A Guide to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress

 

Notes and Commentary on
The Pilgrim's Progress

by Ken Puls

Slough of Despond

6. Forsaken by Pliable

Now I saw in my dream, that when Obstinate was gone back, Christian and Pliable went talking over the plain; and thus they began their discourse.

Christian: Come, neighbor Pliable, how do you do? I am glad you are persuaded to go along with me; and had even Obstinate himself but felt what I have felt of the powers and terrors of what is yet unseen, he would not thus lightly have given us the back.

Pliable: Come, neighbor Christian, since there are none but us two here, tell me now further, what the things are? And how to be enjoyed, whither we are going?

Christian: I can better conceive of them with my mind than speak of them with my tongue: But yet since you are desirous to know, I will read of them in my Book.

Pliable: And do you think that the words of your book are certainly true?

Christian: Yes verily, for it was made by Him that cannot lie.

Pliable: Well said, what things are they?

Christian: There is an endless Kingdom to be inhabited, an everlasting Life to be given us, that we may inhabit that Kingdom forever.

Pliable: Well said; and what else?

Christian: There are crowns of glory to be given us; and garments that will make us shine like the sun in the firmament of Heaven.

Pliable: This is very pleasant; and what else?

Christian: There shall be no more crying, nor sorrow; for He that is Owner of the place will wipe away all tears from our eyes.

Pliable: And what company shall we have there?

Christian: There we shall be with seraphims, and cherubims, creatures that will dazzle your eyes to look on them. There also you shall meet with thousands, and ten thousands that have gone before us to that place; none of them are hurtful, but loving and holy, every one walking in the sight of God, and standing in His presence with acceptance for ever. In a word, there we shall see the elders with their golden crowns. There we shall see the holy virgins with their golden harps. There we shall see men, that by the world were cut in pieces, burnt in flames, eaten of beasts, drowned in the seas, for the love that they bare to the Lord of the place; all well, and clothed with immortality, as with a garment.

Pliable: The Hearing of this is enough to ravish one's heart; but are these things to be enjoyed? How shall we get to be sharers thereof?

Christian: The Lord, the Governor of the country, hath recorded that in this Book, the substance of which is, if we truly be willing to have it, He will bestow it upon us freely.

Pliable: Well, my good companion, glad am I to hear of these things; come on, let us mend our pace.

Christian: I cannot go so fast as I would, by reason of this Burden that is on my back.

Now I saw in my dream, that just as they had ended this talk, they drew nigh to a very miry Slough that was in the midst of the plain, and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the Slough was Despond. Here therefore they wallowed for a time, being grieviously bedaubed with dirt; and Christian, because of the Burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.

Pliable: Then said Pliable, Ah! neighbor Christian, where are you now?

Christian: Truly, said Christian, I do not know.

Pliable: At that Pliable began to be offended, and angrily said to his fellow, Is this the happiness you have told me all this while of? If we have such ill speed at our first setting out, what may we expect between this and our Journey's end? May I get out again with my Life, you shall possess the brave Country alone for me. And with that he gave a desperate struggle or two, and got of the mire on that side of the Slough which was next to his own house; so away he went, and Christian saw him no more.

 

Notes and Commentary

After the departure of Obstinate back to his Destruction, Pliable finds himself at the high point of his brief pilgrimage with Christian. The path is easy. The conversation is pleasant. Pliable has "tasted of the heavenly gift" as Christian reads the rewards of the Gospel from his Book. For a time he appears eager as though he is advancing in the faith. Seeing the two travelers on the road from a distance one might presume that it is Pliable who is the "more spiritual." He is zealous, ready to race to heaven's gates, bidding Christian to tell him more, exhorting him with the words, "come on, let us mend our pace."

Pliable, however, lacks some important distinctions. He is ravished with the "hearing" but not the "doing." He is concerned over the talk of a coming destruction, and is delighted with the delights written in Christian's book; but he is also unwilling to face the suffering, obedience, and struggle that must come before glory.

While Christian's heart appears tender and concerned, Pliable's is carefree and undisturbed. Their conversation begins with Christian speaking of the powers and terrors he feels because he has been warned of the coming destruction. Pliable, however, brushes the comment aside and asks Christian to explain the way to enjoyment. Christian can hardly speak it in his condition of conviction, but he begins to read in his Book. Soon Pliable is a zealous follower. But though the Gospel may appear to spring up and flourish for this brief moment upon the way, it does not take root and is destined to wither and fade at the first sign of trouble. It is like the seed in the parable of the sower that falls on stony ground. Jesus explains, "But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles" (Matthew 13:2021).

What is the evidence of Pliable's hard, stony heart? He lacks the distinction that has set Christian apart from others since the beginning of Bunyan's allegory; he has no burden. He has not been confronted with his sin or faced his guilt. He feels light as air, ready to run straight way to the gates of heaven. Christian, however is under conviction. He feels the weight of his burden. He knows he is guilty and unfit for heaven. This knowledge slows him, even while Pliable is urging him forward.

But Pliable's shallow commitment to seeking Zion is soon to be tested. His conversion is spurious. His fall waits only for the first sign of difficulty along the way. For it is not enough to fear death and the terrors of hell. Salvation requires repentance from the sin that merits death and hell. It is not enough to want the comforts and joy of heaven. Salvation requires faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and points the way first to the cross.

As Christian's thoughts turn from promised rewards to contemplating his unfitness and guilt, doubts and despair begin to rise in his heart. It is here Christian faces the first great difficulty of his pilgrimage as the two travelers fall unaware into the Slough of Despond.

The Slough represents the uncleanness and shame felt by Christian because of his sin. He feels dirty and wicked in light of the beauty of heaven. He begins to sink, despairing that God would save one such as him.

But Christian is not alone. His despondency is so great, his companion falls in with him. But confronted with the vileness of sin, Pliable wants no part of its unpleasantness. He becomes offended that Christian would lead him into such a place, and with no burden to drag him down, he soon pulls himself from the mire and departs. Bunyan later describes what becomes of Pliable:

 

Now I saw in my dream that by this time Pliable was got to his house again. So his Neighbors came to visit him; and some of them called him wise man for coming back; and some of them called him fool for hazarding himself with Christian; others again did mock at his cowardliness; saying, "Surely since you began to venture, I would not have been so base to have given out for a few difficulties." So Pliable sat sneaking among them. But at last he got more confidence, and then they all turned their tales, and began to deride poor Christian behind his back. And thus much concerning Pliable.

 

When we next hear of Pliable, he has returned to the Destruction in which he was born. But now he is in a worse state than before. His heart has hardened further as he joins the others to ridicule Christian. He himself becomes the object of scorn. He had started down the way toward eternal life and then turned back. Believers lament his shallow profession and lack of perseverance in the face of difficulty. The world mocks him for even venturing out at the beginning. He is called Fool and Coward and is treated as a hypocrite. For a time he loses his confidence and sits "sneaking among them." This is the sad and fruitless pilgrimage of a vain professor—at first flourishing and zealous; but headed for a certain shameful fall.

In the next post we shall return to the Slough to discover more of its nature and to learn what becomes of Christian.

Continue reading: 7. Slough of Despond
Return to 5. Ridiculed by Obstinate

 

The text for The Pilgrim's Progress
and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©1997 Ken Puls
"A Guide to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress"
was originally published from January 1993 to December 1997
in "The Voice of Heritage," a monthly newsletter
of Heritage Baptist Church in Mansfield, Texas
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from
the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
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