Ecclesiastesby Peter Enns
Seeking to bridge the existing gap between biblical studies and systematic theology, this distinctive series offers section-by-section exegesis of the Old Testament texts in close conversation with theological concerns. Written by respected scholars, the THOTC volumes aim to help pastors, teachers, and students engage in deliberately theological interpretation of
Seeking to bridge the existing gap between biblical studies and systematic theology, this distinctive series offers section-by-section exegesis of the Old Testament texts in close conversation with theological concerns. Written by respected scholars, the THOTC volumes aim to help pastors, teachers, and students engage in deliberately theological interpretation of Scripture.
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By Peter Enns
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2011 Peter Enns
All right reserved.
IntroductionTo introduce a book of the Bible is often seen as a preliminary necessity, almost a courtesy to ease readers into the content of the book. This is not the case with the book of Ecclesiastes, for which it is precisely the standard introductory questions — who wrote the book, when, and for what purpose — that continue to prove challenging for any commentator. Not only will one find widely divergent answers to these questions documented throughout the history of interpretation of Ecclesiastes, but the difficulty is that how one answers these questions will ultimately affect one's interpretation of the book as a whole.
There is, in other words, a vicious circle in interpreting Ecclesiastes. How one understands the overarching message of Ecclesiastes as a whole will affect how one handles the details of the book itself, yet the book's overall message cannot be determined apart from the book's details. Of course, on one level, this circle is operative with any biblical book, but the problems are augmented in the case of Ecclesiastes: it is not only the introductory questions that prove elusive, but the very details of the book, the data by which a plausible model of the whole must be constructed, likewise suffer from difficulties and ambiguities, and thus challenge any attempt to harness its overall message. It is a common experience when reading Ecclesiastes that, just when it seems the book's train of thought has been apprehended and some firm conclusion is forthcoming, a verse or two later the author says something that turns it all on its head. One begins to suspect that this is precisely what he has in mind, a point we will have a chance to observe throughout this commentary.
Although the introductory matters that follow represent my own view on how I see the pieces of Ecclesiastes fitting together, they nevertheless are developed in conversation with a wide spectrum of scholarly opinions, to which I am greatly indebted, even where I disagree. My general goal, in keeping with the purpose of this commentary series, is to allow the tensions and ambiguities of Ecclesiastes to stand, while also, at every point, working toward an articulation of the theological message of the book as a whole. In this respect, I have been most influenced by the observation of Michael V. Fox concerning the self-contradictory statements of Qohelet. He argues that these contradictions are not oddities to be adjusted here and there. Rather, they reflect the author's intention for how he wishes to communicate his theological message. I quote Fox here at length, who takes
Qohelet's contradictions as the starting point of interpretation. My primary thesis is a simple one: The contradictions in the book of Qohelet are real and intended. We must interpret them, not eliminate them.... Qohelet's persistent observation of contradictions is a powerful cohesive force, and an awareness of it brings into focus the book's central concern: the problem of meaning in life. The book of Qohelet is about meaning: its loss and its (partial) recovery.... Qohelet's contradictions are the starting point but not the message of the book. He marshals them to tear down meaning, but he does not stop there. He is not a nihilist. He also builds up meaning, discovering ways of creating clarity and gratification in a confusing world.
I am not suggesting that this is the most important observation one can make concerning Ecclesiastes, only that I have found its utter simplicity to provide a dynamic point of departure for allowing the words of Ecclesiastes to have their say. Whatever resolution there may be to specific exegetical issues or to the overall message of the book, interpreters of Ecclesiastes must first do the hard work of trying to think the author's thoughts after him. It is my sincere hope that this commentary will contribute to that goal by providing a meaningful theological framework within which students, church leaders, lay readers, and scholars can bring the message of Ecclesiastes to bear on Christ's church.
What Is Ecclesiastes About and Why Was It Written?
What can we say about the overall purpose of Ecclesiastes, the reason for which it was written? This issue catapults us to the very crux of the interpretive challenges of Ecclesiastes. Two major points are quickly apparent. First, various passages in the book seem to be at odds with other portions of the OT. Hence the degree to which one feels that the overall message of any one biblical book should be in harmony with any other will significantly affect how one handles these tensions. Second, Ecclesiastes is dotted with internal inconsistencies (e.g., 1:18 and 2:13; 5:10 and 10:19; 7:3 and 8:15). Here too the degree to which one can accept significant internal tensions in a biblical book will play itself out, knowingly or unknowingly, in the nuts and bolts of exegesis. But this is not simply a modern dilemma. Discussions reaching back at least to rabbinic times document the theological problems encountered in reading Ecclesiastes. An overview of standard commentaries and introductions will quickly demonstrate the broadly contrasting opinions held, today and in the past.
