John Donne: Expostulation


John Donne

MY God, my God, thy blessed servant Augustine begged of thee that Moses might come and tell him what he meant by some places of Genesis: may I have leave to ask of that Spirit that writ that book, why, when David expected news from Joab's army, [2 Sam. 18:25] and that the watchman told him that he saw a man running alone, David concluded out of that circumstance, that if he came alone, he brought good news?[1] I see the grammar, the word signifies so, and is so ever accepted, good news; but I see not the logic nor the rhetoric, how David would prove or persuade that his news was good because he was alone, except a greater company might have made great impressions of danger, by imploring and importuning present supplies.

Howsoever that be, I am sure that that which thy apostle says to Timothy, “Only Luke is with me,” [2 Tim. 4:11] Luke, and nobody but Luke, hath a taste of complaint and sorrow in it: though Luke want no testimony of ability, of forwardness, of constancy, and perseverance, in assisting that great building which St. Paul laboured in, yet St. Paul is affected with that, that there was none but Luke to assist. We take St. Luke to have been a physician, and it admits the application the better that in the presence of one good physician we may be glad of more.

It was not only a civil spirit of policy, or order, that moved Moses's father-in-law to persuade him to divide the burden of government and judicature with others, and take others to his assistance, [Exod. 18:13] but it was also thy immediate Spirit, O my God, that moved Moses to present unto thee seventy of the elders of Israel, [Num. 11:16] to receive of that Spirit, which was upon Moses only before, such a portion as might ease him in the government of that people; though Moses alone had endowments above all, thou gavest him other assistants.

I consider thy plentiful goodness, O my God, in employing angels more than one in so many of thy remarkable works. Of thy Son, thou sayest, “Let all the angels of God worship him”; [Heb. 1:6] if that be in heaven, upon earth he says, “that he could command twelve legions of angels”; [Matt. 26:53] and when heaven and earth shall be all one, at the last day, thy Son, O God, “the Son of man, shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him.” [Matt. 25:31] The angels that celebrated his birth to the shepherds, [Luke 2:13, 14] the angels that celebrated his second birth, his resurrection, to the Maries, [John 20:12] were in the plural, angels associated with angels.

In Jacob's ladder, [Gen. 28:12] they who ascended and descended, and maintained the trade between heaven and earth, between thee and us, they who have the commission, and charge to guide us in all our ways, [Ps. 91:11] they who hastened Lot, [Gen. 19:15] and in him, us, from places of danger and temptation, they who are appointed to instruct and govern us in the church here, [Rev. 1:20] they who are sent to punish the disobedient and refractory, [Rev. 8:2] that they are to be mowers and harvestmen [Matt. 13:39] after we are grown up in one field, the church, at the day of judgment, they that are to carry our souls whither they carried Lazarus, [Luke 16:22] they who attended at the several gates of the new Jerusalem, [Rev. 21:12] to admit us there; all these who administer to thy servants, from the first to their last, are angels, angels in the plural, in every service angels associated with angels.

The power of a single angel we see in that one, who in one night destroyed almost two hundred thousand in Sennacherib's army, [2 Kings 19:35] yet thou often employest many; as we know the power of salvation is abundantly in any one evangelist, and yet thou hast afforded us four. Thy proclaims of himself that “the Spirit hath anointed him to preach the Gospel,” [Luke 4:18] yet he hath given others “for the perfecting of the saints in the work of the ministry.” [Eph. 4:12] Thou hast made him “Bishop of our souls,” [1 Pet. 2:25] but there are others bishops too. He gave the Holy Ghost, [John 20:22] and others gave it also. Thy way, O my God (and, O my God, thou lovest to walk in thine own ways, for they are large), thy way from the beginning, is multiplication of thy helps; and therefore it were a degree of ingratitude not to accept this mercy of affording me many helps for my bodily health, as a type and earnest of thy gracious purpose now and ever to afford me the same assistances.

That for thy great help, thy word, I may seek that not from comers nor conventicles nor schismatical singularities, but from the association and communion of thy Catholic church, and those persons whom thou hast always furnished that church withal: and that I may associate thy word with thy sacrament, thy seal with thy patent; and in that sacrament associate the sign with the thing signified, the bread with the body of thy Son, so as I may be sure to have received both, and to be made thereby (as thy blessed servant Augustine says) the ark, and the monument, and the tomb of thy most blessed Son, that he, and all the merits of his death, may, by that receiving, be buried in me, to my quickening in this world, and my immortal establishing in the next.

[1] So all but our translator takes it; even Buxdor and Schindler.