Ecclesiastes

{this is an adaptation of a book review i wrote for a class a while back. i learned so much about ecclesiastes during this study and so i thought i would pass it along – this is a little more ‘academic’ than most things i share, but i hope you enjoy!}

Book Review: Ecclesiastes by Craig G. Bartholomew

            In Ecclesiastes, a Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, Craig Bartholomew studies the book of Ecclesiastes by breaking it into three major sections, following the introduction.

Chapter I, “Frame Narrative: Prologue” is the front bookend, Chapter III, “Frame Narrative: Epilogue” is the closing, and Chapter II, “Qohelet’s Exploration of the Meaning of Life” is the major body of this work that takes each section of Ecclesiastes piece by piece. Chapter II is broken down into sections, following the biblical text, denoted A-V (A. Qohelet’s Description of His Journey of Exploration, B. Testing Pleasure and the Good Life, C. The Problem of Death and One’s Legacy, etc.).

I – Frame Narrative: Prologue

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 opens this book about all that is “hebel” or enigmatic. “Utterly enigmatic,” says Qohelet, “utterly enigmatic, everything is enigmatic.” Bartholomew explains the different possible translations of the Hebrew word that he believes is most closely paralleled, at least as it appears in this context, in the English as “enigmatic.” This does not really mean devoid of purpose or meaning, but rather that meaning is evasive and impossible to grasp – like the wind. The book of Ecclesiastes is about Qohelet (a fictional royal figure modeled after Solomon?) and his search to understand the meaning of life and labor.

Bartholomew astutely points out the open literary style of the book of Ecclesiastes, which is full of rhetorical questions (32 questions in the text). This stylistic feature invites the reader to journey along with Qohelet in his search for wisdom.

II – Qohelet’s Exploration of the Meaning of Life

As Qohelet begins to explore the world and make observations about his experiences, it is notable that his thinking is very Hellenistic (especially his methodology and epistemology). Eventually this is righted and turned from being man-centered to God-centered and he allows his thought process to be shaped by Yahweh.

The small sections (A-V) that Chapter II is broken down into are very accessible and understandable for most lay persons seeking to understand the book of Ecclesiastes better, and may also be helpful for the Christian thinker, author, preacher, etc. who aims to be exegetically true to Scripture or whose purpose is to seek out a biblical understanding of a given topic such as The Mystery of Time (E, page 158) or The Problem of Delayed Judgment (P, page 287).

First, Qohelet explores pleasure. As he describes this in Ecclesiastes 2:1-11,  he seems to almost attempt a re-creating of the garden of Eden. Of course the key of the beauty of the garden of Eden was God’s uninhibited fellowship with man, and since the fall that has been interrupted, until the righting of the wrong was set in motion and accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross. Qohelet’s Eden lacked God’s presence.

He continues to explore many aspects of life, grappling with serious questions and the hardest issues in life. Like, why should a man labor all his dies only to die and leave all his work to another who may or may not care for it? He explores wealth, oppression, delayed judgment, distorted motivations in work, isolation in work, and political leadership. He continues to find that life is completely enigmatic for him.

“The range of his exploration is once again evident – he really is concerned with life under the sun.”[1] As he continues in his journey, he continues to find that “All a person’s labor is for his mouth, and yet his soul is not satisfied.” (6:7)

Qohelet breaks in with several instructional exhortations (worship, 5:1-7), which show his shifting focus from himself to God. His summary here is “fear God.” This is repeated throughout Ecclesiastes and is a main key to his search for meaning.

This instructional form is seen again in chapter 7, which is a section of proverbs, where Qohelet comes to the conclusion that the world is bent and broken, and it is only God who can right it. From there he continues to exhort, this time in praise of moderation.

In Ecclesiastes 9:13-18 (The Example of a City, R, p. 313), a passage “fraught with irony,” Qohelet basically undoes all his esteem of wisdom with a paradox – he is experiencing something trying on his journey. Traditional wisdom, of the character-consequence sort, falls short in light of exceptions. This does not entirely discount traditional wisdom (Proverbs, for example), but it does shape Qohelet’s understanding of the world and his search for meaning.

As Ecclesiastes draws to a close, in 11:7-12:7, Qohelet makes his last speech,  “Rejoicing and Remembering” (U- p 339) before the narrator steps in: “Truly, light is sweet, and it is good for the eyes to observe the sun. If a person lives many years, let him rejoice in all of them. But one should remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. All that comes is enigmatic. Rejoice, young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and the vision of your eyes, and know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. Banish vexation from your heart and put away evil from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are an enigma. And remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come …and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God, who gave it.”

Bartholomew says, “this section remains deeply in touch with the brokenness of life but indicates the way out of Qohelet’s agonizing tension between affirming joy and running up continually against the enigma of life – the enigma that has plagued Qohelet throughout his journey of exploration.”[2] Here “young man”, the recipient of a wise teacher’s knowledge, is encouraged to enjoy life, banish vexation (related in Ecclesiastes to much wisdom bringing vexation and sorrow), he is warned to stay away from evil and keep in mind that God will judge him. “Remember” your Creator has a rich, Hebrew sense of more than acknowledging, but actually allowing God to shape and handle life’s enigmas now. In this section Qohelet still maintains a sense of the enigmas and mysteries of life, but with a more positive outlook, acknowledging that there are human limitations set in place by God.  This is the first of the carpe diem passages that center on joy.

In this section, Qohelet describes societal breakdown as the darkest of days, ending finally with the soul’s return to God. Ultimately, it seems Qohelet has “found a way to live the mysteries of life without all the answers to his questions. He has no detailed eschatology of hope and of cosmic restoration as is found elsewhere in the OT and fully revealed in the NT, but he has found firm ground in the fear of the LORD, in remembering his Creator rather than trying to play the role of God. It will take Jesus’s conquering of death in his resurrection and ascension to resolve the mystery of death that Qohelet pursues so relentlessly.”[3]

III – Frame Narrative: Epilogue

Ecclesiastes 12:8-14 is the closing book end. The theme is restated, (“Utterly enigmatic…everything is enigmatic”) and the conclusion is then highlighted. The narrator affirms Qohelet’s words as wise, which may have been shocking, not unlike God’s affirmation of Job. Both struggled with agonizing mysteries and yet ultimately maintained faith in Yahweh’s sovereignty and man’s finite nature.

The conclusion is, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of humankind…”[4] After his complex spiritual and philosophical journey, Ecclesiastes finds that “basically and comprehensively, therefore, to be a man is to be with God.”[5] Only through fearing the Lord can we find meaning in life in the midst of powerful struggle.

 

In the author’s preface, Bartholomew states that, “A good commentary leads the reader to the text, and my hope and prayer is that this volume will encourage readers to wrestle themselves with the fecund text of Ecclesiastes.” His Ecclesiastes certainly hits the mark in that aim.

The biblical book of Ecclesiastes is a profound work with much to be gleaned, but it is not all simple, straightforward and easy to digest without careful study. There is much for the church and the believer to learn from this text about wisdom, the purpose of one’s life, the idolatry of wealth, and entering into worship in humility.

Ecclesiastes will be a great resource for a student of God’s word and anyone who aspires to teach or preach through the intriguing Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Bartholomew has an enjoyable blend of scholarship and practical exposition. He cites powerful quotes from useful sources, theological and otherwise, including Karl Barth, Wendell Berry and St. Augustine. Bartholomew makes use of helpful tables and charts to illumine the reader’s understanding of certain concepts (for example, the table on page 161 helps show Hebraic chiastic pattern). His postscript is particularly useful for its practicality for our church and our time, as Bartholomew makes applications in psychology, spiritual formation and preaching.


[1] Page 192

[2] p. 342

[3] p. 358

[4] Ecclesisates 12:13

[5] Barth, quoted on p. 373

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