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

“Everything is MEANINGLESS!” Interview with Pete Enns on Ecclesiastes (3 of 3) September 29, 2011

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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….


What do you think are some misunderstood passages in the book?

There are a few passages, in my opinion, that are often misunderstood because of the perceived theological need to make Qohelet’s words safe.

One clear example is 3:1-8, made famous by The Byrds (“to everything, turn, turn, turn….”). Nice harmonies, bad theology. When Qohelet says there is a time and season for everything, he is not getting mellow like a 60s flower child. He is resigning himself to the fact that all things—birth and death, sowing and reaping, dancing and mourning, etc.—have times and seasons that are utterly out of human control. They are God’s times and seasons. We just go along for the ride.

Take birth and death. What control do we have over these things? Does anything we do control our own death or getting a dreaded late night phone all? No. Do we in any sense control the time and season of our own birth? Of course not. And try determining when it is time to sow seeds and when it is time to reap the harvest. God directs the seasons. All the rhythms of life are out of our control.

That is Qohelet’s point in 3:9, the verse right after the “turn, turn, turn” list. He laments, “What do workers gain from their toil?” This is a lament, a recognition that we can only be resigned to this state of affairs. No matter what one does, the rhythm of the cosmos described in verses 1-8 is undisturbed. All we do is wasted effort because it changes nothing.

The fact there is a time and a season for everything does not make for a good “Precious Moments” wall hanging or a peaceful folk melody. It makes you reach for the bottle (as Qohelet does in chapter 2!).

You’ve got my attention. How about another example.

Thought you’d never ask. Take the so-called carpe diem passages, where Qohelet tells his readers to eat, drink, and enjoy what they have in this life (the first carpe diem passage is 2:24-26). But these are not moments of joy, as if Qohelet is relieved to have solved the problem of his predicament. Again, he is resigning himself that life truly is senseless. So, there is nothing better than to have a beer or two and watch some football. Whatever you do, Qohelet says, don’t think too hard about the big picture. It will drive you crazy. (He says in chapter 1 that wisdom causes vexation and grief. Ignorance is bliss.)

There is not the slightest hint of encouragement in these carpe diem passages. I know many of us have Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society ringing in our ears, but get that out of your minds. Qohelet is not telling his readers to seize life and live it to the fullest. He is telling them not to bother.

How do you feel about preaching through Ecclesiastes?

Ambivalent. Not every book of the Bible is meant to be preached in a sermon series, and I think Ecclesiastes is one of them. The reason I say this is because any part of the book only makes sense in light of the whole—meaning, the words of the narrator in 12:9-14.

You can’t go passage by passage through Ecclesiastes in the same way you might go through the Psalms, Genesis, or Romans. Ecclesiastes as a whole is an argument and all the parts are working at every moment —no part can be taken in isolation. If you read, say, a carpe diem passage without catching the whole of Qohelet’s despondency and what the narrator does with it at the end, you might think, “Hey, here is nice positive message.”

Part of the problem here is the typical Protestant insistence that sermons be packaged doctrinal statements for the benefit of the congregation’s spiritual growth. Ecclesiastes will not allow you to do that.

So, to preach through Ecclesiastes you either need to think differently about what preaching is or you need to move on to another book. Perhaps a better place to explore Ecclesiastes is in an adult education forum.

Can you recommend some other good commentaries?

As I was writing, the three commentaries I kept returning to were by Michael Fox (Eerdmans), C.L. Seow (Anchor Bible), and Tremper Longman III (Eerdmans).

Fox is a Jewish scholar who brings to the text creativity and energy that are typical of Jewish interpretation. He is not afraid to suggest fresh readings and he interacts with Jewish traditions, which (if I may get on my soap box) is a sorely missing component in evangelical interpretation, to be sure. Jewish interpretive tradition pays tremendous attention to detail and there is much to learn from it.

Seow’s commentary is the most detailed. He is a careful interpreter who controls the linguistic issues as well as anyone. He also interacts with the history of interpretation and offers tremendous biblical theological and practical insights along the way.

Longman’s commentary is likewise careful and covers all the bases. His commentary is overtly Christian and is the most generally accessible to non-academics, although an important academic contribution, too.

There are others, of course. Craig Bartholomew came out with a commentary a year or so after I finished my manuscript. James Crenshaw’s is a must stop for critical issues. Iain Provan’s brief commentary in Zondervan’s NIVAC series also has excellent insights into the meaning and application of Ecclesiastes.

Any final thoughts?

Yes. I think if the Yankees starting pitching can find its rhythm, they have a good chance of going far in the playoffs, and perhaps win the World Series. I think their hitting can match up with…..

…I meant about your commentary.


No. The end of the matter. All has been heard.



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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  • John

    Good interview and helpful new ideas on Ecclesiastes. However, I wish something more had been said about how we reflect on Ecclesiastes in our day.
    ie., True, the wise among us understand that much is beyond our human control. However, the words of this book have often been used by evangelicals in particular to sit on their hands and do nothing about anything.  Then, when others begin doing stuff  –  discovering medicines, good nutrition, new technologies, et al, et al – there is near total lack of appreciation and theological understanding of the call of God on all of us to indeed work with commitment and determination in the world.
    In short, we do not live in Qoholet’s day when people felt they lived solely at the mercy of fate. Yes, we too can be swamped by tsunamis, tornadoes, and earthquakes, but we also have developed technologies for preparing for such events.  Still more,  we have developed the idea that we are responsible for doing such work, and not simply throwing up our hands in dispair.

    If we Christian cannot figure out a new balance between Qoholet’s words and the realities of modern possibilities, I fear that we will never develop effective Christian witness in our day.

    • I don’t know if you read the previous two sections, but there was a bit about how we can interact with it today.

      • John

        Yes, there is a “bit”,  but the trouble is the fact that it is a “bit”. 

        Where is a question that goes something like this  –
        Qoholet lived at a time when they knew nothing about disease and felt, in fact lived, almost completely at the mercy of fate. However, we do not with all the medicines and technologies we have developed in the past century.  How do we understand such work? Is this work all for nothing?  …

        And more such questions.  If we are not asking such questions, many of the people that work and study and secular research universities like the one where I work will simply say go away.  You have nothing of interest to contribute to the current conversation.

        • Anonymous

          John, Qohelet would say that we still live at the mercy of fate…we just live a little longer. And all the medicines in the world don’t change the fact that fact that we all eventually die anyway. 

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this series. 

  • Pf

    Pete, I think you do a good job making the author fit into modern Christian thought, but unfortunately I don’t think he would recognize himself in your synopsis. For one thing, he was pretty clear that there was no afterlife. He is critiquing the idea that good or bad is rewarded in thwis life, but there is no sign that he thinks that justice will be served at a later date.

    If there is a theme, it is life is that life is hard, enjoy it while you can.