This guide is one of a column series that will invite Adventist readers to reflect on important classics of the Christian spiritual tradition. Each guide will provide 1) A brief biography of the classic’s author 2) A section on historical context 3) A short outline of the classic 4) Reflection and analysis of the classic 5) Questions for personal spiritual reflection.
1) Biography of Ephrem
O my God, without ceasing I step over the threshold of Your house;
Though I have oft forsaken Your grace, I will ask with boldness
So that I might receive with confidence. Our hope, be our Wall!
This prayer, the first verse of Ephrem’s Fourth Nisibene Hymn, reveals the fourth-century Syrian’s creative and intercessory heart for his community. A gifted liturgist, preacher, hymn-writer, and servant of his church and city, Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306 – 373) is one of early Christianity’s great treasures. He wrote hundreds of hymns, poems, and sermons. Since this vast body of writings can be intimidating to explore, I’ll focus on his Nisibene Hymns. That being said, “The Pearl,” his seven hymns on the Christian faith are also well worth reading.
Despite being born the son of a pagan priest, Ephrem connected at a young age to his local Christian church. In childhood, he had a vision of a grapevine growing from his tongue, which gave much fruit. This vision proved to be the guiding imagery for most of his life: much fruit did indeed grow from the gifts of his tongue. In adulthood Ephrem became a renowned preacher and hymn-writer. His hymns were poetic defense of orthodox Christian belief against heresy and paganism, theological meditations on Christ’s nature, reflections on a life committed to singleness, and impassioned intercessory prayers on behalf of his city and community. Ephrem drew on simple imagery to point us toward mysterious and intricate spiritual beauty.
From childhood until his early 60s Ephrem served the church in the Syrian city of Nisibis. Eventually, he was ordained a deacon of the church (a role much different in that age from the deacons in our contemporary Adventist churches; in Adventist language, we could consider him to be an elder, Sabbath School teacher, worship leader, apologist and preacher). Ephrem was also a member of a proto-monastic movement called Members of the Covenant. This was an intentional urban community of men and women committed to celibacy and service of their congregation and community. While many 4th- and 5th-century Christian monks would eventually choose to live in remote desert locations, the Members of the Covenant continued to dwell in their home city. This commitment to a set-apart lifestyle while maintaining vital connections to the world around them will be important later in this guide when we reflect on Ephrem’s hymns.
It is the urban theme of Ephrem’s ministry and hymns that will be our focus here. The Nisibene Hymns (written in the mid-300s) are a collection of 68 hymns written during his stay in the Syrian city of Nisibis. The majority of these hymns are written in the character of the city itself, giving them a wonderful sense of setting and place. Perhaps the reason Ephrem’s city connection was so important to him was because he was twice in life forcibly expelled from his home. First, by his pagan father after Ephrem committed to Christian studies as a teenager, and second, by Roman emperor Jovis in 363.
2) Historical Context
Beginning in 338 Nisibis came under the periodic siege of Shapur II, king of Persia. Seeking to take advantage of a politically confused Empire spasming in the wake of Constantine’s death, Shapur II laid siege to Nisibis three times. During each of these assaults Ephrem pleaded with God to defend the city and its peoples. It seems God heard Ephrem: there are reports of the Persian army being assaulted by plagues of mosquitoes and flies, of Shapur II storming the city only to be bewildered by a vision that appeared to be Emperor Constantine, and destroyed walls being miraculously reinforced. Alas, Roman policy later succeeded where the Persian war machine failed. In 363 Emperor Jovis ceded the city to the Persians, leading to Ephrem’s second expulsion from home. In the midst of this political and military turmoil Ephrem wrote his Nisibene Hymns. He gave a voice to his city, a voice that praised God and sought divine deliverance, crafted in a format that came to life on the lips of this city’s Christian church.
3) Outline of the Nisibene Hymns
The Nisibene Hymns, 68 in total and divided into five sections, sing about the siege of Nisibis, beginning with the literal and political spheres at the Roman level all the way down to local Christian bishops, and finally shifting to the spiritual realm, praising the victory of Christ over evil, death, and Satan. Hymns 1–3 focus on the siege of Nisibis, hymns 4–12 on the Persian invasion, 13–16 on the bishops of Nisibis, 17–21 on other local leadership, and 35–68 on our Lord Christ, Satan, and Death. Hymns 22–34 have unfortunately been lost.
