When the purport of the images—what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections — seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time. —C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer 52 (1963)
A man wakes up on a misty morning. He looks out his window and likes what he sees. So he dresses and walks out his door to enjoy what has been given him.
The mist doesn’t last long. But while it lasts it softens the edges of the world, brings out its colors, and dances with the shafts of light from the rising sun.
And then it vanishes. The man emits a satisfied sigh. God makes everything beautiful in its time.(1)
I can imagine another man—say, a photographer—waking up the same morning, somewhere in the same vale, seeing the same mist, the same light, the same landscape. Recognizing the aesthetic value of what he sees, he runs to find his camera. He rushes out his door, and looks for just the right place to best capture the dance of mist and light and landscape, the viewpoint from which mist and light and landscape appear to greatest advantage. He experiments with a few different lenses, and snaps a few pictures to preserve the morning’s beauty for posterity—to preserve the past for the future.
It isn’t preserved, though. A window on it is preserved. If the photographer has done his work well, it may be a clear window. But still it is a window only; the misty morning itself isn’t preserved. And the sigh the photographer emits when the greedy fingers of the rising sun have stolen the last mists likely will be of a much different kind than our first man’s sigh of satisfaction.
God has set eternity in the man’s heart, but in such a way that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end.(2)
We cannot capture vapor. We can enjoy its flirting and flitting through our fingers, but fixity is not one of its virtues. Likewise we cannot shepherd the wind. For starters, we do not know where it comes from or where it goes. Even if we did, we still couldn’t pick up stray wind, lay it across our shoulders, and carry it back to the fold.
Welcome to life under the sun.
For many years I could not begin to understand what Koholeth, the author of Ecclesiastes, was teaching. His book seemed to oscillate between pounding home the vanity of life, and then exhorting us to enjoy life—food, drink, company, and toil. Enjoy your vain life.
I can take instruction from paradox, but not schizophrenia.
But Koholeth was not schizophrenic. Many of his translators unjustly make him seem so. They make him seem so by doing precisely the opposite of what C. S. Lewis told Malcolm to do: they trusted abstractions like “vanity” and “meaningless,” rather than trusting images, like “vapor.” The translators doubtless could heap up lots of scholarly reasons for translating hebel as “vanity” rather than “vapor.” I’d say it’s a literary misjudgment, though. Hebel loses much of its affective power when rendered as a negative abstraction, rather than as a positive picture-word—the kind of word that lodges in our imagination and works its way through our will out into our hands and feet.
The vaporousness of life under the sun may very often vex us. It may turn much of our toil to vanity—especially if we labor under the delusion that our lives are going to turn a profit under the sun. Yet if God gives us the ability to do so (3), we will recognize life under the sun, in all its vaporousness, for what it is—and we will enjoy it.
(1) Ecclesiastes 3:11.
(2) Ecclesiastes 3:12.
(3) Ecclesiastes 2:24-25.
David Mitchel is a small-town lawyer who has represented clients in a broad spectrum of causes, ranging from business transactions to property disputes to the defense of criminal charges to federal habeas corpus and Civil Rights actions. His passion for literature and story, which he caught first from Tolkien, informs all of this work—which requires patient, careful adjudication of competing stories and creativity to help clients and courts write the rest of the story justly and wisely. David was born and raised near Baltimore, Maryland, went to law school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and now lives in central Virginia. When he’s not practicing his profession, David is usually on stage, or playing a stringed instrument, or reading, or writing.