From the Schaff NPNF volume.
This review will cover the hymns found in the Schaff Edition, NPNF II vol. 13, pp. 117-341. Ephrem’s life is quite interesting, as he found himself in several military sieges in Syria and in relocating with different Christian populations.
St Ephraim is particularly difficult to navigate. He is thinking in Semitic idiom, not in Greek. Further, in line with his symbolic ontology, Ephraim rarely tells you what the Symbol means. Or rather, he doesn’t reduce symbol to object. Instead, he leads us from the symbol around the object and back to our understanding. The conversation is never finished. But this makes for good contemplation.
Other difficulties are more straightforward. In the Nisibene hymns it is not always clear to whom Ephraim is writing or who is even speaking.
Spirit and Freedom
*Freedom and godly joy are interchangeable (Ephraim 234). Discipline becomes spontaneous joy. Conversely, money is a master over our freedom (191). Indeed, usury has a deadening effect on spiritual life (225).
Ephraim knows the occultic world is real. The Nephilim are angelic giants (194; though Ephrem seems to say the opposite in his commentary on Genesis; see Louth, ACCS volume 1). Likewise, “magic” is real (213), if not in the crude “hocus-pocus” sense. He probably–as did most of the church for much of her history–meant it in the sense that demonic entities can sometimes causally act on the material world.
Baptism is a seal that molds us (279). Grace is the freeborn sister to justice (179)
Fifteen Hymns on the Nativity
These are more focused than the Nisibene hymns, and Ephrem’s lyricism is occasionally exquisite. These are easier to read.
Ephrem’s role as a personality is likely more lasting than his actual teachings. He stabilized several fractured liturgical communities. His hymns probably are good, but they need those skilled in both English idiom and Syriac.