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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Poet

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POET.—It may seem unnecessary to protest at the outset against the idea of any essential incompatibility of poetry with truth, as if, because a saying is poetry, it lay under the suspicion of being untrue, or even less true than prose. Yet that delusion has done so much harm even in regard to secular writings, that it is necessary to refer to it in the association of poetry with the most sacred writings in the world. The fact is, of course, that poetry is often the only medium of expression for a more direct and larger truth. Many truths are too subtle and too far-reaching to be expressed otherwise; and it was inevitable that God should have chosen to make use of poetry in His supreme revelation. Greek poets were prophets, and Hebrew prophets were poets. In every age and nation the connexion between religion and poetry has been so close that it excites no wonder when Lecky (Hist. of Rationalism, ii. 232, 253, 260) tells us that, in the past, religious dogma has been transformed into poetry, or Matthew Arnold (Essays in Criticism), that in the future this transformation will be complete. It excites no wonder, for these writers were so impressed with the interest and significance of the connexion, that they did less than justice to the equally clear phenomenon of the element of indisputable facts that are permanently claimed by history and by science in the Christian religion.

No definition of poetry is here offered. Matthew Arnold’s definition of it as ‘a criticism of life’ is true, but inadequately true. It is one kind of criticism of life—one which utilizes emotion and imagination in a peculiar way, and often affects the style of utterance in the direction of music, through rhymed or rhythmical utterance more or less deliberate and formal. The result is that subtle and yet unmistakable quality which differentiates poetry from prose, the use of which is an art akin to the graphic arts, yet often unconscious, and generally instinctive rather than deliberate.

That Jesus was in this sense an artist is abundantly manifest. We shall see how in Him the poetic and the graphic qualities blended, and nothing about Him is more evident than the delicate and indeed exquisite sensitiveness, both of body and of mind, which accompanies these qualities. Even in His unusually speedy death (Mark 15:44) we see the result of an extremely sensitive frame. It was this that led to the constant perversion of His words by coarse-grained and vulgar persons (John 2:19), and often led Him to keep silence (Matthew 27:12) when the uncomprehending demanded speech; He knew that whatever He might say, He could not have made them understand Him.

At the beginning of the Gospels we find the story of His life set deep in poetry. The stories of John the Baptist’s preaching are full of the poetry of the desert, with its intense visual images of the vipers, the axe, the stones, the fires, and the fan of the wilderness (Matthew 3:9 etc.). The infancy of Jesus is cradled among songs of women and of men, in which the narrative breaks forth into the music of the earliest Christian hymns.

His biographers are poets. The Gospel which gives us by far the most intimate glimpses into His inner life is written by a man who was a poet to the very heart of him. Matthew, himself less poetical, interpolates his narrative with long swinging quotations from the poets of his native land, such as those recorded in Matthew 4:12-16, or that tender and appropriate fragment from Isaiah concerning the bruised reed, introduced with so great a pathos in Matthew 12:20. Even Mark, the most prosaic and almost curtly practical of them, is turned into a poet when he is writing the life of Jesus. The simple pathos of such a word as ‘When he thought thereon he wept’ (Mark 14:72), or the sudden reminder that Jesus in the wilderness of His temptation had for His companions the wild beasts and the angels (Mark 1:13), are inimitable.

It has been wisely said that all children are poets, and indeed there is no poetry so pure as that of the naïveté of the little child. Of the childhood of Jesus we know practically nothing but what He retained of its spirit through later years. In a very true sense the childhood of Jesus lasted to the end, and He retained a child’s heart through all His years. Children knew this when He was near them, and seem to have come to Him without hesitation (Matthew 18:2) as to one of themselves. No doubt one bond between them and Him was that directness of vision and of thought and speech which characterized both. But the poetry of their minds and hearts must also be remembered.

Thus it came to pass that the Kingdom of God which He established was proclaimed as the Kingdom of the child (Matthew 19:14); He quoted a prophetic verse in confirmation of His saying that the praise of God was made perfect by passing through infant lips (Psalms 8:2, Matthew 21:16); He thanked His Father specially for revealing to the instinctive minds of babes, truths which were unattainable by the wise and prudent (Luke 10:21); and, in the finest reference of all, He told how the angels of the children dwell in heaven, always beholding the face of the Father (Matthew 18:10). When to these utterances we add the fact that He was interested in the very human children who played and quarrelled in the marketplace at their games of marriages and funerals (Matthew 11:16), we have said enough to show very plainly His sympathy with the poetry of childhood.

