Reading the Christian Classics: Milton’s Epic Poem – L. Ryken

GuidetoClassics-LRykenOver the last few years we have been working our way slowly through Leland Ryken’s recent book, A Christian Guide to the Classics (Crossway, 2015). Of late, we have been in chapters 7 and 8 where the author treats the great classics of literature that may be identified as Christian.

Having completed our look at Ryken’s thoughts in chap.7, we turn to some of his thoughts in chap.8. Here he continues to consider various categories of Christian literature, including one that he classifies as “the Christianized secular text.” This is how he explains it with a true Christian classic – Milton’s Paradise Lost:

…There are some Christian classics that were intended by their authors to serve the polemical or argumentative purpose of refuting a non-Christian tradition. The technical term for this is intertext – a situation in which a work is designed as an interaction with an already-existing text or body of literature in such a way that the meaning of the enterprise can be viewed as existing between the two texts. The dialogue or refutation is an important part of the meaning.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is the best example. Milton participated in a tradition that began relatively early in the Middle Ages to determine how the Christian faith related to the classical tradition in which the authors and readers had been educated. There is evidence within Paradise Lost that Milton intended his epic to refute the epic tradition that he inherited, not at the level of epic form but at the level of ideas and values.

paradise lost-milton

That last point Ryken explains and develops further in the next paragraphs:

The classical epic tradition was humanistic in orientation. Its heroes were not irreligious, nor were the gods absent from the action, but the heroes achieved their feats mainly through human self-reliance. The goals that these heroes pursued were earthly fame, success, and empire. The epic feat was winning a battle, and it was axiomatic in this tradition that the crucial events of history happened on the battlefield.

Milton introduces aspects of this into his poem only to expose their deficiency. For example, he introduces a boastful warrior – Satan – only to show how evil he is. Overall, Milton’s anti-epic strategy… consisted of replacing the epic hero with the Christian saint as hero, and replacing military values with pastoral and domestic values. Milton made the garden rather than the battlefield the scene of his epic feat. And what is that feat? Eating an apple – not an act of glory but of shame, thereby exploding classical and humanistic illusions of human greatness. The setting for the epic feat was not the battlefield but the human soul, and it was not a physical act but a spiritual one.

And so Ryken finishes this point with these thoughts:

Epics always represent the author’s verdict on what constitutes heroic (exemplary) action. Homer assumed that human self-exertion and earthly success constitute heroic action. Milton’s version of heroic action is seen in Adam and Eve’s virtuous life in Paradise and consists of devotion to God, perfect married companionship, harmony with nature, contentedness, and living the simple life. These virtues are virtually the opposite of the virtues of classical epic [pp.74-76].

A Hymn for Christmas Day

A Hymn For Christmas Day

Almighty Framer of the Skies!
O let our pure devotion rise,
Like Incense in thy Sight!
Wrapt in impenetrable Shade
The Texture of our Souls were made
Till thy Command gave light.
The Sun of Glory gleam’d the Ray,
Refin’d the Darkness into Day,
And bid the Vapours fly;
Impell’d by his eternal Love
He left his Palaces above
To cheer our gloomy Sky.

How shall we celebrate the day,
When God appeared in mortal clay,
The mark of worldly scorn;
When the Archangel’s heavenly Lays,
Attempted the Redeemer’s Praise
And hail’d Salvation’s Morn!

A Humble Form the Godhead wore,
The Pains of Poverty he bore,
To gaudy Pomp unknown;
Tho’ in a human walk he trod
Still was the Man Almighty God
In Glory all his own.

Despis’d, oppress’d, the Godhead bears
The Torments of this Vale of tears;
Nor bade his Vengeance rise;
He saw the Creatures he had made,
Revile his Power, his Peace invade;
He saw with Mercy’s Eyes.

How shall we celebrate his Name,
Who groan’d beneath a Life of shame
In all Afflictions tried!
The Soul is raptured to concieve
A Truth, which Being must believe,
The God Eternal died.

My Soul exert thy Powers, adore,
Upon Devotion’s plumage sar
To celebrate the Day;
The God from whom Creation sprung
Shall animate my grateful Tongue;
From him I’ll catch the Lay!

