None Other Lamb, None Other Name: In a Broken World, a Quiet Confidence

I grew up around hymns and early learned to dislike them. It was the only music allowed in our fundamentalist home. I didn’t have a word for it when I was young, but I do remember the huge disconnect that existed between the lyrics we sang and the reality of our lives. The lyrics spoke of abounding joy, rich freedom, the sweetness of God’s presence, while our lives were solemn, judgmental, withdrawn, and regimented. The hymns we sang slowly ate away at my faith and were one reason I slid into doubt towards disbelief by the time I was in high school.

Hymns also occasionally provided comic relief, though we had to be careful to control our giggling during a service. One hymn, “Even Me,” by Elizabeth Codner was based on Ezekial 34:26, a lovely promise of God to his people who have suffered horribly through a long dry spell. “I will send down the showers in their season,” God says through the prophet, “they shall be showers of blessing.” The stanza that put us over the edge is the first one:
Lord, I hear of showers of blessing,
Thou art scattering full and free;
Showers the thirsty land refreshing;
Let some drops now fall on me;
Even me, even me,
Let some drops now fall on me.

Trouble was, our old hymnbooks had the lyrics as Codner had originally penned them:
Let some droppings fall on me,
Even me, even me,
Let some droppings fall on me.

Once you imagine the congregation, singing lustily with grim expressions, standing below bird-crammed trees the hymn takes on new and delicious possibilities. The vision was strangely satisfying.

Hymn singing has been a part of the Christian faith from the beginning. The original Christian Scriptures was the Old Testament that contains the Psalms, an entire collection of sacred songs and prayers. St. Matthew records that after Christ instituted the Eucharist, they sang a hymn and then walked together to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30). I’ve often wondered what they sang, and what the experience was like. The apostolic legacy left to us includes singing (Acts 16:25, 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:19), and St. John’s vision of being in God’s presence is suffused with joy and melody (see, for example, Revelation 4 &5).

In college I was introduced to the InterVarsity Hymn Book, and for the first time I was introduced to hymns that expressed truth without sacrificing beauty and goodness. Two especially moved me, David Clowney’s “God All Nature Sings Thy Glory” and the old Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.” The first embraced all of reality, expanding our horizon by taking in life within the life-affirming Story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. The second, dating to the 8th century, evoked an ancient faith that was as fearless as it was creative.

I have passed through and beyond that aching period of doubt, though remain sensitive to the hymns the church sings. Sometimes I simply sit silently, unable to voice words I do not believe to be true. Isaac Watts has written some fine hymns, but I will not sing, “At the Cross.”
At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!

Sorry, but that last line is simply untrue. Anyone who can sing that and claim it is true of them is either too highly medicated or needs medication badly. I believe we’ll be able to sing that someday, but not in this in-between-time in this sadly broken world.

None other Lamb
One hymn that has captured my heart is Christina Rossetti’s elegantly simple hymn to Christ, “None Other Lamb.” It first appeared not in a collection of poetry or hymns, but in The Face of the Deep, a book she published in 1892. Taking her title for the book from a phrase in Psalm 36:6 (“your judgments are like the great deep”), Rossetti’s subtitle captured her intent: A devotional commentary on the Apocalypse. Moving through St. John’s Revelation verse by verse, Rossetti reflects on the biblical text with the adoring meditation of poetic insight rather than the more usual—for commentaries on the book of Revelation—scholarly attempt to unscramble perceived puzzles in the visions the apostle records. Rossetti shows an admirable familiarity with the Scriptures and a good grasp of the basic theological implications of the details of John’s writing. Scattered throughout her reflections are poems and hymns she has composed, meant to enable the reader’s worship rather than to versify the text or to summarize its doctrinal content. She essentially worshipped her way through the Apocalypse, and in The Face of the Deep allows us to listen in to her heart’s contemplation.

“None Other Lamb” is part of Rossetti’s meditation on Revelation 5:6, a verse in the section of the book of Revelation in which John has been transported to the throne of God to see and hear the unceasing worship of all Creation before the Almighty’s presence. The apostle had just been overwhelmed with sorrow when it appeared no one in all Creation could be found who was worthy to open the book of God—“the scroll and its seven seals” (Revelation 5:1-4). The apostle knew what was at stake, which is why he “began to weep bitterly” (Revelation 5:4). The seals on the scroll, once broken, would usher in God’s justice so that wrong would be made right, so that darkness and wickedness would be replaced with the bright light of righteousness, and the unspeakable inhumanity, violence, and wickedness of human history would be once and for all undone. Having no one to open the scroll meant not just a sad ending to the story, but the worst of all possible endings. If the seals remained fastened and the scroll unopened, no final justice would occur, and the cruel brokenness suffered by so many innocent victims over all the ages would turn out to be meaningless.

