John the Baptist is in Herod's jail cell, all alone, in pain with one eye gouged out, when the doubts strike. With faint music from the banquet hall in the distance, John agonizes - a story of the deep darkness of doubt that often accompanies affliction and the gift of blazing hope from the One who governs over even the most exquisite suffering.
"Know this, you fox, I stake my life:
‘Thou shalt not take thy brother's wife!'
This is the word of God!" Again
The words rushed to his mind and ran
With shivers down his back.
Of Herod flashed with rage: "Despise
Your king and you will die, wild ass,
My name is Herod Antipas!
Go dunk your hot and holy fire,
I execute whom I desire!"
The soldiers and Herodias
Had smiled. "O that Tiberius
Could see my husband now," she thought.
For this she lived, and loved and fought.
And now to see the Baptist break!
To see the big-mouth prophet quake!
Power was her paramour,
Not Herod Antipas. "It's your
Turn now, Elijah boy. Fly ‘way
To heaven in your fire, or stay
And beg the pardon of your queen."
"Adulteress, you are unclean!"
The words had shot forth from his tongue:
"Take ashes now and sit amidst the dung
Behind your palace wall, and cry
To heaven where the God Most High
Stands ready in his mercy now
To stay your hand and disallow
That you sink in your murky sea,
And murder add to lechery."
The soldiers readied for the cry,
A saber lay against his eye.
But John stood like a desert stone
And loved not life or flesh or bone,
But only God and righteousness.
"Do you not know that godlessness
Will bring a judgment on your head,
O Herod, whether I am dead
Or live? The God who made and owns
Your life, who rules all human thrones,
And makes the laws for every man
On earth has laid a holy ban
On what you've done. Why should a rich
And mighty prince like you go ditch
Your wife for Philip's Jezebel?
Why do you run headlong to hell
O Herod Antipas, and yolked
With Philip's heifer? Who croaked
Among your royal counsellors
That you run after snobbish whores
Like this Herodias? Repent,
Ahab and Jezebel! God meant
For kings and queens to rule their lands
By righteousness! Now he demands,
Repent! Lest you be chaff and burn
Unquenched because you would not turn."
Once more the words poured to his mind
As John sat in the dungeon, blind:
One eye, gouged out by the Tetrarch,
The other useless in the dark.
For seven weeks the splitting pain
Had ripped his fierce and holy brain.
And now the lurid music from
The distant hall with visceral drum
Made war against his soul. "Oh no,"
He groaned, "not this!" The awful foe
Of doubt coiled ‘round his heart again,
And spoke: "There have been other men
Like you who thought they were a sign,
Who prayed and never touched their wine,
And lived in desert caves and wore
Their skins and set out to restore
The kingdom. And they came to naught
Like you. Elijah? Have you wrought
One miracle like him? A three-
Year drought? A beaker like a sea
Of oil? A resurrected son?
Mt. Carmel? John, what have you done?
Have ravens tended your desire?
Where is your chariot of fire?"
John wept in desperation for
Some solid ground: a tempest roar,
An earthquake, thunderstorm with fire
Some sign that . . .
Silence! Flute and lyre
And drum all hushed...and in their place
The sound of sweet and sovereign grace,
A still small voice: "I am the One
Who is to come, the very Son
Of David and of God. And you,
My friend, a burning light to do
This night a mighty deed like mine.
It is the strongest cup of wine
You'll ever taste. Be strong, O man
Of God! My Father has a plan
For you and me when we have done
Our work: soon, like the blazing sun,
Your blind and bloody face will shine.
Fear not, I stay. You have your sign."
The dungeon door swung wide, and there:
A soldier in the blinding glare;
And with him stood Herodias.
"We've come to bid you dine with us,"
She said. But John had no desire
To fight. The time for holy fire
Was gone. He knelt and pulled away
His hair and bowed his head to pray.
Such is the path that leads to life:
Uncover sin and feel the knife.
The way is lit by candle two.
Who follows John? Jesus! And You?