The sobibor nazi concentration camp was set in the scenic woods near the Bug River, which separates Poland and Russia. The natural beauty of the setting stood in stark contrast to the stench and horror of the camp, where torture and death awaited every man, woman, and child who arrived there.
On October 14, 1943, Jewish slave laborers in Sobibor surprised their captors by using their shovels and pickaxes as weapons in a well-planned attack. Some of the Jewish prisoners cut the electricity to the fence and used captured pistols and rifles to shoot their way past German guards. Hundreds of others stormed through the barbed wire and mine fields to the potential safety of the nearby forest.
Of the seven hundred prisoners who took part in the escape, three hundred made it to the forest. Of those, less than one hundred are known to have survived. The remainder were hunted down by the Germans and executed.
One of the survivors was a man named Thomas Blatt—or Toivi, as he was known in his native Poland. Toivi was fifteen years old when his family was herded into Sobibor. His parents were executed in the gas chamber, but Toivi, young and healthy, was a prime candidate for slave labor. In the confusion of the escape, Toivi attempted to crawl through a hole in the barbed wire fence but was trampled by prisoners who stormed the fence. As a result, he was one of the last to make it out of the camp.
Toivi and two companions set off on a nightmare journey through the dense woods. By day they rested beneath the camouflage of brush and branch; by night they fought their way through a black expanse of tree and foliage. They were driven both by youthful vigor and fear; by determination and desperation. Most significantly, they were propelled by that elusive thing they had now reclaimed: hope.
What they needed and craved was a guide—someone who could read the stars, who knew north from south and east from west. These were city boys lacking in outdoor skills.
After four nights of stumbling through the cold forest, the three boys saw a building silhouetted against the dark sky in the distance. Could it mean sanctuary? Perhaps a woodsman to help them toward safety? With hope and growing gratitude, they hurried forward.
As they got closer, they noticed that the building they had seen was a tower—a familiar tower. It was part of the Sobibor concentration camp! The three boys had made one giant circle through the woods and ended up exactly where they started.
Terrified, horrified, they backed into the waiting arms of the forest once more. But only Toivi lived to recount their awful experience.
Have you ever felt like Toivi and his friends? We spin our wheels. We throw ourselves forward, pushing toward some goal that seems like the meaning of life itself. Then we discover we might as well have run the marathon on a treadmill—we’ve gone nowhere. We’re right back where we started.
Solomon understood the bleak despair that follows that realization. He begins his journal with the ultimate conclusion of his search for meaning: “What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3).
Notice the phrase under the sun. This is another of those characteristic phrases to be encountered nearly everywhere in this book—twenty-nine times, in this case. Under the sun implies an earthbound view of things. Solomon wasn’t speaking from any pious eternal perspective. Remember, he had drifted away from his Lord over the years—day by day, inch by inch, worldly entanglement by worldly entanglement.
In this chilly season of Solomon’s life, he comprehended the folly of a personal journey that lasted decades and went nowhere. There wasn’t a great deal of self-righteous zeal to be found within him anymore. And with all the wealth, all the wives, and all the world before him—including an awe-inspiring temple on his personal résumé—there was nothing left in the world to bring him satisfaction. Oh, there were the fleeting pleasures of everyday life, the little things. But he well knew that none of those could deliver peace to his embattled soul.
To illustrate his conclusion, the Searcher presents several arguments about life “under the sun.” In verses 4–7, his thoughts journey to four things:
1. The course of life (v. 4)
2. The circle of the sun (v. 5)
3. The circuit of the winds (v. 6)
4. The cycle of the water (v. 7)
By the way, notice that Solomon was a man for all seasons—part philosopher, part astronomer, part meteorologist, and part hydrologist. We’re not embroidering the truth by declaring him the wisest and best educated man of his time.
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
Solomon’s view is gloomy. “Generations come and go, but nothing really changes” (1:4 NLT). We could well imagine Solomon sitting at his breakfast table with the newspaper open, reading the birth announcements on one page and the obituaries on the next. Generations pass in parade. There is a deathbed in one room, a crib next-door. History is a running drama of millennial length; the earth abides, but the actors play their parts and move on.
Solomon returns often to the subject of death. Remember, he’s in the twilight of life and his spirits have withered. No wonder! When life is built without a spiritual foundation, death is a killer on the prowl, peering in the window.
Bertrand Russell shares this same sense of despair when he writes in his autobiography, “We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night and the emptiness; sometimes a voice answers out of the darkness. But it is the voice of one drowning, and in a moment the silence returns.”2
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells of a man who came to him for counseling. After the usual chatter that precedes such appointments, the man told Kushner why he had come.
“Two weeks ago,” said the man, “for the first time in my life I went to the funeral of a man my own age. I didn’t know him well, we worked together, talked to each other from time to time, had kids about the same age. He died suddenly over the weekend. . . . It could just as easily have been me. That was two weeks ago. They have already replaced him at the office. I hear his wife is moving out of state to live with her parents. Two weeks ago he was working fifty feet away from me, and now it’s as if he never existed. It’s like a rock falling into a pool of water, and then the water is the same as it was before, but the rock isn’t there anymore. Rabbi, I’ve hardly slept at all since then. I can’t stop thinking that it could happen to me, and a few days later I will be forgotten as if I had never lived. Shouldn’t a man’s life be more than that?” 3
In the midst of his own search, that could have been Solomon speaking—and it could be any number of moderns who have failed to find meaning in the day-to-day repetitions of their own lives. We get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed—only to repeat until retirement. Then we die. Or at least that’s how a lot of people view life.
Solomon is saying, “On the surface, life looks like a gerbil running on a wheel. What’s the point?” At least, that’s how it can look if you don’t have eyes to see beneath the surface.