Thomas Chatterton, 1752-1770 (This amazing poem was written when Thomas was but eleven years old.)
Published in: on December 20, 2017 at 11:13 PM  Leave a Comment  

Thanksgiving – Thelma Westra


I thank the Lord for countless blessings daily sent;
For circumstances notwithstanding, making me content;
For gifts of health, but also gifts of death and pain,
For pleasant sunny days, but also icy wind and rain,
For warmth and shelter, clothing, and for food in vast supply;
For mountain lake, the flow’ring tree, the butterfly.
For loving family, with joyful celebrations,
Who also share my griefs with me, and tribulations.
For scores of friends, who in my need are glad to give;
For opportunities to serve when others too need help to live.
Yet most of all, I thank my heavenly Father for His love
In sending One, His own begotten Son, from heaven above
To suffer and to die to make me free from every sin,
And give me peace and joy, and knowledge that within
The trials sent, His love for me is ever shining through.
His everlasting arms around me strengthen and renew.
And when I give Him thanks, He shows to me by divine grace
That He has placed thanksgiving in my heart – ’tis His, not mine!

PoemsofPraise-TWestra“Thanksgiving” is the opening poem in Mrs. Thelma Westra’s collection of poems, Poems of Praise (self-published). Mrs. Westra is a godly widow and fellow church member at Faith PRC in Jenison, MI. She has been writing beautiful poems of faith and hope for many years, including for our monthly church newsletter.

Published in: on November 22, 2017 at 10:43 PM  Leave a Comment  

A Godly Mother


A Godly Mother

A special gift that God prepared for me –
‘Twas given me ere I saw the light of day;
This gift was someone specially prepared
To guide my footsteps in His holy way.

Day after day she cared for me and taught
Not just the skills I’d need for daily living;
She taught me first of all to seek His face
In joy and sorrow, working, playing, giving.

She held before me God’s own word, that it
Could be a light upon my pathway ever.
She helped me learn to sing Jehovah’s praise,
And told me of the love that naught can sever.

She taught me to confess my sins, and seek
to flee from evil thoughts and words and deeds,
To follow righteousness; stand firmly in the faith;
Turn from the wrong and follow where He leads.

So through the years, her godly walk has been
A source of strength – a life to emulate.
I thank the Lord for His gift of a mother
Who taught me reverence for His name so great.

A Mother’s Day poem written by Mrs. Thelma Westra, a fellow church member at Faith PRC. They may be found in her  collection of Christian poetry titled Poems of Praise (self-published), p.44.

Today may we rise up and call our godly mothers blessed, even as we bless the God who gave them to us (Prov.31:28). I am thankful for my own godly mother, for the godly mother of our children (my wife), and for her godly mother. You are truly beautiful women and your price is “far above rubies” (v.10). May you hear God’s honor and praise through us and your children today.

For another encouraging word to godly mothers and women in Israel, read Rev. Josh Engelsma’s post on the RFPA blog yesterday. Here’s the first part of it; find the rest at the link above.

This Sunday is Mother’s Day. The stores are stocked with “World’s #1 Mom” cards. The greenhouses are filled with husbands and children picking out hanging baskets and flower pots. Mothers and grandmothers everywhere are receiving hugs and text messages of thanks.

They are not likely to be forgotten.

And this is perfectly appropriate. For many of us we have had faithful, loving mothers. We are appreciative of their devotion, hard work, and self-sacrifice, and we want them to know it.

But there are some for whom this day is not one of rejoicing. Rather it’s a day of sadness. It’s a day in which they hold their pain close and pretend like everything is alright. It’s a day they wish would be over again for another year.

Sadly, these women are likely to be forgotten.

They might be forgotten because we don’t know about their struggle. It’s too private, too personal, and they aren’t ready to share it. They also might be forgotten simply because, well, we forgot. We didn’t stop to think about what they’re going through.

But they’re there. They’re present among us, shouldering silently a heavy burden.

Good Friday Poems 2017

Good Friday-1On this day the Christian church commemorates the death of the Son of God in the place of His sinful people on Calvary’s hill, we give you a couple of poems for your meditation on the wonder of the cross of Jesus Christ (and April is National Poetry month).

