Review: The Ballad of the White Horse

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Overview:

The Ballad of the White Horse is an epic poem—here referring to content rather than length—named for one of many ancient English petroglyphs (the “Westbury white horse”); the stone symbol is attributed to the early English King Alfred, whom the poem idealizes. (In the introduction, Chesterton adroitly states that this is not a work of researched historical fiction.) White Horse offers a romantic vision of Christian virtue through the eyes of the English past. While Chesterton’s other poems (Poems, The Wild Knight) are scattered in theme and method, this is his only long poem.

Some quick facts on this little book:

  • It is considered one of the last true “epics” of the English language.
  • Like many Classical poets, Chesterton uses the glories of past victory as a kind of metaphor or prophecy of today’s enemies—which, in his view, in the Britain of 1911, were intellectual and not military.
  • Some think, not without reason, that this poem was among the chief inspirations for The Lord of the Rings, in its imagery, conventions of epic, and recall of obsolete vocabulary.

Meat:

White Horse incorporates a lot of philosophy into its story. The chief value is in Chesterton’s glory in the underdog, in the cross, in the servant:

“And well may God with the serving-folk
Cast in His dreadful lot;
Is not He too a servant,
And is not He forgot?”
(Book IV, loc. 449)

” . . . Verily
Man shall not taste of victory
Till he throws his sword away.”
(Book V, loc. 626)

Bones:

Whatever it may seem to be, this is not a poem for children. Chesterton’s poetry tends towards archaic language that can be a little confusing; and in today’s political climate, the message of this book and could be twisted into brazen nationalism—though I think that would be an abuse of the author’s intent, which so often involves the cross.

Quotes:

“The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.”
(p. 11, loc. 158)

“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord.
(p. 43, loc. 389)

“And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart.

“The meanest man in grey fields gone
Behind the set of sun,
Heareth between star and other star,
Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
The council, eldest of things that are,
The talk of the Three in One.”
(p. 11, loc. 151)

Read: You can read this book for free on Project Gutenberg, or in the Kindle Store, or listen to the audiobook for free on LibriVox.

Psst—nearly all of Chesterton’s works are available for free online. Click here to see more of what’s out there.

 

 

 

The Armor of God (VI): Fiery Darts

This is the sixth part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.


Stand therefore . . . above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. (Eph. 6:14, 16)

There are two offensive weapons mentioned in Ephesians 6, and the difference between them should be striking: The enemy shoots darts or arrows at us, while our only weapon is a sword. One is for long-distance combat; the other is for close combat.

The traditional phrase, “fiery darts,” has also been translated “flaming arrows”; historians record that arrows were dipped in oil, lit on fire, and used in battle as much as 2700 years ago (and referenced in Psalm 7:13, which may be even older). But they were probably not very common, or effective. The technology was greatly improved by the Byzantines, who invented a form of napalm in the seventh century after Christ. Before that time, a “flaming arrow” would be a frightening spectacle, but not always super-effective.

The metaphor tells us something about the devil’s strategy. He lobs his weapons at us from a great distance, hoping that the damage will spread. The Scriptures describes “the tongue” as a spreading fire: it “setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” (James 3:6)

One of the greatest ways that we can cancel the lies of the enemies is by controlling the words that come out of our mouths. Our mouths are not magic, but our words do carry “the power of life and death” (Prov. 18:21), and we can damage our own faith by not keeping a tight grip on our words.

The Armor of God (V): The Shield of Faith

This is the fifth part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.


Stand therefore . . . above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. (Eph. 6:14, 16)

Warren Wiersbe has a fantastic book entitled The Strategy of Satan in which he goes through the key Scriptures related to spiritual warfare and temptation. Starting with with Adam and Eve, he goes through many of the same themes that I discussed in my series on Jesus in the desert. His impactful book keeps faith front and center during the discussion of spiritual warfare—if we want to live in victory, we need faith. So what is it, and how do we get there?

Faith, Wiersbe says, is the key to the entire conflict. But this statement can be misleading if we misunderstand what faith is. One of the ways we misunderstand faith is by thinking of it as mere confidence, like throwing yourself off a bridge into a dark cavern, hoping that the landing will be soft. We pray for someone to receive healing or for the mortally ill to turn a corner, and invariably someone will muddy the waters of a fast-growing faith by using the words, “we didn’t have enough faith.” Young minds hear these words and, comparing them to a few Scriptures, they imagine that they didn’t huff and puff and “faith themselves up” enough. If those were the conditions and operations of faith, then not only would faith be a fool’s hope, but God would be a silent tyrant. God forbid!

