T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton II.c


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The inner freedom from the practical desire,

The release from action and suffering, release from the inner

And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded

By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,

Erhebung without motion, concentration

Without elimination, both a new world

And the old made explicit, understood

In the completion of its partial ecstasy,

The resolution of its partial horror.

Yet the enchainment of past and future

Woven in the weakness of the changing body,

Protects mankind from heaven and damnation

Which flesh cannot endure.

We now move from a description of this place where opposites are present – and not, the still place. Rather than examining this place, Eliot turns to consider the effect of this place upon the human being. This portion of the poem considers: what does this still point do to the one who enters it.

Working backwards, we can see a parallel here with the line in the first section “human kind/cannot bear very much reality.” Here, something has been interposed which 

Protects mankind from heaven and damnation

Which flesh cannot endure.

There may be an allusion here to Paul’s statement in the great 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians on the resurrection of the body that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” The idea of Paul is that the human body must undergo a renovation to participate in the life to come. 

Here, Eliot speaks of something which protects human flesh from experiencing a too real world. In making this world too real (I am borrowing from the language of the first stanza), it seems we are in a Platonic realm with this world of ideas and forms is more real than the physical world. Lewis plays on this idea in The Great Divorce. 

Continuing to work backward from this protection

Yet the enchainment of past and future

Woven in the weakness of the changing body,

Protects mankind from heaven and damnation

Which flesh cannot endure.

The present, which is neither the past nor the future is “enchained” (a fascinating word here) and “woven” in the human body. Notice how he describes the human body, it is “changing.” I believe this must be a reference to the fact that the present is constantly new as this still point between the past and future changes. 

It is a quite literal statement that our human body can be nowhere but in the present. I must admit that I am not certain as to what is the reference to “heaven and damnation.” I suspect this is a merism for the entirety of Platonic reality. We cannot move outside the present and thus the powerful currents around us cannot touch us here. 

The movement in the first section to the phantoms would be a movement into this Platonic realm.

And this leads to a question: is this still place something which is there, something which is there and we do not notice it, or is it a place to which we must enter? Is it a psychological relationship to this place?

The beginning of this line of thought reads

The inner freedom from the practical desire,

The release from action and suffering, release from the inner

And the outer compulsion,

This reads very much like a Buddhist idea of enlightenment and being freed from an illusory relationship to “reality” – which is really an illusion. As such we are discussing a psychological/spiritual relationship which is the result of a different understanding of such things. 

But the poem complicates this conception with a contrast, “yet”

                        yet surrounded

By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,

Erhebung without motion, concentration

Without elimination, both a new world

And the old made explicit, understood

In the completion of its partial ecstasy,

The resolution of its partial horror.

It is not just the state of detachment, he adds here “a grace of sense.” This is quite different than the dissolution of the “I”. He is moving into something perhaps more similar to a Christian Platonism where eternity is an eternal now. (And at this point, perhaps he has Boethius in mind). Quoting the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy:

In Boethius, the contrast is between timeless eternity, which only God enjoys, and everlastingness, which (following Plato) the world itself possesses.

It is the common judgement, then, of all creatures that live by reason that God is eternal. So let us consider the nature of eternity, for this will make clear to us both the nature of God and his manner of knowing. Eternity, then, is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life; this will be clear from a comparison with creatures that exist in time.

…for it is one thing to progress like the world in Plato’s theory through everlasting life, and another thing to have embraced the whole of everlasting life in one simultaneous present. (Boethius Consolation, V.VI., transl. V. E. Watts 1969)

Boethius uses his view of eternity to address the problem of divine foreknowledge (see section 6.2). If God knows beforehand what we will do then how can we act freely? His answer is that this problem dissolves in the face of the fact that God does not know anything beforehand but has an immediate, atemporal knowledge of all things. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/eternity/

I think this conception answers more nearly to Eliot’s thought at this point. It is as if one has moved into a realization where everything is frozen in an eternal now. Scenes in a movie where there is an explosion and than a freeze frame where the character looks around and see the matter in motion perfectly still might be a good idea here.

If so, then this is a realization of what is already there. It has just been lost. Our enchainment to the present protects us in a movement from seeing the eternity about it – and eternity as a place of heaven and hell.

Erhebung without motion

The precise meaing of the German here is beyond me because the word refers to a movement up so it could be an uprising or a physical rising or a metaphorical use of the conception.  There is a rising without a motion. 

both a new world

And the old made explicit, understood

In the completion of its partial ecstasy,

The resolution of its partial horror.

The old and new worlds could be past and future, or perhaps mundane and Platonic. Our relationship to them is “understood.” And that understanding is both an ecstasy and a horror, which would return us to the idea that reality is simply something which we cannot bear. Hence we are protected from the full experience of this place. 

