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A Conflicted Qohelet: A Review Article

Meredith M. Kline

Ecclesiastes, by Peter Enns. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, xiv + 238 pages, $25.00, paper.

The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary series attempts to integrate exegesis with biblical and systematic theology. Therefore, the first half of this book has a traditional commentary format beginning with discussion of introductory matters like date, authorship, structure, and message (1–29), which is then followed by exegesis of the text in interaction with major commentators (30–116). The second half of the book consists of three theological essays covering the theology of Ecclesiastes (117–35), the relation of Ecclesiastes to the rest of the Bible (136–91), and contemporary application of Ecclesiastes (192–219). The book concludes with a bibliography (220–27) and indexes of authors and ancient literature (228–38).

While Qohelet is a mask for Solomon, Enns argues with the modern majority for non-Solomonic authorship, a post-exilic dating, and the need to differentiate the voices of Qohelet and a frame-narrator (16–22).[1] Because topics keep returning and shift abruptly, when Enns evaluates the book’s structure he divides it into sixteen units based on perceived changes of theme, thus producing a linear string of sections whose logical relations are not readily apparent; he is not convinced by contemporary proposals that the book is divided into halves or quarters, or has alternating themes, or exhibits a hierarchical structure (22–25).

Conflict within Qohelet

The standard paradigm for understanding Ecclesiastes is to see it as containing a combination of cynical (Qohelet’s theme is “life is absurd, you die anyway, and God is to blame,” 77) and pious sentiments. In Enns’s opinion, the “tension between affirming Qohelet’s harsh criticisms of God while affirming traditional Israelite theology lies at the heart of the interpretive difficulties with Ecclesiastes throughout Jewish and Christian history” (116).

Interpretations of Ecclesiastes differ in terms of how they relate its negative, positive, and pious ideas. Negative concepts include the idea that death cancels the profit of toil and the advantage of wisdom over folly, as well as the idea that divine retributive justice is absent from earthly life. Positive concepts include the idea that labor and wisdom provide earthly benefits. That God should be feared and obeyed and that there will be an ultimate, eschatological judgment are among the book’s pious ideas.

One interpretation sees the book’s thrust as cynical. Its negatives express the absurdity of life, its positives are hedonism, and its pious sentiments are editorial insertions inconsistent with the book’s pessimism. The interpretational tension results from apparent contradictions inherent in the received text. A common evangelical perspective perceives the book’s negatives as cynicism presented for argument’s sake in order to contrast it with traditional Israelite piety that is correlated with heavenly blessing. The tension is seen as a contrast between a pagan worldview that the book argues against and a biblical perspective that it promotes. A third position sees Qohelet’s negatives and positives as cynicism but the epilogue as a combination of traditional piety and a critique of Qohelet. The tension is viewed as a difference of opinion between Qohelet and a frame-narrator.

Enns presents a variation on the latter option by positing that Qohelet’s negatives and positives not only represent cynicism but can also reflect the doubts of a believer. This strategy by Enns moves the interpretational tension into Qohelet’s mind. He is simultaneously a rebellious cynic and a doubting saint. Qohelet is painted as a spiritual schizophrenic. In addition, for Enns the frame-narrator summarizes Qohelet’s cynicism in 1:1–11; approves it in 12:9–10; and supplements it in 12:13–14 with a traditional pious exhortation promoting obedience to God’s law while being ambivalent about the existence of a final judgment. According to Enns, for the Israelite covenant member (and analogously for the New Testament believer), the message of Ecclesiastes is that Qohelet’s “complaints are affirmed as wise, but the reader is challenged to move beyond this state, even against all reason, to one of fear of God and obedience to his commands—to continue being a faithful Israelite regardless of the absurdity” (148, italics original). The frame-narrator reinforces Qohelet’s emotional conflict.

