The Altar

October 2011
by Tim Keller

A broken ALTAR, Lord thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with tears:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name:
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

George Herbert was an early 17th century Anglican priest and English poet. Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, once said, “I love George Herbert with my very soul.” C.S. Lewis, in his atheist days, found George Herbert unnerving. He wrote about him, “Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had read in conveying the very quality of life as we live it…but the wretched fellow…insisted on mediating it through what I would have called ‘Christian mythology.’”

The first poem in Herbet’s compendium The Temple is a shape poem. That is, it is designed to be printed on the page so the words form an image of the subject. In this case, the poem is called and shaped as “The Altar.” In the Old Testament, God required that worshippers come to him through a sacrifice on an altar, and the altar had to be made of unhewn stones—that is, made of stones as God himself had shaped them (cf. Exodus 20:25). In some cases, such as when Elijah built an altar on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18, God showed his favor and power by sending fire down from heaven to consume the sacrifice. Herbert is here considering how our lives can be turned into an altar, something acceptable to God, a place where we can meet God. 

He tells God he is ‘rearing’ an altar.As God has commanded, in his altar ‘no workman’s tool’ has touched the stones. Instead, it is God himself that has made his heart into an altar. “A heart alone is such a stone that nothing but thy pow’r doth cut.” Only God himself can put our heart into altar shape. Only God’s power can take our stony, hard hearts and turn them into hearts that praise God’s name (cf. Ezekiel 36:26, 27). Here Herbert is laying out basic, solid, Biblical doctrine. The human heart is so hard, so self-absorbed, so filled with anger and self-pity and pride, that nothing but God’s power can cut it, change it. (cf. Romans 3:9-18)

But how does God exercise this power in our lives? It is through sorrow and trouble. The stones of our life come together to form an altar because they are “cemented with tears.” It is suffering that takes the various parts of our lives and forges them into something that can praise God. Difficulty breaks our lives into pieces, just as a boulder has to be broken if it is to be the material to build a bridge, a wall, or an altar. Trials and troubles show us our insufficiency, reveal to us our weakness and sin and our need for him. 

The image of the altar means a heart that is on fire with God’s praise and love. “My heart an altar and thy love the flame,” goes an old hymn. But to have the joy of knowing God’s grace and love requires the tears of a heart broken over the knowledge of its sin. “My sacrifice is…a broken and contrite spirit.” (Psalm 51:17)

The image of the altar also represents a heart dedicated—“sanctified”—offered to God in usefulness and service. But do you see that it is largely through our tears, through our difficulties, that God has shaped us into people that can be useful in his service, in ministry, and in the lives of others? It is suffering that teaches you patience, sympathy, wisdom, and how to rely on God. “We glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

Why would things work this way? Why are tears the key to finding God and being changed by him into something useful and joyful? Because this was the way Jesus saved us. Unlike us, the Father did not have to break his stubborn will, his hard heart. He voluntarily left his power and privilege. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. And the Father used his ultimate sacrifice to save us. He redeemed us through suffering, weakness and tears. It is not surprising then, that, if we respond to him in trust and faith, our own suffering and tears—the most inevitable things in this life—can turn our lives into something useful, joyful, and beautiful. 


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