Recently I finished Peter Enns’s commentary on Ecclesiastes. It’s in the Two Horizons series, which is a reasonably accessible series that gives you the exegetical basics of the text before ripping into its theology and context in a wider biblical theology. Having never read a commentary cover to cover, I learnt quite a bit. I was surprised at how all the popular passages from Ecclesiastes are either flanked with poisonous levels of cynicism or just read by us badly. Take for example, 3:11,”He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (NIV):
Qohelet does not mean that everything is “beautiful” (a common translation of yāpeh). This is hardly the place for an aesthetic comment, which would be wholly out of accord with the persistent point Qohelet is making here. Rather, God has made everything “appropriate” … In other words, Qohelet is simply reiterating the note of despondency we have seen beginning at 3:1: God ordains the times and seasons, and humanity pretty much goes along for the ride… As if to frustrate humanity further, God has also set ‘ōlām into their hearts (v. 11). We must resist reading foreign notions of “eternity” into ‘ōlām (see 1:4, 10; 2:16). Qohelet is not saying that, despite this sorry state of affairs, God reminds us that there is an afterlife awaiting us, where all these questions will be answered. Rather, God has put in our hearts, that is, made us aware of, the expanse of time, both backward and forward. We, as human beings, are unfortunately conscious of the passage of time, and we can extrapolate on and on, both back in time and forward in time. This is precisely what Qohelet is doing, for example, in 1:9-10. He is able to say that, regardless of outward appearances, there really is nothing new – ever.
Another particularly interesting point had to do with structure. Enns points out that there is a “frame narrator” who introduces the main voice, Qohelet (1:1-11 in the third person) and concludes the book (12:8-14). Now, I’ve previously had a problem with the conclusion, as it seems to hastily shepherd the reader into fearing God and keeping the commandments despite a significant chunk of the text spent decrying the absurdities and injustices of life. Yet the frame narrator is surprisingly affirmative of Qohelet’s words. He acknowledges him for his wisdom and teaching (12:9) and notes the truthfulness of his words (12:10). However, the reader is not to go beyond Qohelet’s words (12:11-12). Qohelet has doubted sufficiently, we hear him and doubt with him, and yet we continue in our faithfulness to God (12:13-14).
The Book of Job makes a similar move. In the prose prologue and epilogue, Job remains faithful despite his suffering (1:21; 2:10; 42:1-6). This contrasts pointedly with his lamented dis/engagement with God and his friends throughout most of the text. The only possible exception which comes to mind is Psalm 88, the only lament psalm which doesn’t resolve. Yet if we look at it in its canonical context, Psalm 1 affirms that the righteous will prosper where the wicked will perish, and Psalm 150 only has very nice things to say about God. Maybe the same can be said about Jesus’ birth and resurrection straddling his crucifixion, and even of creation and new creation straddling the Fall?
How do you think these frames contribute to our experience of suffering? Do they in any way undermine the present experience of suffering? Are there legitimate alternative ways of reading these texts?