down by the riverside: the water flows endlessly

My sermon from today. In this I follow Tremper Longman’s interpretation of the ‘framing’ of the text by a second voice – his interpretation of the ‘conversation’ between Koheleth and this second voice.


Last week we began with the tree – and we are beginning there again this morning. We know that trees are remarkable biological systems that are able to draw water up from the soil, along with mineral nutrients that are essential to the life and growth of the tree. And we know that a part of a tree’s life is transpiration – the release of water vapor from the leaves, through the small openings called stomata. As water evaporates out of leaves, a negative pressure is created in the treet that draws more water up from the soil.

Of course there’s a lot more going on within leaves and within trees than simply the movement of water – there is also that whole process of photosynthesis, where light energy from the sun is absorbed by the tree and changed into a form of energy that the tree can use – and from there we have the formation of organic compounds that are vital to the tree.

As is always the case in biology, we can look at the tree all on its own – as a beautiful and intricate system. But we can also take a step back and look at the tree in terms of its wider context or environment. For example, this morning we want to think briefly about the tree in terms of the earth’s water cycle. You’ll remember those drawings from elementary school – with clouds and with rain falling on one side of the page – arrows pointing down. And then on the other side of the page is the water evaporating up from a lake – or water evaporating into the atmosphere from frees – the arrows are pointing up. This is the water cycle – the continuous and cyclical movement of water from the air and from clouds to the soil and trees and creatures, and back to the clouds and air – and then back to the soil and trees and creatures.

In our Old Testament reading for today, the water cycle makes a kind of appearance. Not the water cycle as it relates to trees, perhaps. No mention of transpiration. No arrows up or down. But the water cycle as it is expressed in terms of the flowing of rivers , which are as much a part of the water cycle as the tree is.

In Ecclesiastes chapter 1, verse 7 we read about the permanent presence of rivers in this cycle and on the earth: “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.”

This verse in Ecclesiastes is one of a series of verses that point to the very cyclical nature of our world. The writer observes that there is something permanently cyclical and repetitive about the natural world we inhabit. The rivers are given as one example – and of course the river is part of that water cycle The rain and the snow fall – rivers are filled – the rivers run to lake and ocean, to tree and creature – water evaporates into the atmosphere – and the whole cycle continues – the rain and snow fall again, filling the rivers. “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.”

A similar point is made with reference to the wind: “The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.”

In trying to understand what’s going on in the book of Ecclesiastes, we should first of all notice that there appear to be two authors at work in this text. First of all there is the main author – this author’s point of view is represented in the words we are already looking at. This first author is known as the teacher – or Koheleth as it is in the Hebrew. And most of the 12 chapters of Ecclesiastes are in fact taken up with his words and ideas. Within the text Koheleth presents himself as the son of David – king in Jerusalem. We don’t know exactly he was.

Regardless of who he is, Koheleth’s views of human life and of the world are represented in Ecclesiastes. And when Koheleth looks at human life, what does he see? When he look at the cycles of nature, what does he see? Verses 2 and 8 give us the answer:

Vanity of vanities.

Meaninglessness of Meaninglessness.

All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.

According to Koheleth, everything in our lives and in our world continues in a permanent cycle. Nothing is new. Everything is ultimately meaningless. Everything is a kind of vapor that we cannot grasp. According to Koheleth, certainly we all live

we all make some attempt to contribute something,

we all try to learn something,

we are all try to build something

we are all try to become something.

But for him, it all amounts to nothing. In verse 11, we have a decisive statement of Koheleth’s worldview – a worldview that will shape almost everything that follows in Ecclesiastes. “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.” Nothing will be remembered. We will not be remembered. That which is not remembered, has no meaning.

It appears that Koheleth represents a profoundly skeptical point of view within the Hebrew tradition – a view that is rarely represented through the Old Testament, and perhaps was rarely expressed in Hebrew culture. Yes there are moments when Koheleth gives voice to a more hopeful spirit – a more hopeful vision of human life. There are moments when Koheleth will invoke God as something of an antidote to the meaninglessness of life. But even then – his appeals to God and his timid hope are overwhelmed by his skepticism and by his conviction that nothing can overcome the meaninglessness of life. “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full… All things are wearisome; more than one can express; Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.”

When we sit before a running river, what do we see? When we sit before a running river – a river that carries melting snow and rainwater – a river that rises in the spring with the runoff and then runs drier in Summer and Fall. When we sit before a running river, perhaps we see it’s beauty – perhaps we see the river as a source of life – perhaps we see it as a place to swim or fish or go canoeing.

But what of Koheleth’s point of view? What of his view that the river is an emblem of the eternal cycle of nature –a reminder of the meaninglessness of the universe and of human life. You can sit by that river twenty years ago, or twenty years from now – and it’s all the same. Never anything accomplished. Never anything really new. Nothing that endures – just the never-ending cycle of humans who think they are significant but who will amount to nothing in the end.

