King Solomon remains a famous figure in the world’s great religions and ancient history. He ruled for 40 years over ancient Israel in the 9th century BC. Of all the artifacts left behind by the man considered “the wisest man who ever lived,” are the three books of the bible that he authored. His first book, Song of Solomon, was written when he was young and full of vigor. He second writing, done when he was middle aged is perhaps his most famous book, the book of Proverbs. Proverbs are, for a lack of a better word, a book of rules. His last writing, done when he was an old man, is Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is a musing into the meaning of life and how we are to live.
It is said that Solomon had 700+ wives and uncountable concubines and blessings of wisdom and wealth from God. In a single year of reign as king, the book of Kings reported that he collected 666 talents of Gold, or 39,960 lbs. In 2018 dollars, that equates to more than $766M. He had 39 additional years of wealth earning, before Solomon eventually died and his kingdom passed to his son and later collapsed.
With all this wealth in mind, very early in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon throws the reader a curve-ball, as he starts the book with the conclusion. He says that “all the actions of man are hevel.” Unfortunately, the ancient Hebrew word hevel doesn’t translate clearly into English. Many bible translations bring it over as having a meaning that parallels “vanity” or “futile.” It also means “breath” and “vapor” and Hevel was the name given to one of Adam and Eve’s children (we mispronounce it “Able” today). Other words we could use for hevel include foolishness, absurdity and nonsense.
All the actions of man amount to foolishness, nonsense and vapor. Why, then is this message about hevel the only thing on my mind at the start of a bike race in the North Georgia mountains?
Sure, Shakespeare quoted Ecclesiastes. Abe Lincoln used Ecclesiastes in presidential speeches. Authors like George Bernard Shaw, Ray Bradbury and Earnest Hemingway all include characters and commentary directly from Ecclesiastes. The contents of Ecclesiastes are a part of our culture. The German philosopher Emmanuel Kant built a world view that altered the thinking of much of Europe based on the initial claims written in the first verses of Ecclesiastes. Yet, why are these 3,000 year old words on the tip of my tongue when I am about to burn 2,500 calories an hour?
I pause and look at the other riders also undertaking this event. My son is sitting on his bike, right in front of me. For a moment, I ponder the efforts of great athletes from other cultures, and I am struck by how unimportant all of us are and how much hevel applies to our efforts. I couldn’t come up with the name of a single 19th century soccer star. I couldn’t come up with the name a single swimming rock star who wasn’t also an Olympian. With the Olympics happening only once every 4 years, many great athletes peak and miss the cycle to compete on that stage. The efforts of athletes are forgotten, just the bumper crops of the ancient passed and the hurricanes of 100 years ago.
To get to the point, the work that I am about to do today, on my Cervelo P3 road bike, is hevel. Sure, my cycling power is at an all-time high, but 100 years from now, I will be dead and the numbers and results I get today will be hevel. Heck, they will be hevel within the first minute of my next training session. So why am I even doing this?
Solomon ends his tales with a claim that the purpose of life is to learn to fear God and follow his commandments. As I ponder this claim, a light goes on in my head. I look at my son, sitting on his bike waiting for the race to start, and I see his scars. I remember how he wrecked last month and how scared he is of a repeated wreck. He is only scared because he knows what happens if he wrecks. Without that knowledge, he has no reason to fear fast and windy descents. Today, we will have strong cross winds, and I have told him how to handle them to prevent another episode of road rash.
I conclude that I need to tell my sons more stories of God, so they get to know who he is. There is no chance that they can fear the Maker of the universe if they don’t know Him, just like Alex can’t fear the road without knowledge of what will happen if loses control.
I can’t tell him stories now, as the race is about to start in less than a minute. I want to pull out my phone and record a memo. Instead, I decide to dedicate part of the ride home to storytelling. After all, we have a 4-hour drive once we finish this race to get home.
The pursuit of fitness has assuredly changed my life, by making me focus on improving and getting better, when others say that such things are no longer possible after reaching a certain age. But I can conclude that my efforts are anything but hevel. God teaches us to offer my body up as a living sacrifice, and he calls this sacrificial act our “true worship.” Yes, it really hurts to get better and not just maintain. But, who said pain is a justification not to get better. Fearing the Lord includes more than just having a relationship with him. It includes following his commandments…at least, that is the point that Solomon is making.
As the race starts, and we follow a police escort out of town, it hits me. I more deeply understand that my results don’t matter, but my willingness to offer my body as a sacrifice, this day, as an act of worship is what I am here to do. The act of pedaling with worshipofmy God in mind is not hevel. The results of the event are hevel.
I won today. The medal I received is hevel. The lesson to fear God and follow his commandments is not hevel.
I heard that there are special needs organizations that accept people’s medal collections, and they use them to give to the kids for competing against each other in their own version of the Olympics. If they can provide another person some hope and a smile, then they no longer are hevel.
I know where my medals are going one day.
And I know what I am talking about on the ride home. Despite being a 3000-year-old message, for the first time in my life, I feel like I really get it.
What are you doing to come to terms with all of your hevel?