We have already stolen a glance at this passage to notice the phrase ‘under the sun’, which sets the scene for the book as a whole. True to that opening, this sequence looks at life within those mundane limits which are the same for all men.
What does man gain...? It is a hard-headed question and a characteristic one. This particular word for gain, drawn from the world of business, is native to this book alone in Scripture.¹ But before we write it off as cynical or mercenary we have to remember the comparable question in the Gospel: ‘What does it profit a man…?’2 This is not the only place where Christ and Qoheleth speak the same language. It is a fair question. Any romantic appeal that a hopeless venture may have for us would soon evaporate if no other kind of venture existed—and where is the proof that in the long run there will be any other kind? ‘You spend your life working, labouring, and what do you have to show for it?’—so runs a free translation of this verse.³
Ah, but one hopes to make the world a better place, or at least leave something for those who follow. As though expecting that reply, Qoheleth points to the ceaseless making and unmaking that goes on in human history: the wave after wave of generations with their rise and fall, their coming men who are soon forgotten men; all this against the impassive background of the earth, which sees each generation out and goes on forever. No doubt it will see the last of us off the scene, and what will man amount to then?
Besides, the world’s own pattern, however long the earth remains, is as restless and repetitive as ours. So many fine beginnings double back. So many journeys end where they began. Qoheleth picks out three examples of this endless round in nature, starting with the most obvious, that of the sun, which stoops from its great upward curve into its decline; and having done so, hastens⁴ to repeat itself day after day. His other two examples may seem at first to offer some escape from circularity—for what is freer than the wind, or less reversible than a torrent? But follow the process far enough and you come back to the beginning. The winds go ‘round and round’; the waters, as Job 36:27 points out, are drawn up again to shower down on the earth as before. So die very regularities of the world which may speak to us, on God’s behalf, of mercies ‘new every morning’, will give a very different answer if we look for meaning from them in themselves. Verse 8 sums up their perpetual circling as unutterable weariness.5
All this holds up a mirror to the human scene. Like the ocean, our senses are fed and fed, but never filled. And like the wheel of nature, our history is always turning back on itself, failing of its promise. The journey goes on; we never arrive. Under the sun there is nowhere to make for, nothing finally satisfying or really new. As for pinning our hopes on posterity, in the end posterity will have lost the faintest memory of us (11).
Here we must stop to clarify two things. First on a point of detail, what are we to make of the famous saying, There is nothing new under the sun? How strictly is it meant? Probably our own popular use of it gives the best answer. We exclaim it as a sweeping comment on the human scene, not as a pronouncement about inventions. No-one—least of all Qoheleth—is going to deny the inventiveness of man. But plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: the more things change, the more they turn out to be the same. In their new guise the old ways go on. As a race, we never learn.
The second question is just how much is meant by the theme of endless round. To some writers it smacks of the Stoics and their utterly circular view of time, whereby the whole web of existence must weave its selfsame pattern again and again, down to the last detail, at predetermined intervals for ever. By this token the whole future would be fated to lead round again to the very situation in which you, the reader, now find yourself; and not once by times without number.
By themselves, verses 9 and 10 (What has been is what will be...) could mean just this. But their setting is in a book which will treat moral choices as genuine by using such words as ‘righteous’ and ‘wicked,’ and by pointing to a coming judgment, which would be meaningless if we were caught in a process which gave us no alternatives. What we are shown is the weariness of doing much and getting nowhere; and while this is very different from the fatalism we have been looking at, it is also far from the sense of pilgrimage which dominates the Old Testament.
Is this a sign of fading conviction? Gerhard von Rad reckoned that with this author ‘the Wisdom literature lost its last contact with Israel’s old way of thinking in terms of saving history and, quite consistently, fell back on the cyclical way of thinking common to the East, … only … in an utterly secular form’.⁶ That is fair comment, if the ‘cyclical way of thinking’ means simply a preoccupation with the round of the seasons and the rhythms of life.7 But it is easy to forget that if Qoheleth is taking the stance of the worldly man to show what it involves, this is the very outlook he must expound. And if he is doing so to expose it and create a hunger for something better, as the final chapters will show, he should not be identified with it except by virtue of his fellow-feeling and depth of insight.
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Frank Derek Kidner (1913 –2008) was a British Old Testament scholar. He studied at the Royal College of Music, Ridley Hall (Cambridge) and Christ’s College (Cambridge) before being ordained as a priest in the Church of England. He served Holy Cross Church as vicar and then taught at Oak Hill Theological College before becoming Warden of Tyndale House.