Last Sunday, I ended my sermon with 17th-century English poet John Donne's "Holy Sonnet XIII." It is such a complex poem, that I now realize that the meaning was probably largely lost on the congregation (my fault, not theirs). But it is powerful enough to revisit for further reflection.
Here's the poem, followed by some brief comments:
What if this present were the world's last night?
Mark in my heart, O soul, where thou dost dwell,
The picture of Christ crucified, and tell
Whether that countenance can thee affright,
Tears in his eyes quench the amazing light,
Blood fills his frowns, which from his pierced head fell.
And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,
Which prayed forgiveness for his foes' fierce spite?
No, no . . .
This beauteous form assures a piteous mind.
Now for my observations:
1. Donne is contemplating final judgment. I get this from several phrases: "The world's last night" (which is, by the way, the title of C. S. Lewis's essay on eschatology); "the amazing light"; and especially the seventh line: "And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell."
2. He finds assurance of forgiveness in "the picture of Christ crucified." Notice how he specifically visualizes various aspects of the crucifixion: "that countenance", "tears in his eyes", "blood", "his pierced head", that "tongue...which prayed forgiveness for his foes' fierce spite." This whole picture is summed up in a phrase in the final line: "this beauteous form."
3. Then see the connections he makes between the crucified Savior and his fear of judgment and longing for forgiveness. "Mark...the picture of Christ crucified and tell / Whether that countenance can thee affright", "tears in his eyes quench the amazing light," "And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell, which prayed for his foes' fierce spite?" Finally, the answer: "No, no...This beauteous form assures a piteous mind."
Donne's vivid poetry in this sonnet is really just an application of the logic of the gospel that we find in Scripture. You can see it everywhere in the writings of Paul, Peter, and John as they are deduce our assurance of forgiveness from the fact of the cross.
And this is how we must find our assurance of forgiveness today. Not by blandly presuming that a loving God will blindly overlook our faults. But rather by eyeing "the dying form of One Who suffered there for me" (Elizabeth Clephane) and by marking in his wounds the price and proof of our pardon.
Forgiveness, you see, comes not from God's doing away with justice and judgment, but from his self-substitution in the person of the Son. Christ is the judge who took judgment for me. In the cross, justice has been served; God, therefore, forgives. Justice demands it. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins."
Or, in the words of Toplady:
From whence this fear and unbelief?
Hath not the Father put to grief
His spotless Son for me?
And will the righteous Judge of men,
Condemn me for that debt of sin,
Which, Lord, was charged on Thee?
If Thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine:
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my wounded Surety's hand,
And then again at mine.
This is helpful. I didn't really understand the poem when you read it, but it makes more sense now!
Donne and Milton both have some good poems. This was a new one for me. Thanks for introducing me to it.
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