Enns does not consider eliminating the tensions associated with the standard interpretational paradigm by following an alternative paradigm which considers the book’s negatives that distress a faithful Qohelet as common curse plus human folly while the positives that he appreciates are common blessing. In such a “realistic” view of providential miseries and mercies, there is no conflict of a Qohelet simultaneously criticizing and revering God.[2]

Enns definitely portrays Qohelet as a discontent who paints life as absurd.[3] Qohelet supposedly is angry with God (54, 123), who is arrogant and consuming (72), and blames him for making life meaningless and incoherent (39, 210–211). God is exasperating (67) and capricious (89), not comforting (50, 56, 60, 94), and approaching him in worship is risky (69) because he is not to be trusted (84). Qohelet rejects the idea of an afterlife (59, 109, “a useless theological category”—178) with a divine judgment (106),[4] so “God is the ultimate purveyor of injustice” (93). The fear of God “is not a healthy, covenantal fear ... but something dysfunctional, born out of frustration” (84). Wisdom is unreliable (81) and like righteousness does not consistently pay off (83). So, “being an obedient Israelite, at the end of the day, amounts to nothing” (94), and “living life with all our strength is our biggest protest against a fundamentally unjust and absurd circumstance that God has given us” (97).[5] Qohelet is resigned to the snippets of joy that wise work engenders but providence snatches with death (45), making one “a pawn in a cruel game” (73–74). Although Qohelet perceives one’s portion from labor as a gift of God (3:13, 5:18 [19][6]), Enns says “one’s portion is not the generous provision of a gracious God. It is humanity’s only recourse in carving out an island of provisional ‘meaning’ in the face of an ocean storm of divine injustice” (132).

For Enns, Qohelet’s epistemology is also an integral part of his cynicism: “For Qohelet, what is knowable is that which can be observed, either in time or space or in the mind’s eye. He has little patience for considering that, perhaps, there is more to reality than meets the eye. What is beyond our ability to experience is unknowable, plain and simple (e.g., what happens after death, 3:18–22)” (118). Also, “What is intriguing about Qohelet’s theology is that he undermines his own epistemology in the sense that, at the end of the day, there is very little we can know with certainty, and what one does know collapses into absurdity” (119). Qohelet is skeptical of wisdom and God. For Enns, “Qohelet’s conclusions about God and the world are drawn not on the basis of revelation but on his own vast (“under the sun”) experience” (118).[7]

At the same time, in his contemporary application of Ecclesiastes, Enns encourages the Christian to press on in life’s journey, trusting and obeying God despite physical, psychological, and spiritual suffering, sometimes even of horrendous magnitude. For the Christian reader the purpose of Ecclesiastes is to challenge us “to affirm the normalcy and benefit of being in a state of struggle, despair, and disorientation in one’s relationship with God at certain stages in our spiritual journeys” (207, italics in original). For the interpretation of Ecclesiastes, the significant portion of this sentence is what Enns did not italicize. He tries to appropriate a “cynical” negative outlook of Qohelet that he develops in his commentary section as the sporadic psychological doubt of a believer. For Qohelet, however, the stressful aspects of life “under the sun” apply to the whole of every individual’s life throughout earth history to the consummation. Enns understands a pagan perspective of resignation to absurdity as sometimes characteristic of a believer’s psychological oscillations, but Qohelet’s hating of life (2:17–18) because death wipes out earthly benefits always co-exists with his fearing of God.

Conflict of Qohelet and the Bible

For Enns conflict exists not only within Qohelet’s mind but also between Qohelet and the rest of Scripture. Enns thinks that the words of Ecclesiastes are counter to most other OT literature, being “not only in suggestive tension with other portions of the same Scripture, inspired by the same God, but are openly critical of those Scriptures—and even of God himself” (195). “Qohelet’s words do not simply contribute a particularly discordant voice to Scripture’s ultimately harmonious polyphony. He does not seek to add a dissonant note to a complex chord, thus producing an unexpected and richer harmony. His presentation of God, which is his considered and final opinion on the matter, calls into question the very notion of harmony. He neutralizes rather than adds to Scripture’s polyphonic testimony. He does not wish to be in conversation with other voices; he wishes to overtake them, to silence them. Synthesizing Qohelet and other voices is not just difficult—Qohelet would consider it foolishness” (196–97).

Like his Qohelet, Enns thinks it is foolish to harmonize the clashing cynical and orthodox pieties of Qohelet and the epilogist, so he maintains the dissonance and sculpts Qohelet into a changeling who morphs back and forth between a rebellious cynic and a reverent doubter. In addition, Enns does not try to harmonize the contrasting voices of Qohelet and Moses on retribution or the supposedly incompatible ideas of Qohelet and Jesus on the afterlife.

