Stone fence in Weardale, County Durham. Photograph by John Short
Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!
Parents first season us; then schoolmasters
Deliver us to laws; they send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,
Pulpits and Sundays, sorrow-dogging sin,
Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,
Blessings beforehand, ties of gratefulness,
The sound of glory ringing in our ears,
Without, our shame, within, our consciences,
Angels and grace, eternal hopes and fears.
Yet all these fences and their whole array
One cunning bosom-sin blows quite away.
George Herbert’s brilliant poem, “Sin (I)”, has two purposes: to express gratitude for the Lord’s spiritual fortification and to awaken our heart’s vigilance against the ambush of sin. Like watchmen, we are prone to falling asleep, leaving our heart unguarded. The opening line of the poem – “Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!” – sets up a catalogue of fifteen (de)fences against sin that serve us well as long as we remain alert to the enemy that hides within (“one cunning bosom-sin”). Picture sin as that wooden horse wheeled inside the fortress of our heart, promising goodwill but unleashing chaos. Here are how each of the fences offer a protective enclosure to the sinner:
- Parents first “season” us with moral principles that strengthen us for the pilgrimage ahead.
- Schoolmasters deliver us to “laws” (moral and natural) and “rules of reason” (logic) that order our universe, morality, and thought.
- Holy messengers (or clergy) shepherd our religious belief and practice.
- Pulpits (sermons) and Sundays (worship, catechism, fellowship) nourish us with the living Word in a community of faith.
- Sorrow “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10).
- Afflictions sanctify character through trial.
- Anguish deepens steadfastness under pain.
- Fine nets prevent us from a descent into debauchery or damnation while the Lord’s stratagems outwit the snares of the Enemy.
- Bibles reveal millions of surprises (revelations) about everything of importance in heaven, earth, and hell to make us wise up about reality.
- Blessings beforehand and their ties of gratefulness develop a spirit of thanksgiving that shelter us from grumbling or disputing (Phil. 2:14).
- The sound of glory “ringing in our ears” gives us hope about the future perfection of creation and the second advent of Christ.
- Shame humiliates and humbles us from further sinning.
- Consciences give voice to the law written on the tablets of our hearts, lest we forget (Prov. 3:3, 7:3).
- Angels guard us from “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12) while grace empowers us with the grit to go on when we are tempted to give up.
- Eternal hopes and fears about our ultimate destiny encourage obedient living today.
So, are ever safe from the threat of sin? Herbert rests in a paradoxical truth: the fences of the Lord fail us when we fail them. The force that blows “these fences . . . quite away” comes from the inside-out rather than the outside-in. Therefore, we are never truly (de)fenceless unless, like the Trojans, we accept a peace offering from our Enemy.