Arrived at manhood, and having thoughts within Him that had long been struggling for utterance, and had now come to their hour, Jesus deliberately chose poetic forms of language as the medium of His speech. The characteristic mould in which Hebrew poetry was cast, was not rhythm as in the Greek and Roman poems, nor rhyme in the later Western fashion. It was a kind of measured antithesis, in which, in each saying, there was a fall balancing the rise. This antithetic balancing is seen in most of Jesus’ sayings. Each of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 illustrates this mode, while Matthew 5:12 of the same chapter adopts the more complex form of the balanced triplet instead of couplet.* [Note: This subject is discussed and illustrated in Griffenhoofe’s Unwritten Sayings of Jesus; and in Briggs’ articles in the Expository Times, viii. [1897] 393, 452, 492, ix. 69, which, however, carry the matter further than all readers will be prepared to follow the author.]

It is true that poetry, and art in general, are very far indeed from being wholly matters of expression. There is to-day a renewal of the thoroughly unreasonable fashion of exaggerating the importance of manner in art, until the matter has come to be considered a negligible quantity. While both elements must be recognized, it will eventually be found that Johnson was far nearer the truth when he said that it was impossible for a man to be ‘the good poet without first being the good man,’ than those for whom style is everything and matter wholly unimportant. You do not make poetry out of prose by dividing it into antithetic or other kinds of couplets. There is, besides the form, the subtle spirit, and much more, that really determines the classification. Yet, when all this is admitted, it remains true that form has much effect on matter, and there is an inevitable and strong reaction of the style upon the thought expressed. Thus when Jesus chose the poetic forms of His day and nation for the utterance of His speech, He drew it more and more completely within the line of poetry.

If it be true that it is not the form alone that distinguishes poetic literature from prosaic, it is equally true that it is not the matter alone. Apart from what is said, and from the literary medium through which it is expressed, there is what we have called a ‘subtle spirit’ which emanates from the temperament of a writer and gives the poetic quality of the writing. It is an elusive spirit to those who would define it in scientific terms, and it can only be appreciated in concrete example by those who are themselves in sympathy with it. All poets write for poets and for poets only; they count upon the poetic intelligence of their readers, and shrink back into silence when in the society of those in whom that sense is deficient. Yet there are two elements which certainly are never absent from the spirit in question, and which may be taken as essential to the building up of poetic work. These are a certain kind of emotion and of imagination, not (as we have said) definable, but unmistakable by all who are in sympathy with the poetic mood of mind.

The mention of emotion in this connexion recalls inevitably the famous definition of religion as ‘morality touched with emotion’ (M. Arnold, Lit. and Dogma, ch. ii.). It is indeed a meagre and inadequate conception of religion. Yet there is a large element of truth in it, and the emotional element in all true religion allies it with poetry.

That the temperament of Jesus was in the highest way emotional, is so familiar a fact that it needs little dwelling on. Christ as man of feeling is almost too well known. Perhaps we should rather say misknown, for anything of that sentimentality which vulgar minds are accustomed to associate with Him is entirely absent from Him. His emotion is always reticent and controlled, and when it finds expression, it is always utterly real and virile, without a touch of either the fantastic or the effeminate. A splendid example of the sensitive response to emotion which produces literary effect of the most delicate though unconscious poetic quality, is to be found in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). From the beginning to Luke 15:24 no one can fail to feel the rising exhilaration, an effect manifestly produced by the corresponding crescendo in the narrator’s feeling. Suddenly, on the entrance of the elder brother, all is damped down, and the story drags itself to the close like a stricken thing.

