Question: In the book of Ecclesiastes in chapter 1 and verse 11 the preacher says "is there anything whereof it may be said, see, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us." Don’t you think that that the preacher is wrong here? Were there computers and mobile phones in the time of Jesus? Or did they fight battle with tanks and helicopters and missiles? Please explain.
Answer: Dear friend, God’s word (here in the voice of “the preacher”) can never be wrong—and you probably realize this, since you’ve submitted an honest question rather than just assuming that there was indeed a conflict, and then allowing yourself to fade toward biblical apathy. So, I applaud your faith and pray that we can satisfy both your faith and your intellect.
When reading the Bible—or any other written work, for that matter—context is king. Please understand that no word, no sentence, no paragraph, no chapter, or no volume can ever be validly understood outside of its context. A word makes sense within a sentence, a sentence within a paragraph, a paragraph within a chapter and so on. This is probably not news to you, but your question indicates that you’ve lost track of the context of your quoted verse with its nearby verses and with the entire book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes chapter one speaks of the cycle of human endeavor, and is often summed up by the phrase “There is nothing new under the sun.” It is poetical and philosophical. It is not encyclopedic or scientific, that is, its purpose is not to list, define nor quantify any of the world’s particular phenomena, but rather to give a poetic overview of its general workings. Do not fall into the trap of extending the meaning of any writing beyond its original purpose. The writer did not say that life must remain static and not advance in technology. The writer said in broad strokes that life is cyclical as opposed to one long line of really new newness.
The writer of Ecclesiastes did not deny human creativity. He denied the complete newness of people’s accomplishments. For example, man’s journey to the moon and the discovery of America, though different, were both explorations of distant places, involving adventure and risk. In like manner, tanks and helicopters are not strictly new. They represent the natural progression of very old things but within the repeating cycle. Tanks and helicopters are armament, and armament is found in the most ancient digs and the most ancient manuscripts. They have to do with the continuing cycle of war—old stuff to be sure! Computers and mobile phones are the natural progressions of human communication and business organization—again, nothing new, because at the time of Ecclesiastes's writing, there were signaling devices, writing materials and preservation of such, bookkeeping, ledgers, an entire industry based on specialized people to inscribe writings. Sound familiar? Perhaps a look at some other translations of Ecclesiastes 1:9 might help. Note well the last one.
"History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.”
(New Living Translation).
“Everything that has ever been will come back again. Everything that has ever been done will be done again. Nothing is new on earth.” (New International Reader’s Version).
“All things continue the way they have been since the beginning. What has happened will happen again; there is nothing new here on earth.” (New Century Version).
“What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth.” (The NET Bible).
“What was will be again, what happened will happen again. There’s nothing new on this earth. Year after year it’s the same old thing.” (The Message).
“What is that which hath been? it is that which is, and what is that which hath been done? it is that which is done, and there is not an entirely new thing under the sun.” (Young’s Literal Translation).
In God’s creation as we know it today, nothing is an entirely new thing. Everything that we might perceive as new is merely an advancement of something old and falls within a decidedly weary cycle. That shall change someday, however. Jesus' return will set a new order. Indeed—a new heavens and a new earth. (Rev. 21:1). Until then we persist with the same old endeavors. We just do so with better electronics.