Protection on the King’s Highway

Besides, their king is at their whistle. He is never out of hearing; and if at any time they be put to the worst, he, if possible, comes in to help them; and of him it is said, “The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon; he esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make him flee; sling stones are turned with him into stubble. Darts are counted as stubble: he laugheth at the shaking of a spear.” What can a man do in this case? It is true, if a man could, at every turn, have Job’s horse, and had skill and courage to ride him, he might do notable things; for “his neck is clothed with thunder, he will not be afraid of the grasshopper; the glory of his nostrils is terrible: he paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength, he goeth on to meet the armed men. He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted, neither turneth he back from the sword. The quiver rattleth against him, the glittering spear, and the shield. He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage, neither believeth he that it is the sound of the trumpet. He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha! and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”

But for such footmen as you and I are, let us never desire to meet with an enemy, nor vaunt as if we could do better, when we hear of others that they have been foiled, Nor be tickled at the thoughts of our own manhood; for such commonly come by the worst when tried. Witness Peter, of whom I made mention before. He would swagger, ay, he would; he would, as his vain mind prompted him to say, do better, and stand more for his Master than all men; but who so foiled, and run down by these villains, as he?

When, therefore, we hear that such robberies are done on the King’s highway, two things become us to do:

  1. To go out harnessed, and to be sure to take a shield with us; for it was for want of that, that he that laid so lustily at Leviathan could not make him yield; for, indeed, if that be wanting, he fears us not at all. Therefore, he that had skill hath said, “Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.”
  2. It is good, also, that we desire of the King a convoy, yea, that he will go with us himself. This made David rejoice when in the Valley of the Shadow of Death; and Moses was rather for dying where he stood, than to go one step without his God. Oh, my brother, if he will but go along with us, what need we be afraid of ten thousands that shall set themselves against us? But, without him, “the proud helpers fall under the slain.”

I, for my part, have been in the fray before now; and though, through the goodness of him that is best, I am, as you see, alive, yet I cannot boast of my manhood. Glad shall I be, if I meet with no more such brunts; though I fear we are not got beyond all danger. However, since the lion and the bear have not as yet devoured me, I hope God will also deliver us from the next uncircumcised Philistine. Then sang Christian—

Poor Little-faith! Hast been among the thieves?
Wast robb’d? Remember this, whoso believes,
And gets more faith, shall then a victor be
Over ten thousand, else scarce over three.

Great-Heart 

The cruel assault of Little-faith is a reminder to Christian and Hopeful that their journey is still fraught with danger. The Way to the Celestial City is beset with trials and haunted by foes. Faint-heart, Mistrust and Guilt are bad enough, but their king is much worse. As Christian experienced in the Valley of Humiliation, Apollyon, the devil, who “is at their whistle,” is prowling about, ready to come and press the battle. Christian compares the might of Apollyon to the sea serpent Leviathan described in the book of Job.

Though the sword reaches him, it cannot avail;
Nor does spear, dart, or javelin.
He regards iron as straw,
And bronze as rotten wood.
The arrow cannot make him flee;
Slingstones become like stubble to him.
Darts are regarded as straw;
He laughs at the threat of javelins.
(Job 41:26–29)

In light of the overwhelming strength of the enemy, Christian muses: “What can a man do in this case?” What if he had great advantage going into the battle: a sturdy horse, courage, and skill to ride? Christian continues to quote from the book of Job where God describes a horse fit for war:

“Have you given the horse strength?
Have you clothed his neck with thunder?
Can you frighten him like a locust?
His majestic snorting strikes terror.
He paws in the valley, and rejoices in his strength;
He gallops into the clash of arms.
He mocks at fear, and is not frightened;
Nor does he turn back from the sword.
The quiver rattles against him,
The glittering spear and javelin.
He devours the distance with fierceness and rage;
Nor does he come to a halt because the trumpet has sounded.
At the blast of the trumpet he says, ‘Aha!’
He smells the battle from afar,
The thunder of captains and shouting.”
(Job 39:19–25)

Even with such an advantage we dare not regard the battle lightly. We should not think we would fare better in such combat. We must not scoff when we hear of others who have fallen in combat.

