Read: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2, NRSV).
We call it, “the day the light changes.” You’ve probably noticed it, too. It’s that day in spring when the buds on the trees turn into tender green-gold leaves. And just like that, the light changes. Winter’s harsh glare gives way to the softer shades of spring.
Of course, it’s easy to miss it if you’re not paying attention. But isn’t that part of its appeal? We savor its sweetness precisely because we know it will not last for long.
Robert Frost has his finger on the pulse of this phenomenon in his famous poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief.
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
No one needs lessons in life’s ephemerality after a year of close encounters with COVID-19. Yet, the reminder that life is both fragile and short presents us with some important choices. How do we live knowing that “nothing gold can stay”?
This is precisely what the “Teacher” is wrestling with in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes. At first, it seems like he is making some pretty cynical choices. In fact, he sounds a bit like someone who has lived through a pandemic. Tell me you can’t relate a little to these words:
All things are wearisome, more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing (1:8).
It’s like when you can’t remember what day it is, and all the days of the week become “Blursday.”
But I’m not sure we are being completely fair to the Teacher if we write him off as a cynic. He is a realist, certainly. He’s been around the block enough to know that life is not only short, but often unfair. He knows that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful” (9:11). Yet, in spite of this, he urges his fellow humans “to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live” and to “eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil” (3:12-13).
The key to understanding what makes this Teacher “tick” is often lost in translation. Look again at that “vanity of vanities” verse that opens the book. The Hebrew word behind what is rendered as “vanity” is: hevel. It does not mean “vanity” in the sense of being futile, meaningless, or proud. It means fleeting or ephemeral.
It may help to know that Cain’s brother, Abel, is named Hevel in Hebrew. A quick review of that story in Genesis 4 reveals that Abel’s life is short—thanks to his murderous brother. But no one could come away from that story thinking that Abel’s life is meaningless.
Nothing gold can stay. But it is still gold. Pure gold.
Ponder Frederick Buechner’s words from his novel, Godric: “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
Pray: Help me to embrace this fragile life with gratitude instead of cynicism.