“Until the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl crushed — until the jar is smashed at the spring and the wheel is broken at the cistern — and dust returns to the earth just as it was — and the spirit returns to the God which gave it — vanity of vanity says the preacher, all is vanity.”
Solomon completes the poetic digression here in verse 8 with the familiar refrain and much of what was said of the above passage applies well here to these words. Yet I wanted to set these words apart to make an important point about the dangers of speculative theology.
We have already mentioned how this passage deals with the decline and then the death of a man — make the most of your days and learn wisdom in your youth so that when the difficult times of being an old man arrive you are well-prepared. We have also discussed how some of the imagery in this passage was understood metaphorically by Rabbinic leaders to speak about the body of a man (the strong man bent over and the caper not doing its job, etc…). Again, that is a little further than I am willing to take the text, but it is not too hard to see the allegories that they are making.
There are some, though, that have taken these words significantly further and created an entire mystical set of beliefs based on the idea of the silver cord mentioned above. This is called “Sutratma” and is built on the belief that the body is tied to the spirit with a silver cord (when it snaps, you die) and people who follow such beliefs are supposed to be able to engage in things like “astral projection” where their spirits can move about apart from their bodies so long as the silver cord remains intact. For fans of the recent Marvel movies, this is one of the activities practiced by the character, Dr. Strange. All of this ties back to these verses in Ecclesiastes.
The problem here, of course, is context. Solomon is not speaking of mystical abilities or of separation of spirit from body for short periods of time, Solomon is speaking of death and is using largely metaphorical language to illustrate his point in a poetic way. Perhaps think about it this way. In Shakespeare’s classic play, Hamlet, the title character discovers the skull of Yorick (a former court jester) in the graveyard. For Hamlet, this is a point that helps provide him perspective on both life and death and is a significant turning point for the character. Yet, the skull, though symbolic of the fact that all die, is nothing more than a skull. Hamlet is not alluding to mystical powers that come from such artifacts, its discover simply provides him the instance to reflect on the reality that all men, great and small, return to dust. Solomon is doing much the same.
Friends, you may be thinking to yourself, “Okay, Pastor Win, we understand — it is a poetic figure of speech and we should not allegorize it or go off and create an entire theology/philosophy based on it, but we were not likely to do so in the first place.” True. Maybe. Here’s the thing. Any time you take a verse out of its context and try to use that verse to prove an idea, you are guilty of doing the same thing as what people have done with the silver cord. Take care in how you use the Word of God and do not take passages out of context. If you do take it out of context, this preacher will echo the words of Solomon… “vanity of vanity says the preacher…”