vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas…
Isaac Watts (1674-1748), sometimes referred to as the “Father of English Hymnody,” is of course most famous for his hymns, particularly When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. In the second verse of this famous hymn, he wrote:
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
The vanity of the things of this world was one of the first lessons I learned when I become a (regenerate) Christian little over 5 years ago. The book of Ecclesiastes preeminently taught it to me, along with other biblical books, Christian authors, and hymns such as the one mentioned.
And as I was browsing through some books, as I am prone to do when I have some time off, I was delighted to discover this little piece of prose by Watts, titled Vanity Inscribed on All Things, which can be found toward the back of his wonderful work The Improvement of the Mind. Below is the text in full:
VANITY INSCRIBED ON ALL THINGS
TIME, like a long-flowing stream, makes haste into eternity, and is forever lost and swallowed up there; and while it is hastening to its period, it sweeps away all things with it which are not immortal. There is a limit appointed by Providence to the duration of all the pleasant and desirable scenes of life, to all the works of the hands of men, with all the glories and excellencies of animal nature, and all that is made of flesh and blood. Let us not dote upon anything here below, for heaven hath inscribed vanity upon it. The moment is hastening when the decree of heaven shall be uttered, and providence shall pronounce upon every glory of the earth, “Its time shall be no longer.”
What is that stately building, that princely palace, which now entertains and amuses our sight with ranks of marble columns and wide-spreading arches, that gay edifice which enriches our imagination with a thousand royal ornaments, and a profusion of gay and glittering furniture? Time, and all its circling hours, with a swift wing are brushing it away; decay steals upon it insensibly, and a few years hence it shall lie in mouldering ruin and desolation. Unhappy possessor, if he has no better inheritance!
What are those fine and elegant gardens, those delightful walks, those gentle ascents and soft declining slopes which raise and sink the eye by turns to a thousand vegetable pleasures? How lovely are those sweet borders, and those growing varieties of bloom and fruit which recall lost paradise to mind? Those living parterres which regale the sense with vital fragrancy and make glad the sight by their refreshing verdure and entertaining flowery beauties? The scythe of time is passing over them all; they wither, they die away, they drop and vanish into dust; their duration is short; a few months deface all their yearly glories; and within a few years perhaps all these rising terrace walks, these gentle verging declivities, shall lose all order and elegance, and become a rugged heap of ruins. Those well-distinguished borders and parterres shall be levelled in confusion, and thrown into common earth again for the ox and the ass to graze upon them. Unhappy man, who possesses this agreeable spot of ground, if he has no paradise more durable than this!
And no wonder that these labours of the hands of men should perish, when even the works of God are perishable.
What are these visible heavens, these lower skies, and this globe of earth? They are indeed the glorious workmanship of the Almighty; but they are waxing old and waiting their period too, when the angel shall pronounce upon them, “That time shall be no more. The heavens shall be folded up as a vesture; the elements of the lower world shall melt with fervent heat, and the earth and all the works thereof shall be burnt up with fire.” May the unruinable world be but my portion, and the heaven of heavens my inheritance, which is built for an eternal mansion for the sons of God. These buildings shall out-live time and nature, and exist through unknown ages of felicity.
What have we mortals to be proud of in our present state, when every human glory is so fugitive and fading? Let the brightest and the best of us say to ourselves, “That we are but dust and vanity.”
Is my body formed upon a graceful model? Are my limbs well turned, and my complexion better coloured than my neighbours? Beauty even in perfection is of shortest date; a few years will inform me that its bloom vanishes, its flower withers, its lustre grows dim, its duration shall be no longer; and if life be prolonged, yet the pride and glory of it is for ever lost in age and wrinkles. Or perhaps our vanity meets a speedier fate. Death and the grave, with a sovereign and irresistible command, summon the brightest as well as the coarsest pieces of human nature to lie down early in their cold embraces; and at last they must all mix together among worms and corruption. Aesop the deformed, and Helena the fair, are lost and undistinguished in common earth. Nature in its gayest bloom is but a painted vanity.
Are my nerves well strung and vigorous? Is my activity and strength far superior to my neighbours in the days of youth? But youth hath its appointed limit; age steals upon it, unstrings the nerves, and makes the force of nature languish into infirmity and feebleness. Samson and Goliath would, have lost their boasted advantages of stature and their brawny limbs in the course of half a century, though the one had escaped the sling of David, and the other the vengeance of his own hands in the ruin of Dagon’s temple. Man in his best estate is a flying shadow and vanity.
Even those nobler powers of human life which seem to have something angelical in them, I mean the powers of wit and fancy, gay imagination and capacious memory, they are all subject to the same laws of decay and death. What though they can raise and animate beautiful scenes in a moment, and, in imitation of creating power, can spread bright appearances and new worlds before the senses and the souls of their friends? What though they can entertain the better part of mankind, the refined and polite world, with high delight and rapture? These scenes of rapturous delight grow flat and old by a frequent review, and the very powers that raised them grow feeble apace. What though they can give immortal applause and fame to their possessors! It is but the immortality of an empty name, a mere succession of the breath of men; and it is a short sort of immortality too, which must die and perish when this world perishes. A poor shadow of duration indeed, while the real period of these powers is hastening every day; they languish and die as fast as animal nature, which has a large share in them, makes haste to its decay; and the time of their exercise shall shortly be no more.
In vain the aged poet or the painter would call up the muse and genius of their youth, and summon all the arts of their imagination to spread and dress out some visionary scene; In vain the elegant orator would recall the bold and masterly figures, and all those flowery images which gave ardour, grace and dignity to his younger composures, and charmed every ear: They are gone, they are fled beyond the reach of their owner’s call: Their time is past, they are vanished and lost beyond all hope of recovery.
The God of nature has pronounced an unpassable period upon all the powers and pleasures and glories of this mortal state. Let us then be afraid to make any of them our boast or our happiness; but point our affections to those diviner objects whose nature is everlasting; let us seek those religious attainments and those new-created powers of a sanctified mind, concerning which it shall never be pronounced, “That their time shall be no longer.”
O may every one of us be humbly content at the call of heaven to part with all that is pleasing or magnificent here on earth; let us resign even these agreeable talents when the God of nature demands; and when the hour arrives that shall close our eyes to all visible things, and lay our fleshly structure in the dust, let us yield up our whole selves to the hands of our Creator, who shall reserve our spirits with himself; and while we cheerfully give up all that was mortal to the grave, we may lie down full of the joyful hope of a rising immortality. New and unknown powers and glories, brighter flames of imagination, richer scenes of wit and fancy and diviner talents are preparing for us when we shall awake from the dust; and the mind itself shall have all its faculties in a sublime state of improvement. These shall make us equal, if not superior, to angels, for we are nearer akin to the Son of God than they are, and therefore we shall be made more like him.