Life thus abused fled to the golden ark, 25
Lay locked up there in mercy’s seat enclosed.
Which did incorporate it whence its sparke
Enlivens all things in this ark enclosed.
Oh, glorious ark! Life’s store-house full of glee!
Shall not my love safe locked up lie in thee? 30
Summary: Life, which is something external to the poet, fled from the assault of the “elf” spitting venom. The place of refuge for life was a the “golden ark”, enclosed by the “mercy seat”. And in that place of refuge life flows out as life to all things. This realization turns in a exclamation of the poet that my love should lie locked-up in the very same ark.
The Ark of the Covenant (not Noah’s Ark, here) was a golden box in which were placed the two copies of the Ten Commandments, the covenant between God and Israel. On top of that Ark was the Mercy Seat, the place where God would meet Israel and show them mercy:
“The Hebrew word for which “mercy seat” is the translation is technically best rendered as “propitiatory,” a term denoting the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift. The significance of this designation is found in the ceremony performed on the Day of Atonement, held once a year, when blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat to make atonement for the sins of the people of Israel (Lv 16). Because of the importance of this covering on the ark and the ceremony associated with it, the Holy of Holies in which the ark was housed in the temple is termed the “room for the mercy seat” in 1 Chronicles 28:11.” Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Mercy Seat,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1441.
To understand Taylor use of the images of the ark, mercy seat, life, Christ, we need to see how these elements were connected in Puritan writing. Without understanding the connections which would have been obvious to Taylor (but would be obscure to others), the poem seems to go in an incomprehensible direction.
If you look more broadly, the image of the mercy seat is not uncommon in the Lutheran writings. It is in places connected to Christ. The connection of Christ and the mercy-seat is rare in the Ante-Nicene Fathers. When I did a search of Calvin (granted these are all Boolean searches, and thus are limited in that manner), the connection of Christ and the mercy seat was not common. In the Puritan writers, particularly in Thomas Boston (an overlapping contemporary of Taylor), the connection of the two images is quite common.
The connection between Christ and Life is built into the framework of Christian theology.
Life/ Its sparke/enlivens all things:
Life comes from God:
“He is life itself, has life in himself, and is the fountain of life to all the creatures.” Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 1, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 1 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 131. Life is in Christ, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” John 1:3
The Church (and thus the poet personally) draws its life from Christ: “The mystery of the church drawing her life out of Christ’s sleeping the sleep of death on the cross.”Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 1, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 1 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 179.
“Whatsoever is excellent in nature, either in heaven or earth, it serves to set forth the excellency of Christ. Why? To delight us, that we may be willing and cheerful to think of Christ; that together with the consideration of the excellency of the creature, some sweet meditation of Christ, in whom all those excellencies are knit together, might be presented to the soul. When we see the sun, oft to think of that blessed Sun that quickens and enlivens all things, and scatters the mists of ignorance. When we look on a tree, to think of the Tree of righteousness; on the way, to think of him the Way; of life, of him that is the true Life.” Richard Sibbes and Alexander Balloch Grosart, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, vol. 3 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1862), 391.
“The mercy of God is like the ark, which none but the priests were to meddle with; none may touch this golden ark of mercy but such as are ‘priests unto God,’ Rev. 1:6 and have offered up the sacrifice of tears.” Thomas Watson, “Discourses upon Christ’s Sermon on the Mount,” in Discourses on Important and Interesting Subjects, Being the Select Works of the Rev. Thomas Watson, vol. 2 (Edinburgh; Glasgow: Blackie, Fullarton, & Co.; A. Fullarton & Co., 1829), 115.
“In that Lev. 16:13, 14, you read of two things: first, of the cloud of incense that covered the mercy seat; secondly, of the blood of the bullock, that was sprinkled before the mercy-seat. Now that blood typified Christ’s satisfaction, and the cloud of incense his intercession.” Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 2 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 274.
Note further that the mercy-seat is also connected to life:
“in like manner, after our great High Priest had offered himself a sacrifice to God in his bloody death, he entered into heaven, not only with his blood, but with the incense of his prayers, as a cloud about the mercy-seat, to preserve by his life the salvation which he had purchased by his death.” Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 1, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 1 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 473.
Life thus abused fled to the golden ark: How did life “flee” to the ark? The concept here relies upon the concept of covenant. Human life exists in God and is given to us. Without that life, we will die. Following the Fall of Adam, we were without life. Life is made available to us again in the covenant. The New Covenant has replaced the ark and mercy seat with Christ (who is prefigured in these things, see Hebrews 9).
The couplet has two elements. First a praise, “Oh, glorious ark! Life’s store-house full of glee!” One aspect of this praise which sounds out of tune is the use of the word “glee.” In our contemporary use glee is an ironic way to refer to happiness – rather than boundless happiness meant by Taylor
Second, a prayer, a statement of intention: Shall not my love safe locked up lie in thee?
The point is the re-integration of love and life which has been parted in the Fall. This is a central theme in Augustine: our sinfulness is built around misdirected love. Before the Fall love was rightly directed toward life: God.
God then seeks to restore that rupture. Life is made available in the covenant, which was first figured in the Ark and Mercy Seat, then in Christ. The poet, seeing a remember for his misdirected love seeks that his love may be re-directed toward the proper goal: life, i.e., God in Christ.