John Donne: Expostulation


John Donne

MY God, my God, as thy servant James, when he asks that question, “What is your life?” provides me my answer, “It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away”; [James 4:14] so, if he did ask me what is your death, I am provided of my answer, it is a vapour too; and why should it not be all one to me, whether I live or die, if life and death be all one, both a vapour? Thou hast made vapour so indifferent a thing as that thy blessings and thy judgments are equally expressed by it, and is made by thee the hieroglyphic of both. Why should not that be always good by which thou hast declared thy plentiful goodness to us? “A vapour went up from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.” [Gen. 2:6] And that by which thou hast imputed a goodness to us, and wherein thou hast accepted our service to thee, sacrifices; for sacrifices were vapours, [Lev. 16:13] and in them it is said, that a “thick cloud of incense went up to thee.” [Ezek. 8:11]

So it is of that wherein thou comest to us, the dew of heaven, and of that wherein we come to thee, both are vapours; and he, in whom we have and are all that we are or have, temporally or spiritually, thy blessed Son, in the person of Wisdom, is called so too; “She is” (that is, he is) “the vapour of the power of God, and the pure influence from the glory of the Almighty.” [Wisd. 7:25] Hast thou, thou, O my God, perfumed vapour with thine own breath, with so many sweet acceptations in thine own word, and shall this vapour receive an ill and infectious sense? It must; for, since we have displeased thee with that which is but vapour (for what is sin but a vapour, but a smoke, though such a smoke as takes away our sight, and disables us from seeing our danger), it is just that thou punish us with vapours too. For so thou dost, as the wise man tells us, thou canst punish us by those things wherein we offend thee; as he hath expressed it there, “by beasts newly created, breathing vapours.” [Wisd. 11:18]

Therefore that commination of thine, by thy prophet, “I will show wonders in the heaven, and in the earth, blood and fire, and pillars of smoke”; [Joel 2:30] thine apostle, who knew thy meaning best, calls “vapours of smoke.” [Acts 2:19] One prophet presents thee in thy terribleness so, “There went out a smoke at his nostrils,” [Ps. 18:8] and another the effect of thine anger so, “The house was filled with smoke”; [Is. 6:4] and he that continues his prophecy as long as the world can continue, describes the miseries of the latter times so, “Out of the bottomless pit arose a smoke, that darkened the sun, and out of that smoke came locusts, who had the power of scorpions.” [Rev. 9:2] Now all smokes begin in fire, and all these will end so too: the smoke of sin and of thy wrath will end in the fire of hell. But hast thou afforded us no means to evaporate these smokes, to withdraw these vapours?

When thine angels fell from heaven, thou tookest into thy care the reparation of that place, and didst it by assuming, by drawing us thither; when we fell from thee here, in this world, thou tookest into thy care the reparation of this place too, and didst it by assuming us another way, by descending down to assume our nature, in thy Son. So that though our last act be an ascending to glory (we shall ascend to the place of angels), yet our first act is to go the way of thy Son, descending, and the way of thy blessed Spirit too, who descended in the dove.

Therefore hast thou been pleased to afford us this remedy in nature, by this application of a dove to our lower parts, to make these vapours in our bodies to descend, and to make that a type to us, that, by the visitation of thy Spirit, the vapours of sin shall descend, and we tread them under our feet. At the baptism of thy Son, the Dove descended, and at the exalting of thine apostles to preach, the same Spirit descended. Let us draw down the vapours of our own pride, our own wits, our own wills, our own inventions, to the simplicity of thy sacraments and the obedience of thy word; and these doves, thus applied, shall make us live.