Ecclesiastes: An Apology of Wisdom

A term paper I recently submitted in my OT Survey Class. I hope you enjoy:

As with any question of interpretation or of origin to any biblical text, many variants are sure to present themselves. There is no shortage of variables when it comes to the discussion of the book of Ecclesiastes. This paper seeks to find balance by accurately portraying some of the prominent differing views while offering a position that postulates the purpose of the book to be the ancient equivalent of a  modern day apologetic work created for a specific group of people. That specific group would consist of ancient Jewish sage-like self-professed disciples of Solomon. The overall purpose of the book is meant to invite the reader into the knowledge of the peace of God by knowing the fear of God which transcends the vanities incumbent of mortal beings by producing hope and meaning of eternal significance.

Much can be learned about the nature of the book of Ecclesiastes by asking questions of its authorship. No final consensus exists as to who wrote the book. For most of church history, many have placed Solomon as its author because of the clear appeal to royalty found in the opening chapters. There is also a strong desire on the part of the ancient church and Jewish rabbis to tie all the wisdom literature directly to that which comes from Solomon’s pen, and rightfully so. Seemingly direct references to Solomon’s authorship appear in verses 1:1, 1:12, 1:16, and 2:9. In these verses are found phrases like “the son of David, king in Jerusalem,”1:1;  “king over Israel in Jerusalem,”  v.12; “surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me,” v. 16; cf. 2:9. It would be hard for any reader to read these passages and not come to the conclusion that Solomon is the author as these titles would fit nicely with his office in Israel’s history. Although, conflicts arise in later portions of the text where the speech used doesn’t seem to fit well with the historical setting in which the king would have wrote. For those who seek to keep Solomon as the author, there are reasonable explanations for the style differences that are found between the unique form utilized in Ecclesiastes in contrast with other of Solomon’s wisdom literature. Some propose possible explanations theorizing that Solomon was in his elder years when he wrote Ecclesiastes; this supposedly speaks either to the skeptic tone that can be traced through the text as well as to the profound insight in the author’s capability to cast the complexities of life compatibly with the fear God while still promoting the enjoyment of life. Another proposal for giving reason to the different styles while maintaining Solomon authorship comes by analyzing the purpose and occasion for taking up the writing of Ecclesiastes itself. This paper takes the stance that the work is apologetic and not so much written in the same way a proverbial/poetic book serves the believing community. It is no wonder that each work one writes carries certain presuppositions which directly affect the tone and approach of his work; each varying purpose of writing demands a unique writing style and the tone the Preacher takes is one of argumentation.

Solomon’s authorship comes into question by skeptics mainly in their historical dating approach of the book and in their rigid analyzing of its lyrical form. Many argue that the content used strays further than most other forms of pre-exilic text and this conclusion forces such form critics to normally place the date somewhere around the 300BC period, thereby throwing away the idea that Solomon could be the author. Lasor puts it this way: “Protestant scholars since Luther’s time have tended to date Qoheleth [Preacher] much later than Solomon. The rabbis’ view of Solomon’s authorship was based on their literal interpretation of 1:1 and their tendency to tie Solomon’s name to all wisdom literature: he was viewed as master sage” (Lasor, 498). Lasor sides with the textual critics for a most interesting reason. He asserts that Qoheleth clothed himself in “Solomon’s garb” to grab the attention of those who would claim to be followers of Solomon; then he digs in and challenges these followers through his  most unique form of argumentation (Lasor, 500). Such a motive resounds with the likeness of much of the New Testament’s call to professing believers to test themselves, to make their calling and election sure…such is the motive of any good and weighty apologetic work. There is much to be said in terms of form criticism and what can be learned from that process when it comes to engaging the text of scripture. Indeed, much effort has been spent toward these ends and “While these redactional observations advance our understanding of the literature, the larger theological implications for interpreting Qoheleth remain relatively unexplored” (Shepherd, 182).

