And unto God the Lord belong the issues of death.

margin note

John Donne was the most outstanding of the English Metaphysical Poets and a churchman famous for his spell-binding sermons. His poetry is noted for its ingenious fusion of wit and seriousness and represents a shift from classical models toward a more personal style.

Donne was born in London to a prominent Roman Catholic family but converted to Anglicanism during the 1590s. At the age of 11 he entered the University of Oxford, where he studied for three years. According to some accounts, he spent the next three years at the University of Cambridge but took no degree at either university. He began the study of law at Lincoln's Inn, London, in 1592, and he seemed destined for a legal or diplomatic career. In 1596, Donne joined the naval expedition that Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, led against Cádiz, Spain. On his return to England, Donne was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Keeper of the Great Seal, in 1598. Donne's secret marriage in 1601 to Egerton's niece, Anne More, resulted in his dismissal from this position and in a brief imprisonment. The poet, in a characteristic pun, later summed up the experience: "John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone."

During the next few years Donne made a meager living as a lawyer, serving chiefly as counsel for Thomas Morton, an anti-Roman Catholic pamphleteer. Donne may have collaborated with Morton in writing pamphlets that appeared under Morton's name from 1604 to 1607. Donne's principal literary accomplishments during this period were Divine Poems (1607) and the prose work Biathanatos (c. 1608, posthumously published 1644), a half-serious extenuation of suicides, in which he argued that suicide is not intrinsically sinful. In 1608 a reconciliation was effected between Donne and his father-in-law, and his wife received a much-needed dowry. His next work, Pseudo-Martyr (1610), is a prose treatise maintaining that English Roman Catholics could, without breach of their religious loyalty, pledge an oath of allegiance to James I, king of England. This work won him the favor of the king. Donne became a priest of the Anglican church in 1615 and was appointed royal chaplain later that year. In 1621 was named dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. He attained eminence as a preacher, delivering sermons that are regarded as the most brilliant and eloquent of his time.

Donne's poetry embraces a wide range of secular and religious subjects. He wrote cynical verse about inconstancy (for example, Go and catch a falling star and I can love both fair and brown ); poems about true love, such as The Good-Morrow and Sweetest love, I do not go/For weariness of thee ; Neoplatonic lyrics on the mystical union of lovers' souls and bodies, such as Air and Angels and The Ecstasy ; brilliant satires; hymns and holy sonnets depicting his own spiritual struggles, such as A Hymn to God the Father , Batter my heart, three-personed God , and I am a little world made cunningly , in which he begs God to purge him of sin. The two Anniversaries -- An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul (1612)--are elegies for 15-year-old Elizabeth Drury, whose death epitomized for Donne the decay of the world, physically and morally, and whose entry into heaven heralded its potential regeneration.

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Death's Duel by John Donne
Or A Consolation to the Soul Against the Dying Life and
Living Death of the Body

This sermon was preached not many days before John Donne's death, as if, having done this, there remained nothing for him to do but to die; and the matter is of death--the occasion and subject of all funeral sermons. It has been observed that his faculty in preaching continually increased, and that, as he exceeded others at first, so at last he exceeded himself. This is his last sermon. A dying man's words, if they concern ourselves, do usually make the deepest impression. It was delivered before the King at the beginning of Lent, 1630. Donne, at that time, was Dr. in Divinity, and Dean of Saint Paul's, London.

BUILDINGS stand by the benefit of their foundations that sustain and support them, and of their buttresses that comprehend and embrace them, and of their contignations that knit and unite them. The foundations suffer them not to sink, the buttresses suffer them not to swerve, and the contignation and knitting suffers them not to cleave. The body of our building is in the former part of this verse. It is this: He that is our God is the God of salvation; ad salutes, of salvations in the plural, so it is in the original; the God that gives us spiritual and temporal salvation too. But of this building, the foundation, the buttresses, the contignations, are in this part of the verse which constitutes our text, and in the three divers acceptations of the words amongst our expositors: Unto God the Lord belong the issues from death, for, first, the foundation of this building (that our God is the God of all salvation) is laid in this, that unto this God the Lord belong the issues of death; that is, it is in his power to give us an issue and deliverance, even then when we are brought to the jaws and teeth of death, and to the lips of that whirlpool, the grave. And so in this acceptation, this exitus mortis, this issue of death is liberatio á morte, a deliverance from death, and this is the most obvious and most ordinary acceptation of these words, and that upon which our translation lays hold, the issues from death. And then, secondly, the buttresses that comprehend and settle this building, that he that is our God is the God of all salvation, are thus raised; unto God the Lord belong the issues of death, that is, the disposition and manner of our death; what kind of issue and transmigration we shall have out of this world, whether prepared or sudden, whether violent or natural, whether in our perfect senses or shaken and disordered by sickness, there is no condemnation to be argued out of that, no judgment to be made upon that, for, howsoever they die, precious in his sight is the death of his saints, and with him are the issues of death; the ways of our departing out of this life are in his hands. And so in this sense of the words, this exitus mortis, the issues of death, is liberatio in morte, a deliverance in death; not that God will deliver us from dying, but that he will have a care of us in the hour of death, of what kind soever our passage be. And in this sense and acceptation of the words, the natural frame and contexture doth well and pregnantly administer unto us. And then, lastly, the contignation 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 issues of 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 issue out of this world, nor return to his former glory, but by death. And so in this sense, this exitus mortis, this issue of 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 acceptation 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 issue of 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 what manner of death soever be ordained for us, yet this exitus mortis shall be introitus in vitam, our issue in 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 contignation, of this our building; that he that is our God is the God of all salvation, because unto this God the Lord belong the issues of death.

First, then, we consider this exitus mortis to be liberatio à morte, that with God the Lord are the issues of death; and therefore in all our death, and deadly calamities of this life, we may justly hope of a good issue from him. In all our periods and transitions in this life, are so many passages from death to death; our very birth and entrance into this life is exitus à morte, an issue from death, for in our mother's womb we are dead, so as that we do not know we live, not so much as we do in our sleep, neither is there any grave so close or so putrid a prison, as the womb would be unto us if we stayed in it beyond our time, or died there before our time. In the grave the worms do not kill us; we breed, and feed, and then kill those worms which we ourselves produced. In the womb the dead child kills the mother that conceived it, and is a murderer, nay, a parricide, even after it is dead. And if we be not dead so in the womb, so as that being dead we kill her that gave us our first life, our life of vegetation, yet we are dead so as David's idols are dead. In the womb we have eyes and see not, ears and hear not.[347] There in the womb we are fitted for works of darkness, all the while deprived of light; and there in the womb we are taught cruelty, by being fed with blood, and may be damned, though we be never born. Of our very making in the womb, David says, I am wonderfully and fearfully made, and such knowledge is too excellent for me,[348] for even that is the Lord's doing, and it is wonderful in our eyes;[349] ipse fecit nos, it is he that made us, and not we ourselves,[350] nor our parents neither. Thy hands have made and fashioned me round about, saith Job, and (as the original word is) thou hast taken pains about me, and yet (says he) thou dost destroy me. Though I be the masterpiece of the greatest master (man is so), yet if thou do no more for me, if thou leave me where thou madest me, destruction will follow. The womb, which should be the house of life, becomes death itself if God leave us there. That which God threatens so often, the shutting of a womb, is not so heavy nor so discomfortable a curse in the first as in the latter shutting, nor in the shutting of barrenness as in the shutting of weakness, when children are come to the birth, and no strength to bring forth.[351]

[348]       Psalm 139:6.
[349]       Psalm 118:23.
[350]       Psalm 100:3.
[351]       Isaiah 37:3.


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