Ecclesiastes 1:7
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.
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(7) Whence the rivers come.—Better, whither the rivers go. (Comp. Ecclesiasticus 40:11.)

Ecclesiastes 1:7. The sea is not full — So as to overflow the earth, which might be expected from such vast accessions of waters to it. Whereby also he intimates the emptiness of men’s minds, notwithstanding the abundance of creature comforts. Unto the place from whence the rivers come — Unto their springs or fountains; thither they return — By secret passages of the earth: or their waters, after flowing into the sea, and being mixed with its waters, are exhaled by the heat of the sun, become vapours and clouds, descend in showers on the hills and mountains, and feed the springs from which they flow again, in streams and rivers, into the lakes, seas, and oceans. He seems to speak of the visible and constant motion of the waters, both to the sea and from it, and then to it again in a perpetual reciprocation.

1:4-8 All things change, and never rest. Man, after all his labour, is no nearer finding rest than the sun, the wind, or the current of the river. His soul will find no rest, if he has it not from God. The senses are soon tired, yet still craving what is untried.The place - i. e., The spring or river-head. It would seem that the ancient Hebrews regarded the clouds as the immediate feeders of the springs (Proverbs 8:28, and Psalm 104:10, Psalm 104:13). Genesis 2:6 indicates some acquaintance with the process and result of evaporation. 7. By subterraneous cavities, and by evaporation forming rain clouds, the fountains and rivers are supplied from the sea, into which they then flow back. The connection is: Individual men are continually changing, while the succession of the race continues; just as the sun, wind, and rivers are ever shifting about, while the cycle in which they move is invariable; they return to the point whence they set out. Hence is man, as in these objects of nature which are his analogue, with all the seeming changes "there is no new thing" (Ec 1:9). Is not full, to wit, to the brink, or so as to overflow the earth, which might be expected from such vast accessions to it; whereby also he intimates the emptiness and dissatisfaction of men’s minds, not withstanding all the abundance of creature-comforts.

Unto the place from whence the rivers come; either,

1. Unto the sea, from whence they are supposed to return into their proper channels, and then, as it is expressed, thither (i.e. into the sea) they return again. Or,

2. Unto their springs or fountains, to which the waters return by secret passages of the earth, as is manifest from the Caspian Sea, and reasonably supposed in other places. Or rather,

3. Unto the earth in general, from whence they come or How into the sea, and to which they return again by the reflux of the sea. For he seems to speak of the visible and constant motion of the waters, both to the sea and from it, and then to it again in a perpetual reciprocation; which agrees best with the former similitudes, Ecclesiastes 1:5,6.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full,.... Which flow from fountains or an formed by hasty rains; these make their way to the sea, yet the sea is not filled therewith, and made to abound and overflow the earth, as it might be expected it would. So Seneca says (z) we wonder that the accession of rivers is not perceived in the sea; and Lucretius (a) observes the same, that it is wondered at that the sea should not increase, when there is such a flow of waters to it from all quarters; besides the wandering showers and flying storms that fall into it, and yet scarce increased a drop; which he accounts for by the exhalations of the sun, by sweeping and drying winds, and by what the clouds take up. Homer (b) makes every sea, all the rivers, fountains, and wells, flow, from the main ocean. Hence Pindar (c) calls the lake or fountain Camarina the daughter of the ocean But Virgil (d) makes the rivers to flow into it, as the wise man here; with which Aristotle (e) agrees. So Lactantius (f) says, "mare quod ex fluminibus constat", the sea consists of rivers. Both may be true, for, through secret passages under ground, the waters of it are caused to pass back again to their respective places from whence they flowed, as follows;

unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again; this also illustrates the succession of men, age after age, and the revolution of things in the world, their unquiet and unsettled state; and the unsatisfying nature of all things; as the sea is never full with what comes into it, so the mind of man is never satisfied with all the riches and honour he gains, or the knowledge of natural things he acquires; and it suggests that even water, as fluctuating a body as it is, yet has the advantage of men; that though it is always flowing and reflowing, yet it returns to its original place, which man does not. And from all these instances it appears that all things are vanity, and man has no profit of all his labour under the sun.

