|18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19 —and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and grew wise under the sun. This also is mere breath. 20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is mere breath and a great evil. 22 What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23 For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a worry; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is mere breath.|
My uncle Pete made the best red cole slaw you ever ate in your life. I always looked forward to going to his house for dinners, because of his cole slaw. But he kept the recipe a strict secret. He would not tell anyone what his secret ingredients were, not even his wife, children and grandchildren.
He got lung cancer, and was in hospice. My step father was visiting him, and said one day, “Pete, why don’t you leave us that cole slaw recipe before you die? That can be your legacy to the world.”
Uncle Pete nodded, and asked for some paper and a pen. He scribbled down, “two heads of cabbage,” looked at the paper for a while, then crumpled it up and said, “Nah, you’d just mess it up.”
And those were his last words.
Like Qohelet, it galled him that someone would take his work, mess it up, and then take credit for it.
There is a saying that a good person is someone who plants a tree they will never enjoy the shade of themselves, who plant a long term crop they will never be able to harvest. This seems to go against the claim he just made however that all the good a person does will be forgotten. Perhaps this is a clue that Qohelet is overstating his case to make a point. And the point is this; don’t cling too tightly to what you have, or what you have done. It is not really yours.
In 1968 Dr. Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M was trying to invent a super strong adhesive. Instead he ended up with a very low strength adhesive, whose only positive property was that you put it on several different surfaces without it losing its adhesive power. The invention floated around 3M for a while, until in 1974 Art Fry saw Silver’s invention, and turned it into the Post-it note we know today. One man invented it, but it took another man to see the practical use for it. That is often the way of life. Everything we do is incomplete. Had Silver clung to the notion that his invention was supposed to be a superstrong adhesive, we would not have Post-it notes today.
Qohelet does not want to let go of the fruit of his wisdom however, because he is afraid that people who don’t deserve it will get a hold of it, and use it for their purposes. But holding on to his wisdom only makes him miserable.
Thoughts and Questions
- What do you hold on to? Family? Friends? God? Work? Does holding on to it make it more precious to you, or more worrisome? What would it mean to let go of it?
- Qohelet asks, “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” What is the natural reward of all our work? What do you want it to be? What is it really?
- Qohelet seems to be like a petulant child here. “I don’t want you to have this because it is mine!” he is saying. This does not look like the sentiments of a wise man, and yet these are common sentiments. He is showing us, perhaps, how foolish we look sometimes. Do you see other people in the picture of life he paints? Do you see yourself?