There are many signs of the ebb and flow of feeling in connexion with the events of Jesus’ own experience. At the critical moments of His life this is naturally most noticeable. There is the outburst on the occasion of His first appearance in the synagogue of Nazareth, with the memories of thirty years behind the exhilaration. One can feel yet the thrill of the opening quotation, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,’ etc. (Luke 4:18 quoted from Isaiah 61:1). Correspondingly deep is the depression manifest in His first intimation to His disciples of the inevitable cross whose shadow had begun to lie upon His path. In the words, ‘Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them’ (Matthew 17:12), there is an almost intolerable pathos. But the cross, as it came nearer, changed its aspect for Him, and as He entered on its terrific pathway at the end, one hears: a shout of exultation, almost of laughter, in the words recorded in John 12:23-31, when we are told that He ‘rejoiced in spirit.’ Yet unmistakable though these instances are, there is even a more poignant emotion in such little casual touches as the contrast between the homelessness He felt and the homes of foxes and of birds (Matthew 8:20); or in such a wayside incident as that in which He defended the woman who ‘hath wrought a fine work upon me’ (Matthew 26:10), and whose gracious deed affected Him as with the breath of burial spices.

Countless instances, and those of many kinds, might be gathered from His speech to others. The gardener’s pity for the fig-tree (Luke 13:8) is a real touch of nature. When He addresses the dead damsel in the homely Aramaic tongue (Mark 5:41), we have the same tone in which a northern peasant of our own land might say ‘Lassie!’ Nor can we omit those words which must have seemed to the disciple to whom they were spoken to gather up together all the tenderness of boyish memories with that of grown man’s patient suffering, ‘When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest; but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not’ (John 21:18).

Perhaps the point at which the emotion of Jesus reaches its deepest fulness and tenderness of suggestion is in regard to the men and women of His nation. The metaphor of the hen and her brood (Luke 13:34) was spoken with sobs. But the figure round which His emotion unquestionably gathered most of all was the favourite Israelite figure of the shepherd and the sheep. The OT image repeated by later prophets from 1 Kings 22:17 (‘I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills as sheep that have no shepherd’) had evidently touched His heart most deeply. Carlyle points out in his Essay on Burns how the shepherd instinct of the poet puts him in the place of the suffering sheep; and it was the same instinct which drew from Psalms 23, and from the passage above quoted, so rich and wonderful a shepherd poetry as the sayings of Jesus afford. He knows the ways and the folding of the flock (John 10:14; John 10:16). He is touched with compassion for those lost ones of the House of Israel who are as sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36; Matthew 15:24). His Good Shepherd is seen in such detail as only the pitiful heart could have suggested, ‘leaving the ninety and nine in the wilderness’ (Luke 15:4, Matthew 18:12), and ‘going into the mountains’ in search of the wanderer. When the Shepherd is smitten, the sheep will be scattered abroad (Matthew 26:31), nevertheless He will ‘go before them into Galilee’ (Mark 16:7), bringing the scattered flock home.

These proofs of Christ’s emotion are very familiar, but His imagination has received less attention, and to it we shall devote a somewhat more minute study. That it was strongly in evidence is sufficiently proved by the fact that some of the Jews on one occasion took Him to be a devil-possessed Samaritan (John 8:48). Nothing could be a surer tribute to imagination than this judgment of the unimaginative. His actual experiences, His memories of past events, and His thoughts about even abstract truth, alike presented themselves in images to His mind. Generally the images were visual, and sometimes they were extremely vivid in outline. He thought in pictures, which rose either from what He had actually seen, or spontaneously in His imagination.

Scenes from the life—plant and animal—of nature occur in all His parables, and in very many sayings, which show the exactness and sympathy of His observations. The whitening harvest fields of the fertile valley of Samaria (John 4:35), sparsely dotted with the few labourers whose brilliant garments shone like flowers among the corn, is one of the very few instances of landscape in His descriptions of nature. The mountain-lands of both the north and south attracted Him, and it is striking to find Him making straight for the highlands of Galilee when His task of life was over (Matthew 28:10-16). But more frequently it is a clear-cut piece of detail that lie sees, sharp-edged and complete in itself. A spring of living water (John 4:10), the trackless mystery of the night wind (John 3:8), salt shining white upon the offal heap where it had been thrown out as savourless (Luke 14:34-35), two sparrows sold for a farthing (Matthew 10:29), are wayside pictures which He has engraved on the imagination of the world. His favourite image was characteristic of that land where there were few forests, but where the single tree was so precious, either for shadow or for fruit (cf. W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites). His images of single trees,—the vine, the fig, and the olive,—with their roots, branches, leaves, all seen as it were in detail, will occur to every reader (Matthew 12:33 etc., John 15:1 etc., Matthew 21:19, Mark 13:28, Luke 13:6). One of the finest and tenderest of all His imaginative descriptions is that mere touch of artistry which gives us in a flash the life of the reeds bending before desert winds (Matthew 11:7).

