song to be used in worship, we must conclude that worship such as this has teeth, playing a vital role in the spiritual warfare to which the church is called. This is worship that commands what it proclaims — worldwide submission of every creature in heaven and earth to Jesus Christ — and that warns of the judgment which will fall upon those who stubbornly refuse to do so.
At the same time, this is worship that announces the joyful message of salvation: he who judges is also our refuge from judgment. Far from being contrary to his love, God’s judgment revealed in Christ is a manifestation of his love. The wrath of God is the form that his love assumes when its loving purpose is threatened by sin. Judgment is God’s refusal to accept the refusal of humanity. He judges because he loves, and he loves by means of his judgment.
To a Lord such as this, the right response is twofold: rejoice with trembling! Paradoxical though it may seem, this is the only possible response. The fact that Christ is the only righteous man means that the rest of us are all unrighteous and deserving of judgment. Ma this fact also means that whoever takes refuge in him will be justified, shielded in the shadow of his own perfect righteousness.
As the second half of the entry point into the psalms, Psalm 2 indicates that the rest of the psalter is not to be interpreted simply as the words of God to his people or the words of the people in response to God, but primarily as the words of the One who embodies both: Jesus Christ. It shows this by recounting a cosmic drama that unfolds through a series of four acts.
1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
Act 1: The nations speak. In contrast to the righteous who, according to Psalm 1:2-3, meditate on God’s Word (and thus prosper even in times of want), the nations “meditate” on vain things and are thus doomed to failure. Inasmuch as it is the “nations” and “peoples” that do this, we must conclude, as Psalm 14:2-3 will declare, that there is no one truly righteous, not even one. This casts new light on the interpretation of the righteous man of Psalm 1: ultimately there is only one.
2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”
Here we see both the vain things that the peoples meditate (represented by their kings and rulers) and those against whom they do so. They seek to mount a rebellion against Yahweh and his “Messiah” — his Christ — viewing their authority as bondage. Indeed, this rebellion recapitulates the entire history of humanity ever since the first sin committed in Eden. But such rebellious meditation is vain because no one can stand against God and his Christ. Even at the culmination of human rebellion when Christ seemed defeated, when “there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” (Acts 4:27), even then the rebellious world did not triumph.
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
Act 2: Yahweh speaks. From the perspective of God in heaven, the self-vaunted plots of the peoples are ludicrous. God cannot be mocked; rather it is he who will mock those who attempt to do so! Though often derided, those who belong to Christ need never be ashamed (cf. Rom. 1:16-18), for the deriders themselves are those whom God holds in derision!
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
The vain rage of the nations is further exposed in this: though they refuse to “meditate” on God’s Word (Ps. 1:2), they will hear it nonetheless, and they will have no choice but to bow in submission under its judgment. Those who try to rebel against God’s Word will nevertheless be terrified by it when it comes to them no longer as a promise of salvation (v.12) but of wrath. In one way or another, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11).
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
The contrast in vv. 1-2 leads to a second: the “fruit” of these two ways. Those who delight in and meditate on the wicked’s counsel become unstable and unsubstantial like chaff, whereas those who delight in and meditate on the Word of God — and above all the Word that is Jesus Christ — become firmly rooted in the only source of all life and thus never cease to bear fruit, even in seasons of drought and famine. As Jesus said: “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
The third and final contrast reveals the final destination of these two ways. Those who follow the wicked’s counsel will be blown away in the judgment like the empty husks that they have become. Those who instead follow God’s Word walk the way that he “knows”, that is, the way of those whom the Lord approves, favors, and loves. Yet this “knowing” cannot be said to be earned, for indeed God’s “knowing” bespeaks a covenantal relationship that he himself establishes by grace alone. Confirming this is the fact that the “law” (torah) of v.2 is the instruction given specially to God’s covenant people, the people whom he has saved from slavery and to whom he has bound himself with a covenant: “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt” (Ex. 20:2). All of this is a gift of sheer grace.
