What does it mean?
Well, it's been over a year since I started this blog, and I've just realised that I had never attempted to explain my title. I seem to get a number of people ending up here after googling "What does 'there is nothing new under the sun' mean?" and similar questions, so I thought I'd offer my take on the phrase.
It originated in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes:
What has been will be again,Indeed, this verse appears as part of the famous opening passage of that book:
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.Ecclesiastes is famous for its pessimism, its repeated claim that everything is hebel: mist, vapour, empty, transitory and unsatisfying - vanity. Life under the sun is filled with injustice, repeated disappointment, the same old same old. And this is just as true for someone who believes in God as it is for everyone else. Religion brings no guaranteed safety against absurdity and futility. There is nothing new under the sun.Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
Discovering this perspective in the Bible is usually a surprise when people first stumble upon it. It's not what we expect to hear. Doesn't God provide meaning and purpose, safety and joy? Why do anything at all if Ecclesiastes is correct? Why was this downer of a book left in? The fact that it was, and that it continues to provide an authorised testimony to what life is like, ought to make us pause in our construction of neat theological systems (or caricatures, if that's more your taste).
Yet Ecclesiastes is also a surprise because it is so refreshingly honest, so frequently accurate to our experience of life. Things do fall apart, whether objects, buildings, bodies, relationships or communities. We do repeat yesterday's mistakes. The sun keeps rising on the same old injustices. Sure, we might now have microchip technology and be able to hit a golf ball on the moon, but we still get bored at work, and whether you're wise or a fool, your heartbeats are still numbered. There is nothing new under the sun.
Yet despite his pessimism (or refreshing realism, depending on your taste), the teacher doesn't offer a council of despair. He doesn't throw up in his hands in nihilistic quietim - "why bother?". He still realises that the best thing to do is to continue to throw yourself into those very things that are hebel, ephemeral and frustrating: work and relationships, celebration and mourning.
I love the book of Ecclesiastes. There is nothing new under the sun.
Yet there is more to come.
Second photo by CAC.