A Few Thoughts on George Herberts Poem–Elixir

Posted: April 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

I had mentioned posting some thoughts on this old poem.  Here they are…

The Elixir—A Few Thoughts

George Herbert has taken the principles of 1 Corinthians 10:31 and placed them poetic form.  The idea that everything we do is to be done to the glory of God (whether we eat or drink) is clearly present in this text.  How it is that sinful human beings can ever live and behave in such a way is a great mystery.  It is not something that we can do on our own.  We are sinful human beings.  As Paul would say, there is nothing good that dwells within us (Romans 7:18).  How is it that one could live this type of life?

The title gives us a hint.  An Elixir is known to be something that alchemist use to change base metals into gold, or simply a mixture that cures an illness.  Both definitions could fit.  If we are to honor the Lord in all that we do, we will need His grace.  And when that grace comes the sweetness that follows that action, the action that flows from a heart that wants to please God, in a sense is a spiritual elixir.

The poem could be briefly stated like this:  Everything I do should be done with reference to God and for the glory of God.  We don’t run into any assignment but walk wisely into our work.  We seek to do all things unto the Lord.  We may see a meaningless task before us, or we could see through the task at hand to the God whom we are to serve and honor. When we are serving the Lord, communing with Him, and honoring Him, even the smallest task seems glorious.  If we are given this grace to see all things as meaningful when done for the glory of God, then in a sense we have been given this spiritual elixir that “turneth all to gold.”

Lines 1-4:  the cry for God, who is King, to teach comes from the author.  Teach what?  For the author to see God in all things.  As God is seen in everything then the request is to be taught to do everything as it is being done for “thee.”  1 Corinthians 10:31 would clearly be seen here.

Lines 5-8:  as a task is undertaken it is not done as a bull in a china shop, it is done so with wisdom and discernment, as the Lord has “prepossessed” even this action.  It is to be attended to with perfection.

Lines 9-12:  a man may look on a stain of glass and fix his eyes on it.  Or, he may look through the glass and see what lies on the other side.  So, with a seemingly menial task, a person may look at the task itself or look beyond it and see the one who has ordained the job and who should get the glory for a job well done.

Lines 13-16:  All men are able to come to God through Christ.  As they do, this “tincture”, or elixir is given.  As they commune with the Lord, partaking of Him, seeking to honor Him, everything will become clean.  Even the most base of tasks becomes holy unto the Lord when done in service to Him.

Lines 17-20:  A person who serves in this way will “make drudgerie divine.”  That is to say, as we have already, the person who sets their mind to think and act from this point of reference will find great joy in the smallest of tasks.  The sweeping of a room becomes “th’ action fine.”

Lines 21-24:  The grace that would give a person a mind that thinks and acts like this would be nothing other than a “stone” that has turned “all to gold.”  This is the spiritual elixir that one needs.  We need the elixir, or grace of God, that helps us to see everything we do with divine eyes.  And then we do what we do to the glory of God.

Theologically and ethically this is a significant poem.  We exist for the express purpose of making God famous (Isaiah 43:7).  We are left on this earth to praise Him.  The heavens declare His glory (Psalm 19) and we are the light to the nations (Matthew 5).  Whether we eat or drink or write papers or clean toilets, we do it for the glory of God.

This poem calls us to look through what is right before us and see what, and who, stands on the other side.  When that sight becomes a reality, it becomes an elixir to our souls.  We will find great joy in the smallest of duties.

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