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Boston Catholic Journal - Critical Catholic Commentary in the Twilight of Reason



The Nisibene Hymns

of Saint Ephrem the Syrian


Saint Ephrem the Syrian




Saint Ephrem the Syrian was born in 306 A.D. in Nisibis, Syria, in the Roman Province of Mesopotamia. He died in 373 A.D. ministering to the victims of a plague that had ravaged Edessa. Proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1920, his hymns  — composed to be chanted by alternating choirs of nuns — continue to inspire us through their poetic beauty and their unsparing presentation of the contention between Christ and the devil; sanctity and sin.

Listen to the audio file following and beneath each Chapter below


Hymn 35

Concerning Our Lord, and Concerning Death and Satan

1. The Voice made proclamation: and they gathered and came; the hosts of the Evil One, together with his ministers. The army of the tares was gathered altogether, for they saw that Jesus had triumphed, to the grief of all them on the left hand, for there was none of them but had been tormented. They began one by one to relate all whatsoever they had endured. Sin and Hell were terrified: Death trembled and the dead rebelled; and Satan because sinners rebelled against him. R., To You be glory because the Evil One saw You and was troubled!

2. Sin cried aloud; she gave counsel to her sons, to the demons and the devils, and unto them she said, Legion the head of your ranks is not, the sea has swallowed him and his company; and likewise ye my sons if you despise, this Jesus will destroy you. You who in a snare took Solomon, it is therefore a reproach to you, that you should be overcome by his disciples, takers of fish and ignorant men; for lo! They have taken the draught of men, which had been taken by us.

3. This is great, above all evils (says the Evil One, concerning our Saviour); for this suffices Him not that He has spoiled us, but likewise on us He has begun retribution for Jonah son of Amittai. On Legion therefore He was avenging him when He seized and cast him into the sea. Jonah emerged, after three days and came up; but Legion yea not after a long season, for the depth of the sea closed upon him at the command.

4. I tempted Him, after his fast, with pleasant bread, but He desired it not. To my grief I strove to learn a psalm, that by His psalm I might take Him as a prey: I paused and learned it a second time, but He made my second trial to be vain. I brought Him up to a mountain and showed Him all possessions; I gave them to Him and He was not moved. Better was it for me in the days of Adam, who gave me no great trouble in teaching him.

5. The Evil One ceased, from his activity and said, A cause of idleness to me, is this Jesus; for lo! The publicans and harlots take refuge in Him. What work shall I seek for myself? I who was master to all men, to whom shall I be a disciple? Sin again said, It must be, that I forsake, therefore, and change from that which I am; for this Son of Mary who has come, as a new creation, has created mankind.

6. Gluttonous Death, lamented and said, I have learned fasting, which I used not to know; lo! Jesus gathers multitudes, but as to me, in His feast a fast is proclaimed for me. One man has closed my mouth, mine who have closed the mouths of many. Hell said I will restrain my greed; hunger, therefore, is mine: this Man triumphs as at the marriage, when He changed the water into wine, so He changes the vesture of the dead into life.

7. And moreover, God made a flood, and washed the earth, and purged her crimes; fire and brimstone again He sent on her, that He might make white her stains. By fire He gave me the Sodomites, and by flood the Giants. He closed the mouth of the hosts of Sennacherib, and opened the mouth of Hell. These things and such as these, I loved. But now, in place of deadly visitations of justice, He has wrought in His Son, the quickening of the dead by grace.

8. Prophets and righteous men, said the Evil One, unto his companions, have been seen by me; and though their strength was exceeding mighty, there was in them a savour of that which is mine; for the stuff whereof the sons of man are made, is near akin to our heaven. This man has clothed Himself with the body of Adam, and is troubling us, for our leaven has no power on Him. He is man, therefore, and God; for His manhood in His Godhead is intermingled.

9. Adam was seen by me, that fountain from whence flowed all races of men; his children has been sought out by me, and proved one by one. Yet have I not seen from the beginning a man, of whom one part was of God, and the other half, man. Moses, who shone in his splendour, I tempted again, and in his tongue I made him to err; but this man, yea, not in His mind, for pure exceedingly is the fountain of His thoughts.

10. The lust of the body, is in all bodies; for even while they sleep, it wakes in them. Him, who in his waking hours keeps himself pure, by means of a dream, I disturb. The dregs of the body are stirred in him, by a shaking movement in secret inwardly. The sleeping and the waking besides, I trouble alike. This is He Who alone keeps Himself pure, Whom not even in a dream can I disturb, Who even in His sleep is pure and holy.

11. But separate was even His childhood, from that of the children who have been seen by me; for I have not seen in Him any part of that which is of me. I was afraid of His childhood; therefore, I stirred up Herod, that among the infants He might be slain. Because of this also that He escaped, I was greatly afraid, for our mystery how did He find out! He received the offerings of the Wise Men; He scorned us and departed and escaped from our sword.

12. Children have been seen by me, sons of righteous men; yea, also youths, sons of chaste women; and I have moved them from the womb, one by one, and I have seen in them our leaven. For they were wrathful men and revilers, yea, also furious and gluttonous; fruits were they that by instruction were to be ripened and sweetened. But this man from His first planting, was a good fruit that possessed sweetness, wherewith sinners were made sweet.

13. Even while He was an infant, He was a teacher of the sons of men, by the splendour that was upon Him. Even the priest as he carried Him was amazed at Him. In the prudence of old men was He clad. Joseph stood aloof from Him: His mother gloried in His presence. He was a help in His childhood, to every one that saw Him; He was a profit to them that knew Him from the day when He entered into the world, He was a helper of mankind by His excellencies.

14. From whence has it sprung up before me, this fruit of Mary, the grape whereof the wine is not according to nature? For lo! I stand between doubts. To turn away and leave Him, I am afraid, lest by His teaching, they should be sweetened, they, who have acquired by bitterness. But again to tread on Him and crush Him, is a terror to me, lest haply He turn and become new wine unto sinners, and when they are drunken therewith, lo! They forget their idols.

15. Lo! I am afraid of both things, as well His death, as also His life. Then unto the Evil One His ministers made answer and counselled Him. Though both these things be grievous, somewhat lighter to us is the trouble, that we should choose His death rather than his life. Let Death tell us whether any one from among the righteous, has ever from the first been aroused again. The sons of the Giants and the renowned ones, there is none that has issued forth from her, even Hell, the Devourer.

16. The blowing of the wind, a man may feel after; but the Son of Mary, who shall search him out? For when He wept, by His tears He robbed me; and again when I bid Him cast Himself, from the holy Temple, I thought, that it was through fear He cast Himself not: yet when they threw Him from the hill-top, He flew through the air. On the well again when He was weary He sat. His variableness I understand not, for on the dry land alike and on the water He walks.

17. I have seen Him that He hungered, as a Son of man; yet this was done away by the bread which He multiplied. From the beginning I proved Him and I came to Him; He questioned me as though He knew me not; but this, too, was done away, when He showed that He knew our secrets. Again He chose Iscariot, as though He knew him not; then He turned and showed that He knew him, though he was binding and loosing. I was mistaken in Him, for He was baptized and emerged and overwhelmed me.

18. But one token there is which I have seen in Him that heartens me exceedingly above all. For while He was praying I saw Him and was glad, because He changed colour and was afraid: His sweat was as drops of blood, because He felt that His day had come. This is pleasant to me, exceedingly above all, if it be not that deceiving He has deceived me therein. But if beguiling He has beguiled me, this is both for me and for you alike, my ministers.

