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Make of Me a Ship for Yourself: The Resurrection Mirrored in Vos’ Poem “Ex Arbore Navis”

Geerhardus Vos mounted a heavenly vantage point from which he surveyed the world and all its happenings. From the high tower of God’s Word, he saw with eagle-eye clarity the beauty and majesty of the Lord in nature and history, creation and providence. “The whole earth is full of his glory!” was his theme (Isa. 6:3). With his heart brimming with seraphic wonder, he addressed his verses to the King (Ps. 45:1).

In Vos’ nature poems, he saw the mystery of the gospel reflected in creation as in a mirror. To highlight this, he entitled one volume of his nature poetry Spiegel der Natuur (Mirror of Nature). In the mirror of nature, through the spectacles of Scripture, Vos saw that death never had the final say. He saw that the path of life was the path of the cross. He saw evil deeds ironically reversed to bring about good by the providence of God. He saw the truth of Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 42 that he had learned as a child:

Q. Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?
A. Our death is not a payment for our sins, but only a dying to sins and an entering into eternal life.

In sum, he saw the glory of Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25).

Vos shares with us a glimpse in his poem “Ex Arbore Navis.” In this poem, he finds the hope of resurrection life in Christ reflected in a tree torn from the earth’s embrace but made into a beautiful ship for the open seas of eternity. Isaiah, the “salvation-poet,” as Vos called him, had once prophesied,

For the coastlands shall hope for me,
the ships of Tarshish first,
to bring your children from afar,
their silver and gold with them,
for the name of the LORD your God,
and for the Holy One of Israel,
because he has made you beautiful (Isa. 60:9).


Bound is the tree in all his growing;
Sprouting and his flowers showing,
His evening and his morning glowing,

His winter sleeping, summer waking,
His silence and the sounds he’s making.

Still grounded in his mother’s place,
Confined within a tiny space;

Until one day a tragedy,
An axman swings with cruelty.

His market value lights his face,
And tears him from the earth’s embrace.

A woeful groan he then raises,
A fit of death through him races,
Down to his roots it abases.

But behold! the cry he utters,
From the pain of death he shudders,
Finished, it forever severs,

Makes for him, a state to hope in,
A wondrous new world to open.

In the woods a hidden pillar,
Now he journeys to the miller,

Who from the thickness, round and broad,
Of his large trunk cuts plank unflawed,

And for the beams of higher estate,
The right measure he must calculate.

Then onward from the miller’s yard,
Coastward goes he to the shipyard;

There the fragrant wood, like a vow,
Is built for keel and hull and bow.

Secured from wind and weather far,
Sealed with wax, baptized with tar.

The master sees him with delight,
Glide down the slope now to alight,

Like a bird over ocean blue
To his new element he flew.

Longing for the wonders at sea,
Ready to sail, restless lies he,

Tighter and tighter pulling on
The anchor that he might be gone.

It came at last the hour set,
By tugboat pulled to an outlet,

With flag and pennants high he’s free
To sail into the open sea;

Bedecked in white, his bridegroom sail,
On crested billows rides his tail,
Like were his own currents and gale;

Like every droplet in the slough
Of despond was his servant low;

Freer than the sea from bonds and bands,
Up rivers rushes he to distant lands.

You say this is a poetic device,
In real life groundless, it cannot suffice.

Believe me I know of what I sing,
A ship is also a living thing.

Lord, when death soon draws itself near,
Through trunk and branch goes his shear,

Freed from this narrow earthly space,
Let me go to a wider place;

After the escape, make of me,
A ship for Yourself graciously,

Assembled and made beautifully,
For the grand sail of eternity.

Reflected in this poem is that what the axman meant for evil, God meant for good (Gen. 50:20). Vos personifies the tree in the same way trees are found clapping their hands and singing for joy in Scripture (Ps. 96:12; Isa. 55:12). But here the tree is mercilessly torn from the nurturing arms of the earth. He groans and convulses in death. But death is not his destiny.

But behold! the cry he utters,
From the pain of death he shudders,
Finished, it forever severs,
Makes for him, a state to hope in,
A wondrous new world to open.

A kind of resurrection is reflected in the master shipbuilder raising the tree to new life as he forms and fashions him into a beautiful ship. Now the tree, once bound and confined, is loosed upon the open seas. Through a kind of death, his previous narrow existence has now opened into a broader existence of boundless currents of joy.

For Vos, this is more than a mere poetic device. It touches reality. It is the lifepath of the believer in Christ reflected as in a mirror. So, with the seaways to Zion in his heart (Ps. 84:5), he prays to the Lord in the final eight lines. He asks him that when he is torn from the earth by death’s cruel blow,

After the escape, make of me,
A ship for Yourself graciously,
Assembled and made beautifully
For the grand sail of eternity.

It is the true Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will raise his people from the dead to a more beautiful, more glorious existence. “[O]ur citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20–21). Glimmering in Vos’ prayer is the good news that though we die, yet we shall live, that by grace alone we will be resurrected “at the hour set” to glorify and enjoy our Lord forever in the boundless joys of heaven—joys which earth cannot afford and none but Zion’s children know. The sea of crystal is forever before us. On its still, clear waters glisten the eternal glory of the gospel of Christ, the firstborn from the dead. With this end in mind, Vos encourages us in his sermon “Heavenly-Mindedness,” saying,

Being the sum and substance of all the positive gifts of God to us in their highest form, heaven is of itself able to evoke in our hearts positive love, such absorbing love as can render us at times forgetful of the earthly strife. In such moments the transcendent beauty of the other shore and the irresistible current of our deepest life lift us above every regard of wind or wave. We know that through weather fair or foul our ship is bound straight for its eternal port.[2]

Carried along by heavenly winds, even the Spirit of Christ in our sails, we pray: “In accord with Your covenant promise, O Lord, make of me a ship for Yourself.” Those last two words reach the apex of the religious longing of our hearts. For God, we were constituted as his image bearers in creation. From God, we fell in the sin of the first Adam. To God, we are restored and perfected by our union with the resurrected Christ in redemption. In Christ, we confess by his Spirit that even the glory of the escape of death is outshone by our God who has made us beautiful in his Son “for the grand sail of eternity.”

[1] Geerhardus Vos, Spiegel der Natuur en Lyrica Anglica (Princeton, NJ: Geerhardus Vos, 1927), 33–34. The translation is my own. I attempted to maintain the meter and rhyme scheme of the original.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, “Heavenly-Mindedness,” in Grace and Glory: Sermons Preached at Princeton Seminary (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2020), 120–21, emphasis mine.


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