Soap Bubbles


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Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

Photo courtesy of John R

The following is from Mark Twain’s Autobiography (which is a beautiful book through-and-through. I am listening to it read by Bronson Pinchot, and I cannot recommend his reading sufficiently. The pacing, emphasis, tone are perfect). Susy was his daughter who died at age 24. When she was a teenager, she wrote a biography of her father:

Sept. 10, ’85.—”The other evening Clara and I brought down our new soap bubble water and we all blew soap bubles. Papa blew his soap bubles and filled them with tobacco smoke and as the light shone on then they took very beautiful opaline colors. Papa would hold them and then let us catch them in our hand and they felt delightful to the touch the mixture of the smoke and water had a singularly pleasant effect.” [Susy’s Biography]

It is human life. We are blown upon the world; we float buoyantly upon the summer air a little while, complacently showing off our grace of form and our dainty iridescent colors; then we vanish with a little puff, leaving nothing behind but a memory—and sometimes not even that. I suppose that at those solemn times when we wake in the deeps of the night and reflect, there is not one of us who is not willing to confess that he is really only a soap-bubble, and as little worth the making.

I remember those days of twenty-one years ago, and a certain pathos clings about them. Susy, with her manifold young charms and her iridescent mind, was as lovely a bubble as any we made that day—and as transitory. She passed, as they passed, in her youth and beauty, and nothing of her is left but a heartbreak and a memory. That long-vanished day came vividly back to me a few weeks ago when, for the first time in twenty-one years, I found myself again amusing a child with smoke-charged soap-bubbles.

T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton II.b


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The previous post on this poem may be found here.


At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.

And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

This strikes as quite similar to Parmenides’ denial of motion. In his poem, at fragment 8, beginning at line 26 we read:

But motionless within the limits of great bonds,
it is without a beginning and without an end, since the birth and death
were rejected very far, a real certainty expelled them.

It would be possible to translate the language a bit differently. For instance, it could be “birth and destruction.” The language of “real certainty” is a combination of “truth” and “trust” (or faith or belief). A fundamental difference between Parmenides is that the philosopher seems to hold that all things are without motion. Eliot, on the other hand, seems to be describing a particular place:

At the still point of the turning world.

The world turns, but in the midst of that moving world is a place without motion. This space seems to answer a question which arises with the consideration of the world of the forest floor somehow being replicated in the sky, Where is the place of connection. How does one world touch the other?

                        Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement.


                        Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance

This center point is a place where opposites have come together:  it not movement from or towards. It is not a place of past or future. There is no “way up” or “way down” (to use the language of motto for the poem). 

It is a place without place: 

I cannot say where.

It is a place without time 

And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

Notice the opposites which do not exist here:

There is no being:

Neither flesh nor fleshless;

There is physical distance:

Neither from nor towards; 


Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline.

There is no movement or stillness:

But neither arrest nor movement. 

There is no time:

And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. 

And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

Richard Sibbes, The Backsliding Sinner 3.8


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If these things are true, then what must we do? If this is what is entailed in repentance, then we must consider how far we fall short of repentance. It is interesting that Sibbes does not ask the question, see whether you fall short. Luther says in his famous 95 Theses that the Christian life is all one of repentance. And there was a saying of the Puritans that we must repent of our repentance. 

Use 1. Let us therefore enter into our own souls, and examine ourselves, how far forth we are guilty of this sin, and think we come so far short of repentance. 

He draws out one element of their sin: trust, or boasting in the creature:

For the ten tribes here, the people of God, when they repented, say, ‘Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses.’ He speaks comparatively, as trusted in. 

Therefore, let us take heed of that boasting, vain-glorious disposition, arising from the supply of the creature. Saith God, ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; neither let the mighty man glory in his might: let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth this, that I am the Lord, which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth,’ &c., Jer. 9:2324.

This is sinful, because our glory is to be elsewhere:

Let a man glory that he knows God in Christ to be his God in the covenant of grace; that he hath the God of all strength, the King of kings and Lord of lords to be his: who hath all other things at his command, who is independent and all-sufficient. 

If a man will boast, let him go out of himself to God, and plant himself there; and for other things, take heed the heart be not lift up with them.

He now delineates why boasting or trust in the creature is sinful:

1. Consider what kind of thing boasting is. It is idolatry, for it sets the creature in the place and room of God.

2. And it is also spiritual adultery, whereby we fix our affections upon the creature, which should be placed on God; as it is in James, ‘Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?’ &c., James 4:4.

These last two explanations of the sinfulness of trusting in the creature draw upon a doctrine known as the “noetic effect” of sin: the way in which sin affects our thoughts and affections and perceptions. 

3. Habakkuk calls it drunkennness, Hab. 2:45, for it makes the soul drunk with sottishness and conceitedness, so as a man in this case is never sober, until God strip him of all.

4. And then again, it puts forth the eye of the soul. It is a kind of white, that mars the sight. When a man looks to Asshur, horses, and to outward strength, where is God all this while? These are so many clouds, that they cannot see God, but altogether pore upon the creature. He sees so much greatness there, that God seems nothing. But when a man sees God in his greatness and almightiness, then the creature is nothing, Job 42:6. But until this be, there is a mist and blindness in the eye of the soul.

When we have identified the defects and limitations of our repentance, and have come to see the extent to which we still rely upon the creature, we must seek a change:

And when we have seen our guiltiness this way (as who of us in this case may not be confounded and ashamed of relying too much on outward helps?), then let us labour to take off our souls from these outward things, whether it be strength abroad or at home. 

We must not think that this reformation will come from our own devices:

Which that we may do, we must labour for that obedience which our Saviour Christ exhorts us unto in self-denial, Mat. 16:24, not to trust to our own devices, policy, or strength, wit, will, or conceits, that this or that may help us, nor anything. 