19. Then shouted the host of devils and said, Hateful is the sign that we see in you, for never from the beginning has it thus happened to you. In prompt counsels you were excellent: the Son of Mary captures our cities, while you are prolonging your discourse. Arise, go forth, let us fight with Him, for this were to us a reproach, that we being many should be overcome by one. And if you are in pain or fear, give us counsel for the battle and stay behind.

20. This Jesus out of His own words it is, that I shall teach Him, and war with Him; for He said that he, even Satan, is divided, himself against himself, and that he cannot stand. Though He desires to fight with us, He has given us arms which are against Himself, gage and divide for me His disciples, for if you divide them, with these you will conquer them, even with Eve and the serpent, the weak powers, whereby I conquered the first Adam.

21. Death unto the Evil One, made answer and said to him, Wherefore do you not tarry according to your wont? For lo! It is those that are despised and least, that you ensnare after your custom: Jesus Who is great above all, wherewith have you sought to ensnare Him? The experience of His weapons moves you to fear, which He hurled against you when he was tempted of you. You and I with your followers, the host of us is too little for the battle with Him, the Son of Mary.

22. I counsel, then, if this our strife permits us to do anything: go into that disciple, let yourself loose, that head may speak with heads; and let loose all your host, let it go and stir up the Pharisees. And beware, lest you speak contentiously as you are wont. If you are a god, descend from hence, with fondness kiss them and betray Him; and, lo! We will bring on Him the envy and the sword of the Levites.


Listen to Hymn 35 now

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Hymn 36 

1. Our Lord subdued His might and constrained it, that His living death might give life to Adam. His hands He gave to the piercing of the nails — instead of the hand that plucked the fruit: He was smitten on the cheek in the judgment hall … instead of the mouth that ate it in Eden. And because his foot bore Adam thence, His feet were pierced. Our Lord was stripped, that He might make us modest: with the gall and vinegar He made sweet the bitterness of the serpent, which he had poured forth into mankind.

R. Blessed is He Who gave me the victory and quickened the dead to His glory!

2. (Death.)— If You are God show Your power; and if You are man, feel our power. And if it is Adam that You seek, go away! Because of his transgressions he is shut up here; Cherubim and Seraphim await not in his stead to pay his debt. There is none among them mortal, so as to give his life in his stead. Who can open the mouth of hell, and plunge and bring him up from her, who has swallowed him and keeps a hold on him, and that forever!

3. I am He who has conquered all the wise men; and lo! In the corners they are heaped for me in hell. Come, enter, son of Joseph, and see terrible things; the limbs of the giants, the mighty corpse of Samson, and the skeleton of the stubborn Goliath; Og, moreover, the son of the giants, who made for himself a bed of iron and lay thereon --- from whence I hurled him and cast him down; that cedar I laid low to the gate of Hell.

4. I by myself alone have conquered multitudes, and one may single-handed seek to conquer me? Prophets and priests and men of renown have I carried off; I have conquered kings in their armies, and mighty men in their hunts … and righteous men in their excellencies. Streams of corpses are hurled by me into hell, and though they pour into her … she is thirsty. Though one be near or though he be far off, the end brings him to the gate of hell.

5. Silver I despised at the hand of the rich, and their offerings corrupted me not. The lords of slaves never once persuaded me to take a slave instead of his lord, and a poor man instead of a rich man, or an old man instead of a child. As for wise that are able to charm wild beasts, their charms enter not into my ears. Hater of persuasion all men call me; and I the thing that is commanded me that I do.

6. Who is this, or whose son is He, or what His lineage who has conquered me? The book of families is by me; lo! I went in and read and studied the names from Adam till now, and not one of the dead do I forget. Family by family, lo! They are written, upon my limbs. Because of You, O Jesus, I went in and made a reckoning, that I might show You that there is none that escapes my hands.

7. Yet were there two men (that, I lie not) whose names have escaped me in Hell. For Enoch and Elijah came not to me. In all the world I have sought them; yea there where Jonah descended, I descended and sought and they were not. And though I suppose that into Paradise they have entered and escaped, a mighty Cherub guards it. The ladder Jacob saw, what if haply by it they have entered into Heaven?

