Only God is Great

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century triggered a new wave of bloody conflict in Medieval Europe – a tract of real estate along which evolving nations had marinated in a cauldron of tumult for many long, dark centuries. Protestant regions broke up Rome’s monopoly on authority in Europe. But neutralizing an authority is one thing; replacing it is quite another matter and Europe tumbled into near anarchy. Nation warred against nation, and region against region, in an all-out scramble to gain control of the rudder of European destiny.

Out of the context of these chaotic and violent times sprouted a philosophy of governance know as “Monarchial Absolutism.” Absolutist political theory held that Europe’s only hope for avoiding anarchy was for the monarchs of the emerging European nations to wield extraordinary power. The cohesive influence Rome had once supplied to Europe could be recovered, it was proposed, by monarchs willing to impose their will with absolute sovereignty over their subjects. (One may detect a less than ideal environment for the human rights of dissenters under such a system. The half of that tragic sub-plot has never been told).


Historians generally designate Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) as the quintessential absolutist monarch. Crowned at age five (a monarchial absolutist pre-schooler – you fill in blanks!), Louis reigned in earnest from 1660 until his death. That translates into fifty-five years of absolute sovereignty over every aspect of French life. Every citizen, of what was at that time the most powerful nation on the continent, was expected to conform to Louis’ every belief and to support his every decision. Imagine!


Louis occupied the renowned Palace of Versailles just outside Paris – the most elaborate construction project of the century. To this day, both the palace and grounds of Versailles constitute an unprecedented splendor. Several thousand nobles lived at Versailles in Louis’ day and were attended by 4,000 servants. Louis was dressed with ceremonial attention each morning by men of noble birth. He and his fellow noblemen lived in splendorous luxury – receptions, concerts, plays, balls, gambling, hunting, and the full time sports of gossip, flattery, and licentious living filled their days.


Louis was widely known as the “Sun King” in reference to his royal emblem, which consciously chose the center of the galaxy as its distinguishing symbol. Louis was also known by his many admirers on the continent as the “Grand Monarch.” To remove any doubt as to where he stood on the theory of monarchial absolutism, Louis liked to say: “I am the state.” Few cared to argue the point.


But Louis’ preferred title was “Louis the Great.” Indeed, achieving greatness was Louis’ primary vocation. A more magnificent reign can hardly be imagined.


Living under Louis’ domain at the height of his greatness was a quiet monk named, Jean Baptiste Massillon (1663-1742). Massillon’s gift for preaching soon elevated him to positions of high responsibility in the Roman Church. Head of the famous seminary of Saint Magloire in Paris, Massillon was appointed to serve as Advent preacher at Versaille in 1699. It is here that Louis the Great heard the gently persuasive, soul-searching preaching of Massillon, later remarking in high compliment of the preacher: “When I hear most preachers, I am contented with them, when I hear Massillon I am discontented with myself.”


When Louis the Great died in 1715, Massillon was appointed to deliver the funeral oration. Revered for his funeral oratories, Massillon’s task on this occasion seemed straightforward, albeit daunting: eulogize a monarch considered by many to be the greatest man on earth.


The magnificent Parisian cathedral of Notre Dame was lit by a single candle placed next to Louis’ ornate coffin. Massillon symbolically extinguished that thin flame and then ascended the stairs to the pulpit. The hushed crowds sat expectantly in the darkened nave. Massillon paused dramatically to secure their attention. What words would the great preacher marshal to exalt the greatness of the greatest of all monarchs? Massillon pierced the silence with the bold declaration: “Only God is great!”


Louis’ coffin bore silent witness to the temporal nature of earthly greatness. Massillon’s opening declaration bore vibrant witness to the unfading truth that there is only one eternal and absolute monarch. God alone rules from heaven’s throne with sovereign authority over all kingdoms (cf. Isaiah 37:20; Jeremiah 10:6-7; Daniel 3:34-35). And so, as the word of the Lord spoken through the prophet Jeremiah advises: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me … ” for God alone is great and greatly to be praised.



Dan Miller | Adapted from Spiritual Reflections | Featured in the Savage Pacer | July 17, 2004.