The speaker compares himself to Jesus Christ while emphasizing how badly he has emulated Jesus. While heretics might scourge and crucify him as they did Jesus, Jesus actually died while the poet remains alive, sinning. While “the Jews” killed Jesus in impiety, the poet’s sin is far worse, re-crucifying Jesus daily because of his sins. While other kings enact mercy by pardoning criminals, Jesus actually bore the punishment, making himself suffer as a human so as to redeem sinful humanity.
This sonnet follows the typical Donne rhyme scheme abba abba cdcd ee, combining the structure of the Elizabethan (or Shakespearean) sonnet with the rhyme of the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet. This allows the first two quatrains to be considered together as an octet.
The first two lines begin with the harsh phrase “Spit in my face, you Jews” (line 1) and become more intense from there. Donne is echoing the account of the crucifixion of Jesus in both the dishonor of being spat upon and the piercing, beating, and scourging Jesus endured (lines 1-2). The poet puts himself in the place of Jesus on the cross, since he deserves the punishment that Jesus actually suffered. This is because he has “sinn’d” and continues to “sinne” (line 3). To make things worse, Jesus died for the poet’s sins while being spotless, yet the poet lives and keeps sinning.
Indeed, the depth of his sin is so great that his own death would not satisfy justice; after all, he is worse than the Jews, who (especially in the Christian tradition of the time) “kill’d” Jesus. His own sin is so great because the Jews only had Jesus killed once, whereas the poet symbolically crucifies him “daily” (line 8). Here Donne inverts I Corinthians 15:31, in which the Apostle Paul, speaking of the resurrection of the dead, states that he “dies daily” to his own sinful nature. The poet instead sees himself killing Jesus daily by committing the sins for which Jesus chose to die, even though in reality Jesus has already risen and is “glorified” in Heaven (line 8). The poet daily partakes of the atonement of the Cross because he sins each day and needs the forgiveness enacted by the crucifixion.
On the positive side, the poet wants to admire Jesus’ “strange love” (line 9), the paradox of God becoming human for the sake of sinful people. Furthermore, while earthly kings show mercy when they pardon people for crimes, Jesus went farther and “bore our punishment” himself (line 10).
Finally, in the last four lines, Donne develops a comparison between Jacob (in his rebellious early life) and God. In the biblical book of Genesis, Jacob had clothed himself in the “vile” skin of goats in order to impersonate his brother Esau and win his blind father’s blessing (Genesis 27:15 ff.). There was a lot to be gained with this blessing and substitution of one brother for the other. In contrast, God “clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh” (line 13, using repetition of the word “vile”), which is a reference to the doctrine of the Incarnation, in which God took the form of a human, Jesus, for the sake of blessing all humanity and substituting himself as the sacrificial offering for humanity’s sins. While part of the larger sestet, the last two lines fulfill the purpose of the closing couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet by delivering the moral or conclusion: God took on human form so that he would be frail enough to suffer the pains deserved by mortal men.