The picturesqueness of His metaphors is very great. From the peaceful joy of the children of the bridechamber (Matthew 9:15) to the storming of the Kingdom by the violent (Matthew 11:12), we pass through a wonderful gallery of vivid scenes. Who can tell what great tableaux were before His mind’s eyes as He said such words as these—‘the Son of Man is come to give his life a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:28); ‘for crisis have I come into the world’ (John 9:39); ‘I have overcome the world’? (John 16:33). One figure has become so familiar through His use of it that we have almost forgotten that it is a metaphor—the figure of the cup (Matthew 20:22, Luke 22:20; Luke 22:42, John 18:11). Three times He saw His appointed destiny in life under the image of a cup held to His hands or lips by the Father’s hand; and Christendom, and indeed the world, has taken over the beautiful and great symbol.

No finer instances of His visual intensity of imagination could be quoted than those which refer to the play of light and darkness. Such references recur like a sort of chorus from beginning to end of His work; and it is not without significance that the stories of the healing of the blind are told in such detail. This imagination blazes out in full splendour in the magnificent sentence, ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8:12), and the figure is sustained and strengthened by the assurance that those who believe in the light become ‘children of light’ (John 12:36)—i.e. themselves radiant, their upturned faces having caught and reflected the light to which they were turned. This is rendered all the more brilliant by the intense consciousness of darkness to which it is in opposition. John, in his description of the departure of Judas from the upper room (John 13:30), significantly adds, ‘and it was night.’ In the same way Jesus utilizes the sudden contrast between the flashing lamps of the banquet-room, reflected from the vessels and from the white garments of the guests, with the ‘outer darkness’ of the unlit street (Matthew 25:30). To realize the full brilliance of this contrast we must remember that the rooms had windows only into the courtyard, and the street walls were of blank unpierced masonry. The thought of darkness always moved Christ to a kind of horror. No condition was described by Him with such frequency or with such depth of feeling as that of those who ‘had no light in them’ (John 11:10). or who deliberately loved and chose darkness in preference to light (John 3:19). ‘How great is that darkness!’ (Matthew 6:23) He exclaims with a shuddering pause. He hastened men’s work by the reminder of the night coming ‘when no man can work’ (John 9:4), and as we read we feel the helplessness of hands folded in the dark. When His captors and their traitor guide had come upon Him, looking through the torchlight upon their faces, He said that this was ‘the power of darkness’ (Luke 22:53).

His words abound in bright little sketch-pictures of the life and labours of men—etched, one might almost say, upon the margins of the Gospels. ‘Fishers of men’ (Mark 1:17), one with his hand upon the plough-handles but his head turned back (Luke 9:62), some with loins girt and lamps burning, waiting for the sound of their master’s returning footsteps (Luke 12:35-36), another ‘strong and fully armed’ (Luke 11:21)—these are among the countless images which will recur to every reader. The hair upon men’s heads is not vaguely referred to—it is seen as black or white (Matthew 5:36); the water in the cups they carry is cold water (Matthew 10:42). The pictures He draws, as in a flash, of the unconscious busy life of men and women before the most terrific catastrophes, show an extraordinary vivacity (Luke 17:27-28); and there is a wonderful perfectness about the description of the farmer’s life, ‘as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how’ (Mark 4:27). There is little colour in His pictures, and the rich man ‘in purple and fine linen’ (Luke 16:19) is exceptional; but nothing could surpass the brightness of the scene where the King pauses as he comes to see the feast, his looks arrested by the dulness of the everyday garment in the midst of the shining raiment of his wedding guests (Matthew 22:11). Not less remarkable, though of a very different kind, are such realistic pictures as that of the blind leading the blind into the ditch (Luke 6:39).

