In this poem, Ephrem the Syrian, poet of the ancient church, compares and contrasts the Passover lamb with Christ, the true lamb of God.
Hymns on the Unleavened Bread, no. 3
In Egypt the Passover lamb was slain,
in Sion the True Lamb slaughtered.
Refrain: Praise to the Son, the Lord of symbols
who fulfilled every symbol at his resurrection.
My brothers, let us consider the two lambs,
let us see where they bear resemblance and where they differ.
Let us weigh and compare their achievements
- of the lamb that was the symbol, and of the Lamb that is the Truth.
Let us look upon the symbol as a shadow,
let us look upon the Truth as the fulfillment.
Listen to the simple symbols that concern that Passover,
and to the double achievements of this our Passover.
With the Passover lamb there took place for the Jewish people
an Exodus from Egypt, and not an entry.
So with the True Lamb there took place for the Gentiles
an Exodus from error, and not an entry.
With the Living Lamb there was a further Exodus, too,
for the dead from Sheol, as from Egypt;
For in Egypt two symbols are depicted,
since it reflects both Sheol and Error.
With the Passover lamb, Egypt's greed
learnt to give back against its wont;
With the Living Lamb, Sheol's hunger
disgorged back the dead, against its nature.
With the True Lamb, greedy Error
rejected and cast up the Gentiles who were saved;
With that Passover lamb, Pharaoh returned the Jewish people
whom, like Death, he had held back.
With the Living Lamb, Death has returned
the just, who left their graves.
With the True Lamb, Satan gave up the Gentiles
whom, like Pharaoh, he had held back.
In Pharaoh two types were depicted;
he was a pointer to both Death and Satan.
With the Passover lamb, Egypt was breached
and a path stretched out before the Hebrews.
With the True Lamb, Satan, having fenced off all paths,
left free the path that leads to Truth.
The Living Lamb has trodden out, with that cry which He uttered,
the path from the grave for those who lie buried.
-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 52-54
Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373) was a deacon in the Roman border cities of Nisibis and Edessa in the 300s. Though not widely known, he is perhaps the most important poet of the early church. The reason he is not well-known is because he wrote not in Greek or Latin, but in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic that served as the main language for Christians in the far east of the Roman empire and those who lived across the border in the Parthian, later Sassanian, empire. These eastern cities where Ephrem lived (now in SE Turkey – Nusaybin and Sanilurfa) were extremely diverse religiously during his lifetime. Different sects of Christians mixed in the marketplace with Arians, Jews, polytheists, and Manicheans. Ehphrem wrote theological poetry, composing many hymns which would serve both discipleship as well as evangelistic purposes. Ever since I read that Ephrem would lead evangelistic choirs of women into the marketplace to contend for the truth of the gospel, I have wanted to more about this overlooked ancient poet. Our focus people group, and so many others in the Middle East and Central Asia, continue to be deeply poetic and musical. The idea of doing theology and evangelism via poetry and song, employed by Ephrem so long ago, might still prove to be a very powerful thing in this region.
I’ve finally gotten my hands on a book of Ephrem’s poems and will periodically post some on this blog, as a window into the Christian faith of this ancient Syriac poet and the churches he sought to strengthen. The poem below is about a communion service, and Ephrem calls for the Church to praise its savior, drawing connections to the wedding at Cana in John 2, doing a bit of comparison between Israel’s failure and the Church, and ending by delighting in the nature of Jesus.
Hymns on Faith, no. 14
I have invited You, Lord, to a wedding feast of song,
but the wine - the utterance of praise - at our feast has failed.
You are the guest who filled the jars with good wine,
fill my mouth with Your praise.
Refrain: Praise to You from all who perceive your truth.
The wine that was in the jars was akin and related to
this eloquent wine that gives birth to praise,
seeing that that wine too gave birth to praise
from those who drank it and beheld the wonder.
You who are so just, if at a wedding-feast not Your own
You filled six jars with good wine,
do You, at this wedding-feast, fill, not the jars,
but the ten thousand ears with its sweetness.
Jesus, You were invited to the wedding-feast of others,
here is Your own pure and fair wedding-feast: gladden Your rejuvenated people,
for Your guests too, O Lord, need
Your songs; let Your harp utter!
The soul is Your bride, the body Your bridal chamber,
Your guests are the senses and the thoughts.
And if a single body is a wedding feast for you,
how great is Your banquet for the whole Church!
The holy Moses took the Synagogue up on Sinai:
he made her body shine with garments of white, but her heart was dark;
she played the harlot with the calf, she despised the Exalted One,
and so he broke the tablets, the book of her covenant.
Who has ever seen the turmoil and insult
of a bride who played false in her own bridal chamber, raising her voice?
When she dwelt in Egypt she learnt it from
the mistress of Joseph, who cried out and played false.
The light of the pillar of fire and of the cloud
drew into itself its rays
like the sun that was eclipsed
on the day she cried out, demanding the King, a further crime.
How can my harp, O Lord, ever rest from Your praise?
