Sunday, May 21, 2017

Life under the sun

To understand Ecclesiastes, we need to understand recurrent catchphrases like "under the sun". In his new book on The Christ of Wisdom (P&R, 2017), O. Palmer Robertson has an interesting take on that phrase. He thinks it refers to the diurnal cycle (253-55). I'd like to expand on his observation and perhaps develop it in a somewhat different, though probably complementary direction, than he does.

Given that Ecclesiastes alludes to Gen 1-3 in some other respects, it's quite possible or even probable that "under the sun" evokes the creation account, where God makes the sun, thereby generating the recurrent alternation between dawn and dusk, day and night, light and darkness.  

So "under the sun" may refer to human life as regulated by the alternation of day and night. Especially before the advent of electrical lighting, you'd rise at sunrise and retire at sunset. Unlike nocturnal animals, humans need sunlight to see by. 

To some degree, the need to sleep every night breaks up the monotony of continuous existence. We take a break, then get a fresh start the next day. 

At the same time, the inexorable repetition of the diurnal cycle can be somewhat deadening. It's inescapable. Like it or not, there's always another day that you must get through. Another day waiting for you. An unrelenting challenge. 

Especially in a fallen world, this can be a challenge. That ties into something else Robertson says. He thinks the meaning of hebel varies according to the context. It means more than one thing. That includes "ephemeral, incomprehensible," enigmatic", 249n79. And that suits some passages in Ecclesiastes. 

But he thinks it also has the sense of "frustration". And he thinks that suits many other passages in Ecclesiastes (1:14; 2:1,11,15,17,19,21,23; 3:19; 4:7-8; 5:10; 6:2; 7:15; 8:10).

And indeed, life in a fallen world is often aggravating for believers and unbelievers alike. A source of intermittent or even chronic frustration. 

When Christians die, they put that behind them. They enter peace (Isa 57:2). They rest from their labors (Rev 14:13). They enter God's eternal Sabbath.  


  1. Astronauts in low earth orbit are subjected to 90 minute diurnal cycles. It seems to be fundamentally disruptive. We seem to be handcuffed to the 24 hour cycle by our psychology and/or biology.

  2. The nice thing about life on Mars is that a day is 24 hours 39 minutes long. However, the sun's irradiance is 590 watts/square meter vs. 1000 on earth.