Doctor Zhivago and Ecclesiastes

Dr. Zhivago and Ecclesiastes

Passion. That is one word that describes the essence of a book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes, and a film in the world, (1965 film by David Lean). Both use passion for life as a key in teaching about life, and we can learn from both.

The book of Ecclesiastes, for instance, says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Eccl. 9:10 NIV).

The film: “Life! He wants to see Life!” (Professor describing his medical student Zhivago.) “Well, you’ll find that pretty creatures do ugly things–to people.”

The teacher tries to steer his student away from general practice into research, which is safer in its isolation from life’s ugly things and more rewarding financially. But Zhivago will have none of that; he wants to experience life to the fullest. In this, he is simply following an innate desire that God has put into all human beings:

“He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccl. 3:11 NIV).

“God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring'” (Acts 1:27,28 NIV).

It turns out that young Zhivago is also a poet. We first see the sensitivity required for this future pursuit early in his life and the film when, as a boy, his mother dies and he notices everything going on around him at the burial. He imagines what it is like for her in the coffin as the dirt is thrown down on top of it from the shovels. We see him later in the bedroom of the little cottage by himself as he hears the twig tapping wildly on the window in the fierce winds howling outside in the Russian winter. He is a sensitive child who is already aware of nature’s nuances, and in his mother’s death is beginning to experience life’s dangers as well as its beauty; and he wants to enter into and experience it all. Life.

And that is what this film is about, passion: passion for life in all its glory. In this, the film succeeds quite well: The scenery is spectacular; the music matching the grand scale of the story; and the story is as compelling as the human heart and life itself. Nevertheless, something is missing in this film.

That missing ingredient is God. There is little mention of him in this film. However, oddly enough, that omission makes the film’s message all the more powerful, for it dramatically shows how life lived to the fullest extent possible without God fails in the end.

There is a unique book in the Bible, Esther, which also makes no direct mention of God but proves even more powerful for that very reason. And, just as in the book of Esther, there are in the film various subplots and themes present that help reflect the variety and depth of life. Yes, passion for life may be a major theme in the film, but other themes contribute valuable depth to the story.

One such theme is a dark one: Doctor Zhivago, though married, has a mistress; he is not true to his wife; he has disobeyed the injunction of Ecclesiastes: “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love” (Eccl. 9:9 NIV).

The Bible similarly compares the nation of Israel to one who is unfaithful in marriage, only it is the wife who is thus characterized, not the husband: “But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me, O house of Israel,” declares the Lord” (Jer. 3:20 NIV).

Nevertheless, a glimmer of hope arises in the story that Zhivago will forsake his unfaithfulness. After some time being an unfaithful husband, he is conscience-stricken and informs his mistress that he will no longer come into the village from his country abode to see her; their relationship is over. As he slowly plods back home along a lonely road through a forest that is as deep as his thoughts, he becomes lost in those thoughts and broods over what he has become and done.

“Then Judas, who betrayed him, when he saw that Jesus was condemned, felt remorse, and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned in that I betrayed innocent blood.'” (Mt. 27:3,4 NIV).

But Zhivago’s remorse, like that of Judas, comes too late. Suddenly a troop of soldiers breaks forth from the forest and accosts him on the road. They are in need of a medical officer on the war front and they kidnap him for this purpose, casting aside his protestations that he has a wife and children at home to consider. Their reply to him is the same as the religious authorities to Judas: “They said, ‘What is that to us?'” (Mt. 27:4 NIV).

Judas betrayed his Master, Zhivago his wife. Both had remorse, but for both it came too late. Zhivago cannot go back to his wife; he is whisked away and reluctantly experiences a new darker passion in the world, the passion of war. Fall turns into winter, then spring and summer, and another winter. In the depths of that harsh Russian winter, as his fellow soldiers struggle past him on his horse, he waits until the last man trudges by in the deep snow, then, slowly, he simply turns his horse around and quietly slips away.

But his flight does not bring him the freedom he had expected. Oh, he escapes the forced military service alright, but winds up back in the arms of his mistress again. Twice, now, he has turned around from wrongdoing in his life, but neither has brought about true repentance or change in his life. His passions still keep him bound.

“Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin'” (Jn. 8:34 RSV).

“For a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning” (2 Ptr 2:19,20 NIV).

Zhivago is indeed now worse off than before. How? Before, he had made the honest commitment to stop his unfaithfulness to his wife. He truly had good intentions. But something happened to prevent those good intentions from materializing. One was circumstances beyond his control–but not beyond the control of someone else, an invisible force and entity that lurks in the shadows of the forest and of his heart. When he stops alone in the forest on his way home, after cutting off his relationship with the other woman, he is stunned to see an entire army come charging out of the forest at him. They had clearly been lying in wait for him, to capture him and ruin his newly found intention to do the right thing and stay with his wife.

“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Ptr. 5:8 NIV).

Zhivago had not been alert, certainly not self-controlled as his passionate unfaithfulness gave proof. Thus the unseen enemy had his chance to pounce upon him and take him captive there in that critical moment in the forest.

Paul describes his hope that those not walking in God’s ways “will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Tim 2:26 NIV).

Zhivago had come to his senses, but too late; therefore, he did not escape from the trap of his enemy and he is taken captive to do his will. And all of this stems from his reliance upon himself and his own willpower, thinking that he could withstand temptation on his own. He sadly finds out that the passions of the human heart are no match for those ugly things of life the professor had warned him about. He was too weak to overcome them; they overcame him. What he needed was something or some One stronger than he to rescue him from his own passions and the passions of the world, such as war. God’s Word reveals the source of that strong deliverer: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36 NIV).

Thus the conundrum and irony of passion: Humans desire complete freedom to pursue their passions, but when they do so, those passions turn on them and make them captives of those very passions. If they do not submit to God and his ways but insist on continuing to chase their own passions unrestricted, they will die in those passions, by those passions. Their own passion will destroy them.

We should be passionate about life, just as Zhivago was. It is precious beyond measure and worthy to be passionate about. But passion in itself is not enough. True satisfaction and fulfillment in life can come only through him who is life itself, Jesus Christ: “I am . . . the life” (Jn. 14:6).

That is why, though this film wonderfully expresses some of the deepest aspects of life and gives the viewer joy in life as seen in Doctor Zhivago, in the end we are left with an empty place in our heart. For, after a lifetime of passionate living, in which we rejoice with Zhivago . . . he dies. Where, now, is all that passion?

“Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun” (Eccl. 9:6 NIV).

All that passion that made life so rich and so rewarding . . . gone. Forever. And the real tragedy is that it did not have to be that way. There is a way for a person to keep his or her passion for life alive forever. That way is in him who is life itself, Jesus Christ: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6).

As was said earlier, there is little mention of God in this film. There is still little religious presence at its end. For at the end, we see long lines of poetry lovers slowly moving past the poet doctor’s casket. The Russians love poetry and their poets, the film says. And so, perhaps, those critics of God and the Bible might say that Zhivago’s life was meaningful after all: Just look at how many people his life influenced through his poetry. There is no need for God in one’s life; a person’s life can still have a significant effect on the world and others.

But such effect is only relative, not absolute. And God and reality and eternity are absolute. And life is absolute, for it ends in death–and there is nothing more absolute than that. Yes, even a worldly man can have a relative influence on people’s lives, even many people’s lives. But that significance will fade and die away, just as the man himself must die.

So, though this film powerfully and beautifully depicts life in its passion and profundity, the person acquainted with Him who is life will likely walk away with a certain touch of sadness amidst all the glory evinced by the film. For what good is it to live life to the fullest extent possible, by human efforts, if it all vanishes at the moment of death?

“What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mt. 16:26 NIV).

“Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment. So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless” (Eccl. 11:9,10 NIV).

The word meaningless is used often in Ecclesiastes, for it is written mostly from the viewpoint of human reasoning, and reasoning alone cannot fathom the mysteries of life and God; it is not powerful enough. Ironically, the writer of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, came to that very conclusion, even after exerting his considerable powers of thinking given to him by God:

“That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (Eccl. 7:24 RSV).

Unable to discover the depths of life and its meaning, even after his most ardent efforts, the writer of Ecclesiastes comes to this conclusion:

“So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun” (Eccl. 8:15 NIV).

This is an endorsement of passion for life, and it is a good endorsement. God wants us to enjoy life. Jesus, who is God in human flesh, said that he is life (Jn. 14:6). God wants us to enjoy him. We should enjoy life, enjoy God.

But that is possible only if we submit to him as God and desire him above all else. “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (Eccl. 2:24,25).

Eat and drink and enjoy one’s work–that is part of the passion for life and the things of life, and that is good, for God has provided all these things for us. But we are to enjoy them in Him. Trying to enjoy life without God fails in the end, because, as Ecclesiastes tells us, “without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” To try to enjoy life without God is like chasing the wind.

“To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 2:26 NIV).

And so we come back at the end of this film to where it started, at that scene where the little boy Zhivago has witnessed the burial of his mother and that night he is alone in his room and hears the wind howling outside. His whole life is ahead of him at that moment, and the sound of the wind impresses upon his soul the deepness and mystery of life. He has been born with a keen sensitivity to this mystery. But whatever gifts we are born with are not enough to ensure that we will not lose them all at death. For that, we need to heed the words of him who is life and who said:

“You must be born again (of the Spirit). The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:7,8 NIV).

For all the wonderful and beautiful poetry with which Zhivago gifted the world, in the end, it will not matter because it will not last; and it will not last because this world will not last. It is destined for fire and destruction (2 Ptr. 3:7). Then a new world will arise, but it is reserved only for those whose great passion in life is Him who is Life, Jesus Christ. These are the ones who heard the sound of the wind of God blowing in their hearts and responded by being born again of the Spirit.

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil:” (Eccl. 12,13,14 NIV).

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