God has put in our hearts a yearning for eternity, but, as long as we live in this world, we must modify our desires to its changes, its vanities, its impermanence. Fear the Lord and obey his commandments, and you will have fulfilled your duty.
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Solomon: On Vanity
Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.
If a poor man or a prisoner or an outcast were to speak those words, you might not pay attention. You would expect him to feel that life had little meaning and to complain that all his dreams from childhood had vanished like the wind.
But I speak as a King of Kings, a man of vast wealth and power to whom no pleasure has been denied. Gold, chariots, palaces, exotic spices, and beautiful women: all have been mine for the asking. And yet, despite my vast wealth—or, really, because of it—I have learned that all the things this world has to offer are finally empty.
There is nothing new under the sun. The pattern continues on and on without pause or alteration. The rich man rises and falls. He works and saves, but then disaster befalls him and he has nothing left to pass on to his son. Or, perhaps worse, he does pass on his wealth to his son, but his son proves to be worthless and squanders his inheritance.
Naked we come into this world and naked we shall leave it. None of the treasures we have earned and hoarded in this life will accompany us into the next. With sorrow we go down to the pit, never to return. That is why the day of a man’s death is better than the day of his birth.
Beware, my friends of the future, of the laughter of fools. Better to go to the house of mourning than to be in the company of such men. Treasure the rebuke of a wise man, but do not let yourselves be led astray by the flatteries of the fool. For the fool thinks he knows what tomorrow will bring, yet he refuses to do what is needed to bring it about. Do not take his counsel or follow his example.
Rather, do your work now and let tomorrow take care of itself. Even the greatest of kings cannot control the future. To the contrary, if he is wise, he will know that the race does not always go to the swift, nor is the battle always won by the strong. At any moment, we can be caught in the snare, and all our plans will come to naught.
Our vision is so limited. We do not even know how we are formed in our mother’s womb: Our birth is as shrouded in darkness as is our death. Now, I have learned that the wise men of your age have found a way to peer into the secret places of life and watch the child develop within its mother. But that does not mean you understand the miracle of birth any more than the wise men of my age.
You may know how, but you do not know why. You may know the parts, but you do not know the whole—nor do you know what the whole is or why it is what it is.
Oh, my friends, what do any of us gain from our labors? The sun rises and sets and the seasons turn, but nothing ever changes. I counseled you to follow the way of the wise man rather than that of the fool, and yet, the same fate awaits them both. Both will die; both will be forgotten. That is a great evil, but it is the way of things in our world.
Still, though wisdom cannot see much further than folly, there are things it can see and perceive and even understand. Those things I would like to share with you now: There is a season and a time for all things that take place on this earth. And so, though there are times when we must weep, there are times as well when it is right to indulge in laughter—not the laughter of fools, but sincere laughter. And so it goes with planting and building and dancing. There are proper times assigned for these proper duties and pleasures, even as there are other times when we must root up and tear down and mourn in a silent place where there is neither music nor movement.
There will be a time for tearing and hatred and war, but not always; a time will follow for mending and loving and seeking peace. In most cases we are powerless to determine which time will be ours; we must simply accept the time in which we are called to live our lives.
I can see this is more difficult for your age than my own. You feel that you can control all things and bend them to your will. But you cannot. That is an illusion of which you have convinced yourselves. If you would find any happiness in this meaningless world, then you must learn, not to bend the times to your will, but to accommodate your will to the time at hand.
Once you have understood the seasons and the times, then you can move forward to find a small but real happiness in this world. Only then will you learn to be content with your lot and to thank God for what he has given you. Only then will you eat and drink with satisfaction the food and wine laid out before you.
God has put in our hearts a yearning for eternity, but, as long as we live in this world, we must modify our desires to its changes, its vanities, its impermanence.
Still, there is something permanent in our world, and that is God and his Law. Pay heed to that as you conduct your business and perform your labors. Fear the Lord and obey his commandments, and you will have fulfilled your duty.
Enjoy now the days of your youth, not in reckless folly, but receiving with joy all that is given to you. And take solace in the wife of your youth; may she do you good and not ill all the days of your life.
There is a pleasure that is neither vain nor meaningless.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Allegory of Vanity” (c. 1632-1636) by Antonio de Pereda (1611-1678), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.