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Comments on Ecclesiastes

“Ecclesiastes” means “preacher,” or “minister.” This passage is thus the speaking of a preacher—as such a sermon—and it has what could be called a “mystical” air—a knowingness, a kind of indirect assertion of wisdom about the heavens and the earth and human life that transcends that held by ordinary mortals like his hearer/readers like you and me. His voice gets that quality through a series of stylistic choices.

First his diction is actually pretty much Anglo-Saxon (AS), and not Latinate. AS normally connotes a common person, a down to earth, no nonsense sort. Here, though, that very ordinariness (“sun” “rivers” “wind”) grows mystical as the loose sentences set simple truths out along with simple but not fully explained semi-contradictions of them. “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.” Well, but the sea is already full, even if in real life we don’t actually ever imagine the sea as “full” or “not full”—for most of us, whatever the sea is, it is! We can understand the water cycle, but it doesn’t feel as though that’s what he’s actually talking about with the rivers returning from “whence they come.”

Syntactically, because what he says in some sentences is too simple to need saying, we are made to wonder what his real purpose is in uttering them. Overall the syntax is loose, not periodic, and the sentences, though not complicated, have lots of parallel construction. That gives the passage a formal feel even as the words used are simple and what one could call elemental, or drawn from nature: wind, sea, rivers, sun. The diction is archaic, reflecting the Bible’s early 17th century translators, and the parallel constructions (which seem almost confusingly repetitious!) connote fullness of thought even though the meaning of the phrases each by themselves seems almost too simple to be uttered.

All of this is pushed to a stylistic extreme in the last sentence which is like the others in repeating bits, in being loose and containing parallel clauses, but it is different in that it replaces even the common specific words like “wind,” “sun” and “rivers” with pronouns and the very general words “it,” “that,” and “thing”:

“The thing which 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.”

Overall, the passage offers a sense of paradox, of a speaker who is in touch with wisdoms beyond what ordinary people can see, who sees in ordinary natural things meanings of a more complex and life-informing nature than the rest of us do.

He talks, in short, like at least some sorts of preachers: a wise man who knows things of the spirit that the rest of us do not. We think we know something about the world and about how important each of us is. But the preacher knows that we are vain in thinking we are important. Compared to the ancient earth, the circuits of winds and water, the rising and setting of the sun, we are as nothing…. (he would say!).