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Thy Words Do Find Me Out: Herbert’s Devotional Reading of the King James Bible

With the publication of the King James Version of the Bible, the possibility and even expectation that all believers could have access to a Bible, if not own one, and read it in their own language, without risk to life and limb, could not help but change the landscape of literature. It opened up a whole new world of literary allusions, forms, and themes that the reader could be expected to recognize and understand. And it opened up the reading of Scripture as a devotional practice available to all believers. Devotional reading of the Bible is not just to furnish the mind with information. It is a dialogue with God, an act of prayer, an act of faith, and an act of worship. In devotional reading, I read the stories of the Bible as my story; its words as my words. Its purpose is not information, but transformation.

I am going to explore how a devotional reading of the King James Bible can shape both a literary text and a devotional practice by using George Herbert’s The Temple,1 long recognized as a spiritual classic as well as a literary masterpiece,as a case study. Herbert, born in 1593, would have seen the King James Version published as the Authorized Version and widely used in corporate worship and private devotions. He was a younger son in a great and influential household, his mother a patron of the arts. His success as a scholar and orator at Cambridge gained him the attention of King James I and led him to serve in Parliament for a time, but in 1630, when he was in his mid-thirties, he turned his back on public life, took Holy Orders in the Anglican Church, and spent the rest of his life as a country parson. He pastored a small church in Bemerton, near Salisbury, until his death from consumption three years later. You might try to picture this aristocratic young man pastoring this small flock of farmers and laborers, helping to rebuild the church with his own funds, preaching, visiting his parishioners, walking the river path to Salisbury Cathedral where he engaged in the music, writing a classic book on pastoring called The Country Parson, setting a high standard indeed for the shepherds of God’s flocks, and writing poetry.

Shortly before his death, he entrusted a manuscript of his poems that he described as “a picture of spiritual conflicts between God and my soul” to a good friend, Nicholas Ferrar, with instructions to publish it only if he thought it might help “any dejected poor soul” or else destroy it. The manuscript was a collection of 162 poems entitled The Temple. One can’t get beyond the title page without recognizing the importance of biblical allusion in this text. The primary meaning of “temple” in the Old Testament is the dwelling place of God, a holy place, a place of cleansing and atonement, but the meaning expands in later use to include the body of Christ as the new temple (John 2:19-21), the community of believers with Christ as the cornerstone, and the individual believer as the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17); and the Christian church as a place of worship where one meets God. All of these meanings are operating in The Temple, and while his contemporaries were writing poetry distinguished by their wide-ranging allusions to classical literature and current events and discoveries in science and exploration, Herbert’s poetry draws almost exclusively from the King James Version of the Bible. His purpose for writing is devotional. His audience is God.2

As readers move through The Temple, they will note poems on specific aspects of the temple, such as the altar, the sacrifice, the priesthood, and Aaron. Or the image will move into the world of the Christian church with poems on the church porch, the entryway, the church floor, the church lock and key, the windows, and various aspects of the liturgy and the church calendar.

The H. Scriptures, I and II

                                 I

Oh Book!  infinite sweetnesse! let my heart

          Suck ev’ry letter, and a hony gain,

          Precious for any grief in any part;

To cleare the breast, to mollifie all pain.

Thou art all health, health thriving till it make

         A full eternitie: thou art a masse

         Of strange delights, where we may wish & take.

Ladies, look here; this is the thankfull glasse,

That mends the lookers eyes: this is the well

         That washes what it shows. Who can indeare

         Thy praise too much? thou art heav’ns Lidger here,

Working against the states of death and hell.

         Thou art joyes handsell: heav’n lies flat in thee,

         Subject to ev’ry mounters bended knee.

 

                                 II

Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,

          And the configurations of their glorie!

          Seeing not onely how each verse doth shine,

But all the constellations of the storie.

This verse marks that, and both do make a motion

          Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie:

          Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,

These three make up some Christians destinie:

Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,

          And comments on thee: for in ev’ry thing

          Thy words do finde me out, & parallels bring,

And in another make me understood.

          Starres are poore books, & oftentimes do misse:

          This book of starres lights to eternall blisse.