The first is from one of my favorites, Augustus M. Toplady (1740-1778), an Anglican divine and ardent Calvinist. He is the author of many precious poems, many of which have become well-known musical hymns (“Rock of Ages, etc.).

The following poem is taken from a small collection of his titled Hymns and Poems (Cross Publishing, 1971), the poem itself bearing the title “Refuge in the Righteousness of Christ.” You will readily see why it is appropriate for Good Friday.

    1   From thy supreme tribunal, Lord,
Where justice sits severe,
I to thy mercy seat appeal,
And beg forgiveness there.
      2      Tho’ I have sinned before the throne,
My advocate I see:
Jesus, be thou my Judge, and let
My sentence come from thee.
    3      Lo, weary to thy cross I fly,
There let me shelter find:
Lord, when thou callest thy ransomed home,
O leave me not behind!
     4      I joyfully embrace thy love
To fallen man revealed;
My hope of glory, dearest Lord,
On thee alone I build.
     5      The law was satisfied by him
Who flesh for me was made:
Its penalty he underwent,
Its precepts he obeyed.
    6      Desert and all self-righteousness
I utterly forego;
My robe of everlasting bliss,
My wedding garment thou!
        7      The spotless Savior lived for me,
And died upon the Mount:
Th’ obedience of his life and death
Is placed to my account.
   8      Canst thou forget that awful hour,
That sad, tremendous scene,
When thy dear blood on Calvary
Flowed out at every vein?
       9      No, Savior, no; thy wounds are fresh,
Even now they intercede;
Still, in effect, for guilty man
Incessantly they bleed.
   10      Thine ears of mercy still attend
A contrite sinner’s cries,
A broken heart, that groans for God,
Thou never wilt despise.
     11      O love incomprehensible,
That made thee bleed for me!
The Judge of all hath suffered death
To set his prisoner free!

The second poem is by a fellow church member at Faith PRC, Mrs. Thelma Westra. It is taken from her collection of poems published as Poems of Praise and is titled “On Calvary.”

Come with me to Calvary
To see the Suffering One.
He willingly submits Himself –
Jesus Christ, God’s Son.

His pain and anguish, so intense;
Alone He bears God’s wrath;
Forsaken, though He’s done no wrong,
He walks God’s chosen path.

It is for you and me He hangs
In utmost agony;
Atoning with each drop of blood,
From sin to set us free.

The seal of God’s approval
On the sacrifice thus made
Is the glorious resurrection,
Signaling the debt is paid.

Jesus conquered over death,
The vict’ry is complete;
Eternal life for us He won;
Come, worship at His feet.

Before the Paling of the Stars – C. Rossetti

Before the paling of the stars,
Before the winter morn,
Before the earliest cock crow,
Jesus Christ was born:

Born in a stable,
Cradled in a manger,
In the world his hands had made
Born a stranger.

Priest and king lay fast asleep
In Jerusalem;
Young and old lay fast asleep
In crowded Bethlehem;

Saint and angel, ox and ass,
Kept a watch together
Before the Christmas daybreak
In the winter weather.

Jesus on his mother’s breast
In the stable cold,
Spotless lamb of God was he,
Shepherd of the fold:

Let us kneel with Mary maid,
With Joseph bent and hoary,
With saint and angel, ox and ass,
To hail the King of Glory.

~ Christina Rossetti, a 19th century English poet born of Italian parents (1830-1894).

This nativity poem may be found in The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, with a Memoir and Notes by William Michael Rossetti (1904), Page 217. Mr. Rossetti noted at page 474: “This was in the Lyra Messianica, 1865, named simply Before the paling of the stars. I retain my sister’s own title.”

This poem has also been set to music, a performance of which may be heard below.

Published in: on December 24, 2016 at 6:53 PM  Leave a Comment  

Zion’s Blessedness in the Covenant of Grace – John Newton

IsaacNewtonOn Sunday, April 30, 1775, John Newton preached a sermon on 2 Samuel 23:5. on God’s covenant of grace with His people in Christ Jesus. In the evening he continued his sermon on this passage and also tied it to a hymn he had written on the glory of Zion, God’s church.