How could I ever teach my tongue infidelity?
Your love has given confidence to my shamefacedness,
-yet my will is ungrateful.
It is right that man should acknowledge Your divinity,
it is right for heavenly beings to worship Your humanity;
the heavenly beings were amazed to see how small You became,
and earthly ones to see how exalted!
-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 24-26
Our corner of Central Asia is an ancient place. We had some first-time visitors with us this past week, and while traveling back from another city we took the opportunity to visit some very old ruins – old, as in circa 2,700 years ago. Remarkably, ancient carved script was still clear and legible on dozens of the large limestone blocks.
The few scholars that can read that script say that most of it is typical of the bragging monument-speak of ancient kings. “I’m the king of the world” and all that. If you’ve ever read the poem “Ozymandius” by Shelley, you’ll understand the sad irony felt when that kind of chiseled pride is contrasted with the desolation that inevitably comes with the passage of time – and with death.
I’m reminded of the time I visited the ruins of Ephesus. The site of the temple of Artemis only contained one pillar still standing – and that from a recent German reconstruction – and a whole bunch of grass and grazing sheep. So much for “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19). The site in Central Asia we visited was similar. Broken beer bottles littered the site itself, and nearby were tents of nomads, their shuffling flocks, and a lazy guard dog. So much for “the king of the world.”
However, I’ve also read that this particular monarch (later murdered by his own sons) may have been privately realistic when it came to his own mortality. In public he may have claimed to be a semi-divine global ruler who would live forever. But scholars say that on the underside of some stones, hidden for centuries, a very different kind of message has been discovered. It’s along the lines of “If you are reading this, then my kingdom has been destroyed, I am no more, and was a mere mortal after all.” That’s quite the time capsule message to leave buried beneath massive limestone blocks. And a rare example of realistic humility for ancient royalty, if these carvings were indeed commissioned by the king himself and not a sneaky dig made against him by the head stone chiseler.
The visitors and I had a great time exploring the site. It’s simply astounding that ruins like this exist and that they have lasted so long – especially the carved script itself. 2,700 years is no small achievement for an ancient mason or scribe shooting for quality work. It was an invigorating place because of the remarkable history, but also a humbling one. Our empires’ greatest public works will one day look just like it, if they even last half as long. A testimony in the desert to glory long gone. It makes one long for the city whose foundation blocks will never fall or waste away.
I found myself wishing the pompous autocrats and politicians of our contemporary scene could visit this historical site, and take away lessons on both the enduring legacy of bold projects and the importance of humility for any powerful – yet oh so temporary – leader. Yes, we may be “crowned with glory and honor” for a day, yet all too quickly it comes to an end. They, and we, would be wise to more often consider these things, and to heed the warnings of Psalm 2:10-12.
Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear,and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Their glory and honor will fade. Only one ruler has a throne and a kingdom that will last forever. If they do not take refuge in him, if they do not give him the kiss of loyalty, they will fade into the sand, just like our local “king of the world.” Just like Ozymandius.
In case you haven’t read it before, here is “Ozymandius” by Shelley.
I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.“
This week we’ve been packing up for yet another move. My wife came across this poem I wrote for her a couple years ago, which I had posted at the very beginning of starting this blog. She requested that I post it again. And, seeing that she is a very wise and intuitive woman, I am happy to do so. I hope it can serve as one window into how those of us who embrace semi-nomadic missions lifestyles for the sake of the gospel wrestle with the costs – and hope in the world to come.
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30 ESV)
A Hundredfold Homes
We have lived with rich and poor
In places some will not or can’t.
And found there joy, and doors
To life, and friends, and won’t
Forget the promise, one hundred-fold.
We need it dearly every time
We move again and say goodbye
And home becomes a house – again.
We do it all for Him.
True, we know the cost is real,
That mingled joy of rootlessness.
But I have heard the king has rooms
And rooms and rooms and worlds.
Perhaps a place where mountains meet
The sea, a house with orchards on a hill.
With pen and table, porch and sky
And paper and books, maybe some tea.
A pipe! And fire.
Yes, room to host and reminisce
(With friends and of course the King himself)
The glory that we saw
In our hundred fleeting homes.
Children born and born again,
The needy fed, the lost redeemed,
The straying won, the faithful trained.
A hundred tents of light
Soon dismantled yet again.
For the world was ours, but not quite yet.
We don’t yet know the fullness of
The joy, although we know the taste.
For each new place a portion sings
And each new move the old refrain:
The promises are coming true
Before our eyes – a hundred-fold!
And new creation, forever home.
Is coming, coming, like the dawn.
So let us drink and to the full
The joy of each new set of walls.
For they are fleeting like the fall
And shine unique, eternal.
Remember the talk of camels and tents?
And Shelby Park, and Kingston’s rooms
And Sarkenar or St James Court?
Yes, more to come, if grace allows
And we shall thank the king for each,
With faith and joy await to see
The next of our one hundred homes
That really are not ours at all.
The glory – they are forever ours,
And really are not ours at all.