Ultimately, then, it is from the very first step that everyone begins to walk either in the direction of salvation or damnation (vv.1-2). It is not possible to put off the decision of which road to take. “Choose you this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15), because “today is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2). It is today, this very day, that makes all the difference, and wisdom does not linger at the intersection between these two paths but knows to discern to right one and to begin walking in it immediately.
Yet in the greatest sense, the line of division between these two ways, the decisive crossroad between salvation and damnation, is Jesus Christ: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock…. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (Matt. 7:24, 26). He is both the divine Word that instructs and the blessed man who hears and obeys it. Thus, only those who “take refuge in him” (Ps. 2:12) receive the blessings promised in this psalm, because only Jesus is the one who has perfectly fulfilled every covenantal condition on our behalf.
Since acquiring a copy of the ESV Interleaved Bible inspired by Jonathan Edwards’s famous Blank Bible, I have been doing my Bible reading with a pen in hand to jot down my thoughts, prayers, and meditations. Although I originally intended these only for personal devotion and benefit, I realized that they might also be encouraging and edifying for others. So I thought that I would begin to share some of them, beginning with the book of Psalms. To keep these posts a bit shorter, I will split them up (for now) into 365 sections, one for every day. I won’t be posting them every day for reasons of time, but Lord willing at then end I will have written the equivalent of 365 days of devotional reflections on the psalms. They are written in more of a “commentary”, verse-by-verse form, but they are certainly not intended to be a commentary, but just my own personal reflections on these passages at a certain point in my walk with the Lord. If you find them helpful, then praise the Lord! If not, then have patience with me as I no doubt have a lot more to learn and further to go. So with all these preliminary comments, let’s look at the first two verses of Psalm 1 (ESV).
1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
Psalm 1 is the “gateway” to the entire book of Psalms which could also be entitled “the Bible in miniature”. This psalm, together with the following one, prepares us to understand and practice well all that the psalter has to teach us. Forming an inclusio with Psalm 2 as the introduction to the whole book which follows (indicated in 1:1 and 2:12 by the word “blessed”), the psalter begins by pronouncing a special blessing for those who heed its wisdom and learn from it how to walk the right path of life.
While in v.2 the psalmist will characterize these people in positive terms, here in v.1 he describes them by means of three negations that trace the gradual progression (or better, descent) of those who, by contrast, succumb to the influence of the wicked and end up becoming wicked themselves. First, they open their ears to the wicked’s counsel (to walk), then they start to follow and imitate their lifestyle (to stand in their way), and finally they join together with them as one of them (to sit in their seat).
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
In contrast to those who meditate on the “counsel” of the wicked, the righteous (i.e. the “blessed”) are distinguished by their constant meditation, day and night, on the “counsel” (i.e. the torah, “law”) of the Lord, the word of his instruction. Such meditation is fruit not of duty but of delight. That in which we find our greatest delight is that to which we will dedicate ourselves day and night. Thus, the righteous who are blessed of the Lord are marked primarily by their delight in the word of God, and for this reason they walk, then stand, and then sit in the presence of God rather than in the company of the wicked.
Centuries after the writing of this psalm, the apostle John would identify Jesus Christ as the “Word” of God in the definitive sense, insofar as he was not simply the word about God but the Word that was God (Jn. 1:1). The greatest and perfect revelation of God is therefore Jesus, behind whose back there is hidden no other God. This is why we read Jesus declaring: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (Jn. 5:39). In other words, we cannot gain any benefit from the words of Scripture except that we meditate through them on the one Word of which they speak. In reality, it is in this Word that the blessed find their supreme delight, those who consider all things “loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:8).
A. “Amen” signifies, it shall truly and certainly be: for my prayer is more assuredly heard of God, than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of him
[W]e must begin with the end, that is, we must first consider the answer to prayer. We may be surprised at this, for, from a logical standpoint, we should ask first, “What is prayer?” And only afterward, “Do we receive an answer when we pray?” Now for the Reformers the basic and vital point is this certitude: God does answer prayer. That is the first thing we must know. Calvin says it explicitly: We obtain what we request. Prayer is grounded upon this assurance. Let us approach the subject from the given fact that God answers. God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, he acts. God does not act in the same way whether we pray for not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. This is what the word “answer” means.
