The book of Isaiah is, among other things, a repetitive call for humility before the might and majesty of God. One of the most gripping images of God taking down the proud is directed toward Shebna, a man who built monuments to himself. In addition to straight-up mockery (”O you strong man”), we are given an unforgettable picture of Shebna’s end:
Behold, the Lord will hurl you away violently, O you strong man. He will seize firm hold on you and whirl you around and around, and throw you like a ball into a wide land. (Isaiah 22:17-18)
Two quick takeaways: (1) Don’t overlook the rich imagery of Scripture. As you read, let the multitude of metaphors light your imagination on fire. Can’t you just see strong Shebna being seized, whirled around and around, and violently hurled through the air like a ball being thrown so far away you can’t even see where it lands? Dadgum. That’s quite a picture. Train yourself to see these pictures in the Bible. Imagery is everywhere, on every page. The Bible is 3D, so don’t just read it. See it.
(2) Quit trying to be awesome. “Hurl you” and “whirl you” and “throw you” are not things you want God to do to you. Here is the one to whom God looks: “He who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (66:2).
O flower of warriors, beware of that trap,
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.
For a brief while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
illness or sword to lay you low,
or a sudden fire or surge of water
or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
or repellent age. Your piercing eye
will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away.
(Beowulf, trans. by Seamus Heaney, lines 1758-1768)
The valiant warrior Beowulf is admonished to beware. A trap has been set, though not by the beast Grendel or his grim mother. The trap is within—inside the heart of every person in the prime of life. Arrogant shortsightedness has bested many a great man, and Beowulf is urged to choose otherwise.
Of course this is a lesson for us all. There’s a funeral in everyone’s future. A final heartbeat. A last breath. We will all be swept away, whether through illness or tragedy or the inexorable decline of aging. Don’t think of this as a morbid meditation but an ennobling one. To ignore death and what follows is not only foolish but perilous.
The way around the trap is to live today with an eternal eye and a humble heart. Christ the King has conquered sin and death. A far green country awaits. He bids us come, all who believe that what he offers is better than anything to be gained in this world. “Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part.”
Or, as another poet once said, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
Before yesterday, I had never read “The Alchemist” nor even heard of it. I’m glad my ignorance has been undone. Patricia St. John has crafted something truly beautiful. Outside of biblical poetry and perhaps a few hymns, I can’t name another poem that has stirred my wonder more over the grace of God in Christ.
My Master an elixir hath that turns
All base and worthless substances to gold.
From rubble stones He fashions palaces
Most beautiful and stately to behold.
He garners with a craftsman’s skilful care
All that we break and weeping cast away.
His eyes see uncut opals in the rock
And shapely vessels in our trampled clay.
The sum of life’s lost opportunities,
The broken friendships, and the wasted years,
These are His raw materials;
His hands rest on fragments, weld them with His tears.
A patient Alchemist! He bides His time,
Broods while the south winds breathe, the North winds blow,
And weary self, at enmity with self,
Works out its own destruction, bitter slow.
Our gallant highways petered out in mire,
Our airy castles crumbled into dust,
Leaving us stripped of all save fierce desire,
He comes, with feet deliberate and slow,
Who counts a contrite heart His sacrifice.
(No other bidders rise to stake their claims,
He only on our ruins sets a price.)
And stooping very low engraves with care
His name, indelible, upon our dust;
And from the ashes of our self-despair
Kindles a flame of hope and humble trust.
He seeks no second site on which to build,
But on the old foundation, stone by stone,
Cementing sad experience with grace,
Fashions a stronger temple of His own.
(From Patricia St. John Tells Her Own Story [Shoals, IN: Kingsley Press, 1993], 267.)