Well, on Saturday, about midnight, they began to pray, and continued in prayer till almost break of day.
Now a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in passionate speech: What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking Dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a Key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any Lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That’s good news; good Brother pluck it out of thy bosom and try.
Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the Dungeon door, whose bolt (as he turned the Key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease, and Christian and Hopeful both came out. Then he went to the outward door that leads into the Castle-yard, and with his Key opened that door also. After he went to the iron Gate, for that must be opened too, but that Lock went very hard, yet the Key did open it. Then they thrust open the Gate to make their escape with speed; but that Gate as it opened made such a creaking, that it waked Giant Despair, who hastily rising to pursue his Prisoners, felt his limbs to fail, for his Fits took him again, so that he could by no means go after them. Then they went on, and came to the King’s High-way again, and so were safe, because they were out of his jurisdiction.
Now, when they were over the stile, they began to contrive with themselves what they should do at that stile to prevent those that should come after from falling into the hands of Giant Despair. So they consented to erect there a pillar, and to engrave upon the side thereof this sentence—”Over this stile is the way to Doubting Castle, which is kept by Giant Despair, who despises the King of the Celestial Country, and seeks to destroy his holy pilgrims.” Many, therefore, that followed after read what was written, and escaped the danger. This done, they sang as follows:
Out of the way we went, and then we found
What ’twas to tread upon forbidden ground;
And let them that come after have a care,
Lest heedlessness makes them, as we, to fare.
Lest they for trespassing his prisoners are,
Whose castle’s Doubting, and whose name’s Despair.
Christian and Hopeful have now suffered the misery of Doubting Castle for almost four days. They were captured by Giant Despair on Wednesday morning. Now it is Saturday, almost midnight, and they begin to pray.
It is worth noting that the pilgrims’ escape from Doubting Castle begins with prayer. In his commentary on The Pilgrim’s Progress, William Mason explains:
What! Pray in the custody of Giant Despair, in the midst of Doubting Castle, and when their own folly brought them there too? Yes; mind this, ye pilgrims, ye are exhorted, “I will that men pray everywhere, without doubting” (1 Tim. 2:8). We can be in no place but God can hear, nor in any circumstance but God is able to deliver us from. And be assured, that when the spirit of prayer comes, deliverance is nigh at hand.
The pilgrims pray through the early morning of the Lord’s Day. It is on the Lord’s Day that they remember Christ—the day that Christ rose from the dead—the day the church gathers each week for prayer, fellowship, and the preaching of the Word. It is on the Lord’s Day that the light of the gospel again dawns in Christian’s thinking. Bunyan’s timing here is significant. It is a subtle reminder that we need to stay under the preaching of God’s Word and seek out the prayers of God’s people, even if (and especially if) we are in the bonds of doubt and despair.
Christian realizes that he has possessed the means of escape all along. He has a Key that will open any lock in Doubting Castle. The Key represents the “exceedingly great and precious promises” of the gospel—promises that are ours in Christ.
Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Peter 1:2–4).
It is the promise of eternal life and the assurance of salvation in Christ.
And this is the promise that He has promised us—eternal life (1 John 2:25).
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me, Silvanus, and Timothy—was not Yes and No, but in Him was Yes. For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us (2 Corinthians 1:19–20).
Christian keeps the Key in his bosom (close to his heart), where he also keeps his roll (assurance of salvation)—the roll he received at the cross. The darkness of doubting caused him to forget. Now as light dawns (the understanding and application of God’s Word), he remembers.
As Christian and Hopeful begin their escape, the door to their cell opens with ease. The Key also opens the door to the castle yard. But the Iron Gate that bars their exit from Doubting Castle is stubborn. We read: “that Lock went very hard.” In the original text to The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan describes the lock as opening “damnable hard.” His choice of words is strong to show the grave danger of Doubting Castle. To remain imprisoned is to place the soul in eternal peril.
Christian had learned earlier in the allegory at the House of the Interpreter about the strong bonds of despair. The Man in the Iron Cage was hopelessly imprisoned by his own doubts and fears. He had once professed faith and claimed the promises of God, yet sin had so ruined him that he could no longer believe that God could save him. In our lowest moments it is easier to believe that God will extend grace to others than to us. Though sin has ravaged the world, we feel the sin that has ravaged our own hearts the deepest. When we examine our hearts under the piercing light of God’s Law, we know ourselves to be “the chief of sinners.”
When doubt lays hold, and when Christ is not in view, we can have the hardest time believing that someone like us can be saved. Even when we take hold of the Key, the Lock can be stubborn. Yet the promise of the gospel will indeed open it. We need to heed the words of hope, keep turning the key in the lock, and press forward until the gate is thrust open.
