Brief Notes on Eliot, Portrait of a Lady


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This poem has puzzled me for a bit and so I wanted to think it through.

The Portrait of a Lady - Wikipedia

Portrait of a Lady

By T.S. Eliot

 Thou hast committed —Fornication: but that was in another country,And besides, the wench is dead. 
The Jew of Malta

The poem begins with ambiguity: The title apparently comes from the novel by Henry James. But it could also be the generic idea of a portrait in painting or word. And if the reference is to the novel, then what aspect of the novel? The ambiguity increases when we consider the motto and the title: The portrait is of a “lady”. The quotation of a fornicating “wench.”  The effect of the original (from Christopher Marlowe) is bit different between it came in conversation:

            FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed—

           BARABAS. Fornication:  but that was in another country;

     And besides, the wench is dead.

Without getting too deep into the play, the statement by Barabas is an ironic “confession” of sin. 

From these two quotations, we could assume that the poem will be a portrait of a woman with whom someone commits fornication and that woman is now dead. Perhaps we can also anticipate a confession.

Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon 

You have the scene arrange itself — as it will seem to do— 

With “I have saved this afternoon for you”; 

And four wax candles in the darkened room, 

Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead, 

An atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb 

Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid. 

We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole 

Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and finger-tips. 

“So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul 

Should be resurrected only among friends 

Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom 

That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.” 

—And so the conversation slips 

Among velleities and carefully caught regrets 

Through attenuated tones of violins 

Mingled with remote cornets 

And begins. 

This first stanza leaves us still unoriented: who is narrating this event? Someone is speaking to us about a scene in the past. The “smoke and fog of a Dececember afternoon” are distinctly “unromantic”. The tone is quite in line with the more famous Prufrock (done to the discussions of music and the fog. This is perhaps the room where women come and go.)

Who has “saved this afternoon”? We are we intruding into this private event? Who has invited us to intrude.

That it is Juliette’s tomb and what has not been said (or said) is rather gruesome, and recalls the motto “she is dead.” There is a romantic meeting implied, but it is a deathly meeting. The relationship has begun where Juliette’s ended.

Who is the “we” have been: Is the narrator a participant? Later that will become clear, but here we cannot tell. The world is private and privileged (these are not working class). They speak with the sort of dilettante voice of those who repeat cliches about art without being profound. 

The conversation masks what is actually happening and the people are like the people of the Wasteland whom death has not undone. Everyone is a sort ghost, a not-quite person with weak desires and regrets. The violins are attenuated, the coronets are remote.

We open in the most unreal, spectral locations: “And begins”.

“You do not know how much they mean to me, my friends, 

And how, how rare and strange it is, to find 

In a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends, 

(For indeed I do not love it … you knew? you are not blind! 

How keen you are!) 

To find a friend who has these qualities, 

Who has, and gives 

Those qualities upon which friendship lives. 

How much it means that I say this to you — 

Without these friendships — life, what cauchemar!” 

Someone – not the narrator – has begun to speak. We assume this is the lady from the diction and from the title.  The logic is circular “a friend has the quality of being a friend and without friends, what a nightmare”. The life of this woman is “composed” of “odds and ends.” She praises the other as “how keen you are.” 

It is also interesting that the event is narrated in such a detached manner. It is spoken to you, the one who heard these words does not seem attached to it. We learn in the second half of the stanza that our narrator is not a third person, but this is his life “inside my brain”.

The imagery of music, which has been an affectation – and a “pretty” one at that – becomes rather base and painful for him: “dull tom-tom … absurdly hammering … monotone … false note”.

Among the winding of the violins 

And the ariettes 

Of cracked cornets 

Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins 

Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own, 

Capricious monotone 

That is at least one definite “false note.” 

— Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance, 

Admire the monuments, 

Discuss the late events, 

Correct our watches by the public clocks. 

Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks. 

They are the midst of art – which had promised so much in the prior generation: The “art for arts sake” of Wilde has not performed the redemptive services promised. Poetry and sculpture and music did not elevate life sufficiently and make a substitute for music. They will “admire monuments” after they hear the music. They will keep time (for what reason?). They will sit “half an hour” and drink beer. But even in this there is a distance “our bocks”. They are killing time. 


Now that lilacs are in bloom 

She has a bowl of lilacs in her room 

And twists one in her fingers while she talks. 

“Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know 

What life is, you who hold it in your hands”; 

(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks) 

“You let it flow from you, you let it flow, 

And youth is cruel, and has no remorse 

And smiles at situations which it cannot see.” 

We are transported somewhere into the future: It was foggy December. Now the lilacs are in bloom. This being Eliot, we can’t overlook the (possible) allusion to Whitman’s great poem, When the Lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed. There is a brilliant use of the flowers: the flowers are in bloom, and she has brought some inside. When coupled with the description of how she “twists” the lilacs (mentioned twice), the image of cut flowers being brought inside and slowly twisted sounds sinister. 

What life is when you hold it in your hands: In the previous scene the two were outside, but now they are inside – in her space. I would suggest that the narrator is now the cut flower, inside. His life is in her hands and she is slowly twisting him. 

This is the first indication that there is an age difference: youth. He is apparently the youth, she the elder. She is the victim: youth is cruel, without remorse: you don’t know what you’re doing to me. And so while she is strangling him, it is “really” her who is being twisted. She is not twisting him, but rather she is the one being twisted up. The imagery works in both directions.

I smile, of course, 

And go on drinking tea. 

“Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall 

My buried life, and Paris in the Spring, 

I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world 

To be wonderful and youthful, after all.” 

I smile, of course: this is brilliant. Is he hiding from her? Does he understand? Is he maliciously agreeing? That he goes on drinking tea has the effect of keeping her emotionally at a difference. This creates an ironic note when compared to the intimacy of Chopin and the talk of friendship: here there is no friendship, not even passion. 

There is April and Paris, but it is a “buried life” and “sunsets.” She is at peace: which sounds like “in the grave”. How then is the world “wonderful and youth”? 

He is the artist, Joyce’s Portrait, paring his nails at a distance from his creation. 

The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune 

Of a broken violin on an August afternoon: 

“I am always sure that you understand 

My feelings, always sure that you feel, 

Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand. 

Here we seem to be at another distance: the now of the poem. This lilac day is in the past: “the voice returns”. It is also unpleasant at this distance. It is not merely “out-of-tune” but it is an “insistent” status “of a broken violin”. It is not an April in Paris, but it is “an August afternoon”

She is “insistenting” something about him which is not true. She pathetically thinks of him as one who understands and sympathizes: but he “smiles, of course” and just “drinks tea.”

You are invulnerable, you have no Achilles’ heel. 

You will go on, and when you have prevailed 

You can say: at this point many a one has failed. 

Then she switches her perspective, he is not quite the understanding friend. Instead, he is “invulnerable”. He has “prevailed”  but it is over her? Has he prevailed by not becoming involved. How has he been different than other who did “fail”? Fail at what? 

Let’s go back to meeting her in Juliette’s tomb: is the death hers, or is the death something she brings upon others? Is she a trap: we have the same ambiguity of the twisted cut flower: who is destroying whom?

But what have I, but what have I, my friend, 

To give you, what can you receive from me? 

Only the friendship and the sympathy 

Of one about to reach her journey’s end. 

They only have friendship and sympathy: which is precisely what they do not have. They are in close connection but they are utterly without intimacy. 

I shall sit here, serving tea to friends ….” 

The tea has returned: the drinking becomes a pose to keep one close and distant I the same move. There is a connection with drinking and eating with one-another: this also becomes a mask and means to keep a distance. She is going to stay “sit here” and she will continue as she has done “serving tea to friends”.

I take my hat: how can I make a cowardly amends 

For what she has said to me? 

He is leaving. All he has there is a “hat”. Any visitor would have a hat to bring and leave. He has left nothing behind and has brought nothing with him.

Another irony: she has called him the greatest of all heroes, Achilles: he sees himself as a coward. He then paints a pathetic picture of himself as Profrock:

You will see me any morning in the park 

Reading the comics and the sporting page. 

Particularly I remark. 

Even though the trivialities come from the paper and not the internet, there is not a lick of difference: petty, irrelevant gossip:

An English countess goes upon the stage. 

A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance, 

Another bank defaulter has confessed. 

He is not quite an invulnerable as she thought him to be:

I keep my countenance, 

I remain self-possessed 

Except when a street-piano, mechanical and tired 

Reiterates some worn-out common song 

With the smell of hyacinths across the garden 

Recalling things that other people have desired. 

Are these ideas right or wrong? 