In Question 129 of the Heidelberg Catechism it is stated that the answer to our prayer is more certain than our awareness of the things that we request. It seems there is nothing more sure than the feeling of our desires, but this Catechism says that God’s answer is still more certain. We too must have this inward assurance. Perhaps we doubt the sincerity of our prayer and the worth of our request. But one thing is beyond doubt: it is the answer that God gives. Our prayers our weak and poor. Nevertheless, what matters is not that our prayers be forceful, but that God listens to them. That is why we pray….
Let our prayer not be offered according to our good pleasure; otherwise there would be then on our part inordinate desires. Let it be patterned after the rule [the Lord’s prayer] given by the One who knows our needs better than we ourselves. God has directed us first to submit ourselves to him in order that we may present our requests. So that we may conform to this order, we must eliminate in our prayers all questions like this: Does God listen to us? On this point Calvin is categorical: “Such a prayer is not a prayer.” Doubt is not permitted, for it goes without saying that we shall be heard. Even before we pray we must assume the attitude of someone who has been heart….
“Amen.” It is enough to recall what Luther and the Heidelberg Catechism tell us about this. Luther affirms that it is a good thing to say “Amen”! In other words, it is a good thing to learn not to doubt when we pray, but to believe, because “Amen” means, “So be it.” Prayer is not an undertaking left to chance, a trip into the blue. It must end as it has begun, with conviction: Yes, may it be so! On its side, the Heidelberg Catechism declares that “Amen” means that the certainty of the divine response is greater than the certainty we feel within ourselves of our needs and desires. The most certain element of our prayer is not our requests, but what comes from God: his response.
It seems to be more uncommon than not to encounter Christians who major on loving Christ either with the heart or with the mind, but not necessarily with both. What do I mean? When I think about many of the Christians whom I have known in my life (including myself!), most tend to either one side or the other. On the one hand, there are those who claim to “love Jesus” but who manifest little interest in deep biblical study or profound theological thinking. On the other hand, there are those who possess an astonishing amount of biblical knowledge or who hold advanced degrees in theology and yet evidence little genuine love for the person of Christ himself. Then there are those who, in reaction to one of these extremes, swing toward the other. In my experience, it is rare to meet a Christian who has both a warm, experiential affection for Christ and a profound passion for plumbing the depths of his Word. My friends, this should not be.
H.R. Mackintosh provides a wonderful little reflection on how to be a true “Christologian” which he defines as one who combines both heart and mind, both experience and thought, both devotion and doctrine, both deep feeling and deep understanding. For Mackintosh, in fact, it is impossible to truly love Christ with either heart or mind if both are not fully engaged. While Mackintosh focuses here on the temptation to remain content with simply “loving Jesus” without seeking to apprehend an ever greater theological understanding of his person and work, his comments could certainly be applied to the opposite temptation as well. Mackintosh writes:
Further, it will scarcely be denied that the task of thus interpreting Christ afresh is a vital part of our religious service. He is to be loved with the heart, but also with the mind. It is all but impossible for a thoughtful man to adore Jesus Christ, finding in Him blessedness and eternal life, and not be conscious of a powerful desire to reach coherent views of His person. What we already know of Him has led us to faith and worship; may not (he will ask) a deepened knowledge, if it be attainable, add a yet profounder significance to our confession of His name? Is it not unworthy that in an age when men are prepared to spend time and power lavishly in the investigation of the properties of matter, and each new step towards the conquest of nature is saluted with a proud and eager gratitude, Christian thinkers should flag in the effort to reach lucidity and truth of judgment as to the person of our Lord?
Why should we turn from these problems so easily with the sad confession: Ignoramus et ignorabimus? Such words—though they are often taken so—are no proof of a peculiar susceptibility to the overwhelming power of Christ—the mind being as it were dumb before Him; they suggest, rather, that the very soul of the Gospel—Immanuel, God with us—has so far left us unimpressed….