These are simple pictures, but sometimes His poetry is more elaborate. In the old Welsh songs there was a curious device by which, for mnemonic purposes perhaps, the lines of story or sentiment were interlined with references to nature, concerning the reeds in the water or the wind in the trees. Was it perhaps with the same instinct that Jesus interwove the three denials of St. Peter with the two crowings of the cock (Mark 14:30)? But some of the images are themselves complex. How subtle, for example, is the imaginative insight that first described ‘the branch abiding in the vine’ (John 15:4)! Again, who but the rarest of poets would have imagined the birds sowing, reaping, and gathering into barns (Matthew 6:26), or have separated in thought the idea of the lily and its robes, the-flower ‘clothing itself according to its nature,’ or rather ‘God clothing the grass of the field (Matthew 6:30)’? In reference to this nature-work, Dr. Sanday contrasts Tennyson’s ‘Flower in the crannied wall’ with the passage about the lily just quoted. ‘The one,’ he says, ‘gives utterance to a far-off, unattainable dream or wish—the other is the expression of perfect insight and knowledge; it is not an aspiration after a glimpse of God’s working in nature, but a clear unbounded vision of that working.’ Thus is the Divinity of Jesus seen most plainly in His exquisite naïveté, the simpleness rather than the grandeur of His poetic vision; and we learn of Him ‘not by a planet’s rush but a rose’s birth.’

Occasionally the images are elaborated into a pageantry, but this is generally held in check. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem was the one actual pageant which He sanctioned; and that was only after the days of His life were numbered, that the memory of the spectacle might impress men, and when it could lead to no revolutionary consequences among enthusiastic crowds (Matthew 21:1 etc.). His disciples wanted the spectacular, and perhaps even missed it in His fellowship. The request of two of them for places on His right hand and on His left (Mark 10:37) hints at gorgeous dreams on their part. Its appeal to Himself is portrayed in the temptation of the pinnacle of the Temple (Matthew 4:5), whose meaning undoubtedly was a magical display before the eyes of wondering crowds. Occasionally, as we said, He permitted His images this elaboration into pageantry. Now and then the canvas is crowded with angels. ‘Twelve legions of. angels ‘wait upon His prayer to the Father (26:53); and by those who look with opened eyes, angels may be seen daily ‘ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ (John 1:51). The twelve Apostles are seen seated on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28), and for them and for all believers there are ‘many mansions’ in the Father’s house (John 14:2). As to the connexion between the earthly and the heavenly life, whatsoever they bind or loose on earth shall be bound or loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19). The accounts (Matthew 24) of His Second Coming are among the most difficult parts of the New Testament. But, however their details may be interpreted, they are brilliantly poetic flame-pictures which gather up into themselves much of the wild beauty and wonder of the apocalyptic imagination then so universal. A favourite scene is that of the Son of Man sitting on the clouds of heaven (Matthew 26:64); but a sublimer picture is that which the same Son of Man draws of Himself standing ashamed among His angels because of the pusillanimous spirit of some of His followers (Mark 8:38). Nor could anything surpass the brilliance of the scene where ‘the righteous shine forth as the sun’ (Matthew 13:43), and we seem to see great shafts of light as the cloud rack of Judgment Day passes, and past its flaming edge are seen the seats of the glorified spirits in heaven.

It need not surprise us when we find the imagination of Jesus reaching its climax of realistic vividness in the field of the weird and the ghastly. It is a tragic world, and he who, with his imagination in free play, dares to confront its facts impartially, will certainly see and tell gruesome things. There is, accordingly, frequent reference to loathsome things, whose loathsomeness had evidently affected Him. A serpent or a scorpion among food (Matthew 7:10, Luke 11:12), a foul cup or platter whose exterior gave promise of cleanliness (Matthew 23:25), the corruption of moth and rust among treasures of garments or metal (Matthew 6:19), are among His casual notes of observation. More deliberate and (as it were) classical are such sayings as that about the carcase and the vultures (Matthew 24:28), and the vipers crawling towards the flames (Matthew 23:33). The bitterness of the spiritual life is driven in almost upon our senses as we read that every sacrifice must be ‘salted with fire’ (Mark 9:49), that He is come to bring not peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34), and that only those who eat His flesh and drink His blood can claim to have life in them (John 6:53). The same rises to its height in the wild picture presented in the words, ‘I am come to cast fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?’ (Luke 12:49); while the whole of His reference to Mammon (Matthew 16:9 etc.) is so realistic that it used to be imagined that this was the name of some Syrian god, such as G. F. Watts has painted, with bloody feet and hands pashing out the life of humanity.

