Archive for the ‘Ecclesiastes’ Category

Life in a Frustratingly Enigmatic World

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Many interpreters maintain that the overall message of Ecclesiastes is one of cynicism and vanity. According to this perspective, the author of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet (an epithet for Solomon), has written a book unlike any other in the canon???-one that focuses on cynicism and complete despair.

Those who take this view derive the message of despair from some ???negative??? motifs in Ecclesiastes. The most dominant of these begins the book in 1:2: ???Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity??? (NASB). ???Vanity??? translates the Hebrew word hebel.

Since hebel occurs multiple times in every chapter of Ecclesiastes, readers must understand it in order to grasp the message of the book. But if this term is exclusively negative, how do we explain its juxtaposition to the exhortations to enjoy life (the carpe diem passages)? More specifically, is ???vanity??? or any other negative term (such as NIV???s ???meaningless??? or HCSB???s ???futility???) the best way to render hebel in Ecclesiastes?

I respond to this type of interpretation of Ecclesiastes by demonstrating that Qohelet’s use of hebel, the carpe diem passages, and his exhortations to reverentially fear God work against a negative view of hebel and against an overall pessimistic interpretation of Ecclesiastes (as an aside, both my posts at Sharper Iron provide background material as to why I named my blog “Fearing God in a Hebel World“). You can read both posts by going to part 1 and part 2.

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What I Am Reading on Ecclesiastes

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

I am preparing to teach a ThM class this coming fall at DBTS, Hebrew Exegesis of Ecclesiastes. In preparation for this class, I recently acquired Craig Bartholomew‘s
Ecclesiastes (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms). Bartholomew’s work is a welcome addition to the increasing number of commentaries on this book.

Because I lead a PhD seminar on Ecclesiastes at Central Baptist Seminary in the spring of 2009, I have interacted with other material Bartholomew has written on Ecclesiastes and appreciate his insightful scholarly interaction with the voluminous sources on Ecclesiastes. Consequently, I have been looking forward to Baker’s release of his commentary. My first impressions reflect that my wait has been worthwhile.

Bartholomew is highly qualified to write this commentary. His 1998 publication Reading Ecclesiastes: Old Testament Exegesis and Hermeneutical Theory, a revision of his 1996 dissertation at the University of Bristol, shows a depth and breadth of scholarship in tracing the history of Old Testament hermeneutics and biblical exegesis, specifically in Ecclesiastes. While the complexities associated with the history of Ecclesiastes studies are described and critiqued, he also argues that the “implied author” of Ecclesiastes is divided between the puzzling nature of the divine gift of joy, like those found in the carpe diem passages, and the frustrating situations one finds in a sin-cursed world, such as those found in the hebel passages. Bartholomew’s solution to these tensions in Ecclesiastes is found in one’s “Christian worldview.” As such, his interpretative approach to Ecclesiastes offering joy and faith as solutions to life’s tensions is a helpful contrast to the many commentaries that take a pessimistic interpretation of Ecclesiastes.

Bartholomew provides a thorough introduction to Ecclesiastes (pp. 17???99). His introduction provides a helpful and detailed discussion of germane introductory issues:

title (pp. 17-18)

canonicity (pp. 18-20)

history of interpretation (pp. 21-43)???a must read

authorship and date (pp. 43-54)???is Ecclesiastes a “royal fiction” with a post-exilic date?

social setting (pp. 54-59)

text (59???61)

genre and literary style (pp. 61-82)???informative discussion

structure (pp. 82-84)

reading Ecclesiastes within the context of Proverbs and Job and its connection to Torah (pp. 84-93)

message (pp. 93-96)

Ecclesiastes and the New Testament (pp. 96-99)

The remainder of this volume is divided into the actual commentary (pp. 101-373), followed by a postscript (pp. 375-89), bibliography (pp. 391-420), and indices referencing subjects, authors, scripture and other ancient writings (pp. 421-48). The commentary itself is divided into three sections.

