The Land of Spices
by: Michael Wilcock
Was this “land of spices” a legendary country, remote and mysterious? No, not exactly. Remote, certainly, even more so than the Queen of Sheba’s homeland; but a real place. For hundreds of years after Bible times, the spices that made food worth eating—cloves and nutmeg, mace and pepper—came chiefly (like the bird of paradise!) from today’s Indonesia, by a long and expensive route, most of it overland, with dues to be paid each time the merchants passed from one country to another. But by George Herbert’s time, a century of exploration by sea had enabled the countries of Europe to cut out the middleman and bring these good things directly from “the land of spices.”
When we pray, we are well aware that there is just one unavoidable middleman, the Lord Jesus. But he is not the kind that requires payment of duty at the customs posts on goods being traded internationally. Rather, he is himself the bringer of the goods. All dues paid, all costs covered.
Robert Leighton, a younger contemporary of Herbert’s and a leading light in the Church of Scotland, wrote of prayer as “our very traffic with heaven,” which “fetches the most precious commodities thence. He who sends oftenest out these ships of desire . . . to that land of spices . . . shall . . . have most of heaven upon earth.”
Here is the poem in its entirety:
BY GEORGE HERBERT
Prayer the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood.
The land of spices; something understood.