Money Autobiography: Qoheleth

My parish has a periodic group that meets to consider topics around how we integrate living out the Gospel and how we use our resources. Much of the discussion is sparked by materials from the Faith & Money Network. For the latest meeting, they decided to use the concept of the Money Autobiography, but to incorporate biblical materials by presenting Money Autobiographies of biblical figures. I was asked to write and present a piece so I selected Qoheleth.

Qoheleth is the Hebrew word meaning “the Teacher” or “Preacher” which is the name by which the narrative voice of Ecclesiastes identifies himself. All of the details offered lead readers to identify Qoheleth with King Solomon but Ecclesiastes never quite comes right out to say it. To compose this, I looked over the questions in the Money Autobiography, selected several, then answered some of these imaginatively from the Samuel/Kings narratives, and cobbled together selections for Ecclesiastes itself for the others.

Following the style of Qoheleth, I don’t identify his family members by name, but only by role. (I will footnote them, though.)


Money Autobiography: Qoheleth (King Solomon as seen through Ecclesiastes)

Have you ever stood in an empty plaza, a market-square that you remember full and bustling with life? Your memory recalls smells and sounds that delight the senses and call to mind the vibrant fabrics, the flashing glances, the pagentry of the daily moment, but your eyes see only the vacant space with crumbling walls, weeds creeping through between flagstones, and the dust and broken crockery pushed to the corners.  Then a breeze flows over the hills from the desert, and caught in the corner, catches up the dead leaves and dust and whirls them in a cloud that passes by and over you and grit pelts your skin and attacks your eyes. And, just for a moment in the sound of its passing you think you catch the sounds of voices long dead of, opportunities left behind, of experiences fading. And a tear forms at the corner of your eye to wash the grit or—perhaps—to cleanse the memory as the circling eddy of wind with its muttering breath passes along its way. And—just for a moment—you think to grasp at it, to hold on to trap that moment, all that which is now past and gone but that is simply a vanity. It is a chasing after the wind.

So it is—in my experience—with the grasping after wealth.

I never lacked for wealth as a child, and in my youth walked the corridors of privilege and ease. Whatever I desired I could lay my hands upon. I made a test of joy and experience and “I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 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. 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. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me. 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 the reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Eccl 1:4-11).

My unhappiest childhood memory is remembering flight in the night from the hands of my brother. He had risen in arms against my father—because my brother desired what he did not have. He wanted wealth, yes, he wanted power, but more than that he wanted the revenge that these things could give him and in his youth and blindness thought that the power to continue his revenge would heal the hurts of his sister. While he had slain his brother who had raped her, he still blamed our father for not giving her the justice she was due.*

I do not know how my mother felt about wealth but I do know this: There would be nights was I was young when she thought I slept. She would remove her rich robes, take the jewels off her neck and ears, and sweep them from her table to the floor and, putting on a simple dress of Hittite pattern, would cry with her face to the north.

As for my father his wealth was his security. He would shower it on his men with an easy smile, buying those whose spears would bring him safety. He was a man of excesses and contradictions. A man’s man—virile, dashing, and handsome—who had elevated himself from following the sheep to Jerusalem’s throne by his own hand. A lover of women, of battle, and of the God whom he honored even when he acted against his God’s command. Having come from nothing, he could return to nothing, casting mere things aside to melt into the desert, trusting in his canny craft to regain his throne again—which he did at the cost of my beloved brother.

Once my father passed, I stepped into his place. Wealth flowed freely in and out of my coffers. Counting it was important and I had teams of scribes to account for my gold and silver and precious goods, patiently marking tablet after tablet to describe my riches. For only then would I know how I could move and spend it, to turn it from glittering coin to stout carven stone. In my middle years, I kept a close eye on my money. Not because I craved it, but because of the power it allowed me to project. With my money I bought masons and supplies and costly materials with which to build. And build I did, straining my treasure and the will of my people to build great buildings. A temple, yes, the likes of which had never been seen before in Jerusalem but not only the temple. Walls and fortifications and towers were raised at my command. The overseers’ whips cracked as I forced my people to labor, mothers wailed as I sold my own people into servitude in Egypt for horses and chariots, acquiring the military hardware that would keep my nation safe and secure. Protecting my people even as I sold their bodies to purchase my weapons of war.

But—even then—as time would tell—all of my efforts at security would be but vanity and chasing after the wind. For my works of building, my projects of forced labor, so alienated and enraged my people that the northern tribes would grow embittered and in the lifetime of my son would split the kingdom I had spent so deeply to protect.

All of it was a vanity and a chasing after the wind.

Opening my eyes, seeing my own follies, “I saw all of the oppressions that are practiced under the sun, Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who had already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better yet than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Eccl 4:1-1)

“Again, I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. ‘For whom am I toiling,” ‘thy ask, ‘and depriving myself of pleasure?

This also is vanity and an unhappy business.” (Eccl 4:7-8).

“There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. As they came from their mother’s womb, so shall they go again, naked as they came: they shall take nothing for their toil which they may carry away with their hands. This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment.

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life that God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God.” (Eccl 5:13-19).

Now—I have heard it said “The righteous are delivered from trouble, and the wicked get into it instead” (Prov 11:8); I have heard it said, “Be assured, the wicked will not go unpunished, but those who are righteous will escape” (Prov 11:21). I have heard it said  “Misfortune pursues sinners; but prosperity rewards the righteous” (Prov 13:21). I have heard it said, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (Prov 22:4). But this too is vanity and a chasing after the wind. “In my vain life, I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing” (Eccl 7:15). “There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous I said that this also is vanity” (Eccl 8:14).

As the gold slips through my fingers I know that it is not worth a puff of wind for it gives me not one more puff of wind into my breath. My wealth cannot save my life. “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth with gain. This also is vanity. When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep” (Eccl 5:10-12).What gives me joy at the end of my days—at the end of my life—are the simple pleasures that cost but a handful of copper: “So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and enjoy themselves for this will go with them in their toil through all the days of life that God gives them under the sun” (Eccl 8:15). “Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Eccl 9:8-10).

“Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ’I have no pleasure in them’ : before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel is broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, all is vanity” (Eccl 12:1, 6-8).

 

  • This is a reference to Absalom’s uprising against his father (and Solomon’s father) King David. Absalom’s anger against his father began when his half-brother Amnon raped then rejected Absalom’s full-sister Tamar. Absalom slew him after King David refused to punish Amnon’s crime. Solomon’s mother is Bathsheba; the mention of the “Hittite” dress is a reference to Bathsheba’s first husband Uriah whom David killed—with Bathsheba’s collusion.

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