Shelly’s Dirge or Pippa’s Song?

We pick up the story in Luke 24:18-24. The two sad-faced friends were walking away from Jerusalem, commiserating with each other in their grief. On the way a stranger joined them. His identity remained anonymous. His inquiries suggested that He didn’t know what had been going on in Jerusalem that weekend!

Like anyone perplexed about life, these two disciples were quite ready to pour out their distress and their vexation to a ready and sympathetic listener. It says in verses 20 and 21:  “The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.” What a tragic bereavement!  All was wrong! Dreams and ideals that had been previously treasured were shattered!  Jesus was dead!

This story brought to mind ‘A Dirge by Percy Shelly. It may well have described how these two disciples felt. Shelly was drowned at the age of thirty while sailing in Italy. But Shelly (1792-1822) held very radical views on society. His Dirge is said to be very descriptive of emotions bordering on severe manic depression.  It reads:

Rough wind that moanest loud Grief too sad for song. Wild wind, when sullen cloud knells all the night long; Sad storm whose tears are vain, Bare woods, whose branches strain, Deep caves and dreary main, wail for the world is wrong.”

Such was Shelly’s view of the world, and that it might have been in his time. And his ‘Dirge’ could well describe the feelings of these two desperately disappointed men walking away from Jerusalem. They were now left with empty lives and no real reason for living! In effect, these two disciples were reflecting in heart the funeral dirge for the nation of Israel. The prophet Amos had prophesied such a dirge about 800 BC. We read it in Amos 5:1-2: “Hear this Word, O house of Israel, this lament I take up concerning you; Fallen is Virgin Israel, never to rise again, deserted in her own land, with no-one to lift her up.”

And for these two disciples on the Emmaus Road, this was final! The One they had put their hope in as the promised Messiah and King – was dead!  And in John 19:15 we are told that the leaders of Israel had declared they wanted no king but Caesar.

Verse 23 of Luke’s story reported that an angel had passed a message to some women that “he was alive.” But further inquiry revealed no physical evidence, apart from an empty tomb.  And anyway, who could believe such a report? Hadn’t they themselves seen Jesus – struggling and fainting under the weight of His own cross? They had personally witnessed the gory detail of His crucifixion! They heard His cries of anguish, and His prayers for others.  And they would have seen his body pierced by a spear to make sure He was dead! Then they would have seen that mutilated and limp body removed from the cross and sealed in the tomb until after the Sabbath. True, – Jesus did great miracles; he even raised people from the dead!  But now, the miracle worker Himself was dead!  Who would raise Him? And while verse 23 tells us that someone said He was alive, the direction in which these two disciples were travelling tells us how much they believed that story!

And then, to their surprise, this Stranger joined them and began to reveal to them that he was far from uninformed about the happenings of that crucifixion weekend. Luke 24:25-27 tells us that He certainly knew the Scriptures. He even chided the disciples for not being more informed about the Messiah.

By the time they reached Emmaus the Stranger was so successful in His exposition of the Scriptures, that it says in verse 24 that they urged, or insisted, or constrained Him to stay with them. So He did. And Jesus found himself sharing an evening meal with them around a table. The dim shadows cast by a flickering oil light might have helped the Stranger to keep his identity hidden. But then, the disciples saw those nail-pierced hands on the table in front of the light. He was breaking and blessing the bread, and then handing out the bread to them. That was enough! Verse 31 tells us their eyes were opened, and the awesome and wonderful truth was revealed, – He was alive!

And although He disappeared from their midst, there was no doubting they had seen that familiar gesture, and those hands that had blessed food which miraculously fed multitudes.

But there was something else too, which made them even surer. Verse 32 says that they had felt the burning in their hearts as Jesus talked with them and opened up the Scriptures.

The disciples had a relationship with Jesus, but it seems they had not paid enough attention to what had been written about Jesus in the Scriptures, and so they had been completely confused by the events of that weekend. They had made their assumptions about what God’s Word said, but didn’t really know what it said.  And those assumptions were controlled by their expectations. What God said in His Word had to happen! Notice in verse 26 that Jesus told them that “Christ had to suffer these things and then enter his glory.”

We read in Matthew 16:21-23 that Jesus had tried to tell His disciples about His impending sacrifice. But they wouldn’t take it in. In John 12:23,27,32-34 we have Jesus talking about being lifted up on a cross, but they were not listening.

Acts 3:18 tell us that this is how the disciples eventually did understand the death of Christ. It was all part of God’s plan. In Acts 17:2-3 we read how the Apostle Paul understood that Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. We can read about it in other Scriptures such as in 1 Peter 1:10-11, and in Revelation 13:8. It was all part of God’s plan; hence the O.T. Sanctuary system and the slaying of animals, as we have explained to us in Hebrews 9:22-28. But the disciples had ignored that part of their religious tradition.  The sacrificial ritual had lost its meaning for them. It was something they had to do because it was passed on to them. And so when things did not happen the way they expected – they were horrified and dumbfounded! They even thought Jesus could be an impostor!  Verse 21 says,  “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel”!