Now we understand the music: it is the life passion and reality (perhaps). Although the music he now finds is “mechanical and tired”. Must smells of hyacinths in a garden; but more importantly, music is filled with “things that other people have desired.” He is a man seemingly without any desires of his own. 

He is so nothing that cannot even his own mind: “Are these ideas right or wrong?” Neither his thoughts nor his feelings are his own. 

We then move to yet another time: October. Is this in the past, or is this now the present of the poem?


The October night comes down; returning as before 

Except for a slight sensation of being ill at ease 

I mount the stairs and turn the handle of the door 

And feel as if I had mounted on my hands and knees. 

It is October: the night is returning – but is he? Whose steps is he mounting? It is the “lady’s” because she is the only one who speaks out loud in the poem. So is he returning to her house? When he comes to the door of her home it feels like a supplicant begging. He is anything but a hero.

“And so you are going abroad; and when do you return? 

But that’s a useless question. 

You hardly know when you are coming back, 

You will find so much to learn.” 

My smile falls heavily among the bric-à-brac. 

He is taking his leave.  He needs to learn something. Is she being dismissive: you’re a child? Is she protecting herself? No one rightly discloses nor knows themself. 

His smile becomes one her possessions: and a trivial one at that: it takes is place among her things. 

“Perhaps you can write to me.” 

My self-possession flares up for a second; 

This is as I had reckoned. 

What does this mean psychologically? Does this mean that he would have some control? Is their relationship a matter of control. And if it is something he had reckoned, does that does that mean he finally understood something about her? But it will immediately be lost, his self-possession “gutters”, it flows out like melted wax:

“I have been wondering frequently of late 

(But our beginnings never know our ends!) 

Why we have not developed into friends.” 

I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark 

Suddenly, his expression in a glass. 

My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark. 

 He almost speaks – but then in weakness he fails. She says why we never became friends (despite whatever other intimacy)? He rises to speak and then stops. “We are relaly in the dark.”

“For everybody said so, all our friends, 

They all were sure our feelings would relate 

So closely! I myself can hardly understand. 

We must leave it now to fate. 

You will write, at any rate. 

Perhaps it is not too late. 

I shall sit here, serving tea to friends.” 

Everyone thought it would be otherwise: And that tea again. There was the possibility that the two could actually “relate” – but it did not happen. Why?

And I must borrow every changing shape 

To find expression … dance, dance 

Like a dancing bear, 

Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape. 

He is now utterly weakened: He is a dancing bear, who “borrows every changing shape.”

He ends with an utter weakness and tentativeness: If she should die, what would be left for him? He does not even know what to feel or think (understand). He does not if he is wise or foolish, early or late. And then in death, “Would she not have the advantage after all?”

If she were to die, would he have the right to smile.

Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance— 

Well! and what if she should die some afternoon, 

Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose; 

Should die and leave me sitting pen in hand 

With the smoke coming down above the housetops; 

Doubtful, for quite a while 

Not knowing what to feel or if I understand 

Or whether wise or foolish, tardy or too soon … 

Would she not have the advantage, after all? 

This music is successful with a “dying fall” 

Now that we talk of dying— 

And should I have the right to smile? 

If we give this a sort of Jungian read, and the lady is the aspect of his life which is missing: a real soul; then, has he failed to obtain this? Was it offered to him? Or is she a “dominating queen” (like Someone Saved my Life Tonight)? Has he been captured by her?

This is a poem describing some sort relationship, but he seems unable to enter into it or to escape it. He is in the end a cypher, not even a completed man. 

Richard Sibbes, The Backsliding Sinner 2.7


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V.        “Doct. That God’s children at all times have their sacrifices.”

Even though Christ has come and the temple sacrifices of animals and grain have been superseded, it does not mean there are no sacrifice remains for Christians. Sibbes lists five: a broken heart, “offering Christ to God,” offering a mortified life as a living sacrifice, giving alms, and praise. When it comes to praise, he will offer further elaboration. 

A. Even though Christ has come we must still offer sacrifice

There is indeed one kind of sacrificing determined and finished by the coming of Christ, who was the last sacrifice of propitiation for our sins. 

He specifically rejects the concept of the mass as a continuing sacrifice. The sacrifice commemorated in the Supper was the sacrifice under which which has ended.

The more to blame those who yet maintain a daily sacrifice, not of laud and praise, but of cozening and deluding the world, in saying mass for the sins of the quick and the dead; all such sacrifices being finished and closed up in him, our blessed Saviour; who, ‘by one sacrifice,’ as the apostle speaks, ‘hath perfected them that are sanctified,’ Heb. 10:147:27; and that, ‘by one sacrifice, when he offered up himself,’ Heb. 10:12; when all the Jewish sacrifices ended. Since which, all ours are but a commemoration of Christ’s last sacrifice, as the fathers say: the Lord’s supper, with the rest, which remain still; and the sacrifice of praise, with a few others, I desire to name.

But there are other sacrifices:

1. First, The sacrifice of a broken heart, whereof David speaks, Ps. 51:17; which sacrifice of a wounded, broken heart, by the knife of repentance, pleaseth God wondrously well.

2. And then, a broken heart that offers Christ to God every day; who, though he were offered once for all, yet our believing in him, and daily presenting his atonement made for us, is a new offering of him. Christ is crucified and sacrificed for thee as oft as thou believest in Christ crucified.

I guess we best understand this as the application of faith to a broken heart: it is to plead Christ’s death again without claiming that we are in fact re-sacrificing Christ.

Now, upon all occasions we manifest our belief in Christ, to wash and bathe ourselves in his blood, who justifieth the ungodly. So that, upon a fresh sight of sin, with contrition for it, he continually justifieth us. Thus, when we believe, we offer him to God daily; a broken heart first, and then Christ with a broken heart.

There is also the sacrifice of the presenting our lives to service:

3. And then when we believe in Christ, we offer and sacrifice ourselves to God; in which respect we must, as it were, be killed ere we be offered. For we may not offer ourselves as we are in our lusts, but as mortified and killed by repentance. Then we offer ourselves to God as a reasonable and living sacrifice, when we offer ourselves wholly unto him, wit, understanding, judgment, affections, and endeavour; as Paul saith of the Macedonians, ‘they gave themselves to God first, and then their goods,’ 2 Cor. 8:5.

In sum, it is that sacrifice Paul speaks of, ‘to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God,’ &c., Rom. 12:1. For a Christian who believeth in the Lord Jesus is not his own, but sacrificeth himself to him that was sacrificed for him. As Christ is given to us, so he that believes in Christ gives himself back again to Christ. 

This sacrifice is the measure and proof of our salvation:

Hereby a man may know if he be a true Christian, and that Christ is his, if he yields up himself to God. For ‘Christ died and rose again,’ saith the apostle, ‘that he might be Lord both of quick and dead,’ Rom. 14:9. ‘Therefore,’ saith he, ‘whether we live or die, we are not our own,’ Rom. 14:8.

Each time we suffer due to the fact that our life given up to God is conflict with the flow of this world, we are in a state of sacrifice:

What we do or suffer in the world, in all we are sacrificed. So saith a sanctified soul, My wit, my will, my life, my good, my affections are thine; of thee I received them, and I resign all to thee as a sacrifice. Thus the martyrs, to seal the truth, as a sacrifice, yielded up their blood. 

In an anti-antinomian turn, Sibbes who is much of the freedom of God’s grace notes that nature of grace received is to create thankfulness which is expressed in a manner of life. This is an interesting idea: Obedience is rendered as an act of thankfulness toward God.

He that hath not obtained of himself so much as to yield himself to God, he knows not what the gospel means. For Christian religion is not only to believe in Christ for forgiveness of sin; but the same faith which takes this great benefit, renders back ourselves in lieu of thankfulness.

He presses and explicates the point:

So that, whatsoever we have, after we believe, we give all back again. Lord, I have my life, my will, my wit, and all from thee; and to thee I return all back again. For when I gave myself to believe in thy dear Son, I yielded myself and all I have to thee; and now, having nothing but by thy gift, if thou wilt have all I will return all unto thee again; if thou wilt have my life, my goods, my liberty, thou shalt have them. 

Here he notes that true faith is not merely a cognitive assent to a fact “not altogether in believing in this or that”. Faith transforms the entire life, faith is such a thing:

This is the state of a Christian who hath denied himself. For we cannot believe as we should unless we deny ourselves. Christianity is not altogether in believing this and that; but the faith which moves me to believe forgiveness of sins, carries us also unto God to yield all back again to him.

Love for those whom cannot repay:

4. More especially, among the sacrifices of the New Testament are alms, as, ‘To do good and to communicate forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased,’ Heb. 13:16.

The sacrifice of prase:

5. And among the rest, the sacrifice of praise, which is in the same chapter, verse 15. First, he saith, By him, that is, by Christ, let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips: which is but an exposition of this place, which, because it is especially here intended, I will a little enlarge myself in.

B.  What is meant by “calves of our lips”

This idiom is at first quite difficult: calves and lips are not concordant ideas. But the use of “calf” as a metonymy for “sacrifice” leads to some sense: 

He first gives an outline of how he will develop the idea: giving glory and giving thanks. One is extolling God, the other is an effusion of love for the thing received.

The ‘calves of our lips’ implies two things: Not only thankfulness to God, but glorifying of God, in setting out his praise. Otherwise to thank God for his goodness to us, or for what we hope to receive, without glorifying of him, is nothing at all worth. 

1. What it means to glorify God

For in glorifying there are two things.

a. “A supposition of excellency.” For that cannot be glorified, which hath no excellency in it. Glory in sublimity hath alway excellency attending it. And

b. “The manifestation of this glory.”

Now, when all the excellencies of God, as they are, are discovered and set out, his wisdom, mercy, power, goodness, all-sufficiency, &c., then we glorify him. To praise God for his favours to us, and accordingly to glorify him, is ‘the calves of our lips;’ but especially to praise him. Whence the point is—

c. “That the yielding of praise to God is a wondrous acceptable sacrifice.”

Which is instead of all the sacrifices of the Old Testament, than which the greatest can do no more, nor the least less; for it is the sacrifice and fruit of the lips. 

But to open it. 

i. The speech which glorifies God has its value in the fact it springs from the understanding:

It is not the sound of the words, but the resolution of the heart which makes the speech God-glorifying.

It is not merely the sacrifice of our lips; for the praise we yield to God, it must be begotten in the heart. Hereupon the word, λογὸς [logos], speech, signifieth both reason and speech, there being one word in the learned language for both.

Reason is communicated as speech:

Because speech is nothing but that stream which issues from the spring of reason and understanding: 

therefore, in thanksgiving there must not be a lip-labour only, but a thanksgiving from the lips, first begotten in the heart, coming from the inward man, as the prophet saith, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name,’ Ps. 103:1.

We know what and why we praise:

Praise must come from a sound judgment of the worth of the thing we praise for. 

Praise must rise from true affection:

It must come from an affection which desires that God may have the glory, by the powers of the whole inward man, which is a hard matter, to rouse up ourselves to praise God with all the powers of our soul, ‘all that is within me, praise his holy name,’ Ps. 103:1.

In sum:  There goeth judgment, resolution of the will, strength of affections, and all with it.

ii. Praise comes from the heart and then flows out into action: 

Praise is an act of integrity: It begins with a true understanding and love, expressing itself in word and in conduct:

And then again, besides this, ‘the calves of our lips’ carries us to work. The oral thanksgiving must be justified by our works and deeds; or else our actions will give our tongue the lie, that we praise him with the one, but deny him in the other. This is a solecism, as if one should look to the earth, and cry, O ye heavens! So when we say, God be praised, when yet our life speaks the contrary, it is a dishonouring of God. So the praise of our lips must be made good and justified by our life, actions, and conversation. This we must suppose for the full understanding of the words, ‘We will render,’ from our hearts, ‘the calves of our lips;’ which we must make good in our lives and conversations, ever to set forth thy praise in our whole life.

C. Why this phrase?

Quest. But why doth the prophet especially mention lips, ‘the calves of our lips,’ which are our words?

Ans. 1. Partly, because Christ, who is the Word, delights in our words.

2. Because our tongue is our glory, and that whereby we glorify God.

3. And especially because our tongue is that which excites others, being a trumpet of praise, ordained of God for this purpose. Therefore, ‘the calves of our lips;’ partly, because it stirs up ourselves and others, and partly, because God delights in words, especially of his own dictating. 

D. How can become the person who gives such true praise?

To come then to speak more fully of praise and thanksgiving, let us consider what a sweet, excellent, and prevailing duty this is, which the church, to bind God, promiseth unto him, ‘the calves of our lips.’ I will not be long in the point, but only come to some helps how we may come to do it.

1. We must be broken and humbled to give praise: We must think little of ourselves. He makes an important point here concerning thankfulness. A thankful person begins with an understanding of his lack of some-thing and his unworthiness to receive something. We pay money at the market and take away my apple, I am not thankful to the cashier for letting me take my apple, I have paid for it. But if that same person out of kindness gave me that apple without money, an apple I had not earned or deserved, I would be thankful:

First, this praising of God must be from an humble, broken heart. The humble soul that sees itself not worthy of any favour, and confesseth sin before God, is alway a thankful soul. ‘Take away our iniquity, and then do good to us.’ We are empty ourselves. Then will ‘we render thee the calves of our lips.’ 

Proof of the point

What made David so thankful a man? He was an humble man; and so Jacob, what abased him so in his own eyes? His humility: ‘Lord, I am less than the least of thy mercies,’ Gen. 32:10

He that thinks himself unworthy of anything, will be thankful for everything; and he who thinks himself unworthy of any blessing, will be contented with the least. 

Exhortation: Notice how Sibbes is continually raising application as it is appropriate. To be thankful: which is the thing sought, we first must contemplate our unworthiness. The point here is not self-centered loathing, but a realization that we do not deserve good so that we may be thankful of the good.

Therefore, let us work our hearts to humility, in consideration of our sinfulness, vileness, and unworthiness, which will make us thankful: especially of the best blessings, when we consider their greatness, and our unworthiness of them. 

Here he makes a point which coheres with something I see in the Iliad (which I am currently completing), a book of extraordinarily proud men. Thankfulness is almost non-existent. The word “thank” only appears 10 times in Butler’s translation, as an ironic concept, as a means for a god to deceive someone into a committing a crime, as a basis for pride (no one thanks me for my fighting). 

I wonder if our emphasis on self-esteem has contributed to unhappiness by making us unthankful: and also creating a basis for constant disappointment and frustration (I have not received what I deserved). 

Another note, the broken-hearted humility is humility toward God.

A proud man can never be thankful. Therefore, that religion which teacheth pride, cannot be a thankful religion. 

Popery is compounded of spiritual pride: merit of congruity, before conversion; merit of condignity, and desert of heaven, after; free will, and the like, to puff up nature. What a religion is this! Must we light a candle before the devil? Is not nature proud enough, but we must light a candle to it? To be spiritually proud is worst of all.

2. Thankfulness is paired with an evaluation of the greatness and goodness of God. The Christian who “humbles” himself can conceal pride in that humility if it is not paired with an understanding of the goodndess and greatness of God. Without this there will never be thankfulness; and there will not be true humility 

And with our own unworthiness, add this: a consideration of the greatness of the thing we bless God for; setting as high a price upon it as we can, by considering what and how miserable we were without it. 

He is going to raise the doctrine of Hell. The doctrine is routinely unfashionable and is often considered reprehensible. But here Sibbes asks us to consider it so that we may be thankful. Here is the misery we have earned (and that is the point which is unpalatable, perhaps you could deserve Hell, but I could not), and yet we are spared. If you narrowly avoided being killed in a fire, you would thank the fireman.

He will bless God joyfully for pardon of sin, who sees how miserable he were without it, in misery next to devils, ready to drop into hell every moment. And the more excellent we are, so much the more accursed, without the forgiveness of sins. 

For the soul, by reason of the largeness thereof, is so much the more capable and comprehensible of misery; as the devils are more capable than we, therefore are most accursed. Oh, this will make us bless God for the pardon of sin! 

Consider all of the good things we have received. In particular be thankful that we can see or hear or touch. 

And likewise, let us set a price upon all God’s blessings, considering what we were without our senses, speech, meat, drink, rest, &c. O beloved! 

we forget to praise God sufficiently for our senses. 

This little spark of reason in us is an excellent thing; grace is founded upon it. If we were without reason, what were we? If we wanted sight, hearing, speech, rest, and other daily blessings, how uncomfortable were our lives! This consideration will add and set a price to their worth, and make us thankful, to consider our misery without them. 

Sadly, we don’t know how many good things we have until we do not have them:

But, such is our corruption, that favours are more known by the want, than by the enjoying of them. When too late, we many times find how dark and uncomfortable we are without them; then smarting the more soundly, because in time we did not sufficiently prize, and were thankful for them.

Let us, then, be stirred up to give God his due beforehand, to begin heaven upon earth; for we are so much in heaven already, as we abound and are conversant in thanksgiving upon earth.

3. If we have a good assurance that we are right before God, we will be thankful

And then, labour to get further and further assurance that we are God’s children, beloved of him.

Assurance will work in two ways: it will make me conscious of what I have – and what is coming. It will make me thankful. 

This will make us thankful both for what we have and hope for. 

Proof of the point by considering the opposite:

It lets out the life-blood of thankfulness, to teach doubting or falling from grace. 

Why does God tell us of the good which is laid up for us? To make us hopeful and thus thankful:

What is the end, I beseech you, why the glory to come is revealed before the time? That we shall be sons and daughters, kings and queens, heirs and co-heirs with Christ, and [that] ‘all that he hath is ours?’ Rom. 8:17. Is not this knowledge revealed beforehand, that our praise and thanksgiving should beforehand be suitable to this revelation, being set with Christ in heavenly places already. Whence comes those strong phrases? ‘We are raised with Christ; sit with him in heavenly places,’ Eph. 2:6; ‘are translated from death to life,’ Col. 1:13; ‘transformed into his image;’ ‘partakers of the divine nature,’ &c., 2 Pet. 1:4.

Faith begets thankfulness. Doubting robs us of blessing. This is an important aspect of faith: it the means by which one person receives love and joy and hope from another: if I distrust you, I can never receive love from you. 

If anything that can come betwixt our believing, and our sitting there, could disappoint us thereof, or unsettle us, it may as well put Christ out of heaven, for we sit with him. If we yield to the uncomfortable popish doctrine of doubting, we cannot be heartily thankful for blessings; for still there will rise in the soul surmises, I know not whether God favour me or not: it may be, I am only fatted for the day of slaughter; God gives me outward things to damn me, and make me the more inexcusable. 

And if we doubt we will not give God the praise he deserves. How could one be thainkful with, maybe you’ll do me good?

What a cooler of praise is this, to be ever doubting, and to have no assurance of God’s favour! But when upon good evidence, which cannot deceive, we have somewhat wrought in us, distinct from the greater number of worldlings, God’s stamp set upon us; having evidences of the state of grace, by conformity to Christ, and walking humbly by the rule of the word in all God’s ways: then we may heartily be thankful, yea, and we shall break forth in thanksgiving; this being an estate of peace, and ‘joy unspeakable and glorious,’ 1 Pet. 1:8, wherein we take everything as an evidence of God’s love.

He restates the proposition:

Thus the assurance of our being in the state of grace makes us thankful for everything. 

He restates the contrary: Notice the tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them. Particularly when delivering an oral message, repetition is critical to retention and understanding.

So by the contrary, being not in some measure assured of God’s love in Christ, we cannot be thankful for everything. For it will always come in our mind, I know not how I have these things, and what account I shall give for them. 

He repeats the exhortation: Be assured of what you will receive for this will fill your heart with thankfulness:


[two reasons]

[1]even for the honour of God, 

[2]and that we may praise him the more cheerfully, 


let us labour to have further and further evidences of the state of grace, 

[this leads to]

to make us thankful both for things present and to come, 

seeing faith takes to trust things to come, as if it had them in possession. 

[Our faith is well-grounded]

Whereby we are assured of this, that we shall come to heaven, as sure as if we were there already. This makes us praise God beforehand for all favours; as blessed Peter begins his epistle, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which, according to his abundant mercy, hath begotten us again unto a lively hope, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you,’ &c., 1 Pet. 1:34.

A final encouragement:

As soon as we are newborn, we are begotten to a kingdom and an inheritance. Therefore, assurance that we are God’s children will make us thankful for grace present, and that to come, as if we were in heaven already. We begin then the employment of heaven in thanksgiving here, to praise God beforehand with cherubims and angels. Let us, then, be stirred up to give God his due beforehand, to begin heaven upon earth; for we are so much in heaven already, as we abound and are conversant in thanksgiving upon earth.

What is a human being, if you extirpate love?


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In The Criminal Psychopath, Jurimetrics. 2011 Summer; 51: 355–397, Kiehl and Hoffman provide a thorough summary of the history, diagnosis, and treatment of the psychopath, particularly with a view to amount of crime committed by this relatively small proportion of the population.

It raises the interesting issue of the degree to which the condition is the result of a brain disorder and the interaction with this brain in its environment. There is apparently some evidence that the condition has a genetic component, and perhaps it is a peculiarly vulnerable brain in connection with the “right” environment which leads to the exhibition of utter moral inability. Plainly performing standard experiments by tormenting and mistreating children in rigorously similar manners to see whether the condition can be induced regularly would be evil. Therefore, one needs to consider proxies, such as the condition shows some responsiveness to treatment if the treatment early enough in life.

That there is correspondence between the condition and certain brain function is interesting: But note that the information cited shows the functioning of the brain: their brains function differently. When faced with moral situations the parts of their brain which were involved differed from “you and me.” But what does that exactly prove? The argument that the brain is causing this condition actually contains a hidden premise: that all thought must begin from the brain, not pass through the brain.

For a moment take a different body part: the psychopath and the mother with her child both use their hands, but the use is strikingly different. No one believes that the mother hand causes her sweet caress.

Reddit Turned an MIT AI Into a Psychopath. What Is It Doing to Your Brain? |

Now a mother with broken hands could not caress in the same manner. The status of her hand both limits and permits certain behavior, but it does not cause her behavior.

But when it comes to the brain, it is easy to believe that the brain is causative. This is because the functioning of rest of the body relies heavily upon the functioning of the brain. In particular, the use of the brain in thought could imply that the brain is directing the thought.

But need that be so? If one adds as an element of the human being a mind, it is no difficulty to concluded that the minds of two different men would use their brains in a different manner: just as the psychopath murders and the doctor heals with the hand.

If we posit that information flows from the body toward the mind and the mind toward the body, effects can move in both directions. (The precise nature of mind and body is not the issue. Although at present I am very intrigued by Dembski’s Being as Communion (information is the ultimate base, not matter) and Thomas’ hylomorphism which seems to resolve Descartes’ hard cleavage interaction problem.) Thus certain types of brains would have effects without being the univocal cause.

Another element in the article which intrigued me was “His very disconnectedness is his mask. We cannot see him because we assume all humans have the connections that bind us, and because the psychopath’s very lack of those connections allows him to mimic them.” The psychopath, to use the Ancient Greek term, is a-storge: he lacks human connections. The fact of storge among other humans creates the framework which the psychopath exploits: “One explanation is that being exposed to the frailties of normal people in group therapeutic settings gives psychopaths a stock of information that makes them better at manipulating those normal people. As one psychopath put it, ‘These programs are like a finishing school. They teach you how to put the squeeze on people.'”

They bear a resemblance to Nietzsche’s Nobility who know themselves better than all others and are willing to command and exploit. They also exhibit the final end of depravity in Romans 1.

What should think of them. The authors were hopeful there were ways to get the psychopaths to slow down a bit on their crime spree of life. But there really wasn’t any element of hope.

“As one psychotherapist wrote, his psychopaths in treatment ‘have no desire to change, … have no concept of the future, resent all authorities (including therapists), view the patient role as … being in a position of inferiority, and deem therapy a joke and therapists as objects to be conned, threatened, seduced, or used.'”

That reference to the “future” stuck out. It is not merely that they have no concept of future punishment, they have no mechanism for hope. Perhaps they can move by hungers, I want this-then-that, but would be based upon a present hunger. I might plan to fulfill my hunger, but not be different.

Authorities obviously are merely impediments to be beaten or seduced. That is easy enough. But without the future, without hope. That again is a state described in Paul as the depth of lostness, “having no hope without God in the world.”

Now we come to this character: no authority, no hope, no future. Such a man is ultimately depraved.

It is the cognitive capacity of a man without love: because love is built around the future. Love does not exult in oneself, but puts another first. Love becomes a sort of authority for the other’s good becomes paramount.

He sat down, played, and sang

This scene described in The Rites of Spring (Modris Eksteins) reads like something from a darkly comic novel.

In October 1914, young Hans Fleischer was near Blamont on the edge of the Vosges Mountains. On a day in rest quarters he went for a stroll and came across a chateau, that of Baron de Turckheim, in a state of almost total devastation. A priceless library, paintings, furniture, and paneling had all been smashed. But in one corner of the ruin Fleischer found a grand piano, a Steinway to boot, untouched by the war’s rage, and under the piano he found some scores. What did he choose? A piano version of Wagner’s Die Walkure. He sat down, played, and sang—energetically, he wrote—the Lied von Liebe und Lenz. And then he left. “I had been at home, made German music, and now once again I could return to the war.”20 But what makes the scene so poignant is that the young man had not left the war. There it was, surrounding him. The piano, the music, the ruins, the war, all blended into one sensation.

