When I was about 10 years old I donated Herman Melville’s book ‘Moby Dick’ to my school. Each year there was a ‘Book week’ and the school hall would be filled with beautiful books – shiny, glistening, non-fiction, fiction, all shapes and sizes and contents and subjects. We could browse and order books for ourselves and we were also encouraged to make a donation to the school library. I would spend hours in there pouring over the books – it was a heavenly week for me and some of my friends who were fellow bookaholics. I don’t recall why I chose ‘Moby Dick’ (it might have been the librarian’s suggestion) and I’ve often wondered if anyone ever read it. I certainly didn’t – it was very small print and really not an ideal book for young Primary age boys to read. It was many years later that I came across another copy and became familiar with Captain Ahab and company. I’ve forgotten much of it though the wonderful description of the pulpit remains with me. Here’s a sample:

What could be full of more meaning?—for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first decried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.

There is one sentence that I came across which has stayed with me and I have often meditated upon. I came across it before I even read the novel itself. It was quoted by one Les Parrott III in his foreword to C & T Sine’s book ‘Living on Purpose’. Melville wrote:

“To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness and not out of toil.”

We live in a world consumed by busyness. And Melville is fully aware that there is an enormous amount of toil, effort and busyness for men engaged in the pursuit of a whale like Moby Dick. But the key man – the harpoonist – is the one person who is not doing anything. And there lies a profound insight.

I have often thought that the spiritual equivalent is that of the ‘Watchman’. The prophet Habakkuk wrote: “I will take my stand at my watch post and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.” (Habakkuk 2:1).

In the ordination service to the Anglican priesthood, the Bishop instructs the candidates to ‘remember the dignity of the high office and charge to which you are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord’ (AAPB, p 609).

The watchman ‘takes his stand at his watch post’ – he’s not so consumed in busy-ness that he misses exactly what he’s meant to be ready for. This can create a tension for us…but it is part of what it is to live in faith waiting for the Lord’s time.

The watchman theme comes through a number of passages in Scripture like Psalm 130, Isaiah 21, Ezekiel 3 and 33, and, of course, the Lord Jesus who warned us to ‘Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’ (Matthew 25:13).


PS Unfortunately, Les Parrott has a slight misquote of Melville. It is not: ‘the ‘efficiency in the dark’ but ‘dart’. As well, he wrote ‘harpoonists’ when it was actually ‘harpooners’. I browsed further and it looks like Parrott has picked up the idea from the writing of Eugene Peterson. But it looks like even Peterson might have left out a word – there’s an extra ‘from’ in the sentence which actually reads:

To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not from out of toil.”

In my research I came across a number of quotes by Eugene Peterson which capture in a nutshell the theme. Here is one:

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, there is a violent, turbulent scene in which a whaleboat scuds across a frothing ocean in pursuit of the great white whale, Moby Dick. The sailors are laboring fiercely, every muscle taut, all attention and energy concentrated on the task. The cosmic conflict between good and evil is joined: chaotic sea and demonic sea monster versus the morally outraged man, Captain Ahab. In this boat there is one man who does nothing. He doesn’t hold an oar; he doesn’t perspire; he doesn’t shout. He is languid in the crash and the cursing. This man is the harpooner, quiet and poised, waiting. And then this sentence: “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.” (From Peterson’s Christianity Today article “The Unbusy Pastor“).

Leave a Reply