Their hopes were now dashed! He obviously wasn’t WHO they thought he was. And the direction they were travelling that day made that quite clear. How important it is for us to know God’s Word personally, and to avoid being confused by the many voices appealing to us today, – whether from outside the church, or even from inside the church. And there are many people who are basing their Christian faith on experience, or what others tell them, rather than on the personal study of God’s Word that leads to personally knowing Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul tells us about people who are left out of the kingdom because they “loved not the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:10). Said Jesus in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” In His prayer to His Father Jesus said, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17).

Fortunately for these disciples they had opportunity to re-establish their faith in the Word of God in that tremendous Bible study that Jesus gave them on the Emmaus Road.  When Jesus opened the Word to them verse 32 tells us their hearts were on fire.

And what a contrast was that return journey to Jerusalem!  As contrasting as another song I could think of so different from that of Shelly’s ‘Dirge’; Robert Browning names it, “Pippas’ Song” from “Pippa Passes,”. Robert Browning was born a little later than Shelly, and lived a lot longer (1812-1889). ‘Pippa’s Song’ expresses a different view on the world than that of Percy Shelly. In “Pippa’ Passes,” young Pippa, an Italian silk worker, is on her only day’s holiday in a whole year. But on that one day Pippa goes through the streets singing songs that influence for the good, the unfriendly characters who hear her. And in the words of the song, Pippa sings:

“The years at the spring, and days at the morn, mornings at seven; the hillsides dew-pearled. The Larks on the wing; The snails on the thorn; God’s in His heaven– All’s right with the world.”

What a contrast to that of ‘A Dirge’ by Shelly! One can almost see the new morn “with hillsides dew-pearled and the Lark on the wing,” as it flutters high in the blue morning sky. And so it was for Cleopas and his friend. It was a new day for them, and a new day for the world too. What a difference from their earlier mood as the two disciples retraced their steps to Jerusalem. They were no longer “sad-faced,” bowed and heavy footed. Now there was a spring in the step – they were spirited with life and their faces glowed. The change really needed no further explanation than that, “He was alive“!

What was it that changed their Dirge into a Song? It was a personal encounter with the risen Lord Himself!  Others had passed the message on that ‘He is Alive’.  But the power of the message comes from a personal encounter with the risen Lord! And their experience was not a play on the emotions as a result of a visionary experience.  For Cleopas and his friend the revelation of God’s Word came before the revelation of experience. Jesus revealed himself in the Word before revealing himself personally.

The joy and delight that these disciples experienced was based on a corrected understanding of God’s Word. They had to see that Christ had to suffer! (Luke 24:26). Christ would suffer and die for all mankind! And it was after Jesus had revealed Himself in His word, that He revealed Himself personally. So, as verse 33 says, they could say, “The Lord has Risen.”

It is still the same today. God does not bypass His prophets to give us special revelations! God communicates to us through His Word (Psalm 119:105). And the quality of our lives and the surety of our future depend entirely on our proper use of His Word. We have many pressures and distractions on all sides that seek to persuade us to give the least attention to the Bible. It can mean our walking the Emmaus Road. It is revealed in our ambitions, our cares and worries that bear no relation to the message to be received and given that, “He has Risen“! The Christian message is not like Shelly’s Dirge, it is more like Pippa’s Song? This is the best of Christian belief; we have a risen Saviour. He is called the ‘Blessed Hope’ (Titus 2:13). Like Pippa, we have a song to sing; a song that must pervade our own lives if it is to persuade others to know that, “He has Risen”!

The resurrection is the basis of the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul affirms this for us in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23.  He says there that “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. . . . For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in His own turn: Christ the first-fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.”

This has been the hope of God’s people down through the ages (Hebrews 11:39-40). Abraham believed in the resurrection when he was commanded to slay his son, Isaac (Genesis 22:5; Hebrews 11:19). We read that wonderful hope of the resurrection in Job 19:25-27.  Looking for the time when he would find release from his pain-wracked body Job said: “I know that my redeemer lives and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another.  How my heart yearns within me” said Job.

Is the longing for Jesus’ coming and the perfection he will bring to our bodies and to this world something we long for?  This is what God’s people have expressed down through history. As one Christian writer put it, we want to see “an end which makes sense of it all.” Certainly, Job did.

Isaiah shared the same longing.  We read in Isaiah 26:19 of Isaiah repeating this hope to his own people when he says: “But your dead will live, your bodies will rise.  You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning, the earth will give birth to her dead.” How many of us have not had loved ones taken from us by death, whether family, church family or friends?  The Bible says that those who have put their hope in Christ will rise again.  As the Apostle Paul has put it in 1 Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

That was the promise given to Daniel after a full life faithfully serving God. We read in Daniel 12:2 and 3 of Daniel being told, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake; some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”

It sounds very poetic and descriptive. But how else should a writer write who has been given visions of the future glory of God’s people of all the past ages and the ages to come?

Hosea, the next prophet on from Daniel, reports God as saying to His people in Hosea 13:14: “I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?”

That passage is echoed in 1 Corinthians 15:55 where the Apostle Paul exclaims with delight, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The Christian message is not ‘Shelly’s Dirge’, it is ‘Pippa’ Song’!

Because Jesus is risen, we may have new life in Him now (1 John 5:12), and one day we will rise to be with Him – for eternity! We sing it in the chorus of that wonderful resurrection hymn: “Thine be the Glory, risen, conquering Son, Endless is the victory, Thou oe’r death has won.”

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