He makes an observation about the relationship between justification and sanctification: in both we cannot trust in ourselves: 

Make it general; for when conversion is wrought, and the heart is turned to God, it turns from the creature, only using it as subordinate to God. We see, usually, men that exalt themselves in confidence, either of strength, of wit, or whatsoever, they are successless in their issue.

It is a principle with God to thwart the creature who seeks to itself over the Creator:

For God delights to confound them, and go beyond their wit, as we have it, Isa. 30:3. They thought to go beyond God with their policy, they would have help out of Egypt, this and that way. 

What then does this look like? Does this mean that we should neglect any effort of our own? Some sort of “let go and let God” transformation? No. This would be relying upon the creature by ignoring obedience to what God has directed.

Oh, saith the prophet, but for all this, God is wise to see through all your devices; secretly hereby touching them to the quick, as sottish persons, who thought by their shallow brains to go beyond God. You think religious courses, and the obedience God prescribeth to you, to be idle, needless courses; but, notwithstanding, God is wise. He will go beyond you, and catch you in your own craft.

He now proves the point with biblical examples:

 ‘Therefore, the strength of Pharaoh shall be your shame, and the trust in the shadow of Egypt your confusion,’ Isa. 30:3. Thus God loves to scatter Babels fabrics, Gen. 11:8, and holds that are erected in confidence of human strength against him. He delights to catch the wise in their own craft, to beat all down, lay all high imaginations and things flat before him, that no flesh may glory in his sight. There is to this purpose a notable place in Isaiah: ‘Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks,’ Isa. 50:11. For they kindled a fire, and had a light of their own, and would not borrow light from God: ‘Walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled.’ But what is the conclusion of all? ‘This shall ye have of mine hand.’ I dare assure you of this, saith the prophet. ‘You shall lie down in sorrow.’ Those that walk by the light and spark of their own fire, this they shall have at God’s hands: ‘they shall lie down in sorrow.’

He cautions against taking the counsel of your age. There is always some sort of “religious” or “spiritual” wisdom which is popular in any time or place. But we are not to trust in these things. Pilgrim’s Progress has a notable picture of this error when the smooth talking Worldly Wiseman misleads Christian and draws him out of the way.

Sibbes comes to an exhortation. There is a school of thought which counsels that such exhortations should always be addressed as “You.” I prefer the method of Sibbes here to use the “we”: Let us. He is not standing above the congregant but alongside. I know these traps and errors so well because I have wrestled with him. Come with me and I will show you through:

Let us therefore take heed of carnal confidence. 

Carnal confidence is an abstraction. To say this and nothing more is to say nothing sensible. The abstraction is fine to introduce an idea, but it must be followed up with something concrete: What does that “carnal confidence” look like in practice?

You have a number who love to sleep in a whole skin, and will be sure to take the safest courses, as they think, not consulting with God, but with ‘flesh and blood.’ It might be instanced in stories of former times, how God hath crossed emperors, and great men in this kind, were it not too tedious. 

In Sibbes’ day there was great and often violent conflict over religious disputes: At this time, one’s religion and one’s political allegiance were not easily separable. The religious disputes had very tangible political consequences. Thus, some would seek to be of no firm religious position so as to avoid any political difficulty. The same would be one now who religious convictions drift with the latest popular conceit. The rapid change in doctrinal statements beginning in the early 20th century would be this same process in modern garb:

But for present instance, you have many who will be of no settled religion. Oh, they cannot tell, there may be a change. Therefore they will be sure to offend neither part. This is their policy, and if they be in place, they will reform nothing. Oh, I shall lay myself open to advantages, and stir up enemies against me. And so they will not trust God, but have carnal devices to turn off all duty whatsoever. It is an ordinary speech, but very true, policy overthrows policy. It is true of carnal policy. 

But to do this is not a way to safety:

When a man goes by carnal rules to be governed by God’s enemy and his own, with his own wit and understanding, which leads him to outward things, this kind of policy overthrows all policy, and outward government at length. Those that walk religiously and by rule, they walk most confidently and securely, as the issue will shew. Therefore, consider that, set God aside, all is but vanity. And that,

First, In regard they do not yield that which we expect they should yield. There is a falsehood in the things. They promise this and that in shows, but when we possess them, they yield it not. As they have no strength indeed, so they deceive.

2. Then, also, there is a mutability in them; for there is nothing in the world but changes. There is a vanity of corruption in them. All things at last come to an end, save God, who is unchangeable.

He will conclude here with the vanity of the creature. This final section is a plea to not trust in the creature, because the creature will disappoint us. The repentance concerned a trust in the creature and not God. In this section, he is pleading with us to avoid the sin in the first place. 

To bring us to this point he uses a combination of logical argument and emotional persuasion. 

3. Then again, besides the intrinsical vanity in all outward things, and whatsoever carnal reason leads unto, they are snares and baits unto us, to draw us away from God, by reason of the vanity of our nature, vainer than the things themselves. 

Consider the sentence just quoted: The danger of the vanity is that it is a “snare and bait.” This sort of language may seem a bit distant from our experience, but physical traps to catch animals. These images would have brought to mind crushed limbs, blood, death.

