“Then they sailed, set their ship
Out on the waves, under the cliffs
Ready for what came they wound through the currents,
The seas beating at the sand, and were borne
In the lap of their shining ship, lined
With gleaming armor, going safely
In that oak-hard boat to where their hearts took them.”
This passage is from Beowulf, chapter 3, lines 210-216.
It is difficult to say why, but it resonates with me; it struck me as a beautiful, simple and strangely vivid. It’s just got this mysterious pull.
Beowulf is an epic poem (true to both meanings – genre and quality), and I have been greatly enjoying reading it. I am only half way through, but the world of heroes, treasure and monsters (as fantastical as that sounds) is enthralling.
The passage quoted above jumped out at me when I read it the night before last. It speaks of the hero, Beowulf, after hearing of the way that the Danes were troubled by the monster’s raids. He gathers a crew of warriors, and they set sail to deal with the problem.
I was surprised by the level of Christian ideas in Beowulf. Strength and fate are attributed to God; Beowulf and other heroes rely on God’s will being done as they fight. There are also other references, beyond your basic (i.e. generic) heaven and hell references; the monster Grendel was, like other demonic and impish creatures “Conceived by a pair of those monsters born of Cain, murderous creatures banished by God, punished forever by the crime of Abel’s death.”
The image of the Geats (Beowulf and crew) setting out in their armour, in their “oak-hard boat”, seeming calmly resigned but confident, creates this image of the Christian walk.
- The armour, and their very purpose, implies a fight. I recently finished reading J C Ryle’s “Holiness” (highly recommended), and one of the greatest applications and insights I got was to not underestimate the fight of the faith- Paul talks about fighting the good fight, and we are to stand strong in Christ. These heroes know what it is to fight (even more particularly – to fight against demons or monsters who oppose God’s will).
- Part of this determinedness to fight is the warrior’s armour. In the good fight, we put on the Armour of God. There is later imagery of Beowulf being given a helmet that is strongly reminiscent of the “helmet of salvation.” I am sure this is not an intentional reference, but it is present in my mind.
- The ship winds through the currents; it not direct, they couldn’t see exactly where they were going. At times, the Christian walk will seem all over the place; even in my 19 years there are times when you do seem to be winding all over the place as you try to follow God’s purpose.
- Despite this, the warriors have utter confidence. They point their ship in the right direction and give it no more thought (the passage before this one also says this). Even though there are winding currents, which they experience, they do not worry or fight. They go calmly on.
- Their trust is not misplaced; they arrive. The Christian has assurance that even through the tough, winding life of fighting the faith, he will arrive safely. He will be borne to his destination.
- I love this image for another reason; whilst they are equipped for the fight, it is not their strength that gets them through. They have their shining armour, but it is the guiding currents and the strength of their boat that makes them arrive. A Christian does not arrive at the goal on their own steam; Christ is all. It is he who justifies and sanctifies. In him we are utterly secure, just as the Geats were secure in the lap of their shining, oak-hard ship.
- Above all, they are going to where their hearts take them. And that is the essence of the Christian life; the fight is important. We have assurance. It will sometimes be winding. But ultimately, we are secure and safe in Christ, being borne to our destination. As we read in God’s word, love is essential. Unelss we love God, we will not be saved. It is a love for the triune God that leads us to hate our sin, and draws us to follow and grow in him. Love for Christ is what gives us strength for the fight. Those who desire God will be borne safely, in Christ, to where their heart guides them.