With the traffic this post gets, I’ve started to wonder whether readership is from the high school and university academic community trying to write their essays / exams on George Herbert. Well, I hope you find this analysis useful to your understanding, but it’s quite a personal take on the poem.
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which disperséd lie,
Contract into a span.”
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.
“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness.
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”
First let me add a good diagram I found:
Here’s how I can interpret this poem.
The title: a wheel and cable pulley. The more you pull towards yourself on one side, the further it goes on the other; only let go and…
What is the “Rest” that in the bottom lay? Satisfaction. If you think of rest, you only rest after finishing a piece of work, and you only finish a piece of work when you are satisfied with it. (Supposing you care about this work.)
You can work hard for anything, be it a decent paycheck, good grades, quitting a bad habit, living a good life, or even prominence in ministry. When that happens it is essentially you working – you may not have rest (i.e. be satisfied), but you can have all ‘the rest’ of God’s gifts (beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure). We can do any number of good things, and make any amount of effort aspiring to those things, but this cannot bring us close to God (make us presentable before Him). All that we can aspire for can leave us restless for that which satisfies our souls and puts them to rest – the oxymoronic servant-king that is Christ, who in one death accomplished and finished all that we cannot do in our entire life.
The paradox of salvation in the gospel is that I must admit that no effort of mine in pulling the pulley will bring me the Rest I seek. Christ came to us; we did not merit Him by our efforts. I can pull much yet not have what I need: the grace and mercy of Christ who justifies me by dying the death I should die for my sin and rebellion from God. Rather, when I admit weariness and let go of my progress, however far the pulley has gone in my own strength, that is when I get the satisfaction I tried to work for. It’s a little bit of the puzzle.
“I am weary of not being all I expect myself to be! I cannot pull satisfaction to myself!”
“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” – Romans 8:20-21
“… But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior…” – 2 Tim 1:8-10
[Interesting: Hebrews chapters 3 and 4 discuss “rest”; Sabbath-rest vs. God’s rest. Wonder if Herbert got the idea from here? “That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ” 3:10-11]