Editor’s note: today’s guest post is a poem (and its introduction), inspired by a passage in Isaiah, that weaves together water imagery found in Scripture and includes a sea monster. What more do you need to know?
In that day,
Yahweh will visit,
with his sword, fierce and great and strong,
Leviathan, the swift serpent,
and Leviathan, the wriggling serpent,
and he will kill the Monster which is in the sea.
—Isaiah 27:1, translated by Alec Motyer, Isaiah by the Day
The dark, chaotic flood was the first thing to be subdued when the Spirit of God moved on the face of the deep. The first subduing word was “Light” (Genesis 1:2,3).
But the flood was unleashed again to destroy the morally devastated creation (Genesis 7). After that God promised never again to abandon his floating world to the forces of chaos (Genesis 9:11-17).
Water continued to play an important role in the story of redemption. As in the creation narrative when the first dry land appeared, the sea was subdued when God led Israel out of Egypt. They walked dryshod through the depths of the Red Sea, as through the wilderness (Exodus 14, Psalm 106:9). “Many waters cannot quench love,” a wise man wrote, “neither can the floods drown it” (Song of Solomon 8:7, KJV).
Concurrent with this theme of water as the element of chaos runs the theme of monsters, from the first chapters of Genesis. Unsurprisingly, after sin and death corrupt the “multi-colored, multi-form” (Edna St. Vincent Millay) creation, the sea becomes the home of terrifying creatures. The prophecy of Isaiah uses these symbols in a section that draws on a historical present to penetrate into the future. In a series of cyclical visions (chapters 13-27), the work speaks about chaotic powers that seek to shape human history, about God’s great victory over them in the prophesied Christ, and about the individual believer’s experience: the life of faith in an unstable, often violent world. In places, Isaiah’s world history achieves almost an aspect of fairy tale: as above, when a sea dragon is slain with a magic sword.
Unsurprisingly, the cyclical vision of history in Revelation draws heavily on this section of Isaiah. Revelation too speaks in what we conceive as fairy tales: a princess and a dragon, a monster rising out of the sea, a rider on a white horse, a magic sword. The monster vomits a sea that tries to swallow the princess and her child, but the earth helps her (Revelation 12:15-16): “Many waters cannot quench love.”
“He will kill the Monster which is in the sea”—it speaks of a created world that holds no threat to the heir.
Over the summer my husband took me to a few parks by Lake Michigan. One afternoon we wandered, winding up at a nearly deserted stretch of the clear, gentle water, visible to its sandy bed. When the sun came out, the whole transparent vision (as far out as my eyes could translate) became a mass of shifting gold lines over sand ridges, a net thrown every instant by light. My husband snapped a cell phone image. I cried.
Later I wrote a poem—my own sort of inadequate photograph. I wanted to have it for the same sort of keepsake. I understood something of that first word spoken again—not just over the world’s dark flood but over the individual. “Let there be light”—and there was light. As it filigreed the lake around me, a net drawing every shifting instant to awe, I felt almost fearless with vision of what will be. No more mental illness, no more torment of memory, no impure thoughts, no obsessions, rage, dishonesty, pride, despair.
Then You will kill the monster in the sea:
the bitter sea will feel land gently—
a trustful child
turning in long fought sleep.
So in eventual eased breathing,
all of sky’s hues will come to rest:
each ridge of sand
each little fish
around wading feet.
I will wade out of
to see colored stones
glittering, sunken leaves—
no fear of monsters, or of nightmare,
or of drowning. For this I know,
the sea will be pure light around me.
What further could be emblemed
from what is known
for sheer tremoring clarity—
wavering winged pink,
shattered glass rainbows
under every ripple’s corrugated seams?
Of the last margin’s
infant gold and blue—
when illumined sea
touches dim land,
tracing from memory—
a trustful child fingering bedclothes,