On this second Lord’s Day in September – also the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 (Sept.11, 2001 – Sept.11, 2016) – he has good words for us to consider, both in sermon and in hymn.

This is part of what he had to say in his sermon:

… we can promise or perform nothing. Therefore it is called a covenant of grace… This covenant of grace was established with and in our Lord Jesus Christ… making atonement for transgression with his own blood.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but they have a sure refuge and strong consolations provided in the covenant of grace. This secures them so that their enemies have no reason to rejoice over them. When they seem to fall they shall rise again. This is a balance to all their sufferings.
Believers – rejoice in this Covenant. Walk about this Sion, consider her foundations and all the towers thereof and mark well the bulwark. See how it is fixed upon an immoveable rock, guarded by almighty power, encompassed with infinite love, and enriched with all desirable blessings, and then with a holy indifference to all the trials of the present hour, rejoice and say, Although my house be not so with God, yet he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered and sure, etc.

During the evening service of that date, Newton tied his sermon to this hymn he had written based on Isaiah 33:20-21. We know it as “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” It is from Book 1 of the “Olney Hymns.”

Zion, or the city of God

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God!
He, whose word cannot be broken,
Formed thee for his own abode:
On the rock of ages founded,
What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
Thou may’st smile at all thy foes.

See! the streams of living waters
Springing from eternal love;
Well supply thy sons and daughters,
And all fear of want remove:
Who can faint while such a river
Ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace, which like the Lord, the giver,
Never fails from age to age.

Round each habitation hovering,
See the cloud and fire appear!
For a glory and a covering,
Showing that the Lord is near:
Thus deriving from their banner
Light by night, and shade by day;
Safe they feed upon the manna
Which he gives them when they pray.

Blest inhabitants of Zion,
Washed in the Redeemer’s blood!
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
Makes them kings and priests to God:
‘Tis his love his people raises
Over self to reign as kings,
And as priests, his solemn praises
Each for a thank-offering brings.

Saviour, if of Zion’s city
I through grace a member am;
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy name:
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure,
None but Zion’s children know.


Prayers of the Reformers (14)

prayersofreformers-manschreckFor this second Lord’s Day in April we post another prayer from the book Prayers of the Reformers (compiled by Clyde Manschreck; Muhlenberg Press, 1958).

This prayer is taken from the section “Prayers in Time of Affliction and Suffering” and, as you will see, is fitting for us as we gather with God’s people in worship today.

The editor gives it the German title “Wenn wir in hochsten Nothen sein,” (from Paul Eber, 1566 based on a text from Joachim Camerarius, 1546) while the prayer itself is in English arranged in poem form thus:

When in the hour of utmost need
We know not where to look for aid,
When days and nights of anxious thought
Nor help nor counsel yet have brought.

Then this our comfort is alone,
That we may meet before Thy throne,
And cry, O faithful God, to Thee
For rescue from our misery.

To Thee may raise our hearts and eyes,
Repenting sore with bitter sighs,
And seek Thy pardon for our sin
And respite from our griefs within.

For Thou hast promised graciously
To hear all those who cry to Thee
Thro’ Him whose name alone is great,
Our Savior and our advocate.

And thus we come, O God, today
And all our woes before Thee lay;
For sorely tried, cast down, we stand,
Perplexed by fears on every hand.

O hide not for our sins Thy face,
Absolve us through Thy boundless grace,
Be with us in our anguish still,
Free us at last from every ill.

That so with all our hearts we may
Once more our glad thanksgivings pay,
And walk obedient to Thy Word,
And now and ever praise the Lord.

An Internet search reveals that this is a hymn set to music under the title “When in the Hour of Utmost Need, ” arranged by Louis Burgeois (c.1510-1559), as part of the Genevan tunes.

Hymns on the Passion and Death of Christ – A.Toplady

ATopladyFor our reflection on the sufferings and death of Christ today we post these two poems by Augustus M. Toplady, one set to music in a familiar hymn, the other perhaps not as well known but also edifying and comforting. Both of these are taken from the website

Rock Of Ages, Cleft For Me

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee!
Let the Water and the Blood,
From thy riven Side which flow’d,
Be of Sin the double Cure,
Cleanse me from its Guilt and Pow’r.

