What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth.
Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”?
It was already done long ago, before our time. No one remembers the former events, nor will anyone remember the events that are yet to happen; they will not be remembered by the future generations (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11).
“New and improved!” “Grand opening!” “Grand Re-opening!”
Marketing and branding focus on what works, and for modern Westerners few appeals work quite like novelty. We love new things. The experience of a new car, an updated piece of technology, or even a new relationship is exhilarating. We spend time on social media and television in order to find out what is new in the lives of other people; the gossip mill has churned for millennia on the basis of the newest scoop. Fortunes can be made or lost in the attempt to ascertain the newest trends in beauty, fashion, politics, technology, and the like. “New” comes with great status: our culture worships youth and the vitality it expresses, and is enraptured with new and dazzling scientific and technological discoveries. Wealth and standing is now displayed by newness and freshness. In our progressive optimism we are convinced not only of the greatness of all the new things with which we are surrounded, but presume a continual stream of these new things which will make life ever better and grander in future generations.
Meanwhile, the Preacher spoke as if a curmudgeonly contrarian. Everything is futile and absurd: vanity of vanities (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Life and time are cyclical, neither progressive nor regressive (Ecclesiastes 1:3-5). The Preacher anticipated the kind of dazzling pretenses as we see in our society: eyes are not satisfied with seeing, and ears are not content with hearing (Ecclesiastes 1:6). We are always looking for new and ever greater forms of entertainment and stimulation.
But, the Preacher noted, nothing is truly new. It was done before. Everyone forgot. And everyone will forget again (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11).
Many would seem to think it very easy to contradict the Preacher. You are reading this article on the Internet on a technological device unimaginable to Solomon or anyone in the ancient world; thus, it is a “new” thing, and so there are “new” things on the earth!
If we took the Preacher absolutely, such criticism would be valid and the proposition nullified. But the Preacher was not really concerned about things but people and the things they do. And despite all protestations to the contrary, people have not changed.
For all of our scientific and technological advances, we remain very much human. Humans before us took stones or spears and used them to hunt animals or kill fellow human beings. Later humans developed different tools with different metals, but always to the same end. Perhaps the Preacher could never conceive of nuclear power; but he would not at all be surprised to learn how nuclear power was used both to provide energy to improve the quality of life for thousands and to make bombs with which to slaughter thousands. We now carry small machines in our pockets and purses which have more computing power than existed in previous generations, but what do we do with them? We talk with other people. We look for love and lust. We try to present the best possible picture of ourselves, and often do not hesitate to portray others as their worst. We line up in tribes and justify ourselves and condemn the others. We use it as a profitable medium of exchange as well as a means to deceive, extort, and steal from others. Our technology is really a mirror that reflects us and our nature in its beauty and in its corruption. It is the same old story with fancier gadgets.
A long, long time ago there was a man who was raised with lesser means but learned of his nobility. He then had to fight against long odds to discover his true strength, to overcome his opponents, and to take his rightful place as a leader of his people. This is the plot of Star Wars; it is also the story of Sargon of Akkad, Moses, and many others. Or perhaps you have heard about the king who was unjustly murdered by his brother but was then avenged by his son? Children might think you speak of The Lion King, but it is also the story of Hamlet and Osiris and Horus. Have you heard the song about a lover who has scorned the singer’s advances, or who has broken the singer’s heart? Those songs exist on the Top 40 chart today, have existed on the Top 40 chart as long as it has existed, and are also the songs of the medieval troubadours and ancient Egyptian love poets. Today many analyze these archetypes for what they tell us about themselves; for the Preacher it would be seen as further confirmation that nothing is really new. All good stories derive from certain narrative tropes and types. They are not new.
Yet we do well to sit in the Preacher’s lament regarding the “tyranny of the present.” How many times have we seen an atrocity take place and then hear, “never again”? How many have confidently asserted how “history will remember” a given person or event in a certain way, or have maintained confidence in being “on the right side of history”? We have often heard George Santayana’s quote that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
The Preacher has argued that no one really remembers the past. We might want to protest: did we not all have to sit through history class? And again, if we take the Preacher absolutely, the criticisms would be valid and the proposition refuted. But should we imagine that the Preacher had no knowledge of people who came before him? Absurd! Instead, he speaks in a general way, and one we can see playing out until today. A generation learns the lesson of their recent ancestors but might well in the process forget other lessons from previous ones. Another generation arises which never experienced the traumas of their great-grandfathers and replicates their folly. Markets learn from bad behavior, promote other forms of bad behavior, and when sufficient time has passed since the last major correction, fall back into previous bad behaviors. Atrocities happen again. How we understand what happened in the past constantly changes and adapts based upon changes in perspective. We can understand the history of the twentieth and the twenty-first century so far according to this pattern. It has all happened before. And it’ll happen again.
Thus the Preacher continued to strip his hearers of all the pretenses they have erected to try to find ultimate value in what is truly futile and fleeting. Everything under the sun is futile, vain, and absurd: time is cyclical, and nothing is really new. Each generation in succession makes mistakes and learns from them, only for the next generation to come and make their own mistakes. Perhaps we have a well documented family and can trace our ancestry back a few generations: yet how many of them are simply names, perhaps a notation of birth, date of marriage, and death, and for those of the past two hundred years perhaps a picture at best? And how many remain mostly unknown? We have forgotten our ancestors; within a few generations, we also will be forgotten. It is all absurd.
We cannot be invested in this life under the sun to provide ultimate meaning. We cannot sustain the delusion that everything is getting better, and remain entranced by what we deem new and shiny things. Under the sun we will live, die, and likely become, at best, just another branch in our descendants’ family trees, noting birth, marriage, children, and death. It is only in Christ that we can have hope for eternal life and ultimate meaning; may we find life in Him and be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry