Breath

“Yes, everyone, no matter how firmly he stands,

is merely a puff of wind.

Humans go about like shadows:

their turmoil is all for nothing.

They accumulate wealth, not knowing

who will enjoy its benefits.”

Psalm 39: 6b-7, The Complete Jewish Bible

Photo credit: ledgerinsights.com

It is rare for a child, a youth, or a young adult to think they are “merely a puff of wind” and they “go about like shadows”.  I doubt that the obscenely wealthy, (e.g. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos) give much consideration that “their turmoil is all for nothing” and that all their immense riches will one day pass beyond their control to someone(s) who may completely overturn whatever they had conceived should be done with it.

But really now, who can conceive of amassing a personal fortune of $200 Billion?  That’s greater than the GDP of a host of poor and small countries, or several of such countries combined, being in the bank and investment accounts of a single person!  Think of all the works of mercy and compassion it would be possible to do with such means available!  You could relieve much of the poverty on earth, finance hundreds and even thousands of worthy research and development projects to relieve suffering, etc…  But I guess you don’t create a personal fortune of such stupendous size based on a philanthropic disposition. 

People of mega-wealth should heed the story of King Solomon of ancient Israel.  He lived in the late 10th Century BCE and, building on the great success and empire that his warrior father King David had left him, accumulated an incalculable treasure, built immense works of prestige to show it and his power off, including a gold-plated Temple to Israel’s God (but only after he had built a shatteringly opulent palace complex), fathered dozens of sons and daughters through his hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of wives and concubines whom he kept in his vast palace complex, and no doubt expected that all this would endure long after he died because he believed he was in a virtually impregnable position based on a prophetic promise from God to his Dad.

Solomon is said to have written the fascinating Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes as he neared his end.  If so, he seems to have had a sort of late-great awakening to the total vanity of all his efforts to create more and more wealth and show off his power and riches and reputed wisdom to all far and wide. 

Ecclesiastes has some priceless passages worth reading whether you believe in God or not.  Its opening line is a real attention-getter: “Vanity!  Vanity!  Everything is vanity!”  or “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”  Look it up some time if you are ready to consider why you’re on planet Earth and what you want your life to have meant when you stop blowing your “puff of wind”.

In Hebrew, the word for wind also means breath.  Each time you exhale, you are emitting a tiny bit of wind to mark the passage of another few moments of your brief-candle-life.  (We won’t mention the other body part associated with “breaking wind”.)  When you can no longer give an “answer blowing in the wind” (Bob Dylan), time’s up!

You and I are not Musk, Bezos, or Solomon, but we have the same questions to ask and answers to seek.  What will be the meaning and legacy of our “three score and ten, or, if you are strong, four score” (70-80) years on our tiny glorious Gaia-ball in the Cosmos? 

Mssrs. Musk and Bezos, and a host of others I’m sure you could name, and some whom you probably know personally with much less but much more than enough for anyone, are zealously busy accumulating and amassing “stuff”, power, and prestige as their life’ passion.  They probably think they know and can control “who will enjoy its benefits” when their breath gives out.  No doubt clever lawyers and accountants are devising ways and means for their wills to reach out from the grave (or urn) to direct the disposition and use of their massive fortunes, perhaps even in some posthumous works of charity to allay some of what may be a glimmer of inconvenient conscience.  We can always hope.

But Solomon’s story and all of history’s tales of such intentions almost always belie such ideas and hopes.  In Solomon’s case, as in most similar cases since, it all came down to what his heir(s) would actually decide to do with the greatest fortune the world had yet seen to that time, despite what the Big Boss had willed.  The Bible says that Solomon was richer than anyone had ever been and could imagine.  Historically, we have no reason to think that wasn’t true.  People who don’t like the Bible may dismiss it just because it’s a Bible story, but that’s their problem and loss.  According to the Books of Kings, Chronicles, and Ecclesiastes, Solomon certainly acted like the richest man of all time.   

Presumably, Solomon’s principal heir was very carefully chosen after due process.  Or, perhaps not, given that so much else that ended up happening even while the Great King was alive seemed to have come from a sort of moral and intellectual deterioration and negligent arrogance that set in as he got richer and richer and more and more powerful. 

The young heir’s name was Rehoboam, one of his sons.  Other than that, we have no information as to his qualifications for the job of Israel, Inc.’s new CEO and major shareholder.  Upon assuming power, he needed to be acknowledged by the other major stakeholders – much like a new Corporate CEO or major owner needs to get a vote of confidence these days upon taking over the reins (in Reho’s case, the “reign”).  The “Board of Directors” of “Ancient Israel, Inc.” was the chief tribal elders.  They asked Reho what his policies would be – more of the same as dear old Dad, or was he prepared to give them a break from the escalating taxes and levies and compulsory labour that had been the cornerstone of Solomon’s super-wealth?  The heir asked for a few days to consult and think about it. 

He went to two sets of counselors – the Old Boys who had guided Dad, and whom Solomon had increasingly ignored as he aged, and his own crowd of young bucks chomping at the bit to get their teeth into the pie and enjoy all the perks and advantages of having climbed to the top of the heap on the coattails of the New Boss.  So much of this is so familiar today in both government and any significant business.  The Old Guard advised restraint, a time to ease up and give the ordinary people a break.  The Young Guard said, “No way!  Show them who’s boss now!  Be even tougher than Dad!”

Rehoboam wanted to make his mark and went along with his buddies.  The outcome was and is completely predictable – revolt!  The stakeholders /major shareholders told him, “Enough already!  From here on, you’re on your own.  We’re splitting the company and already have a new CEO ready to take charge up north.  We no longer recognize your authority and will not contribute a dime more to your lust for gold and power.”

As per real life today, it was not long before the main competition smelled blood.  The CEO of Egypt Inc. moved in and made a hostile takeover of Judah, Inc., the much reduced southern by-product of Israel, Inc.  North Israel, Inc. kept the name “Israel” and most of the shares and power.  Rumor had it that Egypt’s CEO had played more than a small role in the whole dirty business.  From then on, things were never good between the former partners.  (Sounds just like modern life with its political, business, and family squabbles.)

Pharaoh, Egypt’s CEO, simply stripped Judah Inc. of all its best stuff and then calculatingly dumped it back into the hands of the incompetent management of Judah, Inc., figuring he could walk back in for more whenever he found it convenient.

Did anyone learn anything in all this?  Debatable.  The same pattern repeated itself over and over for centuries in both Judah, Inc. and North Israel, Inc., until finally two super-powers simply took them over lock, stock, and barrel.  It’s no different now in business and commerce, politics and families.

Back to breath.  Ultimately, breath is the gift of the Creator to every living being.  We are told [in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 of the Bible] that as the crowning touch to His work, “God formed a person [adam] from the dust of the ground [adamah] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living being” made “in the Creator’s own image”.  What sets the breath of humankind apart from that of other living creatures?  It is that the “living being” called human is made to be like, to reflect, to mirror God in the creation.

As long as we have breath in our bodies, we have the opportunity to aim at becoming what we were originally intended to be.  We can choose to use that breath, which in Hebrew also designates the living essence of who and what we are, to act like the Creator’s agents and image-bearers or to pursue what Solomon and every other great potentate and magnate has typically pursued in place of that.

One day, when the breath of life which is God’s greatest gift to us leaves these “puff of wind” bodies, we will face the Creator to give an answer for “the deeds done in the body” as the New Testament puts it.  One thing we know for sure is that heaps of wealth, satiation of pleasures, and lust for stuff and prestige and power manipulation will not impress the One who made us to reflect His intention for what He made.

For you and me, as long as we have breath there is still time to heed Solomon’s conclusion to a life very largely misspent (his own “famous last words”).  He had finally seen that he had messed it up terribly, despite having been handed all the means and opportunity to make it count for something immeasurably better.  At the last, he knew it and said:

“So remember your Creator while you are young, before the evil days come…. Here is the final conclusion, now that you have heard everything: fear God and keep his mitzvot [Hebrew word often translated as “commandments” but which means far more—good deeds, general principles for living a good life]; this is what being human is all about.  For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or evil.”

Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 12:1,13,14

Scary!  Time to get ready!

Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher and an ordained Christian minister in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for over 45 years and has 4 grown children and nine grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He is currently working on a number of writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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