by Phil Ryken
"What advantage does man have in all his work Which he does under the sun? 4 A generation goes and a generation comes, But the earth remains forever. 5 Also, the sun rises and the sun sets; And hastening to its place it rises there again.6 Blowing toward the south, Then turning toward the north, The wind continues swirling along; And on its circular courses the wind returns. 7 All the rivers flow into the sea, Yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, There they flow again. 8 All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor is the ear filled with hearing.9 That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.10 Is there anything of which one might say, “See this, it is new”? Already it has existed for ages. Which were before us.11 There is no remembrance of earlier things; And also of the later things which will occur, There will be for them no remembrance Among those who will come later still." - Ecclesiastes 1:3-11
To mark the 300th birthday of Philadelphia's most famous citizen, the Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned Daniel Kellogg to write a new work of music in honor of Benjamin Franklin. When his commission was announced at a public preview of the orchestra's 2006 season, the composer asked the audience for a few suggestions. What word would they use to describe a work of music that was appropriate for Mr. Franklin?
"Revolutionary," someone answered, thinking of Franklin's central role in freeing the United States from English tyranny. "Electric!" shouted another member of the audience, thinking of the famous experiment with the kite, the key, and the bolt of lightning. But the man who drew the biggest laugh told Mr. Kellogg to make sure that his composition was "profitable." After all, what would be more in keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit of Benjamin Franklin than making a little money?
Many of Franklin's most famous maxims promote good, honest capitalism. He commented on the worth of money: "Nothing but money is sweeter than honey." He praised the virtue of hard work: "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." He encouraged people to be frugal: "Beware of small expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship." Then there is his most famous proverb: "A penny saved is a penny earned." As a successful businessman, these were all principles he put into practice. If anyone knew how to make a profit, it was Mr. Franklin.
The man who wrote Ecclesiastes had the same motivation. His Hebrew name was Qoheleth; in English we know him as the Preacher or the Teacher. From the statement made in the opening verse and from other details in the book, we know he was either Solomon himself or else someone who wanted to present that famous king's tragic downfall as a cautionary tale. But however we identify him, the man wanted life to pay him some dividends. Like Benjamin Franklin, he had many wise things to say about daily life, and he was looking constantly for anything he could turn to his advantage.
We see this from the Preacher's opening question. In verse 2 he states the theme of his book and his motto for life: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (esv). Then in verse 3 he begins to make his case for the emptiness of our existence by asking, "What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?" (Eccleasiastes 1:3). The same question comes up again in chapter 3: "What gain has the worker from his toil?" (Eccleasiastes 3:9). The idea of gaining some profit appears nearly a dozen times in the Book of Ecclesiastes.
The word gain (Hebrew yitron) is a commercial term ordinarily used in the context of business. It refers to a surplus, to something left over after all the expenses have been paid. This is what anyone in business is working for. The goal is to turn a profit as the reward for one's labor. Gain is the return on an investment of hard work.
As a bottom-line thinker, the Preacher was looking to get a good return. He was willing to work hard, but first he wanted to know the cash value. So he asks a question we have about every job: Is it worth it? Am I accomplishing anything? What will I have to show for all my toil? People usually assume that if they work harder, they will get something extra—more than they would have had otherwise. But the Preacher had started to doubt whether this was true in life. So he asks us to consider what we will have to show for ourselves when life is over.
The answer he gives here, of course, is absolutely nothing. The Preacher asks in order to draw us into the discussion, but his question is purely rhetorical. He already knows the answer; he is only asking to make a point. As far as he could tell, no matter how hard people work, they never really gain anything. The word he uses for toil is simply the ordinary Hebrew word for work ('amal), but sometimes it has a negative connotation, and that seems to be the case here. People work hard, laboring for some kind of profit, but what do they get for all their effort? Precious little, if anything at all.
The problem of profitless work is dramatized in the 1999 film Election, in which a candidate for student body president (played by actress Reese Witherspoon) has this to say about her high school's most popular teacher: "Now that I have more life experience, I feel sorry for Mr. McAllister. I mean, anyone who's stuck in the same little room, wearing the same stupid clothes, saying the same exact things year after year, for his whole life, while his students go to good colleges and move to big cities and to great things and make loads of money, he's gotta be at least a little jealous."
