I also tried to find meaning by building huge homes for myself and by planting beautiful vineyards. I made gardens and parks, filling them with all kinds of fruit trees. I built reservoirs to collect the water to irrigate my many flourishing groves. I bought slaves, both men and women, and others were born into my household. I also owned large herds and flocks, more than any of the kings who had lived in Jerusalem before me. I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. I hired wonderful singers, both men and women, and had many beautiful concubines. I had everything a man could desire!
So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere. (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11, NLT)
Qoheleth did not find meaning through the temporary islands of relief of laughter and wine. Even then, he would have understood the law of diminishing returns–the fact that more and more produces less and less. Since the secret to lasting meaning was not found in earthly joys, he turned his attention to amassing possessions. It was not uncommon for kings of that time period to make testamentary statements that flaunted their accomplishments, so perhaps this passage has a bit of a competitive edge.
In reading these verses, the first person singular pronoun is clearly evident as well as the objectification of each one. Whether it was homes, gardens, water, animals, or people, they all betray Qoheleth’s thirst to acquire, amass, and own. One of the clearest examples is that he didn’t love music, he loved owning singers. Somehow he believed that by amassing things and people he could find significance, which would result in finding the meaning to it all, especially if he had the most and the biggest.
Without restraint or self denial, he had it all. His only limitation was his own imagination.
It is at this point we begin to see the underlying issue become more evident. As with laughter and wine, hard work in and of itself was rewarding. But at the end of it loomed death, which would nullify everything. Qoheleth doesn’t have a life problem. He has a death problem. The fact that his existence would someday terminate was something he could not wrap his mind around. After all, what’s the point of building, acquiring and collecting if he, like everyone else, will die? He’s no better off than the poor man at that point, because both face the same end result.
Our modern concept of eternity and life after death is more clearly fleshed out than it would have been in Old Testament times. In all likelihood, Qoheleth and his contemporaries did not foresee life after death, hence the existential angst he expressed in his writing. His worldview was directly tied to his earthly existence.
Living on this side of the cross provides us with an opportunity to come to terms with things like eternal significance and making eternal differences. But even then, we can become so tied to physical life that we enter the same state of mind. But bigger is not always better, sometimes it’s just more. Perhaps this is why Jesus was so adamant about teaching us to not lay up treasures here on earth in favor of laying up treasures in heaven. Our lives matter now and will matter through all eternity. What are you doing to balance the now and the not yet?