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This poem on prayer by George Herbert builds its case upon a dense theological argument and biblical allusion. Without rightly understanding the theological and biblical case being made by Herbert, one will misunderstand Herbert’s praise. Herbert’s access to God in prayer comes directly through the incarnation and atonement of Christ. 

¶    Prayer. (II)

       OF what an easie quick accesse[1],
My blessed Lord, art thou! how suddenly
       May our requests thine eare invade![2]
To shew that state dislikes not easinesse,
If I but lift mine eyes[3], my suit is made:
Thou canst no more not heare, then thou canst die[4].
       Of what supreme almightie power
Is thy great arm[5], which spans the east and west,
       And tacks the centre to the sphere!
By it do all things live their measur’d houre[6]:
We cannot ask the thing, which is not there,
Blaming the shallownesse of our request[7].
       Of what unmeasurable love[8]
Art thou possest, who, when thou couldst not die,
       Wert fain[9] to take our flesh[10] and curse,[11]
And for our sakes in person sinne reprove,[12]
That by destroying that which ty’d thy purse,
Thou mightst make way for liberalitie![13]
       Since then these three wait on thy throne[14],
Ease, Power, and Love; I value prayer so,
       That were I to leave all but one,
Wealth, fame, endowments, vertues, all should go;
I and deare prayer would together dwell,
And quickly gain, for each inch lost, an ell.[15]

For annotations, 

[1]  We must not hear “easy access” as casual or easily obtained. Prior to the coming of Christ, access to God was limited (Hebrews 2:8). The access praised in the NT comes as a result of and through justification by the blood of Christ:

Romans 5:1–2 (AV)

1 Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: 2 By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

Ephesians 2:13–18 (AV)

13 But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.

14 For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; 15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; 16 And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: 17 And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. 18 For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.

[2] The psalmists speak of our prayer coming to the “ear” of God. The language is one of great intimacy & intensity:

Psalm 5:1–2 (AV)

1  Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my meditation. 2 Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my God: for unto thee will I pray.

[3] A state of looking for an answer:

Psalm 5:3 (AV)

3 My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O LORD; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up.

Or looking for help:

Psalm 121:1–2 (AV)

1  I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. 2 My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.

[4] God’s being and God’s actions are coherent and consistent.

[5] An anthropomorphism of God’s strength.

Isaiah 40:11 (AV)

11 He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.

[6] All life is in the hands of God,

Psalm 90:3 (AV)

3 Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.

Psalm 104:27–30 (AV)

27 These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season. 28 That thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good. 29 Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. 30 Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.

[7] The limitation on the good we receive from lies not in God’s ability or goodness, but rather lies in our failure to seek it from God:

Matthew 7:7–11 (AV)

7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: 8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. 9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? 10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

Notice, that the limitation here on the gift is “good things”. The common misuse of this passage is that “good things” becomes defined as “whatever I want.” If we consider the analogy of a child, we can easily see the silliness of such an argument. Small child ask for – demand – many things which they greatly desire and which they fervently believe is “good”, which are in fact bad or dangerous. A good parent would without such things because they are not good.

Jesus says:

John 14:13–14 (AV)

13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.

Again, this is often misread to include any demand upon God, where the phrase “my name” asks as a magic phrase to command God. However, “my name” is both the basis of the request and the limitation.

Finally, James 4:1-4, makes explicit the nature of the limitation:

James 4:1–4 (AV)

1 From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? 2 Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. 3 Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. 4 Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.

[8] Herbert is sure of his access to God in prayer, because God has shown such great love to him in the life, death & burial of Christ. It’s God’s love made plain and secure by Christ which gives Herbert such confidence:

Romans 5:6–11 (AV)

6 For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. 8 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. 10 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. 11 And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

[9] Willing.

[10] God cannot suffer or die. Therefore, God had to take on human flesh (both body and soul: The Son of God became a human being without ceasing to be God. God did not merely “dress-up” as a man). On the cross the human nature of Jesus Christ died (and was then resurrected). Obviously, God in his divine nature cannot die; nor do Christians believe any such absurdity.

[11] The Mosaic law contained a curse. The curse was explicitly seen in anyone who hanged upon a tree:

Deuteronomy 21:22–23 (AV)

22 And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: 23 His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.

This odd provision is noted by Paul & applied to Jesus:  By hanging upon a tree, Jesus both incurred the curse of the law, which he then discharged (think of a lightning rod which receives the bolt of lightning and discharges it away from the house):

Galatians 3:10–14 (AV)

10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. 12 And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. 13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: 14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

[12] By taking on human nature, God could condemn sin in human nature (by lawing sin upon Christ), judge the sin and then provide a new nature which law beyond the charge of the law:

Romans 6:1–4 (AV)

1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? 2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? 3  Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

Romans 7:4–6 (AV)

4 Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. 5 For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. 6 But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.

Romans 8:1–4 (AV)

1 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: 4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 5:16–21 (AV)

16 Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more. 17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. 18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. 20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. 21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

[13] God loved human beings in their rebellious state prior to the incarnation. Thus, God loves human beings even though human beings are in an unreconciled state. The Father sent the Son because he loves his creation. However, due to sin and rebellion, God’s justice effectively “ties” (to use Hebert’s verb) the blessing of God. God cannot overlook sin. For God to simply “forgive” sin without first satisfying justice would be to make God unjust and unholy. The cross is the means by which God fully satisfies justice & becomes the inlet for mercy. As James writes, “Mercy triumphs over justice.” James 2:13b. This, of course, does not mean that God will overlook continued rebellion. Thus, while Christ came to reconcile the world to God, those who refuse to be reconciled will still be condemned:

John 3:18 (AV)

18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.


Hebrews 4:14–16 (AV)

14 Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. 15 For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.

[15] If I lose a small amount, an inch, by giving up any current comfort; I will gain back a far greater amount (an ell was 45 inches) with prayer.