This scene in The Pilgrim’s Progress comes from Bunyan’s own experience. In Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he describes his own “three or four days” in Doubting Castle and how he was able to escape:
At another time, though just before I was pretty well and savory in my spirit, yet suddenly there fell upon me a great cloud of darkness, which did so hide from me the things of God and Christ, that I was as if I had never seen or known them in my life; I was also so overrun in my soul, with a senseless, heartless frame of spirit, that I could not feel my soul to move or stir after grace and life by Christ; I was as if my loins were broken, or as if my hands and feet had been tied or bound with chains. At this time also I felt some weakness to seize ‘upon’ my outward man, which made still the other affliction the more heavy and uncomfortable ‘to me.’
After I had been in this condition some three or four days, as I was sitting by the fire, I suddenly felt this word to sound in my heart, I must go to Jesus; at this my former darkness and atheism fled away, and the blessed things of heaven were set within my view. While I was on this sudden thus overtaken with surprise, Wife, said I, is there ever such a scripture, I must go to Jesus? she said she could not tell, therefore I sat musing still to see if I could remember such a place; I had not sat above two or three minutes but that came bolting in upon me, “And to an innumerable company of angels,” and withal, Hebrews the twelfth, about the mount Sion was set before mine eyes (vv 22-24).
Then with joy I told my wife, O now I know, I know! But that night was a good night to me, I never had but few better; I longed for the company of some of God’s people that I might have imparted unto them what God had showed me. Christ was a precious Christ to my soul that night; I could scarce lie in my bed for joy, and peace, and triumph, through Christ; this great glory did not continue upon me until morning, yet that twelfth of the author to the Hebrews (Heb. 12:22, 23) was a blessed scripture to me for many days together after this.
[Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, par. 261–263]
Bunyan found freedom by remembering the words of Scripture:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel (Hebrews 12:22–24).
He knew in his heart: “I must go to Jesus!” Christ was precious to him.
We must look to Christ if we are to escape from Doubting Castle. If we lose sight of Christ or depend upon anything but Him for help, Despair will find us again. Cheever observes:
Alas! alas! how many ways there are of getting into this gloomy prison! Oh, if Christ be not always with the soul, or if at any time it go astray from him, or if its reliance be on anything whatever but his mercy, his blood, his grace, then is it near the gloom of this dungeon; then may Giant Despair be heard walking in his grounds, and verily the echo of his footsteps oftentimes falls upon the soul before the grim form rises on the vision. And some who have once entered the castle have stayed there a great while, because they have tried many other means of escape, than by the blood of Christ; because they have used picklocks, and penances, and stratagems, and the help of friends outside the castle, but not the key of Promise, or that not aright, not throwing themselves on the Savior alone for pardon, peace, and justification. A man who gets into difficulty through sin, will never get out by self-righteousness; nor are past sins, nor the burden of them, to be ever removed by present morality; nothing but faith, nothing but the precious blood of Christ, can take away sin, can remove the stain of it, can deliver the soul from its condemnation (from Lectures on The Pilgrim’s Progress by G.B. Cheever).
Christ alone can save us! Only He provides the promise of escape from the iron bars of doubt and the fierce blows of despair. Every method of our own devising is insufficient:
- picklocks (making excuses, rationalizing sin, trying to forget the past and move on)
- penances (doing good things or punishing ourselves to make up for the bad things)
- stratagems (making a new start, moving to a new location, trying a new diet, exercise, medication, meditation, …)
- help of friends (support groups, therapy, counseling, encouragements from others)
Though strategies may have their place and the help of friends is welcome, they can never give us what we truly need. They cannot save us when we sin against God and others. They cannot free us from guilt when we go astray. They cannot supply the grace we need to forgive ourselves and others who sin against us. Only Christ, through His saving work on the cross, can bring us grace and mercy and forgiveness. Only in Him can we find freedom from guilt and condemnation. Only in Him can we escape doubt and despair and find peace with God. We must remember the promise of the gospel and flee to Christ!
As Christian and Hopeful hasten to leave the castle, the loud creaking of the Gate arouses the giant. But when the giant attempts to pursue his prisoners, he falls into a seizure and cannot reclaim them. In the light of day, he has no strength. Despair cannot endure where there is clear understanding and diligent application of God’s Word.
Once the pilgrims make it back to the King’s Highway, safely out of reach of Giant Despair, they place a monument near the stile where they had crossed over into By-Path Meadow. They want to warn those would follow after them on the journey. Our experiences, even our struggles and failures, can be useful to others, to warn them of danger and encourage them to keep to the Way. In time Christian’s own family, Christiana and her children, will find this monument during their own journey in Part II of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Lord, we pray for those imprisoned
By Despair, who lie in grief;
Locked in Doubting Castle’s dungeon,
Stripped of hope and its relief.
Father help them to remember
In Thy promise is the key;
Now unlock the door that bars them,
In the Gospel, set them free.
(from “A Prayer for Pilgrims” by Ken Puls)
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.