Take the 2-minute tour ×
Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I noticed that the Teacher uses the phrase "under the sun" more than 20 times in Ecclesiastes. I have always understood this to simply mean "on earth" as The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (s.v. tahat) says:

The phrase "under the sun" wends its doleful way through the book of Eccl and has become common parlance in our own skeptical age, especially in the expression "There is nothing new under the sun" (Eccl 1:9 RSV). The phrase itself seems to signify simply "on this earth" (see especially Eccl 7:20, Eccl 8:16, Eccl 11:2) and perhaps underscores the frequently nonreligious emphasis of the author of Eccl who both describes the apparent futility of life and yet lives by faith in it (see further J. Gammie in JBL 93 (1974), p. 363).

But I began to wonder today if there is more to it. I was listening to Ravi Zacharius' message "What is Worthwhile Under the Sun" today. He said it was a Hebrew idiom meaning, figuratively, "life without God." I had never heard this and began to check into it.

What I found is that the phrase appears only once outside of Ecclesiastes.

2 Samuel 12:12 'Indeed you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and under the sun.'" [NASU, emphasis added]

Here it seems to mean "in the open" since it is placed in opposition to "secretly." But that interpretation doesn't work in Ecclesiastes.

Here are a few examples from Ecclesiastes. All quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated 1995 (NASU).

Ecclesiastes 1:3 What advantage does man have in all his work Which he does under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 1:14 I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.

Ecclesiastes 2:17 So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.

Ecclesiastes 3:16 ¶ Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.

Ecclesiastes 8:9 All this I have seen and applied my mind to every deed that has been done under the sun wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his hurt.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 ¶ I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.

I found 29 uses of the term in Ecclesiastes. Obviously, this is an important theme to the Teacher. So is it simply "on earth" or is there a deeper meaning to it? Does it signify, like Ravi says, "a life without God"?

share|improve this question
    
I realize that Douglas Adams probably isn't the best resource on a Biblical hermeneutics site, but in Life, the Universe and Everything he refers to a prosaic structure, "above the grass", used by a race that populates a planet completely cut off from the rest of the universe by a thick dust cloud and therefore unaware that anything relevant exists above the treetops. –  GalacticCowboy Apr 17 '12 at 1:05
    
Eclesiastes is a Commentary on Proverbs 17:24 in contrast to the following Solomon writing, "Song of Songs" which is commentary on Colossians 3:2 –  Bob McLeod May 4 at 20:06

5 Answers 5

I guess I prefer the "on earth" reading because the "life without God" reading requires a bit more pressing.

I also wonder if the sun plays such an important role in Ecclesiastes because they may represent a common set of wisdom that was not specific to just Qoheleth. There are apparently some interesting parallels between Eccl. and Egyptian literature and I was aware of parallels between Proverbs and Egyptian wisdom literature as well. Given the importance of the Sun in Egyptian mythology, I might be inclined to view "under the sun" as something along the lines of "within the realm of God's dominion" which would include all of the created order.

share|improve this answer
    
If Qoheleth is paralleling Egyptian sources with this phrase, I imagine he would be writing polemically. That is, he is showing that the Egyptian wisdom (which would be "under the sun") is worthless, a vanity, a striving after the wind. –  Frank Luke Mar 19 '12 at 14:38
up vote 5 down vote accepted

As I've looked into it further, I think we have something along the lines of connotation verses denotation.

The denotative meaning of the phrase "under the sun" in Ecclesiastes is "on earth," and this is neutral in meaning. Something being "under the sun" just means it is on the earth. Indeed, "within the realm of God's dominion" would fit there.

However, words and phrase also have connotative meanings that flow out of context and depending on the speaker. For example, the denotative meaning of "home" is "where you live." The connotative meaning for you might be one of security.

When we consider "under the sun" based on the generally negative tone of Ecclesiastes, we see a negative side to the phrase. When we further consider that "under the sun" would be synonymous with "under heaven" and heaven is the realm of God, we can easily arrive at a connotative meaning of "without God." But on further reflection, a better understanding would be "the physical world." It must be remembered that this is contrasted to the spiritual world, above the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:3 What advantage does man have in all his work Which he does [in the physical world]?

