Poem to Vivify Idea of Vanity (1:4-11)

1:4 A generation goes and a generation comes,
Yet the world remains as ever.
1:5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
Panting to its place there it rises.
1:6 Blowing to the south, turning to the north,
Round and round the wind blows,
For the sake of its rounds the wind returns.
1:7 All the streams flow to the sea,
Yet the sea is never full.
To the place where the streams flow,
There they flow again.
1:8 All things are wearying,
A man in not able to speak,
An eye is not sated by seeing,
An ear is not filled by hearing.

1:9 Whatever has come to be, that is what will come to be; whatever has been done, that is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. 1:10 There may be something of which one might say, “See this. It is new!” It has already happened in the ages which were before us.1:11 There is no remembrance of those that came before and also of those that will come later. There will be no remembrance of them among those who will come afterwards.

Having forcefully announced the theme of his speech, Qoheleth recites a poem. Verses 4-8 present the poem proper. The conclusion in verse 9, “there is nothing new under the sun,” gives the meaning of the poem and verses 10-11 explain and defend why this conclusion is true. Hence the declaration in verses 2-3 that there is no net gain is immediately followed by a poem that embodies the idea that there is nothing new. How does “nothing new” relate to “no net gain”? The answer is found in the poem itself.

The poem begins with the proclamation that though there is a continuous cycle of one generation of people being replaced by the next, the world remains the same (Seow 1997: 106). In other words, there is nothing new under the sun. Like most sweeping statements, this claim is not to be taken without qualifications. A basic principle behind linguistic communication is that the listener cooperates with the speaker. The listener is often expected to supply the qualifications, especially when the speaker is making a sweeping statement. If a newspaper headline reads, “History Repeats Itself,” a fair-minded reader would not find fault by highlighting exceptions that would falsify the statement. He would, as is expected of him, seek to determine from the context in what sense the statement is true.

From the context of the speech we see that Qoheleth is not saying there is nothing new under the sun in terms of technological inventions. Specifically he is saying that what has happened will happen again and what has been done will be done again. This would cover both human activities and natural phenomena. This means humanity and the natural (as opposed to man-made) conditions in which humans live do not change. The result is that there is nothing new in what humans basically experience, and in how and why they typically act or react. Even new technological inventions are ultimately different means to meet the same old unchanging needs. A spaceship, as a means for transport, is not really new. A boat, whether made of steel or of reed, has been a means for transport since time immemorial. The difference is in degree (how fast and how far one can travel in it) and not in kind. Hence the world has not really changed. To interpret otherwise and find fault with Qoheleth is not being cooperative.

The regularity of natural phenomena (as illustrated by the sun, the wind and the streams) is obvious. In the human realm, we observe that in our own capitalistic society people are motivated to toil and succeed through competition. As Qoheleth tells us later in the speech, he had observed that, “every toil and every skillful work spring from a man’s rivalry with his neighbor” (4:4). The form may be different but the essence is the same. That was more than 2000 years ago.

Thus, despite the constant replacement of one generation by the next, human nature and human behavior have not improved. And despite undeniable economic and technological advancement many today are asking, “Why has progress failed?” To the rest who are still optimistic about “progress,” Christopher Lasch has written a scholarly book to answer a simple question: “How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?” (1991: 13). Therefore, despite constant movement there is no net gain, as there is nothing really new.

So the poem stimulates our imagination in order to vivify the idea of vanity in our minds. It is significant that Qoheleth did not reverse the order to, “a generation comes and a generation goes.” He is thinking of a constant cycle of one generation being replaced by the next. And by highlighting the going of the older generation Qoheleth, as already noted, provides the context for his sweeping claim that (in light of death) everything is (ultimately) profitless (1:2-3).

