Monday, April 30, 2012

Wrestling With Ecclesiastes, Part III - Observing Life Under the Sun

Table 1:
The Ancient Hebrew View of the Universe
(see footnote 30)
This is the third post in a weekly series called, 'Wrestling with Ecclesiastes.' I've always found Ecclesiastes to be a very difficult book to understand, so this past semester I took the opportunity to focus on it in one of my classes. In this blog series I'm sharing some of what I've learned. For the first two posts in the series, go to the following:

Part 1 - The Teleological Suppression of the Eternal: Rethinking Absurdity in The Teacher's Perspective

Part 2 - Foundations: Author, Structure, Genre

Today's post is, I believe, the most important key to understanding Ecclesiastes. I've titled this post, 'Observing Life Under the Sun' because that is what I think Ecclesiastes is, a catalogue of observations by The Teacher about life under the sun. Read on to find out what I mean.

When we get looking at Ecclesiastes it becomes clear that the work of The Teacher is one of personal empirical observations.21 The Teacher's language is filled with these verbs of observation, with The Teacher himself as the subject (mostly, but not limited to, the first person singular voice). Some key phrases are: ‘I saw,’22 ‘I gave my heart,’23 ‘to seek,’24 ‘to explore’ (1:13; 7:25), ‘I spoke with my heart’ (1:16), ‘my heart saw’ (1:16), ‘I gave my heart’ (1:17; 9:1), ‘I spoke in my heart,’25 ‘I explored in my heart’ (2:3), ‘I will see’ (2:3), ‘I turned’ (in the sense of ‘considered, looked at, reflected on,’ 2:11, 12), ‘I knew’ (2:14; 3:12, 14), ‘I found’ (or ‘to find’ with The Teacher as the subject),26 and ‘I said’ (8:14; 9:16). Further, the pronoun ‘I’ occurs on its own, usually as an intensifier of a first person verb, 28 times in the book,27 and the noun ‘heart’ with the first common singular pronominal suffix attached to it, occurs 18 times.28

But these personal observations are intentionally limited. The qualifying phrases ‘under the sun’ (29 times),29 and ‘under the heavens’ (3 times, 1:13, 2:3, 3:1) occur throughout the book, for a total of 32 combined occurrences of the synonymous phrases. As The Teacher makes his observations, he does not do so as a prophet, from the top down, letting special revelation about ultimate reality refine his observations. Rather, he deliberately observes life ‘from the ground up,’ or ‘under the sun.’ Table 1
 displays the Hebrew view of the universe, and offers insight into the world that The Teacher is observing. For the purposes of this present study, it can be noted that the ‘under the sun/under the heavens’ qualifying phrase radically alters The Teacher's perspective.31 This is not to question the validity of the book, but it does radically effect its interpretation. As he makes his observations, The Teacher is choosing to do so with a sort of ‘tunnel vision,’ simply soaking in what really happens in the world and offering reports. For one thing, this insight has great bearing on the so-called contradictions throughout the book. Michael V. Fox observes:
The contradictions in the book of [Ecclesiastes] are real and intended. We must interpret them, not eliminate them. To be precise, [The Teacher] is not so much contradicting himself as observing contradictions in the world. To him they seem to be antinomies, two equally valid but contradictory principles. He does not resolve these antinomies, but only describes them, bemoans them, and suggests how to live in such a refractory world. The contradictions do not make the book incoherent. On the contrary, [The Teacher's] persistent observation of contradictions is a powerful cohesive force, and an awareness of it brings into focus the book’s central concern: the problem of meaning in life. The book of [Ecclesiastes] is about meaning: its loss and its (partial) recovery.32
To be sure, the book of personal observations under the sun is the key to this, and other key themes throughout the book. As we will see in a later post, it is only in the epilogue that this ‘under the sun’ limit to perspective is removed.