Ecc 1:9 That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new [in the physical world].

Ecclesiastes 1:14 I have seen all the works which have been done [in the physical world], and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.

Ecclesiastes 2:11 Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit [in the physical world].

Ecclesiastes 2:17 So I hated life, for the work which had been done [in the physical world] was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.

Ecclesiastes 2:18 [ The Futility of Labor ] Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored [in the physical world], for I must leave it to the man who will come after me.

Ecclesiastes 2:20 Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored [in the physical world].

Ecclesiastes 2:22 For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors [in the physical world]?

Ecclesiastes 3:16 ¶ Furthermore, I have seen [in the physical world] that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.

Ecclesiastes 4:1 [ The Evils of Oppression ] Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done [in the physical world]. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them.

Ecclesiastes 4:3 But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done [in the physical world].

Ecclesiastes 4:7 Then I looked again at vanity [in the physical world]. 8 There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, “And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?” This too is vanity and it is a grievous task.

Ecclesiastes 4:15 I have seen all the living [in the physical world] throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him.

Ecclesiastes 5:13 There is a grievous evil which I have seen [in the physical world]: riches being hoarded by their owner to his hurt.

Ecclesiastes 5:18 Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils [in the physical world] during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward.

Ecclesiastes 6:1 [ The Futility of Life ] There is an evil which I have seen [in the physical world] and it is prevalent among men—

Ecclesiastes 6:12 For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life? He will spend them like a shadow. For who can tell a man what will be after him [in the physical world]?

Ecclesiastes 8:9 All this I have seen and applied my mind to every deed that has been done [in the physical world] wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his hurt.

Ecclesiastes 8:15 So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man [without God] except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him [in the physical world].

Ecclesiastes 8:17 and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done [in the physical world]. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, “I know,” he cannot discover.

Ecclesiastes 9:3 This is an evil in all that is done [in the physical world], that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead.

Ecclesiastes 9:6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done [in the physical world].

Ecclesiastes 9:9 Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you [in the physical world]; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored [in the physical world].

Ecclesiastes 9:11 ¶ I again saw [in the physical world] that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:13 Also this I came to see as wisdom [in the physical world], and it impressed me. 14 There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it and constructed large siegeworks against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the wisdom of the poor man is despised and his words are not heeded. 17 The words of the wise heard in quietness are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Ecclesiastes 10:5 There is an evil I have seen [in the physical world], like an error which goes forth from the ruler—

This connotative meaning works throughout the book whereas "without God" has places where it does not work.

I found a rabbi answering a similar question said, 'In the Book of Koheles King Solomon wrote: "There is absolutely nothing new under the sun." He meant that in the physical world nothing is created new.' He goes on to say, 'Only in the spiritual world - "above the sun" - is there renewal.'

"Of the physical world" is not quite the same as "without God", but it should be remembered that it contrasts to "the spiritual world."

share|improve this answer
1  
I guess the way I view this approach is that it is an attempt to press what one hopes the meaning to be into service and cause it to fit. Further research would need to be done in order to validate without God as a reasonable interpretation. Perhaps within other Biblical texts, then other contemporary Jewish literature, and then with other contemporary literature. –  swasheck Mar 21 '12 at 18:14
    
I have looked into this further and revised. –  Frank Luke Mar 21 '12 at 19:30
    
+1 for doing the legwork and research. –  swasheck Mar 21 '12 at 21:22
    
+1 for taking this one home! –  Chris B Mar 22 '12 at 5:49
1  
Every Jewish commentary that I've come across (I've looked at about six or seven) explains the concept as physical vs. spiritual. The most recognised of which would be the talmud, and Rashi. Rashi reads the word תחת as "instead of", and שמש representing Torah [study] (a bit of a stretch, but there are lengthy textual attempts at justifying this reading), whereas the talmud reads "under the sun" as referring to the non-spiritual world (the sun being a physical thing, thus "under the sun" are those things that are subservient to and as physical as the sun). –  bjorne Aug 27 '13 at 8:25

Under the sun—how beautiful is the poetry of the Old Testament!

