The father of Reformed biblical theology was also a lifelong poet. Geerhardus Vos published eight volumes of poetry brimming with some two hundred poems in total. The controlling principle in his poetry was the same as in his dogmatic and biblical theology: “the preeminence of God’s glory in the consideration of all that has been created.” Vos termed this the Reformed principle which was itself Scripture’s deepest root idea.
Vos’s poetic impulse was born in his early Dutch context, shaped by the legacy of the Reformed Romanticist, Willem Bilderdijk, and his Amsterdam professor, Willem J. Hofdijk. This impulse, however, took a principally religious shape most notably from Vos’s reading of the prophet Isaiah, the “salvation-poet.” Vos says of Isaiah,
"[T]here is always the unmistakable note of sovereign power bespeaking the prophet who is at the same time a poet by the grace of God. Isaiah’s influence on the formal development of sacred poetry has proved as great and lasting as that exercised in his contribution to the body of revealed truth."
Vos understood Isaiah to be unique among the prophets for he had been given a vision of God not through symbols but directly. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne,” Isaiah recounts (6:1). Accompanying his heavenly vision was the seraphic song, “the whole earth is full of his glory,” which became for him a hermeneutical key for reading nature and history. Isaiah could now see, for example, in the impending hoard of Assyrian soldiers a reflection of the Lord’s power as in a mirror (5:26–30). Echoes of heaven’s song are heard in Vos’s own poetry, which has remained an untapped source of insight into his all-encompassing God-centered mind and heart.
We’ll enter the world of Vos’s poetry through a portal of select poems from two of his works: Spiegel der genade (Mirror of Grace) and Spiegel der natuur (Mirror of Nature). The Dutch word spiegel can be translated as “mirror.” This metaphor was significant for Vos in that it maintained both God’s transcendence and immanence in his self-revelation. Following Isaiah, Vos perceived that God can and must, if he freely wills to create, reflect his glory everywhere in nature, as in a mirror, while remaining absolute in himself. This redounds to the soul-satisfying delight of redeemed image bearers disposed for communion with God, whose nature “must be worship from beginning to end.”
In Spiegel der genade, Vos includes a number of poems reflecting on the biblical prophets. In the second verse of his poem, “Jesaja,” Vos describes Isaiah, the “salvation-poet,” as follows:
O man of visions, what grandiose images
Have inhabited the fields of your imagination!
With what magnificent brush, dipped in a wealth of colors,
With what wondrous word pictures have you interpreted their meaning!
The tremendous earthquake that makes the great into dwarfs;
The young boy with the paradise-lion at his hand;
The glorious sea-land of Zion on the top of the mountains;
The proud who grope in the dark for the fire of Moloch!
Isaiah’s vision of God in his heavenly temple left an indelible mark upon his eyes so that he could not but see God’s glory revealed in all of creation. Isaiah was further led to see a glory awaiting the creation in visions of a new heavens and new earth where the blessing of God reaches as far as curse is found (see Rom. 8:19–21).
Implied here is something Vos makes explicit elsewhere: the organic relationship between God’s general revelation in nature and history and his special revelation in Scripture. Isaiah was a case in point for him since his inspired prophetic word took into itself nature and history. All of God’s self-revelation, whether in nature or in Scripture, is mediated through Christ, the Logos, who organically connects the two. “The very point of [John’s] Prologue,” notes Vos, “seems to be to link the revelations in nature and in redemption together.” Vos gives poetic voice to this in “Christus Revelator”:
Before the light, O Lord, that has shone
From your exalted face,
Great mysteries have disappeared,
And dense fogs have faded away.
Whoever beholds You sees with clarity
The very outline of eternal truth,
Whose reflection in the creature gleams.
Beginning and ending of history,
You fill the times with your glory,
Until time sinks into eternity.
The opening lines allude to Psalm 36:9, “In your light do we see light.” In the creature gleams a reflection of him who is eternal truth. With that in mind we can now explore some of Vos’s nature poems in Spiegel der natuur.
While some of the sixty-six poems of Spiegel der natuur—ranging in topic from mountains to trees to the seasons and so on—are more religiously overt than others, the deepest motivation for all of Vos’s poetic reflections on nature remained the same, namely, the glory-inspired worship of the one true and living God. For, as Vos himself wrote, “Beauty, irreligiously esteemed, infringes upon the glory of Jehovah. To take any natural object or product of art, intended to reflect the divine beauty, so as to make it serve the magnifying of the creature is a species of godlessness.” Vos’s affections and thoughts were raised too high for nature to satisfy him as an end in itself; God alone was his blessedness and reward.
In “Laus Montium,” Vos opens with a grand depiction of a soul-widening mountain in all its glory until a storm descends upon it in demonic rage. This leads the onlooker surveying its grandeur to lift his gaze higher and higher until he
Breathes air that strengthens like a sip of heaven’s wines
Until the mortal feels the earthly burden lift.
And sunwards rises with wreathed pilgrim’s staff.
Moved by the storm and directed by the mountain-arrow, the poet desires to ascend above the miserable masses huddled at its base into a high haven of rest.
Hospitable mountain nature, make me share, even in death,
In your vast yard, where there is room for many;
If your orchestra were to play around my high bed,
Even dismal death will obtain a different face.
