‘Qoheleth’ is the narrator of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. This Hebrew name is often translated ‘Teacher’ or ‘Preacher’, and originally referred to someone who gathered a congregation together in order to speak to them. His most famous catchphrase was ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!’
from 'The Song Quartet'
The Song of the River
Above the sky the sun yawned, and slowly made its way home to bed. In the forest the birds were calling to one another as they flew back to their nests; and far beneath them, on the very edge of the forest, a little girl was skipping along the path that hugged the banks of the great river. She needed to reach her village home by nightfall, and when she saw the darkening sky, she knew that she must hurry. She began to run; but she did not run so fast that she could not also sing, for singing kept the fear away from her heart, even as the darkness gradually blanketed the forest around her. The sound of her song rose high into the sky, and it floated on the winds, and the angels who kept watch over the forest heard its melody; and they whispered to the moon to rise quickly and shine upon the child, for to reach her home she still needed to cross a great river.
This river flowed along the southern edge of her village, and was the friend of her people, watering their crops, and giving them water to drink in times of drought. The women would often come to that stretch of the river that lay downstream to wash their clothes and exchange each day’s news. Across the river hung a long, narrow, rickety bridge, and although the girl knew every piece of timber—which ones were solid and which wobbled a little as you stepped on them—she was glad when the moon peeped out between the clouds to see her safely across. The child loved the moon, and she felt sure that the moon also loved her, and so she laughed and danced her way across the bridge.
As she crossed, she thought to ask the river a question; and so, when she came to the centre of the bridge, she called down to the river below, ‘Great river, where have you come from, and to where are you going? And what is the song that you sing to yourself as you journey on your way?’ But the river still had many miles to flow that night, and hardly noticed the child waiting for an answer.
And so she turned toward the moon, and asked, ‘O moon, surely you see all that happens on earth. From where does the river come, and to where does it go when it bids farewell to our village? And what are the words of its song?’ But the moon, knowing that the child would not yet understand its language, whispered to her so quietly that she only felt the soft breeze brushing her cheek.
Then she said to the angels, ‘Surely you must know, for you fly even as far as the throne of God. Where does the river come from, and to where is it going? And what song has it sung from the time when God brought it into being?’ But the angels knew that this question was still too deep for the child, and so they put a finger to their lips, spread their wings and flew in front of her, flitting among the trees, making her laugh as she chased them into the village.
She entered her grandfather’s hut, and ran to him, and poured out her questions once more: ‘Grandfather, tell me about the river. Where does it come from, and to where does it go? And what song does it sing as it flows along? The river, and the moon, and the angels wouldn’t tell me. But you know so many things; please tell me.’ And her grandfather smiled, sat the girl on his lap, and began:
“One day, near to the dawn of time and nearer still to the heart of God, the river was born. Bubbling up from deep wells of infinite love, it sprang forth with joy, flinging a fountain so high into the sky that it touched the edge of space; and the birds and the angels were all covered in spray. But they laughed with a great laughter, and they shouted to one another to join in the fun, and they danced intricate dances, weaving in and out of the rainbow that shone through the myriad of tiny droplets.
But in the end the fountain fell back to earth, crashing down in huge waterfalls over high mountainsides down, down into deep chasms; and some of these it chose to flow through quickly, but others it filled with enormous lakes where millions of birds could dwell. And then it slowly found its way into a more gentle land of hills and valleys; and there was a desire within it to seek for the Great Sea. And as it flowed through the land, it found itself surrounded by a beautiful garden. And the gardener spoke to the river, and said, “The whole world is the work of my hands, but I have placed all that is most beautiful within this garden; for it will be a place of joy and refreshment for my creation. And I have filled it with many plants, and trees, and birds and animals, and I have given them life; but without you they will quickly die, for all of my handiwork must drink from my river to survive. And therefore I have placed you here for as long as the earth endures.’
And the river rejoiced to see all that the Lord God had made in the garden, and it loved the task that it had been given to fulfil. Often it would soak through the earth and water the deep roots of the trees; and it always loved to reflect the face of the sun by day and the moon and the stars by night. Many creatures came and lived within it, some so tiny that the river itself could hardly see them, and others so huge that they tickled the river’s tummy. Many other creatures came by day or by night to drink or to wash in the pure, cool water. Some creatures even lived on its smooth surface, and then the river had to be especially quiet and still. But other creatures loved to play games with the water, and the elephants would squirt it high into the air and let it fall on their backs, and the river laughed with them. And thus it was that the river quickly made friends with all the creatures that the Lord God had made, except one. For in the garden there was a snake; but the snake kept away from the river, and the river never knew its name.
And then one day a man came, and when the river saw the man he knew that he was seeing the one whom the Lord God had entrusted to take care of the garden; and the man drank from the river. And one of the funny animals that were tickling the river’s tummy clambered out to see the man more closely, and the man laughed and called it a ‘hippopotamus.’ But the river could see that the man was lonely, and so on the following day it greatly rejoiced to see the man with a companion, whom he called ‘woman’; for there was joy in their eyes, as together they drank and splashed one another with the water. And when they laughed the river laughed also, for it was glad that its pure water was giving life and joy to those around it.
The river gained great wisdom in the garden, and was always full of joy; and as it went on its way it sang a song praising God for his gift of life. And the river said to God, ‘Let me go through the whole earth to teach all of creation my song.’ And so God divided the river into four, so that it could sing its anthem in each of the corners of the earth.
But then there came a day of great sadness: a day of division and of pain, a day when the earth’s deepest foundations were shaken, and creation itself was wounded on the inside. The river was struck dumb; and it saw a thin trickle of blood flowing deep within its waters. It tried to wash the blood away, but more blood followed, and the river cried out in its pain, knowing that if it flowed for ever and ever it could never wash that stain away. And the river knew that even the heart of God had been broken.
The sorrow continued for many days, and violence on the earth increased, until the Lord God said to the river, ‘Just once, let’s cleanse the earth, you and I. Let’s wash all the blood and the violence and the pain away, and let’s make a new start. Just once.’
And so the river grew, and covered the earth, and washed it clean; and watched in wonder a tiny boat bobbing on its surface. And it knew that here was all that was left of life—but even here there was death, and the seed of yet more sorrow. And then the river returned to its own familiar banks. It watched the earth fill once more with joy and sadness, life and death, peace and war; and it washed yet more blood far away into the great ocean beyond.
Many years passed; until, one morning, God got up early and told the river to stop flowing. And the river stopped, and watched in astonishment a rather dishevelled group of people walking in front of it into the land where once God’s garden had been. And God smiled, and said to the river: ‘Look at these people. I love them, and I’m giving them this land through which you flow. They are my people, as you are my river. Look after them well.’
And the river gave the people water to drink, and bathed their bodies, and washed their wounds, and was glad to do so, for these people were beloved by God. And one day the river felt a special sense that God was near, for an important-looking man came into the water with leprosy; seven times he lowered himself into the heart of the river, until at last he walked out with his flesh as pure and soft as a child’s. But this also only happened once.
Mornings and evenings, days and nights went by; and the river watched the children who had played on its banks grow old and die, and their children and then their children in turn. And then there came a day when tears flowed along its whole length, for the river saw that their enemies had forced the people to leave their beloved land behind; and tears flowed again, but this time with joy, when a few of their grandchildren returned to plough the land once more. And the river never forgot that these people were beloved by God. And because the river was born near to the heart of God, and knew that the wells of God’s love were inexhaustible, it, too, loved the people, and gave them water to drink, and tenderly washed their wounds.
One day a man sat on the banks of the river, and watched the flowing water for many hours, caught up in a secret vision of his own. And when he arose, the passion burned in his eyes, and he began preaching; and many people came to hear him. Some of these came with him into the middle of the water, and the river rejoiced, for it knew that their hearts as well as their bodies were being washed clean. But one man came, whose heart was already clean; and the river knew him, and strove with frustration to sing once more the song it had sung in the garden. But then something more wonderful happened, for the heavens were torn apart and glory shone down. And God spoke to the man; and then whispered to the river, ‘Once more you will cover the earth, but this time flowing through the hearts of men, to give life to all who will bathe within you.’ And then the heavens closed once more, and the man left the river and walked into the desert to battle the darkness.
And then there came a day when the river found itself within the very hand of God; and it grew small, and then smaller still; and it flowed as tears down the cheeks of a sorrowing woman. And then it found itself near to the breaking heart of God, flowing out through the side of a human body as a spear thrust broke the skin. And then the river wept, and crept into the cracks of the ground. And there was a terrible nothingness for a night, and a day, and a night; but then the earth’s deepest foundations once more trembled as death itself crumbled at its core; and God shouted to the river: ‘Come!’
And the river saw before it the form of the one who had always been pure in heart, now risen from the dead; and it burst up from the ground in fountains of joy, singing a new song, a song of resurrection; and it danced again with the angels. And then it was given a new task; for it was too small a task for it to bring refreshment only to the hearts of the children of Jacob, for now it was to be a river for the whole world, and to refresh the hearts of all of Adam’s children. And people came from many places to drink from the river, and to bathe in it, and to have their wounds healed by the flowing water; and the river delighted to flow through their hearts, from Jerusalem even as far as the ends of the earth; but there were some who turned away, who chose to remain thirsty, or who sought in vain to quench their thirst elsewhere.
And when many days, and many years, and even many centuries had passed, and all things were done that were to be done, the river found itself once more in the presence of God; for the deep divisions of time and space had been healed, heaven and earth had once more embraced, and God had come to renew all things and to dwell with his people. And the river flowed, crystal clear, through the centre of God’s city; a city that echoed the garden through which it had once flowed, oh so long ago; and the leaves of the tree that grew on its banks brought healing to the nations.”
And the grandfather smiled and looked down at the child on his lap, and said to her, ‘Ayenda, many of our people no longer hear the song of the river; but if you listen carefully, perhaps one day you will be able to teach them, as I have taught you.’ And the girl smiled back, snuggled down into the crook of his arm, and imagined herself floating gently downstream until at last she fell asleep.
[ << Return to Extracts Page ]