Ecclesiastes and the OT

Are the inscrutably distributed positives and negatives of Qohelet’s world the capricious impositions of a divine despot that contradict the retributive sanctions of Deuteronomy or the deeds-consequences teachings of Proverbs? Or, are Qohelet’s vanities and joys the common providences of an inscrutable sovereign which complement Deuteronomy and Proverbs? Enns holds the former[8] because he does not believe Ecclesiastes teaches there is an afterlife when divine justice will be executed and vindicated. Passages such as 3:17 (“God will judge the righteous and wicked”), 11:9 (“but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment”), possibly 8:6 (if translated “for every desire there is a judgment time”), and even 12:14 (“God will bring every deed into judgment”) Enns understands as not pointing to an afterlife judgment but to the implementing of just deserts during earthly existence.[9] Enns is even ambivalent about 12:14 which “does not necessarily imply an eschatological judgment, although the possibility should be left open” (115; compare “is not an allusion to eschatological judgment,” 156). Ecclesiastes is therefore cynical about divine retribution because it recognizes no post-death, consummation event where justice becomes evident. Nevertheless, the epilogist, says Qohelet, is wise and advises his son to commit himself to God “as a precondition to seeing the just God” (149). Enns adds that “this borders on the nonsensical, but this is precisely where the strength and wisdom of Ecclesiastes can be seen, not despite the despair but through it” (149). In this fashion, Enns has no need to invoke a contrast between common, inscrutable providence and typological, Israelite-theocratic, retributive sanctions or between common and redemptive grace.

Also, the way Enns handles the contrast between individual and communal experience within theocratic Israel is confusing. He feels OT wisdom has no redemptive-historical value if it reflects a common, individual rather than a theocratic, national Israelite context (164–67). Thus he transforms Qohelet’s individual complaint about common providence into a post-exilic, national, theocratic lament. But then, why is Ecclesiastes stripped of theocratic features? The activities of the Solomon-figure do not include building and dedicating the Israelite temple of Yahweh, even though in those times kings proudly produced self-glorifying texts about their temple-building and deity-honoring cultic activities, nor do they include theocratic (or even common) military victories. Even Solomon is renamed so he becomes a generic rather than a theocratic king. The book’s terminology focuses not on the sons of Israel but on the sons of Adam. Ecclesiastes is about experiencing non-retributive providence rather than theocratic sanctions. So it is inappropriate to equate the abandonment a saint feels under perplexing providence with the lament of faithful Israelites experiencing a national curse or to allegorize the latter as the former.

Enns also ends up with a post-exilic Qohelet whose response to the exile differs from other biblical folk: “The book’s relentless focus is on the deeply felt sense of disconnect between Israel and its covenant God” (166). Qohelet is a voice for an anger against God by faithful Israelites.[10] But such a perspective conflicts with the biblical picture that the exile was God’s punishment for national, covenant disobedience. For Enns, Ecclesiastes is about righteous Israelite captives questioning God’s ultimate goodness and justice, whereas the prayers of godly, post-exilic Israelites like Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah indicate human sin was the source of the nation’s difficulties.[11] Similarly, Qohelet certainly sees sin as responsible for life’s personal afflictions (1:13; 3:16–17, 7:20–22, 29; 11:9–10). Also, a wise, post-exilic Israelite might have lamented the fact that God’s chosen nation warranted theocratic curses and jeopardized the reputation of its gracious God or that individually faithful covenant members experienced the national curses. But lamenting theocratic curses is not the same as a NT believer doubting the Lord’s beneficence while undergoing divine common curses, Satanic persecution of the elect, or the folly of human oppression (5:6 [7]).

By correlating Qohelet’s negative outlook with the distressing conditions of domination by foreign oppressors, Enns also undermines the emphasis of Ecclesiastes. This focus of Ecclesiastes results from having Qohelet masquerade as Solomon so that the book’s negative reality is an appropriate analysis even in the best of earthly times for the wisest and wealthiest human.[12]

Ecclesiastes and the NT

When Enns compares Qohelet with Jesus, he reverts to a “Qohelet-as-cynic” view to contrast their teachings. What qualifies them both as wise sages is not their ideas but the fact that each was contrarily counter-cultural in his own context and that both utilized empirical observations of nature and human activity in their teaching, even if reaching different conclusions (172–77). What Enns blurs, however, is that Qohelet supposedly counters traditional, orthodox Israelite wisdom, whereas Jesus counters aberrant Israelite religiosity. Enns says one should not attempt to unify the divergent ideas of Qohelet and Jesus but should respect their historic conditionedness and see how they cohere (180–81). By “cohere” Enns does not mean how ideas are compatible but how when juxtaposed it is obvious they changed over time, so the ideas of Qohelet and Jesus are held in tension. Both Qohelet and Jesus are approved, even if they contradict each other.

Thus, as presented by Enns, Qohelet, as an early second-temple sage supposedly does not integrate the idea of an afterlife into his thinking, whereas Jesus, who came after second-temple developments subsequent to Ecclesiastes of belief in an afterlife with eschatological judgment, does. Not only does Enns undermine specific statements of Qohelet to the contrary, as well as the implication of Qohelet’s spatio-temporal framework, but he fits his contrast between the views of Qohelet and Jesus into a matrix of culturally determining thought. Supposedly, an exilic Israelite could not envisage an afterlife with a divine judgment,[13] whereas such an idea was established in the mindset of Jesus’s generation because of intervening second-temple apocalyptic literature. The ideas of Qohelet are culturally and temporally determined.

Enns does exhibit a typical, historically-conditioned hermeneutic in relation to Ecclesiastes whereby Qohelet’s negative outlook is purportedly derived from the distressing conditions of domination by foreign oppressors. Even though in this fashion Enns diminishes the force of Qohelet’s negatives as characteristic of the best of times, what is distressing is his historically-determined hermeneutic. Ironically, Qohelet as counter-cultural could undermine traditional Israelite orthodoxy but he could not question pagan disbelief in an afterlife, eschatological judgment!

Similarly, Enns’s view of Scripture as incarnational, limited by the perspectives of its human authors,[14] means Qohelet’s views can be inspired errors. They are not like those of Job’s friends, bad theology presented as wrong-headed, but bad theology presented as truth. They are the best he could do at the time. The Bible contains wrong views of God presented as truth: “In Scripture God allows to have ascribed to him the limited and fallen view of his creatures” (201). Enns’s hermeneutic eschews harmonizing the Bible’s theology by presuming it is impossible because of the inescapable historical confines of its authors.

Enns’s discussion of the relationship of Ecclesiastes to Jesus focuses on different concepts of an afterlife rather than on a redemptive-historical understanding of how Ecclesiastes and Jesus relate on such themes as the power and wisdom of God and humans, topics that the book’s structure makes prominent. Enns’s Christotelic instead of Christocentric hermeneutic also disapproves of typical “Qohelet-as-evangelist” or “Qohelet-as-realist” ways of preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes (27–29, 138–41, 168). A Christotelic perspective concentrates on Christ’s death and resurrection while neglecting his heavenly and consummation glorification, a view which fits with Ecclesiastes’ supposed disinterest in an afterlife or final judgment.

Missed Theological Issue

Because Enns predominately portrays Qohelet as a cynic he does not deal with a theological issue that traditionally has led most evangelical interpreters in a different direction. Qohelet teaches that work is in vain, whereas Paul teaches that work in the Spirit is not in vain. A typical “evangelist” way to harmonize this contrast is to understand Qohelet as presenting a pagan perspective that needs to be repented of so that earthly toil can be perceived as worthwhile. Life is better when one fears God. Enns rightly thinks this view undercuts the force of Qohelet’s position that life is difficult even when God is faithfully feared. Enns additionally disagrees with the “evangelist” interpretation since it takes the book’s positives as depicting the way in which work is not in vain. Instead, Enns’s view is that the book’s positives present Qohelet’s resignation to temporary benefits accompanying vain labor. Life is not necessarily better when God is revered.

Enns so concentrates on countering the “evangelist” interpretation that he does not deal with the contrast between Qohelet and Paul. His commentary has no interaction with a “realist” interpretation that views Qohelet’s negatives as common curse and his positives as common blessing. A “realist” interpretation supports a “two-kingdom” theology. The earthly-kingdom, cultural-mandate task of producing ever-living generations of the family of the first Adam is a failure (1:3–8), whose futility Qohelet laments. His “under the sun—until the consummation” framework of a world which lacks retributive justice and implies a Doomsday is complemented by the Christian’s realization that great-commission labor in building the heavenly, eternal family of the second Adam, is not in vain. Faithful perseverance in the futility of even flourishing, God-honoring earthly work serves to preserve the environment in which Christ-kindred are born by the Spirit’s power.

