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To blaze his Name abroad

John Milton used the phrase to blaze his Name abroad in his paraphrase, “Psalm 136,” one of his earliest dated poems (1624). I first noticed this psalm-poem only a few years ago, though it has been in many hymnals for a long time. You may recognize it by its first verse.

Let us with a gladsome mind
Praise the Lord for He is kind
For his mercies ay endure,
Ever faithful, ever sure.

This repetitive psalm is one that drives home the refrain, for his mercy endures forever (or his steadfast love, as the RSV has it). But its first three verses repeat their opening too. Each of those three verses — O give thanks to — opens the same way, only varying some apposite titles for the one to be thanked.

Milton’s paraphrase repeats the punchline of enduring mercies, but he varies the openings of the first three verses. His second psalm-verse (line 5 of his poem) opens with the phrase:

Let us blaze his Name abroad,
For of gods he is the God;
For his mercies ay endure,
Ever faithful, ever sure. (emphasis added)

The same phrase appears in his versified rendition of Psalm 86, from a later collection, “Psalms 80-88” (1648).

Thee will I praise O Lord my God
Thee honour, and adore
With my whole heart, and blaze abroad
Thy name for ever more.

The phrase is Milton’s rendering of Psalm 86:12, in the RSV:

I give thanks to thee, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
and I will glorify thy name for ever.

There is a connection to gratitude or thanksgiving in both Psalms, but Milton likely uses to blaze his name abroad as an equivalent for to glorify it. To blaze can mean to make public or conspicuous. Today this meaning survives in the expression to blaze a trail. In this sense, too, blaze still commonly name the marks we put on trees to make known the course of a walking trail.

Ever since I took it in, this line has surfaced in my mind occasionally but regularly. It has lingered recently, for a different kind of blaze — autumn’s yearly splendor. To be sure, this is a more common meaning of blaze in our ordinary talk: “to be conspicuously brilliant or resplendent.” Not all falls are equal, but this year’s has been glorious. The grandeur and force of the spectacle is hard to miss where I live. In southeastern Ohio, the hills rise wooded everywhere you can see. Resplendent, they fill your vision. If you can find another vantage, get a little higher, or step a little farther back, you will only see more of them — a soundless conflagration rolling and rising in every direction, the hills engulfed in numberless licking flames.

Milton’s line has helped me for the past few autumns to dwell on this annual display as a declaration of God’s majesty and beauty. A blaze in every sense, the season is brilliantly, resplendently conspicuous. Is there a better medium to publish a Name?

I’m not the first to see flame in the Fall colors, or probably even to connect them with the theophanies of Scripture. Euonymus alatus, or winged Euonymus, is a very common garden shrub in my part of the world. I can see four from my back porch. Its Latin name refers to the distinctive ridges on its branches, but it is more usually called a “burning bush” for its red fall foliage. Moses’ encounter in the Bible concerns the revelation of the Name.

‘Thank you, God, for making colors,’ my daughter prayed once when she was only 5 or 6. It surprised me when she said it, and then I felt my own calloused ingratitude exposed and rebuked. But I cannot imagine seeing this annual play of colors without delight or thanskgiving. Thankless and unmoved, could you really see this sight at all?

I love the visions in the Bible. In the late prophetic literature and in apocalyptic texts especially, the words of Scripture dazzle with their pictures — colorful displays of crystalline brilliance:

His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the noise of a multitude. (Dan. 10:6)

Looking on the hills in mid-October, it is not hard for me to think of what I see as a kind of vision. It’s a fitting sight for God enthroned — glorified in autumn’s brilliance, hymned by burning throngs of a thousand reds and oranges, acclaimed by wavering leaves beyond numbering. It is not a stretch at all to think of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel or John’s Apocalypse on any uneventful drive or stroll: “And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald” (Rev. 4:3).

What I see in October is natural, ordinary, and expected, but a theophany no less. The cosmos is emblazoned with the glory of the Name. Examples, signs, or copies, these blazes point us on. This play of colors is Wisdom’s own delight.

I am made for hilly woodlands, temperate and deciduous, but I know that other landscapes unfold their own sights in their own times, with strange beauties no less wonderful. Can you really see any of them unaffected, without gratitude or delight? When I think about autumnal radiance (or see it), ingratitude seems senseless, impossible, and absurd. How perverse to see it all and stand unmoved, unbelieving, and unbowing! Is it really possible to see any sight worth seeing without some name like Beauty? Can they really be an example of just nothing?

Autumn is an easy time to keep in mind both the glory of the Lord and the telling beauty of creation. Milton helps remind me too, by the double meaning of blaze. But now, even with the season already faded and its glory mostly shed, beauties continue to unfold and declare themselves and more than themselves. For me, winter is a harder word to love, but my tutorial is coming fast. Fall is now a rusty detritus, the material for weekend chores. But our most urgent and unending task remains: to seek and find in every place and everything the blazes of the Name.


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