Ordained Servant Online
Qohelet: Evangelist or Pastor? A Review Article
Meredith M. Kline
Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes, by Sidney Greidanus. Foundations for Expository Sermons series. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010, xvii + 340 pages, $26.00, paper.
This book is a useful resource for any preacher who desires to prepare Christ-centered expository sermons from Ecclesiastes. The emeritus professor of preaching at Calvin Seminary has researched serious scholarship on Ecclesiastes, built on his experienced expository practice, and applied his theorizing about preaching Christ from the Old Testament to what "may be the most difficult biblical book to interpret and preach" (1).
Greidanus begins by discussing academic issues, presenting scholarly options, and taking common positions: non-Solomonic authorship, Persian period dating, A. G. Wright's two-part structure based on the location of repeating phrases, and an apologetic or evangelistic understanding of the message which sees Qohelet's negative thoughts as the perspective of an unbeliever from which one needs to be converted to a reverent relationship with God in order to enjoy divine gifts (1-29). The bulk of the book divides Ecclesiastes into fifteen portions, presenting the reasoning behind the selections, discussing the passage's exegetical issues, developing its primary thrust and sermonic theme, and presenting various possible Christological connections. The book concludes with appendices on steps for preparing sermons, model sermons on texts from Ecclesiastes, a bibliography, and indexes.
This volume builds on the system for preaching Christological sermons expounded in the author's Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) where he presented seven possible roads leading to Christ that can pass through a passage: redemptive history, typology, promise-fulfillment, New Testament references, "longitudinal" themes, analogy, and contrast. In addition to the traditional focus of developing Old Testament connections to Christ's person and redemptive work, Greidanus added the teaching of Christ as material to relate to Old Testament passages. The latter is especially pertinent for Ecclesiastes, which has minimal material for messianic promises, typology, or New Testament references. "Analogy" and "contrast" focus on the relationship of the message of Ecclesiastes to Christ's teaching.
The latter two categories seem unnecessary since any comparison of biblical passages, which should include Christ's teaching, for redemptive historical and biblical theological developments will involve similarities and differences, as Greidanus's examples for these categories on pages 27-29 indicate. Greidanus contrasts Qohelet's idea that work is in vain and Paul's idea that work in the Lord is not in vain (I Cor. 15:58). What this contrast reveals, however, is that Greidanus's seven avenues from Ecclesiastes to Christ are influenced by his interpretational framework for relating Qohelet's negative and positive components.
Qohelet's negative is seen in the many things he assesses as "vanity" (there is lack of agreement on the negative force of the Hebrew hebel which is also translated as "futile," "meaningless," "absurd," "enigmatic," "ungraspable," "transient," "vapor," etc.): envy (4:4), dissatisfaction with wealth (4:7-8) or rulers (4:13-16), dissipating wealth (2:18-21, 5:9-10, 6:1-2), painful, anxious, and profitless toil (2:11, 22-23), that death overtakes the wise as well as the fool (2:15-16) and humans as well as animals (3:19), joy (2:1), life (6:12, 7:15, 9:9), inequities of divine providence (8:14), even "everything" or "the totality" (1:2, 12:8).
Qohelet's positive is seen in life's benefits which he counsels his audience to enjoy (2:24-26, 3:12-13, 3:22, 5:18-20, 8:15, 9:7-10, 11:9-10): pleasure in productive labor, family life, and contented dining.
How is Qohelet to be perceived, based on his presentation of these negatives and positives? Is Qohelet a pagan Greek philosopher whose negative is skepticism and positive is hedonism and whose ideas have been hijacked by a pious Israelite editor as ideology to be avoided in favor of God-fearing Torah observance? This interpretation contrasts Ecclesiastes as a whole with other biblical literature.
Or, on Greidanus's position (22), is Qohelet a Sadducee (not believing in a resurrection or a final judgment) who is trying to convert a Greek philosopher into a God-fearer by abandoning his skepticism (Qohelet's negative presented for argument's sake) and by fearing God "in order to turn a vain, empty life into a meaningful life which will enjoy God's gifts" (Qohelet's positive presented as motivation)? This evangelistic interpretation contrasts Qohelet's negative and positive elements as representing different worldviews.
Or, is Qohelet an Israelite sage urging a covenant youth to be a wise, justified publican instead of a foolish, self-righteous Pharisee? Are both Qohelet's negative and positive a realistic, believer's view of the common miseries and mercies of earthly existence? This pastoral interpretation contrasts Qohelet's explicit death-dominated, earthly realm with his implied kingdom of heaven and perceives Qohelet as exhorting covenant members to persevere in contented faithfulness despite the covenant Lord's difficult providence.
