Isaiah 63:1–2 (ESV)
63 Who is this who comes from Edom,
in crimsoned garments from Bozrah,
he who is splendid in his apparel,
marching in the greatness of his strength?
“It is I, speaking in righteousness,
mighty to save.”
2 Why is your apparel red,
and your garments like his who treads in the winepress?
Edward Taylor looked and marveled. He sees Christ, “all glorious in apparel” – his robes stained with blood in the glory of having conquered his enemies. The glory of Christ is such that the sky “blanced with sunlight” is “black as sackcloth” when compared to Christ. He brings image upon image, this language failing in its attempts to describe a beauty beyond words:
One shining sun gilding the skies with light
Benights all candles with their flaming blaze
So doth the glory of this robe benight
Ten thousand suns at once ten thousand ways.
This beauty overwhelms Taylor’s sense. Now plainly Taylor has not had an actual vision of Christ; rather Taylor has taken a description of the conquering Christ and drawn out the beauty.
By the conquering Christ, Taylor would have understood this as a reference to his death upon the cross. We can know this by looking to contemporary uses of this passage. John Meriton in his sermon on Christ’s Humiliation wrote:
III. Upon what grounds Christ thus humbled himself to death; what cogent necessity was upon him.—For we may not conceive that Christ thus humbled himself to death upon trivial and impertinent considerations. As David said once of Abner, “Died Christ as a fool dieth?” (2 Sam. 3:33.) No, sure! It was upon these six weighty grounds:—
1. That scripture-prophecies and predictions might be accomplished.—All which represent him as coming in “dyed garments from Bozrah.” (Isai. 63:1.) The first scripture that ever mentions Christ, shows him a bleeding and crucified Saviour. (Gen. 3:15.). Now Christ was to make good to a tittle every thing that had been before written of him.
James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, Volume 5 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 223. Richard Steele in his sermon, “The Right of Every Believer to the Blessed Cup in the Lord’s Supper” likewise ties Bozrah to Christ’s victory on the cross:
When this blessed cup is poured out, let thy eyes pour down a flood of tears mixed of grief and joy: to see such a person pouring out his life by thy procurement,—this should melt thee with grief: to see the price paid by that blood for thee, should lift thee up into a trance of joy. When thou takest that cup of salvation, think, “ ‘What shall I render to the Lord for this his benefit to me?’ (Psalm 116:12.) ‘Who is this that comes with dyed garments from Bozrah? how glorious is he in his apparel!’ (Isai. 63:1.) How bitter was his passion! how sweet his compassion to poor sinners! ‘Be ye lift up, O my everlasting doors, and let the King of glory come in.’ ” (Psalm 24:7.) Bring him into thy soul, and there feed upon him by faith, and let his fruit be savoury to thy taste. (Canticles 2:3.) Inward communion is the crown of an ordinance; it is “the cup of the new testament in Christ’s blood, which was shed for you;” (Luke 22:20;) receive it with reverence, receive it with thankfulness, receive it with application: remember his death, remember his love more than wine. (Canticles 1:2.)
James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, Volume 6 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 503. Indeed, Steele’s usage is particularly appropriate to understand Taylor’s usage, in that Taylor was contemplating the Lord’s Supper in his poem. The coming of coming is a coming encounter with Christ.
Now what is it that Taylor sees, when he looks at this coming Christ? A Christ who comes for his bride:
Comes glorious in’s aparel forth to woo.
Oh! if his glory ever kiss thine eye,
Thy love will soon enchanted be thereby.
In making such usage, Taylor is moving within the existing use of his fellows. Samuel Rutherford in his sermon “The Church Seeking Her Lord” writes:
Fair things delight us much, and perfect white and perfect red make a beautiful person. Beauty be a great conqueror of love, and will take a castle in the heart. We love fair things, as fair sun, fair moon, fair roses, lilies, men, women, &c. But put out all the beauty of the creatures in one; they are all but caff1 and sand to fair-faced Jesus. I had far rather have one look of fair-faced Jesus as have all the world, and ten worlds, with sevenfold more beauty than they have. See Isa. 63:1: “Who is this that comes from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in apparel, travelling in the greatness of His strength?” The Kirk, wondering at Christ’s beauty to see Him go so manly-like, says, “O, who is yon goes so manly and so sonsy-like? [Prosperous, happy] He is a lucky-like person.” It would rejoice one’s heart to see Him go in the greatness of His strength. Is not yon fair, glorious Jesus, in red scarlet, having all His clothes dyed in blood?
Samuel Rutherford, Quaint Sermons of Samuel Rutherford (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1885), 147.
