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

Notes and Commentary

by Ken Puls

on John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress

Man in an Iron Cage

28. A Man in an Iron Cage

So he took him by the hand again, and led him into a very dark room, where sat a man in an Iron Cage. Now the man, to look on, seemed very sad: he sat with his eyes looking down to the ground, his hands folded together, and he sighed as if he would break his heart. Then said Christian, What means this? At which the Interpreter bid him talk with the man.

Then said Christian to the man, What are you?

The man answered, I am what I was not once.

Christian: What were you once?

Man: The man said, I was once a fair and flourishing professor, both in mine own eyes, and also in the eyes of others I once was, as I thought, fair for the Celestial City, and had then even joy at the thoughts that I should get there.

Christian: Well, but what are you now?

Man: I am now a man of despair, and am shut up in this Iron Cage. I cannot get out; O, now I cannot.

Christian: But how did you come into this condition?

Man: I left off to watch, and be sober. I laid the reins upon the neck of my lusts. I sinned against the light of the Word and the goodness of God. I have grieved the Spirit, and He is gone. I tempted the devil, and he is come to me. I have provoked God to anger, and he has left me. I have so hardened my heart that I cannot repent.

Then said Christian to the Interpreter, But is there no hopes for such a man as this? Ask him, said the Interpreter.

Christian: Then said Christian, Is there no hope but you must be kept in the Iron Cage of Despair?

Man: No, none at all.

Christian: Why? The Son of the Blessed is very pitiful.

Man: I have crucified Him to myself afresh. I have despised His Person. I have despised His Righteousness. I have counted His Blood an unholy thing. I have done despite to the Spirit of Grace. Therefore I have shut myself out of all the promises, and there now remains to me nothing but threatenings, dreadful threatenings, fearful threatenings of certain judgment and fiery Indignation, which shall devour me as an adversary.

Christian: For what did you bring yourself into this condition?

Man: For the lusts, pleasures, and profits of this world; in the enjoyment of which, I did them promise myself much delight: But now every one of those things also bite me, and gnaw me, like a burning worm.

Christian But can you not now repent and turn?

Man: God has denied me repentance. His Word gives me no encouragement to believe; yea, Himself has shut me up in this Iron Cage. Nor can all the men in the world let me out. O Eternity! Eternity! How shall I grapple with the misery that I must meet with in Eternity!

Interpreter: Then said the Interpreter to Christian, Let this man's misery be remembered by you, and be an everlasting caution to you.

Christian: Well said Christian, this is fearful; God help me to watch and be sober, and to pray that I may shun the cause of this man's misery. Sir, is it not time for me to go on my way now?

Interpreter: Tarry till I shall show you one thing more, and you shall go on your way.


Notes and Commentary

One of the most significant and intriguing rooms in the House of the Interpreter is the room with the Iron Cage. In this sixth lesson, Christian sees a man locked in the Iron Cage. The man in the cage appears sad with downcast eyes and folded hands. He sighs as if his heart is breaking. Interpreter does not openly explain the meaning of the lessons to Christian, but encourages him to speak with the man. The Iron Cage represents the despair of one who has sinned to the point of losing hope of God's forgiveness and salvation. The cage is made of iron to show how strong the bonds of despair can be upon the soul. Bunyan describes the room containing the cage as very dark. The other rooms of the House were lighted by a candle, which represents the illumination of the Spirit that enables us to understand and apply the truths of Scripture. In this room, however, there is an ominous darkness suggesting a lack of illumination and spiritual understanding that has caused this man's drift toward apostasy.

Many have speculated as to whether the man in the Iron Cage is a true believer trapped in despair or a false professor and apostate. Bunyan does not provide a clear answer in the dialog. The fearful uncertainty that arises in Christian's own mind is meant to warn him and be an everlasting caution to his soul. Bunyan draws this significant room from Hebrews 6:4–8 that speaks of the false professor and warns of apostasy.

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned (Hebrews 6:4–8).

