Every Wave Obeys

While researching my book on John Newton, I found a riveting letter he wrote at sea to his wife Polly, during the busy hurricane season of 1751. Here’s what he wrote (Works 5:377–8):

We have another heavy gale of wind, and it is not easy to sit fast, or to hold a pen; but, as the distance between us is lessening at the rate of seven or eight miles per hour, I am willing to fill up my paper as fast as I can.

I wish I had words to convey some idea of the scene around me: but it cannot be fully described. A faint conception may be formed from pictures, or prints, of a storm at sea.

Imagine to yourself an immense body of water behind you, higher than a house, and a chasm of equal depth just before you: both so apparently dangerous; that you could hardly determine which to venture; and both so near, as not to allow you a moment’s time to choose; for in the twinkling of an eye the ship descends into the pit which is gaping to receive her, and with equal swiftness ascends to the top on the other side, before the mountain that is behind can overtake her. And this is repeated as often as you can deliberately count to four.

It is indeed wonderful, that a ship will run incessantly over these hills and dales, for days and weeks together, (if the gale lasts so long,) without receiving the least damage, or taking any considerable quantity of water on board; and yet never be more than four or five yards from a sea, which, if it was quite to reach her, would perhaps disable her beyond recovery, if not beat her to pieces at a single blow.

Need we go farther for the proof of a Providence always near, always kind, kind to the unthankful and the evil? For, though these marks of his care are repeated every minute, they are seldom acknowledged by seamen. For my own part, I see dangers so numerous and imminent, that I should be always in anxiety and fear, could I not submit myself and all my concerns to Him who holds the waves of the sea in the hollow of his hand, as the prophet strongly expresses it; so that, when most enraged by the winds, I am sure they dare not rise a single inch beyond his permission.

Shrugging Atlas

Peter O’Brien’s new Hebrews commentary in the Pillar series is delightful and I’ve been reading it straight through. Tonight I have a few moments and I wanted to post his comments on Hebrews 1:3b: “he [Christ] upholds the universe by the word of his power.” This has always been a fascinating text for me (along with Col. 1:17).

O’Brien writes:

Not only is Jesus Christ the agent of creation (v. 2c); he also sustains the universe he has made. This Lord is not like the god of the deists, who, having created the world, then proceeded to let it run on its own. He is personally and continually involved in sustaining it.

Then he adds this:

The immediate context, however, suggests the additional nuance of the Son’s ‘carrying’ all things to their appointed end or goal. The notion of direction or purpose seems to be included. The author, then, is not referring to the passive support of a burden like the Greek god Atlas bearing the dead weight of the world on his shoulders. Rather, the language implies a ‘bearing’ that includes movement and progress towards an objective.

So what is this objective?

Moreover, if this nuance of direction is present,* then the Son’s bearing all things (i.e., time and space) to their appointed ends looks forward to his work of redemption, which is described in the next line (v. 3c). The Son’s sustaining all things is not simply the backdrop to or the precursor of his redemptive work. His cleansing of sins is an important objective of Christ’s providential work.

In other words the picture we get in Hebrews 1:3 is of a Savior who sustains the world for the purpose of dying for the world.


* Some commentators agree (Westcott, P.E. Hughes) but others disagree (Ellingworth). Ellingworth takes “upholds” more along the lines of bearing dead weight or preventing something from falling. O’Brien argues the case contextually by suggestion that “upholds” is in a line of progression that leads to “making purification” and that leads to “sat down.”