The sun, the wind and the streams very vividly illustrate the idea that in this world there is no net gain, despite endless toils. Sunrise and sunset is depicted as the sun panting from the place it rises to the place it sets and then to the place from where it rises all over again. This conjures the image of constant tiresome activity with no net gain. Similarly, the wind is pictured as going in rounds. Whenever we feel the wind blowing, we are told that it is doing so simply for the sake of its endless rounds (thus Ellermeier 1967: 201-1, cited in Seow 1997: 108). As for the streams, though they keep on pouring water into the sea, the sea is never “full,” in the sense that “the sea can always take more water” (Fox 1999: 166). This is the most vivid depiction of endless toils with no net gain.

“All things,” as illustrated by the endless activities of the sun, wind and streams, says verse 8, “are wearying,” both to them and to the observer. Qoheleth graphically describes the human response: “A man is not able to speak,” that is, it leaves us “speechless” (Whybray 1989: 44). In case we think that the “all things” exclude human phenomena, the eyes and ears are said to be constantly receiving stimuli and yet, like the sea, they are never sated or filled. And of course verse 4 has already set the stage that even the ultimate human phenomenon--one generation going and one generation coming--has no net gain.

Verse 9 simply spells out what is implicit in the poem: there is nothing new, and thus no net gain, under the sun. What is left to be said in verses 10-11 is to answer possible objections to this conclusion. The most likely objection is that there are happenings that we can genuinely say are new because we have neither seen nor heard of them before. Qoheleth preempts this by insisting that they have happened before. He further insists that we are not aware of them because the remembrance of them and of those who committed them have not been passed down to us.

It is difficult to argue with Qoheleth. Consider Karl Polanyi, an economic historian who claimed that the supply-and-demand price-fixing mechanism that characterizes our modern market economy is something new and did not operate in a premodern economy. This view is widely accepted even by those who have never read him. Economist Morris Silver challenges Polanyi’s position “by confronting his factual assertions with available evidence” (1995: 95). For instance, Polanyi asserted that even the Assyrian trading station in Anatolia (ancient Turkey) carried on an ample international trade without price-making markets (96). Based mainly on the work of assyriologist K. R. Veenhof (1972; 1988), Silver concludes,

"The evidence on price formation at the Assyrian trading station in Anatolia is fully consistent with the operation of market forces of the usual kind. The thousands of business documents from the station refer to changes in the demand for the supply of the main import goods (tin and textiles) and to the effects of seasonality and emergency, and they record price changes. The price changes, including a change of more than 20 percent in the price of tin over a short period, are inconsistent with Polanyi’s position (1995: 98)."

We are talking about international trade at about 1800 BC, more than 3000 years before the rise of our modern market society! Also, as pointed out by Silver (1995: 99), the phrase “at the going (market) price” occurs frequently in Babylonian texts of about the same time.

Polanyi claimed, “See this. It is new!” Silver counter-claims: “It has already happened in the ages which were before us.” Now those Assyrian and Babylonian documents were once lost and forgotten and were rediscovered by modern archaeology. This echoes eloquently, “There is no remembrance of those that came before and also of those that will come later. There will be no remembrance of them among those who will come afterwards.”

Duane Garrett sums it up succinctly, “For us ..., as for our ancient predecessors, the sun rises and sets; the rivers run their courses; people continue their endless quest for fame, power, and happiness even as they move steadily toward death” (1993: 288). There is nothing new under the sun. All is vanity. Thus the first 11 verses of Ecclesiastes lead us to ask, What then is the point of living? What is the meaning of life?


Blogger tfleong said...

In an article in the New Straits Times (01 January 2007) entitled, "Answering the call to battle injustice," Yeo Yang Poh, president of the Malaysian Bar says,

"While science and technology have advanced by leaps and bounds over the past decades and centuries, the characteristics of human societies remain more or less unchanged from ancient times.

Modern man is driven by the same motivations, consumed with the same desires and gripped by the same conflicts that our forefathers had encountered. Today’s societies embody the same kind of discrimination, oppression, persecution and power struggle that societies in previous times had to grapple with."

8:24 PM  

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