(z) Nat. Quaest. l. 3. c. 4. (a) De Rerum Natura, l. 6. (b) Iliad. 21. v. 193, &c. (c) Olymp. Ode 5. v. 4. (d) "Omnia sub magna", &c. Georgic. l. 4. v. 366, &c. (e) Meterolog. l. 1. c. 13. (f) De Orig. Error. l. 2. c. 6.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; to the place from {f} which the rivers come, there they return again.

(f) The sea which compasses all the earth, fills the veins of it which pour out springs and rivers into the sea again.

7. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full] The words express the wonder of the earliest observers of the phenomena of nature: as they observed, the poet described.

So we have in Aristophanes (Clouds, 1248),

αὕτη μὲν (ἡ θάλαττα) οὐδὲν γίγνεται

ἐπιῤῥεοντων τῶν ποταμῶν, πλείων.

“The sea, though all the rivers flow to it,

Increaseth not in volume.”

Lucretius, representing the physical science of the school of Epicurus, thought it worth his while to give a scientific explanation of the fact:

“Principio, mare mirantur non reddere majus

Naturam, quo sit tantus decursus aquarum.”

“And first men wonder Nature leaves the sea

Not greater than before, though to it flows

So great a rush of waters.”

Lucret. vi. 608.

thither they return again] We are apt to read into the words the theories of modern science as to the evaporation from the sea, the clouds formed by evaporation, the rain falling from the clouds and replenishing the streams. It may be questioned, however, whether that theory, which Lucretius states almost as if it were a discovery, were present to the mind of the Debater and whether he did not rather think of the waters of the ocean filtering through the crevices of the earth and so feeding its wells and fountains. The Epicurean poet himself accepts this as a partial solution of phenomena, and on the view taken in the Introduction as to the date of Ecclesiastes it may well have been known to the author as one of the physical theories of the school of Epicurus. We can scarcely fail, at any rate, to be struck with the close parallelism of expression.

“Postremo quoniam raro cum corpore tellus

Est, et conjuncta est, oras maris undique cingens,

Debet, ut in mare de terris venit umor aquai,

In terras itidem manare ex aequore salso;

Percolatur enim virus, retroque remanat

Materies humoris, et ad caput amnibus omnis

Confluit; inde super terras redit agmine dulci.”

“Lastly since earth has open pores and rare,

And borders on the sea, and girds its shores,

Need must its waters, as from earth to sea

They flow, flow back again from sea to earth,

And so the brackish taint is filtered off

And to the source the water back distils,

And from fresh fountains streams o’er all the fields.”

Lucret. vi. 631–637.

The same thought is found in Homer, Il. xxi. 96,

“Ocean’s strength

From which all rivers flow,”

and is definitely stated in the Chaldee paraphrase of the verse now before us. Comp. also Lucret. v. 270–273. An alternative rendering gives “to the place whither the rivers go, thither they return again” or “thence they return again.”

Verse 7. - All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full. Here is another instance of unvarying operation producing no tangible result. The phenomenon mentioned is often the subject of remark and speculation in classical authors. Commentators cite Aristophanes, 'Clouds,' 1293 -

Αὕτη μὲν (sc. ἡ θάλαττα) οὐδὲν γίγνεται Ἐπιῥῤεόντων τῶν ποταμῶν πλείων,

"The sea, though all the rivers flow therein,
Waxeth no greater."
Lucretius attempts to account for the fact,
De Rer. Nat.,' 6:608 -

"Nunc ratio reddunda, augmen quin nesciat sequor.
Principio mare mirantur non reddere majus
Naturam, quo sit tantus decursus aquarum,
Omnia quo veniant ex omni fiumina parte."
This Dr. Busby thus versifies -

