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"Thy Way is in the Sea"
Shanties, Heresies, and Fishing for Men
Thy Way is in the Sea
Not every harp in the house of God is tuned to a gladsome key. Psalm 77 is a psalm of complaint composed by Asaph. Spurgeon observes,
Asaph was a man of exercised mind, and often touched the minor key; he was thoughtful, contemplative, believing, but withal there was a dash of sadness about him, and this imparted a tonic flavour to his songs. To follow him with understanding, it is needful to have done business on the great waters, and weathered many an Atlantic gale.
Here is the prayer of a troubled man who feels as though his soul has been lashed upon the deep. He cries out to the Lord from the depths of internal despair. Overwhelmed with difficulties, he finds no rest from mental flight and receives no comfort in a sleepless bed (Ps. 77:3-4a). So heavy is the burden upon his heart that he can no longer articulate his anguish (Ps. 77:4b). He casts his mind into the far land of distant memory, recalling better days in ancient times (Ps. 77:5). His spirit searches diligently for a diamond amid the ashes; sifting through the rubble of his own heart, he uncovers a forgotten song of praise from a midnight long past and tries to learn the lyrics once again (Ps. 77:6). Yet despite his best efforts, he questions both his God and the propriety of his faith in Him (Ps. 77:7-10).
And it is just here that he finds an anchor to settle him amid the storm of his own doubts. “I will remember the works of the Lord: surely I will remember thy wonders of old” (Ps. 77:11).
As Asaph pens the last stanzas of his mournful hymn, he strikes a chord of praise. “Thy way is in the sanctuary (or in holiness); who is so great a God as our God” (Ps. 77:13). Yonder in the Holy Place stands the One whose Name is Holy. And His ways are just and right. His wisdom sees what is best. There is unspeakable comfort to be found in the rectitude of God’s nature and the purity of His purposes. His “ways,” hidden mysteries that they are, should provoke faith rather than crippling fear. For this is the God who does wonders in the midst of His people; makes bare His arm and shows strength for the sake of His people (Ps. 77:14). Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet, we can rejoice in the God of our salvation. For His way is in the sanctuary, His ways are holy. And even Hard Providence becomes a soft pillow upon which we may find rest.
Obtaining relief in the strange purposes of God, Asaph then find succor in the saving power of God. He abbreviates the history of Israel in a single poetic line: “Thou hast with thine arm redeemed thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Selah (Ps. 77: 15). In a couplet, the Psalmist says to his own soul, “Stand still, and see the salvation of God!”
By evoking a two-fold designation for the Lord’s people, Asaph is again leaning hard on the shoulder of Providence. When he says that God redeemed the “Sons of Jacob,” he calls to mind deliverance from famine, and even forgiveness obtained at the hand of their brother; the well-beloved son who was sold for thirty pieces of silver, slain in a figure, but afterwards was delivered up from the dead, exalted to the King’s right hand, offering pardon and peace.
The “Sons of Joseph” is a pregnant descriptor of both those whom God redeemed and the restorative nature of so great a salvation. Having suffered much bitterness, Joseph was raised to blessedness. His two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, became for him emblems of the bounty of God’s saving pleasure. The name Manasseh means “the Lord has made me to forget all of my toil,” and Ephraim means “the Lord has made me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.” Just so, God redeems His people, all the sons of Jacob and Joseph.
But Asaph reserves the most picturesque language for the strange providence and saving power of God until the last. “Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known” (Ps. 77: 19). O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! Far down in the secret channels of the deep is the highway of God. There, where the billows surge and swell, is where He walks; Lord of each crested wave. No mortal eye can track His movements, yea, His footsteps are submerged beneath the current of His own veiled thoughts. It is enough for us to know that He marches there, the fathomless sea His own imperial road.
But that is not all that it means to say of Him, “Thy way is in the sea.” For it is through the sea that He saves. It is in the sea that He drowns our adversary. It is in the living waters that He washes our sins away. It is across the sea to which He conducts us into the Land of Milk and Honey.
The waters saw thee, O God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid: the depths also were troubled. The clouds poured out water: the skies sent out a sound: thine arrows also went abroad. The voice of thy thunder was in the heaven: the lightnings lightened the world: the earth trembled and shook. (Psalm 77:16-18)
Calvin maintains that the Psalmist is hearkening back to the mighty workings of God in the Exodus. This seems likely because of both the imagery and the mention of Moses and Aaron in the final verse. When Moses stood on the far side of the sea, he sang the first song ever recorded in Scripture—the song of salvation (Ex. 15:1-19). And every soul who comes to know this God sings this song; the song of salvation, the song of the God whose way is in the sea. When the books are closed, and when the heavens and the earth have passed away with a great noise, that refrain will echo throughout the ages: “Thy way, O God, is in the sea.”
And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints. Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest. (Revelation 15:2-4)
The Ballad of Nicea
In the early 4th century there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram, no blogosphere. It is tempting, then, to look back on such times with envy. But the lack of technology did not leave folks in want of controversies, or with the means of disseminating partisan soundbites.
In Saints and Sinners: A History of Popes Eamon Duffy provides for us a sketch of how one of the most infamous rifts in the early Church was due in large part to that once-and-future mode of communication—the sea shanty.