Greidanus's "evangelistic" approach does not do justice to the predominance of death and the resulting negative hebel assessment in Qohelet's thought. The hebel assessment occurs as an inclusio (1:2 and 12:8) surrounding all of Qohelet's words, his positive as well as his negative ideas. Indeed, hebel characterizes the totality of one's earthly existence (6:12, 7:15, 9:9). Even enjoyment, which is always part of his positive, earthly benefits, is assessed as hebel in 2:1-2 (cf. 9:9). Greidanus evades the force of this assessment by arguing that the phrase "under the sun" is code indicating a worldly, ungodly perspective exists in the context (43) so that its occurrence in 2:11 means the "joy" in 2:1-2 should be understood as pleasure sought apart from God (62). But closer to 2:1-2 is the phrase "under heaven" (2:3), and God dwells in heaven (5:2), so God is actually in view in the passage. Even in 2:10, next to 2:11, joy is called a "portion," which is a positive concept in Ecclesiastes. Also, the phrase "under the sun" is not restricted to "skeptical" contexts since it occurs in 8:15 and 9:9, passages which Greidanus takes as a God-fearer's wisdom (216, 234-35), so he actually does not consistently restrict the phrase to passages expressing a materialist's mindset.
Instead of understanding "under the sun" as hinting that a skeptical perspective exists in the context, it and "under heaven" and "on the earth" delimit the boundaries in which Qohelet's investigation takes place. In terms of realms, "under the sun" and "on the earth" refer to planet earth, the habitation of living Adam-kind, which is also "under (the invisible) heaven" and thus contrasted with the dwelling of God (5:2) as well as with Sheol, the grave, home of the dead (9:10). Both Qohelet's negative and positive apply "under the sun" to Adam-kind, to existence in the earthly realm of believer as well as unbeliever.
The difference between an "evangelistic" and "pastoral" approach to the force of "under the sun" can be seen in their interpretations of 1:3-11. Does the occurrence of the phrase in 1:3 and 1:9 indicate the passage presents the foolish thinking of the godless or does the passage portray the failure of the cultural mandate and the hardships of the common curse experienced by all humanity? The question is answered by an attentive reading of the poetry of 1:3-5. Greidanus observes "under the sun" in 1:3 and reads 1:4-7 as a secularist's depiction of the pointless, perpetual cycling of sun, wind, and water which contradicts Psalm 19's praising God for the beauty of nature (44). Instead, the verses highlight the sun's continual starting over on its circuit at sunrise in order to compare the sun in 1:5 to the human race in 1:4. Because of the death of each generation, the human race continually starts over, trying but failing to produce death-defying generations to produce an ever-growing Adamic family. The shroud of the common curse of death darkens not only the secularist's sun but also that of the God-fearer.
Whether one follows an evangelistic or a pastoral interpretation of 1:3-11 does make a difference in sermonic and theological application. Greidanus thinks 1:3-11 applies to a secularist's labor, so he correlates Qohelet's message with Jesus's question in Matthew 16:26 about what profit people have from gaining the whole world but forfeiting their life and with Jesus's parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-20 who has filled his barns but will not enjoy the bounty because death will strike unexpectedly (47-48). Greidanus appropriately correlates these passages with the toil of fools when commenting on Ecclesiastes 5:9-10,12-14, and 6:1-2 (144, 151), but in 1:3-11 Qohelet is talking about the labors of Adam-kind, humanity in general, wise as well as fool.
Greidanus also compares Ecclesiastes 1:3-11 with Matthew 6:19-21 and John 6:27 with their contrast of people laboring for earthly and heavenly treasures, understanding "earthly" work as unprofitable because performed without considering God, but as not in vain according to 1 Corinthians 15:58 if done as service to God (48, cf. 37, 39, 121). A subtle shift is involved here from "earthly" being a secularist's efforts in one case to being a believer's efforts in the other. Greidanus thinks Ecclesiastes 1:3-11 is talking about a secularist's vain, earthly toil which he then contrasts with an implied believer's earthly toil which is not in vain. But if the passage is describing even a believer's toil in the kingdoms of earth, then it should be contrasted with work done for the implied kingdom of heaven. Is the passage presenting the futile toil of a fool as a foil for promoting the fulfilling earthly labor of the wise or is this text picturing the failure of the earthly cultural mandate which is to be contrasted with the success of the heavenly great commission?
