Taking the Sting Out of Death

BACK IN MY ACADEMY English classes, I remember my first real introduction to the works of the great poets. Among others…

The English-Scottish-Irish: Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Donne, Wordsworth, Yeats, Burns, Milton, Kipling, Chaucer, Browning, Tennyson, and of course, Shakespeare.

The American: Whitman, Longfellow, Dickinson, Thoreau, Millay, Eliot, and Frost—even Guest.

Once formal education is finished, life really sets in. It gets mighty hard to find time to read and enjoy poetry. And that’s a shame. Because some of the greatest thoughts and emotions ever expressed are found in the works of history’s creative scribes.

Take, for example, the words of John Donne (1572 – 1631), who, before he was 10 years old, lost to death his father and three of his sisters. Later in his life, in 1617, his beloved wife Anne died five days after giving birth to a stillborn baby. John mourned her deeply and never remarried. Grief-stricken, he wrote one of his most famous sonnets, in which he not only challenged the cruel enemy that had snatched away his wife but expressed his firm hope in death’s ultimate defeat:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

If anyone cares to keep track of it, I’d like that chiseled into my own headstone if I don’t last till the Second Coming.

In these words, Donne only echoed what Paul had already written centuries earlier:

And the last enemy to be destroyed is death…
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?

—1 Corinthians 15:26, 55, NLT

If you’re still young, you may not think much about death. Trust me, though, time is going to pass far more quickly than you can possibly imagine—and soon enough, you’ll be in the shoes of some of us who have walked the trail of life ahead of you. Then, you’ll think increasingly of death, as first your grandparents, then your parents reach life’s end—and you read the obituaries of former classmates, workmates, and friends.

But back to Paul and John (the pre-Beatle ones). After mowing down every generation from Adam till now, death is a hollow tiger—a doomed enemy. Yes, it’s heartbreaking to say goodbye to those we love. But for those of us who cling to the only One ever to defeat death, we have the certainty of resurrection and reunion.

Mighty and dreadful? Donne asked of Death. Hardly! he scoffed. Just a short sleep, and we wake eternally. You, Death, on the other hand—you are the one who will die and never wake up! For those of us who trust in Jesus, death is for sure a comma, not a period—a pause, not a final end.

Death can seem so frightening—so formidable and intimidating, so powerful. But it’s really a paper tiger, a snake without fangs, a scorpion with no sting.

Donne wrote from no ivory tower but from the depths of his own sorrow—but also from the heights of his hope.

Not so far from where I live is Death Valley. From the lowest point in North America, you can look west and see the highest peak in the continental United States. If any of you are in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, look up. Lift up your eyes to the hills, from which you can find hope—the hope of life resumed and never-ending.

Death will die. We will live! Thanks for that reminder, Paul and John.

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