“Everything is MEANINGLESS!” Interview with Pete Enns on Ecclesiastes (1 of 3)

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Below is an interview between myself and OT Scholar Pete Enns.  He is one of the foremost thinkers on critical scholarship and evangelical faith.  You can read his thoughts on Ecclesiastes below, which in my opinion is one of the most confusing books in the bible. You can read the other parts of the series here….

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Your commentary on Ecclesiastes is due out this October. Tell us about the commentary series. What is distinctive about it?

My commentary is in The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary series published by Eerdmans. The aim of the series is to bring the ancient text into conversation with contemporary theology and practice. Each commentary in the series follows the same general template.

The first half of the commentary lays out the argument of the book, section by section (not verse by verse). This is the nuts and bolts of “what exactly is Ecclesiastes trying to do?”

The second half of the commentary asks, “How do we engage Ecclesiastes as part of the Christian canon and for the Christian life?” I look at three expanding “big-picture” issues: (1) the theology of the book of Ecclesiastes as a whole; (2) Ecclesiastes vis-à-vis the Christian canon (biblical theology); (3) the significance of Ecclesiastes for theology and practice today.

The fact that Ecclesiastes is “aggressively pessimistic” makes for an interesting discussion when we get to second half of the commentary.

What do you mean by saying Ecclesiastes is “aggressively pessimistic”?

The main character of the book, called Qohelet, has some pretty harsh things to say about life as an Israelite. He is not simply skeptical. He is undone. He is in faith-crisis mode, and he pulls no punches letting us know it. His big beef is with God. Qohelet is angry with him.

Qohelet is angry with God? How so?

Qohelet looks around him and concludes that all of life is utterly senseless and absurd (“vanity of vanities” as the KJV puts it, “meaningless” in the NIV). Qohelet sees life this way because no matter what we do, no matter how much effort we put into anything, at the end of the day we have nothing of lasting value to show for it. Sure, you may acquire nice things, even a bit of fame, but—as the saying goes—you can’t take it with you.

That brings us to his main point: nothing we do has lasting value because we all die and will be quickly forgotten. This is a horrible situation, and there is no one to blame for it but God. He is responsible and there is nothing at all you can do about it. So, the best you can do the few years of your life is try to enjoy what you have and not think about the absurdity of it all.

To put it another way, Qohelet does not see the payoff of being an Israelite, since death completely neutralizes all of our efforts—and God is the one who set life up that way. Qohelet is not happy.

So, Ecclesiastes seems to be a book of little spiritual value?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you, but you’d be wrong. That kind of thinking is why Christian commentators have tended to go in one of two directions in trying to make Ecclesiastes “fit” with the rest of the Bible and with Christian theology.

You either safely dismiss what Qohelet says as heretical so you don’t need to pay attention to 12 chapters of venting, or you try to make Qohelet sound less dismal, even joyful.

I’m guessing that you don’t like either of these options.

Good guess. Either of these options undercuts the theology of the book.

You can’t make Qohelet out to be theologically safe. He does not give you that option. Nor can you write Qohelet off, either, as some heretical, impulsive, or immature simpleton. The fact that he is allowed to carry on for 12 chapters should send a clear signal that his words are not meant to be brushed aside.

Further, the end of the book won’t let you dismiss Qohelet’s words. In 12:9-14 we hear the voice of the book’s narrator (the same narrator who introduced Qohelet in 1:1-11). He neither condemns nor even corrects Qohelet, but calls him wise.

The narrator affirms Qohelet’s venting about God and the senselessness of life?

Correct, but the narrator does not leave his readers there. He affirms Qohelet while also moving beyond Qohelet. That is the key notion that helps the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

In 12:9-14, the narrator delivers his assessment of Qohelet’s words. The narrator tells us that Qohelet is wise—Qohelet is onto something worth listening to. And yes, his words may sting (like a goad with an embedded nail at the end to herd sheep, as the narrator tells us). But don’t continue in Qohelet’s line of thinking. At some point you need to get out of our head. (This is what he means by “the making of many books wearies the flesh.”) Instead continually turning all of this around and around in your head, the narrator says, “Enough. The end of the matter. Fear God and keep the commands.”

The narrator does not dismiss Qohelet as someone who needs to get with the program. He affirms Qohelet but then counsels his readers stay on the path anyway, to fear God and obey his commands.

That sounds like a rather orthodox response to Qohelet.

It is. Fearing the Lord and obeying his commands define Israel’s life as the people of God—fear and obedience sum up Israel’s wisdom and legal traditions. So, the book as a whole is a paradox. Qohelet says that being an Israelite has no lasting payoff, and the narrator affirms Qohelet’s observations as wise. But the narrator’s counsel is to continue being an Israelite anyway.

Ecclesiastes is a paradox because faith is a paradox.

OK, so, with all that being said, summarize the point of Ecclesiastes in a sentence or two. What is the Ecclesiastes trying to say?

Struggling with alienation from God is a normal part of the faith journey. And when (not if) you struggle, keep going anyway.

Or

Qohelet: “It sucks being an Israelite.
Narrator: “Dude, good call. You are so right. Be an Israelite anyway.”

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Peter Enns (PhD, Harvard University) is senior fellow of biblical studies for The BioLogos Foundation, an organization founded by Francis Collins that explores, promotes, and celebrates the integration of science and Christian faith. From his office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he writes a regular column for The BioLogos Forum blog Science and the Sacred. Enns has taught at Eastern University, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary and is the author or editor of several books, including Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament and two forthcoming books -Ecclesiastes (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary) and Evolution of Adam, The: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.

You can order Pete’s commentary for “pre-order” by clicking the image below:

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  • http://thewholedangthing.wordpress.com Ben Emerson

    I have had periods of my life where I ecclesiates was the only book in the Bible that made any sense. I think that kept me going because surely this book was in the bible for a reason. I am very interested to read his commentary.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment, Ben. And trust those instincts about Ecclesiastes.

  • dik

    i wonder if/how he picks-up on rom. 8:20f and 1 cor. 15:58 as NT engagement with the futility expressed by qohelet? i guess i’ll have to wait for his book to be available.

    • Anonymous

      dik,  I am among those who don’t think Rom 8:20f is an allusion to hebel in Ecclesiastes. I also don’t think Paul is interacting with Eccl in for 1 Cor. 15:58 and his topic is different as well. Just my opinion, of course.

      • dik

        Pete, if you were talking to a fellow Christian who was struggling with the same matrix of issues that Qohelet was, would you see that Rom 8:20f and 1 Cor. 15:58 might be helpful texts to address their needs, even though Paul wasn’t, as you see it, interacting with Ecc? If not, what are some of the scriptures you would want to encoruage them with?

        • Anonymous

          A lot depends on the person and the situation. There are times when the right approach is not to try to alleviate the struggle but to let the person experience it until they are undone. The issue depends entirely on the person’s spiritual maturity. Generally speaking, I would say the more mature are given opportunities by the spirit to struggle longer and more deeply. If there is encouragement for those in such a situation, it would be the very fact that the Bible models for us the very same type of deep struggle.

  • http://www.nearemmaus.com Brian LePort

    Great interview. It makes me want to purchase that commentary when I can!

    • Anonymous

      How about purchases several copies…when you can  :-)

  • Anonymous

    Glad to see this commentary coming out! We certainly need to recognize the voices of lament, doubt, and struggle that populate the pages of the scriptures. We probably need Ecclesiastes songs to set side by set next to our “praise songs.”

    • Anonymous

      We sure do. Thanks for the comment.

  • C A Ballard

    Thanks for this, I feel like I’m living Ecclesiates at the moment.  I certainly feel alienated from God, but couldn’t say there’s a particular reason that I’m aware of for it.  I like the comment - “Struggling with alienation from God is a normal part of the faith journey. And when (not if) you struggle, keep going anyway”.  I’m keeping going, but have to say it would be easier to walk away.

    • Anonymous

      I think many understand perfectly where you are. Sometimes–often–it helps to know that we are not alone.

  • Dr Mike

    Interesting approach.  It is somewhat similar to David Hubbard’s take on Ecclesiastes – that Qohelet is viewed as mature and to be considered carefully – but significantly different in disposition: in Hubbard’s commentary, Q is angry with false teachers of his day, not with God.

    I look forward to reading Dr E in more depth.  Thank you for this interview and synopsis.

    • Anonymous

      I think there is something to be said for Hubbard’s approach. There is a sense in which Qohelet likely has wisdom teachers in mind in his criticisms. But I am not sure I could call them false teachers. I’d have to think about that more. Interesting proposal.

  • dpasch01

    At the heart of the book is the Hebrew word for vanity (hebel).  Vanity of vanity all is vanity.  So what exactly is meant by vanity (hebel)?  When you unpack this you see that Q is not at all reflecting on “its sucks being an Israelite” rather a wise life in a life lived out of fear of God and keeping his commandments, not chasing after all those things he has in his life journey – he calls “it chasing the wind”.

  • Wayne

    The word “hebel” in Ecclesiastes is translated as “vanity” or “meaningless,” but these negative translations reflect value judgments that are not necessarily accurate.

    If instead you recognize the implications of  “breath” or “fleeting,” you can hear a very different value being applied. Life is a good thing, not a bad thing; it just doesn’t last as long as we might like.

    http://concordances.org/hebrew/1892.htm

    Personally, for now, I side with Qohelet. I hear him saying value life for what it is – enjoy it while it lasts.

    To me it sounds like 12:9-14 is a patronizing later naive commenter. To me it sounds like he wants the reader to ignore the wisdom of Qohelet, and instead to return to platitudes and to ignore the real value of life.

    • dpasch01

      Agreed “hebel” is like breathe, or fleeting – not negative rather by  illuminating the fleeting nature of life he thereby reveals where life – true life is found. (Eccl 1.9. 2.24, 3.12, 24, 8.15).  I hear 12.13-14 as the heart of the wisdom tradition that holds all of the preceding together.  Great discussion on great Wisdom!

      • Anonymous

        Folks, look at commentaries like Seow and Fox about how hebel is used in Ecclesiastes, and also the tone that Qohelet strikes in the book. He is saying more than life is fleeting. Fox’s “free” translation of hebel for a western audience is “absurd.”

      • Anonymous

        Folks, look at commentaries like Seow and Fox about how hebel is used in Ecclesiastes, and also the tone that Qohelet strikes in the book. He is saying more than life is fleeting. Fox’s “free” translation of hebel for a western audience is “absurd.”

        • dpasch01

          Better stated ‘ephemeral’ or ‘fleeting’ like vapor in their sense of life being hebel.  Hence everything in life is ephemeral and ultimately unreliable – so enjoy life’s goodness as it presents itself.  Yet this too is a gift from God (2.24-26) so 12.13-14.


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