There is little harm

This is one of the most brutal takedowns I have ever read in art criticism. It is one thing to be rebuked or contradicted; it is another thing to be dismissed as not worth the time:

“Claude and the Poussins were weak men, and have had no serious influence on the general mind. There is little harm in their works being purchased at high prices: their real influence is very slight, and they may be left without grave indignation to their poor mission of furnishing drawing-rooms and assisting stranded conversation”

The Stones of Venice, Volume I (of 3)

John Ruskin

A truth problem in public science


In the terrible movie “Pete’s Dragon” the drunken lighthouse attendant shows up an sings a song, which as I recall contains the lines, “A dragon, a dragon, I swear I saw a dragon.” Of course no one believes him. However, when the dragon can be seen by everyone, we know it is true.

Science works sort of like that: the experimental techniques state that if any two people do the same thing under the same conditions the same result will occur. I one time heard it explained and a device for remembering things. From UC Berkeley’s “Understanding Science

“Scientists aim for their studies’ findings to be replicable — so that, for example, an experiment testing ideas about the attraction between electrons and protons should yield the same results when repeated in different labs. Similarly, two different researchers studying the same dinosaur bone in the same way should come to the same conclusions regarding its measurements and composition. This goal of replicability makes sense. After all, science aims to reconstruct the unchanging rules by which the universe operates, and those same rules apply, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from Sweden to Saturn, regardless of who is studying them.”

Science promises a sort of repetition and accuracy. But science is also conducted by human beings who have goals which are not necessarily exactly the same as truth for truth’s sake.

And a scandal involving Chinese scientists publishing fake papers in the field of medicine (for the purposes ostensibly of advancing one’s career are quite troubling:

“All the way down, they all have similar reward systems,” Tiger explained. “That is a really bad mechanism to really foster a lot of fraud.” 

Elisabeth Bik — the only member of the team willing to give her real name — is a microbiologist from the Netherlands, based in California. She began tracking the phenomenon of paper mills at the beginning of 2020. 

Along with Tiger, a senior research scientist who goes by the name of Morty, and a mathematical psychologist called Smut Clyde, Bik has spent many unpaid hours searching for anomalies in Chinese research. Early this year, the group discovered one paper mill, which they believe was responsible for more than 500 fake studies examining human gene function and cancer. 

Unfortunately, it seems to be lots of people: “In psychology journals, 39 percent of the 100 analyzed studies had been successfully replicated. In economy journals, it was 61 percent of 18 studies, and in the journals Nature and Science, it was 62 percent of 21 studies.”

This means that a significant portion of the scientific work in the first instance is problematic. I’m not sure exactly how this correlates with the study of papers for replication, but a fair number of scientists admit to engaging in problematic practices, “On average, across the surveys, around 2% of scientists admitted they had ‘fabricated’ (made up), ‘falsified’ or ‘altered’ data to ‘improve the outcome’ at least once, and up to 34% admitted to other questionable research practices including ‘failing to present data that contradict one’s own previous research’ and ‘dropping observations or data points from analyses based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate.’ In surveys that asked about the behaviour of colleagues, 14% knew someone who had fabricated, falsified or altered data, and up to 72% knew someone who had committed other questionable research practices.” (An unscientific observation is that more people engage in bad acts than actually admit to it: hence 34% say they have been sketchy at some point but they 72% know someone else who has done so. This might indicate that some people are lying about lying.)

And, apparently as a corollary to the adage “A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes” we find out that the questionable papers are by far the papers which get the most press, “The differences in the prominent Nature and Science journals were the most striking: here, non-replicable papers were cited 300 times more than replicable ones on average.”

This could be just a matter of poking at the moral preening of scientists. But these fabrications, repetitions, and unnecessary errors result in missed opportunity. There are cancer treatments which never come about or are delayed because a researcher begins with bad data and it takes years to figure out what went wrong.

Richard Sibbes, The Backsliding Sinner, 2.7 (A vow of praise)


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2.  A Vow of Praise

Now, this promise which the church makes here of praise, is a kind of vow, ‘So will we render,’ &c. To bind one’s-self is a kind of vow. 

a. The Purpose of the Vow

Here Sibbes argues in the form of a chiasm. The elements of the argument, reordered, are as follows:  The purpose, the end of all things is the glory of God. Human beings fulfill their purpose by giving glory to God. All other things likewise exist for this ultimate end. It is likewise the end of God that God be glorified: God is “moved” by our giving him glory. When we bind ourselves by a vow to give God glory, by giving him thanks, we make an argument which will “prevail with God” (as is explicitly stated in the next paragraph. 

This presents a question of the impassibility of God: There is a false understanding of God being impassible which thinks that God must an unresponsive stone, perhaps a pure intellect with the emotional range of a computer. If God has any responsiveness whatsoever to humanity, then God cannot be impassible. This false understanding of impassibility then sets up a false dichotomy, which must contend that since God is shown repeatedly in Scripture to be relational with humanity (God shows wrath, God is love, et cetera), then God must not be impassible. 

This doctrine is difficult, primarily I believe, because we start our conception of God with a false conception. A full discussion of this doctrine lies well-beyond this comment on Sibbes’ sermon. However, we can take a quick look, first, at how Sibbes understood the term, and then how of his contemporaries used the term.

He uses the term in reference to our glorified resurrection bodies, “Says he, the body is sown in corruption, but raised in incorruption. Then no more mortality, nor tribulation, nor any sense of sorrow. Some interpreters have thought good to express this by the word impassible, signifying an impossibility of feeling any more hunger, cold, thirst, sorrow, and the like; in brief, not capable of suffering any more; for at first, sin brought in corruption, but then all sin being abolished, corruption, and all things thereunto belonging, must needs cease.” Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 7 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1864), 500–501.

In a related manner, he uses it in reference to Adam (here the word “unpassable”) and in relation to Incarnation: “This should sweeten all our afflictions, that we are dying with Christ, whereby Christ hath communion with us, and whereby we are fitted for communion with Christ; as put case we have sickness or trouble, &c. Christ took upon him flesh, but what? As it was in Adam unpassible?* Christ took upon him our passible nature, as subject to suffer cold, and hunger, and pain, of weariness, and it is fit our bodies should be conformable to the body of Christ, ‘for we are predestinate to be conformed to Christ,’ Rom. 8:29, and therefore when we are put to pain in our callings, or troubled for good consciences, and thereby wear out our bodies, it is but as Christ’s body was used. He took a body that he might suffer, and going about doing good, and be put to hardship. Therefore, if we be put to hardship, it is no more than our Lord Jesus Christ did. And therefore those that be so delicate that will take no pains, endure no sickness, the wind must not blow upon them, the sun must not shine upon them, they love no saving goodness, nothing of the Spirit of Christ, who out of love took our nature upon him, obnoxious to all pain and labour; though not infirmities of our particular persons, yet of our nature. He took upon him our miserable nature, our passible nature, and then he hath our nature in heaven.”

Richard Sibbes, Tvol. 4, p. 408.

In a similar vein to Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards uses it as a reference to the divine nature, in contrast to the state of the Incarnation, “If Christ had remained only in the divine nature, he would not have been in a capacity to have purchased our salvation, not from any imperfection of the divine nature, but by reason of its absolute and infinite perfection. For Christ merely as God was not capable either of that obedience or suffering that was needful. The divine nature is not capable of suffering, for it is impassable and infinitely above all suffering; neither is it capable of obedience to that law that was given to man. ’Tis as impossible that one that is only God should obey the law that was given to man as ’tis that he should suffer man’s punishment.” Jonathan Edwards, “Sermon Fourteen,” in A History of the Work of Redemption, ed. John F. Wilson and John E. Smith, vol. 9, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1989), 295–296.

Charnock uses it to refer to the capacity to be adversely affected by the creation, to suffer, “As patience signifies suffering, so it is not in God. The divine nature is impassible, incapable of any impair; it cannot be touched by the violences of men, nor the essential glory of it be diminished by the injuries of men; but as it signifies a willingness to defer, and an unwillingness to pour forth his wrath upon sinful creatures, he moderates his provoked justice, and forbears to revenge the injuries he daily meets with in the world. He suffers no grief by men’s wronging him, but he restrains his arm from punishing them according to their merits.” Stephen Charnock, The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 2 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson; G. Herbert, 1864–1866), 504.

