George Herbert on Prayer (11)
This is he who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. 1 John 5.6
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s 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’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
- George Herbert
In his commentary on the gospel of John, Calvin explains the significance of the blood flowing with water which issued from the side of Christ when the soldier pierced Him with his spear. He relates this episode in the saving work of Christ to 1 John 5.6: “By these words he means that Christ brought the true atonement and the true washing. Forgiveness of sins and justification, as well as the sanctification of the soul, were prefigured in the law by those two symbols of sacrifices and ablutions [blood and water] for appeasing God’s wrath. Ablutions were the tokens of true holiness, remedies for purging uncleanness and removing the stains of the flesh.”
Calvin related this image in particular to the sacraments: “…when baptism and the Lord’s Supper lead us to Christ’s side to draw water from it, as from a well which they represent, then we are truly washed from our pollutions and are renewed to a holy life and live before God, redeemed from death and delivered from condemnation.”
George Herbert would certainly have been aware of Calvin’s view of the spear-thrust into Jesus’ side. In his poem, however, he broadens the scope of application of this episode, apply the ramming of that spear into our Lord as a symbol of prayer.
This is a jarring, if not troubling, way of thinking about prayer, but a little reflection reveals how apt it is.
What, after all, is prayer? It is the noisy intrusion into the glorious singing of heaven of our sin-tainted attempts to communicate with God. Our prayers, in fact, do not reach the Father in the same form in which we launch them. We don’t know how to pray as we ought, after all (Rom. 8.26). Thus, we need the help of the Spirit of God, who conveys our prayers, by some mysterious means, into the courts of heaven.
But they require even more. Upon arriving in heaven our Spirit-born prayers pass through a further bit of preparation, as they are – again by some unknown means – intercepted be the saints and “bathed” in the fragrances of heaven, in incense provided by angels. This sounds strange, I know, but I’m only trying to make sense of what John sees in the courts of heaven when twice he reports that the departed saints carry our prayers and offer them to the Father like heavenly incense (Rev. 5.8, 8.3-5).
And still there is more: These “sanctified” prayers must pass through our High Priest, Who ever lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7.25). Only as Jesus presents our prayers to God is the spigot of grace opened to pour down upon us grace for forgiveness and sanctification.
Our prayers burst into the courts of heaven like unwelcome intruders – like a discordant note in the heavenly chorus, like the spear thrust into our Savior’s side.
But God invites our prayers, rude and imperfect as they are, intrusive, unworthy, and clumsy as we might think them to be. And He takes our prayers into His own side, to His very Right Hand, who receives them – sanctified and perfected – and conveys them to our Father, Who knows what we need even before we ask.
Our Father washes us in the blood of Jesus and cleanses us in the renewing waters of His Spirit (Jn. 7.37-39) so that we might, through prayer, be renewed in our salvation and advanced in sanctification by this good work of Christ on our behalf. Our prayers are the point of the spear into the salvation which flows from the side of Christ.
T. M.’s books on prayer include God’s Prayer Program, a guide to learning how to pray the psalms; The Psalms for Prayer, in which all the psalms are set up to guide you in how to pray them; and If Men Will Pray, a serious attempt to call men of faith to greater diligence in prayer. Follow the links provided here to purchase these from our online store.