The Hound of Heaven

Last Sunday we launched our new series: Jonah: On Being Human. As we follow the story of Jonah over these next weeks, it is our intention to take note of what a real human life looks like. And what we will see is that a real life is lived before God. Even when -- especially when -- we are at our worst. We began the story with Jonah on the run, and God in pursuit of him. I love Jesus’ image of the good shepherd, who when he realizes that 99 sheep are safe in the fold, goes out to find the one who has run away. The good shepherd, says Jesus, is the one who pursues the run-away. In the text, “good” (Greek: kalon), can also be translated “beautiful”. We could call Jesus the beautiful shepherd. The shepherd in search of the run-away is one of the most beautiful expressions of the love of God I can think of.

We all know Psalm 23: “the Lord is my shepherd”. But have you ever noticed in this famous psalm how “gracious pursuit” is deeply part of what the shepherd does? When David says “goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life” (v. 6, TNIV) he is saying something quite specific. And it has to do with the two words “love” and “follow”. The word translated “love” is the Hebrew chesed, which should be understood as “covenant love, enduring love, mercy without end”. And the word translated “follow” is the Hebrew rawdaf, which means to follow, but also has the sense of “running after or chasing”, even “hunting”. The rendering of the Message Bible says it well: “Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life”. This is hope, this is gospel, this is the Jesus-piece in the story of Jonah.

Francis Thompson was an English poet, who lived in the second half of 19th century England. Early in his life he fell into hard times in London, was reduced to poverty, becoming addicted to opium. All the while Thompson carried the dim awareness of being pursued. In fact, he came to see himself as a fugitive, as someone like Jonah who runs, comes to the great impasse where he knows he is helpless, and cries out for mercy. When his gift of poetry was finally discovered, a family took him in to care for him; he was found, as it were. Thompson continued to have struggles through out his life and died of tuberculosis at age 48.

But it was his poem, The Hound of Heaven, that he is most remembered for. The hound is God, chasing him. Some didn’t like the image when it first appeared, but Thompson saw the image as an apt description of the profound grace that he knew from the inside out. It starts this way:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him…

In these words I find the most powerful expression of the strangeness of our human condition, especially the way we try to pursue life apart from God, apart from the vision of God. Thompson says, “I fled him…”

But the poem tells the story of not only running from grace but being caught by it, for indeed the hound of heaven does catch him. Near the end of the poem are these words which explain why God had opposed his running, why God didn’t just let Thompson be. God says:

All which I took from thee I did but take, Not for thy harms, But just that thou might'st seek it in My arms. All which thy child's mistake Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home: Rise, clasp My hand, and come.

And that is about as fine a comment on this pursuing grace of God that I know of. The story of Francis Thompson is the story of Jonah; and the story of each is the common story of us all. What we all share in common is the pursuing grace of the Good Shepherd, the beautiful one.

See you this Sunday at 9:29 or 11:11 as we continue our series on Jonah.

Bob Osborne