Among the most conspicuous of His images of the ghastly, are two that are drawn from human life. The first is that of the cross-bearers (Matthew 10:38). It is but too easy to ascertain whence this suggestion must have come, for men bearing crosses to the public places of execution were common enough in Palestine under the Romans. So we have from Jesus the weirdest of all allegorical pictures of the noble life. It is a procession of men bearing crosses, and Himself at its head. The procession is not staggering in weakness along the Via Dolorosa to Calvary. It is winding its way through the sunshine, by the waters of Galilee, in and out of villages where men are working, and women standing by wells, and children playing in the streets. The other figure is that of a spectral funeral procession, in which the dead are burying the dead (Matthew 8:22). The phrase has become proverbial, but the imaginary scene in which it originated is surely one of the ghastliest. The corpse of a dead man is being carried to its tomb, but in place of the many-coloured robes of an Eastern funeral there are but shrouds like his own in the cortege; and the march of limbs bloodless and stark, and the sunlight falling upon closed eyes, are images which we may well believe never ceased to haunt the minds of those who first shuddered at them. We are not here concerned with the lessons which these images conveyed. They are among the most important of all His teachings, and the point to note is that He drove them deep into the imagination of His hearers by the most daring and unrelieved use of the ghastly.

Nature, too, lent her sinister suggestion. The sea was always an object of fear and hatred to the Jews. It was strange to them, as to all inland nations, and for many centuries they were never permitted to become familiar with it on account of the Philistine and Phœnician Gentiles, who held its harbours and its coast. In later days it was significant to them chiefly as the path of the invaders, whose maritime base for Syria was conspicuous from many mountains of Israel at Caesarea. Only on a very few occasions does Jesus refer to it, and always in ominous suggestion. He speaks of some who compass sea and land to obtain proselytes, only that they may make them children of hell (Matthew 23:15). Again, He speaks of a sycamine-tree or a mountain being removed by faith and cast into the sea, as a thing stupendous and silencing (Luke 17:6). The most appalling doom that can be set against the sin of injuring His little ones, and which were still better for the injurer than what actually awaits him, is to be cast into the sea with a millstone about his neck to hold him among the wreckage and slime of decaying things in its bottom ooze (Matthew 18:6). Amid the terrors of the latter Day of Judgment we hear the booming of the breakers as a terrifying undertone—‘the sea and the waves roaring’ (Luke 21:25).

Nothing in nature strikes so cold a fear into the imagination as that strange and sinister combination which has been called ‘the beauty and the terror of the world.’ In the sweetest sunshine and under the purest light of stars, lurk ever the savage cruelties and the obscene putrefactions of earth. This also Jesus noted when He spoke of ‘the whited sepulchres’ (Matthew 23:27)—the brightest spots, on many a sunny landscape of the East, yet suggesting a condition of physical horror within, which it needs experience to realize. But the utmost extreme of poetic power of this sort is felt in the sudden introduction of the picture of a fig-tree, blossoming peacefully in the full beauty of its leaf, age, into the midst of the magnificent horrors of the picture of the Day of Judgment (Matthew 24:32).

The person of the devil is very frequently present to the mind of Jesus, and generally he is addressed or spoken of without imagery. At other times, however, he is portrayed as a princely figure—‘prince of this world’—who vainly comes to find his own in Him (John 14:30), and who is, by the Cross, cast out from his dominion (John 12:31). There is one picture, from which Bunyan probably drew some of the imagery of his Holy War, of an attack by the Lords of Hell upon the fortress of the Church (Matthew 16:18). And once, in an hour of triumph, Jesus ‘saw Satan fall as lightning from heaven’ (Luke 10:18).

Yet no victory of Good over Evil is ever complete on earth, and a deep horror remains, haunting the mind as it thinks of those who persistently refuse the Good and choose the Evil. Nowhere has this horror been more manifest than in the speech of Christ, who tells men to ‘fear him that hath power to destroy both soul and body in hell, yea, fear him!’ (Luke 12:5). He uses several figures to express this horror, all of them borrowed from the OT and its conceptions. Now it is ‘the outer darkness’ (Matthew 8:12) of the unlit street which serves for an image of it; again, it is the offal-heaps of the valley of Jehoshaphat, and the fires which were always consuming them (Mark 9:44 etc.). But, for the most part, His imagination pictures the abyss of Sheol, with the ‘great gulf fixed’ (Luke 16:26) between it and the home of Abraham. It is an image closely connected with that of the ‘nether deep,’ into whose dreary vastness the demons pray that they may not be sent (Luke 8:31). It is suggestive of the homeless, empty spaces beyond the ramparts of the world. where in the thick darkness there is the sound of ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew 8:12 etc.). The words are repeated again and again until we seem to hear the low sound of that wailing which Dante heard within the gates of the Inferno. It is the undertone of horror which, even among merely human poets, is ever heard beneath the laughter and the voices of the world. But none has heard it and told the sound with the mingled pity and horror of the words of Jesus.

