Reversed Thunder: George Herbert’s Poetic Pictures of Prayer

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,

Gebed van Daniel
Anneke Kaai, The Prayer of Daniel

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 prayerhistory 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 georgeherbert-robertwhite-1674-704prayer 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!