Still more urgently it needs to be freshly scrutinised from the point of view of the Christologian proper, whose part it is to formulate, if that be possible, all that Christ is to the fully surrendered mind; not permitting the poor average of faith to set itself up as criterion, but asking insistently who Christ must be if He is indeed the Mediator, the Advocate with the Father, the person who has availed as a propitiation for the sins of the whole world. We have to catch on our minds, not the lowest form of belief compatible with a profession of Christianity, but something of the incredible wonder of the Jesus who ransomed us with His blood….
If we are conscious of the spiritual supremacy of Christ—His unique position in religious history, His unique significance for each soul—we have no choice but to ask what conceptions of His person are guaranteed by this impression. Once these conceptions have been gained, they take their place as among the truest and most adequate of which the human mind is capable. If Christian experience counts for anything, then it counts here. It is in touch with reality; the being which our mind apprehends in Jesus is real being. A right doctrine of His person, therefore, is not dealing with ideas which are only counters—useful metaphorical expressions ultimately unredeemable by fact. It is dealing with ideas necessitated by Jesus’ witness to Himself and the confirmation of that witness furnished by the story of the Church. [H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 300-302, 304-305]
As I have been deeply challenged by these words to be a more fully integrated lover of and thinker after Jesus Christ — a “Christologian” in short — so I hope you will be as well.
John Knox, from his “Treatise on Prayer” [The Select Practical Writings of John Knox (Edinburgh; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2011), 12-16]
[G]odly prayer requireth … the perfect knowledge of the advocate, intercessor, and mediator; for, seeing no man is himself worthy to compear, or appear in God’s presence, by reason that in all men continually resteth sin, which, by itself, doth offend the majesty of God, raising also debate, strife, hatred, and division betwixt his inviolable justice and us, for the which, unless satisfaction be made by another than by ourselves, so little hope resteth that any thing from him we can attain, that no surety may we have with him at all.
To [release] us from this horrible confusion, our most merciful Father, knowing that our frail minds should hereby have been continually dejected, hath given unto us his only beloved Son, to be unto us righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and holiness. If in him we faithfully believe, we are so clad that we may with boldness compear and appear before the throne of God’s mercy, doubting nothing, but that whatsoever we ask through our mediator, that same we shall obtain most assuredly. Here, is most diligently to be observed, that without our mediator, forespeaker, and peace-maker, we enter not into prayer; for the incallings of such as pray without Jesus Christ are not only vain, but also, they are odious and abominable before God….
For he who honoureth not the Son, honoureth not the Father. For as the law is a statue that we shall call upon God, and as the promise is made that he shall hear us, so are we commanded only to call through Jesus Christ, by whom alone our petitions we obtain; for in him alone are all the promises of God confirmed and complete. Whereof, without all controversy, it is plain, that such as have called, or call presently unto God by any other mean than by Jesus Christ alone, do nothing regard God’s will, but obstinately prevaricate, and do against his commandments; and therefore, obtain they not their petitions, neither have entrance to his mercy; ‘for no man cometh to the Father’, saith Jesus Christ, ‘but by me.’ He is our leader, whom, unless we follow, we shall walk in darkness; and he alone is our captain, without whom, neither praise nor victory ever shall we obtain….
Who, then, shall here be found the peace-maker? Surely the infinite goodness and mercy of God might not suffer the perpetual loss and repudiation of his creatures; and therefore his eternal wisdom provided such a mediator, having wherewith to satisfy the justice of God — differing also from the Godhead: — his only Son, clad in the nature of manhood, who interposed himself a mediator; not as man only; for the pure humanity of Christ of itself might neither make intercession nor satisfaction for us; but God and man. In that he is God he might complete the will of the Father; and in that he is man, pure and clean, without spot or sin, he might offer sacrifice for the purgation of our sins, and satisfaction of God’s justice. For unless saints have these two, Godhead equal with the Father, and humanity without sin, the office of mediators saints may not usurp….