Going around in circles
To prove his point—that we have nothing to show for all our hard work—the Preacher lists a series of things that never seem to go anywhere or gain anything. The first half of his introductory poem gives examples from creation—the natural world (verses 4 to 7). The second half gives examples from human experience (verses 8 to 11). But whether we look at the world around us or consider our own life experience, either way the point is still the same: there is nothing to gain. People like to talk about progress—economic development, technological advances, evolutionary improvements—but it is all a myth. There is never any progress: just the same old, same old.
Start with nature: earth, wind, fire, and water. Qoheleth says, "A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever" (Eccleasiastes 1:4). When people think about the next generation, they usually think in terms of progress: Our children are our future. They will be able to accomplish things that go beyond anything that we could ever dream. Whether it is generation X, generation Y, or generation Z, there is always another generation to give us hope for the future.
But like usual, Ecclesiastes takes a gloomier view. Generations come and go, the writer says. One generation may be rising, but at the same time another generation is dying off. Soon the younger generation will become the older generation, and then there will be a generation after that. It is always the same. The generation gap never seems to change, either. To the rising generation, anyone over 30 seems old-fashioned and out of touch. On the other hand, older folks are often shocked by the lack of respect they get from the younger generation. But it has always been this way. Socrates wrote about it in ancient times: "The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders." Similarly, in the Middle Ages, Peter the Hermit said, "The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they alone knew everything."
Meanwhile, the world itself remains the same. There is never any progress. The rise of each generation gives the impression that something actually is happening, but nothing really is. A seemingly endless procession of people comes and goes, "but the earth remains forever" (Eccleasiastes 1:4). The world is a very repetitive place. Nothing ever changes. So what profit is there? What do we gain? Jerome said, "What is more vain than this vanity: that the earth, which was made for humans, stays—but humans themselves, the lords of the earth, suddenly dissolve into the dust?"
Here is another illustration of the same principle: "The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises" (Eccleasiastes 1:5). This is the verse Ernest Hemingway made famous as the title of his greatest novel: The Sun Also Rises (1926). Hemingway originally began his novel by quoting verse 4, about generations coming and going, but the publisher suggested that verse 5 would work well for a title. Hemingway agreed, presumably because he took the same basic perspective as Ecclesiastes on the meaninglessness of life under the sun.
Even the daily journey of the sun seems rather pointless. Round and round it goes, without ever actually ending up anywhere. Day after day, the fire in the sky rises, and sets, and rises again. Its movement is repetitive, but not progressive, just like life. Pink Floyd said something similar in a song from The Dark Side of the Moon:
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
According to Ecclesiastes, even the sun itself gets short of breath. The word hasten is the Hebrew word for pant (sha'ap), which may suggest that the sun is racing from east to west and back again, but more likely it means that the sun is weary of its slow and endless journey across the sky. Usually we turn to nature to find encouragement for the soul, but when the Preacher looks at the sun, he simply sees the monotony of life in a static universe.
The wind shows us the same thing, for it fails to accomplish anything more than the sun: "The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns" (Eccleasiastes 1:6). Usually we think of the wind blowing from west to east, like the jet stream, but in Palestine the wind sometimes comes from a northerly or southerly direction. Presumably that is mentioned here to complete the points on a compass: the sun crawls from east to west, while the wind restlessly blows from the north and the south. It may seem free to blow wherever it pleases, and in fact Jesus used this truth as the basis for one of his most famous analogies: being born again by the power of the Holy Spirit (see John 3:8). Yet the wind also follows its customary currents. It blows past and then it comes back again. Around and around it goes, following its circular course, but never reaching a destination. For all its constant movement, there is never any progress.
The flow of water seems just as profitless. "All streams run to the sea," the Preacher says, "but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again" (Eccleasiastes 1:7). When he talks about water flowing and flowing again, he is not describing the water cycle, in which water evaporates into the clouds and eventually returns to water the earth in the form of rain. Rather, he is talking about the way that all rivers and streams flow forever to the sea. There is an especially vivid example of this in Israel, where Qoheleth lived. The Dead Sea is landlocked; it has no outlet to another body of water. Yet for all the centuries that the Jordan River has been flowing down into the Dead Sea, it still isn't full, and thus the water continues to flow.