This is a lesson we must heed whenever we face trial and temptation. At this point in the allegory Bunyan directs his words to seasoned pilgrims, those who have walked long with the Lord. Though we have gained a measure of spiritual maturity, we must never presume that we are beyond the appeal and lure of temptation. Even Peter, on the night Jesus was betrayed, gave into fear and denied Him three times (Matthew 26:33–35).

We might think, “I’m spiritually fit. I read my Bible. I attend a good church. I teach Sunday School. I have friends who pray for me and encourage me. Certainly, I could face a little temptation and be able to brush it aside. I would never fall. I can keep sin in check without becoming ensnared.” But Christian warns us: Don’t desire it! Don’t try it! Sin and temptation are never to be trifled with.

Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:12–13).

Though Christian has faced and defeated Apollyon earlier in the story, he does not here boast in his efforts or regard himself as a champion. He humbly refers to himself and Hopeful as footmen, simple soldiers serving alongside others in submission to their commander. He confesses that he would be glad never again to feel the brunt of sin’s assault.

If we are to guard ourselves from temptation and sin, we must do two things:

1) Be prepared for spiritual warfare by putting on the armor of God

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil (Ephesians 6:11).

We must especially take the shield of faith:

above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one (Ephesians 6:16).

2) Never travel alone

Our desire must be to walk alongside our brothers and sisters in the faith in the convoy provided by the King—the church. In the company of others, we can serve and strengthen those around us. When we grow weary and stumble, others around us can serve and strengthen us. Our relationships can be a significant means of grace that God uses to keep us on the path and carry us along until we are home with Him in glory.

This is Bunyan’s emphasis in Part II of The Pilgrim’s Progress. When the pilgrims prepared to leave the Interpreter’s House and travel to House Beautiful, the Interpreter sends them on their way together and appoints for them a guide, Great-heart. The guide represents a faithful pastor who will care for their souls and guide them in truth.

The Interpreter then called for a man-servant of His, one Great-heart, and bid him take sword, and helmet, and shield; and take these My daughters, said He, and conduct them to the house called Beautiful, at which place they will rest next.  So he took his weapons and went before them; and the Interpreter said, God speed.

Our desire must also be to walk always in the presence of the Lord. Christian adds, “yea, that he will go with us himself.” This is David’s testimony:

I lay down and slept;
I awoke, for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people
Who have set themselves against me all around.
Arise, O Lord;
Save me, O my God!
For You have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone;
You have broken the teeth of the ungodly.
Salvation belongs to the Lord.
Your blessing is upon Your people.
Selah
(Psalm 3:5–8)

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
Of whom shall I be afraid?
When the wicked came against me
To eat up my flesh,
My enemies and foes,
They stumbled and fell.
Though an army may encamp against me,
My heart shall not fear;
Though war may rise against me,
In this I will be confident.
(Psalm 27:1–3)

And Moses’ testimony:

Then he said to Him, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here. For how then will it be known that Your people and I have found grace in Your sight, except You go with us? So we shall be separate, Your people and I, from all the people who are upon the face of the earth” (Exodus 33:15–16).

Without God we will fall:

Without Me they shall bow down among the prisoners,
And they shall fall among the slain.”
For all this His anger is not turned away,
But His hand is stretched out still.
(Isaiah 10:4)

We must not hold ourselves in high regard in the face of temptation. We must not look to skill, or experience, or the mantle of church leadership to prop us up. The only strength that will survive the day comes from Christ. We cannot stand unless we stand in Him.

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses;
But we will remember the name of the Lord our God.
(Psalm 20:7)

And in Him we will surely stand.

The labor hard before us,
The battle rages long.
Alone we cannot bear it;
Our foes are much too strong.
But God has chosen weakness,
The feeble and the frail.
He lifts us up in power
To conquer and prevail.

(from the hymn “Fragile Jars of Clay”)

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2018 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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