"Now in due order, Muse, proceed to show
Why the deep seas no augmentation know,
In ocean that such numerous streams discharge
Their waters, yet that ocean ne'er enlarge," etc.
No particular sea is intended, though some have fancied that the peculiarities of the Dead Sea gave occasion to the thought in the text. Doubtless the idea is general, and such as would strike every observer, however little he might trouble himself with the reason of the circumstance (comp. Ecclus. 40:11). Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again; rather, unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again. As Wright and Delitzsch observe, שָׁם after verbs of motion has often the signification of שָׁמָּה; and the idea is that the streams continue to make their way into the sea with ceaseless iteration. The other rendering, which is supported by the Vulgate undo, seems rather to favor the Epicurean poet's solution of the phenomenon. Lucretius, in the passage cited above, explains that the amount of water contributed by rivers is a mere drop in the ocean; that a vast quantity rises in exhalations and is spread far and wide over the earth; and that another large portion finds its way back through the pores of the ground to the bed of the sea. Plumptre considers that this theory was known to Koheleth, and was introduced by him here. The rendering which we have given above would make this opinion untenable; it likewise excludes the idea (though that, indeed, may have been entertained by the Hebrews, Psalm 109:10 and Proverbs 8:28) of the clouds being produced by the sea and feeding the springs. Thus Ecclus. 40:11, "All things that are of the earth do turn to the earth again; and that which is of the waters doth return into the sea." Ecclesiastes 1:7"All rivers run into the sea, and the sea becomes not full; to the place whence the rivers came, thither they always return again." Instead of nehhárim, nehhalim was preferred, because it is the more general name for flowing waters, brooks, and rivers; נחל (from נחל, cavare), אפיק (from אפק, continere), and (Arab.) wadin (from the root-idea of stretching, extending), all three denote the channel or bed, and then the water flowing in it. The sentence, "all rivers run into the sea," is consistent with fact. Manifestly the author does not mean that they all immediately flow thither; and by "the sea" he does not mean this or that sea; nor does he think, as the Targ. explains, of the earth as a ring (גּוּשׁפּנקא, Pers. angusht-bâne, properly "finger-guard") surrounding the ocean: but the sea in general is meant, perhaps including also the ocean that is hidden. If we include this internal ocean, then the rivers which lose themselves in hollows, deserts, or inland lakes, which have no visible outlet, form no exception. But the expression refers first of all to the visible sea-basins, which gain no apparent increase by these masses of water being emptied into them: "the sea, it becomes not full;" איננּוּ (Mishn. אינו) has the reflex. pron., as at Exodus 3:2; Leviticus 13:34, and elsewhere. If the sea became full, then there would be a real change; but this sea, which, as Aristophanes says (Clouds, 1294f.), οὐδὲν γίγνεται ἐπιῤῥηεόντων τῶν ποταμῶν πλείων, represents also the eternal sameness. In Leviticus 13:7, Symm., Jer., Luther, and also Zckler, translate שׁ in the sense of "from whence;" others, as Ginsburg, venture to take שׁם in the sense of משּׁם; both interpretations are linguistically inadmissible.

Generally the author does not mean to say that the rivers return to their sources, since the sea replenishes the fountains, but that where they once flow, they always for ever flow without changing their course, viz., into the all-devouring sea (Elst.); for the water rising out of the sea in vapour, and collecting itself in rain-clouds, fills the course anew, and the rivers flow on anew, for the old repeats itself in the same direction to the same end. מקום is followed by what is a virtual genitive (Psalm 104:8); the accentuation rightly extends this only to הלכים; for אשׁר, according to its relation, signifies in itself ubi, Genesis 39:20, and quo, Numbers 13:27; 1 Kings 12:2 (never unde). שׁם, however, has after verbs of motion, as e.g., Jeremiah 22:27 after שׁוב, and 1 Samuel 9:6 after הלך, frequently the sense of שׁמּה. And שׁוּב with ל and the infin. signifies to do something again, Hosea 11:9; Job 7:7, thus: to the place whither the rivers flow, thither they flow again, eo rursus eunt. The author here purposely uses only participles, because although there is constant change, yet that which renews itself is ever the same. He now proceeds, after this brief but comprehensive induction of particulars, to that which is general.

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