Selections from John Donne’s Death’s Duel,
a Consolation Against the Dying Life and Living Death of the Body.
Converted to Modern English, Edited, and Introduced by theMB
In the year of Our Lord 1631, John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s, left his sickbed and stood before the King’s Majesty in his chapel at the Palace of Whitehall, there to deliver a Lenten sermon. He spoke for an hour or so, taking as his text, Psalm 68, verse 20:
He is our God, the God of our salvation;
God is the Lord, by whom we escape death.
He said something like this on that occasion.
The old expositors looked at the final part of the verse (God is the Lord, by whom we escape death) in three ways: First, it is in God’s power and it is often his will to give us frequent escapes and deliverances, even when we find ourselves almost in the jaws and teeth of death, and on the lips of that whirlpool, the grave. In this way of reading, the verse refers to those frequent, but temporary, evasions or deliverances from death which we all experience from time to time, and this is the most ordinary reading, and that which may be most obvious at first, the escape from death. But there is a second way of reading it common in the old expositors, that unto God the Lord belongs the escape in death, that is, in the manner of our death; regardless of the kind of departure we shall have out of this world, whether prepared or sudden, whether violent or natural, whether in possession of our right minds or shaken and disordered by sickness. Of course, all of us will die, but the manner of our passing matters little for, howsoever they die, precious in his sight is the death of his saints (Psalm 116:15). And so, in this sense of the words, the escape in death, God sees to us in the hour of death; the ways of our departing out of this life are in His hands. Yet a third way of reading our verse is the escape by death; that is, this God the Lord having united and knit both natures in one, and being God, having also come into this world in our flesh, he could have no other means to save us, and he could have no other way of departing out of this world, nor could he return to his former glory, but by death. And so in this sense, His escape by death is our deliverance by death, by the death of this God, our Lord Christ Jesus.
THE ESCAPE FROM DEATH
First, then, we consider that in all the deadly calamities of this life, we may justly hope of a good escape. Consider that all our periods and transitions in this life are just so many passages from one death to another; our very birth and entrance into this life is an escape from death, for in our mother’s womb we are dead, at least to the extent that we do not know we live. In the womb, we are dead to the extent that, as the psalmist says, idols are dead. In the womb we have eyes and see not, ears and hear not (Psalms 115:6; cf. Mark 8:18). . Of our making in the womb, the psalmist also says, I am wonderfully and fearfully made, and such knowledge is too excellent for me, (Psalm 139:6) for even that is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful in our eyes; (Psalm 118:23) it is he that made us, and not we ourselves, (Psalm 100:3) nor our parents neither. Thy hands have made and fashioned me round about, says Job (10:8). Though I be the masterpiece of the greatest master (man is so), yet if you, O Lord, do no more for me, if you leave me where you made me, destruction will follow. The womb, which should be the house of life, becomes death itself if God leaves us there. As soon as we are men, animated, quickened in the womb, though we cannot ourselves, our parents have to say in our behalf, Wretched man that he is, who shall deliver him from this body of death? (Romans 7:24) And that deliverer must be He that said to Jeremiah, Before I formed thee I knew thee, and before thou camest out of the womb I sanctified thee (Jeremiah 1:5). Eve had no midwife when she delivered Cain, therefore she might well say, I have gotten a man from the Lord, (Genesis 4:1) wholly, entirely from the Lord; she might well say it is the Lord that enabled me to conceive, the Lord that infused a quickening soul into that conception, the Lord that brought into the world that which he himself had quickened; without all this, Eve would have had to say, my body is but the house of death.
But then this first escape from death, the death of the womb, is but an introduction into death, the manifold deaths of this world. We have a shroud in our mother’s womb which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world wound up in that shroud, for we come to seek a grave. We celebrate our own funerals with cries even at our birth; we beg our baptism with tears; and we come into a world that lasts many ages, but we last not. God has given us earth for our material, to be made of earth, and he has given us earth for our grave, to return and dissolve to earth, but earth is given to us in these ways only and not for our possession. Here we have no continuing city, (Hebrews 13:14), no house that continues, no persons, no bodies, that continue. This whole world is but a universal churchyard, but our common grave. That which we call life is but a week of death, seven days, seven periods of our life spent in dying, a dying seven times over; and there is an end. Our birth dies in infancy, and our infancy dies in youth, and youth and the rest die in age, and age also dies and determines all. Nor do all these, youth out of infancy, or age out of youth, arise in the clean way in which the phœnix arises out of the ashes of another phœnix, but as a wasp or a serpent out of a carrion, or as a snake out of dung. Our youth is worse than our infancy, and our age worse than our youth. Our youth is hungry and thirsty after those sins which our infancy knew not; and our age is sorry and angry, that it cannot pursue those sins which our youth did; and besides, so many deaths, so many deadly calamities accompany every condition and every period of this life, as that death itself would be an ease to them that suffer them. Upon this sense does Job wish that God had not given him an escape from the first death, from the womb, Wherefore hast thou brought me forth out of the womb? Oh that I had given up the ghost, and no eye seen me! (Job 10:18-19) And not only the impatient Israelites in their murmuring (would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt), but Elijah himself, when he fled from Jezebel, and went for his life, as that text says, under the juniper tree, requested that he might die, and said, It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life. (I Kings 19:4) How much worse than death is this life, when good men would so often exchange it for death! But if my case be as Saint Paul’s case, that I die daily; though that be true of me, I was shaped in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me (there I died one death); though that be true of me, I was born not only the child of sin, but the child of wrath, of the wrath of God for sin, which is a heavier death: yet, God is the Lord by whom we escape death; and, if no other deliverance would give more to his glory and my good, yet he has the keys of death, (Revelation 1:18) and he can let me out at that door, that is, deliver me from the manifold deaths of this world, the every day’s death and every hour’s death, by that one death, the final dissolution of body and soul, the end of all.
