On Penetrating the Sky and Subjugating the Spirit

I’ve been enjoying rereading the slightly bonkers Shepherd of Hermas this week, and was delighted by an illustration the author records midway through Book Two, a book focussed on commands from the Lord. I’ve written about how we ought to view this work elsewhere, but here I want to dwell on this little illustration and take what is useful from it.

The author of the work describes this illustration as a parable, spoken in conversation between the Shepherd and the author. It goes as follows…

“Take a stone, and throw it to the sky, and see if you can touch it. Or again, take instead a little water and squirt it into the sky, and see if you can penetrate the sky.”

“How,” I asked, “can these things take place? Both of them are truly impossible!”

“As these things are truly impossible,” he replied, “so also are the earthly spirits powerless and weak.”

Shepherd of Hermas, 2.11.

It’s pretty easy to follow. Can you penetrate the sky by tossing up a rock or squirting up a little water? Absolutely not. Likewise can the sinful and evil spirits of this world penetrate and unsettle the plans and things of God? Absolutely not.

The point of this parable is to give the reader confidence in the things of God. Though the powers of hell might be arrayed against God and His people on this earth, they are in fact weak and powerless before the almighty God. So Christian, as much in the twenty-first century as the first readers of this in the second century, take heart in the truth this parable points to!

Jesus taught that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church (Matt 16:18.) We can confidently delight in the truth of this. In the Shepherd of Hermas, the author recounts this parable because two spirits are being explained. The Holy Spirit, who equips and inspires God’s people to live for Him, and the earthly spirits who oppose this divine work. How frail and foolish this latter group is shown to be against the divine might of our triune God! Be encouraged, for the flesh and the devil have as much chance of unseating the plans and purposes of God as a tossed up pebble does of penetrating the heavens.

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