Over 60 million Americans own a treadmill, making it the single most popular piece of home exercise equipment. People continue to purchase treadmills because of their flexibility (you can change speed or incline) and convenience. My wife and I own one, and she actually uses it to walk and run. I’ve often reflected on the irony of the treadmill, as it reports the number of miles I’ve tread. It tells me I’ve gone two miles, when I know good and well I’ve never left my basement.
Qoheleth evaluated life under the sun and came to a similar conclusion in the Old Testament book we call Ecclesiastes. The first eleven verses serve as the prologue for the book, where the preacher summarizes his observations and sets the stage for the twelve short chapters that follow.
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? (1:1-4)
The word translated “meaningless” comes from the Hebrew word hebel, which literally means a vapor, puff of wind, or breath. It is used in Psalms and Job to describe the brevity of human existence. (cf. Psalm 39:5, Psalm 144:4, e.g.) It speaks of the transient nature of our human existence. In the context of Ecclesiastes, it is translated with the connotation of meaninglessness, but a stronger understanding of hebel would be absurdity or unreasonable.
Why are all things absurd or unreasonable? It is absurd because from everything that Qoheleth has observed “under the sun,” there is no profit or payoff from the things we occupy and engage ourselves in during our brief time on earth. In other words, what’s the point? Having made his point, he then moves to four analogies from life.
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries (pants) back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again. (1:5-7)
- The passing generations and the certain reality of death renders all of life pointless.
- The circular course of the sun is without end as it hurries its journey, out of breath.
- The wind, also circular in its nature, finds no definite beginning or end.
- The rivers strive to fill the seas but they are never full.
But this circle of life is not limited to the never ending circular futility of these analogies. Qoheleth continues with three human behaviors that are also equally pointless: our spoken words, our eyesight, and our listening.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
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. (1:8-10)
To summarize his complaint, Qoheleth concludes his prologue with this stinging reminder:
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them. (1:11)
In other words, life is absurd and unreasonable. The ultimate proof of which is that we don’t remember our predecessors, and in turn, we too will be forgotten. I like Peter Enns paraphrase of the passage. He writes, “This is what Qoheleth is saying: At the end of the day, life is frustratingly absurd. The cycles of nature are screaming that message to you. You live. You exert a lot of energy, but nothing new happens. Just like the sun, wind, and rivers. Then you die. And one other thing — after you die, you will be quickly forgotten.” (Enns, Ecclesiastes, 2011)
The temptation of Bible students, pastors and teachers is to attempt a fix by making a bee-line to the Gospel of Jesus, who provides meaning and hope “above the sun.” But that would be premature. Qoheleth wants his audience to use the text to identify their own struggles with meaning and to sit with them. Quick answers are usually incomplete at best, and trying to anticipate a forced, positive outcome can be dangerous. Let the Scripture say what it says before turning the page, as depressing as it may be.