Approaches to the Book of Ecclesiastes

From Anabaptistwiki

ADB logo letters.jpg Home A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Abbreviations Glossary

The interpretation of Ecclesiastes spans more than two thousand years and includes five basic approaches. A term that is critical in this history of interpretation is the word hebel, literally meaning vapor and often translated as vanity (KJV, NRSV) or meaningless (T/NIV, NLT). It serves as a motto and refrain in the book (see 1:2 and 12:8), and its various interpretations significantly affect the approach taken to the entire work [Vapor, p. 258].

The Repentant King

Two approaches to Ecclesiastes are found early in the history of its interpretation. Ancient Jewish interpreters (and some Christians) heard the speech of the author (Qohelet) in the book as the voice of a Repentant King confessing his failures. In his own past, the king remembers sinful, foolish, and futile activity that he calls vapor, meaning vanity. According to this position, Qohelet (understood to be Solomon) admits his own wrongdoing in order to warn his readers to avoid God’s judgment. He then goes beyond his personal story to cite other examples of those who have failed to fear God in one way or another (Murphy 1992: liii-liv).

While parts of the book fit this scenario, particularly those that lament wickedness and the futility of toil, it has several difficulties. Most significant, the speaker has things to say that are unrelated to repentance or seem counter to it. Some situations that he declares to be vapor and evil are matters outside a person’s control, such as handing down wealth to one who did not work for it (2:21). In addition, Qohelet is skeptical about the prospects for discerning what is good (6:12) and exhorts his readers not to be too righteous (7:15–18). Finally, the speaker does not hesitate to implicate God for various things (1:13), notably the lack of justice in the world (6:1–6) as well as the fact that wise and foolish people share the same fate (2:15–16). These matters, supposedly from one who is repentant and who is calling others to repentance, are hard to explain. {218}

The Ascetic Sage

Advocates of a second position, Christians in the early centuries and also some Jewish rabbis, understood the speaker to be an ascetic who challenges those who are living superficial and materialistic lives to deny themselves in preparation for the afterlife (Murphy 1992: xlviii-liii). According to this understanding, Qohelet (whose voice Christians understood to be that of Christ) cites numerous failures to find satisfaction in the present world in order to convince his readers to prepare for the next world. Vapor, in this case, refers to activity that is irrelevant or detrimental in light of eternity. Unlike the first position, this approach recognizes that the speaker does not simply lament his own behavior, but also laments vain things about life itself.

There are at least three problems with this position. First, Qohelet takes the traditional understanding that (shadowy) Sheol awaits mortals upon death (9:2–6, 10) rather than a heaven or hell and declares that the possibility of life beyond the grave cannot be known (3:19–22). Second, it is not clear that Qohelet counsels his readers to set aside the pleasures of this life, although he does point out their limits (2:2, 10–11). In fact, third, he urges the readers to accept pleasure as a gift from God (2:24–25; 3:12–13, 22) and goes so far as to insist that a life denied pleasure is not worth living at all (4:1–3; 6:1–6).

The Bitter Skeptic

An appreciation for the seriousness with which Qohelet addresses the complexities and enigmas of life led to a third approach, quite common among scholars in the past two centuries. From this perspective, the speaker is a Bitter Skeptic, one who is appalled to find life to be less than it should be. As a result, he declares human effort to be futile, certain aspects of life to be fleeting, and ultimately everything to be vapor in the sense of being absurd or meaningless. From this understanding, Qohelet cites repeated examples of life’s shortcomings and ironies in order to explain his bitterness and perhaps also to justify it. This position views the book as less a piece of persuasion and more a venting of its author’s frustrations.

This assessment of Qohelet as cynic has been very attractive for those in post-Enlightenment Western culture, and it may be even more so for adherents of a postmodern worldview. Here is a thinker who wrestles with challenges to faith raised by life’s absurdities and seeming inconsistencies without apologizing or offering simplistic solutions.

Yet the attempt to read the book consistently from this perspective raises several complications. A major challenge has been to reconcile negative assessments—such as the badness of life, the capriciousness of God, and the limitations of wisdom—with more hopeful statements of the goodness of life, the benevolence of God, and the value of wisdom [Contradiction and Paradox, p. 226]. Some have taken the speaker’s urgings to enjoy life as wishful thinking (Anderson: 73) or as resignation (Murphy 1992: 27). Yet, to ascribe Qohelet’s positive affirmations of life to wishful thinking or resignation does not adequately appreciate their frequency, their breadth (they address wisdom, pleasure, and toil), nor their typical emphatic placement at the conclusion of Qohelet’s discussions (Whybray 1982: 87–88).

Another approach to the book’s tensions proposes that the more traditional {219} statements are insertions by a later and more orthodox editor (Barton: 44–45). Yet the supposed additions are not placed in such a way that the editor makes the final statement. For example, located in 2:12–16; 3:16–21; and 8:10–14 are positive statements that have been proposed as insertions; yet in each case, the more skeptical voice gets the last word. “The addition hypothesis requires us to assume that a scribe (or several scribes) who fundamentally disagreed with Qohelet undertook to copy the work, then inserted additions that were supposed to counterbalance Qohelet’s skepticism and yet manifestly fail to do so” (Fox 1999: 19). Those who identify supposed insertions to Qohelet’s original work have been unable to agree with each other concerning what was added later.