Hitherto we have noticed only the clear-cut character of the imaginative work of Jesus. But there is another side to this—a vagueness and a sense of transcending all limits and definitions—which is, as it were, the poetic obverse of the clear edge. This also enters into the true conception of the mind of Christ.

Both in regard to space and time His delight in room, and the spaciousness of His thought are evident. The most familiar example in regard to time is the much disputed word αἰώνιος (Matthew 19:29; Matthew 25:46 etc.). The whole point of that phrase is taken from it when it becomes a pawn in the game of theological disputation. It neither fixes the furthest limit at eternity, nor denies that the stretch is eternal. In it the mind simply flings itself out into the future, and is aware of the flowing river of the ages. It is the poetic and didactic, but not the dogmatic, purpose that is aimed at and that is accomplished. The sense of enormous duration is given with almost aching realization. The hope or the denial of a terminus ad quem is not given.

His allusions to vague and immense spaces are so numerous as to reveal a strongly marked and favourite habit of imagination. He seems to delight in the width of the world for the mere feeling of its roominess. The sound of a trumpet (Matthew 24:31) is heard, and a flash of lightning seen (Luke 17:24) from one end of heaven to the other. Even in His reference to the birds and the lilies, already quoted (Matthew 6:28), He is not satisfied till He has added ‘of the air’ and ‘of the field’ (Matthew 8:20). In these mere touches the whole expanse of sky and earth opens and broadens to the horizon as we read. They are the subtle touches which only a poet’s mind would give. Again, one feature of the Kingdom to which He frequently alludes is the journeying of ancient people and of those of later days across huge distances of the world (Matthew 8:11). ‘They shall come from the east and from the west,’ to sit down at the table of Abraham, and the elect shall be gathered from the four winds of heaven (Matthew 24:31). His memories of the OT recall remote nooks and crannies of the world—the far-off home of the Queen of the South (Matthew 12:42), Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre and Sidon (Luke 10:12-13), and Nineveh (Matthew 12:41). Many of the people of His parables are travellers who go long distances and return (Mark 13:34 etc.), and He speaks of Himself, in one of the most wistful of all His utterances, as ‘a man going a journey into a far country’ (Matthew 25:14). These allusions are not of so much significance in themselves as in their revelation of the stretch and travel instinct in the mind of Jesus. They become splendidly significant when we remember them in connexion with such other sayings as that about the Father who ‘maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust’ (Matthew 5:45); and that also about the other sheep which the Good Shepherd has which ‘are not of this fold,’ which also He must bring, that there may be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16). In that promise there is the whole breadth of His heart, who looks across the world and counts it all His pasture ground. This whole habit of His mind throws out into strong relief the spirituality of Jesus, to which it offers a sort of parallel in the region of the physical as against the literalism and preciseness of the Pharisees. While He was out among ‘the ages,’ they were wrangling as to the number of stars visible which marked the hour of evening; while they were settling the inches permissible for a Sabbath-day’s journey, His heart was gathering disciples from the ends of the earth.

Spirituality and poetry are connected in the most intimate way, and the remembrance that Jesus was a poet may lead us past many futile controversies and into many illuminative interpretations. Two results may be selected as of very special value to the understanding of the mind of Christ.

1. His use of hyperbole.—Both His laws and His gospel have suffered many things at the hands of prosaic literalists. There are few things, for instance, which have been more confusing and harmful of late years than the perversions of Christianity which literalists have extracted from the Sermon on the Mount. Even to those who are willing to accept the doctrine thus presented in its naked literalness, it becomes but a counsel of perfection, and life in every act of Christian service leads down a blind alley, until the discouragement of constant and inevitable failure becomes altogether intolerable. But on those who are repelled by the doctrine, the effect is even more serious. To them Christ appears a doctrinaire teacher, whose precepts have created an impossible situation; and they turn, not from the doctrines only, but from Him.