Biblical faith is not as mysterious as that. A. W. Tozer addressed this “leap of faith” problem in many of his short articles, but the most memorable is his chapter “The Gaze of the Soul” in the book The Pursuit of God. Tozer wrote there that “faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God.” He brings faith firmly back into the realm of possibility—faith involves confidence in what we already know about God. We cannot know everything about any given topic; but, given that we know Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, we are willing to risk everything we don’t know on the God that we do know.

Getting back to Wiersbe’s book—he points out that Adam and Eve’s failure against the serpent turned on their knowledge of God. Eve had already walked with God. She had already talked with God and heard from God, and she failed in that knowledge first. Then, she failed in conflict with her enemy.

There are a lot of strange ideas out there about spiritual warfare. Many world religions use ritualistic chanting or cleansing to drive away evil spirits, and some Christians think that quoting Scripture in a certain way can do the same thing. Some modern worship songs apply an almost magical power to the name of Jesus, which, while it has some founding in Scripture, is not something that should be worn like a charm when it is not married to a living faith in a present God.

We have all had moments when we simply felt attacked, as even atheists can attest. We locked the door but troubles came swarming through our window. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” We all know those “flaming arrows” of the enemy. And we all have thoughts about who to turn to—a person we can trust, a drink or drug to drown our sorrow, or anything to distract us from the state of our soul. Or we think that extra Scripture reading or church attendance will somehow protect us. None of these things mark a true newborn faith of the child of God. The only response from the child of God is to look heavenward for help with the gaze of a born-again faith and offer the sacrifice of praise, knowing that all who even desire to live godly will suffer persecution in Christ Jesus.

Review: The Star in the East

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Claudius Buchanan (1766-1815) was a minister and missionary in the Church of England. He went to India as a chaplain in 1797, and afterward became very influential in organizing native (i.e., not English) education and translation of Scriptures. He also held great influence in the Mar Thoma church (Kerala, India) and was a key supporter of the first Malayali Bible translation.

Overview:  This little book is a sermon preached in 1809 in Bristol, for the Society for Missions to Africa and Asia, when the author had just returned from India. Buchanan was an inspiration to Adoniram Judson as well as a witness to some fascinating and forgotten history, which is summarized below as an inspiration to the cause of Christian missions.

Meat:

Buchanan’s sermon recounts historical facts which he sees as providential in advancing the cause of Christian missions. Below are the points that he mentions:

  • Danish and German missionaries had arrived in Tamil Nadu (i.e. the Tranquebar colony in south India) in 1706, and their work had brought great results. (Buchanan lived in India for many years and knew firsthand the quality of the church there.)

What then was the effect of giving them the Bible? It was the same as that which followed the giving of the Bible to us. . . . God blessed his own word to the conversion of the heart, and men began to worship him in sincerity and truth. (loc. 367)

  • The spread of the British Empire was providential in the spread of Christianity.
  • The translation of Scriptures into Eastern languages was also providential. Buchanan refers to Henry Martyn and his associates pointedly; Buchanan himself also supported several translation projects.
  • Buchanan promulgated to the West the existence of the “Syrian Christians” in India—the Mar Thoma church, called Syrian because of their use of the Syriac language in liturgy:

We may contemplate the history of this people, existing so long in that dark region, as a type of the inextinguishable Light of Christ’s religion; and, in this sense, it may be truly said, “We have seen his Star in the East.” (loc. 336)

  • Buchanan refers to the strange and interesting tale of an associate of Henry Martyn, an Arab baptized as Nathaniel Sabat, who later left the faith. Robert Murray McCheyne, another important Scottish preacher, has a (not so inspirational!) pamphlet on him and the strange tale of his apostasy and death (Sabat the Arabian, the Apostate (1854)). Buchanan describes “Sabat” and his “vernacular writings” thus:

His first work is entitled Happy News for Arabia [نعمة بشارةٍ للعربي]; written in the Nabuttee [Nabataean?], or common dialect of the country. It contains an eloquent and argumentative elucidation of the truth of the Gospel, with copious authorities admitted by the Mahometans [i.e., Muslims] themselves, and particularly by the Wahabians [Wahhabis].

Note: It doesn’t appear that any of these writings are extant.

Buchanan mentions all these are more as evidences that the time has come to once again announce Christ in the East, as the wise men once did.

