What does it mean to meditate on the excellencies — the glories — of Christ? What ways has God given us for lingering over his glory-laden word until that glory is seen and savored in our minds and hearts in a way that is worthy of its supreme value? What steps can we take to help us fruitfully meditate on the glory of Christ until we see?
Of course, one essential biblical answer is to pray. Pray prayers like, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things” (Psalm 119:18). Paul prays that “the eyes of your hearts [be] enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18). We often fail to see glory because we don’t earnestly ask to see it.
But then what? Suppose you have prayed earnestly for God to open the eyes of your heart so that ordinary words in the Bible become radiant with glory, beauty, and excellence. Now what? After we have asked God to do his part, what is our part? Through what human means does God intend to do his part? The answer I propose is poetic effort. And the conviction behind it is this: The effort to say freshly is a way of seeing freshly. The effort to say strikingly is a way of seeing strikingly. The effort to say beautifully is a way of seeing beauty. And you don’t have to write poetry to make this “poetic” effort.
For George Herbert (1593–1633), poetry was a form of meditation on the glories of Christ mediated through the Scriptures. Conceiving and writing poems was a way of holding a glimpse of divine glory in his mind and turning it around and around until it yielded an opening into some aspect of its essence or its wonder that he had never seen before — or felt.
This is meditation: getting glimpses of glory in the Bible or in the world and turning those glimpses around and around in your mind, looking and looking. And for Herbert, this effort to see and savor the glory of Christ was the effort to say it as it had never been said before.
Turning the Diamond
One of the best examples of Herbert’s meditation on a single glory by turning it around and around before his eyes is his poem on the glorious reality of prayer. My guess is that when you read my phrase “glorious reality of prayer,” you feel a disconnect between my big language and your small experience of prayer. Yes. So do I. But just a moment’s reflection and you realize, prayer is glorious. How could talking to the Creator of the universe personally not be glorious? How could something not be glorious that cost the Son of God his life, so that sinners may come boldly to a throne, not of judgment, but of grace? Herbert tasted this glory, and he wanted to see more. So he turned this diamond around and around. Read Herbert’s meditation on prayer slowly:
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, sinners 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 starres heard, the souls bloud, The land of spices; something understood.
Twenty-five images of prayer. My favorite is “reversed thunder.” Think of it! Where did these pictures, these images, these words come from? They came from long, focused, prayerful, Bible-saturated brooding over a single glorious reality. They came from humble, prayerful poetic effort. Before this effort, prayer was a word. Perhaps a wonderful word. Perhaps a rich experience. But now, on this side of the poetic effort, prayer is seen to be more than we ever dreamed. Herbert saw as he labored to say.
Putting into Words as a Way of Seeing Worth
Herbert found, as most poets have, that the effort to put the glimpse of glory into striking or moving words makes the glimpse grow. The effort to say deeply what he saw made the seeing deeper. The effort to put the wonder in an unexpected rhyme, a pleasing rhythm, a startling cadence or meter, an uncommon metaphor, a surprising expression, an unusual juxtaposition, or in words that blend agreeably with assonance or consonance — all this effort (which I call poetic effort quite apart from poem writing) caused his heart’s eyes to see the wonder in new ways. The poetic effort to say beautifully was a way of seeing beauty. The effort to find worthy words for Christ opens to us more fully the worth of Christ — and the experience of the worth of Christ. As Herbert says of his own poetic effort, “It is that which, while I use, I am with thee.”
My point of application is that this can be true for all of us — all those who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. All who have been called out of darkness into the light of marvelous realities — “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). Preachers have this job supremely. But all of us, Peter says, are called out of darkness to “proclaim the excellencies” (1 Peter 2:9). When we were converted to Christ, we were thrown into an ocean of wonder. In this life, we are to get a start on the eternity we will spend going deeper and higher into the “unsearchable riches.” And my point here for all of us is the effort to put the excellencies into worthy words is a way of seeing the worth of the excellencies. The effort to say more about the glory than you have ever said is a way of seeing more than you have ever seen.
Poetry is a pointer to this. What poetry emphasizes — poetry from George Herbert and poetry throughout the Bible — is that the effort to say it surprisingly and provocatively and beautifully uncovers truth and beauty that you may not find any other way. I say it carefully. I do not claim that poetic effort is a necessary way of seeing a facet of Christ’s beauty. God may open our eyes by other means — by some act of obedience, by hard study, by watching the mountains, by the gift of your own cancer, or by the death of your spouse or your child. But the poetic effort is a way — a pervasively biblical way, a historically proven way — of seeing and savoring and showing the glory of God.
In the sixth volume of “The Swans Are Not Silent” series, John Piper celebrates the importance of poetic effort by looking at three influential Christians whose words magnificently display a commitment to truth and a love of beauty.
Through the lives of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C.S. Lewis, Piper helps us appreciate the importance of carefully crafted words by exploring how Christians can use them to testify to God’s glory, wonder at his grace, and rejoice in his salvation.