Four Last Things: George Herbert’s “Judgement”

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Four: Thursday after the First Sunday of Advent

“Judgement”, a detail from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (1500) by Hieronymus Bosch (Jheronimus van Aken, 1450-1516).

In some ways the picture above would go better with yesterday’s poem, but Judgement follows on from Dooms-day, and in some respects are the same. The idea goes back at least as far as the middle of the second century BCE, when the Book of Daniel was written. The anonymous author writes:

At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. – Daniel 12.1-2.

In Christian understanding Jesus of Nazareth – crucified, risen, ascended – will return as the Son of Man in glory to judge “the living and the dead.” Herbert plays with this in his poem.

Judgement

Almighty Judge, how shall poor wretches brook
                            Thy dreadful look,
Able a heart of iron to appall,
                            When thou shalt call
      For ev’ry man’s peculiar book?

What others mean to do, I know not well;
                            Yet I hear tell,
That some will turn thee to some leaves therein
                            So void of sin,
      That they in merit shall excel.

But I resolve, when thou shalt call for mine,
                            That to decline,
And thrust a Testament into thy hand:
                            Let that be scann’d.
      There thou shalt find my faults are thine.

Technical

The poem is a simple AABBA etc. rhyme, of a mere three stanzas. The lines are

  1. 10
  2. 4
  3. 10
  4. 4
  5. 8

The second line introduces in four syllables the thought in the third, and likewise the fifth continues the thought of the fourth.

Our Peculiar Book

The poem here is addressed to Jesus as judge. In the poem Herbert suggests that every soul raised to life has a book of their deeds which will be reviewed by the judge, and presumably, make a judgement. It is a rather terrifying prospect, frankly, and problematic, because one’s deeds will condemn the soul “to shame and everlasting contempt.” Some resourceful folk intend to simply dwell on the positive and show the Son of Man the pages that are devoid of sin. Herbert, as the speaker in the poem, suggests another strategy. Instead of opening his own book, he merely takes a Testament and puts it in the hand of Jesus, who will find that his sins – Herbert’s – are Jesus’s own.

This is an unexpected conclusion. Usually, in Calvinist influenced theology, one will find that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner. In such a way of thinking it might be expected that Christ would find his own righteousness in the book of a Christian. Herbert flips this over – the sins of the sinner are taken on by Jesus and he suffers on the sinner’s behalf. Thus, the Testament thrust into the Son of Man’s hands is not just the New Testament, as some have suggested, but the Book of a Sinner in which all the sins are taken on, as if Herbert’s name is erased and Jesus’s put in its place.

Ann Pasternak Slater suggests (p. 488) that the testament is be a reference to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, in which Jesus “took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them [his disciples], saying, “Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (Matthew 26.27-28). The word translated here as “testament” in the KJV/AV is διαθηκη which in more modern versions as “covenant”. She is undoubtedly correct that this is the testament which the poet intends to give Jesus – the testament that remits sins.

This is not one of Herbert’s great poems, but it is not a bad one. His conceit here is a simple one, that the “testament” inaugurated at the Last Supper is a book that one can switch for the book of one’s life. It is a bit of a stretch, especially the more one dwells on it, but it works in the moment.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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