Redemption and Sacrifice in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet IX

Throughout his Holy Sonnet collection, John Donne reflects on his understanding of God’s character and Biblical promises. He accomplishes this through his poetic use of literary and structural devices. Donne’s balanced intersection of the figurative sonnet structure and its content allows him to explore his Christian beliefs in an interpretive light. In his Holy Sonnet IX, John Donne employs Biblical allusion and reference to emphasize the significance of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  

To begin, Donne directly alludes to the biblical crucifixion narrative to emphasize its violent reality–and thus its significance as a fully sufficient redemptive sacrifice. Donne begins the sonnet with the line “Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side” (1). Here he has already alluded to two distinct events in the crucifixion narrative. Firstly, “spit in my face, you Jews…” (1) refers to Jesus’ trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin prior to His crucifixion. During this trial, He is mocked for asserting that He is the Son of God. The Jewish religious leaders “spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, ‘Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?’” (Matthew 26:67-68 NIV). Jesus freely submitted His divine authority in order to be handed over to death by the impious Jewish leaders (6), magnifying the significance of His suffering. This biblical allusion reminds the speaker that the mental torture Jesus willingly suffered was a demonstration of His humility.

In addition, using the phrase “…pierce my side” (1), Donne also references another distinct moment of the crucifixion story. The Roman officials overseeing the crucifixions broke the legs of the criminals hanging beside Jesus. However, when they realized Jesus had died, they instead pierced His side to confirm His death. “These things [that Jesus’ legs remained unbroken and the presence of witnesses to this fact] happened so that the scriptures would be fulfilled…” (John 19:36). Donne alludes to this moment in the crucifixion narrative to emphasize the brutal murder Jesus endured,. He highlights the sacrifice which fulfilled the Old Testament scriptures as the all-encompassing blood sacrifice prophesied long before the Incarnation.  

Furthermore, Donne makes an allusion to a scriptural description of Jesus so as to create a contrast between His status as the Son of God and His servant-like disposition. That, in turn, demonstrates the significance of His sacrifice as the Son of God. Donne writes, “They [the Jews] kill’d once an inglorious man, but I / Crucify him [Jesus] daily, being now glorified” (7-8). Here, he creates a distinction between the “inglorious” and “glorified” statuses of Jesus. When He was crucified, Jesus was inglorious–not yet renowned in a heavenly sense. Nevertheless, Jesus, “who, being in very nature God, [and] did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage…” (Phillipians 2:6), still knew He was God in the midst of His sacrifice.  

All this culminates in illustrating the significance of His atoning death: He chose to die on a criminal’s cross so that He might redeem the very people who treated God Himself ingloriously. When Donne writes “…but I / Crucify him daily, being now glorified” (7-8), he is saying that, following His resurrection and ascension to heaven, Jesus is now glorified. The Scriptures say: “God exalted him [Jesus] to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9). Donne is introducing this Biblical promise because he wants to metaphorically remind the readers that we can, in some ways, be killing Jesus every day because of our penchant towards sin (despite the fact that Christ’s sacrifice was once-and-for-all). Jesus sacrificed Himself not only knowing He was God and therefore undeserving of such a punishment, but doing so with the knowledge that those whom He died for would continue to sin and require His grace. Therefore, the allusive contrast Donne creates between these statuses reveals the revolutionary significance of Jesus’ complete sacrifice. 

In this sonnet, Donne contrasts the life of Jesus and other Biblical figures through Scriptural references, therefore demonstrating the substance of Christ’s motivation behind His sacrifice. He highlights Jacob, considered one of the fathers of Israel: “And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire,/But to supplant, and with gainful intent” (11-12). In the Genesis narrative, Jacob is characterized as a deceiver–his name literally translating as such. Jacob, disguised in goatskin, presented himself to his dying father, claiming to be his father’s hairier older son, Esau, to steal his brother’s blessing as the patriarchal head of the family. In the lines from the sonnet referenced above, Donne indicates that when Jacob disguised himself in a crude costume, it was for self-gain. However, Donne directly juxtaposes this idea with: “God clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh, that so/He might be weak enough to suffer woe” (13-14). Here, Donne refers to the Biblical arrival of God in human form through Jesus. He pronounces the event of Jesus’ birth as God clothing Himself in a crude costume of human flesh–but now the act was not selfish because “…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). This referential analogy between the literal and symbolic disguises of Jacob and Jesus shows the substance of Christ’s motivation for His sacrifice: to give up His position as God to “suffer woe” with humans (14). 

Throughout his Holy Sonnet IX, John Donne establishes the magnitude of Jesus Christ’s atoning self-sacrifice through the literary techniques of Biblical allusion and reference. They consistently emphasize the tension between Jesus’ humble servant sacrifice and His equality as God. Ultimately, the poem allows readers to recall Jesus’ innocence in the midst of the punishment He chose to bear on our behalf. As we read these allusive contrasts, we see a definition of Christ’s sacrifice as a revealing piece of God’s character by allowing us to understand His nature as both servant and divine more fully.  

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.

Categories: Arts

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Brad Fogo

Excellent article. Convicting and encouraging.