Sower with Setting Sun (1888)
by Vincent Van Gogh
public domain

Thanksgiving, Philippians 4:6-20

Historical Description

In June of 1888, Vincent Van Gogh returned to a familiar project: making a creative appropriation of Jean-François Millet’s The Sower, an artist whom Van Gogh appreciated and a theme he desired to explore. Van Gogh worked repeatedly on the subject, writing about it personally and passionately to his brother and other correspondents, and sketching and painting it in various forms. In this painting, Van Gogh captures an emotional experience in the juxtaposition of color. The brilliant blaze of the setting sun is juxtaposed to the calming cool of the field of work. The human figure, decentered and engaged in work, sets human labor within a glorious blazing world.

Devotional Reflection

Vincent Van Gogh’s painting is labeled quite simply The Sower. While not one of his overtly religious pieces, if you look closely, you will see a depiction of hope, faith, and thanksgiving.  Human labor nestled within a glorious day.

Place this scene not in the evening but in the morning, early in the day. Van Gogh offers us a farmer with his bag of seed. This farmer swings his arm and walks with the beat of a metronome; gently releasing what he believes will grow into something good. The sun has just risen in the east, warming his back and the ground. Even the hope he has is warmed by this gift of God.

The man stands tall and strong and appears to be speaking . . . no . . . singing a tune, matching the rhythm of the seed being sown. You can almost hear him can’t you? What is it he is singing, perhaps a tune of thanksgiving? Could it be, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God almighty, early in the morning our song shall rise to thee” Maybe, “This is the day the Lord has made.” Whatever the tune, certainly it matches the warmth and promise of the morning sun.

This is a portrait of musical morning hope. It displays a faith that believes: as the sun has risen in the east, so also will God make the seed grow into a miraculous harvest of plenty.

Yet this vision of hope was painted by a man tortured with bouts of depression, a man in need of hope every morning. His art career was without success until after his death. And his life, at times, was like his art: so far from any source of hope. Some of his art displayed desperation and lack of peace. In one work, he painted the walls of his room a restless, ruddy red. In another, ravens come . . . not to feed him like Elijah but to signal the end.

This painting by Van Gogh, however, is different. It is one of creation, thanksgiving, and musical hope. For me, it visually echoes the prayers and thoughts of another man, also tormented by depression and in desperate need of hope. Martin Luther. When Luther finally, by God’s word of Grace, found hope, he clung to it in the evening and lived by it in the morning.

If one were to illustrate Luther’s Small Catechism, this painting could be placed alongside his morning prayer. Or at least by his last comment, “Then go joyfully to your work, singing a hymn, like that of the Ten Commandments, or whatever your devotion may suggest.” Luther’s morning prayer begins with hope connected to God’s word of baptism as he begins the day under the cross and in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. From God’s word of hope then comes faith. Faith realizes that God has kept his word of promise. God has given what we need and he will do it again. Why does the sower cast seed on the ground? Because he has seen God’s gracious hand before and trusts that God will do it again. The God who spoke at creation, “Let there be” and “be fruitful and multiply” will bring his words to fruition. Put seed in the ground and God will bring forth plants according to their kinds.

This sower of seeds, blurry though he might be, pictures for us what a Christian looks like. Having received God’s word of hope, we have faith and ultimately thanksgiving, for God provides what we need. In the painting this divine provision is the house in the background, the clothing on the man, the soil and the seed, and ultimately the sun rising in the east reminding each of us of the new day created by God and given to us. And when that day of labor is ended, another morn will follow until this world sees once again the most glorious gift of all.  God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Sower of hope, who rose on Easter morning and who will return to bring about a new creation on that final day.

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