Whom Have I in Heaven but Thee?


Whom have I in heaven but thee?

So cried Asaph the psalmist. It is an astonishing moment in the history of man, for Asaph had looked upon the wicked and seen how they prospered. His feet had well nigh slipped, he says. Yet he held fast to two truths that had been revealed to him. The first is that the wicked, by their very deeds, become hard of understanding, and in the end go down to slaughter, like the witless beasts. The second is that, in a way that batters down the fortress of death itself, the just man possesses the friendship of God, and that friendship counts for more than heaven and earth together.

It is not how the Greeks thought of Zeus and his capricious fellow Olympians. True, it was a good thing to possess the favor of an Athena or an Apollo, just as it was good to be clear-sighted, or to have a talent for the pan pipes. But no Greek conceived that friendship with Apollo, if it was even possible, could make up for being scorned and destitute, much less that it could conquer the grave. But in the psalm, this lone human heart cries out, without any clear assurances that there even is a life beyond this life, that to possess God is to possess everything. For that friendship he would trade wealth, and renown, and long life; all the good gifts that he was taught, not incorrectly, were in the generous hands of God.

How admirable you are, psalmist second to David, forgotten by most of the faithful, but remembered by the only One who matters! Your cry resounds through the ages and gives heart to those who would undertake the quest to find God in the beauty of the world, the love of their neighbor, and the stillness of their own hearts. You had the Torah before you, recounting the miracle that God wrought when He freed your people from the slave drivers of Egypt. But you had never seen God. No man had seen God. You had been taught as it were on the north side of revelation, in shadow and suggestion. You had little enough to hold on to. Yet you persevered.

Many centuries later, when your people had been reduced to a tributary state, controlled by the cosmopolitan Romans — ruthless, worldly-wise, already half weary of the responsibility of rule — a child would be born in Bethlehem of Judea. See there the naked babe, helpless and human. You dwelt in the twilight, and saw one star, the love of God, shining through the confusion of the world. Now a band of shepherds come from their weary task, led by song in the skies, to see a little child, while the beasts, witless though they may be, make their humble and comforting noises, shuffling in the stable, snorting in the cold. You could not see God. But the shepherds did. St. Peter did, proclaiming that he had been witness to the glory of God, the glory of His only-begotten Son. St. Paul did, struck blind by the dazzling fact of Christ, as he made his way to Damascus, witless as the beast upon which he rode.

Whom have we in heaven, good psalmist, but the Lord? And the Lord saw our weakness, and came down to us as a babe, then a child, then a man, that we might break bread with Him, hear His voice, look into His eyes, and feel His touch. Many have been the days when I have stood alone on a crag of the soul, without a human hand to warm the shoulder, or a human voice to say, “I am with you always.” But, time and again, the Lord has turned my gaze to see the child, my King, my God, naked in His mother’s arms, or asleep in those swaddling bands, image of the shroud that also could not hold His glory. Much is wrong with the world. It will always be so. And our love hardly toddles, while we grow old in sin. The world brays out its pride, boasting of wealth and godless power. It has always done so. And we listen to the braying, and join in its witless song. But always there is the Babe, who speaks a world of love in His speechless simplicity.

I am far, far from the courage of the psalmist Asaph. But the Word has become flesh, and dwelt among us, and that gives me the warrant to say: If ever I have understood anything in this world, it was but a glimpse of You; if ever I have loved with but a trace of self-forgetting, it was You I loved. I am an old sinner in a cradle; be near me, Lord Jesus. I am a mere son of earth; raise me, to be born again. I am a witless man, who has wandered by the way; lead me to the place where you have gone. For whom have I in heaven but thee? And on earth there is none beside.

Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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