Page 1



A SOBERING BOOK Explanation of the Book of Ecclesiastes

Daniel Sysoev Inc., New Jersey 2015

Approved for publication by the Publications Board of the Russian Orthodox Church PB 12-216-1417

Priest Daniel Sysoev A Sobering Book. Explanation of the Book of Ecclesiastes. New Jersey. Daniel Sysoev Inc., 2015. — 176 p.

ISBN 978-5-4279-0040-9

The good things of this world intoxicate a person; vanity despoils the soul and the mind, and sobriety is lost. The mostwise Ecclesiastes understood that the soul is not capable of finding peace and perfect wisdom in this world. And though the meaninglessness of the world oppresses a person, inattentive people fail to notice the terrible maelstrom into which we are all caught up. The only escape from it is Christ.

Protected by copyright law. No part of this book may be reproduced in whole or in part. All attempts to violate the law will be prosecuted.

© Daniel Sysoev Inc., 2015 © Yulia Sysoeva, 2015

The meaninglessness of the world oppresses a person. Yet inattentive people fail to notice the terrible maelstrom into which we are all caught up. The only escape from it is Christ. Priest Daniel Sysoev


he word Ecclesiastes comes from the Greek word ecclesia, a translation of the Hebrew Kohelet — one who speaks in the kagal, or assembly. Literally, it means a person who preaches in the church assembly, one who is a messenger of Divine Revelation in the Church. As St. Gregory of Nyssa said, this word indicates Christ the Savior, because Scripture says, In the midst of the Church will I sing praise unto Thee (Heb. 2:12). Christ Himself hymns God the Father in the midst of the church assembly, for He himself is the true Ecclesiast, or Preacher. In the Book of Ecclesiastes Christ speaks through King Solomon, but here He is not glorifying God the Father, but rather evaluating this world. It may be interpreted as the words of Christ as Judge, as He soberly contemplates the reality of a world living without active communion with God. And this world is our own, the contemporary world in which we godlessly abide. In this world people may formally believe in God, but their re-


A Sobering Book

lationship with God reflects the old saying, “God is high above, and the Tsar is far away.” God is something very high above us and far off that has nothing to do with us whatsoever. This is precisely how the majority of contemporary people think. King Solomon certainly believed in God, Whose existence for him was self-apparent. For the person on whose behalf Solomon is speaking, symbolically taking the name of the Ecclesiast, God’s existence is likewise apparent. And King Solomon says, “How do you wish to live? Let us evaluate your preferred way of life and see if it amounts to anything.” Why are his words so important? King Solomon was neither poor nor needy. One might say that he had never seen what life was like in the real world, and could not give an accurate assessment of life. But one might also say the reverse, because Solomon was richer than any of us. Suffice to say that his net income each year totaled 666 talents of gold (1 talent was equal to 50 kilograms). In addition he was phenomenally powerful, being the mightiest ruler of Israel, and he had 300 wives and 700 concubines. Yet all this did not bring him happiness. This book is about man’s search for happiness on earth. Gregory of Nyssa notes that the books of King Solomon (of which there are four — Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and the Wisdom of Solomon) are arranged into a sort of flight of

Explanation of the Book of Ecclesiastes

stairs. The Book of Proverbs introduces us to the basics of spiritual life. Ecclesiastes sobers a person, leading him to understand that there is no point in searching on earth, for here happiness is nowhere to be found. The third step, the Song of Songs, describes where to find true happiness, and how this happiness itself finds a person — the happiness of eternal love between God and man, which starts on earth but continues for all eternity. It is the book that sobers a person that comprises the subject of the present work. The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem (Eccl. 1:1). Here we see an indication that Christ Himself was speaking through King Solomon, for the Gospel repeatedly states that the Lord is the King of Israel and the Son of David. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity (1:2). With these words this book begins, and with these words it ends. Thus, King Solomon immediately sets the tenor, saying that all that is in the world is vanity of vanities, i.e., not merely vanity, but vanity in the extreme. The word vanity in the Hebrew literally means “meaninglessness”, but it also means “steam”, “smoke”, “vacillation”, “vaporiza-