Life is the same way. Where is the progress? What is the profit? You spend your whole life working for one company after another, but what do you gain for all your toil? These days it's hard to get a retirement dinner anymore, let alone a gold-plated watch. Or what do you have to show for all the work you do around the house? There are always more meals to fix, more floors to scrub, more clothes to wash.
It is like that famous song from the musical Show Boat, in which Old Man River just keeps rolling along. The song is sung by Joe, a black dock worker on the Mississippi, who is worn out by all his hard work. What he sings sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes:
Ah gits weary,
An' sick o' tryin',
Ah'm tired o' livin',
And skeered o' dyin',
But Ol' Man River,
He jus' keeps rollin' along!
If the sun and the wind and the mighty rivers have nothing to show for their constant labor, then what hope do we have of ever accomplishing anything in life? It makes the Preacher tired just thinking about it. So he takes what he has observed in nature and summarizes it like this: "All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it" (Eccleasiastes 1:8). Life is such a wearisome, toilsome trouble that it is hard even to put into words. The Contemporary English Version says it like this: "All of life is far more boring than words could ever say."
With this statement, the Preacher restates the central theme of his poem. He is trying to show how tiresome life is. Yet he is not finished making his argument. It is not just the natural world that proves how little there is for us to gain in life, but also our own personal experience.
Start with sensory perception. Here is a notable example of the weariness of all things: "the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing" (Eccleasiastes 1:8). People are always looking at things and listening to things. This is especially true now, in the information age. Every day we see an endless procession of visual images: Comcast, YouTube, BlackBerry, Netflix. We can also listen to an endless stream of sounds: iPods, iPhones, iTunes, CDs, radios, and TVs. Yet even after all our looking and listening, our eyes and ears are not satisfied. We still want to see more and hear more. Soon we are back to take in an endless procession of sounds and images. We can never get enough. There is always one more show to watch, one more game to play, one more song to listen to. So we keep text-messaging, webcasting, Facebooking, Twittering, and Flickring. And what have we gained? What have we accomplished? Is there any profit? These are important questions to ask ourselves about everything we see and hear: Is this helping me to make some kind of progress, or is it the same old, same old? Like the sea that is never full, "the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing" (Eccleasiastes 1:8).
Or consider the endless weariness of human history, which always seems to be repeating itself: "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun" (Eccleasiastes 1:9). Nations rise and fall, but human nature remains the same. There are times of war and times of peace, but even in peacetime we know that war will come again. In fact, some conflicts never seem to end, like the endless struggle between Jews and Arabs for control of Palestine. Or to give another example, when Russian tanks rolled into Georgia during the 2008 Summer Olympics, it was "déjàvu all over again," just like the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. There is nothing new under the sun, only reruns.
This is such a sweeping claim that someone may be tempted to think of a counter-example. Surely there must be at least one thing that is new under the sun. For a moment the Preacher seems almost willing to consider this possibility. He asks, "Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new'?" But just as quickly, he denies it. Whatever seems new "has been already in the ages before us" (Eccleasiastes 1:10).
To give just one example, consider the discovery of the New World. As every schoolchild knows, "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." But was Christopher Columbus really the first European to set foot on North America? What about the Basque fishermen who were already crossing the Atlantic to fish for cod off the coast of Newfoundland? Or the merchants from Bristol in England who wrote to Columbus after his triumphant return to complain that he knew perfectly well they had been to America already? For that matter, what about Leif Ericson and the other Norse explorers who reached the New World 500 years before that?
Perhaps it would be possible to think of some discovery or invention that represents a real advance in knowledge or technology. But even the latest developments fall into the same categories of human experience, like transportation or communication. Wireless telecommunication may be a legitimate advance, but there is also something familiar about it: people felt the same sense of progress when the first telegraph wire was connected.
Furthermore, the people who come up with these new inventions have the same fallen nature as ever. They have the same basic problems, the same moral deficiencies, and the same underlying insecurities that people have always had. This explains why history does not seem to be going anywhere, why it seems to be circular rather than linear, like the wheel in the hamster cage. What we see now is what people have seen before and will see again. Former linebacker Matt Millen said it well when people at his alma mater (Penn State University) were complaining about misconduct by members of the football team: "If people out there are thinking that this is new, let me just give you a little bit of Scripture. Ecclesiastes. Nothing is done that hasn't been done before."
