The Russian noun “toska” ought to be adopted into the English language. We don’t have a word that adequately translates it. The famous Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov explains its meaning: “At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
Toska makes me think of the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon searched high and low for real meaning. “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them,” he said. “I kept my heart from no pleasure” (Eccles. 2:10). David’s son indulged his appetite for everything that appealed to his senses. He accumulated great riches—gold, silver, great herds and flocks, and male and female slaves. He cheered his heart with laughter, live music, wine, and the beautiful women in his vast harem. He designed and built fine houses, planted vineyards and orchards, and made gardens, parks, and pools to water his forest of trees.
But it was all a big nothing. Solomon says, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Eccles. 2:11, NIV). Solomon is talking about toska, a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for.
God is the answer — and the only answer — to our soul ache. Solomon understood this, even if his personal life contradicted his own conclusions. This is how the book of Ecclesiastes ends: “The last and final word is this: Fear God. Do what he tells you. And that’s it” (Eccles. 12:13-14, MSG).