Finally, Thomas Watson uses it in parallel with “impenetrable” and says plainly, the wicked cannot hurt God, “If God be a spirit, then he is impassible,—he is not capable of being hurt. Wicked men set up their banners, and bend their forces against God; they are said to fight against God, Acts 5:39. But what will this fighting avail? What hurt can they do to the Deity? God is a spirit, and therefore cannot receive any hurtful impression; wicked men may imagine evil against the Lord, Nahum 1:9., “What do ye imagine against the Lord?” But God, being a spirit, is impenetrable. The wicked may eclipse his glory, but cannot touch his essence. God can hurt his enemies, but they cannot hurt him. Julian might throw up his dagger into the air against heaven, but could not touch the Deity. God is a spirit, invisible.” Thomas Watson, The Select Works of the Rev. Thomas Watson, Comprising His Celebrated Body of Divinity, in a Series of Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, and Various Sermons and Treatises (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 35.

But saying that God cannot be injured by the creation, does not mean that God is unknowledgeable concerning, nor that God will not act with respect to the creation. That God has said he will hear is an act of promise by God. When Sibbes says that God is “bound” by a vow of thankfulness, it cannot mean that God is unwillingly subjected to the power of the Creature. If the Creature had control over the Creator, then God would be passible. 

The nature of the binding is explained in the next paragraph where it says such a vow of praise “prevails” with God: it is a prayer which God has said he will hear. As it says in Ephesians 1:6, God has covenanted and graciously provided for blessed the descendants of Adam “to the praise of his glorious grace.”

The paragraph has been broken out into clauses so that the building up of the argument can be seen more clearly.

Here is the proposition which he will develop:

The church therefore binds herself, that she may bind God; for binding herself by vow to thankfulness, she thereby binds God; 

Here he states that God is “moved” – but not in way of suffering:

who is moved with nothing we can do so much as with setting forth of his praise, which was his end in all the creation, the setting forth of his glory. 

[There is] nothing we can do so much as with setting forth of his praise, which was his end in all the creation, the setting forth of his glory. 

This explains the rationale upon which he can state that God is moved: God created the cosmos for his glory: that is the end of all things. Thus, when God receives glory from the creation, he is merely receiving the end of what he did in the first instance:

The end of the new creature is the end of all things both in nature and grace; the end whereof is God’s glory, from whence all things come and wherein all things end: as we say of a circle, all things begin and end in it. 

He summarizes the rationale in a sentence:

All other things are for man, and man for God’s glory. 

There is a mountain of theology in that sentence. One thing to briefly note is how this very sentence runs wildly contrary to non-Christian understandings of the world. It revolts against any understanding which detracts from God’s glory. It revolts against any understanding which denigrates humanity to a level of the remainder of the creation: there is a distinct hierarchy here. 

When the soul can say, ‘Lord, this shall be for thy honour, to set forth thy praise,’ it binds God. 

Hence, that they might move God to yield to their prayers, they bind themselves by a kind of vow. 

Do thus, O Lord, and thou shalt not lose by it, thou shalt have praise; ‘so will we render thee the calves of our lips.’

b. The use of vows

This is a topic which I don’t know I have ever heard a sermon preached upon. Perhaps there was a brief mention here and there – with caveat that this is being noted merely to explain this ancient custom. But a sermon which ever encouraged a vow by a living saint, that I do not recall.

But here, Sibbes explains that we do vow and that we should consciously make certain vows to God:

So promises and vows of praise are alleged as an argument to prevail with God, for the obtaining of that the church begs for: ‘So will we render,’ &c. Not to enter into the commonplace of vows, only thus much I say, that there is a good use of them, to vow and promise thankfulness when we would obtain blessings from God. That which a promise is to men, that a vow is to God; and usually they go together in Scripture, as it is said of David, that ‘he vowed unto God, and sware unto the mighty God of Jacob,’ Ps. 132:2. So we have all in baptism vowed a vow. So that it is good to renew our vows often, especially that of new obedience; and in this particular to vow unto him that we will praise him, and strive that his glory be no loser by us.

He then sets forth two reasons we should vow: We are forgetful; we are inconstant.

i. We should vow, because we forget

Take the time to look through Deuteronomy and search for the uses of the words: ‘forget’ and ‘remember’. Over and again, Moses warns them, “Lest you forget” and fall into sin. Therefore, “remember”. The same danger faces us today:

1. It is good thus to vow, if it were but to excite and quicken our dullness and forgetfulness of our general vow; to put us in mind of our duty, the more to oblige us to God and refresh our memories. This bond, that having promised, now I must do it, provokes the soul to it. As it helps the memory, so it quickens the affections.

ii. We should vow, because we are inconstant:

2. Besides, as by nature we are forgetful, so we are inconstant; in which respect it is a tie to our inconstant and unsteady natures. 

He makes a point here about conscience: A well-informed conscience has an effect upon us. To vow is to make our relationship with God a matter of conscious conscience. Our inconstancy and forgetfulness make it necessary for us to use means. The use of means is not sinful, but rather a recognition of our status as creatures. 

For there are none who have the Spirit of God at all, with any tenderness of heart, but will thus think: I have vowed to God. If it be a heinous thing to break with men, what is it wittingly and willingly to break with the great God? A vow is a kind of oath. This is the sacrifice of fools, to come to God, and yet neither to make good our vows, nor endeavour to do it.

Sibbes here makes an application to the congregation before him, based upon the fact that they had already taken communion. It has been my experience that communion comes at the end of the service and the mediation upon communion comes only before it is received. Here is says, you have taken and this is what this now imposes upon you:

Let us consider therefore what we have done in this case. By permission of authority, there was a fast lately, when we all renewed our vows (we mocked God else), [and] received the communion. Will God be mocked, think you? No; but howsoever man may forget, God will not, but will come upon us for non-payment of our vows and covenants. 

He then expands the point and makes a broader application: What else have you done with God? What prayers, what promises? 

Lay we it to heart therefore what covenants we have made with God of late. And then, for the time to come, be not discouraged if you have been faulty in it. There is a general vow, wherein, though we have failed (if we be his children, and break not with God in the main, cleaving to him in purpose of heart, occasionally renewing our purposes and covenants), yet let not Satan discourage us for our unfaithfulness therein. 

And what if you have failed:

But be ashamed of it, watch more, look better to it for the time to come, and make use of the gracious covenant; and, upon recovery, say with the church, ‘So will we render the calves of our lips.’

Look carefully at how Sibbes makes this point: (1) see your sin and feel the remorse for your sin; (2) repent and look forward; (3) make gracious use of the covenant: God has not rejected. The covenant of grace is still in place. God sits upon a throne of grace for those, like you, who have sinned. You are qualified to receive grace because you need grace and you seek grace. (4) Therefore, give thanks. Our stumbling should become the occasion of our renewing our pilgrimage.

He now presses the point by first a reference to the sacrificial system of Israel:

It was the custom under the Jewish policy, you know, to offer sacrifices of all sorts. But the Spirit of God speaks here of the church of the Jews under the New Testament; especially what they should be after their conversion, having reference to the Jews in Christ’s time, and to the believing Jews in all times, implying thus much; howsoever, not legal sacrifices of calves, bullocks, sheep, and lambs, yet the ‘calves of the lips,’ which God likes better, are acceptable to him. 

He moves this to the Church:

And it likewise implies some humiliation of the church. 

He then leads the congregation in a prayer on this point: Note that the final application of this point is not: go and do this later. Sibbes does it right then with them. He prays and teaches them how and what to pray:

Lord, whatsoever else we could offer unto thee, it is thine own, though it were the beasts upon a thousand mountains; but this, by thy grace, we can do, to ‘praise thee,’ Ps. 50:23. For God must open and circumcise our lips and hearts before we can offer him the ‘calves of our lips.’ Thus much the poorest creature in the world may say to God, Lord, ‘I will render thee the calves of my lips.’ Other things I have not. This I have by thy gracious Spirit, a heart somewhat touched by the sense of thy favour. Therefore ‘I will render thee the calves of my lips;’ that is, praise, as the apostle hath it, ‘By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually; that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name,’ Heb. 13:15. ‘So will we render thee the calves of our lips.’ 

Richard Sibbes, The Backsliding Sinner, 2.6


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D. Praise to God

Sibbes quotes the passage:

‘So will we render the calves of our lips.’

1. Friendship With God

He explains the basis of our praise as “friendship”. God has given to us. We return praise to him. De Silva speaks about in terms of the patronage relationship and the concept of “grace.” Sibbes, without reference to the ancient custom bases his argument upon an even more ancient and cross-cultural concept: friendship. 