 

                                                George Herbert

Of all the furnishings in the temple, the Holy Scriptures is key in the transformation of the soul that takes place there. In the paired poems on The Holy Scriptures Herbert describes the Bible as a book of “infinite sweetnesse” and the reader a bee sucking every letter for the honey; it is a balm that comforts grief, mollifies pain, and restores health; for the ladies it is a mirror that mends the defects it reflects; it is a well that cleanses the one who drinks; it is heaven’s ambassador defending the soul against the powers of death and hell; it is a forerunner or gift sent by heaven, a token of joys to come; heaven itself lies flat on the page open to those who approach it on bended knee like a lover approaching his bride, or the soul approaching God.

With the Bible described in images of ultimate worth, power, and beauty, he proceeds to explore how the mind of the reader can embrace this text. How does this book work that makes it different from all other books? Using the metaphor of a “book of starres” and the reader an astronomer finding the constellations, he says, “Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine, And the configurations of their glorie!” Each verse shines like a star in the night sky, alone and beautiful, but each star is part of a constellation of other stars which give it an even brighter light or richer meaning. “This verse marks that, and both do make a motion unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie.”

Finding the stars of a constellation and seeing them in their new more complex context enriches the meaning that each single star can bear. He repeats the concept in a new metaphor of three herbs mixed together creating a new potion, more powerful than each alone. “Such are thy secrets,” he says, but do they work? Is the constellation an accurate guide to the heavens? Is the potion a medicine for the soul? The proof is in the speaker’s own life. “My life makes good” the text. My life proves the text, a living, speaking, acting commentary on the text. The purpose of the text is to guide the “Christians destinie” and the Christian’s life “comments on thee.” In the clearest description of what devotional reading of the Bible is all about, he says:

for in ev’ry thing

Thy words do finde me out, & parallels bring,

And in another make me understood.

Devotional readers see themselves in the text. This is God’s word to them. God’s word can find the reader out. And the reader finds healing and redemption. The proof is in the Christian life, as the believer participates in the gospel story. “Parallels bring,” says Herbert. In understanding the stories of the Bible, readers understand their own story, and their place in the great story of redemption. In the devotional reading of the Bible, readers come to understand themselves.     

Herbert reflects the Reformation’s “insistence on the sufficiency and primacy of Scripture and its proven experience in changing lives” and on the authority of believers to read and interpret Scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit. In the “living language” of the Bible, the reader meets God, as ancient Israel met him in the temple. The result of this encounter is transformation.3

In the 162 poems of The Temple, Herbert dramatizes this transformation. He creates a speaker, a Christian Everyman, and through him explores in all its complexity “the nature of divine and human intimacy.”4 The growth of love between God and the soul is essentially a narrative. Much like the psalmist, he “laments and loves”:

Ah my deare angrie Lord,

Since thou dost love, yet strike;

Cast down, yet help afford;

Sure I will do the like.

 

I will complain, yet praise;

I will bewail, approve;

And all my sowre-sweet dayes

I will lament, and love

“Bitter-sweet”

Like Jacob, he wrestles with God. Like the Psalmist, he complains to God and praises him at the same time, and like the prophets, he reasons with him and calls for mercy and judgment. Aware both of his sinfulness and of Christ’s sacrifice, he catches fragmentary glimpses of Divine love and says longingly, “What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see Thy full-ey’d love!” (“The Glance.”) The narrator in The Temple sees through a glass darkly but longs for that fuller glimpse that comes to the speaker in the very last poem of The Temple, “Love III,” where he comes face to face with “quick-ey’d Love.”

 

Notes & References:
[1] F. E. Hutchinson, ed., The Works of George Herbert (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941). This is the definitive edition of Herbert’s works, and many others are available. All quotations from Herbert are from this edition. 
[2] Chana Bloch, Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 116-124.
[3] William G. Witt, “George Herbert’s Approach to God: The Faith and Spirituality of a Country Priest,” Theology Today 60, no. 2 (July 2003), accessed October 12, 2011, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/004057360306000206
[4] Ibid.

 

Beverly Beem has recently retired from the English department at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington.

A longer version of this article was presented on October 22, 2011 at Walla Walla University for their day-long event, “Celebrating the King James Bible: The 400th Anniversary of the Translation That Changed the World (1611-2011).”

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

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