Drag your heels –
the ground sinks beneath your thudding feet
and dunes defy your constancy.
Watch the sun –
it rises and sets,
then runs to the place from whence it has set
while your heavy feet echo.
And is there a thing
of which it is said,
Here is something new?
What eye has forgotten
and ear can’t contain,
what heart rejects as vanity:
it has all been, it already slips
and sublimates as vapour.
I have made great works and built
houses, planted vineyards and
swum in pools and watered trees,
but I could not build the clouds.
And though I put it in my heart
to test all madness and all folly,
all my flesh was quicksilver
and all my mettle, vapour.
But after the sand-castles, what could we build
that kings had not built before us?
And after the storm-clouds, what could the wind
blow that had not yet fallen?
And after the sun had already seen
all wisdom and all my folly –
who could still stand
who could stand tall
what worth were all of my towers?
My father gave me silver cords;
they have all been cut.
He gave me bowls of gold and they
now lie broken on the floor.
I have cast my bread upon
the water’s edge; the sea retreats.
He has shown me how it comes
back to bring my bread to me.
We skimmed our stones across the sea;
they left, not to return.
But I have cast my bread upon
my Father’s sea. It stays.
The wind holds us still
and our hearts beat with awe
and the hand that draws closed
the blinds of the day
pulls the day’s strands
together and seeks
once again all
that is lost.
Wisdom, Study and the Weariness of the Flesh
The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
(Ecclesiastes 12:11-12 KJV)
The teacher searched to know and understand all wisdom and folly. In all his studies, he saw history repeating and the goodness of the wise being thwarted by foolishness and by the pervasiveness of evil under the sun. The same fate overcame both the wise man and the fool. And so, he asked, what profit was there in all this toil? Why did the wise man labour when he suffered the same fate as the fool?
Here, in his summation of all that he has found, the writer of Ecclesiastes declares the study of books to be a weariness of the flesh. The Hebrew word for “weariness” which he uses – yegi’ah (יְגִיעָה) – has an interesting context to it. The word itself appears only here in Hebrew scripture, and its Greek equivalent – κόπωσις or koptó, used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and in a number of New Testament passages – denotes lament, mourning, or cutting off. Yegi’ah, however, is related to a group of Hebrew words which can variously be used in relation to toil, labour or weariness. The root word, yaga, appears for instance in Ecclesiastes 10:15 when the writer declares that “a fool’s work wearies him”. The same word is used when Job laments, “Since I am already found guilty, why should I struggle in vain?” (Job 9:29). David uses the word when he declares that he is “worn out” from his “groaning” (Psalm 6:6) and elsewhere when he is “worn out calling for help” (Psalm 69:3). Isaiah uses it repeatedly when he tells Israel that God will not “grow tired or weary”, that He “gives strength to the weary” and that “those who hope in the Lord…will run and not grow weary” (Isaiah 40:28-31). Yet, when Israel does not seek out God, they are said to be have not “wearied” themselves for Him, and God is later said to be “wearied” by their “offences” (Isaiah 43:22, 24).
Most interesting, perhaps, is the use of the word yegi’ah outside of the Bible. It appears in extra-biblical Jewish writings as one of the ways in which the Torah can be read or studied: formal, intensive study, as opposed to cursory reading. Some Hebrew and Christian commentators have interpreted Ecclesiastes 12:12 to be a warning against the reading on non-scriptural texts. Amos Bitzan, in his dissertation on pleasurable reading in Jewish thought, quotes a passage from the Talmud Yerushalmi which refers to the often-cited statement by Rabbi Akiva warning that “one who reads in external [ie. non-Biblical] books” shall not “inherit the land” as per Isaiah 60:21. Yet the rabbinical injunction against external books was not universal: some noted that such books “were given for recitation not for tiring study [yegi’ah]”. In this sense, exhaustive study of Biblical books was not wrong, but it was when such study was exercised with non-Biblical books.
