Friday, December 9, 2016

The Wonder of Ancient Things

Notes from my recent read-through of Geoffrey Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain: 

Ancient - truly ancient - history, has the potential of providing its students with a profound sense of smallness upon the stage of the universe as well as wonderfully tingly feelings of discovery - "Oh, I never knew that!" Knowledge is a great treasure. Knowledge of things far, far past has a unique value, because it is, as it were, dug from a very deep mine, and one feels privileged to glimpse such heavily unearthed treasure in the light of the reading chair lamp. Also, the more ancient the people and events, the more one feels in learning of them that here we are getting to the root of things and the beginning of the matter, and so everything begins to make more sense. Those are some of the impressions I received from reading Monmouth.

Some lessons:

First, the historical timeline - here I was blown away (all those tingly feelings): The poet Homer was an approximate contemporary to the prophet Samuel. And good old King Lear of Shakespearean fame, was a real king (so says Monmouth, and I rather believe him) - contemporary with the prophet Isaiah! As a newcomer to the study of really old history, I never realized that any history of our western tradition went so very far back into the days of the Old Testament. This did not make the Bible any more believable to me than it already is, but it made it feel closer, like the constant breeze of the sea suddenly blowing through a crack in the wall and giving you goosebumps. 

Second, I received a larger perspective of the rise and fall of nations over the centuries. Our own nation is not even 300 years old, and this does not help our limited perspective on national lifespans. Britain, however, waxed and waned between barbarian anarchy and international greatness over many centuries, even millennia. There were the days when the island lay humble beneath the foot of Rome and the Archbishop of London declared to his people, "I am greatly saddened by the state of deprivation and abjectness which has overtaken you since Maximianus stripped this kingdom of all its army and all its young men. You were simply the last remnants left, common people, ignorant of the ways of war, men who were busied in other matters...When hostile men of other nations came to attack you, they forced you to abandon your sheepfolds., just as if you yourselves had been sheep wandering about without a shepherd" (vi.2)

There were the glory days of King Arthur when "they had adorned the city with royal palaces, and by the gold-painted gables of is roofs it was a match for Rome....The city also contained a college of two hundred learned men, who were skilled in astronomy and the other arts." In the days of this great king, a feast was given on an international scale, and, "there remained no prince of any distinction this side of Spain who did not come when he received his invitation. There was nothing remarkable in this: for Arthur's generosity was known throughout the whole world and this made all men love him." Indeed, "Britain had reached such a standard of sophistication that it excelled all other kingdoms in its general affluence, the richness of its decorations, and the courteous behaviour of its inhabitants." (ix.12)  Then, little over 100 years after Arthur, the nation was so ravaged by pestilence that "The few wretches left alive gathered themselves into bands and emigrated to countries across the seas." The king laments aloud, "'Woe unto us sinners,' he cried, 'for our monstrous crimes, with which we never stopped offending God, as long as we had the time for repentance. The vengeance of His might lies heavily upon us, even to the point of uprooting us from our native soil." (xii.15)

I saw in this history of this nation (which is still not completed!) a vivid illustration of Psalm 107, especially its last part, which describes God's sovereignty over human affairs:

He turns rivers into a desert,
springs of water into thirsty ground,
a fruitful land into a salty waste,
because of the evil of its inhabitants.
He turns a desert into pools of water,
a parched land into springs of water.
And there he lets the hungry dwell,
and they establish a city to live in;
they sow fields and plant vineyards
and get a fruitful yield.
By his blessing they multiply greatly,
and he does not let their livestock diminish.
When they are diminished and brought low
through oppression, evil, and sorrow,
he pours contempt on princes
and makes them wander in trackless wastes;
but he raises up the needy out of affliction
and makes their families like flocks.
The upright see it and are glad,
and all wickedness shuts its mouth.

Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things;
let them consider the steadfast love of the LORD.

(Psalm 107:33-43 ESV)

Third, I saw that the waging of war and the shedding of blood were an integral part of our world's history. My mind was boggled at the descriptions of battle after battle and after each estimated death-count, I couldn't help wondering what had been the population of the world but for that. How horrible it all was. A few times, a peacemaker was able to step in and halt the bloodshed (several times, this was a woman!) but in most cases, valiant men leapt forward to cut each other down mercilessly simply for the glory and triumph of their own kingdom over that of the other. For most of these men, the act of battling was the ultimate act of manly greatness, be it ending in death or victory.  When the Romans threatened Arthur, he declared that, after years without war, "God has stirred up the resentment of the Romans, so that they may restore our courage to what it used to be in the old days" (i.e. the days when they fought a great deal) (ix.15).  King Auguselus declares his willingness to join Arthur in battle - "I am overwhelmed with joy and only too eager for the day on which we shall come together. I thirst for their blood, as I would thirst for a spring if I had been prevented from drinking for three whole days. If only I may live to see that day! How sweet will be the wounds which I shall give and receive, once we come together hand to hand! Death itself will be sweet, if only I may suffer it in avenging our ancestors, safeguarding our liberty and exalting our King!'" (ix.18) Reading these things gave me a mixture of feelings - both appreciation for the valor of the men of the past (much lacking in today's men) in fighting for liberty and loved ones, and sorrow for the blood which it sometimes needlessly shed in battles of strife and greedy contention. 

How deeply the history of Britain and of our world cries out for the coming of the Prince of Peace, who will put all his enemies under his feet and reign from sea to sea! To fight and quarrel is the mark of fallen men on a national level and on a personal level (James 4:1-10) and without divine help, we will continually be destroying ourselves in the name of our own power. Burly men may rejoice to wield power in warfare, yet any humble Christian may rejoice to wield a power which many kings and great men had not - the fruit of the Spirit which is self-control and peace. That the great King Jesus gives His little people power by His mighty Spirit to cease from striving and selfishness and live in the power of love (and yes, I saw bright spots of this throughout Monmouth's history as well) is a thing far greater than the brawny hand which hews down enemies with the sword. Seeing the power of sin to cause destruction on national levels gave me a deeper appreciation for the power of Jesus Christ to change individual hearts even as he accomplishes His great purposes in the nations.

"O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace"
- John Mason Neale

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