21 Michael V. Fox interestingly notes that, “[The Teacher's] epistemology as a whole has no parallel in other ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature, which, contrary to a widespread view, is not empirical” in “Qohelet’s Epistemology.”HUCA 58 (1987), 137.
22 1:14; 2:13, 24; 3:10, 16, 22; 4:1, 4, 15; 5:12, 17; 6:1; 7:15; 8:9, 10; 9:13; 10:5, 7
23 1:13, 17; 8:9
24 1:13; 7:25, 28; 12:10
25 2:1, 14, 15; 3:17, 18
26 7:27, 28 (3x), 29; 12:10
27 1:12, 16 (2x); 2:1, 12, 13, 14, 15 (3x), 18 (2x), 20, 24; 3:17, 18; 4:1, 2, 4, 7, 8; 5:17; 7:25, 26; 8:2, 12, 15; 9:16
28 1:13, 16 (2x), 17; 2:1, 3 (2x), 10 (2x), 15 (2x), 20; 3:17, 18; 7:25; 8:9, 16; 9:1
29 1:3, 9, 14; 2:11, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22; 3:16, 4:1, 3, 7, 15; 5:12, 17; 6:1, 12; 8:9, 15 (2x), 17; 9:3, 6, 9 (2x), 11, 13; 10:5
31 I am indebted to Richard P. Belcher for first pointing me to the prevalence of, and importance of this phrase in Ecclesiastes. In his Ph.D. dissertation, supervised by Tremper Longman III and with Peter Ens as a secondary reader, he writes, “Although [The Teacher] carries out his search from a wisdom standpoint, his limited under the sun perspective effects his conclusions concerning divine retribution. Much like the author of Psalm 73, he struggles to understand why certain things happen in this world. Whereas the author of Psalm 73 needed a renewed understanding of God to break from from his struggle, [The Teacher] needs the epilogue to remind him of the revelation of God” Richard P. Belcher. Divine Retribution in Ecclesiastes: An Analysis of the Deed-Consequence Relationship With Implications For the Interpretation of the Book. (Ph.D. Dissertation, Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, PA: ProQuest Dissertations and Thesis, 2000), iii; For a fuller fleshing out of this idea see Ibid., 253-255; For others who share the perspective that the phrase ‘under the sun’ denotes a limit to perspective, see, for example, Longman, Ecclesiastes, 39; Michael A. Eaton. Ecclesiastes: An Introduction & Commentary. (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman, Gen. Ed. Leicester, Eng; Downers Grove, ILL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 15-50.
32 Fox, A Rereading of Ecclesiastes, 3.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Carl Trueman on (Screen-Using) Multisite Churches

As I wrestle with issues of the application of Biblical truth to the nitty gritty of church life, I find that time and again, Carl Trueman is helpful to me. And I'll admit it: more often than not I find myself agreeing with him. Whether he is talking about a cultural or an ecclesiastical issue, he is a sharp thinker, a clear writer (and speaker), gracious, and downright hilarious (which doesn't hurt).

This past week I particularly appreciated his discussion of multi-site churches, where (contra. Keller), those multisite churches use a screen to 'beam' the preacher to the congregation (or audience, for that matter). His article is worth reading in full, and it can be found here.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Wrestling With Ecclesiastes, Part 2 - Foundations: Author, Structure, Genre

This is the second of what will likely be a weekly series entitled 'Wrestling With Ecclesiastes.' Ecclesiastes is a difficult book; it's hard to get past some of the content. But I am convinced that if we do some wrestling, the book yields great blessing! The first post can be found here:

Today's post will cover a few essential foundational matters including the authorship, structure, and genre of the book.