8. Who is there that has measured the sand of the sea, and has spilt only two grains? This harvest wherein every day there labour — diseases as harvesters — I alone carry the handfuls and gather them up; other gatherers in making haste, drop handfuls. Vintagers overlook clusters; but two grapes have escaped me, in that great vintage which I alone have plucked.

9. I am He that has taken (said Death), on sea and on dry land, all prey in chase. Eagles of the air come to me; yea and dragons of the deep: creeping things and fowl and cattle; old men, youths and children. These will convince You, O Son of Mary, that this my power rules over all. Your Cross how shall it conquer me? --- who by a tree, lo! I have prevailed and conquered from old time?

10. But I was desirous to speak yet farther, for I am not wanting in words; yea words are not to be sought by me, for lo! deeds call on me close at hand. Not as you, do I make promise to the simple of secret things, that forsooth there is to be a resurrection at some time or other. If then You are very powerful, give a present pledge, that Your distant promise also may be believed.

11. Death ended his speech of derision: and the voice of our Lord sounded into Hell, and He cried aloud and burst the graves … one by one. Tremblings took hold on Death; Hell that never of old had been lighted up, into it there flashed splendours, from the Watchers who entered in and brought out the dead to meet Him — who was dead and gives life to all. The dead came forth, and the living were ashamed — they who thought that they had conquered the Life Giver of all.

12. But who gave me the day of Moses, (said Death) who made a feast for me? For that lamb that was slain in Egypt gave me — from every house — the first fruit: heaps and heaps of the first born, at the gate of Hell he piled me them. But this Lamb of the festival, has robbed Hell; of the dead He has taken title and carried them off from me. That lamb filled the graves for me; but this … has emptied the graves that were full.

13. The death of Jesus to me is a torment; I prefer for myself His life rather than His death. This is the Dead whose death (lo!) is hateful to me; in the death of all men else I rejoice — but His Death, even His, I detest; that He may come back to life I hope. While He was living He brought to life and restored three that were dead; but now by His death, at the gate of Hell they have trampled on me, the dead who have come to life, whom I was going to shut in.

14. I will haste and will close the gates of Hell, before this Dead, Whose death has spoiled me. Whoso hears will wonder at my humiliation, that by a dead man who is without, I am overcome. All the dead seek to go forth, but this one presses to enter in! A medicine of life has entered into Hell, and has restored life to its dead. Who then has brought in and hidden from me that living fire wherein have reposed the cold and dark recesses of Hell?

15. Death has seen the Watchers in Hell; the immortal instead of the mortal; and he said Confusion has entered our abode, for in these two things is torment to me: That the dead have come forth out of Hell, and the Watchers that die not have entered therein. Lo! One at the pillow in this tomb, has entered and sat down by it, and a second his companion at His feet. — I will entreat of Him and will persuade Him, with His pledge to ascend and go to His Kingdom.

16. Be not angry against me, gracious Jesus, for the words that my pride has spoken before You! Who is there that when seeing Your Cross, shall have doubted that You are man? Who is there that shall have seen Your Power, and shall not believe that You are also God? Lo! Thus by these two things I have learned to confess that You are man and likewise art God! — For as much as the dead in Hell repent not, go up among the living, O Lord, and preach repentance.

17. O Jesus King, receive my supplication, and with my supplication take to Yourself a pledge, even Adam the great pledge, accept for Yourself — him in whom are buried all the dead — even as when I received him, in him were hidden all the living. The first pledge I have given You, the body of Adam; go up therefore and reign over all; and when I shall hear Your trumpet, I with mine own hand will lead forth the dead at Your Coming.

18. Our King living has gone forth and gone up, out of Hell, as Conqueror. Woe He has doubled to them that are of the left hand; to evil spirits and demons He is sorrow — to Satan and to Death He is pain, — to Sin and Hell … mourning. Joy to them that are of the right hand, has come today. On this great day therefore, great glory let us give to Him, who died — and is alive that, unto all He may, give life and resurrection!

