Mumford & Sons Sing of Emmanuel in our Timshel




If you are a Mumford and Sons fan, then you are probably familiar with the word “Timshel,” which is the title of the briefest song on their debut album: “Sigh No More.”

If you are a Biblical scholar, or a student of the Hebrew language, then you would probably recognize timshel from the Hebrew version of Genesis 4:7, where God speaks with Cain, after Cain’s sacrifice is rejected.

If you are an avid reader of American novels, or a lover of John Steinbeck, then you might remember the word and the idea of timshel as playing a prominent role in Steinbeck’s saga of the American West, East of Eden.

So what exactly is all the fuss about this word?

Steinbeck leaves that to his wise character, Lee, to explain, and so will I:

“The Hebrew word, the word timshel—’Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if “Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.‘” (East of Eden, Chapter 24)

According to Lee, then, the best translation of the short passage of Genesis where timshel appears would be:

And the Lord said to Cain: Why art thou angry? And why is thy countenance fallen? If thou do well, shalt thou not receive; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet thou mayest rule over it. (Genesis 4: 6-7)

And, in the very next verse, Cain leads his brother out to the fields and murders him.

Well, so much for that. Cain certainly didn’t triumph over sin.

Steinbeck and, accordingly, his characters, are fascinated by this word. Lee waxes eloquent about the great beauty and majesty of the word timshel, for it reveals to him the great majesty and dignity of the human soul. I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed–because ‘Thou Mayest’” (East of Eden, Chapter 24)

Mumford and Sons borrow a line from Steinbeck, that this ability to make the choice between life and death is what makes us great; it is our “ladder to the stars.”

Think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man,” cries Lee. The great glory of mankind is that we can choose our destiny. Through our choices, we get to write the story. We are not enslaved by sin. We are not locked into a predestination determined by our ancestors, or our own previous actions. When dogged by our own jealousy or anger, we always have the ability to choose the way of grace. When death is at our doorstep, we can still choose life.

Our ability to choose is one-half of the mystery of the word timshel. But there is another aspect to this great and beautiful word, which I find, if possible, even more compelling. In the lyrics of the Mumford and Sons song, there is another dimension of timshel celebrated.

The almighty God, who knows all and sees all, is speaking to Cain right before the murder of Abel. Certainly, the Lord would know that Cain is going to commit the first fratricide.  The omniscient Creator of the universe sees Cain dejected, angry, with his countenance fallen. Yet, He gives Cain no other command other than: “Thou Mayest”? Why? Why no stronger words, a more dire edict?

I will tell the night/ whisper lose your sight/ but I can’t move the mountains for you.

How many times have we found ourselves helpless to help someone: a brother whose pain we can’t understand, a sister who is wrestling with her own darkness, a friend who we see making choices that wound them? So many times, at that moment, I want to make that choice for them. They are at the crossroads, and I want to take their hand and pull them down the straight and narrow road. They are at the tipping point, and I want to push them towards the right choice. I think I see the way so clearly, and I want to move the mountains for them, so that they might as well.

But, each human being has death lying at their doorstep, and it is their destiny to choose to triumph over it. Not even God can make that choice for them. Not even God can force our hands. Timshel may be a very hopeful word, assuring us that we may rule over sin. But it is also lonely. Each human being, it would seem, is in charge of her own destiny, no one can make that choice for her. Each human has to wrestle with his own battle over sin. No one else can do it for him.

But then comes the sweet refrain of the Mumford lyrics:

But you are not alone in this

That is the real message of hope to the human race: we are not alone in our struggle with sin and death. There are so many times we wish we could move the mountains for those of our loved ones who are battling with the dark. We cannot move the mountain for them; but we can offer them the assurance that they are not alone in their battle against death. We, too, are fighting that same battle, and we will walk with them on their journey, because we, too, are on our own journey to the stars.

And you are not alone in this

And this, I think, is the sweetest saving grace, this is a more glorious word than even timshel, this is the most hopeful phrase in the entire song, and it is best captured in the single most hopeful word of all of Salvation history: Emmanuel.

God did not leave humanity to struggle with sin and death on its own. In fact, He emptied Himself utterly, to join us in our broken and fragile state. He forsook His place in the heavens to pitch His tent among us. Emmanuel entered into the great battle with sin and death with and for us. He became truly our brother, like us in all things—even the ability to choose—and in the face of death, He chose love and life, so that we may also find the strength to chose life.


But you are not alone in this

And you are not alone in this

As brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand

Hold your hand

Mumford and Sons, Timshel

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