Putting questions of authorship aside and looking closely at the way the author speaks, one can begin to better determine its purpose. Douglass Miller, in his paper The Rhetoric of Ecclesiastes provides a useful summery that speaks to five different views on the purpose of the book of which I analyze and breakdown below, I also add the apologetic method of understanding not found in his list:

  1. A Repentant King. A very early understanding of the book’s purpose. In line with Solomon’s own story, this approach of understanding assumes Solomon writes the book with a repentant heart and warns of the folly and consequence of the mistakes he himself had made.
  2. The Ascetic. Also a very early understanding. This view is one that seeks to correct perspectives onto the right view of humanity in its own mortality and how eternity is right around the corner. Using that weight of mortality then to call its readers to deny themselves in preparation for the afterlife. The challenge for some with this view is in seeing the emphatic call of Qoheleth to enjoy life on the earth. The rejection mentioned here seems to be a rigid form of complete self-denial of pleasures in this life; a theme the Preacher heavily contradicts.
  3. The Bitter Skeptic. A new understanding developed within the past two centuries. This view sees Qoheleth as a cynic rambling his frustrations with a world not as it should be. This method forces the placing of any positive affirmations of Qoheleth’s views on life, which directly contradicts this thesis, to be of later editing. Though appealing to post-modern scholars, this understanding is not at all viable for God-fearing scholars.
  4. The Preacher of Joy. This view is also a new understanding which attempts to be compatible with the problems that arise from the purely skeptic approach. While the author is still a cynic, his purpose is to encourage others to see the joy in life by realizing the absurdities (vanities) that come with life. The problem remains though that life itself is said to be vain in the book and this approach doesn’t seem to capture that complexity.
  5. The Realist. A more modern nuance to the earliest two forms of understanding. This approach seeks to allow for the complexities of life to enter into the whole of human experience not subjected to cynicism. It also gives the repentant king and the ascetic voice their own valid rhetorical framework (Miller 216-221). This view also fails to bring into balance the sovereignty of God over time and over mankind who operate under the sun as His creatures.
  6. The Apologist. Many scholars believe that the book itself is apologetic in nature, as Dr. Sproul’s commentary on the book suggests:

“Ecclesiastes has been understood as an apologetic work, an attempt to recommend faith in God to unbelievers by               way of answering negative arguments. While the book’s teaching may be used in evangelism, most Jewish and                     Christian interpreters have understood Ecclesiastes to be addressed to God’s people, rather than to those who are               ignorant of God or in rebellion against Him. The book is God’s wise counsel to those who know His ways but have                 found them at times to be frustrating and perplexing” (Sproul,1074).

Lasor further draws such an apologetic parallel when he writes:

“His strategies [the Preacher’s] are to capture his reader’s attention and to use the circumstances of Solomon to                   probe ironically the weaknesses in his fellow sages’ teachings. (Lasor, 500).

As is much of the tradition of the inspired writers of God’s Word, the force by which the books come down to us is meant to shatter man-centered views of the position of God in the universe. God’s Word consistently places God at the center of His creation and commands men everywhere to get off the throne of their own hearts. In his own commentary, Dr. Constable comments that this is the very purpose of the book, that the reader would “develop a God-centered worldview and recognize the dangers of a self-centered worldview” (Constables, 3). Truly, most misunderstandings of the Word of God fall into this dilemma: man’s underestimation of God and man’s overestimation of man. I thought it interesting how much the proposed Ascetic purpose resonated with me in light of how the whole testimony of scripture speaks to man’s frailty in the scope of eternity, and how we are but a breadth, a vapor. I agree with Miller’s observation that this construct, in its rigid form of abstaining from pleasure to prepare for the next life misses the book’s call to also enjoy this present life; but at the same time I hear the consistent scriptural emphasis to repent, for the time draws near. Death and pleasure are both unapologetically on the lips of the Preacher in order to bring a much needed sense of urgency to the reader’s heart. As Ringe rightly points out in his journal article entitled Enjoyment and Mortality: The Interplay of Death and Possessions in Qoheleth, “Qoheleth displays an intense interest in the interplay of death and possessions. No other book in the Hebrew Bible gives as much attention to the intersection of these two motifs” (Ringe, 265).

