A Hymn Sung by Death Defeated

This is one of my favorites pieces so far by Ephrem the Syrian, Christian poet from the 300s. Ephrem writes this hymn largely from the perspective of death, bracketed and interspersed with some narration. Death begins its discourse in verse two, beginning confidently, then shifting to a tone of alarm as Christ enters Sheol and robs it of a “tithe” of its captives, and ending ultimately in a posture of submission, promising to deliver up all its captives in the future resurrection. It is a long poem, but well worth the read for rich biblical allusion and parallelism that Ephrem uses – as well as the enjoyment to be had as Ephrem uses his sanctified imagination to portray death panicking as he realizes just who Jesus is and what he is doing to his domain.

If any singer-songwriters ever read this post, consider this a request for an adapted version of this song by Ephrem. Such a song could be very powerful for the contemporary Church, just as it would have been for the believers in frontier Nisibis 1,700 years ago.

Nisibene Hymns, no. 36

Our Lord subjected His might, and they seized him,
so that through His living death He might give life to Adam.
He gave His hands to be pierced by nails 
to make up for the hand which plucked the fruit; He was struck on His cheek in the judgment room
to make up for the mouth that ate in Eden; and while Adam's foot was free
His feet were pierced; our Lord was stripped that we might be clothed;
with gall and vinegar He sweetened 
the poison of the serpent which had bitten man. 

Refrain: Blessed is He who has conquered me, and brought life to the dead, to His own glory! 

Death: "If you are God, show your might,
and if you are man, make trial of our might!
Or if it is Adam you are wanting, be off:
he is imprisoned here because of his debts; neither cherubim nor seraphim are able 
to secure his release: they have no mortal amongst themselves
to give himself up for him. Who can open the mouth of Sheol, 
dive down and bring him up from thence, 
seeing that Sheol has swallowed him up and holds him tight forever? 

"It was I who conquered all the sages; 
I have got them heaped up in the corners of Sheol.
Come and enter, son of Joseph, and look at the horrors:
the limbs of the giants, Samson's huge corpse,
the skeleton of the cruel Goliath; there is Og, the son of the giants, too,
who made a bed of iron, where he reclined: 
I cast him off it and threw him down,
I levelled that cedar at Sheol's gate.

"I alone have conquered many, 
and now the Only-Begotten seeks to conquer me!
I have led off prophets, priests and heroes,
I have conquered kings with their array, the giants with their hunts,
the just with their fine deeds - rivers full of corpses
I cast into Sheol, who remains thirsty forever however many I pour in! 
Whether a man is near or afar off, 
the final end brings him to Sheol's gate.

"I have spurned silver in the case of the rich
and their presents have failed to bribe me;
owners of slaves have never enticed me
to take a slave in place of his owner, or a poor man in place of a rich,
or an old in place of a child. Sages may be able to win over  
wild animals, but their winning words do not enter my ears.
Everyone may call me 'hater of requests', 
but I simply perform what I am bidden.

"Who is this? Whose son? 
And of what family is this man who has conquered me? 
The book with the genealogies is here with me - 
I have begun and taken the trouble to read all the names from Adam onwards,
and none of the dead escape me; tribe by tribe they are all written down
on my limbs. It is for your sake, Jesus, 
that I have undertaken this reckoning, 
in order to show you that no one escapes my hands.

"There are two men - I must not deceive - 
whose names are missing for me in Sheol:
Enoch and Elijah did not come to me;
I looked for them in the whole of creation, I even went down 
to the place where Jonah went, and groped around, but they were not there; and when I thought
they might have entered Paradise and escaped, there was the fearful cherub guarding it.
Jacob saw a ladder:
perhaps it was by this that they got up to heaven.

"Who has measured out the sea-sand
and only missed two grains? 
As for this harvest, with which illnesses like harvesters
are daily busied, I alone carry
the sheaves and bind them up. Sheaf-binders in their haste
leave sheaves, and grape-pickers forget whole clusters, 
but only two small bunches have escaped me
in the great harvest that I have been gathering in by myself.

"It is I", says Death, "who have made 
all kinds of catches on sea and land: 
the eagles in the sky come to me, 
so do the dragons of the deep, creeping things, birds and beasts,
old, young and babes; all these should persuade you,
Son of Mary, that my dominion reigns over all.
How can your cross conquer me,
seeing that it was through the wood that I was victorious and conquered at the beginning? 

"I should like to say much more 
- for I do not have any lack of words! - 
but there is no need for words, for deeds
cry out close by; I do not, like you, promise
hidden things to the simple, saying that there will be a resurrection;
when, I ask, when? If you are so very strong, 
then give a pledge on the spot
so that your distant promise may be believed." 

Death finished his taunting speech 
and our Lord's voice rang out thunderously in Sheol,
tearing open each grave one by one.
Terrible pangs seized hold of Death in Sheol; where light
had never been seen, rays shone out from the angels who had entered to bring out
the dead to meet the Dead One who has given life to all.
The dead went forth, and shame covered the living 
who had hoped they had conquered Him who gives life to all.

"Would I were back in Moses' time", 
says Death, "he made me a feast day:
for that lamb in Egypt gave me 
the first-fruits from every house; heaps upon heaps of first-born
were piled up for me at Sheol's gate. But this festival Lamb
has plundered Sheol, taken his tithe of the dead and led them off from me. 
That lamb filled the graves for me, 
this one empties the graves that had been full. 

"Jesus' death is a torment to me,
I wish I had chosen to let him live: it would have been better for me than his death.
Here is a dead man whose death I find hateful;
at everyone else's death I rejoice, but at his death I am anxious, 
and I expect he will return to life: during his lifetime he revived and brought back to life
three dead people. Now through his death 
the dead who have come to life again trample me at Sheol's gates
when I go to hold them in. 

"I will run and close the gates of Sheol
before that Dead One whose death has plundered me.
He who hears of it will wonder at my humiliation, 
because I have been defeated by a Dead man outside: all the dead want to go outside,
and he is pressing to enter. The medicine of life has entered Sheol
and brought its dead back to life. Who is it who has introduced for me and hidden
the living fire in which the cold and dark 
wombs of Sheol melt?" 

Death saw angels in Sheol, 
immortal beings instead of mortal,
and he said: "Trouble has entered our abode.
On two accounts I am tormented: the dead have left Sheol, 
and the angels, who do not die, have entered it - one has entered and sat at the head
of his grave, another, his companion, at his feet. 
I will ask and request him  
to take his hostage and go off to his kingdom. 

"Do not reckon against me, good Jesus, 
the words I have spoken, or my pride before you.
Who, on seeing your cross, could doubt 
that you are truly man? Who, when he sees your power, 
will fail to believe that you are also God? By these two indications 
I have learnt to confess you both Man and God. 
Since the dead cannot repent in Sheol,
rise up among the living, Lord, and proclaim repentance. 

"Jesus king, receive my request,
and with my request, take your hostage, 
carry off, as your great hostage, Adam 
in whom all the dead are hidden - 
just as, when I received him, in him all the living were concealed. 
As first hostage I give you
Adam's body. Ascend now and reign over all,
and when I hear your trumpet call, 
with my own hands will I bring forth the dead at your coming." 

Our living King has arisen and is exalted, 
like a victor, from Sheol. 
Woe is doubled for the party of the left, 
dismay for evil spirits and demons, suffering for Satan and Death, 
lamentation for Sin and Sheol, but rejoicing for the party of the right
has come today! On this great day, then, 
let us give great praise to Him
who died and came to life again, so that He might give life and resurrection to all!

-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 58-65

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s