Next to Shakespeare, John Milton (1608-1674) is probably the greatest poet in the English language. Learned in classical literature and languages and brilliant in both poetry and prose, he was also a man of very deep faith.
When the Puritans seized power following the English Civil War (1642-1646), Milton was given an important post in the new government. He dreamed of building a Christian commonwealth, one of true liberty. But under the military dictatorship of Cromwell, the Puritan revolution took a darker turn; England became a repressive police state where dissent was squashed and censorship cruelly enforced.
Milton’s was a voice of reason and moderation during this upheaval, but the people groaned under the new brand of tyranny and even longed for the old monarchy. When the kingship was finally restored in 1660, Milton had to flee for his life. Heartbroken, his dream shattered, the poet had now to deal with a new enemy– his growing blindness.
For years his eyesight had been failing, until finally, he could no longer read nor write. As a man of great intellectual energy and abilities, he now found himself at the height of his powers, but helpless, having to be fed and cared for like an infant. He argued with God. Why, he asked, had the Lord allowed this to happen, on top of everything else he had to endure– the collapse of the commonwealth, his being hunted as a fugitive? He even tried to back God into a corner using scripture: “Lord, you say in your word that those who do not exercise their talents will be judged severely. Well, here I am, blind as a bat, helpless and useless. How is that going to bring you glory? I want to serve you. Why won’t you let me serve you?” (Have you even done that– used the Bible to try to force God’s hand?)
It was during one of these grief-stricken and frustrated prayers that Milton heard the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit. The Lord’s answer, full of comfort and truth, struck its mark. In response, the old Puritan wrote the following poem, called “On His Blindness.”
WHEN I consider how my light is spent
E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide.
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d,
I fondly ask; But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his milde yoke, they serve him best. His State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and waite.
Have you ever been frustrated, wondering where your life is going? Wondering why you seem stuck, when all you want to do is serve Him? Have you ever felt abandoned by God, neglected, or forgotten? Looking at a dictionary definition of waiting, we find there’s more to it than just anticipation of something to come. It is more than merely enduring delay or postponement. Waiting itself is service, as in a waiter or lady in waiting. The one who waits makes himself ready for the master’s call. Whether the servant is called or not is up to the master, but the service mostly lies in making oneself ready and available, day in and day out, while listening for the call.
The Lord has millions of servants who are ready to buzz about, going here and there, in his service. But he doesn’t have many who are willing to stand in his presence and wait. If the king never asks that servant in waiting to do anything except wait, the servant is still serving; his pay is the same as the one who flies hither and yon for his master, for he is doing his lord’s will.
God is not the author of blindness, but whatever the Lord’s purpose in allowing Milton’s vision to go dark, he was certainly doing a work of humility in the poet’s life, taking him to a deeper level of surrender and perception than he could have known had he retained his sight.
However long and tedious those hours must have seemed, Milton did not have to wait much longer. Ironically, his greatest and most enduring works lay before him. A few years later he would begin dictating to his daughter his epic Paradise Lost, the greatest poem in the English language. And through that work the poet would seek to “justify the ways of God to men,” speaking comfort and truth to his nation, dazed and grieving from a generation of political and religious upheaval.