Listen to Hymn 36 now



Hymn 37

1. Death was weeping for her, even for Sheol, when he saw her treasury that it was emptied. And he said, Who, then, has plundered your riches? Gehazi stoleand was discovered; I am stealing every day, but theft has not been laid to my charge. I am sent to Kings, in their sicknesses, their guards are set around them, guards are also at their gate. The soul of kings I snatch and I go forth. R., Blessed is He Who has broken the sting of Death by His Cross!

2. All women grieve that are barren; Sheol rejoices because of her barrenness; she is desolate if so be that she brings forth. The all-compelling Power constrained it, even the bosom that was barren and cold, and it rendered back though wont to deny its debts. Rebekah, when the two babes afflicted her, asked for death. How great then the pain of Sheol, when there smote her strange pangs; the dead were roused and broke forth and came out from her bowels.

3. Is this then perchance that saying, which was heard by me from Isaiah? (but I despised it) when he arose and said, Who has heard such a thing as this? That the earth should travail in one day, and bring forth a nation in one hour. Is it this that has come to pass? Or else, is it reserved for us hereafter? And if it be this it is a vain shadow that I thought I am a king; I knew not it was but a deposit I was keeping.

4. Two utterances that were different, have I heard from him, even this Isaiah. For he said that a virgin should conceive and bring forth; and he said again that the earth should bring forth. But lo! The Virgin has brought Him forth, and Sheol the barren has brought Him forth; two wombs that contrary to nature, have been changed by Him; the Virgin and Sheol both of them. The Virgin in her bringing forth He made glad; but Sheol He grieved and made sad in His Resurrection.

5. I saw in the valley that Ezekiel, who quickened the dead when he was questioned; and I saw the bones that were in heaps and they moved. There was a tumult of bones in Sheol, bone seeking for his fellow, and joint for her mate. There was there none that questioned, or that was questioned, whether those bones lived. Unquestioned, the voice of Jesus, the Master of all creatures quickened them.

6. Sheol was made sorrowful when she saw them, even the sorrowful dead made to rejoice. She wept for Lazarus when he went forth, Go in peace you dead that live, bewailed by two houses of mourning. Within and without were lamentations for him; for his sisters wept for him when he came into the grave unto me, and I wept for him as he went forth. In his death there was weeping among the living; likewise in Sheol is great mourning at his resurrection.

7. Now it is that I have tasted the taste of his sorrow, even of him who weeps over his beloved. The dead that are thus beloved of Sheol, how dear were they to their fathers! The limbs which I severed and carried away, lo! They are shorn away and carried off from me. If I thus suffer for the departure of him, the youth who was restored to life, blessed is He Who had compassion on the widow; in her only son He gave peace to her dwelling that had been made desolate.

8. Lo! This suffering which I cause men to suffer in their beloved ones, in the end on me it gathers itself altogether. For when the dead shall have left Sheol, for every man there will be resurrection, and for me alone torment. And who is he then that shall bear for me all these things, that I shall see Sheol left alone, because this voice which has rent the graves, makes her desolate and sends forth the dead that were in her midst?

9. If a man reads in the Prophets, he hears there of righteous wars. But if a man meditate in the story of Jesus, he learns of grace and tender mercy. And if a man think of Jesus, that He is a strange God it is a reproach against me. No other strange key into the gate of Sheol could ever be fitted. One is the key of theCreator, that which has opened it, yea, is to open it at His Coming.

10. Who is he that is able to join the bones, save that Power which created them? What is it that shall reunite the shreds of the body, save the hand of the Maker? What is it that shall restore the forms, save the finger of the Creator? He, who created and turned and destroyed, is He that is able also to renew and raise up. Another God is unable to enter in and restore creatures not his own.


