Many of Ecclesiastes’s questions are concerned with the fact that human history unfolds within natural cycles that undermine and undo historical progress. This introduces an acute sense of futility into human experience: ‘What do people [adam] gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?’ (Ecclesiastes 1:3). The Hebrew phrase ‘under the sun’ (tahat hashamesh) appears in the biblical canon only in Ecclesiastes but does so numerous times throughout this book, designating the spatial and temporal domain of earthly creaturely life, as distinguished from heaven (see Ecclesiastes 5:2), and the place of the dead (9:6). Ecclesiastes scrutinizes life ‘under the sun’ (1:13–14), toiling over the possibilities and limits of assessing the theological meanings of life ‘from below’. Jacob van Ruisdael extends this toil into a pictorial medium.
Amidst the dark shadows that cover the earth in Ruisdael’s Landscape, a sunlit clearing appears in the field beyond the church, where a lone windmill stands facing the wind. On the one hand, this tiny windmill punctuates the cyclical patterns at the heart of Ecclesiastes’s prologue:
‘The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns’ (1:5–6).
The windmill signifies the futilities of human enterprise within these cycles, serving as a sort of architectural hieroglyph for ‘chasing after the wind’ (1:14, 17).
On the other hand, E. John Walford highlights another theological context in which the sunlit windmill carried further symbolism for Ruisdael: ‘In emblem literature, a man without the spirit of God is compared to a mill without wind. In one such emblem, light-beams, focused on the mill, accentuate the notion of man’s dependence on providence’ (Walford 1991: 151). Ruisdael’s windmill might well signify a vain toiling ‘under the sun’ but there is perhaps also a further spiritual meaning underlying this first one—one that solicits us to reimagine how open or closed the world and its inhabitants are to the Giver of life.
Walford, E. John. 1991. Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press)
1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
5The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
6The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already,
in the ages before us.
11There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to happen
among those who come after.
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.