Therefore take heed of confidence in anything, or else this will be the issue: we shall be worse than the things we trust. 

This is an interesting observation: If I trust in this creature, I will become worse than the creature I have trusted. How can he prove this up?

‘Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity,’ Eccles. 1:1; and man himself is lighter than vanity, saith the psalmist, Ps. 62:9. He that trusts to vanity, is worse than vanity. A man cannot stand on a thing that cannot stand itself,—stare non stante. A man cannot stand on a thing that is mutable and changeable. If he doth, he is vain with the thing. 

The argument here is quite similar to the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” A human being who has been corrupted by trusting in a vain creature has become worse than even the creature.

Even as a picture drawn upon ice, as the ice dissolves, so the picture vanisheth away. So it is with all confidence in the creature whatsoever. It is like a picture upon ice, which vanisheth with the things themselves. He that stands upon a slippery thing, slips with the thing he stands on. 

Here again he relies upon a very common experience to prove his point. At this time, Europe was moving into what was know as the “Little Ice Age.” Sibbes readers or hearers would have been intimately acquainted with ice.

He then argues that this proposition is so obvious to all that one does not revelation to know that it is true. It is a point which cannot be avoided:

If there were no word of God against it, yet thus much may be sufficient out of the principles of reason, to shew the folly of trusting to Asshur, and horses, and the like.

He ends with a conclusion and a series of six exhortations in the form of “let us”:

Let this be the end of all, then, touching this carnal confidence: to beware that we do not fasten our affections too much upon any earthly thing, at home or abroad, within or without ourselves. For ‘God will destroy the wisdom of the wise,’ 1 Cor. 1:19


Let us take heed, therefore, of all false confidence whatsoever.


Let us use all outward helps, yet so as to rely upon God for his blessing in the use of all. And when they all fail, be of Jehoshaphat’s mind: ‘Lord, we know not what to do,’ 2 Chron. 20:12

The rationale: 

The creature fails us, our helps fail us; ‘but our eyes are upon thee.’ So when all outward Asshurs, and horses, and helps fail, despair not; for the less help there is in the creature, the more there is in God. As Gideon with his army, when he thought to carry it away with multitudes, God told him there were too many of them to get the victory by, lest Israel should vaunt themselves of their number, and so lessened the army to three hundred, Jud. 7:2; so it is not the means, but the blessing on the means which helps us. If we be never so low, despair not. 


Let us make God ours, who is all-sufficient and almighty, and then if we were brought a hundred times lower than we are, God will help and raise us. Those who labour not to have God, the Lord of hosts, to go out with their armies, if they had all the Asshurs and horses in the world, all were in vain. It was therefore a good resolution of Moses. Saith he to God, ‘If thy presence go not with us, carry us not hence,’ Exod. 33:15. He would not go one step forward without God. 

This last line if a fine aphorism:

So, if we cannot make God our friend to go out before us, in vain it is to go one step forward. 


Let us therefore double our care in holy duties, renewing our covenant with God, before the decree come out against us. The more religious, the more secure we shall be. If we had all the creatures in the world to help us, what are they but vanity and nothing, if God be our enemy! These things we know well enough for notion; but let us labour to bring them home for use, in these dangerous times abroad. 


Let us begin where we should, that our work may be especially in heaven. 


Let us reform our lives, being moderately careful, as Christians should, without tempting God’s providence, using rightly all civil supports and helps seasonably, and to the best advantage; for, as was said, the carelessness herein for defence may prove as dangerous and fatal to a State, as the too much confidence and trust in them.




I’ve had a lot of friends sending me studies on masks and vaccines. I’m generally in favor of medical care and am of the opinion that whatever else may be true, a lack of polio and smallpox is a good thing. But as for whether this type of mask works at this level of effectiveness, I have no idea. As a practical matter, how could I? I have no expertise in any of this. I don’t know how to design a proper study, nor how to evaluate the results. I don’t know why the tests come back with different results.

I do know that a confirmation bias seems to underscore the results which I am shown. Those who think masks are magic send me one set of results. Those who think masks are fairy dust, send me a different set. Thus, the posting tells me something about the person who sent it, but perhaps it tells me nothing about the actual science.

Anyway, in my reading I came across this:

“There’s an ­unspoken rule in the pharmaceutical industry that half of all academic biomedical research will ultimately prove false, and in 2011 a group of researchers at Bayer decided to test it. Looking at sixty-seven recent drug discovery projects based on preclinical cancer biology research, they found that in more than 75 percent of cases the published data did not match up with their in-house attempts to replicate. These were not studies published in fly-by-night oncology journals, but blockbuster research featured in ScienceNatureCell, and the like.” 

Richard Sibbes, The Backsliding Sinner, 3.7


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Sibbes has been arguing that it is ultimately irrational to put our trust in the creature. To this extent, he has been making an objective argument. At this point, he makes an observation of the subjective nature of repentance. The one who is repentant will naturally (if you ) not put trust in the creature.  He argues that means of repentace, the relationship to God has changed and therefore, the relationship to the creature likewise changes.

So we see the second point made good, that these outward things of themselves cannot help. Therefore comes this in the third place:—

Obs. That when God alters and changes and mouldeth anew the heart of a man to repentance, he altereth his confidence in the creature.