Jonathan Edwards, whose father was friends with Edward Taylor, likewise sees the image of Christ coming from Bozrah as one of love and delight:
Christ and the true Christian have desires after each other. Canticles 7:10, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is towards me.”7 And the desire of the Christian’s soul is after Christ. Canticles 3:1–2, “By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not. I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets and broad ways. I will seek him whom my soul loveth.” The true Christian has an admiration of Jesus Christ; he admires his excellencies. Isaiah 63:1, “Who is this that cometh from Edom, with died garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength?” And so Christ is represented as admiring the excellency and beauty of the churCanticles 6:10, “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?”
Christ and the believer do glory in each other. The believer glories in Christ. Canticles 5:16, “This is my beloved, and this is my friend.” Canticles 6:3, “I am [my] beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” Christ glories in his people: he looks on them as his armor and his crown. Isaiah 62:3, “Thou shalt also be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God.” Zechariah 9:16, “And they shall be as the stones of a crown”.
Edwards, Collected Works, vol. 19, Sermons and Discourses, “The Sweet Harmony of Christ”, p. 442 (edwards.yale.edu).
Thus, in coming to communion, Taylor sees Christ coming to him mystically, if you will, in beauty seeking to woo his bride – the entire church. The combination of elements, the conquering hero coming in love is not so far disparate – even for us. The one who overcomes the enemies and rescues the beloved is a common image in movies and stories.
How here is the trouble: Such beauty should overwhelm Taylor and draw him out in love; but, Taylor finds his soul too small to swell with such love as is right:
Then grieve, my soul, thy vessel is so small
And holds no more for such a lovely he.
That strength’s so little, love scarce acts at all.
At this point, Taylor expresses the gravest sorrow of the Christian. When we consider the love and unbending courage and grace of Christ – whose love was “strong as death” (Canticles 8:6) – it should engender a love as profound and deep within our hearts. To see the love of Christ should conform us utterly to his image and glory:
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:9–10 (ESV)
When Christ comes from Bozrah, when he comes to woo, he comes to one who deserves no mercy. Indeed, as the quotation from Hosea (found in 1 Peter 2:10) shows, we are actively enemies of God. Indeed, Hosea portrays the people of God as prostitutes who have strayed from the marriage vow.
It is in this place that Christ comes. Taylor knows this — and knows that it is his purpose and joy to “proclaim the excellencies” of Christ – the one who by his death drew us out of darkness. Notice also, a point well developed by Taylor, that the “marvelous light” is not beyond Christ is Christ, “his marvelous light”.
It is into this place that Taylor knows despair – none of our love and praise approximates that which is deserved.
Think of a wedding day. The bride comes down the aisle, resplendent in her youth and beauty. Her husband to be looks at her and says, “Hey not bad!” After a few moments of looking, he turns to his friends and starts in a videogame on his phone.
Such is the gravity of our flesh, that even after conversion, even when we know the magnificence of Christ, it drags us down.
It is here that Taylor’s poem shines. For rather than resolve to merely bear his dullness, he strives for something still more:
My lovely one, I fain would love thee much
But all my love is none at all I see,
Oh! let thy beauty give a glorious touch
Upon my heart, and melt to love all me.
Lord melt me all up into love for thee
Whose loveliness excels what love can be.
Now to some, Taylor may seem grim and sour, for he sees plainly the inability of the human being. Yet, when we think of him fairly, there is no sour despair. In seeing his need for grace and glory from Christ, he exhibits the grandest hope. It is a strange sort of “optimism” which settles for little. No one who knows human beings well can think that we – even at our best – live up to what we know as best. This is a statement which can be made even by one who denies Christ.
No for the Christian, who sees the end of humanity in the greatest possible manner, it is unquestionable that we are far sort of what we were created to be. In fact, we know human beings to be such a grand thing that nothing in the universe will suffice for us. Only the Creator of the universe is a grand enough object for our love. Yet, when we recognize this, we know also that we fall sort (Romans 3:23, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God). We know this falling short to be sin.
Hence, we know our trouble lie with our sin: sin is an infection, a foreign strain, an abnormality that trails along death and misery. Thus, to fit us for our true greatness, Christ conquers sin and then woos our soul. It is this misery and rescue which Taylor sees. He knows Christ to be more magnificent than all the world; precisely what Taylor has always hoped would be. And it is at this point that knows his love falls short.
But also notice the faith and hope which drive Taylor on. He does not think to settle for an insufficient love. Christ is such a great husband that he cannot merely engender love but he can create love.