Of Nova Zembla Tollens* sings: "Here the Prince of Winter has erected his throne."
Yet at heart this is ungodly and fundamentally heathen speech, as though there were a Prince of winter, who brings ice and snow and hoarfrost. A language that contrasts strongly with what in Israel a David and an Asaph sang: Our God gives snow like wool, he scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes, he casteth forth his ice like morsels: who can stand before his cold?" (Ps. 147:16, 17).
This is the language of piety.
Winter also is nothing but a wondrous creation of the almightiness of the Lord.
In cold also, which changeth the face of the earth, our God is made great.
More briefly still, with Asaph confessed in Psalm 74: "The winter also, which thou hast made."
Neither is winter accidental; what it brings with it is no mere play or whim. In winter also there is formation. One great thought expresses itself in it, which temporarily puts its fetters about all of life, and penetrates even smallest particles.
The same God who created Paradise without seasons, presently has broken up the one vast paradise wealth into four seasons, and as by magic imparted unto each of them a glory of its own, as well as a shadow-side.
And in that succession of the seasons, God gives you instruction, every year again the same instruction of His majesty and might, and of the turn from life to death and from death unto life again; an instruction in images as rich in meaning as compelling to action; for you yourself go on with the seasons and undergo the stimulus of the same.
In Israel our winter was not known. Only from Hermon glistened the never melting snow; but for the rest, cold was never so biting, and the Jordan was never so solidly floored as ice builds it upon our rivers.
And yet, Scripture brings us, children of the north, in many ways a richly varied interpretation of what winter provides.
Snow that covers the earth, however beautiful, is an image of death, and the first that Scripture tells you of it is in the white of leprosy: "leprous, white as snow" (Ex. 4:6).
And yet, because from death is life, that same snow is likewise the image of purging from sin. "Wash me, and I shall be whiter than newly fallen snow" (Ps. 51:7). So in anguish of soul David prayed, and Isaiah brought us the word of divine promise: "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (Is. 1:18).
So the snow-garment became the image of heavenly spotlessness. There are treasure chambers, from whence that heavenly whiteness descends. He who knows God will for "no rock of the field leave the snow of Lebanon" (Jer. 18:14). When the majesty of the Lord appears, "His garment is white as snow" (Dan. 7:9). That gleaming white glistens on the angels of God when they appear at the opened grave of Jesus. Of the Savior Himself on Tabor it is said: "His raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow" (Mark 9:3). And John on Patmos saw Him once more in that snow-white raiment.
But snow is not merely the image of death and the image of spotless heavenly purity, there is also a working in it comparable with the working of God's Word.
You know the passage in Isaiah (Is. 55:10) that oracles of this: "For as the snow cometh down from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goeth out of my mouth."
This is what we said above, that in winter there is a formation, a creation, an action on the part of God.
Winter is not merely there. No, God Himself has formed it.
"Who can stand before His cold?" asks the psalmist, and the cold wherewith God can cause all life to freeze apart is terrible. At the North and South Pole the cold is so dreadful, at its worst, that no human breast can draw breath. And by thermometers put down on tops of highest mountains, such cold has been observed that renders all life impossible.
But what is this compared with that cold which in the uttermost parts of His creation God has weaned of all glow and glitter?
So there is grace in the moderation wherewith God, here on earth, changes for you heat and cold. At one time He could scorch you, at another He could freeze you. That He sends you cold thus tempered, is protecting, preserving grace.
But without serious warning no winter ever goes by. There are always aged among us, or weak-lunged, or susceptible natures, who cannot stand even that tempered cold, and for whom winter is a messenger of death from God.
"If they might reach spring, there would be hope; but winter is bad"—so runs the discouraging word, and every year through snow and frozen ground, grave after grave must be dug, to lay away those who have succumbed before God's cold.
Entering so deeply into life, all unobservedly that "cold of God" changes the whole character, the whole manner, of our life.
In summer we are as birds that fly about. Almost no one stays at home, everyone goes out to enjoy the air and the sun. But in winter, all remain indoors, to escape the inhospitable out-of-doors. This enriches the home life. At the fireside one finds again that happy quiet world, which in the busy outside world had been so largely lost.
The mood which makes one turn indoors, instead of out-of-doors, affects our personal life.
The seriousness of life impresses itself more deeply upon the soul. There is more time for serious literature. Conversation is more restful, and thereby less superficial. Even church life in winter assumes richer proportions. There is more housework done. It even may be said that a life with continuous summer makes us spiritually poorer, while winter every time again deepens our life.
Herein also winter is a servant of God, going forth to consummate His work in us, and blessed is the heart, the home, the people, where each coming winter may realize this end.
From without to within.
And the more the cold increases round about us, the better is the soul warmed to the seriousness of life.
Yet these gains of life in winter should not make you cruel and indifferent to the suffering of winter.
When the skate is clasped to the foot, and merrily young and old glide along the ice-floor, there is something refreshing in the humor wherewith our human heart defies the terrors of the cold.
What suffering winter brings is therefore not less striking. When work grows less and presently is at a standstill. When cold limbs ask for double covering, and, to satisfy hunger, the last blanket had to be taken to the pawnshop. Because of the cold, there is more food required, and yet, how many there are with whom wages in winter are least. Oh, the woes of winter for the poor, who have nothing laid by, are so bitterly hard!
"Who can stand before God's cold?" asks the psalmist, and you may be thankful when God gives you a good house and a warm garment and comfortable covering, to be able to stand before His cold.
But bear in mind, there are those who will succumb, unless pity comes in to help.
For He formed the winter for this end, that the suffering of the impoverished should rouse those who are warmed and fed, and that the love of God should beam forth cherishingly from the hearts of men to shield against His cold.
So then, according to the covenant sworn to Noah, and in him to us all, this change of seasons shall not cease, until our Lord's return, and every time after heat the cold, after summer the winter shall come to you "from the Father-hand of God."
Not summer from God, and winter from the evil one, but summer and winter formed by Him.
Formed, to show you, how as with one turn of magic He can change the whole face of the earth and make it glisten with a beauty all its own; prelude of what it once shall be, when the old fashion of the world shall have passed away for good, and there shall be a new earth and new heavens.
Formed, to concentrate your life more upon yourself, to deepen it in you and to tune it to higher seriousness.
Formed, in all sorts of images, to make you understand eternal things.
Formed to quicken pity in your soul and generously to open the hand for the brother who would succumb.
But formed also, to be to you a memento mori, i.e., to place before your eyes in great and mighty outlines the withering and dying of what was once flourishing and beautiful, and to say to you, that the winter of life already came or presently shall come upon you, and that from that winter sleep there dawns no other spring, than in the eternal morning, for such as are in Christ Jesus.
*“The Hollanders in Nova Zembla, 1596-1597: An Arctic Poem” written by Hendrik Tollens.
This article was written by Abraham Kuyper and printed in the March 15, 2003 issue of the Standard Bearer.