Mark well these words. John saith, ‘we have presently a sufficient advocate; whom Paul affirmeth to sit at the right hand of God the Father (Rom. 8): and to be the only mediator between God and man; for he alone, saith Ambrose, is our mouth, by whom we speak to God: he is our eyes, by whom we see God; and also our right hand, by whom we offer any thing unto the Father; who, unless he make intercession, neither we, neither any of the saints, may have any society or fellowship with God. What creature may say to God the Father, ‘Let mankind be received into they favour; for the pain of his transgression, that I have sustained in my own body; for his cause was I encompassed with all infirmities, and so became the most contemned and despised of all men, and yet, in my mouth was found no guile nor deceit; but always obedient to thy will, suffering most grievous death for mankind. And therefore, behold not the sinner, but me, who by my infinite righteousness have perfectly satisfied for his offences’? — May any other, Jesus Christ except, in these words make intercession for sinners?…
Some say, we will use but one mediator, Jesus Christ, to God the Father; but we must have saints, and chiefly the Virgin, the mother of Jesus Christ, to pray for us unto him…. Alas! whosoever is so minded, showeth himself plainly to know nothing of Jesus Christ rightly. Is he who descended from heaven, and vouchsafed to be conversant with sinners, commanding all sore vexed and sick to come unto him (Matt. 11), who, hanging upon the cross, prayed first for his enemies, become now so untractable, that he will not hear us, without a person to be a mean? O Lord open the eyes of such, that they may clearly perceive thy infinite kindness, gentleness, and love towards mankind.
While there is certainly a place for prosaic instructions in learning to pray, there is also much to fuel the fire of our praying in the power of poetic pictures. George Herbert’s classic poem “Prayer (I)” does precisely this. As much as I have gleaned from reading books on prayer, perhaps nothing has impacted my prayer life more than the rich imagery that Herbert provides in the staccatoed cadence of his most famous sonnet. In reading the poem below, we need to allow the imagery first to wash over us with its tidal force, and then we will dive deeper into the verbal palette with which Herbert paints differing yet complementary portraits of the mystery that we call prayer.
PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.
In his book entitled Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, Tim Keller (New York: Dutton, 2014) offers an excellent exposition of Herbert’s poem. On pages 28-32 he writes:
Prayer is “Gods breath in man returning to his birth.” Many who are otherwise skeptical or nonreligious are shocked to find themselves praying despite not even formally believing in God. Herbert gives us his explanation for that phenomenon. The Hebrew word for “Spirit” and “breath” is the same, and so, Herbert says, there is something in us from God that knows we are not alone in the universe, and that we were not meant to go it alone. Prayer is a natural human instinct.
Prayer can be “softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse”—the deep rest of soul that we need. It is “the souls bloud,” the source of strength and vitality. Through prayer in Jesus’ name and trust in his salvation we come as a “man well drest,” spiritually fit for the presence of the king. That is why we can sit down with him at “the Churches banquet.” Feasts were never mere feedings but a sign and means of acceptance and fellowship with the Host. Prayer is a nourishing friendship.
Prayer also is “a kinde of tune.” Prayer tunes your heart to God. Singing engages the whole being—the heart through the music as well as the mind through the words. Prayer is also a tune others can hear besides you. When your heart has been tuned to God, your joy has an effect on those around you. You are not proud, cold, anxious, or bored—you are self-forgetful, warm, profoundly at peace, and filled with interest. Others will notice. All “heare and fear.” Prayer changes those around us.
Prayer can be a “land of spices,” a place of sensory overload, of exotic scents and tastes—and a “milkie way,” a place of marvels and wonders. When that happens, prayer is truly of “Angels age,” an experience of timeless eternity. Yet no one in history has found that “land of spices” quickly or easily. Prayer is also the “heart in pilgrimage,” and in Herbert’s time a pilgrim was someone who was engaged on a long, difficult, and exhausting trek. To be in pilgrimage is to have not yet arrived. There is a longing in prayer that is never fulfilled in this life, and sometimes the deep satisfactions we are looking for in prayer feel few and far between. Prayer is a journey.
