The poet begins with a seemingly impossible scene: a King of unsurpassed glory who blazes like the sun (whose crown a bunch of sunbeams was). Even his throne is made of life (sat on a cushion all of sunshine clear). The palace itself is a mass of precious stones.
Was there a palace of pure gold, all ston’d
And paved with pearls, who gates rich jasper were,
And throne a carbuncle, who King enthroned
Sat on a cushion all of sunshine clear;
Whose crown a bunch of sunbeams was: I should
Prize such as in his favor shrine me would.
Now, if there were such a place, he would desire the honor and fellowship of that king (I should prize such as in his favor shrine me would).
Such a King does exist: Christ the king. The poem is headed with the note that it is a meditation on Ephesians 2:18: “For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.”
Thy milk white hand, my glorious Lord, doth this:
It opes this gate and me conducts into
This golden palace whose rich pavement is
Of precious stones; and to this king also.
Thus throned and crowned: whose words are ‘bellished all
With brighter beams than e’re the sun let fall.
This stanza continues on with the imagery from the throne room of heaven in Revelation 4 & 5 and the depiction of heaven in chapters 21-22. The Lord gives us access unto this throne. It is interesting in this poem that it is the “words” in particular which are embellished and brighter than the sun.
The words of Christ — whose is the Word of God — are what grants access to this throne. In John 6:48, Peter says that Christ has the words of eternal life. In John 15:3, Jesus says that the disciples are clean because of the word he has spoken. The topic is too big for this discussion, but it is present here.
The poet having recognized the wonder of what has been granted him, turns on himself: He does not prize this honor as he should:
But oh! poor me, thy sluggish servant, I
More blockish than a block, as blockhead, stand.
Though mine affections quick as lightning fly
On toys, they snail-like move to kiss thy hand.
My coal-black doth thy milk-white hand avoid
That would above the Milky Way me guide.
Here he notes the common complaint of all who being to realize the astounding grant of God in Christ: What could be more wonderful than access to God? But, the things which most easily excite my affections are bauble, “toys”. What stupidity to treasure toys when endless beauty and glory can be had for the reception?
His despair now turns to God: Why should this even be? What is the aim of God in letting such a fool access to such wonder?
What aim’st at, Lord? [What do you aim at] that I should be so cross.
My mind is leaden in thy golden shine.
Though all o’re Spirit when this dirty dross
Doth touch it with it smutting leaden lines.
What shall an eagle t’catch a fly thus run?
Or angel dive after a mote inth’sun?
My presence, my words, my hand can only make things dirty (smutting). An eagle wouldn’t chase down a fly. An angel wouldn’t chance dust — why this with me?
And thus, he turns the fire of his poem upon himself: I should be wracked with sorrow and tears at my evil. I can see this is true of me, and yet the tears are missing. I have this knowledge: but not the affections. I should attack myself for this foolishness – but I can’t.
He then hits the point of the poem: All I have for sorrow is this poem (Mine eyes, Lord, shed no tears but ink):
What folly’s this? I fain would take, I think,
Vengeance upon myself. But I confess
I can’t. Mine eyes, Lord, shed no tears but ink.
My hand works, are words, and wordiness.
Earth’s toys wear knots of my affection, nay,
though from thy glorious self they’re stole away.
His heart is set upon the tokens and marks of the world — which are just, at best stolen glory.
Here he poem makes a turn: repentance.
The genius — if you will — of Christianity is that it both shows human beings our poverty and foolishness — our depravity and then it leads us to desire to be free: but we are not freed by our personal effort, but by the gracious work of God.
Conviction is not guilt: Conviction is a sight of sin and movement toward God. The true heart of Christianity is this constant turning away and toward: it is believing the God will receive me:
Oh! that my heart was made thy golden box
Full of affections, and of love divine
Knit all of tassles, and in true-love knots
To garnish o’re this worthy work of thine.
This box and all therein more rich than gold,
In sacred flames, I to thee offer would.
The human heart should be a box to treasure up affections toward God. As Richard Sibbes writes in the Faithful Covenanter:
Examine what affections we have to God: for it is affection that makes a Christian.
Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 6 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1863), 10.
With thy rich tissue my poor soul array
And lead me to thy Father’s house above.
Thy grace’s storehouse make my soul I pray.
Thy praise shall then wear tassels of my love.
If thou conduct me in thy Father’s ways
I’ll be the golden trumpet of thy praise.
Make a man who can praise you; transform me (lead me) and dress me in love for you and I’ll praise you. The desire to praise Christ — who is worthy of such praise is the hope of the Christian. This is not a servile praise but honest joy. We praise many lesser things — and our greatest moments of joy are in those moments we praise.