This pattern is common in much of Vos’s nature poems: it opens with a serene description of creation until darkness or chaos breaks out to disrupt it, which ultimately leads the poet to find solace above in God himself. It is the basic pattern of creation-fall-redemption mirrored in nature. Vos, thus, sings of what Herman Bavinck wrote: “Beauty is the harmony that still shines through the chaos in the world; by God’s grace, beauty is observed, felt, translated by artists; it is prophecy and guarantee that this world is not destined for ruin but for glory.”
Another example of this pattern is found in “Vox Deserti,” which opens with a parched depiction of a sand-cracked desert in which cattle graze on land saltier than the sea. Yet in this wilderness has persisted for centuries “a thirst for the distant streams.” A desperate plea goes out that by the hand of God those following this futile course might stumble upon a miracle: life-sustaining water. They do not go unheard (see Isa. 35:1–2):
The miracle came: the dams have been built;
The wilderness flourishes and yields golden bread.
In “De Astris Non Canendum,” the poet’s gaze, in Psalm 8 fashion, is lifted to the stars of heaven whose song cannot be played on any earthly instrument.
The stars are too high to sing about
on earthly lyre, whose musical quality
can only reflect those things under the moon;
heavenly things require the lyre of the gods.
Vos may allude to the scion, “Dream of Scipio,” wherein Scipio is raptured to the heavens to observe the sublime motion of the heavenly spheres and hear their subtle music. Vos, however, brings the classical story within Christian thought. The song of the stars is inspired by something deeper than the fleetingness of mortal life. The stars, thus, bid mortal man below to quiet himself from distracting earthly noise in order to hear the heavenly song and to join his voice with it (Rev. 4).
If we succeed to silence earthly noise,
To fine-tune our wireless circuit,
And if a tuning fork could vibrate in our soul’s ear,
Then we blessedly keep silence and worship.
Diving from the stars into the sea, Vos saw much more reflected in its water than just the sunlight glistening off its glassy surface. In “Sea Idyl,” Vos observes that the sea has inspired countless singers “earth’s tuneful ages through,” though it has remained a mystery that “not even the greatest knew.” From here the poet presents an idyllic depiction of the sea in perfect tranquility and harmony, paradisaically so with Edenic tones. “This bliss seemed nigh immortal,” he writes,
until in envious mood
The Serpent spied the portal,
Where soon the Cherubs stood.
And still, spite war of ages,
Not far upon thy main,
The chaos-dragon rages,
Full-cursed, but never slain.
Satan disrupts the idyll sea. This invasion of spiritual forces is mirrored in creation whenever a storm stumbles upon sailors at sea. But in the mirror of the sea is not only seen the spiritual chaos caused by Satan, but also the power that overcomes him.
But they, too, know the wonder
Of storm-dispersing might,
When all that frowns goes under,
And naught is left but light.
For those sailors who weather through the storm until the sun again shines on the peaceful waters, they are given a picture of “storm-dispersing might.” Mirrored in the calm overcoming the chaos is the dragon’s impending defeat by he who is mightier.
This God has our adoring
In twofold Majesty:
Wrath in the tempest’s roaring,
Love in the smiling sea;
No God for modern mending,
Unshakable his throne,
All to his purpose bending,
The sovereign God, our own.
The twofold majesty of God is mirrored in the emergence and dispersion of a storm at sea. He has mirrored his wrath and love in this way, demonstrating that he cannot be mended by modern men, who themselves have inadequate power ever to silence the storms at sea. He is, instead, the sovereign one enthroned (Dan. 4:35). More than this, the sovereign God is “our own,” that is, our covenant keeping God. This final phrase reminds us that Vos looks into the mirror of nature never apart from special revelation—nature may mirror God’s wrath and love, but his covenant promises have been specially revealed. Storm-dispersing might belongs to our God.
Imitating the worldwide survey of the children of men in Psalm 107, Vos goes from the mountains to the desert, from the stars to the sea, only to find the whole earth full of the glory of the Lord.
We conclude our exploration of Vos’s poetic world with a short poem that is itself a touchstone for the cycles and patterns of creation. Inspired by a particular Sunday when the foretaste of heavenly and eschatological rest was noticeably strong and nourishing, Vos penned, “Dies Solis”:
This is a Sunday [zondag] which can well be called a sun day [zonnedag];
I have bathed both body and soul in a sea of light,
have washed off my everyday doing and knowing,
have of heavenly wine tasted and wedding food eaten,
and blessedly sat listening by the way,
along which the singing holy procession goes.
The name of the day contains in itself a symbol of what is heavenly, of what the creation is destined to enter in Christ. The heavenly nourishes not only his soul, but also gives his body rest. “Christians are really in vital connection with the heavenly world. It projects into their lives as a headland projects out into the ocean.” The poem concludes with a pilgrim theme: the believer seated on “the way,” for there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God (Heb. 4:9).
This poem, like all of Vos’s poetry, is the overflow of a heart in which are the highways to Zion (Ps. 84:5). They are musings on “the preeminence of God’s glory in the consideration of all that has been created.” They are echoes of the seraphic song. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).