A Christian State will not trust in Asshur, nor in horses. It is true both of State and persons. 

The relationship to God changes:

The reason will follow after in the end of the verse, ‘For in thee the fatherless findeth mercy.’ Because, when a man hath once repented, there is a closing between God and him, and he seeth an all-sufficiency in God to satisfy all his desires. Therefore he will use all other things as helps, and as far as it may stand with his favour. 

This new relationship to God causes a new understanding of God:

For he hath Moses’s eye put in him, a new eye to see him that is invisible, Heb. 11:27, to see God in his greatness, and other things in their right estimate as vain things. What is repentance but a change of the mind, when a man comes to be wise and judicious, as indeed repentant men are the only wise men? 

We understand God as constant and able in a manner that the creature cannot be:

Then a man hath an esteem of God to be El-shadai, all-sufficient, and all other things to be as they are, uncertain; that is, they are so today, as that they may be otherwise to-morrow, for that is the nature of the creatures. They are in potentia, in a possibility to be other things than they are. God is alway ‘I am,’ alway the same. There is not so much as a shadow of changing in him. 

This sight of God then leads to a change in the way the creature is understood. Before looking here, consider the matter. The way in which we know and understand a thing depends upon its context. We know things in some sort of relationship. Consider some trinket which bears a sentimental attachment: This trinket was my mother’s and so it is valuable to me. I have never seen this trinket before and so it is worthless to me. The same item has different meaning due to its relationship to us. 

As we know things in their relationship to God and us, our valuation of the thing will change. You could understand repentance as in part a continual revaluation of the creature (and Creator).

Wherefore, when the soul hath attained unto this spiritual eyesight and wisdom, if it be a sinful association with Egypt or Asshur, with this idolater or that, he will not meddle; and as for other helps, he will not use them further than as subordinate means. When a man is converted, he hath not a double, not a divided heart, to trust partly to God and partly to the creature. If God fail him,* he hath Asshur and horses enough, and association with all round about. But a Christian he will use all helps, as they may stand with the favour of God, and are subordinate under him. Now for trial.

By “trial” Sibbes means let us consider this matter in our own lives:

Quest. How shall we know whether we exceed in this confidence in the creature or not?

Sibbes provides two tests: First: We can know that we have placed excess trust in the creature when the creature fails us. Second: How do we think, act, and speak about the relationship to the creature? Are we conscious that this is a means to be used by God and not a means which is effacious in itself?

Sol. 1. We may know it by adventuring on ill courses and causes, thinking to bear them out with Asshur and with horses. But all the mercenary soldiers in the world, and all the horses at home and abroad, what can they do when God is angry? Now, when there is such confidence in these things as for to out-dare God, then there is too much trust in them. That trust will end in confusion, if it be not repented of, for that lifts up the heart in the creature. And as the heathen man observes, ‘God delights to make great little, and little great.’ It is his daily work to ‘cast down mountains, and exalt the valleys,’ Isa. 40:4. Those that are great, and boast in their greatness, as if they would command heaven and earth, God delights to make their greatness little, and at length nothing, and to raise up the day of small things. Therefore the apostle saith, ‘If I rejoice, it shall be in my infirmities,’ 2 Cor. 12:9, in nothing else; for God delights to shew strength in weakness.

2. By security and resting of the soul in meaner things, never seeking to divine and religious helps when we are supplied with those that are outward. For these people, when they trusted to Assyria and Egypt, those false supports and sandy foundations, they were careless of God, and therefore must trust in somewhat else. Wherefore, if we see a man secure and careless, certainly he trusts too much to uncertain riches, to Asshur, to Egypt, to friends, or to outward helps. His security bewrays that. 

He restates this test in a positive manner. What would it look like to use the creature in the proper manner?

If a man trust God in the use of the means, his care will be to keep God his friend by repentance and daily exercises of religion, by making conscience of his duty. But if he trust the means and not God, he will be careless and weak in good duties, dull and slow, and, out of the atheism of his heart, cry, Tush! if God do not help me, I shall have help from friends abroad, and be supported with this and that at home, horses and the like, and shall be well.

* That is, the ‘double-minded’ man.—G.

Richard Sibbes, The Backsliding Sinner 3.6

Repenting of trust in Assyria makes some intuitive sense: trusting your enemy to be your production is madness. But what then about refusing to trust in “horses”? And so Sibbes takes up the clause, 

‘We will not ride upon horses.’

He begins with the manner in which horses are described in Scripture. 

What kind of creature a horse is, it is worth the seeing. What a description God gives of him, that we may see what reason the Spirit of God hath to instance in the horse. 

First the positive:

Saith God to Job, ‘Hast thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed his neck with thunder? canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? the glory of his nostrils is terrible. He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength: he goeth on to meet the armed men. He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted; neither turneth he back from the sword. The quiver rattleth against him, the glittering spear and the shield. He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage: neither believeth he that it is the sound of the trumpet. He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting,’ Job 39:19–21. A notable and excellent description of this warlike creature. 

Then the negative:

And yet for all this excellency, so described by the Spirit of God, in another place the psalmist saith, ‘A horse is a vain thing for safety, neither shall he deliver any by his great strength,’ Ps. 33:17. ‘Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God,’ Ps. 20:7. So in another place, ‘The horse is prepared against the day of battle, but victory is of the Lord,’ Prov. 21:31.

