Death’s Duel

In the preface to John Donne ’s sermon “Death’s Duel,” the original editor said that Donne delivered this sermon at White Hall, before the King’s Majesty, at the beginning of Lent, 25 February, 1631. This Sermon was considered the author’s own funeral sermon because it was preached so few days before his death. Donne died on 31 March, 1631. This unnamed editor observed of Donne, that his preaching skills continually increased, “in that he exceeded others at first, so, at last he exceeded himself.” And, “A dying Mans words, if they [be of concern to us], do usually make the deepest impression, [since they are] being spoken [with depth of feeling] and [sincerity].”

Donne chose to speak on the scripture verse:

Our God is a God of salvation,

   and to God, the Lord, belong deliverances from death.

Psalm 68:20 English Standard Version (ESV)

In his sermon’s introduction, Donne says:

“… The [framework] and knitting of this building, that He that is our God is the God of all salvations, consists in this, Unto this God the Lord belong the [deliverances from] death; that is, that 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, he could have no other [deliverance] out of this world, nor return to his former glory, but by death.

“And so in this sense, this exitus mortis, this [deliverance from] death, is liberatio per mortem, a deliverance by death, by the death of this God, our Lord Christ Jesus. And this is Saint Augustine’s [understanding] of the words, and those many and great persons that have adhered to him.

“In all these three lines, then, we shall look upon these words, first, as the God of power, the Almighty Father rescues his servants from the jaws of death; and then as the God of mercy, the glorious Son rescued us by taking upon himself this [deliverance from] death; and then, between these two, as the God of comfort, the Holy Ghost rescues us from all discomfort by his blessed impressions beforehand, that [whatsoever] manner of death be ordained for us, yet this exitus mortis shall be introitus in vitam, our [deliverance from] death shall be an entrance into everlasting life.

“And these three considerations: our deliverance à morte, in morte, per mortem, from death, in death, and by death, will abundantly do all the offices of the foundations, of the buttresses, of the [framework], of this our building; that he that is our God is the God of all salvation, because unto this God the Lord belong the [deliverances from] death…”

Paraphrasing Donne’s second point, no matter what manner of death is ordained for us by the God of comfort, yet our deliverance from death shall be an entrance into everlasting life. To this he says:

“…And so we pass unto our second accommodation of these words (unto God the Lord belong the [deliverances from] death); that it belongs to God, and not to man, to pass a judgment upon us at our death, or to conclude a dereliction on God’s part upon the manner thereof.

“Those indications which the physicians receive, and those [predictions] which they give for death or recovery in the patient, they receive 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 indication as we see in any dying man; we see often enough to be sorry, but not to despair; we may be deceived both ways: we use to comfort ourselves in the death of a friend, if it be testified that he went away like a lamb, that is, without any [hesitation]; but God knows that may be accompanied with a dangerous damp and stupefaction, and insensibility of his present state.

“Our blessed Savior [struggled] with death, and a sadness even in his soul to death, and an agony even to a bloody sweat in his body, and expostulations with God [(e.g., Luke 22:40 – 45)], and exclamations upon the cross [(e.g., Luke 23:34-46, John 19:26-30)].

“He was a devout man who said upon his deathbed, or death-turf (for he was a hermit), Septuaginta annos Domino servivisti, et mori times? Have you served a good master threescore and ten years, and now are you [unwilling] to go into his presence? Yet Hilarion was [unwilling.] Barlaam was a devout man (a hermit too) that said that day he died, Cogita te hodie caepisse servire Domino, et hodie finiturum, Consider this to be the first day’s service that ever you did [for] your Master, to glorify him in a Christianly and a [faithful] death, and if your first day be your last day too, how soon do you come to receive your wages! Yet Barlaam could have been content to have stayed longer forth.