The authorship and structure of Ecclesiastes are inseparably tied together. The prologue identifies the author with the Hebrew word Qohelet, which the ESV translates as 'The Teacher' (1:1). Michael V. Fox observes that, the noun Qohelet,8 has the root meaning of ‘assembly,’ and its contextual meaning is, “one who does something in the assembly,” namely, public teaching (cf. 12:9).9 The Teacher further identifies himself as the son of David (1:1), and the king over Israel in Jerusalem (1:1, 12). The intended tie to Solomon is clear, because he is the only son of David who reigned from Jerusalem and over Israel.10 The book is structured around a prologue (1:1), body (1:2-12:8), and epilogue (12:9-14), with the opening (1:2) and closing (12:8) of the body enveloped by the key statement, “absurdity of absurdities, says The Teacher, [absurdity of absurdities],11 all is absurdity.”12 In addition, there are three places where the phrase ‘says The Teacher’ is added into the narrative (1:2; 7:27; 12:8). This, coupled with the clear stylistic differences between the body of the book and its epilogue,13 has led most to attribute the latter to the hand of an editor, with some even positing that a third hand was responsible for 12:13-14. However, Fox offers another solution to the differences in person and style. Fox’s thesis is that, “the Book of (Ecclesiastes) is to be taken as a whole, as a single, well-integrated composition, the product not of editorship but of authorship, which uses interplay of voice as a deliberate literary device for rhetorical and artistic purposes.”14 He goes on to note that the phrase, ‘says The Teacher’ in 1:2, 7:27 and 12:8 can be equated with the voice of the narrator, but that the narrator is the author of the whole work, stepping out of the persona of The Teacher and adding comments along the way. In addition, Robert Holmstedt has argued convincingly that in the body of his work, The Teacher creates a second persona, a conversation partner. He argues that the ‘I and my heart’ formula that occurs throughout the book is a device wherein The Teacher creates this second voice, in reference to his inner dialogue with himself (i.e. ‘I and my heart’).15 So there may be a dual persona, the primary of which is The Teacher, and the secondary as his heart, with the third voice of the narrator adding words from outside the Teacher persona. Whether these persona theories are accurate makes little difference to reading the book as a unity, though, if it is remembered that the book of Ecclesiastes was accepted into the canon of Scripture as a unity, with the crucial epilogue attached. For these reasons, and crucial for my argument, as I interpret the book, I will view it as a unity.

With regard to genre, a brief analysis of Ecclesiastes reveals that it is clearly a wisdom book. This is inherent in the book, because its earthy, simple, yet profound observations fit nicely into the wisdom genre. Some of it even has the ‘feel’ of proverbial statements (see, for example, chapter 5). Further, the book contains many key repeated words from the wisdom genre, with words from the root for wisdom,16 knowledge,17 skill,18 folly,19 and madness,20 occurring throughout.

Stay tuned next week for a discussion of what I believe to be the key to understanding this difficult, but amazing book of the Bible.



8 Found in 1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9, 10; in other words, the beginning, middle, and end of the book.

9 Michael V. Fox. A Time to Tear Down & A Time To Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes. (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 161.

10 I recognize the well-documented linguistic problems with this dating. For our purposes it is enough to note the intended tie to Solomon, without going into detail on what this means. For excellent discussions on the dating of Ecclesiastes see, for example, Longman, Ecclesiastes, 9-11; Fox, A Rereading of Ecclesiastes, 159-160.

11 The square brackets indicate words found in 1:2 but not in 12:8.

12 My own translation (throughout).

13 Note for example the switch from the first person beginning at 1:12 to the third person in the epilogue.

14 Michael V. Fox. “Frame Narrative and Composition in the Book of Qohelet.” HUCA 48 (1977), 83.

15 See “'I and My Heart': The Syntactic Encoding of the Collaborative Nature of Qohelet’s Experiment.” JHS 9:19 (2009), 2-27. In that place he writes, “Rather than לֵב used with verbs of speaking to express the idiom for internal speech, i.e., someone thinking or speaking to himself, it is used as a full-fledged character in Qohelet...the לֵב here is personified as an experiment partner distinct from himself (so also Fox 1999:267): two investigators can pursue different, even opposing, lines of inquiry better than one, thereby strengthening the conclusions that are ultimately drawn” Ibid., 13-14.

