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The Pulley: A Theological Reflection

Gregory E. Reynolds

The Pulley

by George Herbert

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 dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.”

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, 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.”

Imagine going back to God’s thoughts in Eden; this is where Herbert’s The Pulley was born—in the biblical creation text, describing the creation of humankind. Herbert displays profound insight into Sabbath rest without ever using the word Sabbath. So, the image of the pulley is named only in the title, but gives metaphorical movement to the entire poem. Such is the intricate skill of George Herbert. However, his theological acumen is not inferior to his poetic ability. For Herbert truth trumped wit—a critical feature of the Metaphysical poets—though he was a master of the latter. In this poem he exhibits penetrating insight into the nature of man and his quest for rest. Herbert explores Pascal’s “God-shaped vacuum” in every human heart, which, if not filled with God himself will not yield rest. The poem is made up of four quintets (five line stanzas). They move from the creation of man to the answer to the question of why God withheld rest from him. He concludes with the way God moves us to find true rest.

The first stanza reveals God’s intention to bless his image-bearer with the “world’s riches” poured out of a heavenly glass to concentrate all of the world’s wonders in the consciousness and possession of his first human creation in the Paradise garden. A “span” is the short distance between the tips of the thumb and little finger of an outstretched hand. Perhaps Herbert had Psalm 8 in mind: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps. 8:3–4). Man is small in the context of the vast universe; and yet he is made “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned … with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5), and given dominion over the entire created order. He is unique among God’s creatures.

So in stanza two the blessings are poured out. “Strength” is first, implying not only physical power, but also mental and moral ability to create culture and rule the world with integrity. Then “beauty flowed,” gives the impression of beauty’s presence everywhere and uniquely perceived by man. The entire creation reveals the beauty of its Creator, but only mankind appreciates that beauty. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). Then “wisdom, honor, pleasure” paint a portrait of man being given the highest dignity of all creatures, equipped to rule the world for the glory of God and everlasting enjoyment of him. But wait, God knows something about man that would ruin his design: Sabbath rest is a unique blessing at the bottom of God’s treasure chest. So “God made a stay,” withholding this single blessing.

Stanza three explains why. The subtlety of Herbert’s theological acumen is revealed in these lines: “For if I should,” said he, “Bestow this jewel also on my creature …” “Also”? Yes, God has entered his rest upon completing his creation on the sixth day. Remember, rest here is enjoyment of a completed task, not sleep. But God recognizes a special danger in giving this gift to man at creation: “He would adore my gifts instead of me” and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). Mankind would seek Sabbath rest in the created order: “And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature,” eliminating him from human life, a temptation amplified in modernity. “So both should losers be.” God created man to worship and serve him above all, to glorify God and enjoy him forever in true Sabbath rest. Without such worship there can be no lasting enjoyment of God or his world, only outer darkness; God’s purpose in creating man would be frustrated. Complete rest is an eschatological gift that would come, not with the first creation, but the second creation in the second Adam. “Thus it is written [Gen. 2:7], ‘The first man Adam became a living being;’ the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45).

Stanza four envisions the ultimate purpose of withholding rest from man. It begins with a beautiful, adroit pun: “Yet let him keep the rest.” Everything but rest he may keep and vainly seek rest in those very blessings. Also rest rests in the glass. The built-in frustration of this vain quest for rest without God will leave man in a state of “repining restlessness,” perpetual discontent, yet with a “pining,” longing for fulfillment. Man is constantly seeking satisfying rest in every endeavor and, even when it seems attainable, death ends the delusion, as Ecclesiastes teaches.

There can be no spiritual repose without God. So, “rich and weary” man may learn this lesson: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).

When Herbert says, “If goodness lead him not,” he no doubt had Romans 2:4 from his King James Bible in mind: “The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.” In other words, if God’s goodness in providence doesn’t move people to turn to him, “weariness” may. There are, of course, in the Bible and church history, examples of God using both these means to bring people to himself.

The loveliest line of all is the last: “May toss him to my breast.” God has sent weariness on this great errand, to achieve intimate communion between mankind and the true and living God. This is the great end of humankind. The image of leaning on the breast of God reminds us of John’s reclining in this personal fashion (John 13:25, 21:20). So much Scripture envisions this goal: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it” (Ps. 81:10). “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps. 84:2).

So, what is the significance of the pulley? It is a metaphor that frames the poem. The simple image of a rope running over a suspended wheel yields the paradox that pulling down lifts up. We need such to draw us to God.[H]uman depression and restlessness will lead to aspirations for eternal rest. The notion of a pulley is not unconnected to the central idea of ‘rest’ in the poem: … it is the weight of ‘rest’ on one rope which will hoist or ‘toss’ the individual to God’s level, and … when the believer has achieved ‘a final sabbath rest within the bosom of a loving God, then the motion ceases and the pulley reaches a point of stasis, or final rest’ (Hunter, 1976).[1]

“In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, most humans persist in the delusion that a person who has everything will be happy.”[2] As I have been memorizing and reciting this poem on my walks for the past year, I always end with a prayer for my unbelieving children, relatives, and friends. Thank God we have this promise: “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it (Heb. 4:1).” And, we are encouraged to pursue Sabbath rest by the one who has won it for us, the Lord Jesus Christ: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

Endnotes

[1] Hellen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 549. The image of a pulley was used before Herbert by Nicol Burne in Disputation (1581), and Thomas Nashe Red Herring (1599). I owe several insights to Wilcox’s commentary, which is a compilation from many writers.

[2] Jim Scott Orrick, A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 123.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, November 2017.

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