“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.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Back in my College days I wrote an essay on the book of Ecclesiastes. I found myself somewhat overwhelmed and confused by the variety of approaches to understanding the book. I could have done with reading David Gibson’s book ‘Destiny’ in order to get some perspective on the Preacher’s words but Gibson did not publish until 2016 – about 25 years too late for me.
I came across this book in January 2020 and, for me, it was very timely in light of the Covid pandemic which engulfed our world a couple of months later. The subtitle of the book reads: ‘Learning to live by preparing to die’. Here’s some of Gibson’s commentary on the opening section, Ecclesiastes 1:1-11:
“Many interpreters of Ecclesiastes suggest the Teacher is simply presenting something that is true only if life is lived without God. They understand the phrase ‘under the sun’ to signify the secularist’s perspective. If we consider life without God in the frame and look at the world as we see it, that is, under the sun, then there is no alternative but to say that everything is a mere breath. The Teacher, however, wants us to know that ‘under the sun’ is not all there is. And so we may well want to ask: surely the Christian way of looking at life is different? If I’m a follower of the Lord Jesus, doesn’t that change everything?
Well, it is true that knowing Christ does provide a whole new angle – the true angle – on what it means to be alive….
But in the poetry that opens his book the Teacher is not commenting on what life is like without Christ. He is not saying this repetitive roundabout is what life is like from a secularist perspective. This is not what the world feels like from the viewpoint of existential nihilism, or postmodern navel-gazing. It’s just what the world is like. It’s reality. It’ the same for everyone, Christian or non-Christian, adherent or atheist: we each live under the sun.
In fact, it’s probably better to see that phrase as a temporal marker more than a spatial marker: ‘In Scripture, the sun is the marker of time (Genesis 1:14) and the phrase ‘under the sun’…refers to a now rather than a there. It’s a way of saying that for as long as the earth lasts, in this period of time, this is how things are. This side of eternity, life is a breath. We do the same things over and over again in a world repeating itself over and over again, and then we die, only to be followed by our children who will do the same things in the same way and then meet the same end.
Being a Christian doesn’t stop this being true. Rather, it should make us the first to stop pretending that it isn’t true. That is the Teacher’s aim. It may not make perfect sense to us yet, but he is carefully laying the foundations for the main argument of his book: only preparing to die will teach us how to live. And part of establishing that argument is the very simple point of 1:1-11. In these days, under the sun, it is unavoidably true that we live in a world where we will soon be dead.
The Teacher wants us to let the reality of our death sink into our bones and lodge itself deep in our hearts. But that’s because he’s writing a book about what it means to live. …The single question that animates him is this: if we won’t live for ever, or even long enough to make a lasting difference to the world, how then should we live? It takes the whole of Ecclesiastes to answer that question…” (Gibson, Destiny, pp 12-14.)
Gibson goes on to unpack further this concept of ‘learning to live’. It’s a great read…highly commended!