By Kim Longden
Ozymandias is one of my favorite poems to use as an interpretive reading exercise with the kids. In it, a traveler describes the ruins of a statue in a barren desert. Only the legs of this likeness of an ancient king are standing, while the broken remains of the rest of it are strewn around, half sunk in the sand. On the pedestal of what’s left of the statue are these words (and this is where the interpretive reading gets fun as we shout this part in a loud, booming voice with fists up in the air):
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
There’s a dramatic pause as you can almost hear the desolate desert winds blowing and imagine the narrator/traveler looking around, seeing that:
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The compelling images make it entertaining to read aloud. The poem also brings up interesting discussions about the rise and fall of empires throughout history—and the fact that no temporal power is permanent, regardless of how invincible earthly rulers think they are.
Reading this poem last week, in close proximity to Ash Wednesday, I couldn’t help but connect it with the imposition of ashes, where we’re reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. As I pondered the poem and the imposition of ashes, I looked around and realized that many of the things I’m worrying about, striving for, and agonizing over are, indeed, temporary.
Like Ozymandias, the treasures I’m so desperately trying to store up on earth will be “eaten by moths and destroyed by rust.” Even my physical body and the health I’m so desperately clinging to will one day turn to dust. Everything is subjected to the power of time and decay.
“You are dust,
and to and to dust you shall return.”
Genesis 3:19 (NIV)
When we look at Ozymandias’ works in this poem, we despair: not at his power, but at the fact that nothing remains. Nothing on earth lasts forever. Were that the end of my story, it would be devoid of hope, like the desolate desert wind haunting the sands where Ozymandias’ mighty works once stood.
However, embarking on this season of Lent, I’m reminded that dust isn’t the end of my story.
God’s Word tells me that there is a Kingdom that will last forever; that there is a King of Kings whose Kingdom will never end. I’m promised that I am a citizen of this Everlasting Kingdom through the King’s redeeming death and resurrection.
God’s Word also reminds me that, although my treasures here on earth will fall into ruin like the works of Ozymandias, my treasures in heaven are everlasting and cannot be destroyed. When I’m pursuing the things of Christ, I am pursuing that which will last forever.
And my health—the thing I’m struggling with holding onto so tightly even as I feel myself getting older: God’s Word tells me I will indeed face the effects of sin in my own body. I will get dusted. (Unless Jesus returns before I die.) I am dust, and to dust I will return. But I face the desolation of inevitable decay not with lonely despair or mocking defiance, but with confidence in the One who holds time and eternity in his hands. As Job cries out in the midst of his distress:
“I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!”
Job 19:25-27 (NIV)
My experience of creation after the Fall, even my experience with my own body as part of that fallen creation, is only temporary. The impermanence all around me won’t last forever. I am a transient wanderer, a temporary exile in this place. And yet, like Abraham, father of all wanderers, I know I have a permanent home.
By faith [Abraham] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—by now, they have all been dusted. Yet my God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the God of the living, not of the dead (Matthew 22:32).
Already now, although outwardly I am wasting away, inwardly I’m being renewed (2 Corinthians 4:16). I have already crossed from death to life (John 5:24), and though this body is destined for dust, this body is also destined for resurrection.
For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
“O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:53-57 (ESV)
When I look at a life built on the solid rock of God’s promises, I see that I am part of something bigger, something that will last forever. The physical impermanence of this mortal body will be replaced with the physical permanence of an immortal, resurrection body.
The ruins of Ozymandias remind me to fix my eyes on things above, and to long for the Day when death is swallowed up in victory.
Lord, give me an eternal perspective as I enter this season of Lent. Amen.