Even in spiritually lean times, prayer can serve as a kind of heavenly Manna” and quiet “gladnesse” that keeps us going, just as the manna in the wilderness kept Israel moving toward its hope. Manna was simple food, especially savory, but hardly a banquet. Yet it sustained them wonderfully, a kind of travelers’ waybread that brought an inner endurance. Prayer helps us endure.
One reason for the arduousness is because true prayer is “the soul in paraphrase.” God does not merely require our petitions but our selves, and no one who begins the hard, lifelong trek of prayer knows yet who they are. Nothing but prayer will ever reveal you to yourself, because only before God can you see and become your true self. To paraphrase something is to get the gist of it and make it accessible. Prayer is learning who you are before God and giving him your essence. Prayer means knowing yourself as well as God.
Prayer is not all quiet, peace, and fellowship. It is also an “engine against th’ Almightie,” a startling phrase that clearly refers to the siege engines filled with archers that were used in Herbert’s day to storm a city. The Bible contains laments and petitions and pleadings, for prayer is rebellion against the evil status quo of the world—and they are not in vain, for they are as “church-bels beyond the stars heard” and indeed are “reversed thunder.” Thunder is an expression of the awesome power of God, but prayer somehow harnesses that power so that our petitions are not heard in heaven as whispers but as crack, boom, and roar. Prayer changes things.
Yet Herbert also states that prayer is a “sinner’s towre.” An arrogant spirit cannot rightly use the power of prayer’s siege engines. “Sinner’s towre” means that prayerful dependence on the grace of Jesus is our only refuge from our own sin. We cannot go into God’s presence unless we are dependent on Christ’s forgiveness and his righteousness before God, not on our own. Indeed, prayer is the “Christ-side-piercing spear.” When we pray for forgiveness on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf, grace and mercy come flowing down even as the spear in his side brought water and blood gushing out. Prayer is a refuge.
Though prayer is a kind of artillery that changes the circumstances of the world, it is as much or even more about changing our own understanding and attitude toward those circumstances. Prayer is “a kinde of tune” that transposes even “the six daies world.” The six days is not the Sabbath day of formal worship but the workweek of ordinary life. Yet the one “houre” of prayer completely transposes it all, as the transposition of a piece of music changes its key, tone, and timbre. Through prayer, which brings heaven into the ordinary, we see the world differently, even in the most menial and trivial daily tasks. Prayer changes us.
As plumb lines measured the depths of waters beneath boats, prayer is a “plummet sounding heav’n and earth.” That means it can plunge us by the power of the Spirit into the “deep things of God” (1 Cor 2:10). This includes the indescribable journey that prayer can take us through the breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ’s saving love for us (Eph 3:18). Prayer unites us with God himself.
How does Herbert end this dazzling succession of word pictures? He concludes, surprisingly, that prayer is “something understood.” Many scholars have debated the apparent anticlimax of this great poem. It seems to be an “abandonment of metaphor … [yet] its final crowning.” After all the lofty images, Herbert comes down to earth. Through prayer “something”—not everything—is understood, and prayer’s conquests are indeed often modest. Paul says believers in this world see things only “in part,” just as the reflections in ancient mirrors were filled with distortions (1 Cor 13:12). Prayer, however, gradually clears our vision. When the psalmist was spiraling down into deadly despair, he went in prayer to “the sanctuary of God; then I understood” (Ps 73:17).
Prayer is awe, intimacy, struggle—yet the way to reality. There is nothing more important, or harder, or richer, or more life-altering. There is absolutely nothing so great as prayer.
May Herbert’s poem enrich and empower your prayer life as it has mine!
And [the angel] said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” “And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” … “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price…. He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.
