"Running in Circles" (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11)
2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
Life is enigmatic and puzzling. This enigmatic nature of life (without a heavenly perspective) can lead to frustration, discouragement, and desperation (verse 2).
3 What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?
Life is full of work and labor. But what are we really achieving with all of our labor? Is there any enduring profit or advantage as a result of all this work (verse 3)?
Verses 4-11 are a poem that addresses the programmatic question of verse 3 and sets the stage for the discussion that follows.
Are we really getting anywhere? Things come and go. Everything is cyclical. The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same (v. 4-7). Is there any “profit” in pursuing our desires or in achieving new things (vv. 8-10)? What does our labor get us if we are soon forgotten (v. 11)?
The Cyclical Pattern of Nature and Life (vv. 4-8).
The cyclical vs. the enduring (v. 4).
4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
The Hebrew term “dor” could refer to a generation of people, which replaces the one that came before it. However, the root idea of “dor” is a “circle” or “circular motion.”
“Verse 4 contrasts a circular movement within nature with the steadfast and immovable earth.” - Graham Ogden
The cyclical pattern of the days (the rising and setting of the sun) (v. 5).
5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
The emphasis is on the constancy of movement. It is a never-ceasing activity which constantly repeats itself.
The cyclical pattern of the wind (v. 6).
6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
The sun moves east to west, and the wind is said to move north to south and back again. So, verses 5-6 cover all directions on earth.
The cyclical pattern of water (v. 7).
7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
“The never-ending motion within nature ... does not move toward completion; it knows only constant and cyclic motion.” - Graham Ogden.
The cyclical pattern of human activity (v. 8).
8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
Human labor goes on and on.
The mouth never runs out of things to say.
The eye never runs out of things to see.
The ear never runs out of things to hear.
Like the sea is never filled up though water keeps flowing into it, so the words that people can speak are limitless, the things that people can see are limitless, and the things that people can hear are limitless.
“The ceaseless activity which has already been exemplified in the natural world of sun, wind, and stream in vv. 5-7, is true also of the human world.” - Graham Ogden
Something New, Something Old (vv. 9-10).
The repetitive nature of human achievement (v. 9).
9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
The deceptive appearance of the “new” (v. 10).
10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
“The world remains, yet within it there is a flow, a cycle of regular and unceasing activity. Such cyclic motion may give the impression that certain occurrences are actually new and novel. Qoheleth suggests that what appears new is but the recurrence of some aspect of the past; it is new only to the one who newly experiences it.” - Graham Ogden
“‘Newness is not a category for describing this-worldly matters… Qoheleth has asked whether yitrôn [“profit” or “advantage”] is attainable ‘under the sun.’ He now suggests (v. 10) that ‘under the sun’ is not the appropriate place to look for yitrôn. For that which is completely new we must step outside this world and think in other-worldly terms.” - Graham Ogden
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow (v. 11).
11 No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
“One cannot expect to live on in the collective memory, and thus have an ‘after life’. Such hope is illusory.” - Graham Ogden
What is the purpose of this poem?
It justifies and sets the stage for the study of life and human existence “under the sun.”
Life is a permanent feature of the world, though it is marked by ebb and flow and repetitive cylces.
In this world that is permanent but has repetitive cycles of actions and events, humanity struggles for comprehension of life.
That which is seen as ‘new’ is actually the ‘recurrent past’.
Neither ‘newness’ nor yitrôn [‘profit’] can ultimately be found “under the sun.” We need a meaning for our existence that comes from ‘beyond the sun.’
“The poem alerts us to two key issues that Qohelet will struggle with as he explores the benefit of labor and thus the meaning of life: the repetitiveness of history and the fact that people are not remembered...if on the basis of observation one concludes that history is endlessly repetitive, then it is indeed hard to see the value of labor and of life. One might find meaning in the fact that one’s hard work and achievements will be remembered, but as the poem notes, no matter what one’s achievements, people are quickly forgotten, so that meaning cannot be grounded in remembrance. Theologically, the poem therefore raises the issue of how we view history and of where we locate our identity or meaning in life. Scripture and the Christian tradition rightly recognize, with this poem, that a cyclical view of history is hope-less, and also alert us to the fact that we cannot root our identity in others and their remembrance of us.” - Craig Bartholomew
Life keeps moving. Round and round it goes. Where can we find ultimate meaning and significance if there is nothing really new and we are so quickly forgotten? This ultimate meaning and signficance cannot be found ‘under the sun.’ it must be found in eternity with our Creator.