To reflect on the word vanity in the context of my own life in general is a complex process. As one who is redeemed in Christ, who knows the weight of Paul’s arguments that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Plil 1:21), there is a temporary lens one can look through and observe that indeed, much of life’s ordinary experience could be construed as prospects of vanity. One who is not delighting in the Lord, who is not refreshed by His infinite Word, can easily look upon the functions on earth and tire of its repetition. I look at my book shelf and think, “what good will attaining an abundant wealth of knowledge be to me 3,000 years from now.” Yet a calm fear sets in knowing that God has the answer to that question, and that there is purpose in it. Everyone, to one degree or another has at one point had a mother. Mothers are so common that one can tire of seeing mothers do the things that mothers do. Yet, a mother who trusts in the Lord and not in her understanding, though she may observer her labor is near exactly mirroring 4,000 other mothers in the same way, and in the same time all throughout the world, she will see the purpose and meaning in what she does even if it is extremely frustrating at times. Why? Because the Lord who determined that there be motherhood in the human experience opens her eyes to see its value and the dignity that is intrinsic to that office. This same Lord opens my eyes to see the value in growing in knowledge and understanding though at times I grow weary and struggle with an extremely frustrating proneness to laziness.

It is interesting that much time is spent by the preacher on the subject of time, and of the position “under the sun.” Us creatures who live under the sun are bound by time, we are governed by it and we measure time by the sun. The sun itself provides guidance and light to the human family completely apart from man’s own control. It is no coincidence that “The Preacher teaches that man’s activities are ordered by God’s timing” (Sermon 1). Who is under the sun if not all who walk upon the entire earth? Does one who walks in the righteousness of Christ walk under the sun in the same way that an unbeliever does? Yes & no. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Yet the just have knowledge that the unjust do not. Coming to grips with the brevity of God’s sovereignty over creation, even over the salvation of men’s souls is most beneficial when trials come the Christian’s way. Shane’s online article draws from a classic commentary on Ecclesiastes which speaks to this awesome sovereign trait of God working through life’s complexities: “This awareness coexists with a firm belief in God – whose power, justice, and unpredictability are sovereign” (Lems citing Fox’s commentary).

Faith in the God of the Bible is not always best kept to a simple and surface level understanding; Qoheleth’s seemingly realist slant is meant to guide teachers of the believing community to acknowledge and allow for the inevitable complexities and frustrations bound to challenge one’s faith. One could be sure that this preacher would agree with the Apostle Paul, whose theology drove him to use a phrase like “rejoice in our sufferings,” a joy that believers must tap into if they hope to weather the storms that are sure to come (Romans 5:4 ESV). The fear of the Lord is of the greatest value, for it puts into perspective the greatness of God and the futility of man. The sage wisdom that permeates from the Preacher is not that man is purposeless in all his thriving and suffering, but that he ought find all his purposes ultimately in his Maker.

Works Cited

ESV: Study Bible : English Standard Version. ESV Text ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Bibles, 2007. Print.

Lasor, William Sanford. Old Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1996. Print.

Lems, Shane. “The Reformed Reader.” The Reformed Reader. 9 May 2015. Web. 15 June 2015.

Miller, Douglas B. “What The Preacher Forgot: The Rhetoric Of Ecclesiastes.” Catholic Biblical   Quarterly 62.2 (2000): 215. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 June 2015.

Rindge, Matthew S. “Mortality And Enjoyment: The Interplay Of Death And Possessions In Qoheleth.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73.2 (2011): 265-280. ATLA Religion   Database with ATLASerials. Web. 14 June 2015.

Sermon 1 by unknown author. “God Made Everything Beautiful in Its Time.” Pasig Covenant Reformed Church. 13 Jan. 2011. Web. 15 June 2015.

Sheppard, Gerald T. “Epilogue To Qoheleth As Theological Commentary.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 39.2 (1977): 182-189. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 14 June 2015.

Sproul, R. C. The Reformation Study Bible; ESV. Orlando: Ligonier Ministries ; Reformation Trust, 2015. Print.

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