(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.152-5. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)
“The time is at hand.”… Faith knows that the eternal God has entered into this estranged world in Christ Jesus and therefore this world must pass away in its present form before the full unveiling of His glory. Jesus Christ is intensely near to faith, and therefore faith ever stands on the threshold of the new world, in intense consciousness of the Advent of the Lord. The New Testament does not think of the difference between the presence of Christ here and now and His Second Advent so much in terms of a passage of time as the difference between the veiled and the unveiled. That is why the whole of the New Testament by an inner necessity of personal faith thinks of that day as imminent. The pressure of that imminence may be so great upon the mind as to turn the thin veil of sense and time into apocalyptic imagery behind which it is given to see the consummation of all things. That is what has been happening in this book. Jesus Christ is so intensively near that St. John feels Him always at his elbow, immediately behind him, about to be revealed in all His transcendent glory. In a context of intimate communion like that, the testimony of Jesus is always the Spirit of prophecy….
[T]he voice of Jesus Himself comes to us breaking through the voice of the angel, and also through the voice of the Apostle, but never more clearly and insistently than at the points of desperate urgency. “I come quickly!” The words of this book are human words, and the images used in these visions are images such as we find in the dreams of men. Throughout them all there comes the great voice from the throne that authenticates itself as none other than the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ. Clear as a bell and with the note of supreme certainty and absolute authority it peals in the thunder of judgment over the rebellious forces of evil. It is ever the recognizable voice of Him who, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, spoke as no other in words that we may understand, gracious words of love and truth, the words of eternal life….
The voice that speaks through these visions can be heard today. It is the voice of the everlasting Gospel, the voice that rises in clear and beautiful tones above all the hubbub of a rebellious world, the voice of Jesus through the Spirit and through the Church…. To participate in all that it reveals of the everlasting love of God and of the glory of the holy city a gracious invitation is extended to whosoever will. There is but one condition — to be thirsty. It is only they who may drink of the water of the river of life live themselves forever in the life of God.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.144-6. 150. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)
It has been said that the great purpose of God, which begins with creation, narrows down in a fallen world first to the people of Israel and then to the suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, but in Jesus Christ it widens out through the Church, the Israel of God, and at last breaks into a new heaven and new earth. It is the road from the many to the One, and from the One to the many. At its center is the Lamb of God, He who is, who was, and who is to come, gather up in Himself the purpose of the original creation and fulfilling it by redemption in the new creation….
[T]he Kingdom of God is not a realm characterized by heaven only. It is a homely Kingdom with earth in it. Whatever else that may mean it certainly implies a physical existence of created beings, and implies too that eternity will not be a timeless monotone but an eternity with time in the heart of it…. This much, too, is clear that God’s original creation will be fully restored in redemption. It is a redemption, however, that transcends that original creation in glory though it is not divorced from it. The original purpose of love will be more than fulfilled. The Garden of Eden meant that God has made man to have communion with Him in a perfect environment, and that true human life is essentially life in such a perfect environment. Therefore the perfection of the Christian life involves the perfection of earth as well as heaven. The Christian hope is fulfilled only in a new heaven and a new earth peopled with human beings living in holy and loving fellowship with God, with one another, and in harmony with the fulness of creation….
The new heaven and the new earth are the perfect environment, and now St. John tries to describe the perfect form which the Kingdom of God will take…. “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people….” The language reminds us of the beginning of the Fourth Gospel: “And the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among men, and we beheld his glory, full of glory and truth.” That is the very heart of the eternal Kingdom, God among men in grace and truth, God in intimate fellowship with His children in a life from which evil and pain have been utterly eradicated and which draws its abundance from Jesus Christ….
Who can say all that the Lord has laid up for those who trust Him?… Certainly it is true that the great reward of all who serve Him here is that they shall ever serve Him there, and see His face, and become like Him. He who has seen Christ, has seen the Father, and that vision more than suffices him. The Father whom we shall see yonder is none other than Him whom we see in Jesus. Yonder we shall see Him in fulness of vision which is denied to us here, but it will ever be God as revealed to us in Jesus and no other for there is no other. In the heart of transcendent Deity there will still be One like unto the Son of Man, and the light in which we shall see Him will ever be the light of the Lamb.