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Review: Ecclesiastes. Peter Enns, Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2011 (ISBN 978-0-8028-6649-3)

January 25th, 2013 2 comments

Ecclesiastes.  Peter Enns, Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2011 (ISBN 978-0-8028-6649-3)

Peter Enns’s work on Ecclesiastes offers a broad but fair treatment of the book as a whole. Enns’s goal is not to offer an exhaustive treatment of the book; rather, he selects and addresses the key issues and themes of the book.  The book is written to appeal to all possible audiences—student, layperson, pastor, and scholar.

Enns’s commentary is unique in that the book is divided into four sections.  Enns devotes roughly thirty pages to introductory matters. The commentary occupies about eighty pages. Following this, Enns deals with theological themes in the book (some of which already mentioned in the ‘commentary’ section. Next, he covers Ecclesiastes’ contribution to biblical theology.  Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Enns deals with matters of interpretation and application.  How exactly are we as readers supposed to understand what is traditionally characterized as a rather depressing book?  Is there room for the application of an ancient work to a modern, Western mindset? Enns addresses these questions and more.

Enns begins with a lengthy introduction, discussing introductory matters, as well as outlining the structure of his commentary. Following Fox, Enns asserts that the crux of Ecclesiastes lies not exclusively with the meaning of life, but in Qohelet’s (NIV: the ‘Preacher’, who is identified in v.1) apparent contradictions: ‘Life is absurd, but while you are able, live life to its fullest!’

Enns ‘s view is that Ecclesiastes is essentially composed of two elements, that of Qohelet himself, as well as a frame narrator, who offers commentary on Qohelet’s discourse, sometimes in corrective fashion. Enns does not believe that Ecclesiastes was originally one discourse later redacted by a second author; rather, he believes that Qohelet’s dialog coupled with that of the frame narrator are intentional features of the book, purposefully designed to create tension.  Enns stresses that, while seemingly contradictory, the readers should allow the two elements of Ecclesiastes which are at odds to speak for themselves.  In other words, the reader should consider the book as it exists as a whole, rather than two distinct elements.

Enns is also careful to emphasize the epilogue of Ecclesiastes is a ‘key to the whole’.  It is important to consider what he calls the carpe diem passages (that is to say, this life might be the pits, but nonetheless one should enjoy life as best as one is able) a significant part of the general interpretation of the book as a whole.  Where contradictions do exist, the frame narrator is not necessarily saying that ‘here, Qohelet was wrong—he is supplying a mild corrective to Qohelet.  These correctives center around the themes of fear and obedience to Yahweh.

Next, Enns addresses matters of authorship.  According to Enns, the ascription to ‘king over Jerusalem’ does not necessarily mean that Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon specifically; rather, the writer (Qohelet) is ascribing this title to himself in order to give weight to his arguments.  Enns points out that this is not considered plagiarism (as we would toady), but was a common practice for ancient writers designed to give credence to their argument.  Finally, Enns outlines one of the book’s most unique features—a Christian interpretation of Ecclesiastes—before beginning the commentary.

The commentary, which occupies roughly half of the book, is broad yet adequate.  Like the rest of the book, the commentary reads well, and is easy for student and scholar alike to understand.  Enns is concerned primarily with themes; the book lacks any sort of grammatical analysis.  Enns only uses Hebrew to draw the reader’s attention to key thematic terms, and where Hebrew is used, transliteration is provided.

Enns divides Ecclesiastes into the following units:

1:1-11 – Prologue: Summary of Qohelet’s Quest
1:12-15: Qohelet’s Own Summary of his Life

1:16-2:11 – Wisdom, Folly, and Labor Have No Payoff

3:1-15 – All Things Have Their Place

3:16-4:3 – Everything Dies

4:4-16 – Hard Work, Ambition, Advancemennt Have No Payoff

5:1-7 – Watch Your Mouth With God

5:8-6:9 – Death Comes to Both the Greedy and to Those Who are Just Trying to Get Along

6:10-7:14 – The ‘Advantage’ (?) of Wisdom in the Face of Certain Death

7:15-29 – A Frantic Grasp for Wisdom

8:1-17 – In the Hands of a Capricious King

9:1-12 – Death Revisited

9:13-10:20 – Wisdom Really Is Better than Folly

11:1-12:7 – Do Your Best While You Can

12:8-14 – Epilogue: Qohelet is Wise, but There is More[1]

 

 

Enns offers a fair treatment to the book, covering it broadly yet adequately.  The most unique feature features of the book, however, are those devoted to theological and Christian application. It is here that the commentary shines.  In a book often overlooked by Christian Evangelicals for its ‘negativity’ or because it is ‘depressing’ (or because people would rather skip it), Enns suggests, rightly, that the Bible is meant to be read holistically.  An Evangelical, Enns unashamedly declares the Bible as God’s Word, and as such, all of His Word is to be considered.  That said, he also encourages readers to be careful not to force Scripture to fit a particular set of doctrine or beliefs, but to allow all of Scripture (including Ecclesiastes) to speak for itself.

 

Enns’s Ecclesiastes is not a book that seeks to develop a whole new paradigm for doing exegesis.  Much of what Enns says has been said before, referencing scholars such as Fox, Longman, and Seow, to name a few.  However, novelty is in this area is not his goal. As far as communicating Ecclesiastes, Enns’s work is very well done.  Christian theological application of Ecclesiastes is something that is almost entirely lacking, and Enns’s work fills this gap nicely (and thankfully!). The section devoted to commentary is not overly technical; he does not extensively focus on linguistic features of the book, making the book both easy to read and to understand.  Consequently, Enns includes the broadest possible audience, students, pastors, and scholars alike.  It would serve as a great introductory text for students.  While not absolutely necessary, the beginning to intermediate Hebrew student should find the Hebrew glosses useful.

The primary purpose of Ecclesiastes is to communicate the book to a Christian audience.  In a world where the depressing books are often glossed over, Enns’s work is refreshing.  Drawing on Ecclesiastes’s place in Jewish history, tradition, and the Christian canon, Enns makes the case that today’s believer should make room for Ecclesiastes in his or her theology.

Jonathan E. Beck
Asbury Theological Seminary



[1] As seen in ‘Contents’, vii-viii

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