The man in the Iron Cage had tasted God's good Word and was once a "flourishing professor" on his way to the Celestial City. But this man so flirted with sin and ignored the warnings and commands of Scripture, that now he believes that God will no longer have him. The man explains that he "laid the reins upon the neck of my lusts." Instead of pulling back and keeping his passions under control, he allowed himself to run wild in whatever direction his lusts drew him. His confession of hardening his heart indicates that he identifies himself as the hard ground in Jesus' parable of the sower:

But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away (Luke 8:13).

Although the seed of the gospel was received with joy, it did not take firm root and when the temptations to evil came, the small plants withered and died.

It is not clear in the story if the man's opinion of himself is accurate. If this man is one of God's elect, God will certainly in time grant him repentance and again restore to him his joy. If the man, however, is indeed an impostor who has pretended to follow Christ while at the same time entertaining his sins and lusts, he will certainly perish in his misery and apostasy. Christian is left to wonder if the man will ever be released from the cage. G.B. Cheever says of this lesson:

Bunyan intended not to represent this man as actually beyond the reach of mercy, but to show the dreadful consequences of departing from God, and of being abandoned of Him to the misery of unbelief and despair.

There is, in fact, reason to believe that this man is not yet beyond the reach of God's mercy. Although in bondage to despair:

  1. The man shows a concern for the condition of his soul and grief that he has treated Christ and His work with such distain.
  2. He finds no pleasure in his former sins. Now all of them bite and gnaw at him as a burning worm.
  3. He is not yet totally lost. He has not yet been cast into the door to Hell. He still lives and breathes and, in fact, resides in the House of the Interpreter.
  4. Finally, he has his eyes on eternity. He is no longer enamored with temporal lusts, pleasures and profits. His soul has been awakened to the consequences of his sin and he cries out in a lament.

Still, the man will not repent. He is convinced that he has been denied repentance. He will not believe God's Word and cling to its promises. Christian rightly exclaims: "This is fearful."

It is likely that the conversation between Christian and the man in the Iron Cage was drawn from Bunyan's own experience. The man in the cage may represent a good friend of Bunyan's, a Baptist minister named John Child. This minister, for fear of persecution and imprisonment, conformed to the Church of England and forsook the true gospel. Bunyan and other ministers counseled with him and in time he deeply regretted his decision; but he was too fearful of the authorities to return to the dissenters. Still mired in agony and apostasy, he killed himself in October 1684.

This was a lesson in the House of the Interpreter that Christian almost missed because of his anxiousness to leave, but it is a lesson that becomes essential to his well-being and perseverance in the Way. Later in the allegory Christian finds himself imprisoned in Doubting Castle by the Giant Despair. His lack of caution and watchfulness placed him in similar bonds to the man in the Iron Cage. Bunyan describes the Dungeon of Giant Despair's castle as "very dark" and "nasty." Christian exclaims while in the dungeon, "The life we now live is miserable!" But there are some crucial differences between Christian's imprisonment and the man in the Iron Cage. The man in the cage had lost all hope. Christian's companion in Doubting Castle was Hopeful. The man in the cage believed that the promises of God were no longer his to claim. In Doubting Castle Christian remembers that the Key, which is called Promise, to unlock the dungeon door is in his bosom (near to his heart). This Key also unlocks the large Iron Gate to Doubting Castle itself and allows Christian and Hopeful to escape:

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…

We must remember this lesson as well in our own bouts with despair. Satan would like nothing more than for God's people to so trifle with sin and rebellion that we become ensnared by it and convinced that we will never find relief and freedom. The devil would have us mired in hopelessness, despairing of ever again obtaining God's mercy and forgiveness. And so we must ever take refuge in the gospel, turning from sin and running to Christ. We must learn the lesson from the man in the cage to watch, be sober-minded and pray. We must guard our hearts from the unholy pursuits of lust, pleasure and profits that caused his misery. And we must delight ourselves in God and His Word and hold fast the Key of Promise that can always free us from Despair. That Key is the promise of grace and mercy and forgiveness found only in the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Once again Christian, at the end of lesson, expresses a desire to depart. And once again the Spirit would have him tarry longer at the Word to learn more that will be profitable to him in his journey. In the next post we will look at the final lesson at the House of the Interpreter.

Continue reading 29. A Frightening Dream
Return to 27. A Stately Palace


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

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