« Book Report: Hunger Games Series | Main | Lists in the Wiki Age »

Ecclesiastes 1:9

This really is, I think, the end of the introductory poem and the transition to the next bit.

[Ecc 1:9 KJV] The thing that hath been, it [is that] which shall be; and that which is done [is] that which shall be done: and [there is] no new [thing] under the sun.

The rhythm and the repetition is like (tho’ not exactly like) that in all the verses 1:4-1:9. Or 1:2-1:9, with 1:3 being inferior—Robert Gordis makes the case for there being (essentially) two stanzas, the first from 1:2-1:6 consisting of four pairs of stichs (where stich means something like a distinct piece of a line, I think) followed by a triple, and the second from 1:7-1:9 also consisting of three pairs followed by a triple. Oh, hell, something like this:

1:2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher,     /     vanity of vanities; all [is] vanity.
1:3 What profit hath a man of all his labour     /     which he taketh under the sun?
1:4 [One] generation passeth away, and [another] generation cometh:      /     but the earth abideth for ever.
1:5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down,     /     and hasteth to his place where he arose.
1:6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north;     /     it whirleth about continually,
                              and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.

1:7 All the rivers run into the sea;      /     yet the sea [is] not full;
      unto the place from whence the rivers come,      /     thither they return again.
1:8 All things [are] full of labour;      /     man cannot utter [it]:
      the eye is not satisfied with seeing,      /     nor the ear filled with hearing.
1:9 The thing that hath been, it [is that] which shall be;      /     and that which is done [is] that which shall be done:
                              and [there is] no new [thing] under the sun.

Only he’s thinking about the rhythms in Hebrew, not English, and certainly not the KJV. The translation obscures the repetition as well as the rhythm in places, so if I were to map out the repetitions within and across the stichs, there, it would be quite a complicated and instructive map. I suspect there is such a map somewhere, but I haven’t seen it. Ah, well. The repetition in the first two bits of this line is again more prominent in the Hebrew: ma shehayah hu sheyih’yeh/uma-shena’asah hu sheyay’aseh. Hard to say, for me at least, but very repetitive.

By the way, for those who are interested in knowing just how terrible my transliteration is, there are a bunch of sites to hear the Hebrew as it should sound. I’d recommend the Mechon-Mamre or the AOAL, which I believe both have the same recordings (Abraham Shmuelof). There is also a YouTube Video where you can hear it chanted while following the bouncing yad. I kinda like that one, although of course the sound is very different with the leyning. There’s a separate question of why the traditional method does not emphasize the literary figures, but YHB is really, really, really extra-unqualified to discuss that one.

And the meaning? Well, the meaning seems pretty straightforward to me: the world is cyclical, the sun goes around and around, the waters run from the river to the sea and then (by our modern understanding) are evaporated and fall as rain to run from the river to the sea again. It’s all been done before, and just as important, it will all happen again; the earth abideth forever. But what does that mean? What’s the point of saying it? Why is it a message from the Divine to us that there is nothing new under the sun?

Well, I’m going to assert that my idea from last week—more or less that it’s Not About You—is consistent here: fundamentally, what is and what will be are not in your power, not in your ken, not in your eyes and ears and words, and you are not responsible for making it new. It’s not on you to make the rivers and the wind and the sun change their courses. It’s not about you. You aren’t going to make something new under the sun.

Looking at the poem as a whole, keeping in mind that I think there’s deliberate and poetical ambiguity and multiplication of meanings, I think this Not-About-Youness holds. That is, if we interpret the rhetorical question in 1:3 not only asking how much profit is there in a man’s labour but who are you to profit from your labor? That is, not only what good is it? but is it rightfully mine? Are we not to imagine ourselves capitalists, investing to reap a surplus, but to imagine ourselves laborers for a Divine employer, who has provided the capital (in the form of the winds and rivers and so on), and who am I to claim the surplus as mine—when nothing I can do will add to the colossal scale of the Divine investment?

Which is not to say, of course, that you can’t do anything. You can add to the world’s kindness or to its misery. You can shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die, or you can feed the hungry. You can, in the aggregate, bomb Syria or, you know, not bomb Syria. There are still choices, and there are still consequences of choices. I would hate to think of this message from the Divine as counseling the sort of humility that thinks I am nothing! I am nothing! I’m so humble that it doesn’t matter what I do!.

But at the same time…you know, we can slash CO2 or not slash CO2, and the rivers will still run to the sea. We can drown ten million people and create a billion refugees and poison the atmosphere and the rivers will still run to the sea. Really, they will! We can dam the Yangtze, and the river will still flow to the sea, eventually. It will! Whether we are here to see it or not. For everything that’s new under the sun—every new baby born, every new shiny gadget, every new building or playground or tank, every new speck of carbon in the atmosphere, every new kiss, every new song, every new hurt—everything is new all the time, isn’t it? We can see the newness, we can’t help seeing all the new things all the time. Which is why it’s worth koholet reminding us to look at the bigger picture which (as Peter O’Toole will tell you) is very very big. And when you look at the bigger picture, the picture under the sun, it looks like all that new stuff is just wind, which whirleth about continually and returneth again according to its circuits: the rivers still run to the sea. And the sea is never full. Thank the Divine.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Post a comment

Please join in. Comments on older posts will be held for moderation. Don't be a jerk. Eat fruit.