Thus, despite properly emphasizing the comfort Ecclesiastes can provide for contemporary believers by encouraging Christians to persevere in faith despite life’s hardships, Enns’s conflicted Qohelet and interpretation of Ecclesiastes should be dissatisfying to preachers and confusing to suffering believers.

Endnotes

[1] In addition to the commonly perceived frame of 1:1–2, 7:27, and 12:8–14, Enns also attributes 1:3–11 to a narrator because 1:12 reads like the beginning of a typical ancient Near Eastern royal autobiography.

[2] A “pragmatist” interpretation which similarly views the negatives as normal experiences of Adam-kind while emphasizing the joy theme in Ecclesiastes differs from a “realist” perspective in not believing that Ecclesiastes teaches there is an eschatological Doomsday.

[3] That a cynical-Qohelet portrait dominates the interpretation of this commentary is revealed by the fact that the bibliography and footnotes (which are minimal in the theology section) do not interact with works arguing for an “evangelist” or a “realist” interpretation of Ecclesiastes, even if they cite articles by such authors on particular exegetical details. The few evangelicals referred to in the commentary section for grammatical or philological support are disregarded in the theology section. The bibliography does not include anything published after 2008, so unfortunately Enns was not able to interact with recently published Reformed works on Ecclesiastes such as the commentaries of Bartholomew, Fredericks, and Ryken or to Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes by Greidanus.

[4] The reference in 11:9 to the judgment of God is interpreted as referring to old age (106–7). Similarly the statement in 3:17 that God will judge the righteous and wicked “is at best a temporary and shallow consolation” (57).

[5] Enns, however, believes the frame-narrator offers counsel to persevere despite apparent injustice, thus having the frame narrator approximate a “realist” position, but Enns claims not to understand or like such advice (217).

[6] The Hebrew text in chapter 5 is different than the English text and thus [bracketed].

[7] Here, presumably, Enns means special revelation, not general revelation, but Ecclesiastes certainly has intertextual allusions to Genesis, Deuteronomy, and Kings; Solomon is surely masked by Qohelet. Also, a secularist, empirical epistemology does not jibe with Qohelet’s statement in 9:10 that there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol. How can he be sure empirically that there is no earth-like living in that realm, since some ancients provided the dead with vessels and food for post-mortem existence or since Saul had an encounter with the deceased Samuel?

[8] Even for Enns to have the epilogist promote Torah observance with the admonition to fear God and keep his commandments is not as much in keeping with traditional Israelite piety as he imagines, since Deuteronomy in addition motivates covenant faithfulness with the pointer to divine, redemptive grace in the exhortation to love God and keep his commandments.

[9] Despite Qohelet’s statements to the contrary (7:15, 8:14, 9:1–3, 11).

[10] Thus, the fear of God in 5:6 [7] is not the reverence for God found in Proverbs but dread of a capricious deity that is accompanied by pain, anxiety, and frustration (69).

[11] Enns does note that the exile was a theocratic sanction against a disobedient covenantal nation (125), but he also applies individual transgression against the covenant lord to the national, theocratic rather than to the individual, common level when he deals with wisdom literature in terms of redemptive history.

[12] Even though Enns makes this point about 1:12 (37) and 2:1–11 (45–46), it gets overwhelmed by his post-exilic-conditioned view of Ecclesiastes.

[13] Despite Job 19:25–26, Isaiah 24–27, or Daniel 12:2-3 (though Enns dates Daniel after the rise to prominence of the afterlife concept in later second-temple Judaism, 178 note 44). In his comments on 3:20–21 Enns inconsistently acknowledges that some Israelites must have entertained the idea of an afterlife but Qohelet “rejects it, or at least any way of knowing for sure. It is worth mentioning that some notion of the afterlife in Israel must have been current for such a denunciation to have made sense” (59).

[14] With the term “incarnational” Enns puts the emphasis on the human nature of the Bible: “Israel’s Scripture was an expression of self-definition” (167). But in covenant literature the suzerain, rather than the vassal, does the defining.

Meredith M. Kline is the Director of the Goddard Library at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts and the librarian at First Presbyterian Church, North Shore (OPC), He has completed his PhD thesis on Ecclesiastes and is a member of First Presbyterian Church, North Shore (OPC) in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant Online, March 2014.

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