Why would the Scripture contain a disparagement of horses?

How oft have you in the Psalms that proud warlike creature disparaged, because naturally men are more bewitched with that than with any other creature. If they have store of horses, then they think they are strong. 

Therefore God forbids the king ‘to multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end he should multiply horses,’ &c., Deut. 17:16, because God is the strength of his church, when there is no multitude of horses. You see it is a bewitching creature, and yet a vain help. 

Horses are useful for what they are fit to do. But due to their magnificence, we will be tempted to trust them for what they cannot do.

At this point, Sibbes makes an interesting aside. He applies the argument which he has made about horses to good works generally. We can so easily overvalue or misvalue:

A place like this we have, Isa. 2:7, complaining there of the naughty people which were among the Jews, at that time as bad as the Israelites. Saith he, ‘Their land also is full of silver and gold; neither is there any end of their treasures; their land is also full of horses, neither is there any end of their chariots.’ What, is there a fault in that? No. Luther saith, ‘Good works are good, but the confidence in them is damnable.’ 

And this over-valuation of the creation, putting an existential trust in the creature is idolatry:

So gold and silver, horses and chariots, are good creatures of God. But this was their sin, confidence in these things. ‘There is no end of their treasures.’ If they had treasure enough, they should do well enough. ‘Their land also was full of horses.’ Was this a fault? No; but their confidence in them. They thought they were a wise people to have such furniture and provision of munition for war. But God was their king, and the chief governor of his people; and for them to heap up these things, to trust over-much in them, it was a matter of complaint. ‘Their land also is full of idols.’

Thus you see there is no confidence to be put neither in the one nor the other, neither in the association of foreign friends, who will prove deceitful, ‘reeds of Egypt,’ that not only deceive, but the splinters thereof fly about, and may run up into the hand. Such are idolaters and false friends, deceitful and hurtful. Nor in home. There is no trust in horses, munition, or such like. What doth this imply? 

Horses are and useful for war; and yet we should not put our trust in them. Whath conclusion can we draw? First, we can conclude that warfare is not per se evil. This would be derived from the concept that God praises horses for their strength in war. He bolsters this with additional references:

That to war and have provision in that kind is unlawful and unnecessary, because he finds fault here with horses and the like? No; take heed of that; for John Baptist, if the soldier’s profession had been unlawful, he would have bid them cast away their weapons; but he bids them ‘do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely,’ &c., Luke 3:14. And God would never style himself ‘the Lord of hosts, and a man of war,’ Isa. 42:13, and ‘he that teacheth our hands to war, and our fingers to fight,’ Ps. 18:34, unless it were good in the season. Therefore war is lawful, seeing in the way to heaven we live in the midst of enemies. Therefore it is but an anabaptistical fancy to judge war to be unlawful. 

But the question about warfare is not the point of the passage. The passage condemns the way in which we put hope in the creature:

No, no; it is clean another thing which the Holy Ghost aims at: to beat back carnal confidence. For it is an equal fault to multiply help and to neglect them. Either of both are fatal many times: to multiply horses, trusting in them, or to spoil horses and other helps vainly, so to weaken a kingdom. 

Thus, we do not neglect the use of means; but we must also not trust in the means. We make use of the means given by God and then put our trust in God:

Therefore there is a middle way for all outward things, a fit care to serve God’s providence, and when we have done, trust in God without tempting of him; for to neglect these helps is to tempt him, and to trust in them, when we have them, is to commit idolatry with them. Beware of both these extremes, for God will have his providence served in the use of lawful means. When there is this great care in a Christian commonwealth, there is a promise of good success, because God is with us. Otherwise, what is all, if he be our enemy? 

Richard Sibbes, The Backsliding Sinner 3.5



There is an absurdity sin. In the fact of repentance, one element which must concern us is a realization that our sin is absurd. Sibbes draws this out by demonstrating that the things which had become idolatrous snares to Israel were also things which could not provide succor. We rely upon solutions which simply do not work.

Doct. How these outward things cannot help us.

How prone soever we are to rely upon them, they are in effect nothing. They cannot help us, and so are not to be relied upon. ‘Asshur shall not save us.’ Indeed it will not, it cannot. These things cannot aid us at our most need. So that that which we most pitch upon, fails us when we should especially have help. Some present vanishing supply they yield, but little to purpose. They have not that in them which should support the soul at a strait, or great pinch, as we say.

Having made the accusation: these things cannot help us, Sibbes now seeks to prove-up his point: They are vanity.

Reason. The reason is largely given by Solomon in the whole book of Ecclesiastes, ‘All is vanity and vexation of spirit,’ Eccles. 1:14

He is going to use the phrase “to support the soul.” His point is that riches (he will give that as a particular example) cannot be used to buy food. Of course it can. But riches are of limited value. We sinfully place a reliance upon the creature which it cannot bear:

There is a vanity in all the creatures, being empty and not able to support the soul. They are vain in their continuance, and empty in regard of their strength. They are gone when we have need of them. 