Not the Labours of my Hands
Can fulfil thy Law’s demands:
Could my Zeal no respite know,
Could my Tears for ever flow,
All for Sin could not atone:
Thou must save, and Thou alone!

Nothing in my Hand I bring;
Simply to thy Cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for Dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for Grace;
Foul, I to the Fountain fly:
Wash me, SAVIOUR, or I die!

Whilst I draw this fleeting Breath–
When my Eye-strings break in Death–
When I soar through tracts unknown–
See Thee on thy Judgment-Throne–
ROCK of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in THEE!

Fountain Of Never-Ceasing Grace

Fountain of never ceasing grace,
Thy saints’ exhaustless theme,
Great object of immortal praise,
Essentially supreme;
We bless Thee for the glorious fruits
Thine incarnation gives;
The righteousness which grace imputes,
And faith alone receives.

Whom heaven’s angelic host adores,
Was slaughtered for our sin;
The guilt, O Lord was wholly ours,
The punishment was Thine:
Our God in the flesh, to set us free,
Was manifested here;
And meekly bare our sins, that we
His righteousness might wear.

Imputatively guilty then
Our substitute was made,
That we the blessings might obtain
For which His blood was shed:
Himself He offered on the cross,
Our sorrows to remove;
And all He suffered was for us,
And all He did was love.

In Him we have a righteousness,
By God Himself approved;
Our rock, our sure foundation this,
Which never can be moved.
Our ransom by His death He paid,
For all His people giv’n,
The law He perfectly obeyed,
That they might enter heav’n.

As all, when Adam sinned alone,
In his transgression died,
So by the righteousness of One,
Are sinners justified,
We to Thy merit, gracious Lord,
With humblest joy submit,
Again to Paradise restored,
In Thee alone complete.

Our souls His watchful love retrieves,
Nor lets them go astray,
His righteousness to us He gives,
And takes our sins away:
We claim salvation in His right,
Adopted and forgiv’n,
His merit is our robe of light,
His death the gate of heav’n.

Two Sonnets of Winston W. Wharton (Cactus Rose)

CactusRose-cover-1941Today while making a quick pass through a local thrift store, I found a thin collection of poems that turns out to be a rare treasure (note the price on Amazon). The collection is called Cactus Rose or Streamlined Sonnets composed by Winston W. Wharton (a pen name?) and published by the Christian Board of Publication, St.Louis, MO, in 1941 (1st edition). This copy is signed by the author, about whom I would like to know more (an Internet search revealed precious little?!). Perhaps this post will generate some interest and some more information.


In any case, the sonnets are quite good, many of them on nature themes (birds, flowers, nature scenes, etc.), with quite a few also being on distinctively Christian-biblical themes. Tonight I give you a sample of two such poems of Wharton. I trust they will edify you as they did me.

“Thy Will Be Done”

The hours I spend with Thee, dear Lord,
Are portents of the years to be,
When I shall know, where now I know in part,
Thy love for me, Thy love for me.

Each hour a breath of life Divine,
Fresh from thy incensed mercy seat;
I drink and feel my soul renewed
And kneel and kiss Thy feet.

O, Risen Lord, hold thou my hand,
Until at last goes down the sun,
And help me answer to each blest command
Thy will be done, O Lord, Thy will be done.

“The Angel of the Lord”

Arise, O soul of mine,
And face the stern array
Of forces unforeseen,
That dog us night and day;
Be not afraid to stand
And fight the battle out –
The angel of the Lord
Encampeth round about.

It seems sometimes the night
Has superseded day,
That hell is running things
And righteousness don’t pay;
But, be thou strong and stand
Amid the din and shout –
The angel of the Lord
Encampeth round about.

Our God is not asleep,
Nor is His arm grown short;
He watches every man
And leadeth each cohort;
And, though the foe may seem
To win, he’s on the rout –
The angel of the Lord
Encampeth round about.

So, trust you in our God,
Jehovah, Lord of Hosts;
He harbors him who trusts
And laughs at him who boasts;
A shelter still have we –
The shadow of His wings –
The angel of the Lord
Encamps, encores and sings.
Psalm 34:7.