In his conclusion, Buchanan also mentions British opponents of missions, saying that “in the future history of our country, it will scarcely be believed that in the present age, an attempt should have been made to prevent the diffusion of the blessed principles of the Christian religion.” (loc. 448) The author then compares naysayers to the pessimistic spies of Israel, who did not believe they should enter the promised land (loc. 469).

In the mean time, while men hold different opinions on the subject here, the great work goes on in the East. . . . And on this point I judge it right to notice a remarkable mistake, which appears to have existed on both sides of the question. It seems to have been assumed on the one side, and conceded on the other, that we have it in our power to prevent the progress of Christianity in India. (loc. 492)

The Armor of God (IV): Feet Shod with Preparation

This is the fourth part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.


Stand therefore . . . and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace . . .
(Eph. 6:14-15)

“Having your feet shod” is closely connected to the metaphor of “the belt of truth,” and the two should be taken together, although they are not mentioned together. Both are with the purpose of running (1 Kings 18:46, 2 Kings 4:29)

Then the hand of the LORD came upon Elijah; and he girded up his loins and ran ahead . (1 Kings 18:46; cf. 2 Kings 4:29, etc.)

If having the correct shoes has any Old Testament analogue, it would be in the shoes worn at the Passover supper.

And thus you shall eat it [i.e. the Passover meal]: with a belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. So you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. (Ex. 12:11)

The Passover meal is rich in picturesque imagery; although the Exodus is a work of God, the children of Israel were required to eat the Passover supper in readiness, prepared to flee the land of Egypt. It speaks, like the belt, of readiness and eternity-consciousness.

The work of the gospel is also the work of God, but that does not excuse laziness or foolhardiness as we prepare for the work. We should do everything we can to be ready for gospel work.

When it comes to gospel work overseas, there are a variety of ways that we can prepare. There is language study; physical training; cultural study; and, if that weren’t difficult enough, the arduous task of applying the message to hardened hearts will keep us busy for a lifetime. But making disciples is the best preparation. If we have not made disciples at home, we will have triple the difficulty making them abroad. If you want to be prepared to spread the gospel, don’t just buy a plane ticket—make disciples.

Review: Faber’s Hymns

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Frederick William Faber (1814-1863), a prolific Catholic writer and poet. Swept by the tide of the Anglo-Catholic movement, he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1845; nevertheless, his hymns in particular are treasured by Protestant and Catholic alike.

A. W. Tozer did a great deal towards popularizing Faber’s verse to a modern audience, in his books The Knowledge of the Holy and The Christian Book of Mystical Verse (which includes a few of the best hymns from Faber, but omits many of the hymns in the collection discussed in this review).

Overview: As far as hymns go, Faber made his own track, and he has been amply praised for it. Whereas many hymns of the period had a didactic flavor, Faber’s motive and goal is entirely devotional. He does not go on incorporating new elements in a single song; more along the lines of modern worship songs, he is laser focused on one aspect of God’s character.

Note on Editions: Many collections of Faber’s hymns have been published, but this edition (first published in 1894, long after his death) has been particularly popular. For the Pioneer Library reprint, a selection was made of the best 55 hymns, excluding several that should have been classed as poems, and others that were directed towards a Catholic audience. (The original edition had 72 hymns in total.)

Meat: The strength of the collection, as mentioned, is in simple, devotional verses on God’s character. “Come to Jesus” is the most popular of these and has been included in many hymnals; but many, many others are unforgettable: “The Unity of God,” “Majesty Divine,” “The Eternal Father,” “Jesus, My God and My All,” “From Pain to Pain,” and “The Creation of the Angels” are all hymns that are so intense as to be unsuitable for congregational worship. They demand a quiet, lonely space for prayer and the awestruck gratitude of single-hearted worship.

Faber also deals with dry seasons in many great poems, like “Distractions in Prayer,” “Dryness in Prayer,” and others

Faber also deals with grief and the afterlife in many of the hymns near the end of the collection, but in my opinion they were not the strongest of the bunch.

Bones: As I mentioned, the original edition is created for a Catholic (or, perhaps Anglo-Catholic) audience. The idea of a hymn addressed to Mary is inherently offensive to me; some of the ways of talking about the afterlife also seemed odd. For that reason, I recommend our new edition, which was painstakingly re-created.

Read Online:

A few of my favorite hymns, which are available online, are:

“Jesus, My God and My All” (a favorite of Leonard Ravenhill)

“Creation of the Angels”

“Come to Jesus”

“Harsh Judgments”

Buy: You can buy the new edition in paperback for $9.99, or on Kindle for $2.99. This book also has Kindle Matchbook which means that if you buy my paperback from Amazon, the Kindle version will be free.