The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,And hastens to the
place where it arose.
We can excuse Solomon for not knowing that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. Had he known, he would have just said the same thing in a different way: “This planet of ours circles the sun. Fall, winter, spring, summer—then we take it from the top and start again. One more birthday party for everyone, and so what? What’s the big deal?” The science is irrelevant; the philosophy is a deadly killer.
Solomon’s phrase, the sun also rises, speaks of the silent, uncaring machine that life and nature can appear to be. He seems bewildered by comparing the unblinking consistency of the cosmic machine to the inconsistency of the human machine. For him, every golden sunset represents another short day gone from his ephemeral life. The sun doesn’t slow down; time cannot be stopped, and death marches toward us relentlessly like a conquering army. We can run, but we cannot hide.
It’s intriguing that Ernest Hemingway chose these words, The Sun Also Rises, as the title of his first best-selling novel. He wrote of “lost generation” Americans and Brits after the First World War, and his book conveys the despair that characterized his life and writings. Years later, shortly before his suicide, the great writer confessed, “I live in a vacuum that is as lonely as a radio tube when the batteries are dead and there is no current to plug into.” Douglas Caffey recently posted this poem on the Web site of the International War Veteran’s Poetry Archives:
The morning wears
A fresh white rose,
Gleaming white on white
From head to toes!
Noonday, the rose
Begins to wilt,
And splotches show
Like a patch-work quilt!
The rose is dead!
Its fragrance lies
In silent bed!4
To be sure, not an encouraging outlook. But remember, Solomon’s pessimism comes from his disconnect with God. When we see only what is under the sun and never what is behind it, we are left with that empty, churning cosmic machine, a great production line running to eternity and producing exactly nothing.
The wind goes toward the south,And turns around to the north;The
wind whirls about continually,And comes again on its circuit.
Solomon the meteorologist is as impressive as Solomon the poet. He anticipates what is now known about the world’s great wind circuits and the global circulation of the atmosphere. There’s no evidence that ancient “scientists” understood anything about wind, clouds, and the great cyclical jet streams of the earth. But Solomon, with his special, God-given wisdom, knew some of these things and expressed them in words that are poetically poignant while being scientifically accurate.
Solomon seems fascinated by the wind. We can picture him pondering life, huddled on the roof of his palace, watching the clouds driven by strong eastern currents while his robe blows in the dust. He refers to the wind once in Song of Solomon six times in Proverbs and fourteen times in Ecclesiastes, where the references deeply move us because the wind becomes a symbol of his despair.
There’s something about the wind that speaks to the soul. Jesus spoke of it as blowing “where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes” (John 3:8). In that case, Jesus was speaking about the mystery and marvel of the Christian life.
But for Solomon, the wind represented the invisible brevity of life. As Margaret Mitchell would later express in the title of her great novel, Gone with the Wind, sooner or later everything in life—even our most cherished relationships and possessions—vanishes with the wind.
Remember this haunting pop song of some years ago? This is exactly what Solomon was saying:
Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind.
Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea.
All we do, crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see.
Don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.
It slips away, and all your money won’t another minute buy.
Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind;
Dust in the wind, everything is dust in the wind.5
All the rivers run into the sea,Yet the sea is not full;To
the place from which the rivers come,There they return again.
As vivid as are his word-paintings, Solomon isn’t satisfied with the canvas. He proceeds to give us another illustration: the cycle of water: “All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place from which the rivers come, there they return again” (Ecclesiastes 1:7).
Again, how did he know that? This is an example of what some Bible scholars call “prescience”—scientific statements in Scripture that far exceed the general knowledge of the time. Solomon describes the earth’s amazing hydrologic cycle. Experts tell us that at any given time, 97 percent of all the water on earth is in the oceans; only .0001 percent is in the atmosphere, available for rain. The cooperation of the sun and the wind makes possible the evaporation and movement of moisture, and this keeps the water circulating. But the sea never changes. The rivers and waters pour into the seas, but the seas remain the same. Amazed at this, Solomon uses it as a picture of the remarkable, endless monotony of life without God.
A psychologist named William Moulton Marston asked three thousand individuals, “What have you to live for?” The answers shocked him. He found that 94 percent were not living at all; they were simply enduring the present while waiting for something in the future. They were waiting for something to happen—waiting for children to grow up and leave home, waiting for next year when things would be better, or at least different, waiting for the chance to take a trip, waiting for tomorrow. Waiting . . . waiting. For them, life had deteriorated to a cycle with little meaning in and of itself.6
We all feel it. We all have an enduring sense that the universe got it wrong, that things are exactly the reverse of what they should be. Shouldn’t the ignorant machine of nature be temporary, and we be permanent? We just know this somehow; as Solomon will soon tell us, we have eternity set in our hearts (3:11). We refuse to see ourselves as temporal creatures. We’re made for everlasting life, and the clock we live on should run down while we go on forever.
But under-the-sun thinking keeps us from making the leap—from finding out that our intuition is exactly correct. The truth can’t be found under the sun, but in the One who set it in motion and presides over it.
On the other hand, over-the-rainbow thinking is equally deceptive. Baseless optimism is one more dead-end street. We are to live not under or over—but above. The Bible says, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1–3).
We live under the sun, but our destiny is beyond its rising and setting. In 1890, Anna Price wrote a beautiful hymn that provides a fine tonic for the gloominess of Solomon in these first seven verses of Ecclesiastes.
Above the trembling elements,
Above life’s restless sea,
Dear Savior, lift my spirit up,
O lift me up to Thee!
Great calmness there, sweet patience, too,
Upon Thy face I see;
I would be calm and patient, Lord,
O lift me up to Thee!