“Make no ill conclusions upon any man’s [unwillingness] to die, for the mercies of God work momentarily in minutes, and many times insensibly to bystanders, or any other than the party departing. And then upon violent deaths inflicted as upon malefactors, Christ himself hath forbidden us by his own death to make any ill conclusion; for his own death had those impressions in it; he was [judged], he was executed as a malefactor, and no doubt many of them who concurred to his death did believe him to be so.

“Of sudden death there are scarce examples be found in the Scriptures upon good men, for death in battle cannot be called sudden death; but God governs not by examples but by rules, and therefore make no ill conclusion upon sudden death nor upon [illnesses] neither, though [perhaps] accompanied with some words of [self-doubting] and distrust in the mercies of God. 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 qualifies the soul.

“Still pray we for a peaceable life against violent death, and for time of repentance against sudden death, and for sober and modest assurance against [illness racked] and [self-doubting] death, but never make ill conclusions upon persons overtaken with such deaths; Domini Domini sunt exitus mortis, to God the Lord belong the [deliverances from] death.

“And he received Samson, who went out of this world in such a manner (consider it actively, consider it passively in his own death, and in those whom he slew with himself) as was subject to interpretation hard enough. Yet the Holy Ghost hath moved Saint Paul to celebrate Samson in his great catalogue, and so doth all the church.

“Our critical day is not the very day of our death, but the whole course of our life. I thank him that prays for me when the bell tolls, but I thank him much more that catechizes me, or preaches to me, or instructs me how to live. Fac hoc et vive, there is my security, the mouth of the Lord has said it, do this and you shall live. But though I do it, yet I shall die too, die a bodily, a natural death.

“But God never mentions, never seems to consider that death, the bodily, the natural death. God doth not say, Live well, and you shall die well, that is, an easy, a quiet death; but, Live well here, and you shall live well for ever. As the first part of a sentence [fits] well with the last, and never respects, never hearkens after the parenthesis that comes between, so does a good life here flow into an eternal life, without any consideration what so manner of death we die.

“But whether the gate of my prison be opened with an oiled key (by 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 are the [deliverances from] death. And further we carry not this second [understanding] of the words, as this [deliverance from] death is liberatio in morte, God’s care that the soul be safe, what agonies so ever the body suffers in the hour of death…”

Though Donne’s sermon continues to his third point, it is this second one that captured my attention.

I had witnessed a respected missionary face death. He was solid in the faith, having led many others to our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, I was shocked by his timidity towards his soon departure. I had expected a flint-like resolve and saw a man broken, grasping at remedies for his fatal illness.

Donne’s sermon was the first that I had read that addressed this very concern. Restated, Donne’s thesis is that it belongs to God, and not to man, to pass judgment upon us at our death; nor does it belong to man to conclude a dereliction on God’s part upon the manner thereof.

Donne concludes his exposition of his second point with three statements, first,

“Our critical day is not the very day of our death, but the whole course of our life.”

Second,

“God never mentions, never seems to consider that death, the bodily, the natural death. God does not say, Live well, and you shall die well, that is, an easy, a quiet death; but, Live well here, and you shall live well forever.”

And finally,

“But whether the gate of my prison be opened with an oiled key (by 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 are the [deliverances from] death.”

Therefore I have my answer concerning that dear departed saint, for with God the Lord are the deliverances from death and our deliverance from death shall be an entrance into everlasting life.

F. Handel: Messiah HWV 56 (fantastic performance), April 7, 2014, YouTube, two hours seventeen minutes duration, classicalplus

Death, Be Not Proud

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.

Each of the two quatrains and the sestet clearly point to the scriptures.

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)

And,

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)

And:

For you have delivered my soul from death,

   yes, my feet from falling,

that I may walk before God

   in the light of life.

Psalm 56:13 English Standard Version (ESV)

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.

Isaiah 25:8 English Standard Version (ESV)

And:

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:26 English Standard Version (ESV)

And, finally:

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.

1 Corinthians 15:52-57 English Standard Version (ESV) 

Please take Donne’s sonnet and these scriptures to heart.

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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.