The more things change, the more they stay the same. And if it ever seems like there really is something new under the sun, it is only because we have forgotten what happened before. The Preacher's poem about life's weary repetition ends with a line about memory loss: "There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after" (Eccleasiastes 1:11).
How quickly people forget! What Ecclesiastes describes here is a kind of historical amnesia. People generally do not know their history well, so what seems new to us may in fact be something ancient that we have long forgotten. For example, we often think of the United States as the first great civilization of North America. But there were people here long before us—people loving and fighting and living and dying. More than a thousand years ago the Anasazi peoples built a large city in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, with 5-story buildings containing hundreds of rooms. The Cahokia community near St. Louis grew as large as 40,000 people—the largest city in North America until Philadelphia surpassed it in the 19th century. But who remembers any of these things now?
One day we too will be forgotten. Centuries from now, the common experiences of our own time will be among the "former things" that are mentioned in Ecclesiastes 1. What we have accumulated will be lost; what we have accomplished will be forgotten. Our descendants will not remember us any better than we remember our ancestors. Eventually, when things that have yet to happen are forgotten, those people will no longer be remembered either.
The same memory failure happens at the individual level. We find it hard to remember many things: the experiences of early childhood, the math skills we learned last year in school, the place where we last saw whatever it is we are looking for. It is hard to remember. Someday soon most of us will face the memory loss that comes with old age, when our own experiences become inaccessible to us. Will we still be who we are when we have all but forgotten who we were? Or will every last memory of us be forgotten? This is part of the weariness of life, that there is no remembrance of former things.
All things new
"Vanity of vanities!" "All things are full of weariness." Are you starting to agree with the Preacher's philosophy of life? Do you think there is anything to gain for all your hard work, or has his litany of failure convinced you that life is nothing but toil and trouble?
Here it is crucially important to understand the Preacher's purpose. There is a reason why he wants us to feel the full weight of the weariness and futility of life under the sun. "The function of Ecclesiastes," writes Derek Kidner, "is to bring us to the point where we begin to fear that such a comment (all is vanity) is the only honest one. So it is, if everything is dying. We face the appalling inference that nothing has meaning, nothing matters under the sun."
This is not the whole story, however. Remember that this is only the way things are if we look at them "under the sun." This phrase, which occurs here in verse 3 and again in verse 9, as well as dozens of other times in Ecclesiastes, is one of the keys to understanding the book. It partly expresses the extent of our problem. Where do we experience life's futility and frustration? Everywhere in the world—wherever the sun shines.
Yet this phrase also leaves open the possibility of a different perspective. When he says "under the sun," the Preacher "rules out all higher values and spiritual realities and employs only the resources and gifts that this world offers. The use of this phrase is equivalent to drawing a horizontal line between earthly and heavenly realities" (Leupold). To see things "under the sun," then, is to look at them from the ground level. It is to take an earthly point of view, leaving God out of it for the moment.
But of course this is not the only way to look at things, or even the right way to look at them. There is a God in heaven who rules over the sun. Therefore, we are not limited to the terrestrial, but by the revelation of the Word of God, we can also see things from the celestial. The reason the Preacher shows us the weariness of our existence, making us more and more disillusioned with life under the sun, is so we will not expect to find meaning and satisfaction in earthly things, but only in God himself. Here is how the 19th-century English commentator Charles Bridges explained the Preacher's strategy: "We are permitted to taste the bitter wormwood of earthly streams, in order that, standing by the heavenly fountain, we may point our fellow sinners to the world of vanity we have left and to the surpassing glory and delights of the world we have newly found."
This does not mean that if we believe in God all our troubles will be over, or that we will never again feel the weariness and vanity of life under the sun. For one thing, believers often forget to remember their God, and when we do, we are right back "under the sun" again. But it does mean that there is an "above the sun" perspective that can bring meaning, joy, and refreshment to life.
One way to see this is to take all of the things that make life so wearisome—all of the dreary repetitions in nature and human experience—and see what a difference it makes to bring God back into the picture. What happens when we take the vanity of all these vanities into the Holy of Holies and see them from God's point of view?
