Vanity of Vanities Saith the Preacher
Thomas S. Monson was the former president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is the Mormon Church that Joseph Smith founded. He died a little less than 2 weeks ago.
In a talk he gave 13 years ago, in 2004, he said:
One day while in a somber, reflective mood, President Clark [a former leader of the Mormon church] asked if I could arrange for the printing of a picture suitable for framing. The picture was to feature the lions of Persepolis guarding the ruins of a crumbled glory. President Clark wished to have printed with the picture—between the decaying arches of a civilization that was no more—a number of his favorite scriptures, chosen from his vast knowledge of holy writ. I felt you would wish to know his selections. There were three—two from Ecclesiastes and one from the Gospel of John.
First, from Ecclesiastes: “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”
Second, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
Third, from John: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”
I have always liked the idea of President Clark's picture. It is a lot like the poem Ozymanidas by Percy Bysshe Shelley. In that poem, a traveler talks about finding, in the middle of the desert, the pedestal of a statue -- which statue only has two legs remaining. The rest of the statue has been broken off.
And, on the pedestal of the statue it reads:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
President Clark's version of Ozymandias -- his picture of the lions of Persepolis with his favorite scriptures -- is nice because it adds a little bit of hope to the absurdity and of man's glory and wealth.
But, you know, the ephemeral nature of man and the fleeting nature of his works are a popular theme within scripture, and there are a lot of instances of it being referenced outside of that one verse from Ephesians. I have always liked, "Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils, for wherein is he to be accounted of?"
And, then, these ideas pop up a lot in absurdist and existential literature and drama. But, literature and drama doesn't answer questions. It just asks them and lets the audience sort through it for themselves. I'm sure there is a place for that.