 

 

The Armor of God (III): The Breastplate of Righteousness

This is the third part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.


Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness . . . (Eph. 6:14)

The “breastplate” is the first piece of defensive armor that Paul names. This one and the “helmet of salvation” were both mentioned by Isaiah in a Messianic prophecy:

He saw that there was no man,
And wondered that there was no intercessor;
Therefore His own arm brought salvation for Him;
And His own righteousness, it sustained Him.
For He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
And a helmet of salvation on His head;
He put on the garments of vengeance for clothing,
And was clad with zeal as a cloak.
(Isa. 59:16-17)

Paul also has a similar “breastplate” metaphor in one of his other letters:

But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Th. 5:8)

Paul is not afraid to come up with his own metaphors (like “the belt of truth”), but he also couches everything in the wisdom of tradition. When he puts together metaphors, they tend to be metaphors that were already used in Scripture.

The Breastplate of Judgment?

The connection between “righteousness” and the “breastplate” is no mistake. Although the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge doesn’t mention the cross-reference, both Isaiah and Paul would have been well aware of the high priest’s “breastplate of judgment,” first introduced as such in Exodus 28:15. The word “breastplate” is only used in two contexts in the Bible: the priest’s breastplate of judgment, and the metaphorical breastplate of righteousness (or, in 1 Thessalonians, “faith and love”). Although there are different shades of meaning, the two terms (“judgment” and “righteousness”) are too close in meaning to think that either Paul or Isaiah had anything else in mind.

With that in mind, I believe that the breastplate of righteousness refers to righteous decision-making. The meaning of “judgment” in Exodus 28 is not divine punishment; it means something more like “discernment” or “what is right.”

The Urim and Thummim

The priest’s breastplate is a rather mysterious symbol if we take it as connected to divine judgment, in the sense of punishment and reward. But it becomes much clearer when we take judgment to mean “decision-making,” in connection with the Urim and Thummim. These were actually consulted in the Old Testament very seldom: Saul consulted them at least twice while making war against the Philistines (1 Sam. 14:41 & 28:6),  and Ezra desired to consult them on return from exile, but they had apparently been permanently lost (Ezra 2:63, Neh. 7:65).

The Urim and Thummim are rather mysterious in the Old Testament, but we do know that:

  • They were a decision-making tool used by the high priest, likely quite similar to flipping a coin.
  • Their name is Hebrew for “lights and perfections,” which seems to point to wise decision-making, but doesn’t say anything about their actual use.
  • They are not frequently mentioned, and in fact word from a prophet and even dreams are much more frequent in the Old Testament (cf. 1 Sam. 28:6).
  • It also appears they fell out of use after David’s time, and were lost by the time of Ezra.
  • They are not mentioned in the New Testament.

The Urim and Thummim in the breastplate symbolize for us the simple fact of consulting God when making decisions. But one danger is, this can be over-emphasized, to the point that we paralyze young believers until they have some spiritual experience, proving God approves of their next decision.

Guarding Your Heart

The basic function of a breastplate is to protect the vital organs such as the heart. For that reason, it is common to link the “breastplate of righteousness” in Ephesians to Proverbs 4:23:

Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.

As I have written elsewhere, the “heart” in Scripture represents thoughts and intentions, not just emotions. This makes sense when we reflect that the priest’s breastplate held the Urim and Thummim, the two stones that the priest used to make decisions:

And you shall put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be over Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the LORD. So Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel over his heart before the LORD continually. (Ex. 28:30)

When the proverb tells us “guard your heart,” I believe it’s talking about protecting your thought-life and your decisions. I have seen people who were walking with God fall into strange cult-like behavior, and I believe one of the main drivers was their desire for spiritual help in decision-making—when we become lost on this point, some will begin to consult forbidden means like fortune-tellers, astrology, or seances. These lead them into spiritual entanglement and doctrinal confusion, and they end up forgetting the righteousness that is found in Christ.

When we believe that righteousness is found in Christ, it enables us to make decisions with confidence, knowing that he is with us and for us, and that he is empowering us and giving us wisdom through his Word and Spirit. The Bible also gives us a firm footing, so that we don’t always have to wait for a special word—we have the Word. There are times when the Holy Spirit will prompt us to wait until it is the right moment or until we understand a situation better before making a decision; in other times, having consulted the firm foundation of God’s Word, walking in the wisdom of Christian history, and staying in close contact with trustworthy Christian brothers and sisters, we can take bold steps, especially when God’s honor is at stake.