The Poetry of George Herbert: “The Sacrifice” (Pt. 1)

Last night I spent some time reading some of the poetry of George Herbert. It was sort of a devotional for me; sort of like spending some time listening to worship songs. As I was reading I came across one of his longer poems: “The Sacrifice.”

Situated right after “The Altar” (you know the poem, the one you read in your High School English class that is shaped like an actual altar), which shows that a broken and contrite heart is the only heart fit for offering sacrifice to God, this poem is about another broken and contrite heart that is offers sacrifice to God: Jesus.

“The Sacrifice” is written from the point of view of Jesus. It serves as a lament of sorts, with the refrain being “Was ever grief like mine?” As Jesus goes about his Passion he keeps saying those words “Was ever grief like mine?” As people are blind to see him as their savior he says “Was ever grief like mine?” As Judas, his friend, betrays him he says “Was ever grief like mine?” As his disciples fall asleep around him in Gethsemane and leave him alone he says “Was ever grief like mine?” As his own people accuse him of blasphemy he says “Was ever grief like mine?” A rhetorical move Herbert makes is that after each refrain the cadence increases slightly, that is each stanza gets read quicker and quicker. As the cadence of each stanza increases so does the gravity and pain of each betrayal. And as the gravity and pain increase so does the graphic nature of this poem. Consider the following; we almost expect Judas to betray Jesus, thus the cadence is slow and the imagery is a bit dull, but the poem moves on and climaxes (in cadence and graphic imagery) when the most unexpected betrayal occurs, the betrayal at the hands of the Father.

Over the next few days I will be taking an in depth look at a few of these stanzas, examining how they display the excellencies of Christ and the excellencies of the gospel, thus leading the reader into worship, and thus into offering a sacrifice of his own.  In my humble opinion (I am no literary critic by any means), this is exactly the response that Herbert wants to invoke. Consider this:

  1. “The Altar” tells us that only a broken and contrite heart can offer sacrifice to God.
  2. “The Sacrifice” shows us that Christ had a broken heart.
  3. “The Sacrifice” shows us that Christ’s heart is broken (grieved) because of our rejection of him.
  4. “The Sacrifice” shows us that Christ grieved for our sake.
  5. Thus Christ can offer a fitting sacrifice to God.
  6. The fact that we have grieved Christ, the one who died for our sake, should lead us to have a broken and contrite.
  7. When our heart is broken and contrite, we can and do offer sacrifice to God.

Herbert tells us what worship is, shows us the glory of Jesus’ passion, and moves us to respond by offering a pleasing sacrifice to God.

This pattern, of seeing Jesus’ grief, grieving because I put him there, and worshiping God because he sent his son is what I was doing as I was reading this poem. In that sense it was devotional. It opened up the cross in a new way for me. Seeing it from Christ’s point of view helped me to understand the love he had for me. A love that took him to the cross, for me!

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatians 2:20

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