Indeed, perhaps no other book of the Hebrew Scriptures has had the history of counterunderstandings as Ecclesiastes. Of nearly any other biblical book, one can make coherent statements as to its basic content and purpose that would find general agreement (Song of Songs and Job being two other notable exceptions). If any ten knowledgeable readers of Genesis were asked what Genesis is about, one might get ten diverse answers, but those answers would likely still accent legitimate and generally agreed upon aspects of the book, for example, creation, estrangement from God, the beginnings of Israel as a people, and so on. But no one capable of coherent thought would say that Genesis is about God's destruction of the universe, his blessing of the tower of Babel project, or his rejection of Abraham.
Yet Ecclesiastes, fueled in large part by its internal tensions, is a book that is amenable to conflicting and even contradictory interpretations, and so respected interpreters throughout history have struggled with the basic message of the book. Is Qohelet coherent or incoherent, insightful or confused? Is he a stark realist or merely faithless? Is he orthodox or heterodox? Is he an optimist or a pessimist? Is the ultimate message of the book, "Be like Qohelet, the wise man," or "Qohelet is wrong, make sure you don't fall into his trap"? Discovering the meaning and purpose of Ecclesiastes will likely continue as a back-and-forth journey between overarching concepts and smaller exegetical details, balancing the forest and the trees. In the end, the theory that presents the most cohesive picture of Ecclesiastes will gain assent, at least for the time being. What is disconcerting, however, is that confusion about the book's basic message may dissuade preachers and teachers from bringing its theology to bear on the life of the church. Or, perhaps more problematic, ill-informed or even reckless interpretation of the book — that which expects a certain kind of cohesion, or expects only certain things from biblical authors — could do more damage than simply avoiding the book altogether. It is for this reason that a credible explication of the basic message of the book of Ecclesiastes is necessary. Our investigation into that basic meaning takes as its point of departure the macrostructure of the book, to which we now turn.
The Frame Narrator
Ecclesiastes begins as a third person narrative in 1:1-11, where the narrator introduces the words of Qohelet. Beginning at 1:12 and extending through 12:7, the narrator's voice gives way to allow Qohelet's own voice to speak (with the curious exception of 7:27). In the epilogue (12:8-14), the narrator's voice resumes, providing a summary and evaluation of Qohelet's words. The book's intentional design is underscored by comparing 1:2 and 12:8. After the general introduction of 1:1 ("The words of Qohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem"), we read the narrator's summation of Qohelet's words in 1:2:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "Absolutely absurd!" says Qohelet, "Absolutely absurd! Everything is absurd."
This verse is repeated with minor variation in 12:8:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "Absolutely absurd!" says Qohelet. "Everything is absurd!"
Since 1:2 and 12:8 frame Ecclesiastes in this way, 1:1-11 and 12:8-14 are often referred to as the frame of the book, and the speaker of these sections as the "frame narrator." How one understands the relationship between this third person frame and the first person body of Ecclesiastes will determine how one understands the message of the book as a whole.
It is clear that these bookends of Ecclesiastes suggest a fully intentional macrostructure to the book: a narrator framing the words of a certain "Qohelet." This structure, however, should not suggest that Ecclesiastes was originally composed as the wholly skeptical discourse of Qohelet (1:12–12:7) to which was added a later, orthodox framework. Despite the presence of first and third person discourses, positing two originally separate texts strikes me as an unhelpful and unnecessary conjecture. I can appreciate that some of Qohelet's words are simply too much at odds with the general testimony of the OT, and so a second author, the frame narrator, looks to provide an orthodox counterpoint. Still for others, there may be an additional theological or doctrinal motivation to posit, if not two originally distinct texts, then at least two distinct perspectives, thus providing a means of obviating the unorthodox implications of Qohelet's observations.
But it is precisely at this point that we must allow the frame narrator's introduction to speak for itself. The frame narrator makes very clear what Ecclesiastes is about. We are told directly in 1:1-2 that Qohelet sees everything as "absolutely absurd." This is a blunt and succinct summation of Qohelet's words that will occupy the remainder of the book up to 12:8. We should take careful note that there is no indication here (or elsewhere in 1:1-11) of any attempt to correct or sanitize the tone of what will occupy the middle section of the book. The problems in interpretation arise at the very outset when we presume that the frame narrator's words, even here, are a negative evaluation rather than simply a succinct summary of Qohelet's words.
