Ecclesiastes | Peter Enns

Death makes life absurd.

This is the message of Ecclesiastes in four words. Enns does a great job clarifying and emphasizing this point in his Two Horizons commentary.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a sandwich:

  1. Frame Narrator (1:1-11)
  2. Qohelet (preacher) (1:12-12:7)
  3. Frame Narrator (12:8-14)

The Frame Narrator begins by summarizing the Qohelet’s words (Life is absurd). Next, the Qohelet himself, assuming a royal persona, reaffirms the declaration that life is absurd since death levels the playing field.

The message of Ecclesiastes can be clarified when we look at the phrase, “the end of man,” repeated four times:

  1. The end of man is to be happy and do good while he lives (3:13)
  2. The end of man is to enjoy the prosperity God gives (5:19)
  3. The end of man is to die (7:2)

In the end, the Frame Narrator picks up on this key phrase and gently reminds the reader:

  • The end of man is to fear God and to keep his commandments (12:13)

The Narrator doesn’t deny or undermine the observations of the Qohelet. Instead, he agrees. Sure, live is absurd and death robs life of its meaning. In light of this, what can we do but serve God?

Enns’ commentary is a paragraph by paragraph reading of the text. This style of commentary makes it easy for the important themes to shine through. It also helps to guard against false isolated readings. Perhaps the greatest example of a wrongheaded reading of Ecclesiastes is the “Time” meditation in chapter 3. The Byrds transformed a statement of hopelessness into zen-like tranquility. The Qohelet was far more frustrated than Pete Seeger was at life!

The commentary proper is only half of the book. After a thorough reading of the text, Enns reflects on in in the following ways:

  1. Theological Horizons of Ecclesiastes: Here Enns reflects on whether or not Ecclesiastes is Wisdom literature since the Qohelet has some negative things to say about wisdom itself. He also emphasizes the Qohelet’s negative view of God as well as how death makes life meaningless. “Ecclesiastes is a brutally honest book, and we will not profit from it if we tame it according to another standard, be it one gleaned from elsewhere in Scripture or of our own devising” (135).
  2. The Contribution of Ecclesiastes to Biblical Theology: Here Enns clarifies the relationship between Ecclesiastes and Job, Psalms, and Proverbs. Expanding outward from there, he reflects on Ecclesiastes as Second Temple theology—what if God himself is the problem? As the horizon broadens to the New Testament, Enns examines how Jesus embodies the one abandoned by God. The Qohelet’s words “give believers a glimpse—only a glimpse—of the hopelessness and despair of Christ’s passion” (171). Jesus also embodies the figure of wisdom himself.
  3. The Significance of Ecclesiastes for Theology and Praxis Today: Enns concludes with two ways that Ecclesiastes can influence theology and life today. The first concerns our understanding of the nature of Scripture. Ecclesiastes proves that contrary voices are welcomed by God. Enns evokes Brueggemann’s “countertestimony” to describe Ecclesiastes’ contribution. This welcoming of contrary voices is important for us to understand today. “If our model of Scripture is defined by too restrictive articulations of divine authority, infallibility, or even polyphony, we may run afoul of the contrastive power of books like Ecclesiastes” (198). The second contribution Ecclesiastes has to offer us is a renewed emphasis on honesty in the faith journey. If nothing else, the Qohelet proves that God honours honesty over propriety!

I’ve read Longman and Fox on Ecclesiastes. While they both have deep philosophical and linguistic insight, I found Enns commentary more helpful in understanding the overall force of the book. Enns allows the Qohelet to speak in all his quasi-blasphemous anger and frustration without trying to force him into a modern theological position. If you want one book to help understand the book of Ecclesiastes, this is it.

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