We come now to the third and last post on the poetic life of the Christian.
As stated in the first post on this subject, the lives of believers are to be poetic in the sense they should be ones of contemplation, for we are people of the Scriptures. Recently in an interview in Tabletalk magazine, John Piper said:
The fact that hundreds of the pages of God’s inspired Word are devoted to poetry makes me aware that God thinks the sound of language matters…It is self-evident to me that poetry is not meant to be speed-read, but ordinarily read aloud. So now I see that God has forced me to hear. He has forced a slow savoring of the way things are written to be heard as well as seen.
Not only does Piper speak of contemplation, but of how “the sound of language matters” and that we should enjoy a “slow savoring” of the Bible’s poetry. In other words, poetry by nature has a beauty as we discussed in the second post, and our lives as redeemed by the Savior should be purveyors of the beauty and laughter of redemption to the world.
However, one other vital aspect of poetry, that mirrors the believer’s life, is that of suffering and pain.
The Christian Life is Poetic Because it is One of Sorrow & Tragedy
The poetic section (or Wisdom literature) of the Bible certainly encourages contemplation, as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes show, as well as beauty, as we see in the Song of Solomon. Yet perhaps one of the chief qualities of this section of the Bible is that it is filled with themes of suffering and sorrow.
Certainly that is the case of the book of Job, whose story of a man’s tragic suffering, with the divinely taught lessons he was given, is told in haunting, poetical rhythm through the whole of its forty-two chapters. Also, the Psalms often address the theme of suffering and persecution, having 65 songs which can be classified to one degree or another as songs of lament – over 40% of the Psalter’s total. Jesus said that “everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled,” and “thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer” (Luke 24:44, 46). The Psalms prophesy of the suffering of Jesus, culminating with His death on the cross (see, for instance, Psalm 22). Indeed, they were not only written about Christ, but for Him, as they gave our Lord the words and thoughts He would need in His state of humiliation to endure, learn obedience, and be perfected by His sufferings (Hebrews 5:8). Thus, we see by the witness of both Scripture and Savior that poetry is a means of expressing the anguish that the pain of this world brings.
As those called to suffer (I Peter 2:21), Christians have often turned to poetry for expression. A well-known hymn by Horatio Spafford is an example. Spafford composed this piece in 1873 while on a ship that bore him close to the site where his four daughters had just recently drowned in a shipwreck, as he headed to England to seek to console his grieving wife who had survived. Four of the stanzas of this hymn are cited below, each to be followed by the repeated refrain and title of the hymn “It is Well with My Soul.” Note how Spafford turns to the mercies of Christ as revealed at Calvary.
- Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
- My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
- For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
- But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!
Personally, I have found help in dealing with suffering through poetry. Whether going through such experiences as grieving the early loss of my dad, struggling to care for my chronically depressed mother, or weeping over the pain of a child wandering from the Lord, I have found my own awkward attempts at poetry or poetical thoughts a way to help me move the despair out of my heart and place it into the trust of the Lord. Yet much more frequently I find it is the work of others who have experienced great trials that truly aids me.
Another example would be that of B.M. Palmer, who was a nineteenth century Southern Presbyterian theologian greatly used of the Lord. He was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans for over forty years. The fruitfulness of his life and shepherding ministry was, in part, brought forth through the sorrows he knew. Palmer and his wife lost five children in their youth – a son and four of their five daughters – as they each succumbed to the disease of tuberculosis. In a beautifully written book, Death in the Home, Palmer pays tribute to each of his family members and shares what the Lord taught him as he journeyed through death’s valley time and time again. Again, like so many of those who write both theologically and devotionally, he includes self-written poetry at the end of each chapter.
When Palmer’s first son Benjamin died just shy of the age of two, they had a daughter named Frances born a few months later in 1844. As I told the college students when I originally gave the talk these posts are based upon, Frances’ life ended at their stage of life as she was just eighteen. Hear Palmer’s grief poured out below:
The way is dark, My Father! Cloud on cloud
Is gathering thickly over my head, and loud
The thunders roar above me. See, I stand
Like one bewildered! Father, take my hand,
And through the gloom
Lead safely home
The day goes fast, my Father! and the night
Is drawing darkly down. My faithless sight
Sees ghostly visions. Fears, a spectral band,
Encompass me. O Father! take my hand,
And from the night
Lead up to light
The throng is great, my Father! Many a doubt
And fear and danger compass me about;
And foes oppress me sore. I cannot stand
Or go alone. O Father! take my hand,
And through the throng
Lead safe along
The cross is heavy, Father! I have borne
It long, and still do bear it. Let my worn
And fainting spirit rise to that blest land
Where crowns are given. Father! take my hand,
And, reaching down,
Lead to the crown
Thy child! 1
Yet thanks be to Christ, as Palmer indicates, that this suffering is not the end of the Christian life. Indeed, “the suffering of this present age is not worthy to be compared to the glory that yet awaits us.” That is the Christian hope, and Palmer understood this well. Do as Piper suggests and read aloud the concluding stanza of the poem with which Palmer ends his book, remembering that this is the final stanza of the poem of each believer’s life.
O city where the shining gates
Shut out all grief and sin,
Well may we yearn amidst earth’s strife
Thy holy peace to win!
Yet must we meekly bear the cross,
Nor seek to lay it down
Until our Father brings us home
And gives the promised crown.
O home of bliss! O land of light!
Where falleth neither shade nor blight –
Of every land the brightest, best –
Soon shall we there find peace and rest. 2
1B.M. Palmer, Death in the Home (Jackson, MS: Reformed Academic Press, 2009), p. 27.
2B.M. Palmer, Death in the Home (Jackson, MS: Reformed Academic Press, 2009), pp. 98-99.