John Donne, who faced illness and tragedy during his life, wrote an almost whimsical taunt in sonnet form. Donne included ‘Death, be not proud’ in his collection, Holy Sonnets, as sonnet #10. This is his poem in updated English:
DEATH be not proud, though some have called you
Mighty and dreadful, for, you are not so,
For, those, whom you think, you do overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet can you kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but your pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from you, much more must flow,
And [as] soon [as] our best men with you do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliver.
You are a slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And do with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better [than] your stroke; why swell [yourself] then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, you shall die.
In quatrain one, death is called mighty and dreadful, both attributes that provoke pride in creatures that possess them. Yet, Donne calls death ‘poor,’ because he has no power over those saved by God’s mercy and unmerited favor. We read from the scriptures:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life. John 5:24 English Standard Version (ESV)
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4 English Standard Version (ESV)
In quatrain two, Donne compares death with rest and sleep, both of which are pictures of death. Therefore, death provides only pleasure for those whose trust is in Christ. We read from the scriptures:
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” Revelation 14:13 English Standard Version (ESV)
For you have delivered my soul from death,
yes, my feet from falling,
that I may walk before God
in the light of life.
Finally, in the sestet, death is called a slave to the intentions of those who would perpetrate murder and is dependent on such means both deadly and narcotic. Therefore, Donne asks, why should death swell with pride? Not only do those who die in Christ live eternally, but death’s death sentence is foreordained. We read from the scriptures:
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:26 English Standard Version (ESV)
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Please take Donne’s sonnet and these scriptures to heart.
Sunrays in the Bruderwald, Bamberg, Bavaria; 15 October 2017; Photo by Reinhold Möller; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; Unmodified; Usage does not imply endorsement.