The fact is that the poet’s exaggeration is the only way in which many truths can be expressed at all. Life is far too complex for any words that men have found in which to describe it. Spiritual things have no adequate language which corresponds to them; and the only way in which such truths can be communicated is by stating one side of them with such startling strength and vividness that that phase of truth at least shall never be forgotten. Of this fact Christ took the most fearless and unquestioning advantage, trusting wholly to the sympathetic intelligence of His hearers. Even in trifles He acted thus. The seed of the mustard plant is not the smallest of all seeds (Matthew 13:32), and there is no necessity for the zeal of commentators who would search for some unheard-of variety of mustard whose seeds are smaller than the spore of ferns. No one would have been more amazed at such defence of His veracity than He who spoke the words. In the same way is to be understood the saying, ‘This is my body’ (Luke 22:19 etc.); and if Luther had allowed himself to perceive this most obvious of truths, what a world of unnecessary controversy would have been spared to the Church! Such licence is demanded, not for poetry only, but for the very continuance of human intercourse, which otherwise would at once become a mere interchange of pedantries. In the same way are to be interpreted such passages as that about the hatred of father and mother (Luke 14:26), and many of those commands about property, non-resistance (Matthew 5:38 etc.), etc., which have been so grievous and so unwarrantable a stumbling-block to faith in modern times.

2. These considerations reach their highest value when we remember that in the teaching of Jesus there is the spiritual idealism of the poet. The incident of His praise of Mary rather than of Martha (Luke 10:42) has not unjustly claimed His sympathies for the dreamers and the mystics whose world is that of the ideal truth. At times this spiritual exaltation showed itself in physical effects which were recognized by onlookers. As He walked, they were amazed and afraid (Mark 10:32). It explains many of His wonderful sayings. Without it, that strange journey of the disciples would be wholly unintelligible, when they were to provide neither scrip, nor money, nor even shoes, nor any possessions but their peace (Matthew 10:9 ff.). Similarly must be regarded the command to take no thought for the morrow, neither for food nor for clothes (Matthew 6:34). These are ideal descriptions, not meant for the ears of literalists, but describing that world of spiritual conceptions in which His spirit dwelt. With these may be compared the exacting spirituality of His doctrine of marriage (Matthew 19:4 ff.), which He Himself supplemented by the further statement that in the next world the life of the angels supersedes marriage altogether (Luke 20:36), and which leads on to St. Paul’s association of the marriage bond with the union of Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:22 etc.). Such doctrine, He Himself declares, is for them that can receive it (Matthew 19:11-12). And indeed the whole of Christianity introduces men into an ideal world which does not at all correspond to the actual world of public life, and towards which the individual Christian is but now feeling his way in isolated points of character. It is a life to lead with one’s soul commanding and guiding the body. That is, if one has a soul; for Christ (in His poetic fashion) refuses to take it for granted that a man necessarily has a soul because he is a man, and reminds us that each man’s soul has to be won (Luke 21:19). But for those who have souls, and are willing to live lives corresponding to them rather than to the flesh, Christ constructs an ideal world in which all things have suffered a ‘change into something rich and strange.’ The heaven is God’s throne, and the earth His footstool (Matthew 5:34-35). The body is a temple where the spirit dwells (John 2:19). The life is sustained by spiritual food which even the closest friends know not of (John 4:32; John 4:34). To live that life is to be citizens of the Kingdom which is within (Luke 17:21) and of the other world (John 18:36), and which cometh not with observation (Luke 17:20)—the Kingdom of the truth (John 18:37). The worship of such souls is in spirit and in truth (John 4:24), and their work is to believe (John 6:29).

That ideal world—so far ahead of the most spiritual of us all, yet so persistently claiming us as its children and beckoning us to the courageous renewal of our broken attempts to reach it—is a world which could have been constructed for man only by God incarnate in One who was a poet.

Literature.—Various modern Lives of Jesus; cf. Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ; Hausrath, Hist. of NT Times—Time of Jesus; Peyton, Memorabilia of Jesus. In Oscar Wilde’s de profundis there is a passage in reference to Jesus as Artist, which, though marked by the paradoxical excess and wayward imagination of the book Which contains it, is yet brilliant and suggestive.

John Kelman.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Poet'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/p/poet.html. 1906-1918.

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