“The Agony” by George Herbert

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states and kings;
Walked with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove;
Yet few there are that sound them—Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,
His skin, His garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like,
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

– George Herbert (1633)

Before the analysis of the poem, let me suggest that you read back through this poem out loud. Most poems are written for the ear, and so should be read aloud. If there are words or phrases that you don’t understand, just pass by them for now and focus on the flow of the poem. As you do, notice what lines you are drawn to, what moves you. How do you feel?


Herbert’s poem, The Agony, is a provocative poem reflecting on the limits of what we may call “scientific knowledge” (stanza 1), the gruesomeness of sin (stanza 2), and the paradox of God’s love (stanza 3).

Stanza 1

Herbert opens the poem with the exploits of philosophers, those who have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and enquiry. They measure mountains, states, kings, even the very heavens above. The “staff” Herbert refers to is Jacob’s staff, an old astronomical tool used to follow stars, measure mountains, or navigate ships on the sea. Yet, for all of these explorations, there remains “two vast, spacious things” which staffs and microscopes and super computers fail to examine: Sin and Love.

Stanza 2

If you want to know what Sin is you must “repair” (return) to “Mount Olivet.” Jesus was not crucified on Mount Olivet, yet it was featured prominently in His ministry. But Herbert clearly has the crucifixion scene in mind as paints a visceral picture of a suffering Christ, whose skin and hair are matted with gore and blood. What is Sin? Following Paul, Herbert points to the one righteous man who “became sin” (2 Cor 5:21) for us.

Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Herbert relies on the word “vice” being a homonym for “vise”. Sin is that “press and vice” in the sense that sin is oppressive and exhausting. But it is the image of the literal “press and vise” that illustrate what sin does. It crushes you, it “forceth pain” to hunt down its food through every vein. In other words, it will bleed you dry by pulverizing you like a grape trodden underfoot, squeezing every last drop of blood from you. That’s what sin does, and that’s what sin did to the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Often we don’t see the horror of sin for all its worth. It hides behind deceitful covers and tricks us, like the fool ensnared by the adulteress’ smooth talk: “With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter,” (Prov 7:21-22). Behind the allure of sin, there lay a vast throng of dead bodies and stinking corpses. But it takes spiritual eyes to see that, to see what sin actually costs. So, the horrors of Good Friday stand before us like smelling salts to wake us up to reality. What does sin look like when its dress is pulled off? It looks like a gasping, bloody, wailing Jesus being crushed to death. It is significant that Herbert treats the issue of sin before love–you cannot know true love, till you see your sin.

Herbert relies on a popular motif of his day–the “mystic winepress“–which depicted Jesus being crushed in a winepress, like a grape. Isaiah 53 explains, “it was the will of the LORD to crush him,” (Isa 53:11) for our own iniquities and sins.

Léonard Gaultier (French, ca. 1561–1641), “The Mystic Winepress,” 1609. Copperplate engraving, 150 × 80 cm. BIbliotheque nationale de France, Paris.

Stanza 3

In the third stanza Jesus is depicted like a cask of wine that has been cracked open for our benefit. The cross is the “pike” which split Christ open and drained Him of His blood. Here Herbert masterfully folds together several biblical-theological themes: the wrath of God depicted as foaming wine; the blessing of God depicted as sweet wine; and the Lord’s Supper.

The Old Testament in particular emphasizes that when God defeats His enemies, they will be crushed underfoot like grapes of wrath. Isaiah 63 depicts Yahweh treading a winepress in wrath, “I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel,” (Isa 63:3; cf. Rev 14:17-20; 19:13-15). But then, a few verses later, Yahweh explains that He will make His enemies drink this wine of wrath, “I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth,” (Isa 63:6). God’s wrath is frequently depicted as the drinking of wine, “For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs,” (Ps 75:8).

But, paradoxically, the Old Testament often depicts wine from heaven as a blessing. Amos and Joel both depict the mountains “dripping with sweet wine” (Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13) when Yahweh restores His people. Jeremiah depicts Israel rejoicing in the Lord over the abundant wine He provides His people when the New Covenant is established (Jer 31:12) and Proverbs promises that one of God’s blessings towards those who are generous is that their vats are bursting with wine (Prov 3:10). Isaiah depicts the feast that the Lord will hold for His people in the New Creation as being a feast with “aged-wine well refined” (Isa 25:6).

So wine is both an image of blessing and of curse, of divine favor and divine wrath. Which brings us to the most significant marriage of the two: the blood of Jesus. At the Last Supper, Jesus holds up a cup of wine and explains that it is His blood which will be poured out for the forgiveness of sins, it is what will procure the blessings of the New Covenant, and serves as a foretaste of that new wine that Jesus will drink with us in His kingdom one day (Matt 26:27-29). A few moments later, Jesus collapses in prayer in Gethsemane and prays, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will,” (Matt 26:39).

Jesus holds out a cup towards us and says, “Taste this blessing.” Yet, when the cup comes around to Jesus, there is no blessing, there is only wrath. Look again at Herbert’s last stanza:

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like,
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

“Assay” simply means “test”. If you do not yet know love, then taste the wine that flows from Christ’s veins, drink deeply of the free forgiveness that comes from this Savior. The cross was like a tap driven into a cask of wine, draining Jesus of love that we may freely taste. This is love, “liquor sweet and most divine, Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.”

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” – John 6:53-56

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