Even though the normality of our daily lives has been disrupted during the past several weeks, we are not in a unique situation. Almost exactly one hundred years ago the world suffered from the Spanish Flu, which killed millions. And a few centuries before that the Black Death killed a third of the population of Europe. We tend to think our situations are unique when they’re out of the norm, but history is really one long cycle of events repeating themselves over and over again. As the Preacher says in our reading from Ecclesiastes 1, “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” (v.9).
To emphasize the point of the repetitive nature of life, consider the chiastic structure contained in verses 4-11 of Ecclesiastes 1. Verse 4 says, “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” which matches verse 11 – “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.” Each generation is its own unit, goes through a cycle and is replaced by the next generation. That new generation becomes the focus and all the mistakes of the previous generation are overridden by the supposed new way of doing things. Then in verses 5-6 the Preacher says, “The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 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.” The word “hastens” means “returns panting”, as if the sun is on a race and pants to the finish, only to keep doing the same thing repeatedly. The unending cycle of nature is matched by verses 9-10 – “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. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us.” Just as the sun rises and sets incessantly so our lives, and everything that happens, are just a repetition of the same old thing.
In the middle of the chiasm is the human condition – “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” We keep trying to find something new to satisfy us but it’s like striving after wind (v.14). Take eating, a favorite topic of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, for instance. We spend an awful lot of time eating, We take time working so we can take time to buy groceries and take time to cook meals. If we’re not doing that, we’re ordering takeout or, outside of lockdown time, eating out. For what? We get full but that passes, and we do the same thing the very next day. It’s one continual cycle of trying to satisfy ourselves but any satisfaction is fleeting. It’s vanity, all is vanity.
Reading Ecclesiastes can get rather depressing. The Preacher takes us on a journey through the four seasons of life. In the first quarter of the book we’re in the Springtime, when everything is fresh. The Preacher talks about investigating all sorts of avenues to find satisfaction, but his conclusion is still that it’s vanity and striving after wind. So, the second quarter of the book is about the Summer of our lives, when we’ve settled into our routine, got married and have a career. Have you ever thought how pointless any of that is? Why do we continue with the endless cycle of working for a living, just to consume things we spend our money on, so we have enough energy the next day to do the exact same thing? And we raise kids so the next generation can do the exact same thing. Then we enter the Autumn of our lives, the third quarter of the book, where we’ve grown in wisdom and have made good decisions for retirement. But what does the Preacher look forward to? Death. Death, where there “no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom” (Ecc. 9:10). Providing a nest egg for the next generation is a nice thing to do, as is passing on advice to your children and grandchildren. But for what? So that the next generation can do the exact same thing…
And finally, we enter the winter of our lives and the poetic description of old age in the final chapter. In the final chapter of our lives, whether we die of old age or COVID-19, it will be recorded that during our lives we did the exact same thing as everyone else who has ever existed. “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” and those who live as animated dust of the ground soon end up dead and buried and part of that earth once again.
But of course, things are different for those who don’t spend their time focused on things under the sun. Despite living in a world of endless cycles we are unique and have a unique perspective. We get educated, have careers, retire and die just like everyone else but through every season of our life we view it through an entirely different lens. We have an eternal perspective. We aren’t like those protesters in various states across America, people who are complaining that they’re not able to work – which is nothing more than fulfilling the Adamic curse of toil and labor. Life under the sun is a slog. It can be utterly depressing. But we’re not striving after wind. And one day we’re going to wake up and things are going to be different, for the first time in human history. The endless cycles of mortal existence are going to be replaced by something so wonderful, and so different from what we’re used to, that it’s beyond anything our finite minds right now can grasp. God will make all things new and we’re going to be a part of it. I cannot wait!
Simi Hills, CA