Hymn 4 is a good introduction to these hymns. I’ve put my own adaptation of Rev. Stopford’s translation online in a PDF here: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/198960/ephrem/FourthNisibeneHymn-Ephrem-Arany.pdf
4) Reflection and Analysis
The Nisibene Hymns—and the rest of Ephrem’s teachings and compositions—eventually earned him the honorific of Teacher in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. His liturgies influenced Orthodox worship in the Middle East for centuries. These hymns and poems were not limited to the Eastern church, but even came to inspire one of the greatest preachers and hymn writers in the Protestant Methodist tradition: John Wesley, founder of Methodism together with his brother Charles, which in turn was one of the traditions that helped birth Seventh-day Adventism. Specifically, it is thought that Ephrem had a deep influence on Wesley’s theology of sanctification, a theme that also resounds in Adventist theology.
There is a contemporary discussion in Adventist theology and mission that could be enriched by prayerful reflection on Ephrem’s urban hymns and ministry. In the fall of 2011, General Conference President Elder Ted Wilson gave a call to increase evangelistic outreach to urban centers, drawing on the imagery of Christ weeping over Jerusalem in Luke 19:41-42. In the course of his sermon, Wilson warned Adventists against becoming disconnected from cities, saying, “Our Biblical message to the cities will unite us as a worldwide people and guard us from isolating ourselves from society and from each other.” Later in his sermon, Wilson describes this mission as something that is “sustainable, careful, and comprehensive.” As we live as messengers of hope and salvation in our cities—whether large or small, highly urban or more rural—we can draw inspiration and encouragement from Ephrem’s life and writings. His life with the Members of the Covenant led Ephrem away from ascetic isolation toward a deep engagement with his society, in a way that was sustainable, careful, and comprehensive. He would use the fruitful tongue of youthful vision to give a worshipful, prayerful, intercessory voice to his city, giving Nisibis the chance to experience the good news of salvation.
Ephrem’s hymns aren’t only good for our mission work, but they are also good for our personal prayer life. In particular, Ephrem’s use of a simple refrain between each stanza of his impassioned cry to God is something I find personally comforting. The fourth hymn’s refrain is “Our hope, be Thou our Wall!” The thirty-fifth hymn, concerning death and Satan, sings the refrain, “To Thee be glory because the Evil One saw Thee and was troubled!” The twelfth, “Glory be to His grace!” These refrains come after every single verse. At first glance, this might feel overly repetitive, but it helps to ground us in the truth of the refrain as we pour out our hearts in petition and prayer.
O my Passion, I am greatly oppressed, and I lodge a formal complaint against those who trouble me. Let Thy mercy, my Lord, take the bitterness from the cup that my sins have mixed.
You are my hope and my wall!
O my Judge, I look on all sides, and weep that I am desolate. Though many claim to be my advocates and my deliverers, they remain a divided multitude. Only Christ stands united as my Deliverer.
You are my hope and my wall!
The rhythm of the refrain calls us back into hope and truth, no matter how desperate our situation.
5) Questions for Personal Spiritual Reflection
What rhythm of refrain do you need for your life? You can use a verse from a psalm, or even write your own refrain. Praying a refrain throughout your day gives you a quiet prayer you can easily speak in a breath, between busyness and stress, to remind you of Christ’s presence in the midst of feeling overwhelmed.
How can you speak for your city?Pay attention to your neighbours, to the local news channels, to the newspaper and overheard conversations in coffee shops. Look around you when driving to the grocery store or running errands. What do you see that needs healing? What do you hear that needs God’s presence? If your city could pray, what would that prayer be? In your personal prayer times, consider writing or journaling in your city’s voice. Talk with your pastor about sharing this in church. Take some time in Sabbath School to talk in a group about your city’s needs—or even your own.
How do you sense God calling you into community? Ephrem’s life as a Member of the Covenant helped him embrace the people and communities around him. He did not flee to the desert, but remained in the city to serve and worship.
Scott Arany is a freelance pastor, graphic designer, and liturgical artist.
The Nisibene Hymns can be accessed online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf213.iii.iv.i.html
The guide author’s own adaptation of Ephrem’s Fourth Nisibene Hymn can be downloaded in PDF form: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/198960/ephrem/FourthNisibeneHymn-Ephrem-Arany.pdf
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3819