John Donne: Expostulation


John Donne

MY God, my God, if expostulation be too bold a word, do thou mollify it with another; let it be wonder in myself, let it be but problem to others; but let me ask, why wouldst thou not suffer those that serve thee in holy services, to do any office about the dead, [Levit. 21:1.] nor assist at their funeral? Thou hadst no counsellor, thou needst none; thou hast no controller, thou admittedst none.

Why do I ask? In ceremonial things (as that was) any convenient reason is enough; who can be sure to propose that reason, that moved thee in the institution thereof? I satisfy myself with this; that in those times the Gentiles were over-full of an over-reverent respect to the memory of the dead: a great part of the idolatry of the nations flowed from that; an over-amorous devotion, an over-zealous celebrating, and over-studious preserving of the memories, and the pictures of some dead persons; “and by the vain glory of men, they entered into the world,” [Wisd. 14:14] and their statues and pictures contracted an opinion of divinity by age: that which was at first but a picture of a friend grew a god in time, as the wise man notes, “They called them gods, which were the work of an ancient hand.” [Wisd. 13:10] And some have assigned a certain time, when a picture should come out of minority, and be at age to be a god in sixty years after it is made. Those images of men that had life, and some idols of other things which never had any being, are by one common name called promiscuously dead; and for that the wise man reprehends the idolater, “for health he prays to that which is weak, and for life he prays to that which is dead.” [Wisd. 13:18]

Should we do so? says thy prophet; [Is. 8:19] “should we go from the living to the dead?” So much ill then being occasioned by so much religious compliment exhibited to the dead, thou, O God (I think), wouldst therefore inhibit thy principal holy servants from contributing any thing at all to this dangerous intimation of idolatry; and that the people might say, Surely those dead men are not so much to be magnified as men mistake, since God will not suffer his holy officers so much as to touch them, not to see them.

But those dangers being removed, thou, O my God, dost certainly allow that we should do offices of piety to the dead and that we should draw instructions to piety from the dead. Is not this, O my God, a holy kind of raising up seed to my dead brother, if I, by the meditation of his death produce a better life in myself? It is the blessing upon Reuben, “Let Reuben live, and not die, and let not his men be few”; [Deut. 33:6] let him propagate many. And it is a malediction, “That that dieth, let it die,” [Zech. 11:9] let it do no good in dying; for “trees without fruit,” thou, by thy apostle, callest “twice dead.

It is a second death, if none live the better by me after my death, by the manner of my death. Therefore may I justly think, that thou madest that a way to convey to the Egyptians a fear of thee and a fear of death, that “there was not a house where there was not one dead”; [Ex. 12:30] for thereupon the Egyptians said, “We are all dead men:” the death of others should catechise us to death.

Thy Son Christ Jesus is the “first begotten of the dead”; [Rev. 1:5] he rises first, the eldest brother, and he is my master in this science of death; but yet, for me, I am a younger brother too, to this man who died now, and to every man whom I see or hear to die before me, and all they are ushers to me in this school of death. I take therefore that which thy servant David's wife said to him, to be said to me, “If thou save not thy life to-night, to-morrow thou shalt be slain.” [1 Sam. 19:11]

If the death of this man work not upon me now, I shall die worse than if thou hadst not afforded me this help; for thou hast sent him in this bell to me, as thou didst send to the angel of Sardis, with commission to “strengthen the things that remain, and that are ready to die,” [Rev. 3:2] that in this weakness of body I might receive spiritual strength by these occasions. This is my strength, that whether thou say to me, as thine angel said to Gideon, “Peace be unto thee, fear not, thou shalt not die”; [Judg. 6:23] or whether thou say, as unto Aaron, “Thou shalt die there”; [Numb. 20:26] yet thou wilt preserve that which is ready to die, my soul, from the worst death, that of sin.

Zimri “died for his sins,” says thy Spirit, “which he sinned in doing evil; and in his sin which he did to make Israel sin”; [1 Kings 16:19] for his sins, his many sins, and then in his sin, his particular sin. For my sins I shall die whensoever I die, for death is the wages of sin; but I shall die in my sin, in that particular sin of resisting thy Spirit, if I apply not thy assistances.

Doth it not call us to a particular consideration that thy blessed Son varies his form of commination, and aggravates it in the variation, when he says to the Jews (because they refused the light offered), “You shall die in your sin”: [John 8:21] and then when they proceeded to farther disputations, and vexations, and temptations, he adds, “You shall die in your sins”; [John 8:24] he multiplies the former expression to a plural. In this sin, and in all your sins, doth not the resisting of thy particular helps at last draw upon us the guiltiness of all our former sins? May not the neglecting of this sound ministered to me in this man's death, bring me to that misery, so that I, whom the Lord of life loved so as to die for me, shall die, and a creature of mine own shall be immortal; that I shall die, and the “worm” of mine own conscience “shall never die”? [Is. 66:24]