Meredith M. Kline
Recovering Eden: the Gospel According to Ecclesiastes, by Zack Eswine. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014, xiii + 246 pages, $14.99, paper.
Recovering Eden is a homiletic rather than an academic presentation of the message of Ecclesiastes. The series is directed to lay readers and pastors, so there are few footnotes and most of the bibliography is of cultural or theological works not focusing on Ecclesiastes. The text is sermonic, written in an engaging style with many illustrations and rich metaphors.
The format of the book is not a linear commentary through each section of Ecclesiastes. It begins with two chapters introducing the reader to unexpected aspects of Ecclesiastes. In the first chapter Qohelet’s ideas are portrayed as disconcerting because they present the exceptions encountered in life to the more familiar concept of Proverbs that righteous behavior results in positive experiences and because, unlike most of the Old Testament, Qohelet’s message does not deal with distinctive features of the redemptive covenant community but with the common miseries and mercies experienced by all humanity. In the second chapter the method of Ecclesiastes is pictured as unsettling because its negative language—that all is meaningless, life is hated, and the stillborn is better off because not experiencing the evil of this present world—dominates the sporadic recommendations to enjoy life.
Next, Eswine begins to proceed through the text. He perceives Ecclesiastes as a sermonic thesis (“all is vanity,” 1:2, 12:8) which is explained in chapters 1–10, applied in 11–12:7, and supplemented in 12:9–14 with an evangelistic call to fear and obey God. He spends five of his remaining nine chapters focusing on the first three chapters of Ecclesiastes. This organization works, however, because topics recur throughout Ecclesiastes, so much of the last half of Ecclesiastes has been included in the discussion. Nevertheless, some passages do not get covered, including the programmatic questions of 6:8–12, since Eswine’s last four chapters concentrate on only selected portions of the remainder of Ecclesiastes. That Eswine in his discussion of 12:13–14 includes references to God as judge in 3:17 and 11:9 and that the command to fear God also occurs in 5:7 along with the term God-fearers in 7:18 and 8:13, however, indicates that the concluding remarks are integral to the book’s message and not just a pious addition. Recognition of the alternation of the work and wisdom themes as well as their integration with the thematic questions about what profit or advantage accrues to humans would also warrant changes in how common, recurring topics might have been more organically arranged.
Is Ecclesiastes about exhorting a secularist to become a God-fearing theist or about reminding a devout believer to remain faithful despite an inscrutable divine providence overlaying a world of rampant human wickedness? Is the message of Ecclesiastes to trust God in order to experience the blessings of his presence or to trust God and enjoy life’s blessings despite his seeming absence from a world filled with human folly, demonic activity (associated with the הֲבָלִים hábälîm idols of 5:7, 6 in Hebrew), and the common curse culminating in death?
For Eswine the warning of ultimate divine justice in 12:13–14 is a final appeal to a deity-repressor to trust God. Unlike the common evangelistic interpretation of Ecclesiastes which perceives the book’s negatives as the view of someone who is skeptical about God’s goodness, however, Eswine believes Qohelet trusts God but is only cynical, as he supposedly explains in 2:1–11, about the ability of earthly endeavors to satisfy humanity’s deepest longings for fellowship with God. The thrust of Ecclesiastes is to warn of the dangers of human folly and to point to the joys associated with trusting God. While Qohelet does promote righteousness and wisdom rather than sinfulness and folly and believes God is just, what disturbs him is not just that humans warp reality but that God is behind life’s inexplicable (1:15, 7:13, 8:16–17), “unhappy business” (1:13).
Are the efforts described in 2:1–11 examples of self-centered, foolish worldliness? Supposedly they would not supply the satisfying joy recommended in 2:24–26; 3:12–13, 22; 5:18–20; 8:15; 9:7–10; and 11:7–10, yet Qohelet says in 2:10 that he did get enjoyment from such labors which, as the text highlights in 2:3, 9, were guided by wisdom. Is not what he laments with his vanity judgment in 2:11 that death cancels any earthly gains or joys he experienced through his projects, even as divine gifts? Is 2:1–11 informing a secularist of the futility of his ways or lamenting the fact that, even for the righteous-wise, exhilarating earthly endeavors cannot recreate Eden or escape the disheartening effects of death on individual and cultural labor?
Eswine’s title unveils his interpretational stance: Ecclesiastes tries with the “joy” passages to persuade the reader to recover the shalom of Eden. Such a position seems plausible if the negatives of Ecclesiastes are construed as only folly rather than a combination of folly and the common divine curse evident in providence. But, not only did pre-Fall theocratic Eden not have a common curse falling on its king, but vassal Adam also had physical, visible interaction with the divine suzerain. Qohelet laments the permanent loss of both features in life under the sun. The fact that God accompanies believers even in their present difficulties is not the same as Adam’s Edenic fellowship with God. Neither is Ecclesiastes explicitly about experiencing the glory of a visibly integrated heaven and earth but only about how to navigate the current frustrations and fortunes of earthly reality.
The stated challenge for books in this series is how to present the gospel from the Old Testament by means of Christ-centered preaching. Eswine relates Christ to Ecclesiastes in two ways. First, he draws parallels between Ecclesiastes and Jesus. Many of the teachings of Qohelet can be replicated by the words of Jesus. Additionally, Jesus had experiences like characters in Ecclesiastes; he knew the joys of common blessings and the opposition of the wicked. Second, Jesus transcends aspects of Ecclesiastes. He speaks of heavenly, not just earthly, treasures and he is not only a servant leader but also the wise and righteous good shepherd who conquers death.
What about the gospel? How can the message of a divine doomsday in 12:13–14 be a comforting conclusion if all are sinners (7:20–21)? The phrase “fear God” in 12:13 should recall the same phrase in 5:7 in a context about paying a vow, which assumes God has graciously answered a plea for deliverance in dire earthly circumstances. By implication, the hope is that God would save from his own wrath, not only from the dangers of folly, evil, or the common curse but from the ultimate, eschatological curse. Eswine does indicate how Ecclesiastes points to the accomplishment of redemption. The sacrifice at the house of God (5:1) is a type of Christ, the Slain Lamb. In discussing 5:1, though, Eswine does not focus on self-evaluation when entering the presence of a holy God by developing the parallel with the flaming sword guarding the way to Eden, which might support his theme of recovering Eden. Instead he concentrates on separating oneself from unbelievers in the church.
Are the ideas of the application of redemption and the doctrine of saving grace evident in Ecclesiastes? Eswine refers to the transforming work of the Spirit in his discussions about how Jesus transcends Ecclesiastes but not as a message inherent in a pericope of Ecclesiastes. Is the idea of redemptive grace explicit in Ecclesiastes or only elicited by contrast? Qohelet may assume that there are people who are righteous and wise but does Ecclesiastes have anything to say about the change from sinner to saint? By what power can the youth depicted in 11:8–10 obey the command to rejoice in energetic activity yet stand acquitted before the divine judge?
In Ecclesiastes rejoicing may be evidence of special grace, a gift of God (3:13, 5:18), but it is happiness for common grace, not a celebration of redemption. Nevertheless, salvation by grace alone is indicated explicitly in Ecclesiastes by the fact that it joins wisdom with righteousness so that when 2:26 indicates God gives wisdom and knowledge along with joy, the gift of righteousness is hinted at. In addition to passages like 3:12–13 and 5:18 which indicate contented joy is a gift of divine grace, the message of the provision of God’s transforming grace is inherent in 12:11 if the difficult poetic imagery and wording is rendered so that what is given by the supreme shepherd is not inspired words (“collections”) of the wise but rather the “gatherings (of the harvest)” of righteousness and wisdom, the fruit of sage instruction that ripens only by the gracious gift of God.
Thus, though Recovering Eden could be sharper on the existence of the theme of spiritual transformation in Ecclesiastes, Eswine repeatedly offers rich pastoral wisdom, with insights not found in commentaries, so its intended audience will profit immensely from this book. Whether one takes an evangelistic tack on Ecclesiastes that concentrates on exhortations to be wise and righteous rather than wicked and foolish or emphasizes a realistic view of how to live amidst the positive and negative features of our wacky world, Recovering Eden provides its readers with an abundance of sagacious fruit from the tree of life for strengthening a healthy mind to make wise spiritual decisions amidst the trials and temptations of ordinary living outside Eden.
Meredith M. Kline is the Director of the Goddard Library at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. 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, August-September 2014.