The Preacher looks at the natural world and fails to see any progress. But there is another perspective. The psalmist says, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1). To prove his point, he looks at the same old sun and says it "comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy" (Ps. 19:5). Whether the sun seems to make any progress or not, it bears witness to the joy and strength of its Creator. Therefore, "From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same the Lord's name is to be praised" (Ps. 113:3).
As for all the repetition that we see in nature, this too is a testimony to the goodness and orderliness of God. The regularity of the created world shows the constancy of its Creator. The winds blow at his bidding; the waters flow at his command; and this is for the blessing of every creature. The Scripture says, "He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters; he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind" (Ps. 104:3; cf. 147:18). Again, it says, "He draws up the drops of water; they distill his mist in rain, which the skies pour down and drop on mankind abundantly" (Job 36:27-28). So rather than seeing the day in, day out routines of nature the way that Qoheleth saw them, we can see them the way Jeremiah saw them, when he said: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness" (Lam. 3:22-23).
Looking above the sun also gives us a different perspective on our experience. Is there anything new? Maybe not under the sun, but the God who rules over the sun is always doing something new. There is a new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ (Luke 22:20)—the blood that he shed on the cross for the forgiveness of all our sins. There is the new life that came up from the empty tomb when Jesus rose from the dead with the power of eternal salvation. There is the new heart that God gives to everyone who believes in Jesus (Ezek. 36:26). There is the new self that the Holy Spirit starts to grow in the knowledge and holiness of God (Eph. 4:24). This is so new that the Bible calls it "a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17), which is a way of saying that when you trust in God, his work in your life will recreate your whole world.
The Christian life is not just the same old, same old. The living God who sits on the throne of the universe says, "Behold, I am making all things new" (Rev. 21:5). This is the promise to hold on to whenever you are tired of life and all its troubles. The God you worship is the God who says, "Behold, I am doing a new thing" (Isa. 43:19).
One day this God will make a whole new heavens and a whole new earth. Not everyone believes this, of course. In fact, the Bible says that some people deny the coming judgment and the final salvation because they think "all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation" (2 Pet. 3:4). What they say sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes: "there is nothing new under the sun." But the Bible goes on to promise that when this weary old world is destroyed, God will make "new heavens and a new earth" (2 Pet. 3:13).
When that day comes, our restless ears and roving eyes will be fully and finally satisfied when we see Jesus Christ and hear the sound of his glorious worship. "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined," this is "what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor. 2:9). We will no longer look this way and that way for something to satisfy us, but our senses will be saturated with the glory of God. This is something to remember whenever you are frustrated and angry and lonely and sad and disappointed with everything in life that is getting broken or falling apart or going wrong. Remember that this life is not your final existence. You were made for a better world. The very fact that you are weary of life is pointing you to the only God who can satisfy your soul.
When we turn to God in faith, trusting him for life and eternity, we discover that all our memories are safe with him. The apostle Paul says, "You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). The word Paul uses for hidden comes from the Greek root (krupto) that forms the basis for English words like encryption. This suggests a helpful line of spiritual application for everyone who suffers the prospect of memory loss: our lives are encrypted with Christ in God. God so preserves us in his Son that nothing essential to who we are will be lost forever. God will remember us even when we can scarcely remember him, to saying nothing of ourselves. But we cannot receive this saving blessing when we are only looking at things "under the sun." Instead, we need to take the apostle's advice to set our minds "on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (Col. 3:2).
All of this brings us back to the question the Preacher asked at the very beginning: "What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?" (Eccleasiastes 1:3). The answer here is "nothing." But the question of profit or gain is still a good question. We know this because Jesus put things almost exactly the same way. "What will you gain?" he asked. Except that Jesus turned the whole question on its head. He didn't ask what in the world we would gain for all our work. Instead, he asked what we would really gain if we had the whole world: "What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?" (Matt. 16:26; cf. Mark 8:36). If you are looking to make a profit, do not live for what this world seems to offer, but only for the everlasting gain that comes with trusting in Jesus Christ for the free gift of eternal life.
From Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters (pdf) by Phil Ryken