Riches, as the wise man saith, are gone, and have wings to fly away, in our most need, Prov. 23:5. So friends are fugitive good things, being like to the brooks mentioned in Job, 6:15: which when in summer there is need of, then they are dried up, and yet run amain in winter, when there is no need of them. 

He is trying to explain the way in which money or friends are of limited use: 

So, earthly supports, when there is no need of them, then they are at hand; but when we have most need of them, are gone. ‘They are broken cisterns,’ as the prophet calls them, Jer. 2:13. Cisterns, that is, they have a limited capacity. 

He picks up on the image of a cistern from Jeremiah and develops it as follows:

A cistern is not a spring. 

A cistern, even a broken cistern, is not wholly lacking in use; but it is nothing compared to a spring. The cistern will soon run dry; the spring will not.

So all their support, at the best, is but a bounded and a mixed sufficiency; and that also which will quickly fail: like water in a cistern, which if it be not fed with a continual spring, fails or putrefies presently. 

Likewise these outward things are not sufficient for the grievance; for being limited and bounded, the grievance will be above the strength of the creature; which though sometime it be present and do not fail, yet the trouble is such, that it is above the strength of the creature to help. So that for these and the like respects, there is no sufficiency, nor help to be expected from the creature. 

He has stated his proposition with some emphasis, but it still may be unclear. In particular way is Assyria, the most power country in the world at that time, insufficient?

‘Asshur shall not save us.’ He is not a sufficient ground of trust. Why?

1. He is but a creature.

2. He is an enemy.

3. He is an idolater.

Photo courtesy of Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin. He has a wonderful feed with countless photographs: @OsamaSMAmin

So that, take him in all these three relations, he is not to be trusted.

What are the limitations of being a creature?

1. He is a creature. What is a creature? Nothing, as it were. Saith the prophet, ‘All creatures before him are as nothing, and as a very little thing.’ And what it is, when he pleaseth, he can dissolve it into nothing, turn it into dust. Man’s breath is in his nostrils, Isa. 2:22. ‘All flesh is grass, and all his glory as the flower of grass,’ Ps. 103:15

Creatures have finite duration: they can die. Creatures are dependent upon the sufferance of God to even exist. Therefore, if you trust in the creature, it might fail you. Sibbes puts this nicely:

If a man trust the creature, he may outlive his trust. 

The repeated use of “trust” is well done. The first use is as a verb; the second a noun indicating the state of the verb in action.

His prop may be taken from him, and down he falls. 

The abstract statement about trust becomes a comic, concrete image of the clown falling which the prop against he leans is moved. 

He then moves to another trouble with creature: to trust it is to incur a curse:

Asshur must not be trusted, therefore, as a creature, nor as a man, for that brings us within the curse. Thus saith the Lord, ‘Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm,’ &c., Jer. 17:5. So trusting in the creature not only deceives us, but brings us within the curse. In that respect, Asshur must not be trusted.

The connection made between Hosea and Jeremiah is not the sort of connection which will appear in margin notes or word studies. It is a connection made from countless hours of study and meditation such that Sibbes can see conceptual ties between disparate passages.

2. But Asshur likewise was an enemy, and a secret enemy. For howsoever the ten tribes unto whom Hosea prophesied were great idolaters, yet they were somewhat better than Asshur, who was without the pale of the church, and a wholly corrupted church. Therefore, they were enemies to the ten tribes, and, amongst other reasons, because they were not so bad as they, nor deeply enough dyed with idolatry.

Before we consider the “present time” examples which Sibbes offers is perhaps wise to consider the ways in which we personally have made reliance upon an enemy. At the time of Sibbes’ writing it must be understood what a grave danger rested in religious opinions. There would be repeated wars involving England which concerned the question of what religious practice would be permitted in England. There would be attempts by the house of Stewart to forcibly impose Roman Catholicism upon England. People were going to die over this question.

Many think they may comply with popery in some few things, to gain their love, and that there may be joining with them in this and that; but do we think that they will ever trust us for all this? No; they will alway hate us, till we be as bad as they, and then they will despise us, and secure themselves of us. Therefore, there is no trusting of papists, as papists; not only creatures, but as false, and as enemies. 

He then personalizes this principle: In personal relationships, the wicked will seek to first corrupt the morals of the other. “Bad company corrupts good morals.” 1 Cor. 15:33.

For this is the nature of wicked men. They will never trust better than themselves, till they become as bad as they are, after which they despise them. Say they, Now we may trust such and such a one; he is as bad as we, becom’d one of us. 

But the one who willing corrupts is not one whom you can trust for constancy:

Which is the reason why some of a naughty disposition take away the chastity and virginity of men’s consciences, making them take this and that evil course, and then they think they have such safe, being as bad as themselves. Wherein they deal as Ahithophel’s politic, devilish counsel was, that Absalom should do that which was naught, and then he should be sure that David and he should never agree after that, 2 Sam. 16:21; and that then by this discovery the wicked Jews, set on mischief, might secure themselves of Absalom. So they, now that they join with us, God will forsake them; we shall have them our instruments for anything. First, they would have the ten tribes as bad as they, and then give them the slip whensoever they trusted them.

