J is for John Donne

John Donne (1572–1631) was a poet and in later life an Anglican priest. The penitential psalms were dear to Donne, and of his many surviving sermons nineteen are based on these texts. Only one sermon, however, is on Psalm 51. This sermon, and his understanding of this psalm, is of great importance for understanding Donne, as we find his bold theology of preaching crystallised there. His sermon is more specifically on verse 7. The NRSV and Latin texts of this verse are:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Psalm 51:7, NRSV

Asparges me hysopo et mundabor
lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor
Psalm 50:9, Latin text and versification

Donne’s sermon on this verse is remarkable in what it reveals of Donne’s sacramental theology of preaching. It is clear that he anticipates both the work of the Spirt and the response of his listeners to enable the cleansing so central to this verse:

God hath given us a free and publike passage of his Word, and Sacraments, the diet and the ordinary food of our souls, and he purges us with that Hyssope, with the application of his promise, with the absolution of our sins, with a redintegration into his mysticall body, by the seales of reconciliation. And this reconciliation to God, by the blood of Christ, applied in the Ordinances of the Church, is that which David begs for his cleansing, and is the last circumstance of this branch, Purge me with Hyssope, and I shall be clean.

In his sermon Donne makes much of the ongoing practice of the ritual of Asperges. This ritual is closely connected with Psalm 51:7 and its Latin text [50:9], see above. In such an act, worshippers are sprinkled with water using an aspergillum. The act of sprinkling stands in a rich biblical and liturgical trajectory. It culminates in an understanding that grace might be ‘sprinkled’ in accordance with the mercy of God through the means of the biblical text expounded by the preacher. In Numbers 19:18, hyssop and water are used for cleansing:

then a clean person shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the furnishings, on the persons who were there, and on whoever touched the bone, the slain, the corpse, or the grave.
Numbers 19:18, NRSV

The book of Ezekiel uses imagery of water sprinkling in association with the cleansing of exiles:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
Ezekiel 36:25, NRSV

These Biblical texts gave rise to rites involving sprinkling in the time of the Church Fathers. Although some Reformers were not fond of such acts, in Donne’s time this functioned as a reminder of the worshipper’s baptism and a reflective aide memoir regarding God’s salvific grace—the mercy both described and offered in Psalm 51. Donne’s claim from Psalm 51 is radical—preaching is a means of grace.

John Donne’s sermons are available online from Brigham Young University, see: