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Ecclesiastes, Heraclitus, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

by Stephen Hebert on Friday - 20 August 2010

in Biblical Studies, Old Testament

In Plato’s dialogue Cratylus, Socrates gives us one of Heraclitus’s most important ideas:

You cannot step twice into the same stream.

For Heraclitus, this idea epitomized his doctrine of flux — everything is constantly changing.1 Though it may seem as if you are stepping into the same stream a second time, so much has changed since you last stepped into it — you are feeling different water molecules, there are microscopic shifts in sediment, the temperature has changed by a thousandth of a degree, etc.

The opening poem of Ecclesiastes (1.2–12), however, offers a different view. Like Heraclitus, the author understands the world to be constantly changing, but that change is cyclical — eventually the stream will be the same again and it might be possible to step into that same stream a second time. To illustrate this, Ecclesiastes also uses imagery that depicts the natural world: sun, wind, flowing water. Each of these elements reaches its destination and then returns back again to its source. For example, look at v. 6:

The wind blows to the south,
and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.2

Likewise, the sun returns to its start (v. 5); the streams continue to flow, and, because the ocean never seems to have its fill, the streams must be returning to their source (v. 7). So, we can see that things are changing, but they eventually return back to their original state.

How can we explain this return back to their original state? If we look at the second law of thermodynamics, we understand that an unmaintained system will eventually devolve into chaos or disorder — it’s entropy increases.3 Therefore, if the natural world is left to its own devices, if it is not maintained, entropy increases, and the world devolves into disorder and chaos.

But Ecclesiastes tells us that this change is cyclical; eventually, things will again be just as they are now — “the Earth remains forever” (v. 4). How is this possible? The answer is obvious: there must be something maintaining the system — i.e., God.

In a way, this is a wonderful picture of the Gospel. While the world is in a constant state of flux and our lives may feel like they are devolving into a state of chaos and disorder, in fact the world and everything in it is being constantly maintained by the divine hand of God.


  1. Note that Plato (via Socrates) will eventually dismantle this idea.
  2. I wonder if the author may have considered the Earth to be spherical. How does this “round and round” action happen exactly? Likewise, does the author understand the water cycle (see v. 7)?
  3. Entropy is the measure of disorder within a system.

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