Constantine’s dismay at the divisions of Christian North Africa was to be redoubled when, having overthrown the pagan rival Emperor in the East, Licinius, he moved to his new Christian capital, ‘New Rome,’ Constantinople. For the divisions of Africa were as nothing compared to the deep rift in the Christian imagination which had opened in the East. It was begun in Egypt, by a presbyter of Alexandria, Arius, famed for his personal austerities and his following among the nuns of the city. Arius had been deposed by his Bishop for teaching that the Logos, the Word of God which had been made flesh in Jesus, was not God himself, but a creature, infinitely higher than the angels, though like them created out of nothing before the world began. Arius saw his teaching as a means of reconciling the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation with the equally fundamental belief in the unity of God. In fact, it emptied Christianity of its central affirmation, that the life and death of Jesus had power to redeem because they were God’s very own actions. But the full implications of Arianiam were not at first grasped, and Arius attracted widespread support. A master-publicist, Arius rallied grass-roots support by composing theological sea-shanties to be sung by the sailors and stevedores on the docks of Alexandria. Theological debate erupted out of the lecture-halls and into the taverns and bars of the eastern Mediterranean.
The Orthodox cause, led in large part by the inimitable Athanasius, eventually won the day, but not without a great deal of prolonged theological warfare. Arius had amassed a considerable following since his songs and slogans had gone viral. His heresy, as so often is the case, was a grassroots phenomenon. It was an early instance of folk religion taking hold among the common folks, due in large part to his talent for folk music.
Somewhere along the way, those who opposed the Egyptian’s doctrine began composing their own shanties. The most famous one, and apparently the only tune to have survived the controversy, is the Gloria Patri.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen, Amen.
This simple doxology was originally a battle hymn, a trinitarian fight song. One can imagine a rough and tumble band of Christian men gathering in a pub after a long day’s work and knocking back a few beers. At once, some red-faced tradesman among their number stand up and says, “Here’s one to own the Arians!” Though the hymn has survived in the Church and finds a hallowed place in liturgies both East and West, its martial significance is hardly obvious to most of us now.
So the next time you gather with the people of God to worship our Triune Lord, belt it out with gusto. Sing it with conviction. Recognize its rightful place as an instrument of war for all of those fighting for the honor of Christ. It just may be that a simple sea shanty is the anthem of the Church Militant.
“The World is a Sea”
An excerpt from John Donne’s Sermon LXXII
The world is a sea in many respects and assimilations. It is a sea as it is subject to storms and tempests; every man (and every man is a world) feels that. And then it is never the shallower for the calmness; the sea is as deep, there is as much water in the sea in a calm as in a storm; we may be drowned in a calm, and flattering fortune in prosperity, as irrecoverably as in a wrought sea in adversity—so the world is a sea. It is a sea as it is bottomless to any line which we can sound it with, and endless to any discovery that we can make of it.
The purposes of the world, the ways of the world, exceed our consideration, yet we are sure the sea hath a bottom, and sure that it hath limits that it cannot overpass; the power of the greatest in the world, the life of the happiest in the world, cannot exceed those bounds which God hath placed for them—so the world is a sea. It is a sea as it hath ebbs and floods, and no man knows the true reason of those floods and those ebbs. All men have changes and vicissitudes in their bodies (they fall sick) and in their estates (they grow poor) and in their minds (they become sad), at which changes (sickness, poverty, sadness) themselves wonder; and the cause is wrapped up in the purpose and judgment of God only, and hid even from them that have them—and so the world is a sea. It is a sea as the sea affords water enough for all the world to drink, but such water as will not quench the thirst. The world affords conveniences enough to satisfy nature, but these increase our thirst with drinking, and our desire grows and enlarges itself with our abundance; and though we sail in a full sea, yet we lack water—so the world is a sea. It is a sea if we consider the inhabitants. In the sea the greater fish devour the less, and so do the men of this world, too. And as fish, when they mud themselves, have no hands to make themselves clean but the current of the waters must work that, so have the men of this world no means to cleanse themselves from those sins which they have contracted in the world, of themselves, till a new flood, waters of repentance, drawn up, and sanctified by the Holy Ghost, work that blessed effect in them.
All these ways the world is a sea, but especially it is a sea in this respect: the sea is no place of habitation but a passage to our habitations. So the apostle expresses the world, Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come; we seek it not here, but we seek it while we are here, else we shall never find it. Those are the two great works which we are to do in this world: first to know that this world is not our home, and then to provide us another home while we are in this world.
Watson and the Shark, by John Singleton Copley, 1778. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Now, in this sea every ship that sails must necessarily have some part of the ship underwater; every man that lives in this world must necessarily have some of his life, some of his thoughts, some of his labors spent upon this world; but that part of the ship by which he sails is above water; those meditations and those endeavors which must bring us to heaven are removed from this world, and fixed entirely upon God. And in this sea, are we made fishers of men—of men in general, not of rich men, to profit by them, nor of poor men, to pierce them the more sharply, because affliction hath opened a way into them; not of learned men, to be overglad of their approbation of our labors, nor of ignorant men, to affect them with an astonishment or admiration of our gifts: but we are fishers of men, of all men, of that which makes them men, their souls. And for this fishing in this sea, this gospel is our net.
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