Frame Narrative: Prologue (1:1-11), pp. 101-117

Qohelet’s Exploration of the Meaning of Life (1:12-12:7), pp. 119-357

Frame Narrative: Epilogue (12:8-14), pp. 359-373

As you can tell, Qohelet’s Exploration of the Meaning of Life (pp. 119-357) consumes the bulk of his discussion. This is divided into 21 units. With each of the 21 units, as well as the prologue and epilogue, Bartholomew provides his own translation, followed by a section on interpretation and theological implications.

As Bartholomew takes us through the various mazes of life, he shows how joy and faith undergirds the believer’s journey through one’s frustratingly enigmatic life. Thus, his work has many highlights. I cannot resist mentioning one example. The theme of Ecclesiastes is introduced in Ecclesiastes 1:2 with its fivefold use of hebel: “Hebel of hebels, says the Preacher, hebel of hebels. All is hebel.” The fact that v. 2 is essentially repeated in 12:8 (“Hebel of hebels , says the Preacher; all is hebel”) confirms that 1:2 is the subject of Ecclesiastes. Besides the eight uses of hebel in 1:2 and 12:8, it is used thirty other times in the book at key junctures. Certainly, an important issue in Ecclesiastes is the interpretation of hebel. Many options have been suggested on the translation of this term ranging from a word with negative connotations, such as “vanity” (KJV) or “meaningless” (NIV), to a word allowing for more positive uses, such as Bartholomew’s option “enigmatic.” While this word is discussed in a number of different sources (see pp. 93-94, 104-6; and pp. 88-95 of my “Message of Ecclesiastes“), his translation of it as “enigmatic” opens the possibility that one may find God-centered satisfaction in the many twists of life. His rendering of hebel is just one of the many commendable features of this volume. Craig Bartholomew has provided us with an exegetically detailed interaction with the Hebrew text and a theologically informative commmentary. I can highly recommend this commentary to biblical scholars, pastors, and serious Bible students.

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Ecclesiastes Bibliography

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

If you have an interest in Ecclesiastes studies, I just updated my bibliography. To download it, click here.

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Seminar at Central Baptist Seminary

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

On January 14-16, I had the opportunity to lead a PhD module seminar on Ecclesiastes at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, MN. I enjoyed getting better acquainted with their faculty (for a list of the faculty, click here). Two of Central’s faculty members are Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary graduates: Dr. Dan Brown, who graduated with a Master of Divinity degree in 1982 (a year before I began teaching at Detroit), and Dr. Jeffrey Straub, who graduated with an MDiv in 1994 and then did classroom work in our ThM program. One of the classes that I taught Dr. Straub was a ThM Hebrew Exegesis of Micah in the Fall of 1996. Besides being a WYSIWYG person, one of the things I remember most about Dr. Straub was his intermittent mantra: “Don’t sweat the dagesh” (a dot that is inserted at key junctures in the middle of Hebrew letters). This proverb was good for a laugh or two in the 1990s; however, it was even funnier when one of the students on the first day of the seminar asked me if I sweat the dagesh. At that point, I knew that I had been set up. It was good to renew friendships with the faculty and staff at Central.

I had two students in the seminar: Gelu Pacurar, a pastor from Arad, Romania, and Tim Little, an adjunct faculty member at Faith Baptist Theological Seminary and assistant bookstore manager. In the following picture, Tim owns the Macintosh and Gelu has the other computer.


Each day, the students had to be prepared to orally translate from their Hebrew Bibles four chapters in Ecclesiastes. In addition, they lead discussions on key introductory and interpretative issues in Ecclesiastes. When the class is concluded on April 13 & 14, each student will present a term paper, respond to the other student’s paper, and do a critical book review. I am pleased with the effort that both Gelu and Tim exerted in the seminar and I found the interaction refreshing. I may have been refreshed, however, because I have learned as a seminary professor that it is more blessed to give than receive. If you want to check out the course requirements, clickhere.

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