My mother, I remember, used to remind me of Ecclesiastes 12:12 when I was completing my Honours thesis in Literature. She was not, I suspect, viewing the passage in light of this school of Jewish thought, yet was warning that too much study could be an exhausting experience. This view is not, I suspect, altogether separate from what the writer of Ecclesiastes was saying. A book which has been famously hard to locate comfortably within the flow of Hebrew scripture, Ecclesiastes is not perhaps as opposed to non-Biblical learning as some try to make it to be. Indeed, some view the book as a kind of thought experiment – an examination of the world through secular eyes – a process which is given an inexplicably large space in the Bible if its only conclusion is that secular wisdom is destructive and to be avoided at all costs. Yet such “wisdom”, apart from God, is clearly not liberating. If the toil that is placed in studying scripture gives life, the toil of studying the many books which the world produces is only going to be like the other forms of toil which the Teacher decries:
What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever. (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4)
The word for “toil” used here is a different Hebrew word, yet it has similar connotations, also used throughout the Old Testament to denote both toil and weariness. The weariness that comes from the mind studying may not be the same as that which comes from physical toil, yet each leads to the same end: the futility, the vapour or vanity which the Teacher finds everywhere he looks.
A former student of mine, now studying at University, asked me a few years ago why so many academics seem depressed. The reasons, of course, could be many, but Ecclesiastes’ Teacher could tell us some of the reason why. New theories are developed, new ideologies and epistemologies circulated, yet they fail to transform or change the fundamental hardships of this life. Academic endeavour, the accumulation of knowledge, the development of theories: all of these are, in the end, wearisome, if they cannot push beyond the entropy of the human state.
Some in this world believe that, if God exists, He should be understandable and accessible via human reason. That may be. Yet the end-point of the weariness discussed in Ecclesiastes is not our arrival at some transcendent epiphany but one of broken humility before a transcendent God. This is something which is arguably aided, not prevented, by mental illness. Some of the most intelligent people throughout human history have been beset by deep sadness, weariness or anxiety – sometimes because of their great learning. Some have reached an intense point of crisis precisely because their learning only brings them ever more profoundly to its own impasse; and some of the world’s most significant changes have been accomplished at this point of crisis.
Yet what is accomplished on a large scale in some cases can occur in a smaller day-to-day sense in each life, when we recognise that, for all we know, we are not God and our knowledge can only perpetuate and re-interpret what already is until we encounter and humble ourselves before the God who Is.
Intellectual endeavour may enable us to understand the workings of the human mind, and many have been blessed by what psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience have taught us. When I read the stories of significant believers in the past who experienced mental illness, some cry out for the kind of care which they would have received had they lived today. William Cowper’s story, for instance, might have been a far happier one had his particularly intense form of paranoid depression been properly diagnosed and treated; yet perhaps his hymns would not have impacted as many lives with their raw emotional faith if that had happened. Martin Luther would perhaps have been better able to manage his guilt complex with the help of modern psychotherapy, or reduced his compulsive confessions if he had received Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy; yet perhaps the European Reformation would not have happened, or would have taken a very different direction, if this had been so. John Bunyan might have wrestled less with thoughts of intense blasphemy and destructiveness had he learnt better strategies for confronting and resisting them; yet the world would not now have Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners or, more significantly, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
We cannot know how these figures’ contributions might have changed had their mental illnesses been treated by twenty-first century standards, and in some ways it is futile to consider what might have been. The key truths that we can learn from these lives are not techniques for reducing mental distress but for knowing how to take such distress and the deep sense of futility in human endeavour that it brings and present it before God.
I vividly remember the night that a friend told me I no longer needed to comfort myself with my own mind, that God wanted to be my comfort. I lay in bed and prayed Psalm 131 to myself: My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes not haughty. I do not concern myself with things too great or wonderful for me…That, I remember, was the start of a significant change in my mental health.
In a world which values intellectual toil so highly, to accept that such toil is, in the end, weariness of flesh without God is humbling and counter-cultural to say the least. Yet it may be the only way that we can escape the cycle of toil and weariness which fills this world. For many in the past, it was the only way to escape from the terror of sin and death which consumed them; and we will turn to some of their stories now.
Bitzan, A. 2011. The Problem of Pleasure: Disciplining the German Jewish Reading Revolution, 1770-1870. Doctoral Dissertation, The University of California, Berkeley. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/20c378fm