Notes and Commentary on
The Pilgrim's Progress
by Ken Puls
7. Slough of Despond
Wherefore Christian was left to tumble in the Slough of Despond alone; but still he endeavored to struggle to that side of the Slough that was still further from his own house, and next to the Wicket Gate; the which he did, but could not get out because of the Burden that was upon his back. But I beheld in my dream, that a man came to him, whose name was Help, and asked him, What he did there?
Christian: Sir, said Christian, I was directed this way, by a man called Evangelist, who directed me also to yonder Gate, that I might escape the Wrath to come. And as I was going thither, I fell in here.
Help: But why did you not look for the Steps?
Christian: Fear followed me so hard, that I fled the next way, and fell in.
Help: Then said he, Give me thy hand; so he gave him his hand, and he drew him out, and set him upon solid Ground, and bid him go on his way.
Then I stepped to him that plucked him out, and said, Sir, wherefore, (since over this place is the way from the City of Destruction to yonder Gate) is it, that this plat is not mended, that poor Travelers might go thither with more security? And he said unto me, This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended. It is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond; for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there arises in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place. And this is the reason of the badness of this ground.
It is not the pleasure of the King that this place should remain so bad; his laborers also have, by the directions of his Majesties Surveyors, been for above this sixteen hundred years employed about this patch of ground, if perhaps it might have been mended: Yea, and to my knowledge, said he, here has been swallowed up at least twenty thousand cart loads; yea Millions of wholesome Instructions, that have at all seasons been brought from all places of the King's dominions (and they that can tell, say, They are the best materials to make good ground of the place) if so be it might have been mended; but it is the Slough of Despond still; and so will be when they have done what they can.
True, there are, by the direction of the Lawgiver, certain good and substantial Steps, placed even through the very midst of this Slough; but at such time as this place doth much spew out its filth, as it does against change of weather, these steps are hardly seen, or if they be, men, through the dizziness of their heads, step besides; and then they are bemired to purpose, notwithstanding the steps be there; but the ground is good when they are once got in at the Gate.
Notes and Commentary
Now alone after the desertion of Pliable, Christian continues in Despondency. He still feels the shame and filth because of his sin. Yet he is determined to find the Wicket Gate. It is much better to go through the shame and grief of facing your sin than to go back to certain Destruction. Christian, however, finds he is unable by his own power to pull himself out.
God is then faithful to send Help to his aid. Some have identified Help as another minister like Evangelist. Alexander Whyte calls him simply another preacher, pastor or evangelist. Spurgeon says he is a brother who has the gift of "helps." It seems clear, however, that Bunyan refers here to the work of the Holy Spirit. The Slough was lifted from David's imagery in Scripture as he cries to the Lord in Psalm 40: 1Ð2,
I waited patiently for the Lord and He inclined to me,
And heard my cry.
He also brought me up out of a horrible pit,
Out of the miry clay,
And set my feet upon a rock,
And established my steps.
Here it is the Lord Himself who lifts David out of the pit. He sets his feet upon a rock and establishes his steps. As the Psalm ends, David says in verse 17,
But I am poor and needy;
Yet the Lord thinks upon me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
Do not delay, O my God.
God Himself is David's Help. In the New Testament the Holy Spirit is called our Help and it is He who leads us to the Rock of our salvation.
"But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me" (John 15:26).
"Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you, but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment" (John 16:7Ð8).
It is God's Spirit who not only convicts us of sin, but also keeps us from sinking under the weight of its burden by testifying to our hearts concerning the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the allegory Help asks Christian, "But why did you not look for the steps?" These steps represent the promises of Jesus Christ in the Gospel. They are many: "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out" (John 6:37), "But God demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8), "This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief" (1 Timothy 1:15), to name but a few. Bunyan points out several truths concerning these promises:
1) They are placed "by the direction of the Lawgiver." God has given us these promises as they are His revealed Word.
2) They are "good and substantial." They are true and can be trusted for they come from One who cannot lie.
3) They are placed "through the very Midst of this Slough." Even when we struggle and despair over sin, the promises of God in His Word remain true. They are always present and always there for our comfort and hope.
