The Book of Ecclesiastes: Whirlpools
By Michael Zimmer

Listen to a world-famous musician.  Regardless of what instrument he plays, the music enchants our imagination.  The melody grows stronger, then lower. Several themes repeat, at times separately, at times intermixing and arguing. Music is capable of expressing what is not possible to express with words. Rapture and despair, love and hatred, peace and a storm of emotions are narrated in music even though the mother tongue of a composer might be unknown to us.

As with music, so with poetry.  With both there is rhythm and structure. When we open the book of Ecclesiastes in the early part of the Bible, we miss the rhythm of the words because of the translation into Russian and other languages, but the writer of Ecclesiastes is undoubtedly a gifted poet expressing what God has laid on his soul. The whole book is constructed of an enchanting duet of contrasting statements. Contrary to the majority of the books of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes does not give ready made directions. Each of his contrasts, true to the work of a genius, presents at least two opposite statements about one and the same thing. Usually the first one is optimistically tuned and the second is hopelessly pessimistic. Using these contrasts, the author is breaking and pulling apart halves of the nutshells to allow us to look at the core under them.

2: Listen to one of these contrasts: “All things are wearisome; man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is ear filled with hearing.” Here the endless variety of the world surrounding us is expressed.  Nothing repeats exactly. A philosopher from ancient Greece, Heraclitus, who lived in fifth and sixth centuries B.C., said “It is impossible to enter the same river twice.” Very true; yes, the stream is the same, but water constantly changes in it. Ecclesiastes says the same thing in other words:  “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.” Striking differences between these two opposing statements force us to stop and think. In the next sentence the writer of Ecclesiastes adds a third theme to his melody. “There is no remembrance of earlier things; and also of the later things which will occur; there will be for them no remembrance among those who will come later still.” A new contrast is emerging—between the infinite character of the world and the finite nature of human memory.

1: Having earlier raised the topic of water in rivers, Ecclesiastes notes that the seas into which rivers flow do not normally overflow. Modern readers instantly recall the circulation of water in nature. Think of disruption of the water circle in the modern world, and consider that global air currents coming off their circles lead to catastrophic consequences. How could the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes know about this fundamental order of things hundreds of years ago? He must have been an inquisitive mind contemplating the Creator of this world even without today’s complex scientific equipment. Expediency in nature continues to amaze both those who look into the deep structures of nature and those who attentively observe everyday events accessible to the naked eye.

The order seen in nature, however, is just a backdrop in the book of Ecclesiastes. The writer conducts his investigation of what our role in this world is. Why labor if sooner or later death awaits us? Why collect material assets when we do not know who will inherit everything earned and created by us? Why do we need managers and rulers if some of them are not fair and some are foolish and bring about more harm than good? These thoughts often pull us into the whirlpools of questions and doubts, and it seems that there is no escape.

2: “I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of my folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives.” In this verse the Preacher again connects things seemingly not connectible. Moderate use of wine brings bodily pleasure just like learning wisdom brings pleasure to mind. Although, these occupations are mutually exclusive, in every moment of our lives we having to choose one. Laughing and having a good time might be a way to vent stress in a difficult moment. A lighthearted spirit might actually result in a kind joke such as help rendered to a stranger. However, even burnt jokers have their bitter moments in which they learn wisdom. Humor out of place, foolishness, being silly may cause anger and hurt. That’s even true with wisdom; wisdom spoken out of place may destroy good relationships. Ecclesiastes causes us to think about a place for one and another, to think there is a place for pleasure and also for hard work in our lives.

1: The theme is continued in the book of Ecclesiastes in the cycle of sayings about suitable times for everything. At least one of them, “a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones” must be familiar to you. In these sayings Ecclesiastes compacts his dense format even more, squeezing at least two contrasts into one phrase! By doing so he achieves a great emotional impact on us. We cannot help recalling something from our lives while looking at sayings such as, “a time to search and time to give up as lost”, or “a time to be silent, and a time to speak,” or “a time to love and a time to hate.” Whirlpools of these actions are bringing our lives into motion, keeping us restless until our death. Which is better? Things—or people—found bring joy, but there are things which are better lost and never found. Silence is gold, but words are silver. Love is remarkable, but hating injustice brings about noble deeds. Having thought about this collection of paradoxes we start guessing that each of the actions depicted in them is neither good nor bad in the eyes of our Creator, but actions performed out of place, directed at the wrong goals, may cause harm.

2: Now we turn to the only chain of sayings threaded through the book of Ecclesiastes which does not use paradox: sayings about God in our lives. In winding down the section on times—time for this and time for that—the Preacher wrote, “He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.” (2:11) Remember, the introductory part of his book Ecclesiastes clearly states what the writer is trying to comprehend, yet in vain: “And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.”  A limit of knowledge exists, which Ecclesiastes encountered again and again in the whirlpools of studying human life. In the limit, to which everything existing under the sun is converging, he sees the hand of God.  It is God who puts the whole world into our minds without full knowledge of the essence of this world.

1: Juxtaposing the statements about the God-given spiritual goal of comprehending this world, Ecclesiastes sets beacons, lighthouses, for our journey on a rough river with multiple whirlpools of paradoxes. He would not allow us to find any ambiguity in anything existing under these skies puzzling with controversial statements about everything, starting with individual men and finishing with cities and countries. Then from the relativity of everything occurring under the sun and from unavoidable physical death, he finds one absolute above this world. With all his doubts the author concludes that he has no doubt in one thing—God.

2: “Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices.”  We need a strong spiritual core allowing us to discard doubts and mistakes in a difficult moment! Even without knowing the entire truth about the God, Ecclesiastes gives us a very important clue: God’s truth is simple, and multiple intricate wisdoms of men do not lead to it. In order to learn better the truth about God, we urge our listeners not to forsake their Bible studies and definitely to read the New Testament containing the spiritual law of our savior, Jesus Christ.

 

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