Assaying the Gold

I’ve been thinking this week about the uses of the word “gold” in the Bible, which in turn prodded me to find out more about the characteristics of this most precious of metals. Among other qualities that make it the king of metals, gold is the most malleable of them, so much so that “a single gram can be beaten into a sheet of 1 square meter, or an ounce into 300 square feet. Gold leaf can be beaten thin enough to become transparent” ( Wikipedia). That reminded me of a line in John Donne’s poem, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”:

Our two souls therefore, which are one, Though I must go, endure not yet A breach, but an expansion, Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Donne is referring in his image to the gold-like quality of his relationship to his wife, with whom he is in spiritual connection, even though they are absent from one another. The stress on their golden intimacy merely proves its strength. I think the same can be said of the intimacy between God and His children, the testing of which is several times likened to refining gold through fire, as in Zechariah 13:8-9:

In the whole land, declares the LORD, two thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one third shall be left alive. And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, And I will answer them. I will say, 'They are my people'; and they will say, 'The LORD is my God.'

And then the more familiar passage in Malachi 3:2-3:

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD.

Both of these passages, and a number of others like them, deal with the purification of Israel as a nation, and that is the norm in the O.T. As I have commented before, the redemptive power of suffering is presented in a much fuller way in the New Testament than in the Old Testament, and the emphasis in the N.T. is more on individual experience and responsibility, as when Paul speaks of teachers building on the foundation of Christ laid by others:

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (I Cor. 3:12-15)

Peter presents the refinement by fire in a more positive light:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (I Pet. 1:6-8)

And the same sentiment is echoed by James:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (James 1:2-3)

These N.T. passages invite the individual Christian to embrace and find meaning in being tested, and to be active participants, in fellowship with the suffering of Christ, in bringing glory to God. They are the proven “gold” of God; they are His treasure, and He is theirs. Like John Donne and his wife, though we are stretched “to airy thinness,” our connection with our Father is only strengthened by being tested.



Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)