Here is the re-stipulation or promise. They return back again to God, for there is no friendship maintained without rendering. 

This is really quite beautiful:

When God hath entered into covenant with us, then there is a kind of friendship knit up betwixt him and us, he becoming our friend. 

It is set forth in the hymn, Praise to the Lord the Almighty:

Praise to the Lord, who will prosper your work and defend you;

surely his goodness and mercy shall daily attend you.

Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,

if with his love he befriends you.

Friendship is a matter of exchange: we have received good from God, we return to him. The image of the “grave” is quite striking here

We must not, therefore, be like graves, to swallow up all, and return nothing, for then the intercourse betwixt God and us is cut off. 

He supports this point by argument from Scripture, that the Spirit teaches this; and then by analogy to nature:

Therefore the same Spirit which teacheth them to pray, and to ‘take to them words,’ teacheth them likewise to take unto them words of praise, that there may be a rendering according to receiving, without which we are worse than the poorest creature that is, which rendereth according to its receipt. 

The earth, when it is ploughed and sowed, it yields us fruit. Trees being set, yield increase. Beasts being fed, render in their kind. Yea, the fiercest, untamed beasts, as we read of the lion, have been thankful in their kind. 

One might think he is overstating the analogy that nature praises God. Therefore, he proves the point by a quotation from Psalm 19:

The heavens, saith the psalmist, declare the glory of God, and the firmament shews forth his praise, Ps. 19:1.

He then makes the work one of honor: surely you will not do less than the animals:

So there must be a return, if we be not worse than beasts. Therefore the church here promiseth a return by the same Spirit which stirred her up to pray. ‘So will we render the calves of our lips.’

New Creatures in an Old Creation


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All human beings are born into the wrong world. As we look more closely and consider the particulars, we see we are born into the wrong time and the wrong place; the wrong city and the wrong century. Sometimes it seems we are born into the wrong family and are born with the wrong skin.

This is the trouble of the Fall: We were created for a Garden, but we were born into a wilderness. We created with dominion over creation, to keep and care; but we are born under domination, in world of dominion run amuck. We were created royalty and live as serfs. We were created to live forever and born with a body programmed to fail. Everywhere, the cosmos may have space for us to live, but at the same moment contains snares which catch and kill. Even the sun and the water present danger as we need them both.

If the trouble were merely external, perhaps we could bear it with equanimity. But we are born subject to irrational, deceitful desires:

This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead

Ecclesiastes 9:3 (ESV) 

There is the default to human existence. You need do nothing to achieve madness, or sorrow, or death. As Ms. Dickinson wryly wrote:

Because I could not stop for Death – 
He kindly stopped for me 

It takes no effort to die.

There is no solution to this trouble within the scope of this creation. The brokenness of the creation cannot be mended from the inside. It as if one is an ancient wooden ship in the heart of the sea while the hurricane roars and the planks break and the water charges in. How will you mend the breach? You cannot come to shore and prepare the wood and patch the break.  You will be able to make planks from water as you will be able to remedy the world. 

The One who has cursed the whole is greater than all the creation besides. The certainty of the end will not be moved. 

And us, we cannot look to us to escape this doom. The insanity of my heart will never be repaired by my insane heart. The efforts of your insanity will not cure me. How will the mad ever cure the mad?

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad,” said Alice.

“You must be, said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

And the enemy Death stands as the absolute bar. It will not be avoided. Even if someone managed to drag their corpse 1,000 years into the future, Death would still be waiting. At 1,000 years more, Death would have been there first. 

And what of those 2,000 years? Will the depraved heart be avoided? Will time finally make you good and wise? Will you rise above the common lot of humanity? 

Since no one here gets out alive, the only solution must be to somehow find a door out. The Creation being under a curse; the sentence in stone, irreversible.  As Thomas Brooks wrote centuries ago, “This world at last shall be burnt for a witch.”

No remedy could come from ourselves, we being too weak, too contingent, too mad. The remedy of God is not spare the present evil, but to rescue us from the same:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 

Galatians 1:3–4 (ESV). We receive papers to become citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). We are made “new creatures” and are reconciled to God in this new identity:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 

2 Corinthians 5:17–21 (ESV). And we, as new creations, reconciled to God, bearing the righteousness of Christ await the New Creation, the New Heavens and the New Earth where sin, sorrow, death have been forever put away. “Behold,” says God “I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)

And yet, despite such good news, a difficulty remains. We are rescued, but not yet. We are bound for the Promised Land, and we are living in the wilderness. We are made new creatures, but at present hold an earnest expectation of our full inheritance. A now which tarries over a “little while” (and O how that “little while” can seem), we are grieved with various trials.

We are going to the New Creation, but we are present in the Old. The scent of death still clings to everything we possess. The Creation is doomed and everywhere shows signs of groaning, as it too awaits its redemption.

That is a trouble indeed, but it is not the worst trouble we face in our new status. We are new creations, and yet seemingly not. It can seem more that we have awakened to a heightened sense of trouble, rather than having been delivered. As Thomas Manton wrote, “We are not yet out of gunshot till we come to the end of our race, and are conquerors over all opposition.” (Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 20 (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1874), 79.)

Think of this more carefully. We are plainly said to be set free from sin:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 

Romans 6:5–10 (ESV) Here he says that we have been set free from sin. And in just another few sentences he will write, “For sin will not have dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14) We look to John’s first letter and read, “By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” (1 John 2:3)

And it seems by logic that being a New Creature, I should look the part. And yet, John also writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8). If we have no sin upon salvation, then why the detailed instructions to all the churches? Why are we told that if we confess our sins, we will be cleansed? 

Perhaps we need to stop and consider the utter depth and persistence of sin. Someone may consider themselves to be freed from sin. Have you avoided even the thought of lust or anger? Can you say that you have loved God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? And what of enemies? Do you love them. Do you pray for them? Do you bless them?  And have you done this utter humility without the tinge of pride? Has all been for God’s glory, alone?

You see, sin sticks more closely to the new creature than may have at first seemed possible. This is why the Scripture records sin even in the best of saints. Luther in his first Thesis wrote, “The whole life of believers should be repentance.”

How then has this serpent managed to find his way into the life of the New Creature? Where does this monster make its den? Paul says it clings to us as flesh. And what could be nearer than flesh? James shows the danger in our own desire:

14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 

James 1:14–15 (ESV) And so, Paul writes to the Romans whom he said were freed from sin to murder sin:

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 

Romans 8:12–13 (ESV). This whole thing becomes seemingly more confused. How will this take place? There are myriad of issues and errors which can arise as we contemplate this instruction. But there is one which I particularly wish to consider: We cannot put sin to death without a change of identity.

Let us ignore for a moment the many things which are present in this command and look carefully at this element: The death of sin is not merely the death of this or that desire, this or that behavior. It is not as if a perfect being will be revealed if I merely scrub off the mud. 

Sin is far more dangerous and damaging than that. To be this New Creature means something far more profound that teaching me manners and buying me new clothes. It means becoming someone else — and yet to become whom I was created to be. It means to shed sin and shame in a manner for more fundamental than can easily be understood. 

The Scripture uses words life-death, resurrection and burial, renewal. Look at these seemingly simple words:

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Colossians 3:9–10 (ESV)

You could read this and see the old self is put off, the new self is put on, I now just need to tidy-up. But look more carefully at verse 10: to be the New Self is to be in the process of transformation. The New Self in possession today is not the end but the beginning. The mortification of sin, the forgetting those things which lie behind and pressing on, is a process of becoming something else. 

If you come to grips with this idea, it is disorienting. Perhaps we think of the person who has led a dramatically chaotic life who comes to Christ, gets a job, and gives to others and marries and raises children. Certainly, there is a radical-change, and we all appreciate it and give God glory for such a thing. 

But what I am saying here is that the depth of the change is far deeper than giving up the most damaging of overt behaviors. We must give up an idol of self which is more fundamental in our thinking than we easily understand.

We give up this self, we crucify this self – not in the self-abnegation of mysticism, but in the utter transformation of new life in light of the Resurrection of Christ. 

I have seen that one reason mortification is so impossible and some much good counsel goes to waste and so many believers struggle dejectedly with sin is that we seek to mortify sin without mortifying self; we seek to remain ourselves and merely shed our sin. But we are called to become something new.

Go back to that language of New Creation. It is not a promise that we will be ourselves with a ticket to the Promised Land. It is a promise that we are and will become something which we were not before. 

And so rather than simply seek to hammer away at persistent sin by resistance, we are called up to become someone for whom such sins are unthinkable. Sin should be as strange to us as cuddling a porcupine or drinking lava.