Then, as the apostle mourns the loss of all things, an elder who stands in God’s presence tells him a Scroll-Opener has been found. This One is rooted deep in ancient tradition, of a royal lineage and the scion of a great tribe of humankind through whom the prophets had said the true Redeemer would come (Revelation 5:5). John looks up.

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth (Revelation 5:6).

This is the text of Scripture in Revelation that inspired Rossetti’s poem.
None other Lamb, none other Name,
None other hope in Heav’n or earth or sea,
None other hiding place from guilt and shame,
None beside Thee!
My faith burns low, my hope burns low;
Only my heart’s desire cries out in me
By the deep thunder of its want and woe,
Cries out to Thee.
Lord, Thou art Life, though I be dead;
Love’s fire Thou art, however cold I be:
Nor Heav’n have I, nor place to lay my head,
Nor home, but Thee.

It might seem paradoxical, especially today, that a hymn of such gentle sensitivity can be evoked by a vision of the unleashing of God’s final judgment. “None Other Lamb” contains no hint of pride or smirking triumph, neither the elation of one satisfied they are on the right side, or the glee of someone perversely anticipating the writhing of the damned. Instead Rossetti finds comfort in this One who can open the scroll, finding confidence not in her ability to believe but in the Lamb in whom her confidence rests, quietly certain that her Lord, not her suffering and the brokenness of the world, will have the final word.

Today the notion of God’s judgment tends to prompt discomfort rather than assurance, a reason to disbelieve or to modify the meaning of St. John’s vision to something a bit more to our liking. It is hard not to be cynical about any notion of final justice in a pluralistic world. What would it look like? More to the point, is there anyone capable of such a wonder? Besides, even if at some point the brutal criminals of all time are found guilty and punished the suffering of the innocent still would cry out from the blood stained pages of history. Though this would be better than the insufficient justice of our world, it would be of limited value to the victims who were torn, body and soul. For many, what they knew of life was defined by suffering.

St. John’s vision, however, provides an understanding of reality that breaks through such cynicism. Of all the world’s religions, at this point Christianity is unique in providing a hope that is qualitatively different. C. S. Lewis spoke of this great mystery, as what can only be described as “heaven working backwards.” Timothy Keller sums it up this way:
The Biblical view of things is resurrection—not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. That means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater…

Just after the climax of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee discovers that his friend Gandalf was not dead (as he thought) but alive. He cries, ‘I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself! Is everything sad going to come untrue?’ The answer of Christianity to that question is—yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.

In this understanding God’s final judgment is not merely terrible but victorious, unleashing a righteousness that does not merely end evil but that undoes it at the deepest level. Christina Rossetti properly takes comfort in St. John’s awful—awe-full—vision that is the prelude to the end of time and the fountain of hope. The Lamb that would open the scroll bore the marks of suffering, looking “as if it had been slaughtered,” because it had. The Lamb who suffered the injustice of his fallen creatures would now take up the need for justice, not in revenge but so that glory would cover the earth as the waters cover the seas (Habakkuk 2:24).
Stanza 1:
None beside thee.
None other Lamb, none other Name,
None other hope in Heav’n or earth or sea,
None other hiding place from guilt and shame,
None beside Thee!

The first stanza of Rossetti’s hymn celebrates the uniqueness of Jesus, the Scroll-Opener at the end of time. Five times she repeats, “none,” that no one other than Christ is sufficient for the task. As in St. John’s vision this is not intended to be controversial. Rossetti does not write it as a challenge to any who might propose an alternative champion. St John’s fear was that no one might be able to take and open the scroll, so that finally, in the end, our worst fears would be realized and the cries of injustice would simply echo forever into the dark corners of an uncaring cosmos. But the Scroll-Opener appears, and hope revives.

This one, Rossetti says—and none other—is the hope not just of a few but of all, no matter where they be found, in heaven or on land or on the seas. The completeness is intended.

