My wife often and fondly employs the saying “this too shall pass.” She may have a cold or be struggling under the mountains of grading and paperwork her schoolteaching entails. Then she will utter, “This too shall pass.” The expression is not stoic and paralyzing for her—she treats her cold and gets on with her paperwork—but it is instead encouraging. The present inconveniences or pains may seem insurmountable, but they, too, will pass. More humorously, I read of an old gentleman who remarked when suffering from kidney stones, “This too shall pass.”
Curious about the origins of the phrase, I did a little digging on the Internet. Wikipedia reports that the phrase most likely originated in the writings of medieval Persian Sufi poets. Jewish folklore, in addition, attributes the phrase to King Solomon. In an American context, the phrase became popular in the first half of the nineteenth century. Abraham Lincoln was fond of it, and included it in an 1859 speech, remarking, “How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”
Lincoln’s remarks point to an older usage of the phrase that differs from my wife’s more contemporary usage. She (and others) use the phrase solely to recall that affliction (mild or severe) will pass. The earlier folklore usages, like Lincoln’s, were also a reminder that good fortune or the privileges of high status would also pass away. No one will stay on top forever; if nothing else, all will age into decrepitude and death.
Among the American populace, “this too shall pass” is apparently often thought to be a phrase directly from the Bible. This is so much the case that one Bible concordance website includes a search for the phrase, only to point out that it does not actually come from the Bible. The website instead directs readers’ attention to 2 Corinthians 4:17–18:
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
This text from Paul does offer a version of “this too shall pass,” but of course introduces an eschatological perspective. Here it is not simply that “momentary affliction” will pass, but that it somehow contributes to the heavenly “weight of glory” awaiting those who trust in in the unseen eternal. “This too shall pass,” Paul is saying, “and greater and glorious things will come of it.”
“This too shall pass”—a richer four words are hard to find.