The swasheck and Frank Luke's answers, as well as the question itself, all contain some helpful thoughts. However, I think they have still failed to capture the full sense of the phrase. I would argue that its meaning is somewhere between in the physical world and life without God: more like, that which is earthly, human, mutable, brief and weak, in contrast to the divine, spiritual, immutable, eternal and invincible.

Because the book is concerned with questions like meaning, change, brevity and happiness, in the physical world can only be a part of the meaning (as on the Biblical view such spiritual considerations are irreducible to matter). However, life without God (which I take to mean life of those who are without God) is not a great interpretation unless you are willing to take Ecclesiastes as a purely negative book (see Is Ecclesiastes a book of negative wisdom? As this answer argues, it has positive wisdom.)

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is theologically informed, but it is primarily acquired by experience. As such, the book has somewhat less of a "God's eye view" perspective than, say, Ephesians. Eternity is contrasted to the earthly/temporal in both the epistles and this book, but whereas in the epistles, eternity is so in focus that being beaten, stoned, drowned, imprisoned, shipwrecked, hated, opposed, cold, hungry, poor, tired, etc. is "a light, momentary affliction," and the onus is put on eternity, in Ecclesiastes, though eternity still diminishes that which is "under the sun" to insignificance, the onus still remains on discovering the best way to live and act to during this passing life. The perspective in the book is perhaps similar to that of Romans 7 (for my view on that, see this answer; see especially the section "Grammatical Observations")—that is, in a sense more phenomenological than theological. In another analogy to the New Testament, I would compare under the sun to σάρξ, "flesh," insofar as that it often contrasted to πνευματικός, "of the spirit" (usually of God).

share|improve this answer
1  
"that which is earthly, human, mutable, brief and weak, in contrast to the divine, spiritual, immutable, eternal and invincible." That's what I was trying to say with, "Of the physical world" is not quite the same as "without God", but it should be remembered that it contrasts to "the spiritual world." Thanks! –  Frank Luke Apr 16 '12 at 18:16
    
@Kazark In SP the sun represents the Holiness of God as revealed through judgement, justice, law, righteousness, etc. The preacher has evaluated all these things 'under the sun' or 'in light of God's holiness'. –  Bob Jones Jun 2 '12 at 4:06

New to this thread, but just a thought-looking at some commentary in a study Bible I purchased, and it translates it as, "in the world of human experience."

The Biblical scholar (Dr. Scott Hahn) that provides the commentary and notes understands original Biblical languages, and has untangled many an odd verse for me.

share|improve this answer
    
Hello, and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! This is a Q&A site, not a forum. Please take a moment to learn about how we're different from other sites. We do appreciate your viewpoint, but this is not the place to advertise, even on behalf of a valuable scholar. I've removed that content. Would you be willing to instead share with us more about how he develops his arguments for this interpretation? –  Susan 11 hours ago

Beginning in Genesis 1, sun, moon and stars are kingly governors. Just as the heavenly lights govern the heavens, so Adam and his offspring were to be kingly governors of the earth. Prophecies concerning the fall of kings often reference the fall of stars from heaven. Joseph's second dream concerned the stars of heaven. Israel was arranged around the Tabernacle in twelve constellations. And Jesus quoted Isaiah's prophecy against Babylon to predict the fall of the Herods and the shake-up of Rome (the year of the four emperors).

The sun and moon are also Covenantal. The Old Covenant took place in the night time. All its festivals were lunar (the word translated "months" is actually "moons.") The birth of Christ was heralded by a star and the coming of the kingdom of Christ was the dawn.

Israel's literature moves from priestly to kingly. Solomon himself moved from house to Temple surrounded by golden shields - across the sky like the sun - the bridegroom coming from his chamber.

So the meaning in Ecclesiastes has to do with priestly service under God's authority, and also kingly sight (wisdom) under the light of God's law.

Finally, the lampstand pictured the seven lights, sun moon and five planets (the ones visible to the naked eye). The lampstand pictures God's law dwelling in the body (the Tabernacle - Christ) which was fulfilled in humanity at Pentecost, hence the flames over the heads. The Scriptures speak of God's people becoming wise, shining like stars. It refers to the saints being governed internally by God's Spirit, rather than merely external laws. This is kingly maturity.

share|improve this answer

protected by Community 11 hours ago

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.