In this Rossetti sees a fulfillment of Scripture in seeing Christ not merely as one prophet among many but the promised One. An earlier John had called him, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). She celebrates his Name, for as St. Peter insisted, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

In this one, Rossetti sees, is found the solution to both guilt and shame. Guilt can only be solved by forgiveness, and in the Lamb’s death this is precisely what was provided (Romans 5:1-11; 8:1). Shame must be replaced by acceptance and glory, and this too is found in Christ. As our elder brother he is not ashamed of us (Hebrews 2:11) and even now as the Spirit sanctifies we share progressively in his glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). “Death will be abolished,” Rossetti says, “pain over, tears wiped away, weakness reinforced, loss made good, failure retrieved: these are remediable, and will be remedied.”
Rossetti’s five-fold repetition of “None” could not be simpler, yet the simplicity masks a progressive unfolding of why the Scroll-Opener is worthy of praise. In him is found the ultimate sacrifice, the identity of salvation, our final hope, and all forgiveness and glory. Indeed, when we get to the final line and she leads us to speak to him directly, “None beside Thee!”
Stanza 2:
My heart cries out to Thee.
My faith burns low, my hope burns low;
Only my heart’s desire cries out in me
By the deep thunder of its want and woe,
Cries out to Thee.

This stanza speaks with special force to our postmodern evangelical world. Too few Christians today know of the reality of which Rossetti speaks, to their great loss. Today, sincerity of faith, confidence that a decision for Christ was made with heart-felt intensity is imagined to be the measure of faith and the foundation for assurance. “Not certain you really meant it then?” “Then go forward again, pray the prayer again—and this time really mean it.” The problem being, of course, that our sincerity, like everything else, is always partial at best, so the doubts creep back and the process is repeated, endlessly. Even when the advice comes with proof texts, it is the counsel of despair.

Rossetti is schooled in a more robust theology, where confidence is not located in the inward strength of the soul but in the historic reality of Christ’s cross. “Did Christ die and raise again?” Yes. “Then be at rest, in him, for his redemption is sure.”

Unlike so many of our evangelical contemporaries, Rossetti understood the difference between being an unbeliever, on the one hand who is kept from belief by doubt, and a believer who doubts, on the other. A person can be a child of God and yet struggle mightily and long with all sorts of doubts, perhaps for an entire lifetime. Some believe that without a “strong testimony” a person is likely unsaved. The truth of the gospel is that all testimonies are weak, and to be saved one needs only one thing, a strong Savior.

In a neat twist, Rossetti turns the weakness of her heart into a quiet confidence of faith. Her faith and hope “burns low” (repeated twice, nicely), so low that silence reigns. All that is left is desire and it’s cry, though unspoken, is a thunder of want and need and sad helplessness. That she offers, true evidence of true faith, knowing that it is heard by the One whose ears are delicately attuned to the prayers of his people (Isaiah 59:1; Romans 8:18-30).

Before the Scroll-Opener, Rossetti is reduced to knowing the great pit of “want and woe” (such good alliteration) that thunders in and from her heart. This is not a reason to doubt her faith but a reason for quiet confidence that life has been birthed in her. She yearns, even as she mourns that her yearning is not as strong as she would wish. And so, in the end, she invites us to allow our yearning to join hers. We turn from our condition of our hearts to address the desire of our hearts. Indeed, our heart “Cries out to Thee.”
Stanza 3.
No home but Thee.
Lord, Thou art Life, though I be dead;
Love’s fire Thou art, however cold I be:
Nor Heav’n have I, nor place to lay my head,
Nor home, but Thee.

Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894) was born into a remarkably literate, artistic family. Her brothers, Dante Gabriel and William Michael were part of an artistic movement that came to be known as The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She appears in some Pre-Raphaelite paintings, having served as a model for the delicately beautiful woman they sought to capture on the canvas. She was deeply religious, and over time was attracted to the High Church Anglicanism of the Oxford (or Tractarian) Movement. This was a movement in the Anglican Church, associated with scholars at Oxford, who wrote a series of influential tracts arguing for a High Church understanding of Christianity. It developed into what became known as Anglo-Catholicism, in which Anglicans hold to a view of the sacraments that is barely distinguishable from Roman Catholic teaching. Her father died when she was 24, a loss the entire family keenly mourned, and twice she turned down suitors, on religious grounds, to remain unmarried. Christina suffered from ill health that kept her from making a living as a governess when she was younger, and became increasingly severe as she grew older. She knew what it meant to suffer, and was no stranger to loneliness, disappointment, periods of depression, and unfulfilled longing.

In this stanza Rossetti sets up three vibrant contrasting metaphors, each demonstrating the grace of the Lord. She might be dead, he is life; she may feel distant, he is love; she has no place to call her own, while he is home itself. Once again her state is noted but does not become the final word, her limitation is named, but is always met by his sufficiency. Rossetti is not blind to the reality of life in a broken world, nor does she retreat into some sort of sentimentalism that causes her imply that all is fine when it is not. Rather, she allows reality to stand, but knows that someone greater than reality stands behind all she feels and sees at the moment. In her calculus of life, her deadness of spirit, coldness of heart, and distance from heaven are met in One whose promise endures in this in-between time just before the Consummation.

Rossetti’s hymn celebrates the paradox St. John sees. His vision is of a Lamb, marked by death and suffering, yet bearing the symbols of omnipotence and omniscience. The seven horns are a picture of unimaginable might, the seven eyes a holy-spirited picture of wisdom that tells the end from the beginning. William Barclay notes how Revelation 5:6 shows simultaneously “the majesty and the meekness” of Christ, the Lamb of God.

Here, indeed, is a truly tremendous picture of Christ. He is the fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of Israel, for He is the Lion of Judah and the Root of David. He is the one whose sacrifice availed for men, and who still bears the marks of it in the heavenly places. But the tragedy has turned to triumph, and the shame has turned to glory, and He is the one with all power and all knowledge, whose all-conquering might none can withstand, and whose all-seeing eye none can escape.
In these two stanzas Rossetti is refreshingly honest about the limit of her experience. She falls short, but the Lamb does not. John was able to see, if only for a moment, not some fantastical imagining of what we wish would be, but a glimpse of what is, even if we have not seen it yet. “Now it is blessed to believe without seeing,” Rossetti says, “then blessed will it be to see what unseen we have believed.” In this she seems to echo the yearning of an earlier hymn writer, Anne Steele (1716-1778):
Thou lovely source of true delight
Whom I unseen adore
Unveil Thy beauties to my sight
That I might love Thee more.

In the meantime, like the true believer she is, Rossetti lives as if it is true, and finds it so. This is the living faith from which her hymn is breathed.

Rossetti does not merely accept that Christ will provide a place for her, a dwelling place in his Father’s house (John 14:1-3). She wants more than this, wanting instead the object of her heart’s desire to be her dwelling, her place of safety and warmth, her final home.

In a broken world, quiet confidence
Recently I shared an unhurried conversation with a young man over a glass of fine single malt. We talked of life and art, marriage and faith, knowing and doubt. He mentioned that the Christians he worked with spoke often of God’s presence, and that he found that troubling, for he did not share the experience. I told him that in this regard my life would be best summarized as an experience of God’s absence. Not that I disbelieve in his presence with me, because I know his promise to be with his people (as in for example, Matthew 28:20 and John 14:17), and I believe it to be true. I even occasionally notice evidences of grace in my life I can only attribute to him, and I’m grateful. But feeling his presence or sensing his nearness? I thought so a few times, but by the time the experience faded I was no longer certain that the moment was anything more than a happy confluence of hormones, good weather, and the personal comfort afforded to ordinary middle-class Americans.

Like my young friend, I find a kindred spirit not in the triumphant testimonies I hear in church, but in the poetry of Christina Rossetti. I share her quiet confidence but am always keenly aware of the brokenness of the world—which always makes even my deepest yearnings suspect.

Tom Waits’ “Dirt in the Ground” (Glitter and Doom) expresses a postmodern vision of the end, but the horizon is far more limited than what Christina Rossetti knew. Though Waits appeals to Scripture he stops too soon, so there is no lamb, no sacrifice, and no final home.
What does it matter, a dream of love
Or a dream of lies
We’re all gonna be in the same place
When we die
Your spirit don’t leave knowing
Your face or your name
And the wind through your bones
Is all that remains
And we’re all gonna be
We’re all gonna be
Just dirt in the ground
Now Cain slew Abel
He killed him with a stone
The sky cracked open
And the thunder groaned
Along a river of flesh
Can these dry bones live?
Ask a king or a beggar
And the answer they’ll give
Is we’re all gonna be
Yea yeah
We’re all gonna be just
Dirt in the ground

It’s either/or. If St John is merely a religious mystic, in an exile so harsh that sensory deprivation drives him to see strange apparitions that do not count, then Waits is correct and all that remains is dirt in the ground. But if the apostle caught a glimpse of the reality that undergirds all that is, as Christina Rossetti believed (as do I), then there is more and the more is more than we could possibly have hoped for on our own. Rossetti glimpsed St John’s glimpse, and “None Other Lamb” was the result. I sing her hymn, and find not just an authentic expression of the gospel, but the very deepest yearning of my heart.


Sources: Christina G. Rossetti, The Face of the Deep by Christina G. Rossetti (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1821), 174, 176. This title is available for free download from Google books

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York, NY: Dutton; 2008), 32-33

Margaret Drabble, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature (New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1985), 785-786, 848-849. All biographical information on Rossetti in this paper, unless noted otherwise, is taken from this source.

William Barclay, The Revelation of John Volume 1 (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press; 1959), 217; and Tom Waits, Glitter and Doom Live (Los Angeles, CA: Anti, Inc; 2009)