From the second lecture in the audio seminar Abounding Emptiness, Abundant Living
“I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me.” He was a man of great, great power. There is such an allure to power. I think in some ways it undergirds everything else, the lust for money and for sex. Looking at the story of the Garden of Eden, this lust for spiritual power is at the heart of the issue. I once met a man who's probably about as wealthy as anyone I’ve ever met. He’s received national attention; he’s been featured in some magazines and newspapers. He has a lot of money in international business. He was personal friends with President Reagan at that time. I was talking with him on one occasion and he was very honest with me. A Christian man and he said, this house I have, which was quite impressive -- I was a guest there. He said that he had just sold several of them and that he had quite a few more. And he said, all the money I have and this house, it really doesn’t mean anything to me. He said that it doesn’t impress me in the least. I can give it all up in a moment, but what I can’t give up at this point is the power that it gives me. He told me he enjoyed the power. The money is rather inconsequential. After all, if you’ve driven around in a Rolls Royce for a couple of weeks, it just becomes another car to you, really. And if you have lived in a 10,000 square foot home after a while it is just a house. But there is something in man that wants power and Solomon had power. Unbelievable power. And he says, “This won’t do. This doesn’t satisfy, like everything else. It’s meaningless.”
Well now, he makes a statement that sums it up. He says, verse 10: “I denied myself nothing that my eyes desired. I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work. And this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, then everything was meaningless. A chasing after the wind. Nothing was gained under the sun." So whether you are talking of wealth, pleasure, building, your work, the power that you have, the beauty around you, the women around you. In the end, he says, it was all just chasing after the wind. I was snapping at the air. It all amounted to nothing.
He does acknowledge in verse 12, however, that wisdom is superior to these other things, even worldly wisdom. "I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom and also madness and folly. What more can the king’s successor do than what he has already done? I saw that wisdom is better than folly just as light is better than darkness." In other words, it is better to be intelligent about living than to be ignorant. But the sad truth, in fact, the brutal conclusion of the matter is as he says, in verse 14: “The wise man has eyes in his head, though the fool walks in darkness. But I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.” And what is that fate? The grave. There is no gain in life. Ultimately, there's just the grave. And yes, it is better to be wise than stupid. But the truth of the matter is, the wise man and the stupid both end up in the same place… six feet under terra firma.
The whole point here is, as even the existentialists have pointed out, death is the specter that hovers over all of life and renders it meaningless and Solomon says the same thing. If you are operating simply in the natural, simply under the sun, simply by the rules and patterns of this world and this life, try as you might, no matter what you accomplish, you all end up in exactly the same place -- as we say in Texas, “Da-id.” Your money won’t spare you. Your wisdom, neither. And your pleasures are so fleeting. The gain of life, what is it? The grave, he says.
Now look at verse 17, it’s not hard to understand then that he says, “I hated life, (If you thought about it this much, you’d get to hating it yourself) because the work that was done under the sun was grievous to me. It’s all meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.” Now this is insult added to injury. Not only do I not get it and it is no gain to me, but I'm going to die and then some jerk is going to come along -- probably my kid -- and he is going to get it all. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? But he will have control over all that which I have produced by my effort and skill. "This, too, is meaningless, so my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. Despair is where you will be led to if you pursue meaning under the sun. No matter what your avenue, it finally and ultimately comes to despair," says Koheleth.
Let me read you a little Midrash, a little commentary here. This passage, when he says, verse 18, "I’ve toiled under the sun because I must leave them to the one who comes after me." It reminded me of a passage in chapter 5 that we will see later and a Jewish commentary on this section, of how you don’t take it with you when you die. There is a rabbi who said, this is the way of the world. He explained it with a parable. It’s like a fox who found a vineyard which was fenced in on all sides. There was one hole through which he wanted to enter but he was unable to do so. What did he do? What did the fox do? He fasted for three days – after all, foxes are shrewd – he fasted for three days until he became lean and frail and so he was able to get through the hole in the fence. Then he ate of the grapes and became fat again so that when he wished to go out, he couldn’t pass through the hole. So he again fasted another three days until he became lean and frail, returning to his former condition and then was able to get out through the hole in the fence. When he was outside, he turned his face and, gazing in at the vineyard, he said, “O vineyard, O vineyard, how good are you and the fruits inside. All that is inside is beautiful and commendable. But what enjoyment has one from you. As one enters you, so he comes out.” Such is the world.
And then Rabbi Meir added to this, “When a person enters the world, his hands are clenched as though to say, the whole world is mine. I shall inherit it. But when he takes leave of it, the world, his hands are spread open as if to say, I’ve inherited nothing from the world.”
* This is an audio transcript, listen to the original message here.