This brings us to the role of the epilogue in our understanding of the book as a whole. Unlike the introduction, the epilogue has an overt evaluative force, and so its importance for addressing the issue at hand is apparent. The basic question is: Does the epilogue give a fundamentally negative or positive evaluation of the words of Qohelet? Is the purpose of the epilogue to correct the errant theology of Qohelet or to confirm his observations? I take the view that the epilogue fundamentally supports Qohelet's observations while at the same time offering a mild "corrective" by placing Qohelet's observations in a broader (and traditional) theological context. In other words, there are elements of both confirmation and correction, but the latter is undertaken within the overall context of the former.
Such an understanding of the function of the narrative frame encourages the view that the frame narrator is the author of the book, regardless of whatever independent prehistory there might have been for the middle section, although this too is a conjecture. Qohelet may be (1) a fictional character created out of whole cloth, (2) the frame narrator's own alter ago (the vehicle by which he recounts his own struggles), or (3) a literary product that in some sense had an "independent" existence before its adaptation by the frame narrator (which is not to imply it would have existed in the precise form in which we see it in 1:12–12:7). I do not think this issue can be settled, nor is it vital to do so. In any case, Qohelet represents a point of view that the frame narrator apparently feels strongly enough about to lay out patiently for his readers over 203 of the 221 total verses in the book. There is clearly something worthwhile his readers are expected to discern. Understanding Ecclesiastes as being a book, the product of an intentional, skilled, creative, and above all sagely (12:9-10) mind, encourages readers today to presume the book's coherence, which is seen precisely through the tensions in the book and amid the conflicting struggles of life that are recounted for us there.
To help reinforce this general approach to reading Ecclesiastes, the discussion on the epilogue below will focus on the last two verses of that passage, 12:13-14. Doing so, even in an introduction to a commentary, will necessarily lead us to touch on several other points of the book as a whole that will need to be treated more fully in the relevant sections of this commentary. Yet this is a valuable point to mention here at the outset: reading Ecclesiastes is an exercise in paying very close attention to recurring, and often confusing, mixtures of themes and phrases that drive forward the theology of the book. It is virtually impossible, and certainly unwise, to read any portion of Ecclesiastes in isolation from whatever echoes of that passage might be found elsewhere in the book.
The End as a Key to the Whole
The book of Ecclesiastes ends as follows:
13 The end of the matter; everything has been heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, indeed, this is the whole of man ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]/kolha'adam). 14 For God will bring every activity into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
Our focus here will be on [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]/kolha'adam, the last two words of v. 13, literally "all the man," translated in the NIV as "the whole duty of man."
It is widely recognized that the epilogue intentionally picks up on the language and themes of Qohelet's discourse. The phrase kol-ha'adam is found three other times in Ecclesiastes (3:13; 5:18 [Eng. 19]; 7:2). My suspicion is that the author's use of this phrase in 12:13 was meant by him to be read in light of these previous occurrences. Briefly put, in 3:13 and 5:18, the so-called carpe diem passages, Qohelet affirms that kol-ha'adam ("everyone") is to find enjoyment in their daily existence. In 7:2 Qohelet observes that death is the end ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]/sop) of kol-ha'adam. Enjoyment and death are two important, indeed, dialectical and pivotal, theological themes in Qohelet's discourse, and the phrase [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] kî-zeh kolha'adam in 12:13 should be understood as the final reflection on these themes.
The first instance of kol-ha'adam is in 3:13, where Qohelet considers the value of pleasure and enjoyment.
12 I know that there is nothing better for men to do than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That everyone ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]/wegam kolha'adam) may eat and drink and find 17 satisfaction in all this toil — this is a gift from God.
The NIV translation in v. 13 ("That everyone") is fine, but perhaps a better way of translating it here, at least for the purpose of drawing out its theological connections with other passages in Ecclesiastes, is: "Moreover, the whole [duty] of man is that he should eat, ..." When we handle this phrase here the way in which it is typically understood in 12:13, the contrast between them becomes apparent: which exactly is kol-ha'adam? Is it to enjoy the simple pleasures of life as 3:13 has it, or is it to fear God and keep his commandments as in 12:13?
Excerpted from Ecclesiastes by Peter Enns Copyright © 2011 by Peter Enns. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Peter Enns is a biblical scholar, writer, and teacher with adoctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations fromHarvard University. He has taught at WestminsterTheological Seminary, Harvard University, PrincetonTheological Seminary, and Fuller Theological Seminary. Hisother books include Incarnation and Inspiration:Evangelicals and the Problem of the OldTestament.
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