|4 I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. 10 Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was mere breath and herding the wind, and there was no gain under the sun.
I grew up about a stone’s throw from Reynolda Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. These were part of the R.J. Reynolds estate, and includes his mansion, the gardens, and a huge, hilly field surrounding the grounds. Mr. Reynolds is long gone. The estate is now a museum, and has undergone a lot of transformation through the years. If Richard Reynolds returned to it today, he might not recognize it.
All his work was like mere breath.
Like Mr. Reynolds, Qohelet has the world at his disposal, and yet it brings him no long-term fulfillment. He says that he became greater than all who came before him, and whatever he wanted, he was able to get. And what did it all amount to? Mere breath. All his work was like herding the wind. It’s not that he did not enjoy all this. It’s not that it was all a waste of his time. But in the end he found that all his work was mere breath—impermanent. All his hard work was about as effect as herding wind.
The Buddha said we are miserable because we spend too much time chasing after things we cannot really have. Like Qohelet he also taught that much of life is mere breath, a herding of the wind. Notice that Qohelet does not say that any of the things he is talking about are bad things. But are just all temporary—mere breath.
In his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez recounts the story of Colombian family in a village. He takes the family from its humble beginnings in the village, to the peak of their influence, and then leaves us with a picture of their family residence taken over by the encroaching jungle. All that they worked for and all they accomplished was eventually consumed by the vines and weeds of the rainforest undergrowth. Qohelet was able to see at the end of his life (we assume he was an older man when he wrote this—This is the work of young buck) that all his work amounted in the end to nothing. Mere breath.
We can see this as a depressing insight. But we can also see it another way. Again, Qohelet did not say that all he did was bad. It was just impermanent. He is telling us, not that our lives are miserable, but that we should try to turn our accomplishments into something they are not. We work hard in this life. That is good. When we are gone, someone else takes over. That is also good. I remember the first time I visited a church where I had previously been a pastor. I saw all that the new pastor had done, and for a moment I thought, “It was as if I was never there.” But then I realized that was how it was supposed to be. I did not want that church to cling to me and the memories of me. I wanted them to grow, to become the church God wanted them to be. They could not do that if they refused to let go of my work there. They had to do what God was calling them to do after I was there if they were going to grow.
Thoughts and Questions
- Think of the really important things you do, things such as raising kids, or how you performed your job, or the work you put into your marriage. Why do you do these things?
- Why do you think it is important for some people to want to make a lasting change? Do you think the fact that whatever we do will eventually fade away one day is depressing, or just inevitable?
- Qohelet must have accomplished a lot in his life. His book actually belies his major thesis. We can assume it was written somewhere around 300-400 BC, and yet here we are, almost 2500 years later, reading it. Are there things that you believe will outlast us?