John Donne: Expostulation


John Donne

MY God, my God, I find in thy book that fear is a stifling spirit, a spirit of suffocation; that “Ishbosheth could not speak, nor reply in his own defence to Abner, because he was afraid.” [2 Sam. 3:11]

It was thy servant Job's case too, who, before he could say anything to thee, says of thee, “Let him take his rod away from me, and let not his fear terrify me, then would I speak with him, and not fear him; but it is not so with me.” [Job 9:34]

Shall a fear of thee take away my devotion to thee? Dost thou command me to speak to thee, and command me to fear thee; and do these destroy one another? There is no perplexity in thee, my God; no inextricableness in thee, my light and my clearness, my sun and my moon, that directest me as well in the night of adversity and fear, as in my day of prosperity and confidence. I must then speak to thee at all times, but when must I fear thee? At all times too. When didst thou rebuke any petitioner with the name of importunate? Thou hast proposed to us a parable of a judge [Luke 18:1] that did justice at last, because the client was importunate, and troubled him; but thou hast told us plainly, that thy use in that parable was not that thou wast troubled with our importunities, but (as thou sayest there) “that we should always pray.

And to the same purpose thou proposest another, [Luke 11:5] that if I press my friend, when he is in bed at midnight, to lend me bread, though he will not rise because I am his friend, yet because of mine importunity he will. God will do this whensoever thou askest, and never call it importunity. Pray in thy bed at midnight, and God will not say, I will hear thee to-morrow upon thy knees, at thy bedside; pray upon thy knees there then, and God will not say, I will hear thee on Sunday at church; God is no dilatory God, no froward God; prayer is never unseasonable, God is never asleep, nor absent.

But, O my God, can I do this, and fear thee; come to thee and speak to thee, in all places, at all hours, and fear thee? Dare I ask this question? There is more boldness in the question than in the coming; I may do it though I fear thee; I cannot do it except I fear thee. So well hast thou provided that we should always fear thee, as that thou hast provided that we should fear no person but thee, nothing but thee; no men?

No. Whom?

The Lord is my help and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” [Ps. 27:1] Great enemies? Not great enemies, for no enemies are great to them that fear thee.

Fear not the people of this land, for they are bread to you”; [Num. 14:9] they shall not only not eat us, not eat our bread, but they shall be our bread. Why should we fear them?

But for all this metaphorical bread, victory over enemies that thought to devour us, may we not fear, that we may lack bread literally? And fear famine, though we fear not enemies?

Young lions do lack and suffer hunger, but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.” [Ps. 35:70]

Never? Though it be well with them at one time, may they not fear that it may be worse?

Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil?” [Ps. 49:5] says thy servant David. Though his own sin had made them evil, he feared them not.

No? not if this evil determine in death? Not though in a death; not though in a death inflicted by violence, by malice, by our own desert; “fear not the sentence of death,” [Ecclus. 41:3] if thou fear God. Thou art, O my God, so far from admitting us that fear thee to fear others, as that thou makest others to fear us; as “Herod feared John, because he was a holy and a just man, and observed him.” [Mark 6:20]

How fully then, O my abundant God, how gently, O my sweet, my easy God, dost thou unentangle me in any scruple arising out of the consideration of thy fear! Is not this that which thou intendest when thou sayest, “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him”; [Ps. 25:14] the secret, the mystery of the right use of fear. Dost thou not mean this when thou sayest, “we shall understand the fear of the Lord? [Prov. 2:5]

Have it, and have benefit by it; have it, and stand under it; be directed by it, and not be dejected with it. And dost thou not propose that church for our example when thou sayest, the church of Judea “walked in the fear of God”; [Acts 9:31] they had it, but did not sit down lazily, nor fall down weakly, nor sink under it.

There is a fear which weakens men in the service of God. “Adam was afraid, because he was naked.” [Gen. 3:10] They who have put off thee are a prey to all. They may fear, for “Thou wilt laugh when their fear comes upon them,” as thou hast told them more than once. [Prov. 1:26; 10:24] And thou wilt make them fear where no cause of fear is, as thou hast told them more than once too. [Ps. 14:5; 53:5]

There is a fear that is a punishment of former wickednesses, and induces more. Though some said of thy Son, Christ Jesus, “that he was a good man, yet no man spoke openly for fear of the Jews.” Joseph was his disciple, “but secretly, for fear of the Jews.” [John 7:13; 19:38; 20:19] The disciples kept some meetings, but with doors shut for fear of the Jews. O my God, thou givest us fear for ballast to carry us steadily in all weathers. But thou wouldst ballast us with such sand as should have gold in it, with that fear which is thy fear; “for the fear of the Lord is his treasure.” [Is. 33:6] He that hath that lacks nothing that man can have, nothing that God does give.

Timorous men thou rebukest: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? [Matt. 8:26]” Such thou dismissest from thy service with scorn, though of them there went from Gideon's army twenty-two thousand, and remained but ten thousand. [Judges 7:3] Such thou sendest farther than so; thither from whence they never return: “The fearful and the unbelieving, into that burning lake which is the second death.” [Rev. 21:8]

There is a fear and there is a hope, which are equal abominations to thee; for, they were confounded because they hoped, [Job 6:20] says thy servant Job; because they had misplaced, miscentred their hopes, they hoped, and not in thee, and such shall fear, and not fear thee. But in thy fear, my God, and my fear, my God, and my hope, is hope, and love, and confidence, and peace, and every limb and ingredient of happiness enwrapped; for joy includes all, and fear and joy consist together, nay, constitute one another.

The women departed from the sepulchre,” [Matt. 28:8] the women who were made supernumerary apostles, apostles to the apostles; mothers of the church, and of the fathers, grandfathers of the church, the apostles themselves; the women, angels of the resurrection, went from the sepulchre with fear and joy; they ran, says the text, and they ran upon those two legs, fear and joy; and both was the right leg; they joy in thee, O Lord, that fear thee, and fear thee only, who feel this joy in thee. Nay, thy fear, and thy love are inseparable; still we are called upon, in infinite places, to fear God, yet the commandment, which is the root of all is, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; he doeth neither that doeth not both; he omits neither, that does one.

Therefore when thy servant David had said that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” [Ps. 111:10] and his son had repeated it again, [Prov. 1:7] he that collects both calls this fear the root of wisdom; and, that it may embrace all, he calls it wisdom itself. [Ecclus. 1:20, 27] A wise man, therefore, is never without it, never without the exercise of it; therefore thou sentest Moses to thy people, “that they might learn to fear thee all the days of their lives,” [Deut. 4:10] not in heavy and calamitous, but in good and cheerful days too; for Noah, who had assurance of his deliverance, yet, “moved with fear, prepared an ark, for the saving of his house.” [Heb. 11:7]

A wise man will fear in everything.” [Ecclus. 18:27] And therefore, though I pretend to no other degree of wisdom, I am abundantly rich in this, that I lie here possessed with that fear which is thy fear, both that this sickness is thy immediate correction, and not merely a natural accident, and therefore fearful, because it is a fearful thing to fall into thy hands; and that this fear preserves me from all inordinate fear, arising out of the infirmity of nature, because thy hand being upon me, thou wilt never let me fall out of thy hand.