Qoheleth [Koe hell’ eth]. This is the Hebrew name of the book commonly known as Ecclesiastes, which begins with the familiar words, “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All is vanity and striving/chasing after wind.”.” This becomes a refrain repeated seven times throughout the book. The idea is that of utter futility in this life, in this place. We are consumed with the busyness and business of life, we die, and others we do not even know enjoy the fruits of our labor. “All things (or, Words) are wearisome, more than one can express…” [1:8] At one time or another we all feel this way: All is futility and a striving after wind. A somewhat pessimistic, or at best Stoic, worldview.
Look what happens, however, if we get radical, which simply means getting to the root of things. The Hebrew word hebel translated “vanity,” or “futility,” at its root means “vapor” or “breath.” And the word translated as “wind,” ruach, also is often rendered as breath or spirit. Ruach is one of the first words in the Bible appearing in the creation story of Genesis 1:2, “…while the Spirit-Breath of G_d swept over the face of the waters.” Much later in the gospel of John, chapter 3, Jesus points out to the seeker Nicodemus that this spirit-breath of G_d is like the wind, it comes from we know not where, and goes where it will, animating and giving life to all things.
So, what happens when we render the text as, “Vapor, nothing but vapor and striving after the spirit-breath of G_d.”? Or, “Breath, nothing but breath and striving after Spirit.”? There then seems to be a double entendre rooted in the text urging the listener to guard against hubris and futility, and also honor the mystery of life, the mystery of the spirit, the mystery of creation and its creator!
For amongst the endless lists of seeming human suffering and futility are buried little gems such as found in chapter 11 verse 5, “As you know not what is the way, the path of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so you know not the works of God who makes all.” Who makes all. All. As in everything from the largest of nuclear blast-furnace stars to the tiniest speck of dust, quark, gluon and Higgs boson! We like to think we know it all, how this all works. We fashion it all into working hypotheses, formulas, beautiful equations, which works up to a point until we hit the wall as we realize there must be at least one more variable, one more detail, one elusive mechanism that would help us describe it all. Qoheleth means to remind us of how little we really know and the importance instead of enjoying the very things which are given to us, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of G_d; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him G_d gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases G_d. This also is vanity and chasing after wind.” [2:24-26] Or, is it, This also is breath and walking in the way of G_d’s animating spirit!
Sticking with our radical understanding of the text, sin or sinner is an ancient archery term for “one who misses the mark or target.” That is, one who misses what life is really all about – where we come from, where we are going, and what we are to be doing in the meantime. In the creation story in Genesis 2 we find G_d taking up a handful of moist soil to create the first creature, the first person, giving it life, animating this person, by breathing into its nostrils. Anyone who has witnessed the birth of a child will recognize that first grasp of breath coming in and breath going out. It is believed by some that the unspeakable name of the G_d of Genesis 2, YHWH, mimics that sound of the animating breath of life coming in and going out. Which suggests that the first word we say when we are born is the name of G_d, and last word we say when like the wind we return to whence we came is name of G_d. That is, there is no Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist or Confucian way of breathing. No African, European, Asian, American way of breathing. We have all strive after the same breath, the same spirit from the moment we are born to the day we die. Which is why taking time to just sit and breathe is the most universal form of spiritual practice – contemplative prayer, mindfulness, call it what we will – we can all do it. No one has a lock on it. It is what gives us life. A gift. The gift really. We miss the mark when we do not stop to acknowledge this.
Like the man Jesus describes in Luke chapter 12:13-21. A brother approaches Jesus and asks him to settle their father’s estate. Keep in mind that “father” means something special to Jesus, it is his name for the animating force of life. He tells them that he is not a probate judge, but I would be happy to tell you a story about the fact that life is not about greed, or the abundance of possessions. The land of a rich man produces abundantly He works hard. He thinks to himself, “Self, we have lots of produce! What should we do? My barns are not big enough to store it all for my self and my future. I know! I’ll tear them down and build bigger barns. Which he does! Then he says to himself, “Self! We have done it. We have set up provisions for years to come!” Then, sounding a bit like Qoheleth, “Now we can relax, eat, drink and be merry!” A voice from offstage, however, says, “Self? You ain’t no self. You are a fool. This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So, it is, he concludes, with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward G_d – the way of spirit-breath.
Futility, all is futility and chasing after wind! Or, breath, all is breath and striving to walk the path of the spirit. G_d breathes into us, we breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. “On this model,” writes Richard Swanson in his book Provoking the Gospel of Luke, “every time a person (living creature) breathes in, G_d re-does creation….every time a person breathes out, G_d’s act of sharing life is imitated. Breathe in, receive life from G_d, breathe out, share life with G_d’s creation. This is a powerful image of what it means to be part of God’s creation. On this model, the farmer has only mastered the first half of human-being. He can breathe in, but he cannot breathe out. If he follows this plan long enough, he will explode!” [Swanson p 174-175] Or, as Qoheleth puts it, “The lover of money will not be satisfied; nor the lover of wealth with gain. This too is vapor, nothing but vapor!” [5:10]
How does one master what it means to be a human-being. Our texts suggest this involves some equal measure of eschewing hubris and accepting and preserving the divine mystery of all. And all traditions suggest taking time-out to simply Be – to do nothing more than breathe in and breathe out. Evelyn Underhill in her little book, The Spiritual Life, writes: “We mostly spend our lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do. Craving, clutching, and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual – even on the religious – plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest: forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life.” [p 20]
The essence of Being is to breathe – breathe in and breathe out. Not wanting, having, accumulating and storing up all you can, but to share life with G_d’s people and all creation. To only breathe in is not to be human. Breathing in takes life; breathing out gives live – the life of G_d’s spirit-breath. Life, say Jesus and Qoheleth, is short – and too important to keep to oneself. Otherwise you end up all alone like the farmer in the story. To do so results in no self at all. Breathe. Breath, nothing but breath and striving after Spirit! Chase after G_d’s spirit-breath, not after vapor and wind.