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

Notes and Commentary

by Ken Puls

on John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress

Crossing the River

131. The River of Death

Now, I further saw, that between them and the gate was a river, but there was no bridge to go over: the river was very deep. At the sight, therefore, of this river, the Pilgrims were much stunned; but the men that went in with them said, You must go through, or you cannot come at the gate.

The Pilgrims then began to inquire if there was no other way to the gate; to which they answered, Yes; but there hath not any, save two, to wit, Enoch and Elijah, been permitted to tread that path since the foundation of the world, nor shall, until the last trumpet shall sound. The Pilgrims then, especially Christian, began to despond in their minds, and looked this way and that, but no way could be found by them by which they might escape the river. Then they asked the men if the waters were all of a depth. They said: No; yet they could not help them in that case; for, said they, you shall find it deeper or shallower as you believe in the King of the place.

They then addressed themselves to the water and, entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.

Then said the other, Be of good cheer, my brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good. Then said Christian, Ah! my friend, the sorrows of death have compassed me about; I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey; and with that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him. Also here he in great measure lost his senses, so that he could neither remember nor orderly talk of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage. But all the words that he spoke still tended to discover that he had horror of mind, and heart fears that he should die in that river, and never obtain entrance in at the gate. Here also, as they that stood by perceived, he was much in the troublesome thoughts of the sins that he had committed, both since and before he began to be a pilgrim. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, for ever and anon he would intimate so much by words. Hopeful, therefore, here had much ado to keep his brother's head above water; yea, sometimes he would be quite gone down, and then, ere a while, he would rise up again half dead. Hopeful also would endeavor to comfort him, saying, Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us: but Christian would answer, It is you, it is you they wait for; you have been Hopeful ever since I knew you. And so have you, said he to Christian. Ah! brother! said he, surely if I was right he would now arise to help me; but for my sins he has brought me into the snare, and has left me. Then said Hopeful, My brother, you have quite forgot the text, where it is said of the wicked, "There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men. These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are no sign that God hath forsaken you; but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of his goodness, and live upon him in your distresses.

 

Notes and Commentary

Christian and Hopeful are now nearing the end of their journey. They are within sight of the Celestial City, but one great barrier separates them from the Gate. They face a deep and foreboding river. The River represents death—the “last enemy” —and the pilgrims must cross it before they can gain entrance into the city.

“The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

The river appears daunting and formidable. Christian and Hopeful are both stunned. They begin to despond when they see no way around it and no bridge to cross it; there is no way to escape death. When they ask if there is any other way to the Gate, they are told, “Yes”! But Scripture speaks of only two who did not die but were translated to glory: Enoch and Elijah.

So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him (Genesis 5:23–24).

By faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, “and was not found, because God had taken him”; for before he was taken he had this testimony, that he pleased God (Hebrews 11:5).

Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 2:11).

Apart from these two, only those who are alive at Christ’s second coming will not taste death:

Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51–52).

The pilgrims now realize that death is unavoidable. As they prepare to enter the water, they are encouraged and accompanied by the Shining Ones. Throughout the allegory the Shining Ones represent God’s work of grace in heart. In the country of Beulah these servants of the King walk and minister openly. They are sent to guide pilgrims in the final steps of the journey. The Shining Ones inform the pilgrims that the river will be shallow or deep depending on their faith. As the pilgrims enter the River, we see indeed that they experience death differently.

Christian is in great turmoil. His pride has long been his greatest obstacle, and even in death, his thoughts are of himself. He remembers his sins and ponders his failings. He begins to sink and cry out in distress. His words are taken from the laments of David:

Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
(Psalm 42:7)

Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
Where there is no standing;
I have come into deep waters,
Where the floods overflow me.
(Psalm 69:1–2)

Deliver me out of the mire,
And let me not sink;
Let me be delivered from those who hate me,
And out of the deep waters.
Let not the floodwater overflow me,
Nor let the deep swallow me up;
And let not the pit shut its mouth on me.
(Psalm 69:14–15)

When the waves of death surrounded me,
The floods of ungodliness made me afraid.
The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me;
The snares of death confronted me.
(2 Samuel 22:5–6)

The pains of death surrounded me,
And the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me;
I found trouble and sorrow.
(Psalm 116:3)

For Christian, death is a great trial. Doubts that he believed were long past, flood his soul again. Fears engulf him—fears he will never make it to the Celestial City. The foes he faced earlier in the Valley of the Shadow of Death (that had all but vanished in the country of Beulah) now return and seek to pull him under.

But Hopeful is full of hope. He finds the river much shallower and, unlike Christian, walks across with firm footing. He keeps his head above the waves and sees the Gate when Christian is unable. Once again, it is God’s kindness that Christian and Hopeful walk together. Hopeful’s thoughts are of Christ. Even in death, Hopeful encourages his brother and points him to the Savior and to the promise of eternal life. Hopeful reminds Christian of Scripture and tells him that even the trial he is facing in death is an indication of God’s grace at work. Unlike the wicked who will be cast away, Christian is concerned for his soul, distressed by his doubts, and troubled by his sin.

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
My steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For there are no pangs in their death,
But their strength is firm.
They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like other men.
(Psalm 73:2–5)

It is a mark of grace that Christian is not in anguish over the loss of this world. Rather, he grieves his lack of faith and holiness.

Every true pilgrim who sets out for the Celestial City will complete the journey. God will do everything necessary to bring us home to glory.

being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

But our awareness of His grace as we near the end of life and experience death will be strengthened or weakened by our faith, as we “believe in the King of the place.” We must exercise our faith now. We must learn to walk by faith, not by sight, and be grateful for every circumstance and providence that keeps us pointed to Christ and oriented toward eternity. This requires a radical shift in our thinking. Too often we value what profits us little and spurn what God can use for our good. It is a paradox that what we consider to be an advantage in this life can actually hinder us (if it distracts us from trusting in Christ). And what we consider to be a disadvantage in this life can actually help us (if it makes us more mindful of our need for Christ). What this world most prizes—status, privilege, wealth, youth and vigor—are things that bind us to this life. Sadly, they can prevent us from looking to Christ and yearning for the life to come. But what the world most fears—hardship, illness, poverty, old age and frailty—are things that cause us to grow weary of this life. Thankfully, they can serve us, if they teach us to value Christ and yearn more for the life to come.

Those most at home in this world will have the hardest time leaving it. It is difficult to face death when you are clinging tenaciously to the world. Those least encumbered by the world will have an easier time leaving it. When we realize that Christ and His promises—which for now are unseen (seen only with the eyes of faith)—are more real and more valuable than anything the world can offer, then we can greet death not as an enemy but as an entrance to glory.

The River

Lord, we pray for those now crossing
Through the River, death's cold tide.
Help them through its flowing current,
Bring them safe on Canaan's side.

(from A Prayer for Pilgrims)

Return to 130. Met by the Gardener

 

The text for The Pilgrim's Progress
and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2019 Ken Puls

Earlier portions of "A Guide to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress"
were originally published from January 1993 to December 1997
in "The Voice of Heritage," a monthly newsletter
of Heritage Baptist Church in Mansfield, Texas
 

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