A Sobering Book

tion” — i.e., all that is temporal and disappears. And Solomon says that everything in this world disappears, everything is temporal, and nothing may be relied upon. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again (1:3–7). King Solomon asks: are all a person’s efforts of any use to him? Let us examine the world in which a man lives: does it contain anything beside vanity? Truly, everything comes full circle: one generation passes, and then another, and so on, everything disappearing in the same way. The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus said that the generations of men fall like leaves, and there is nothing new under the sun, and no hope. Remember The Odyssey: when Odysseus arrives in Hades he meets Achilles, who tells him that it is better to be the lowest of manual laborers on earth than to be a king in

Explanation of the Book of Ecclesiastes

Hades. Hades is the place where people have no hope and experience no change. And all a man’s efforts on earth are of no use to him, though many people say that they live for their work, and their work gives their whole life meaning. Why is Ecclesiastes so beneficial? In that it exposes many myths, even contemporary ones. It would of course be hard to find a more contemporary book than the Gospel. But before reading the Gospel one must absolutely read the book of Ecclesiastes, to understand the whirlpool in which we are caught, to see the mirage in which man is stumbling about, to realize the state of evil, decay, and death into which the whole world has sunk. A group of ethnographers was once studying the life of the Native Americans, and one of the latter astounded them all with his remarkable intellect and wisdom. “Whom have you spent time with? Who taught you all this?” they asked him. “No-one,” he replied. “What books have you read then?” “I have only read Ecclesiastes.” The meaninglessness of the world oppresses a man, and only foolish people do not notice the terrible maelstrom into which we are all caught up. The only escape from it is Christ. And indeed, of what use to a person are all his efforts? One might say that a person needs to eat somehow, and hence must work. But suppose you find yourself in a small town where a bridge is being built.



A Sobering Book

A person comes up to the builders and asks, “Why are you building a bridge?” “So people from the suburbs can cross it into the town to get to work, of course.” “Where do these people work?” “They work as policemen, builders, and nurses.” The builders build the bridge, the policemen protect the builders, and the nurses treat them. Thus, the bridge is being built simply for the sake of building a bridge. Of what use is this kind of construction? If we look closely, everything takes place in just this kind of meaningless whirlpool. Why do people farm? To eat. Why do people eat? To work. Why do people live? To eat and to work. Of course, no-one is suggesting that one should neither eat nor work, but this world in and of itself is filled with terrible meaninglessness that people do not notice, because they are sucked into it. People sit in the midst of this hurricane without ever leaving it, and this is man’s tragedy and his curse. And changing one’s place of residence changes nothing: even if you go off to live in the woods nothing changes. Ecclesiastes tells us from the outset that this generation passes away, but the earth abides forever. The earth stands, but the generations of men go down, down, down into the earth. And what are we to do? But Solomon tells us what to do, and one ought not to cut King Solomon off in midsentence and conclude that he has told us noth-

Explanation of the Book of Ecclesiastes

ing. Furthermore, we have not yet fathomed the depths of the vanity that exists on this earth: we have drawn but a mere spoonful. But we are to draw it all, to the very dregs. Then we will understand even Christ. We say, “Christ is the Savior.” But from what is He the Savior? It is from this very vanity, from this mirage, that He saves us. In order to understand the Gospel, the good, welcome news, we must first understand that we are in need of good news. King Solomon immediately notes the greatest of all injustices: the earth was created for man, and stands forever, yet generation after generation of men goes down into this earth, his body turning into dust, and his soul descending into the earth. One must remember that the scene is the Old Testament, when there was not yet a path to heaven. The heavens are closed; man is caught in a trap. And although the New Testament era dawned only recently, to this day people live in this earthly trap and see no escape from it, because they do not wish to. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. This passage literally reads, “The sun hurries, gasping for breath”, i.e., the sun is exhausted by vanity, spinning in circles like a top. What is the meaning of this? For example, an atheist’s most important holiday is his birthday. What is a birthday? It is one day closer to death.



A Sobering Book

And Solomon says that this is not merely a human problem: the universe itself is in the same predicament. Even the sun hurries to its appointed place, but there is no point in this. What is the point of the movements of the celestial bodies? The great French academic Blaise Pascal said that he found bottomless blackness of outer space oppressive. The cosmic tops spinning, the earth gravitating toward the sun — what is the point of all this? So there will be life on earth? But why should there be? To eat and to work. And this is the problem: man, for whose sake the sun and the earth were created, begins his life in vanity. And because of this the sun’s movements have become meaningless, and everything has been plunged into vanity, into a mirage. Now that we have gazed upon heaven and earth, let us move on. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. The wind would seem to mean change; we have a tendency to perceive the wind as a harbinger of change , a kind of purification. But even here every-thing comes full circle: everything remains the same. And then the whirlpool, and the rivers flow meaninglessly, and the sea returns to the riv-