How do we respond to Koheleth’s point of view? Is he right? Is he right that all of our attempts at newness – all our new technologies, all our new relationships, all our new jobs, all our new beginnings – is he right that in the end nothing is really new; nothing is meaningful. After all, cosmologists today have two main theories about how our universe will end. It will either end in a dissipation of all energy, with the universe winding down to a cold, silent halt. Or the universe will eventually contract and collapse in upon itself in a violent conflagration. In either case, the end of our universe is not amenable to life or to meaning or to remembrance. If that is the end of our universe, what meaning can there be in our lives? Are we all just tilting at windmills as we try to attain significance?

In fact these are profoundly important questions, not only for us of course, but for the wider culture. If the universe will end in a cold, silent halt – or if it will end in a violent conflagration – if that’s all there is – what does it mean for human life? If there is no meaning in the universe, how should we live?

In the face of a world that does not endure, profound ethical questions arise. Why should we privilege equality over the simple exercise of power? Why? Or why should we privilege human rights over the systems of exploitation we have proven so capable of devising? Why? Why should we live hopefully, and not give in to despair? Why should we have children; why should we stand up for truth; why should we care about injustice. Nothing changes, anyway. Nothing will be remembered. These are the big questions of course – questions that we sometimes prefer to ignore – and questions to which our culture often seems willfully blind.

The key variable – the key question – in all of this for Koheleth is the reality or possibility of newness. And when he talks about something new, he means something that will interrupt the meaningless, cyclical nature of our world and our lives. Is there anything new? Is there anything to break this eternal running of the river to the sea? Is there anything to interrupt this eternal blowing of the wind in its cycle? Is there anything that will break in and give human life meaning, against a backdrop of death and the ultimate failure of memory.

For Koheleth the answer is NO. There is nothing new.

But we remember that other voice within Ecclesiastes. This is the voice that provides a frame for the writings of Koheleth – this voice is heard at the beginning and the end of Ecclesiastes. At the conclusion of Ecclesiastes, here is something that this other voice has to say about the writings of Koheleth.

“Of the making of many books there is no end. Much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

Koheleth writes a book to tell us that life is a perpetual and meaningless cycle of the same. But this other voice points out that Koheleth himself, rather ironically, is caught up in meaninglessness. This other voice says: “O great – another book on how meaningless life is. In the endless parade of books, here is another. How wearying.” Sure, Koheleth is wise and thoughtful – but he is nevertheless himself caught up in the meaninglessness he describes.

In concluding, this other voice offers a simple refusal of Koheleth’s skepticism. Here is what that other voice says: “This is the end. All has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of humanity.” The second voice is a voice rooted in the broad tradition of Hebrew faith. The second voice responds to the skepticism Koheleth by insisting that the God of creation and covenant is worthy of respect and honour – that God’s commands provide source of direction and meaning in human life, and that our lives are fulfilled when we live obediently in relation to this God of creation and covenant.

The response of this second voice is so short and sweet, it comes across even as simplistic and naïve. But this second voice is a voice deeply rooted in faith. Koheleth has said there is nothing new – there is nothing that interrupts the meaningless cycle of our lives – there is nothing that interrupts the path toward death. The second voice says. Yes, there is something new.

We can transcribe all of this into the context of our faith in Christ.

What is the incarnation of Jesus – but something new?

What is the kingdom of Jesus – but something new?

What is the death of Jesus for us and with us – but something new?

What is the resurrection of Jesus – but something decidedly new?

We go through our days – we go through our weeks – we go through our years. And every often we are confronted in our souls and in our minds with the skepticism of Koheleth. There is nothing new. What is the point?  This is all going nowhere.

And in those moments, the living Spirit of God comes to remind us that there is something new – in the gospel of Jesus there is something new.

In the incarnation of Jesus is God’s interruption of the meaningless cycle of human life. God breaks into our world.

In the crucifixion of Jesus is God’s interruption of the death-dealing ways of our world, as God takes death upon himself.

In the kingdom of Jesus, is God’s interruption of the injustices and falsehoods and self-preoccupation that plague our lives.

In the resurrection of Jesus is the something new that we have been waiting for. In the resurrection of Jesus is the something new that Koheleth could not imagine. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s new thing by which human joy and beauty and community are given and endure.

What is the end of this universe we inhabit? We don’t know – though the cosmologists have given us a pretty good idea – the end of our universe is either dissipation or conflagration. But the end of the universe does not define us, for the gracious giver of life has established a new reality in our world and lives, through Christ.

To be a follower of Jesus. To live in the faith of Jesus is to see and to trust and to live in the reality that God has done something new. It is to see and to trust and to live in the reality that the Spirit of God is alive in our world – drawing us to Christ and establishing gracious reign of Christ in our lives and in the church and in our neighbourhoods. This is a new thing that we cannot hold at a distance – it is a reality that will infuse our lives and our minds and our hearts. It is a reality that will determine what matters to us and what matters for our world.

In Jesus is the something new that we have been waiting for. In the resurrection of Jesus is the something new that Koheleth could not imagine. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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