How then is this new identity – because it is nothing less than a new identity – formed?

Edward Taylor, Meditation 33, Stanza Six


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Stanza Six

Oh! Graft me in this tree of life within

The paradise of God, that I may live.

Thy life make live in me. I’ll then begin 

To bear thy living fruits, and them forth give.                                                            40

Give me my life this way; and I’ll bestow

My love on thee, my life, and it shall grow.

Summary: This ends with a prayer to partake of the life of God, to grafted into the “Tree of Life” planted in paradise. He then promises two responses: he will bear “living fruits” and bestow love upon God, which will itself grow.


Tree of LifeBefore we consider the biblical references here to the Tree of Life, there is the question of whence this image of a tree? No tree was explicitly referenced earlier in the poem, although the plain Garden allusions throughout never leave the idea of tree far behind. 

Perhaps the closet reference to a tree earlier in the poem is found in the image of the seed which bears life along here raised to the tree:

Glory lined out a paradise in power

Where e’ery seed a royal coach became                                            20

For Life to ride in, to each shining flower.

Perhaps the particular allusion in Taylor’s mind is from 

Genesis 1:29 (AV)

29 And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat [meat = food].

This contains all of the references to tree and fruit along with seed from earlier in the poem. 

The Tree of Life is an image found in the very beginning and the very end of the Bible. First in the Garden

Genesis 2:15–17 (AV) 

15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. 

16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: 17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. 

It is from that tree that Adam was excluded upon his Fall:

Genesis 3:22–23 (AV) 

22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: 23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. 

It is then only to be found in Paradise Regained:

Revelation 22:1–4 (AV) 

And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits,and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. 


In a striking image from Paul’s letter to the Romans, he speaks of the Gentiles being grafted into an olive tree, and in this position to gain the promise. The passage itself contains a number of subtleties, but the overall image of grafting lends itself readily to Taylor’s use here:

Romans 11:17–24 (AV) 

17 And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; 18 Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. 19 Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. 20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: 21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. 22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. 23 And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again. 24 For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree? 

The combining of the image of the Tree of Life, and the grafting here make for a striking parallel. I wonder if Taylor ever used this combination of passages in a sermon.

Life This is been discussed above. The human race after the Fall is like a cut flower: it still has some appearance, but the principle of life is gone. For humanity, our life is all derivative. Life is not inherently us but is given by God. Hence, a human cut off from that principle of life has only certain death

Give me my life this way; and I’ll bestow

My love on thee, my life, and it shall grow.

Fruit This has a two-fold reference in this place. By way of image, a tree bearing fruit has us back in Eden and in the New Earth. That is plain enough. 

But Taylor is also speaking of how he will be changed by the infusion of life from God.  But I think the reference here is to Galatians 5 and the ‘fruit of the Spirit’: that is the transformative effect of the Spirit of God in a human life as that human walks in the Spirit.

This must be understood to understand Taylor’s prayer as a prayer of repentance and hope.

One may naively understand the claim of Christians that once one has been redeemed there is an absolute consistent change without variation. The undeniable truth such consistent, absolute change into the standard of Christian conduct easily leads to the conclusion that Christianity is untrue.

But the claim is not to perfect love and holiness as a sort of automatic event. Surely the standard is clear enough, but the manner of life often is not. This fruit of the Spirit is not something obtained irrespective of the human life. Sadly, it is a matter of fluctuation. Taylor is praying from an ebb.

But this poem strikes as peculiarly repentant. The promise at the end of fruit and love is quite similar to the end of Psalm 51, the great repentance of David which ends with a promise of future worship.

Paul says that this fruit is the result of walking in the Spirit (and this is contrasted with influence of the flesh):

Galatians 5:16–24 (AV) 

16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. 18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, 20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. 24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. 

You will see in verse 22 that at the head of the Spirit’s fruit is “love” – which Taylor promises will abound if he is given this spring of life: thus, fruit and love come together as images (and the Kingdom of God, wherein is the Tree of life).

But this brings us back to what is happening in the poem: 

Taylor is repenting of his misdirected affections. He is placed his love upon something worthless, even contrary to his life, when his direction should be toward God (his good and his life).

This prayer for fruit and love is a prayer for the Spirit’s influence. While it is in this poem clear enough, this point is made very plain in much Puritan writing. For instance, in the (long) quotation from Thomas Manton (below) we can see the same themes of this poem of fruit and life and repentance.  

Taylor was preparing for the Lord’s Table to receive. The motto for the poem “All things are yours whether …. Life” (1 Cor. 3:22). He is seeking to receive life – to be brought beyond condemnation. In the coming to the Table, Taylor is actively seeking the Spirit’s work of communicating Christ to him. He is seeking a renewal of the relationship.

The work of the Spirit in bearing fruit is first the work of the Spirit in sanctification, purging out sin and bringing new life. As Manton writes (and when you see it, Taylor is expressing from the lived experience, the doctrine which Manton is describing):

First, Sanctification. The great work of the Spirit is to be the fountain and principle of the new life of grace within us, or to maintain and keep afoot the interest of Christ in our souls: Gal. 5:25, ‘If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.’ He doth not only begin life, but continueth it, and still actuateth it, enabling us to all the duties thereof. There is having and walking; thence he is compared to a spring or well of living water, that is always springing forth: John 4:14, ‘The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up unto everlasting life.’ Not only a draught, but a well. They that have any measure of true grace have the Spirit as a fountain to make this grace endure in itself and in its effects. Some have only a draught, a vanishing taste, others a cistern or a pond, that may be dried up; but they that have the Spirit have a well, and a well that is always fresh and springing up and flowing forth till this stream become an ocean, and mortality be swallowed up of life. It is a spring that sendeth forth streams to water the ground about it. As the heart of man sendeth forth life to every faculty and member, and a general relief to all his parts, so doth the Spirit influence all our actions. Now both parts of sanctification are promoted by the Spirit, mortification and vivification, subduing of sin and quickening us to holiness. Mortification is seen in two things—purging out the lusts, or suppressing the acts of sin.

1. In purging out the lusts of it. The Spirit is said to cleanse us, and to purify us to the obedience of the truth: 1 Peter 1:22, ‘Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit.’ The Spirit showeth what purity of heart is pleasing to God, and worketh it in us, casting out pride, and hard-heartedness, and malice, and hypocrisy, and sensuality, and all those lusts which defile our hearts, and dispose us to walk contrary to God. It is the contrary principle that sets us a-warring and striving against the flesh.

2. Preventing and suppressing the acts of sin: Rom. 8:13, ‘If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.’ That they may not break out to God’s dishonour and our discomfort. We cannot do it without the Spirit, nor the Spirit without us: Gal. 5:16, ‘This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh.’ There is no possibility of getting the power of inbred corruption subdued, or the lusts of sinful flesh curbed to any saving purpose, without the Spirit of God; otherwise lusts will gather strength, and range abroad without any effectual resistance. He warneth us of our danger, and checketh sin. If we would hearken to him, and observe his checks and restraints, sin would not transport us so often beyond the bounds of duty; a man cannot sin so freely as before.

[1.] He doth quicken us to holiness, increasing the internal habits: Eph. 3:16, ‘That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by the Spirit in the inner man.’ That we may be fitted for the service of God, for which before we were indisposed to, and prepared to every good work. There is an inward man, holy and gracious qualities infused into the soul, which are so called. These are created by the Spirit of God, and supplied and cherished by him that reneweth strength upon us from day to day, that we may go from strength to strength, and be more able for God’s service. Though a renewed heart be yet continued, yet, as the two olive-trees, Zech. 4:13, dropping into the lamps, and emptying through the golden pipes the golden oil out of themselves; so doth the Spirit of Christ supply an increase of grace to our graces.

[2.] Exciteth to action, and helpeth us and aideth us therein, and inditeth good thoughts, and stirreth up holy motions and desires, besides new qualities, that we may be lively and fresh in God’s service: Ezek. 36:27, ‘I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them:’ Phil. 2:13, ‘For it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do.’ Especially in prayer: Rom. 8:26, ‘The Spirit also helpeth our infirmities;’ goeth to the other end of the staff. Clothes do not warm the body till the body warm them, and the body cannot warm them till the soul, which is the principle of life, warm it; so there can be no fervency in prayer without the Spirit, no warmth in the heart. Oh, what a mercy is it that we have an help at hand! the Spirit of God dwelling in our hearts, to relieve us in all our necessities, and quicken us in the ways of God, which else would soon grow wearisome and uncomfortable to us.

Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 21 (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1874), 292–293.