The creation mandate was not only to produce ever-increasing-generations, a globe-filling Adamic family (Gen. 1:28), which Ecclesiastes 1:4-5 pictures as a failure, but also to guard (rather than the translation "to tend") the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:15), another failed task. The post-Fall common-mercy and common-misery cultural task (Gen. 3:16-19), the futile earthly kingdom work, is what Ecclesiastes depicts as applying to all generations from beginning to end of earth history (3:10-11), from Adam's expulsion from Eden to earth's final cataclysmic consummation (a possible interpretation of 12:1-8).
Overlaying the ambivalent, earthly, cultural endeavor of Qohelet, whose attempted paradise replication is in vain as depicted in Ecclesiastes 2:1-9, is his implication of the great commission of the kingdom of heaven (labor for which is not in vain), the building of the family of the Second Adam, who guards the heavenly, holy paradise from evil intrusion, whether demonic or human. Earthly culture cannot produce the righteousness-glory, cherubim's-fire-sword-retarding clothing necessary for advance into the divine presence (cf. 5:1). According to Ecclesiastes, earthly human culture cannot be transformed to produce the required protection from the divine, righteous wrath or to construct the paradise from which Adam was expelled or the New Jerusalem which will descend from heaven. Ecclesiastes counsels patient contentment under God's uncertain providence amidst the frustrating inability to fulfill culture's original goal.
As Christological application of 1:3-11, Greidanus applies the "nothing new" of 1:9-10 in terms of the progress of redemption whereby in Christ the believer can experience gain in (earthly) toil (1 Cor. 15:58) since God makes all things new (37, 46). Rather, the idea of something new can be developed not by jumping immediately from Ecclesiastes to Isaiah or New Testament teaching but by exploiting Qohelet's inherent contrast between the kingdom of earth (where there is no gain as he has pictured it in 1:4-8 as Adam-kind producing a fractured race which cannot comprehend God's mysterious ways, cf. 8:16-17) and the kingdom of heaven (as developed by Matthew) with its non-futile building of Christ's family. Instead of the vision of the passage being restricted to profit from economic gain (36) in the earthly realm, it widens to the possibility of death-conquering heavenly labor. Qohelet wants us to contrast people whose memory is erased by death (1:11) with the death of a heavenly savior which is remembered as life-giving. This heavenly savior, in contrast to seen and heard words which do not satisfy (1:8, contrast Isa. 53:11), is the Word of Life who has been heard and seen and gives complete joy (1 John 1:1-4). A correct reading of Ecclesiastes 1:3-11 is crucial for understanding the whole book and determines which depictions of Christ's person, work, and teaching will be unveiled in the text.
The other significant difference between the "evangelistic" and "pastoral" interpretations is whether Qohelet believes in a final judgment, which Greidanus denies (99, 164, 284). He takes the mentioning of divine judgment in 11:9 along with the statement in 3:17 that God will judge the righteous and the wicked as relating to pre-consummation providence (96, 99). But that contradicts 8:14 which highlights the apparent inequities of divine providence in a verse which begins and ends with the hebel assessment. Also, the judgment in 3:17 takes place "there," which despite common exegetical oversight refers to "there" in the previous verse, the place of the righteous (divine) judgment, the palace of the Great King. In addition, Ecclesiastes is an exhortation to God-cognizant youth to be wise instead of foolish. What characterizes the wise is that according to 8:5-6 they know there is an ultimate "judgment time" (the point is obscured by the common translation of "time and procedure").
Since many interpretations minimize the importance of the concept of an eschatological judgment in Ecclesiastes (restricting it to an editor's addition in 12:14), it is instructive to observe how this factor relates even to Greidanus's defining of passage boundaries. The foundation of his homiletical method is to determine the borders of his text and to ascertain its conceptual focus. For preaching a series through a book, the extent of a chosen passage will hopefully be congruent with textual units, but this can be difficult with Ecclesiastes because there is a lack of consensus about the precise location of textual boundaries. Because Greidanus, like most commentators, relies primarily on conceptual continuities to determine his fifteen sections (even while utilizing Wright's outline based on stylistic repetitions and being aware of possible concentric patterning of the text) and because he does not believe an eschatological judgment is in Qohelet's purview, he subordinates 3:16-17 by including it in a section extending to 4:6 with a sermon focus on oppression and envy (97).
Similarly, in 11:7-12:8 his sermon theme, based on "remember your Creator" (12:1), is "before it is too late, remember your Creator in order to truly enjoy life" (285). But there is a concentric artistic overlay in 11:7-12:8 which highlights 11:9 as the center of the passage: "But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment." Because the prominence of the artistic organization in 11:7-12:8 is missed, the force of the passage is weakened. For Greidanus the focus becomes God as the creator, the giver of gifts to be enjoyed, if one will convert from a pagan to a God-fearer. The concept of God's judgment is reduced from being directed primarily at ungodly, youthful behavior to being reproach for not enjoying the creator's blessings (287-88). Instead, Qohelet highlights God as the judge of moral wickedness rather than ungratefulness, as the giver of the common curse hebel (cf. 1:13, 3:10, 7:13-14), the coming dark years described in 12:1-7 that are to be remembered (11:8) and are, along with youth, assessed as hebel (11:10). But in Greidanus's interpretation the concept of God as conveyer of the common curse and as eschatological judge is secondary while God as creator and benefactor is primary.
Interpretation of Ecclesiastes is more difficult if Qohelet warns that there is an eschatological judgment, since it heightens the issues of salvation and theodicy, which are minimized in Greidanus's approach (207).
If Qohelet teaches that God will judge the righteous and wicked (wise and fool), and he also states in 7:20 that there are no sinless righteous on earth, how can any be justified in the divine court (6:10-11)? For Greidanus the question does not arise because he interprets 6:10-11 as a creature disputing with the creator about providence (168-169) rather than as a sinner futilely mounting a defense before the divine judge. Instead, Qohelet intimates a solution to his more serious question in his "under heaven" framework which implies that what enables the transcending of earthly vanity and joy is the intrusion of a heavenly savior, someone new-as-good (2:26), a person whose death would be remembered (1:9-10), as vicariously submitting to the Zion-guarding cherubim-sword (5:1) but justified by shedding the death shroud for the protective Glory-Spirit covering shared with those united to him by faith. The major route from Ecclesiastes to Christ should be via an implicit contrast between the profane kingdom of earth and the redemptive kingdom of heaven, both of which church members have citizenship in as they are engaged in the conflict between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, both internally wrestling with the Holy Spirit and externally contending with the wicked and foolish, whether in cultural institutions or in ecclesiastical congregations which, until the consummation, are subject to the covenant lawsuits of Revelation 2-3.
Thus, in the earthly kingdom contemporary Christians can experience Qohelet's cultural eating, drinking, and rejoicing that characterized the blessing of the Solomonic kingdom (1 Kings 4:20), yet is evaluated by Qohelet as a constituent of hebel-existence. At the same time, Christians transcend Qohelet's positive, earthly sustenance by participating in the Lord's Supper and receiving heavenly nourishment. The path to such a message is not via allegory, the eisegesis of the church fathers which horrifies contemporary homileticians (24), nor is it via Greidanus's method of treating Qohelet's "wrong," negative message as a foil or contrast to New Testament gospel truth, but it is through Qohelet's inherent contrast between the visible, earthly kingdom and his implied, invisible, mysterious, heavenly kingdom, the details of which are fleshed out in the written new covenant words which reveal the full wonders of the mystery of the redeeming incarnate Word
The exhortation of Ecclesiastes is not just to be a theist, a God-fearer, to believe in the existence of a blessing-bestowing God, since even the righteous and wise experience on earth the wrath as well as love of God (9:1), but to be a God-lover, to rely on him as the deliverer from the divine death penalty and to rejoice even in suffering for his name. The artistically emphasized center of Ecclesiastes is 5:4-5 about vows (which Greidanus correctly defines but then misleadingly applies to promises, 133-35). Vows were pleas to God with no guarantee of fulfillment to produce or preserve life in the context of the first, temporal death (for example, reproductive death for Hannah or impending military death for Jephthah). Despite the fact that Qohelet knew Adam-kind were defenselessly under the penalty of the second, eternal death before the divine judge (6:10-11), he knew a class of righteous existed (3:17, 8:12-13) whose hearts would be revealed as pure (in Christ) at the eschatological judgment.
Qohelet teaches in 5:4-5 that despite the seeming distance of a deity whose providence is inscrutable, God may personally and immanently provide requested life for the earthly "dead." Qohelet's framework implies the wise should appeal to the gracious deliverer for heavenly life that transcends and transforms the death-dominated earthly realm and enables one not only to fear the divine judge and keep his commandments but to love the heavenly savior and obey his commands.
While Greidanus's arguments and exegetical conclusions regarding Ecclesiastes need to be assessed carefully when producing sermonic food for the flock, that would be true of any resource for this difficult book. Because of its profitable homiletical focus and academic depth, Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes is a valuable, initial resource for a time-pressured pastor grappling with the text's hard interpretational issues and looking for direction to Christocentric application.
Meredith M. Kline is the director of the Goddard Library at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is completing his Ph.D. thesis on Ecclesiastes and is a member of First Presbyterian Church, North Shore (OPC) in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant Online, April 2011.