Explanation of the Book of Ecclesiastes

ers without overflowing. And everything begins all over again. In other words, everything concerning material nature is brimming with meaninglessness. When atheists say that progress is the meaning of life, this is a remarkable piece of folly. How pointless are all the scientific achievements described in science fiction novels! The hero roars off in a spaceship toward some far-off star, but the reader is left wondering: what was the point? In interpreting this verse from Ecclesiastes, Gregory of Nyssa says, “For as the sea does not exceed its measure despite its many thousands of tributaries, but remains at the same level, as though no water had been added to it, so also there are specific bounds set upon human nature’s ability to take pleasure in what it has, and it cannot greedily expand its capacity for pleasure” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, A Precise Commentary on Solomon’s Ecclesiastes, Talk 1). Solomon goes on to say: All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing (1:8). A literal translation here would read not “things”, but “words”. That is, however many words a person might speak, something always remains unsaid, unfinished: not everything can be described, not everything can be learned, and no matter



A Sobering Book

how much you have learned there will always be things you have not. The more our knowledge increases, the greater the ocean of our ignorance, and we can never know everything there is to know about the world. This is why attempts to understand the world are pointless. And no matter how much a person looks at the world, he will always want to look further. The same is true of hearing. But it always seems to a person that the more he knows the more intelligent he is, though even Heraclitus said that much knowledge does not make one intelligent. Indeed, much knowledge and intelligence are two different things, and those who think themselves wise due to the considerable information they possess are very much mistaken. Wisdom is the ability to discern the meaning of what is, to discern the truth, while much knowledge simply makes a person informed. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after (1:9–11).

Explanation of the Book of Ecclesiastes

Precise words indeed. Truly, we see that everything on earth repeats itself, and people who know history well can see this repetition. I was astounded by an ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablet, on which a father is described scolding his careless son for playing hooky from school. This is two and a half thousand years before the birth of Christ. The son begins making excuses, and the description perfectly mirrors the excuses people make today. The son first asserts that he was at school; then, finding himself cornered, he makes the excuse that they were all sent to do some sort of work; then he says that on his way to school someone asked him for help — exactly as any schoolboy would behave today. In a word, neither human nature nor human interaction has changed. This same is true of corruption, and lawlessness, and family relationships. Everything comes in waves, everything repeats itself, both in ancient times and in our world today. Naturally, man is not created for vanity. The desire to be free of it is common to all, and throughout history in their attempts to attain this desire people have frequently been drawn into an imaginary world. This is why Solomon is suffering, seeing the vanity decaying everything around him, and seeing no escape therefrom. The only thing new that has appeared under the sun, the one thing that will never happen again, is the



A Sobering Book

Divine Incarnation. And no withdrawal into an imaginary world will solve this problem — neither drugs, nor alcohol, nor sectarianism. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after, and foolish are those who say that our happiness is in the memory of our descendants, as people used to say many years ago in our country. Our descendants will remember nothing. Let us be realistic: how many of our ancestors can we name? I made a special effort to find my ancestors, but was only able to trace back five generations. And that was just their names. As for how they lived and what they did, I have no idea whatsoever. I, too, will be forgotten, and so will everyone. Even if you are not forgotten, what joy will this bring you? I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit (1:12–14). King Solomon wishes to test with wisdom all that is done under heaven. This is, of course, a mammoth task: to test wisdom, to learn the meaning

Explanation of the Book of Ecclesiastes

of what happens, to evaluate the whole world, to understand its meaning. God gave the sons of men this difficult task so that they would exercise themselves in this. But why did God give people this task? It was so they would understand where they are, the position they are in. Until a person evaluates and understands the terrible abyss into which he is being pulled, he will never come to God. Until a person has evaluated all the information at his disposal he is content with everything, but this is the mindset of a fool. Only a person who carefully considers this world is on the path to salvation, because he understands that this world will not save him, and living on earth becomes increasingly difficult. Solomon says that he has seen all the works that are done under the sun, and all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Solomon is a true philosopher: he first gives a sort of thesis statement, then substantiates it. After having seen and studied everything, he comes to the conclusion that all is vanity. And not just vanity, but vexation of spirit, i.e., languishing or exhaustion of spirit. The more a person does, the more exhausted his soul becomes. After all, a person acts drawing solely on his own strength, certain that this is the only right way, but the more he draws on his strength the more it is depleted, and the more a person begins to languish. A person’s strength begins to fade. The description of the an-



A Sobering Book

cient Greek pagan Hades, the realm of the dead, paints a very accurate picture: the souls of men cannot speak there, and are unable to comprehend. They have no strength; they live in the mirage of meaninglessness. That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered (1:15). You cannot straighten what is crooked, though many dream, for instance, of being put in charge and ďŹ xing everything, making everything different. What was crooked from the outset will never be straightened. Crooked human nature will not straighten itself. The perverted will, perverted mind, and perverted heart of a man will not straighten themselves, and no person can make anything straight. What does not exist cannot be counted, cannot be combatted, cannot be measured and considered existent. We refer here to evil. For evil as such does not exist. It is a tear or a rip in the fabric of creation. Evil cannot be rationally explained. It is no accident that psychiatrists are unable to manage psychiatric illnesses, because here they encounter evil. And in this, in the very perversion of human nature, the wise King Solomon sees the root of the problem, because nothing can be changed in a perverted world where man himself is perverted. All who have attempted

Explanation of the Book of Ecclesiastes

to accomplish this have always met with defeat. If someone gives us a crooked rifle we will never hit our target, and all human works are like a shot fired from a crooked rifle: it will always miss the mark. Solomon goes on to take his reasoning to its logical conclusion: I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow (1:16–18). He says that he has acquired wisdom more than all others who have gone before him, and this is so, for Solomon was the wisest of all men: God granted him wisdom. He saw much wisdom and knowledge in his heart; that is, he is objectively evaluating himself. But he also came to know madness and folly, in order to compare them: suppose it were better to be a fool, or to be a madman? Perhaps happiness lies in madness? For example, Sartre, Camus, and Kafka, the representatives of the western philosophical movement of exis-



A Sobering Book

tentialism, avowed that happiness indeed lies in madness. But Solomon found that this too is vexation of spirit; i.e., wisdom and folly alike vex the spirit, exhausting and destroying it. And why? Because in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Indeed, the more you know, the more illusions you have. A person of little knowledge might think that soon science will develop to the point that, at long last, there will be happiness. But a knowledgeable person says: no, nothing of the sort; everything will be quite the contrary. The further science develops, the worse off mankind will be. The same is true of the development of art. The further a person departs from God, from his original melos, the meaningful melodic basis established by the Incarnation, the more the meaning gradually declines and degrades. And without meaning man begins to become dehumanizied. God gave people gifts so they would use them for God, but how a person uses them is up to him. I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity. I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it? (2:1–2). Of what practical use is mirth? A person has fun for a while, and then the emptiness returns. There is a modern word “relax�, i.e., to rest, to take it

Explanation of the Book of Ecclesiastes

easy. When a person relaxes, all tension leaves him. And what is a person with no tension? He is literally a paralytic. Christ never laughed. Rather, He smiled, and this is why in Him there was true joy. If we see a person walking down the street and laughing nonstop, what do we think of him? Mirth is a deception, because it is not eternal. Happiness that is not eternal is a deception, a forgery. Imagine that you come to visit someone, you sit down at the table to eat, you reach out your fork towards the food — and suddenly everything is whisked off the table and cleared away right from under your nose. Remember the myth concerning the torments of Tantalus: Tantalus stood waist-deep in water, with luscious clusters of grapes growing right before his face. When he wanted to drink the water would disappear, and when he reached out his hand to pick the grapes the cluster would rise to a point beyond his reach. And so it is with mirth. It deceives, and this is why Ecclesiastes says that it gives a man nothing. Is there a mirth that lasts forever, for eternity? No. And each time you go seeking fun, to keep the fun going you have to constantly up the dose. This is true of drugs, and of alcohol, and of sexual immorality. I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see



A Sobering Book

what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life (2:3). The author is attempting to find out: could happiness be in wine? The ancient Greeks believed this, for example, avowing, “In vino veritas” (in wine there is truth). King Solomon walks the path of a contemporary person, but unlike the latter he goes on to analyze what will happen if he attempts to find pleasure in wine. I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits: I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees. I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me: I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts. So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me. And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from

A Sobering book. Explanation of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Priest Daniel Sysoev  

A Sobering book. Explanation of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Priest Daniel Sysoev

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you