4) Although they are always present, "at such times as this place doth much spew out its filth, as it does against change of weather, these steps are hardly seen." Often our sin so overwhelms us with despair and guilt, the promises may seem distance or even removed. Thoughts of hopelessness may spew over and hide them: "Your sin is so great, why would God want to save you? You have committed this sin so many times, how can there be any forgiveness left? Surely God has thrown up His hands and given up on you!" As we are confounded by this "dizziness," we fall and begin to sink in despondency. But thank God the steps remain, "good and substantial," and thank God for His Spirit who is our Help in time of need, who points us always to where "the ground is good."
Once Christian is out and on his way, Help further explains the Slough. It is more than a mere pond, but a wide gulf that divides the City of Destruction from the Way to Life. We must face the shame and evil of our sin against God on our way to the Cross. Only then can we fully adore our Savior and understand the great price He paid for our salvation. According to Help the Slough cannot be mended. In spite of millions of instructions given by the King's laborers (pastors and teachers) under the direction of His Majesties Surveyors (the prophets and apostles who have written down for us God's revealed plan in the Scriptures), sin remains and continues to be filthy and dirty. Even the best a man can do is but "filthy rags" in God's sight (Isaiah 64:6). Our efforts can never make us right before God. He alone can lift us up and save us.
In the second part of the allegory the Slough appears worse than before:
But when Christiana came to the Slough of Despond she began to be at a stand, for, said she, This is the place in which my dear husband had like to have been smothered with mud. She perceived also, that notwithstanding the command of the King to make this place for Pilgrims good, yet it was rather worse than formerly. So I asked if that was true? Yes, said the Old Gentleman, too true. For that many there be, that pretend to be the King's Laborers, and that say, they are for mending the King's highway, that bring dirt and dung instead of stones, and so mar instead of mending. Here Christiana therefore, with her boys, did make a stand. But said Mercy, Come let us venture, only let us be wary. Then they looked well to the Steps, and made a shift to bet staggeringly over.
Christiana had like to have been in, and that not once nor twice. Now they had no sooner gotten over, but they thought they heard words, that said unto them, Blessed is she that believes, for there shall be a performance of the things that have been told her from the Lord.
Then they went on again; and said Mercy to Christiana, Had I as good ground to hope for a loving reception at the Wicket Gate as you, I think no Slough of Despond would discourage me.
Many of those who claim to be teachers of God's truth are in fact pretenders and deceivers. They bring the "dirt and dung" of false teaching and make the Way more treacherous rather than safe. As Christiana and Mercy approach the Slough of Despond, there is a similar turn of conversation as had happened between Christian and Pliable. Christian and Pliable fell into the Slough as Christian's thoughts turned from the promises of rewards and glory to contemplating his own unfitness and guilt. His doubts and despair plunged him and his companion into the mire. Christiana and Mercy, however, have been warned of the Slough by Christian's own testimony. In their pilgrimage they reach the Slough just after Mercy has grieved over the lost condition of her friends left behind in the City of Destruction. She tells Christiana:
Alas! Who can but lament, that shall but rightly consider what a state and condition my poor relations are in, that yet remain in our sinful town: And that which makes my grief the more heavy is because they have no instructor, nor any to tell them what is to come.
Christiana then comforts her that as God heard the prayers of Christian, her husband, and now was making them fruitful as she and her children were following after him, God may also hear and bless her prayers. It is then after the tears shed for the lost and depraved relations in Destruction that they approach the Slough.
Christiana is almost too fearful to proceed, knowing how much her husband struggled before her. But she has Mercy to boldly encourage her and they together look for the Steps. "If I say, 'my foot slips,' Your mercy, O LORD, will hold me up" (Psalms 94:18). Likewise we must remember when facing the unspeakable filth of our sin, that our God is a merciful God. We were dead in trespasses and sins, "but God, who is rich in mercy" has loved us (Ephesians 2:4–5). He shall pardon, forgive and receive all who come to him by faith in Jesus Christ.
For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive,
And abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You (Psalms 86:5).
In Christ, all God's promises are true and Amen (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Continue reading: 8. Yonder Shining Light
Return to 6. Forsaken by Pliable