John Donne: Expostulation XXIII. Metusque, relabi.

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


John Donne

MY God, my God, my God, thou mighty Father, who hast been my physician; thou glorious Son, who hast been my physic; thou blessed Spirit, who hast prepared and applied all to me, shall I alone be able to overthrow the work of all you, and relapse into those spiritual sicknesses from which infinite mercies have withdrawn me?

Though thou, O my God, have filled my measure with mercy, yet my measure was not so large as that of thy whole people, the nation, the numerous and glorious nation of Israel; and yet how often, how often did they fall into relapses! And then, where is my assurance? How easily thou passedst over many other sins in them, and how vehemently thou insistedst in those into which they so often relapsed; those were their murmurings against thee, in thine instruments and ministers, and their turnings upon other gods, and embracing the idolatries of their neighbours.

O my God, how slippery a way, to how irrecoverable a bottom, is murmuring; and how near thyself he comes, that murmurs at him who comes from thee! The magistrate is the garment in which thou apparelest thyself, and he that shoots at the clothes cannot say he meant no ill to the man: thy people were fearful examples of that, for how often did their murmuring against thy ministers end in a departing from thee! When they would have other officers, they would have other gods; and still to-day's murmuring was to-morrow's idolatry; as their murmuring induced idolatry, and they relapsed often into both, I have found in myself, O my God (O my God, thou hast found it in me, and thy finding it hast showed it to me) such a transmigration of sin, as makes me afraid of relapsing too.

The soul of sin (for we have made sin immortal, and it must have a soul), the soul of sin is disobedience to thee; and when one sin hath been dead in me, that soul hath passed into another sin. Our youth dies, and the sins of our youth with it; some sins die a violent death, and some a natural; poverty, penury, imprisonment, banishment, kill some sins in us, and some die of age; many ways we become unable to do that sin, but still the soul lives and passes into another sin; and that that was licentiousness grows ambition, and that comes to indevotion and spiritual coldness: we have three lives in our state of sin, and where the sins of youth expire, those of our middle years enter, and those of our age after them. This transmigration of sin found in myself, makes me afraid, O my God, of a relapse; but the occasion of my fear is more pregnant than so, for I have had, I have multiplied relapses already.

Why, O my God, is a relapse so odious to thee? Not so much their murmuring and their idolatry, as their relapsing into those sins, seems to affect thee in thy disobedient people. “They limited the holy One of Israel,” [Psalm 78:41] as thou complainest of them: that was a murmuring; but before thou chargest them with the fault itself, in the same place thou chargest them with the iterating, the redoubling of that fault before the fault was named; “How oft did they provoke me in the wilderness, and grieve me in the desert?” That which brings thee to that exasperation against them, as to say, that thou wouldst break thine own oath rather than leave them unpunished (“They shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers”) was because “they had tempted thee ten times,” [Numb. 14:22, 23] infinitely; upon that thou threatenest with that vehemency, “If you do in any wise go back, know for a certainty God will no more drive out any of these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, till ye perish.” [Josh. 23:12, 13]

No tongue but thine own, O my God, can express thine indignation against a nation relapsing to idolatry. Idolatry in any nation is deadly, but when the disease is complicated with a relapse (a knowledge and a profession of a former recovery), it is desperate; and thine anger works, not only where the evidence is pregnant and without exception (so thou sayest when it is said, that certain men in a city have withdrawn others to idolatry, and that inquiry is made, and it is found true; the city, and the inhabitants, and the cattle are to be destroyed), [Deut. 13:12-16] but where there is but a suspicion, a rumour, of such a relapse to idolatry, thine anger is awakened, and thine indignation stirred.

In the government of thy servant Joshua, there was a voice, that Reuben and Gad, with those of Manasseh, had built a new altar. [Josh. 22:11, 12] Israel doth not send one to inquire, but the whole congregation gathered to go up to war against them, [Josh. 22:11, 12] and there went a prince of every tribe; and they object to them, not so much their present declination to idolatry, as their relapse: “Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us?” [Josh. 22:17] an idolatry formerly committed, and punished with the slaughter of twenty-four thousand delinquents.

At last Reuben and Gad satisfy them, that that altar was not built for idolatry, but built as a pattern of theirs, that they might thereby profess themselves to be of the same profession that they were, and so the army returned without blood. Even where it comes not so far as to an actual relapse into idolatry, thou, O my God, becomest sensible of it; though thou, who seest the heart all the way, preventest all dangerous effects where there was no ill meaning, however there were occasion of suspicious rumours given to thine Israel of relapsing. So odious to thee, and so aggravating a weight upon sin is a relapse.

But, O my God, why is it so? so odious? It must be so, because he that hath sinned and then repented, hath weighed God and the devil in a balance; he hath heard God and the devil plead, and after hearing given judgment on that side to which he adheres by his subsequent practice, [13] if he return to his sin, he decrees for Satan, he prefers sin before grace, and Satan before God; and in contempt of God, declares the precedency for his adversary; and a contempt wounds deeper than an injury, a relapse deeper than a blasphemy.

And when thou hast told me that a relapse is more odious to thee, need I ask why it is more dangerous, more pernicious to me? Is there any other measure of the greatness of my danger, than the greatness of thy displeasure? How fitly and how fearfully hast thou expressed my case in a storm at sea, if I relapse; “They mount up to heaven, and they go down again to the depth!” [Psalm 107:26]

My sickness brought me to thee in repentance, and my relapse hath cast me farther from thee. “The end of that man shall be worse than the beginning,” [Matt. 12:45] says thy Word, thy Son; my beginning was sickness, punishment for sin: but “a worse thing may follow,” [John 5:14] says he also, if I sin again; not only death, which is an end worse than sickness, which was the beginning, but hell, which is a beginning worse than that end.

Thy great servant denied thy Son, [Mark 14:70] and he denied him again, but all before repentance; here was no relapse. O, if thou hadst ever readmitted Adam into Paradise, how abstinently would he have walked by that tree! And would not the angels that fell have fixed themselves upon thee, if thou hadst once readmitted them to thy sight?

They never relapsed; if I do, must not my case be as desperate? Not so desperate; for “as thy majesty, so is thy mercy,” [Ecclus. 2:18] both infinite; and thou, who hast commanded me to pardon my brother seventy-seven times, hast limited thyself to no number. If death were ill in itself, thou wouldst never have raised any dead man to life again, because that man must necessarily die again. If thy mercy in pardoning did so far aggravate a relapse, as that there were no more mercy after it, our case were the worse for that former mercy; for who is not under even a necessity of sinning whilst he is here, if we place this necessity in our own infirmity, and not in thy decree? But I speak not this, O my God, as preparing a way to my relapse out of presumption, but to preclude all accesses of desperation, though out of infirmity I should relapse.

[13] Tertullian.

Sources +