But then is that the end of all? Is that dissolution of body and soul the last death that the body shall suffer? It is not. Though this be escape: it is an entrance into yet another death; though it be an escape from the manifold deaths of this world, yet it is an entrance into the death of corruption and putrefaction, and dispersion in and from the grave, in which every dead man dies over again. Except for that Holy One that HE would not allow to see corruption, all those who die now and sleep in the state of the dead, must pass this posthumous death, this death after death, this death after burial, this dissolution after dissolution, this death of corruption and putrefaction; when my mouth shall be filled with dust, and the worm shall feed, and feed sweetly (Job 23:20) upon me; when the ambitious man shall have no satisfaction, if the poorest alive tread upon him, nor the poorest receive any contentment in being made equal to princes, for they shall be equal but in dust. Even those bodies that were the temples of the Holy Ghost come to this dilapidation, to ruin, to rubbish, to dust. Truly the consideration of this posthumous death, this death after burial, that after God has delivered me from the death of the womb, by bringing me into the world, and from the manifold deaths of the world, by laying me in the grave, I must die again in the putrefaction of this flesh, and in a dispersion of that dust. This is the most inglorious and contemptible vilification, the most deadly and peremptory nullification of man, that we can consider. God would seem to have carried the declaration of his power to a great height, when he sets the prophet Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, and says, Son of man, can these bones live? as though it had been impossible, and yet they did; the Lord laid sinews upon them, and flesh, and breathed into them, and they did live. But in that case there were bones to be seen, something visible, of which it might be said, Can this thing live? But in this death of putrefaction and dispersion of dust, we see nothing that we can call a particular man’s. Can this dust live? This death of incineration and dispersion is, to natural reason, the most irrecoverable death of all; and yet, God is the Lord by whom we escape death; and by recompacting this dust into the same body, and rejoining the same body with the same soul, he shall in a blessed and glorious resurrection give us such an escape even from this death as shall never pass into any other death, but establish us in a life that shall last as long as the Lord of Life himself.
And so that is the first way of reading these words (“God is the Lord, by whom we escape death”); though from the womb to the grave, and in the grave itself, we pass from death to death, yet, as Daniel speaks, the Lord our God is able to deliver us (Daniel 3:17), and he will deliver us.
THE ESCAPE IN DEATH
And so we pass to our second way of reading God is the Lord, by whom we escape death: the escape in death; it belongs to God, and not to man, to pass a judgment upon us at our death. Those signs which physicians discern, and those predictions which they give for death or recovery in the patient, they discern and they give out of the grounds and the rules of their art; but we have no such rule or art to give a prediction of spiritual death and damnation upon any such sign as we may see in any dying man: we might comfort ourselves in the death of a friend, if it be testified that he went away like a lamb, that is, without any reluctance; but that may be accompanied with a dangerous insensibility of his soul’s actual condition. On the other hand, even Our blessed Saviour suffered in the Garden in preparation for Death, a sadness even in his soul to death, and an agony even to a bloody sweat in his body, and expostulations with God, and exclamations upon the cross. So, make no ill conclusions upon any man’s reluctance to die. The mercies of God may work momentarily in minutes, and many times invisibly to bystanders, or any other than the party departing. And then upon violent deaths inflicted as upon evil-doers, Christ himself has forbidden us by his own death to make any ill conclusion; for his own death had those impressions in it; he was reputed, he was executed as a malefactor, and no doubt many of them who agreed to his death did believe him to be so. Therefore make no ill conclusion upon sudden death nor upon an individual’s reluctance or fear in departing. The tree lies as it falls, it is true, but it is not the last stroke that fells the tree, nor the last word nor gasp that alone qualifies the soul. Still, pray for a peaceable death and against violent death, and for time of repentance against sudden death, and for sober and modest assurance against reluctant or fearful death, but never make ill conclusions upon persons overtaken with such deaths. God alone is the Lord, by whom we escape death. Our critical day is, perhaps, not the very day of our death, but the whole course of our life. I thank him that prays for me when the death-bells toll for me, but I thank him much more that catechises me, or preaches to me, or instructs me how to live. Our security is in the word of the Lord who said, do this and thou shalt live (Luke 10:28). But though I do it, yet I shall die too, that is, die a bodily, a natural death. God does not say, Live well, and you shall die an easy, a quiet death; but, Live well here, and thou shalt live well for ever. A good life here flows into an eternal life. But whether the gate of my prison be opened with an oiled key, a gentle and preparing sickness, or the gate be hewn down by a violent death, or the gate be burnt down by a raging and frantic fever, a gate into heaven I shall have, for from the Lord is the cause of my life, and with God the Lord is the escape in death. And this is the second sense of our text, as this escape in death is God’s care that the soul be safe, whatever the agonies the body suffers in the hour of death.
THE ESCAPE BY DEATH
And so, now we turn to the third and final way of reading the verse: God is the Lord, by whom we escape death. This final escape is a deliverance by the death of another. Now, at last. consider the end of the Lord, the end that the Lord himself came to, death, and a painful and a shameful death. But why did he die? and why die so? As Saint Augustine, interpreting our text, answers that question, (De Civitate Dei, lib. 17) because to this God our Lord belonged our escape by death. What can be more obvious, more manifest than this sense of these words? he says. In the earlier part of our text it is said, He that is our God is the God of salvation; or, as Augustine reads it, the God that must save us. Who can that be, says he, but Jesus? For therefore that name was given him because he was to save us. And so, to this Jesus, this Saviour, (Matthew 1:21) belongs the escape by death; having come into this life in our mortal nature, he could not go out of this life any other way but by death, to save us was to die. Though he were God the Lord, yet to him, to God the Lord belonged the escape by death; more cannot be said than Christ himself says of himself: These things Christ ought to suffer; (Luke 23:26) he had no other way but death.
That God, this Lord, the Lord of life, could die, is a strange contemplation; that the Red Sea could be dry, that the sun could stand still, that an oven could be seven times heat and not burn, that lions could be hungry and not bite, all these are strange, miraculously strange, but super-miraculous that God could die; but that God would die is an exaltation of that. But even of that also it is a super-exaltation, that God should die, must die, (said Saint Augustine), God the Lord had no escape but by death, and (says Christ himself), all this Christ ought to suffer, was bound to suffer (Luke 24:26); As the psalmist says, God is the God of revenges, he would not pass over the son of man unrevenged, unpunished (Psalm 93:1). But then (as it says in the same place), the God of revenges works freely, he punishes, he spares whom he will. And would he not spare himself? He would not. Says Christ, if it be possible, let this cup pass (Matthew 26:39), when his love, expressed in a former decree with his Father, had made it impossible. Many waters quench not love (Canticles 8:7). Christ tried many: he was baptised out of his love, and his love was not quenched; he mingled blood with water in his agony, and that quenched not his love; he wept pure blood, it seeped from his pores in his flagellation and thorns, and these expressed, but these did not quench his love. He would not spare, he could not spare himself. There was nothing more free, more voluntary, more spontaneous than the death of Christ. It is true, he died voluntarily for love of us; but yet when we consider the contract that had passed between his Father and him, there was a kind of necessity upon him: all this Christ ought to suffer. And when shall we date this obligation, this necessity? When shall we say that began? Certainly this decree by which Christ was to suffer all this was an eternal decree, and was there anything before that that was eternal?
Infinite love, eternal love; be pleased to follow this home, and to consider it seriously, that what liberty soever we can conceive in Christ to die or not to die; this necessity of dying, this decree is as eternal as that liberty; and yet how small a matter made he of this necessity and this dying? His Father calls it but a bruising of his heel (Genesis 3:15) (the serpent shall bruise his heel). He Himself calls it but a baptism, as though he were to be the better for it. I have a baptism to be baptised with, (Luke 12:50), and yet this baptism was his death. The Holy Ghost calls it joy (for the joy which was set before him he endured the cross) (Hebrews 12:2). And so, the Lord was God, yet could die, would die, must die for our salvation. And now, consider one last point: Our Lord refers to his passion and death as a cup, and no worse (Can ye drink of my cup) (Matthew 20:22). If such a thing as death on a cross may be compared to a cup, then the chalice of his passion and death was freely raised in a toast to our escape from death. In gratitude for so many and great escapes, but especially for this last escape, the escape by his death, what shall we render to the Lord (Psalm 116:12)? There is only one reply: we must take the chalice of his passion and death, accept the cup of salvation freely offered and drink deeply. This is the third and final way of reading our text: God is the Lord by whom we escape death.
And so, having demonstrated how the God of power, the Almighty Father rescues his servants from the jaws of death; how the God of mercy, the glorious Son took upon himself our escape by his death; and how the comforter, the Holy Ghost assures us that the escape in death is merely the entrance into everlasting life, the frail old Dean of St. Paul’s, retired again to his sickbed where, three days later, his own escape in death was made good.