Remember that sweeping accusation from Titus 1:12-13, where Paul that all Cretans are “always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons?” Well, it’s actually a quotation. And that quotation has a known context, which I had never heard before. Turns out it’s a fight about whether or not the chief of the gods could be dead in a tomb. Paul – whether he’s alluding to this context or merely commandeering a well-known literary rebuke – agrees, following with quite the understatement. “This sentence is true” (v. 13). Clearly, Paul and the Holy Spirit weren’t messing around. This Cretan tendency toward empty and deceptive talk had gone far enough.
“Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Paul quotes Epimenides, a Cretan poet from the sixth century BC. In his poem Cretica, Epimenides accuses the Cretans of being liars and evil beasts because they claim to host a tomb of Zeus, the chief of the gods. Since Zeus “lives and abides forever,” the Cretans must be liars. Paul quotes from this same poem in his sermon to the Areopagus in Acts 17:28. Crete also claimed to be the birthplace of Zeus, known in antiquity as the Dictaean Cave, which legend placed on the slopes of Mount Ida, Crete’s tallest mountain. Reputedly from Knossos, Epimenides was supposed to have the gift of prophecy, which was bestowed on him after he allegedly slept for 57 years in a cave sacred to Zeus.
ESV Archaeology Study Bible, Note on Titus 1:12-13
Ever feel offended by broad-brush statements of scripture like this? That feeling’s probably a good sign of an area where we are being shaped more by our culture’s mores than by God’s word. Anytime we feel that inner twitch – that’s a good place to pause and lean in. Why exactly does this rub me the wrong way? And what might that mean?
Even Patrick’s great prayer in Irish – sometimes called “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate” because it was thought to protect him from hostile powers, sometimes called “The Deer’s Cry” because it was thought to make him resemble a deer to the eyes of those seeking to do him harm – cannot be definitely ascribed to him. Characteristics of its language would assign it to the seventh, or even to the eighth, century. On the other hand, it is Patrician to its core, the first ringing assertion that the universe itself is the Great Sacrament, magically designed by its loving Creator to bless and succor human beings. The earliest expression of European vernacular poetry, it is, in attitude, the work of a Christian druid, a man of both faith and magic. Its feeling is entirely un-Augustinian; but it is this feeling that will go on to animate the best poetry of the Middle Ages. If Patrick did not write it (at least in its current form), it surely takes its inspiration from him. For in this cosmic incantation, the inarticulate outcast who wept for slaves, aided common men in difficulty, and loved sunrise and sea at last finds his voice. Appropriately, it is an Irish voice.
Take my hand
I won’t let go
We’ve waited so long
And all my life
I walked alone
To you, my heart, my home
Like the first man
I was cut so deep by heaven’s knife
When I awoke from my sleep
Oh my Lord, she’s beautiful
She’s a part of me
She’s my wife
Bound by love
One flesh to be
An unbroken ring
And I lay down
My life for thee
In love we are free
Like the first man
I was cut so deep by heaven’s knife
When I awoke from my sleep
Oh my Lord, she’s beautiful
Walking up to me
Oh she’s wonderful, standing next to me
Oh she’s all
All that I could need, yeah
She’s beautiful, she’s a part of me
She’s my wife
Nero is dead, Constantine is dead
Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun are dead
Alexander the Great is dead - however
Jesus is Alive
Napoleon is dead, Lao Tzu is dead
Che Guevara and Henry VIII are dead
Saddam Hussein is dead - however
Jesus is Alive
Through faith in Christ, we've been saved from hell
Because He's risen, it means we'll be raised as well
In glorified bodies fit for the new earth
For now, we participate in the new birth
The universal reality of the true church
With resurrection power, watch the Spirit do work!
United with Christ, we reside in His light
Abide in His might, keep in stride as we fight
The pride in our life, the lies and the spite
We strive to be wise as He guides through the night
The Levant is like sugar, but the homeland is sweeter still.
Local Oral Tradition
This proverb recalls a time before the Levant became a war zone, when it was a region full of lore and luxury. Many Middle Easterners and Central Asians from rugged and remote areas would travel there for business or while on pilgrimage. Yet even in the Levant, they still sensed that nowhere quite compares to home.
It’s hard to pick my favorite lines from this song. I love the coming together of deep theology, artful rhyme, and a beat that wakes my heart up.
Regeneration- the Holy Spirit’s true work in His love To the elect, who receive new birth from above Expiation- expiation means God’s removed my filthiness The old testament type was the goat into the wilderness Redemption- we’ve been freed from slavery to sin And His very own blood is the price He paid, my friend Propitiation- Propitiation means since the Lamb has died His work is finished- God’s wrath is satisfied Adoption- adoption means God is now my Father I got the hottest Poppa and by the Spirit holler Abba Reconciliation means there’s no more enmity God is now a friend to me, we’re no longer enemies Justification- God declares us righteous Sanctification- we’re being made into His likeness Glorification- that’s what happens at the finish When God conforms believers perfectly to Christ’s image!