Look on my Works and Despair!–Ecclesiastes 2:9-11

“I am the greatest!” Muhammed Ali famously proclaimed as he neared the height of his boxing prowess. In many ways, Ali was a remarkable man. Although I disagree with what he stood for, he at least stood for something beyond himself, and he was, at his peak, a remarkable boxer.

Today, though, nobody thinks that Ali is, or was, the greatest. Boxing isn’t much of a thing these days, and the human memory is short. Sure, Ali was perhaps the most recognized person in the world as he claimed, but that recognition has been diminished over time. Most people might be able to identify his photo, but they’re more apt to simply know his name rather than to recall him as a living, breathing force of nature.

Ali is going the way of William Jennings Bryan. (This is probably the first time those two have been associated.) Bryan was a major force in politics around 1900. Three times he was the Democratic nominee for president. He served in Congress and as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. The bottom line is that he was a big deal, but today he is mostly remembered, if at all, for the insultingly inaccurate portrayal of him as the antagonist in the play Inherit the Wind.

The same could be said for our man Solomon. He’s still a big deal, 3,000 years later, but he’s not nearly as big a deal as he was while on the throne.

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; my wisdom also remained with me. All that my eyes desired, I did not deny them. I did not refuse myself any pleasure, for I took pleasure in all my struggles. This was my reward for all my struggles. When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind. There was nothing to be gained under the sun.–Ecclesiastes 2:9-11

Of course you and I are not as significant as Ali, Bryan, or Solomon. If I were, I’d be working in a slightly more exalted venue than Tune My Heart. If you were, you’d have better things to do, I would guess. But hopefully we have achieved something in our lives. Hopefully we have a bit of something to put on our lives’ resumes. And who really cares?

When I look at my accomplishments, I see a couple of books, a ton of blog entries, some scholarly articles, and a huge mass of children’s Bible study curriculum. I see many hundreds of students taught and a handful of teaching innovations. Nearly all of this stuff is ephemeral, the sort of thing that will not hold up over time. Even some of the brilliant teaching ideas I had when I first walked into a classroom seem like dinosaurs today. My accomplishments are largely pointless.

Percy Shelley understood, presenting this truth in his poem “Ozymandias”:

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains.

What will remain of my works when I’m done? Of yours? That’s why Solomon is in such a gloomy mood in Ecclesiastes.