Listen to Hymn 37 now




Hymn 38


1. My throne was set for me in Sheol: and one arose that was dead, and hurled me from it. Every man feared me alone, and I feared no man.

Terror and trouble were among the living, rest and peace among the dead.

In a man that was slain lo! There has entered into Sheol He that takes her captive. I used to take all men captive: but the Son of Captivity Whom I took captive has taken me captive. He Whom I took captive has led her away and is gone to Paradise.

R., Blessed is He Who has quickened the dead of Sheol by His Cross!

2. All men complain much against me; and I against one only have complained. Who is there among men so just as I? Has corruption touched my integrity? I held all men in affection, and whoso hates me knows it — I know not all my days what a bribe is. The person of a king have I not accepted. By me is preached equality … for bondman and his lord in Sheol I make equal.

3. Before God it is that I minister, with Whom is no acceptance of persons. What other is there that endures as I do… I that am cursed when I do good? Perversely are requited to me the benefits I have rendered. Though my deeds are goodly, my name is not goodly. Yet my mind rests in its integrity: in God it is that I comfort myself; for though He is good He is denied every day and endures it.

4. The old I remove from all sufferings, likewise the young from all sins. Secret contention I quell in Sheol; in our land there is no iniquity: it is Sheol and Heaven alone, that are removed from all sins; this earth that lies between, in her iniquity dwells. He therefore that is prudent will either go up into Heaven, or, if that be too hard, will go down to Sheol which is easy.

5. To one man because of one that is dead, every man hastes to comfort him. But for me though many of my dead have come to life, there is none that comes in and comforts me. Satan came in, against whom had been proclaimed seven woes — even against him; though mightily the Son of Mary had trodden on him, yet uplifted is his spirit; for he is the serpent that strives, though bruised. Better is it for me to fall and worship before this Jesus Who has conquered me by His Cross.

6. When He enters at the gate of Sheol, in place of John who preached before His coming, then will I cry Lo! He that quickens the dead has come; Your servant am I from henceforth, Jesu! Because of The Body I reviled You … for it covered Your Godhead. Be not angry, O Son of the King, against Your treasury — at Your command I have opened and closed. Though my wings be very swift it is at your nod I haste to every quarter.

7. All that have been raised were not first born; for our Lord is the First-born of Sheol. How can any that is dead go before Him — that power whereby he was raised? There are last that are first, and younger that have become first-born. For though Manasseh was first-born, how could it be that Ephraim should take the birthright? And if the second born was set before him, how much rather shall the Lord and Creator prevent all in His Resurrection!

8. Lo! John as a herald declares that he is later, though he was elder-born; for he said, “Behold a man comes after me, and yet He was before me.” For how could he be before Him, that Power in Whom he preached? For everything that comes to pass because of another thing, is after that other — even though it seem to be before. For the cause which called it into being, is elder than it and before it in all things.

9. The cause of Adam was elder than all creatures, which were made for him, for to him, even to Adam, He had respect continually — the Creator even while he was creating. Thus though Adam as yet was not, he was elder than all creatures. How much more then, my Lord, must this — Your manhood — be elder, which in Your Godhead is from eternity with Him that begot You! To You be praise and through You to Your Father from us all!

10. To You be praise for You are the first, in Your Godhead and in Your manhood! For even though Elijah was first to go up, he was not able to prevent Him, for whose sake he was taken up. For his type depended on Your verity: and even though the types apparently are before Your fulfilment — it is before them secretly. Creatures were before Adam; even as he was before them … because for his sake they were made.

11. O my Lord, work for me this resurrection, not of Your compulsion but of Your love. For Your compulsion gives life to sinners also: Iscariot would rather again choose for himself the death of Sheol, than the life of Gehenna. Work for me then the resurrection that is of Your mercy; and even though Your justice permits not, let there be occasion for Your grace. This only let it remember for me, that in it I have sought refuge.


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