Published on August 14, 2023 by Eugene Ho

P & R Publishing, 2023 | 168 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Bennett W. Rogers 


As the title suggests, this book is an anthology of poetic devotionals on the events of Holy Week and their meaning. There are three types of readings, which correspond to the three categories listed in Ephesians 5:19: “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Ryken uses psalms to refer to poems taken from the Bible and printed in verse form. These include actual psalms, but they are not limited to the psalter. Ryken includes readings from the prophets, gospels, epistles, and Revelation as well. The hymns refer to the texts of familiar Holy Week songs presented as devotional poems. These include classics, as well as a few less well-known gems.  The spiritual songs are classic literary poems, written by the greats of English poetry (Milton, Herbert, and Donne) on the atonement and resurrection of Christ. And the poems are presented alongside classic works of art that illustrate one or more of the themes of the poems and do a wonderful job of setting the mood for devotional reflection. 

The readings are arranged by theme, not chronology, but there is a discernable flow that moves the reader naturally through Holy Week from beginning to end, which makes this anthology a wonderful resource for personal or family worship. 

The Prologue consists of prayers taken from the Book of Common Prayer that serve as portals through which to enter Holy Week. I typically read these collects (prayers) devotionally every year during this sacred season, so I was thrilled to see their inclusion. If you are not familiar with them, you should be. They are magnificent, but that is true of every selection. 

Before the Foundation of the World sets the events of Holy Week within the context of God’s eternal plan of redemption. The selection from Paradise Lost, “Shall Grace Not Find Means,” is one of the gems of the work, and the accompanying illustration, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise by Benjamin West (1791), poignantly connects the Garden and the cross to the pactum salutis, which Milton so movingly portrays. 

Holy Week: Toward the Cross follows the events of Holy Week from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the agony in Gethsemane late into the night on Maundy Thursday. I have two, but only two, critiques of this anthology. One, is that this needs to be published as a hardback. It is a treasure, and it deserves a more durable binding. Two, the hymn “Go to Dark Gethsemane” was not included. This critique is mostly tongue-in-cheek, and readers should give it very little weight indeed. I readily defer to Ryken in this matter. He chose “Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow” by William B. Tappan instead, and it comes in a close second. 

On the Cross: Redemption Accomplished contemplates the events of Good Friday and invites the reader to join the company of Jesus’ followers who stood within sight of the cross on Good Friday. They do more than compose the scene and awaken our imagination, they prompt us to reflect on the meaning of the physical facts of the crucifixion. 

Standing at the Cross: Responses of the Devoted Heart brings the reader to the foot of the cross once again, but they focus on the speaker’s inner response to the death of Christ. These introspective poems are among the most powerful in the entire work, and I suspect, the most unfamiliar. Apart from “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” by Gerhardt, all of the readings are poems, not hymns. More specifically, they are intensely personal reflections on the substitutionary nature of Christ’s sacrifice. 

Claiming the Cross: Redemption Applied follows the paradigm set forth in John Murray’s classic Redemption Accomplished and Applied and focuses the reader’s gaze on what Christ’s passion and death achieved for sinners, such as redemption from sin (Herbert), conversion (Wesley), forgiveness (Cowper) pardon and acceptance on the Last Day (Addison) and full atonement (Zinzendorf). 

Near the Cross: Life with the Cross at the Center reflects upon the meaning of a cruciform life – a life shaped by the cross of Christ. The actual cross of Christ forms the focal point of each poem, but the poets’ interests lie elsewhere. Rather than venerating the physical cross, the poets reflect upon what was transacted there and commit themselves to the one who suffered there for him. They are all familiar hymns – almost too familiar. But by reading them as poetry and bringing them together under this umbrella, I’ve gained new insights into them and discovered a new appreciation for them. 

At the Open Tomb: Resurrection is the longest, most diverse, and most exuberant unit in the anthology. These eight poems are unified by a single theme – the victory of the Resurrection. Rather than being monotonous, this singular focus gives the reader the opportunity to delight in the poets’ skill as they express their joy in Christ’s victory over the grave. 

Raised with Christ: Life Everlasting. It might be helpful to think of this unit’s relationship to the previous as resurrection accomplished and applied. These poems explore the application of Christ’s resurrection to the believer. Deliverance from the fear of death is one such benefit, as “Death, Be Not Proud” so wonderfully illustrates. Eternal life with Christ is another, as Christian F. Gellert’s poem “Jesus Lives, and So Shall I” reminds the believer. But readings from the New Testament – 1 Corinthians 15 and selections from the epistles and Revelation – dominate this final unit. Anchoring the believer’s hope in biblical poetry was a deft touch on Ryken’s part. 

Retrospective Ryken concludes this anthology with the Apostles’ Creed. Though it is not technically a poem, its content lends itself to devotional reading, and its structure – short, parallel clauses and phrases – is semi-poetic in nature. More importantly, the Creed brings together the various meditations on the death and resurrection of Christ together into a coherent whole. It is the perfect ending to a near-perfect book. It begins with prayers and ends with Scripture and the Creed. 

The idea of the book is genius. I can’t believe something like this hasn’t been attempted before – and I’m glad for it. Only someone like Ryken could pull it off. Every year during Holy Week I listen to Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew to draw my heart into the events of that week of weeks. I do the same each Christmas with Handel’s Messiah. Poetry of Redemption will become a fixed part of Holy Week for me and my family. I hope the Poetry of the Incarnation is soon to follow – in hardcopy. 

So far, I’ve largely praised Ryken for his work as an editor and neglected his excellent commentary. Readers who are familiar with Ryken’s work, especially his three recent volumes on hymns know what to expect from him as commentator. Those who have not are in for a treat. Ryken’s analysis of the poetry is outstanding and illuminating. He does an excellent job of explaining poetic terms and methods for laymen, and walks the reader through the poem, shedding new light on familiar texts as he goes. But Ryken provides more than just literary analysis, he is a spiritual guide. 

In the introduction, which is well worth the price of the admission, Ryken explains the contemplative paradigm that governs his exposition. First, he composes the scene. Then, he analyses the meaning. Finally, he summons to respond. Ryken walks the reader through the scene and its meaning in order to elicit the proper response. In other words, these devotional meditations are meant to move the reader to action, and Ryken excels at showing the reader what that is and why it is the appropriate response. 

I cannot commend Poetry of Redemption highly enough. It is an outstanding resource for personal devotion and family worship, especially during Holy Week. It will become a fixed part of my Holy Week reading from this point on, and I suspect the same will be true for many others. 


Ben Rogers

Buy the books


P & R Publishing, 2023 | 168 pages

Share This

Share this with your friends!