He hears so the proper limits which the Christian can have with others. We cannot live in such a way as to have no “commerce and traffic” with such people “since then you would need to go out of the world.” (1 Cor. 5:10). But we cannot place that ultimate trust upon them:

3. Again, neither were they to be trusted as idolaters, to have league and society with them. There may be some commerce and traffic with them, but amity and trust, none. Asshur and Egypt were horrible idolaters, and therefore not to be trusted in that respect. As we see the prophet in this case reproved good Jehoshaphat, when he had joined with wicked Ahab, king of the ten tribes, ‘Shouldst thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord? therefore wrath is upon thee from before the Lord,’ 2 Chron. 19:2. So we see it is a dangerous thing to be in league with idolaters, even such as the ten tribes were, who had some religion amongst them. This good king was chidden for it.

Richard Sibbes, The Backsliding Sinner 3.4


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(The previous post on these sermons may be found here)

Thus much in general, which things premised, I come to the forenamed particulars. 


Doct. That naturally we are apt and prone to confidence in outward helps and present things.

He develops this point using a conception from Augustine, that with the Fall the love of humanity turns inward and away from God. It creates a defect in the functioning of the creature. This is an idea which even more importantly derives from Paul, particularly Romans 1, particularly 1:25, “they worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” If you couple that with 2 Cor. 3:18, you can see that proper functioning of the human creature takes place when the creature is rightfully reflecting the Creator. In Col. 3:10 Paul writes that we are “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” This is the “new self”.

This came to our nature from the first fall. 

What was the most basic event of the Fall?

What was our fall at first? A turning from the all-sufficient, unchangeable God, to the creature. 

Thus, sin is relational:

If I should describe sin, it is nothing but a turning from God to one creature or other. When we find not contentment and sufficiency in one creature, we run to another. 

The proposition is then illustrated by something familiar to all. A note on the illustration, the point is not to demonstrate the preacher’s brilliance, but to make it easier for the listener to grasp and retain the abstract principle:

As the bird flies from one tree and bough to another, so we seek variety of contentments from one thing to another. Such is the pravity of our nature since the fall. This is a fundamental conclusion. 

He here provides some evidence: we must have external support to function correctly. He considers the matter at a “psychological” proposition. He states and elaborates the proposition, then provides a brief illustration. The illustration is common and easy to understand. Remember the hearer of a sermon does not have the ability to re-wind or underscore or ponder during the sermon:

Man naturally will, and must, have somewhat to rely on. The soul must have a bottom, a foundation to rest on, either such as the world affords, or a better. Weak things must have their supports. As we see, the vine being a weak thing, is commonly supported by the elm, or the like supply. 

He then reiterates the evidentiary argument, but this time he substitutes “soul” for “man” and explains the same state as a “spiritual” matter (rather than a bare “psychological”) proposition:

So is it with the soul since the fall. Because it is weak, and cannot uphold nor satisfy itself with itself, therefore it looks out of itself. Look to God it cannot, till it be in the state of grace; for being his enemy, it loves not to look to him or his ways, or have dealing with him. 

He has stated the proposition, provided some evidence for the proposition and then concludes:

Therefore it looks unto the creature, that next hand unto itself. This being naturally since the fall, that what we had in God before when we stood, we now labour to have in the creature.

Having established the observation, then gives the reason why such takes place. The first “reason” is given briefly because it is primarily a summary of above. 

Reason 1. Because, as was said, having lost communion with God, somewhat we must have to stay the soul.

The second “reason” brings in a new element: the ability of Satan to deceive. This is an interesting explanation, he puts Satan’s work at the level of “fancy.” By “fancy” he means something like “imagination”. The basic understanding of the psychology here is that something is observed and recognized. Next, the fancy operates upon the thing seen to provide understanding of it. We see things, and then the fancy, which has been influenced, will mis-value the thing seen. This is not a passive process of being solely acted upon, because this “spirit of error join[s] with our own spirit[], and with the deceit of our nature[]”.

2. Secondly, Because Satan joins with our sense and fancy, by which we are naturally prone to live, esteeming of things not by faith and by deeper grounds, but by fancy. Now, fancy having communion with sense, what it discovers and presents for good and great, fancy makes it greater. And the devil, above all, having communion with that faculty of fancy, and so a spirit of error being mixed therewith, to make our fancy think the riches of the world to be the only riches; the greatness and goodness of the creature to be the only greatness and goodness; and the strength thereof the only strength. This spirit of error joining with our own spirits, and with the deceit of our natures, makes us set a higher value on the creature, enlargeth and enrageth the fancy, making it spiritually drunk, so as to conceive amiss of things.

What then do we do with this information? When we are injured by reliance upon the creature, it is a good gift of God: we are being taught that we are trusting in the wrong things (the creature) rather than the Creator.

Use. Briefly for use hereof, it being but a directing point to others. Let us take notice of our corruption herein, and be humbled for it; taking in good part those afflictions and crosses which God sends us, to convince and let us see that there is no such thing in the creature as we imagined; because naturally, we are desperately given to think that there is somewhat more therein than there is. Now affliction helps this sickness of fancy, embittering unto us all confidence in the creature. Therefore it is a happy and a blessed thing to be crossed in that which we over-value, as these Israelites here did the Assyrians and the Egyptians: for being enemies, they trusted in a ‘broken reed,’ 2 Kings 18:21, as we shall see further in the second point.