The possibility that the book was originally so problematic raises the question why such an unorthodox work might have been preserved and given much respect. Why not just ignore or suppress the work? This is what happened to other controversial ancient writings, even those attributed to famous and venerated ancestors of the faith (Gordis: 71).

Finally, if the resulting work is essentially pessimistic or, at best, remains a patchwork of heresy and orthodoxy, what is its role in Scripture? The most complimentary response from those who take this position is that Ecclesiastes plays a gadfly role: it shows the extent to which human thinking is limited without God’s revelation. Some have claimed that the writer of the epilogue already recognized this role for Qohelet’s writing; he criticizes Qohelet yet finds some value in his work. It is thus the editor’s perspective—the one who quotes Qohelet (1:2; 7:27; 12:8) and critiques his theology in the epilogue (12:9–14)—that is approved and embraced by the canon (Longman 1998: 32–39, 274–84). Two other approaches to the book read the epilogue’s assessment of Qohelet’s contribution more positively, because they account differently for the book’s tensions and for the author’s purpose in writing.

The Preacher of Joy

Proponents of a fourth position, which was developed in the late twentieth century, agree with the Skeptic approach that the book’s author viewed life as absurd or meaningless, and the term vapor is also understood similarly. Yet they put much more emphasis upon the book’s recommendations to enjoyment, which they attribute to the author himself. From this perspective, Qohelet was a Preacher of Joy or pleasure. He first needed to convince his audience of all the absurd vapor in the world. He did this not primarily to vent his own frustrations but to motivate his audience to focus on the truly important things in life despite all the absurdity. The book, from this perspective, “gives guidance in moving toward happiness if not quite reaching it” (Fox 1999: 144). Perhaps only by deeply reflecting upon life’s vanities is one enabled to receive God’s gift of joy (Whybray 1989: 24–25; Kaiser: 41–42).

This position better accounts for the author’s positive admonitions. Yet it fails to adequately explain how Qohelet could declare life to be totally meaningless or absurd—both at the beginning and at the conclusion of the work (1:2; 12:8)—while at the same time instructing his audience how to find meaning. Proponents of this approach sometimes argue that the thematic statements in 1:2 and 12:8 (“vapor of vapors; all is vapor”) are from a later editor {220} who either misunderstood or oversimplified Qohelet’s thinking. However, regardless of the extent to which an editor is responsible for the final form of the book, the thematic statements fit the rest of the book extremely well.

For example, the contrast between vapor and gain in 1:2–3 is found several times elsewhere in the book (at 2:11 directly; cf. 3:9; 5:16; with similar terms at 5:10–11; 6:8–9, 11). And the “all-is-vapor” statements (also found at 1:14 and 3:19) are an excellent way to summarize the diversity of circumstances, experiences, possessions, and states of being that Qohelet identifies by the term vapor throughout the book (cf. other statements of vapor’s pervasiveness at 7:15 and 9:9). If Qohelet’s positive advice is to be taken seriously, a better accounting of the book’s framing statements is needed.

The Realist Counselor

A fifth position, also from the late twentieth century, likewise presents the book’s author as more positive. The distinctive of the Realist Counselor position is its understanding that Qohelet can allow for many bizarre, ephemeral, and disgusting things in life (hebel), yet not take a cynical approach to life as a whole. According to advocates of this approach, Qohelet does not merely acknowledge pockets of good amid life’s bleakness; he is also able to take all the uncertainty and tragedy and hold it together with life’s good and deeply satisfying aspects. The Teacher’s ability to do so is rooted deeply in his understanding of the nature of God (Fredericks 1993: 94–97; Johnston 1976; Ogden: 21–22; Seow 1997a: 58–60).

Proponents of this approach reject both the simple piety and the otherworldly spirituality of the Repentant King and Ascetic Sage positions. Yet they agree with them that admonitions of various types within Ecclesiastes reflect the author’s plan to instruct and motivate his audience toward some definite and specific action: he is a counselor. The Realist position can be also distinguished from both the Bitter Skeptic and the Preacher of Joy approaches because the term vapor is not understood to declare human experience as a whole to be meaningless or absurd.

The Realist approach is the perspective taken in this commentary. Its adherents tend to emphasize the metaphorical use of vapor in the book, for example claiming that the term is used to mean brevity or ephemerality—qualities of literal vapor. Similarly, this commentary argues that Qohelet uses the term as a symbol by which to summarize the complexities of life: like vapor, some things are insubstantial, such as wealth and wisdom; some are transient, such as youth; and others are foul, such as injustice. By adopting the image of vapor, Qohelet is able to use it to symbolize all of life with these three unsettling characteristics [Metaphor, Simile, and Symbol, p. 237; Vapor, p. 258].

Douglas B. Miller