16 1:12, 16 (2x), 17, 18; 2:3, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 (2x), 19 (2x), 21, 26; 4:13; 6:8; 7:4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12 (2x), 16, 19 (2x), 23 (2x), 25; 8:1 (2x), 5; 9:1 (2x), 10, 11, 13, 15, 16 (2x), 17; 10:1, 2, 10, 12; 12:9, 11

17 1:16, 17 (3x), 18; 2:21, 26; 7:12, 25 (2x); 8:1, 5 (2x), 7, 12; 9:1 (2x); 9:5 (2x), 10, 11, 12; 11:2, 5 (2x), 6, 9; 12:9

18 2:21; 5:10

19 1:17; 2:3, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19; 4:5, 13, 17; 5:2, 3; 6:8; 7:4, 5, 6, 9, 17, 25 (2x); 9:17: 10:1, 2, 3 (2x), 6, 12, 13, 14, 15

20 1:17; 2:2, 12; 7:25; 9:3; 10:13

Friday, April 20, 2012

Mark Dever on Numbers and Church Growth

I was REALLY encouraged by this 9 minute Q & A session with Mark Dever.

HT: Justin Taylor

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Ecclesiastes is a difficult book, and aptly called, “the black sheep of the canon of biblical books”1 by one author. Of the three wisdom books in the Old Testament, Proverbs teaches patterns of order in a universe governed by the righteous Yahweh, Job teaches the covenant people to embrace mystery in suffering and to live for God’s glory, and Ecclesiastes teaches that all of life is absurd,2 and that God’s people should despair. Or so it would seem upon a cursory reading. I am not the first to struggle with the meaning of this book. Longman reports that, “there were ancient doubts about its divine authority among the rabbis and others”.3 He continues:

In the first tractate of the Mishnah (Shabbat, ch. 3), Rabbi Tanhum of Nave is quoted as saying, ‘O Solomon, where is your wisdom, where is your intelligence? Not only do your words contradict the words of your father, David, they even contradict themselves’...I further observe that the Pesiqta of Rab Kahana (Leviticus Rabbah 28:1) states: ‘The sages sought to store away the Book of Ecclesiastes, because they found words in it which tended to heresy.’4

However, because of its beginning and end, along with its connection to Solomon, the Jewish community did recognize Ecclesiastes as canonical.5 Further, there is no evidence that Christians questioned whether this book was a part of Holy Scripture.6 But that does not mean Christian interpreters have been free from struggle: “In the summer and fall of 1526 (Martin) Luther took up the challenge to lecture on Ecclesiastes to the small band of students who stayed behind in Wittenberg during the plague. ‘Solomon the preacher,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘is giving me a hard time, as though he begrudged anyone lecturing on him. But he must yield.’”7 Thankfully, upon a close reading of Ecclesiastes, the book does yield an important message. This blog series is the product of my own wrestlings, my own effort to read Ecclesiastes closely, and force him to yield his meaning. The title of my series hints at the key to the book’s meaning - the teleological suppression of the eternal: rethinking absurdity in The Teacher’s perspective - and my thesis, which will unpack this title, is as follows: Ecclesiastes is a wisdom book in which the author observes the absurdity of life under the sun, with the end goal of helping the covenant people to accept the absurd and to live for the eternal. In the posts that follow, I will unpack each aspect of this thesis in turn. I will begin with matters that are foundational to my overall argument, including questions of author, structure, genre, and the issue of observing life under the sun. I will then move to discuss the key themes of absurdity, The Teacher’s view of God, and his teaching on joy. With these foundations in place, I will offer a quick overview of the book as a whole, before I conclude by discussing the epilogue as the end goal of the argument of the book, and therefore as the essential key to understanding absurdity in The Teacher’s perspective.



1 Bruce Waltke, with Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 946

2 A defense of this translation of the Hebrew term 'hevel' will be set forth in a post to follow.

3 Tremper Longman III. The Book of Ecclesiastes. (NICOT. Ed. Robert L. Hubbard Jr. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 1998), 26.

4 Ibid., 27.

5 See Ibid., 28.

6 See Ibid., 29.

7 John Piper. “Martin Luther: Lessons From His Life and Labor,” n.p. [cited 24 February 2012]. Online: