The final stanza of The Rabbi's Song by Rudyard Kipling goes as follows:

Our lives, our tears, as water,
      Are spilled upon the ground;
God giveth no man quarter,
      Yet God a means hath found,
Though Faith and Hope have vanished,
      And even Love grows dim—
A means whereby His banished
      Be not expelled from Him!

What is the "means" that he is speaking of? Presumably the previous line is a biblical reference to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Is he referring to love, because it is only dim yet not vanished? Or is he referring to something else?

Also, does this stanza of the poem have to do with being a rabbi? There does not appear to be any obvious reference to anything Jewish in the poem. But, the final line refers to someone suffering due to being banished: is this a reference to the Jewish diaspora?

1 Answer 1



The "means" is forgiveness.


The quoted verse is Kipling's recasting of 2 Samuel 14 14:

For we must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again; neither doth God respect any person: yet doth he devise means, that his banished be not expelled from him. (AKJV)

The context in the Bible is that David has just promised the woman from Tekoa that he will not allow her surviving son to be punished for having killed his brother in a fight. The woman says that just as the king has spared her son despite his fratricide, he should also spare his own son Absalom for the same crime against Amnon and recall him from banishment.

The reference here is to forgiveness. David, who has godlike power over his subjects, should forgive Absalom and recall him, just as sinners who are banished from the kingdom of God because of their sinfulness are nevertheless "not expelled" from God because of God's forgiveness.

Kipling says that even if we lack the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, God can still forgive us. The prior stanzas describe the path to forgiveness. The ability to forgive, or to receive forgiveness, requires that we "cleanse and call home" our spirits. Rather than dwell on the "whispering ghost" of the past, our thought should dwell on "Heaven." Dwelling on the past and refusing to forgive cuts us off from God: what if God focused on our sins rather than forgive them? And when God can forgive our sins, what standing do we have to withhold forgiveness from others?

Christian readings of the 2 Samuel verse interpret the "means" to be Jesus Christ. While this is obviously not a tenable interpretation in a Jewish context, that Kipling had such a reading in mind cannot be dismissed out of court: to his generally imperialist mindset, other cultures and doctrines mattered only insofar as they enriched his own. Specifically with regard to religion, Philip Mason writes:

Kipling was a religious man at heart, not that he took part regularly in any form of public worship or adhered to any formal creed, but because he thought much about death and eternity and the meaning of life. ... Because he was so essentially an intuitive, his religion expressed itself in stories, fables and verses, rather than in a creed or a reasoned philosophy.

Mason, p. 113

Kipling's religious eclecticism was another expression of his jingoism. All creeds were merely fodder for his own beliefs and attitudes as a white man, which were ipso facto transparently and unquestionably superior to anybody else's. The poem's title, "The Rabbi's Song," does not therefore indicate any serious engagement with Judaic ideas, even as appropriated by Christianity. The poem expresses only Kipling's own idiosyncratic theology of forgiveness.

"The Rabbi's Song" is the concluding piece in Kipling's 1909 collection Actions and Reactions. It follows a short story, "The House Surgeon." The collection alternates between stories and poems, the latter serving as a reaction to the events in the former. "The Rabbi's Song" is therefore a commentary on "The House Surgeon." In that story, a Jewish businessman named L. Maxwell M'Leod lives in an unexpectedly and deeply depressing house. The narrator, a Mr Perseus, investigates. He discovers that M'Leod had purchased the house from two Evangelical sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. The two sisters spend all their time brooding over what they assume is the suicide of the third, Agnes, who fell out of her bedroom window at the house. Perseus is able to convincingly show that her death was an accident, not suicide. As a result, the two sisters no longer dwell on the house that they used to dwell in, and the house is no longer depressing.

The unforgivable sin of suicide, brooding over the past, and the clash between Jewish and Christian attitudes comprise the themes of "The House Surgeon." Mary and Elizabeth are very concerned with sin. They think all the time of Agnes's supposed sin, yet their beliefs preclude their praying for her soul: "I warn you we are Evangelicals. We don't believe in prayers for the dead" (Kipling, "House" p. 292). The poem cautions against the mindset that leads to Mary's and Elizabeth's obsession with their previous house and inability to forgive Agnes:

If Thought can reach to Heaven,
      On Heaven let it dwell,
For fear the Thought be given
      Like power to reach to Hell.
For fear the desolation
      And darkness of thy mind
Perplex an habitation
      Which thou hast left behind.

Kipling, "Rabbi's", ll. 1–8)

Once Mary and Elizabeth have cleansed their hearts of desolation and darkness, the house can become a joyous place. The gloom of the house had caused M'Leod's daughter Thea to give up singing, but at the end of the story, she sings "an old English song" that Perseus says he "had never heard before" (Kipling, "House" p. 298). This leads straight on to "The Rabbi's Song." While no rabbi is mentioned in the story, the M'Leods are Jewish: M'Leod at one point says, "I shall be a good Jew" (Kipling, "House" p. 278), and elsewhere, Mary comments deprecatingly, "What ideas these Jews have of arranging furniture!" (ibid., p. 295). One can presume that the rabbi is at the M'Leods', joining in their celebration of the house's restored cheer.

Taken together, the poem's title and the story's negative portrayal of Christianity support the reading that for Kipling, his personal creed naturally leads to the best possible outcome for all: the Jewish family gets to enjoy their home, and the Evangelical sisters are freed of their psychological torment. Kipling's own theology of forgiveness, not a Jewish sense of guilt or a Christian belief in atonement through blood sacrifice, is for him the golden mean, and is the "means" he means here.


All links accessed on archive.org 3 February 2024.

  • 2
    All creeds were merely fodder for his own beliefs and attitudes as a white man, which were ipso facto transparently and unquestionably superior to anybody else's. - How is this known? Commented Feb 3 at 23:36
  • @AndrewSavinykh: Kipling was a Freemason, an organization one of whose fundamental principles is that all creeds (except atheism) are welcome. This undoubtedly influenced Kipling's attitude towards religions.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Feb 9 at 17:44

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