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Ecclesiastes: Musings of an Unfaithful Solomon? A Review Article

Meredith M. Kline

Ecclesiastes: A Mentor Commentary, Richard P. Belcher Jr. Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Mentor, 2017, 438 pages, $29.99.

Belcher, an Old Testament professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, and an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America, has written a commentary on Ecclesiastes from a Reformed perspective. The book has a standard format with an introduction (covering authorship, genre, interpretational approaches, significant themes, and ways to preach and teach Ecclesiastes) followed by eight sections, most with multiple parts, sequentially covering the text of Ecclesiastes. Many parts are followed by brief “homiletical implications.” The book ends with Scripture and subject indexes. Unfortunately, there is no bibliography and full citations for most items are only given in the introduction; since there are frequent abbreviated references to many books and articles on Ecclesiastes throughout the commentary, this could be annoying.

The commentary is useful for those who want detailed discussions of the translation of Ecclesiastes and of the multiple interpretational options for particular passages that have been presented in the scholarly literature. The author’s footnoted translation begins each of the units he identifies in Ecclesiastes. Discussions of the organization of each unit and its relation to the flow of the book’s thought provide frequent orientation. The commentary consistently supports its overall interpretative approach to Ecclesiastes of understanding Qohelet’s “under the sun” perspective as a presentation of deviant “speculative wisdom,” which is corrected in the epilogue (12:9–14).

Various interpretations exist for Ecclesiastes, differing on whether they understand the book’s negative and positive ideas as similar to, complementing, or contradicting Old Testament and New Testament ideas. Determining the book’s message is difficult because critical vocabulary have multiple senses, which means context is crucial. Since discussions of the major topics of Ecclesiastes, such as labor, wisdom, the fear of God, divine retribution, and belief in an afterlife, are integrally tied to theological issues such as the relation of the Old Testament theocracy to the church and the relation of the cultural mandate to the Great Commission, even the translation of words can depend on feedback from other levels involved in the interpretative process.

Even Reformed interpreters vary on whether they understand Qohelet as cynical or realistic about the success of labor, resigned or thankful in enjoying life’s benefits, and fearful or reverent in relating to God, as well as whether or not they think Qohelet believes in an afterlife with a divine judgment, or whether an editor (if one is posited) differs or agrees with Qohelet. Belcher argues that Qohelet represents Solomon when he was unfaithful to his covenant Lord, and Ecclesiastes contains his negative ideas during that period. Thus, in Ecclesiastes Solomon denies the existence of an afterlife with a final judgment, so death means earthly labor is ultimately useless and wisdom is frustratingly limited; any joy should be accepted with resignation; a dreaded, unpredictable deity should be related to cautiously; and an editor corrects Solomon by appending an admonition to obey God.

Translations

Thus, Belcher chooses to translate hebel (הֶבֶל) as “senseless” rather than “transient,” or “enigmatic,” or “futile,” or “vanity.” He also translates ‘et u.mishpat (וְעֵ֣ת וּמִשְׁפָּ֔ט) in 8:5–6 as “proper time and right action” rather than “judgment time.” Belcher’s interpretative perspective is also evident in how he understands the use of “fear God” in Ecclesiastes. When the orthodox ending of the book uses the phrase (12:13), it refers to the traditional OT wisdom view found in Proverbs, but when Qohelet uses the same phrase and emphatic syntax in 5:6 [Hebrew v.7], it refers to dread of a deistic despot rather than to reverential awe of God. In 3:9–14 one fears God because of the immense distance between humans and an inscrutable deity.

Interpretations

For Belcher, a backslidden Solomon, whose ideas are based solely on personal experience and not on divine revelation or the wisdom of traditional Israelite sages, is the author of the body of the book, to which a correcting section has been appended by an editor. Belcher’s introduction counters arguments against Solomonic authorship. The purpose of Ecclesiastes is to warn readers that if even the wise Solomon arrived at unorthodox conclusions, then all are susceptible to entertaining false notions about earthly existence. The introduction presents other interpretative options, which are interacted with throughout the commentary.

In Belcher’s view, Qohelet perceives the “under the sun” realm as a dark place of problems and God is not considered when seeking their solutions. Sagacity and joy may have ephemeral advantages but they are not ultimate answers to Qohelet’s questions, especially since he sees no hope of changing the failure of retributive justice to appear “under the sun.” Fortunately, in the book’s last verse the editor tacks the orthodox solution onto Qohelet’s circuitous intellectual perambulations. For Belcher, Qohelet’s wrong-minded “under the sun” perspective should be contrasted with an “above the sun,” heavenly viewpoint. Instead, if Qohelet is a realist, then one can perceive in Ecclesiastes not a contrast between Qohelet’s misguided view and genuine biblical wisdom but a complementarity of the not-yet experience of divine retribution evident in resurrection to glorification. This is a movement from degradation to a hope that enables endurance of the common curse and delight in common blessing, based on the already inauguration of Christ’s heavenly kingdom, which guarantees the existence of righteous and wise humans.

In 2:12–17, for Belcher, the fact that the wise dies as well as and like the fool is an ultimate tragedy for misguided Qohelet, which should be contrasted with a New Testament understanding that believers can find comfort from redemption even while enduring earthly tragedies. In addition, Qohelet supposedly denies both the possibility of guaranteed long-life for the wise and of the afterlife for anyone (2:15–16; 3:21; 9:1–6). However, if one interprets Qohelet as a realist, the believer simultaneously experiences the common-curse effects of the imputed unrighteousness of Adam, which Qohelet appropriately recognizes, along with relishing the common-blessing joys, which he also recommends. At the same time, the redeemed know the divine, saving response to desperate vows, and even their Lord’s redemptive grace. This grace is evident in the actual existence of any righteous and wise, those dressed in the imputed righteousness of Christ and graced by the Spirit’s sanctifying wisdom.

On 2:18–23 Belcher states that the Fall did not remove the cultural mandate to be fruitful and fill the earth, that current labor still fulfills the original Edenic commission. On a realist interpretation, however, the Fall did eliminate the possibility of achieving the goal of the cultural mandate, which was to produce ever-living humans and guard the garden of God from evil. Only under the Great Commission does that goal continue. Believers share the responsibility with unbelievers of producing and sustaining new members of Adam-like beings, but only believers pursue the goal of working to see spiritually reborn members of the body of the Second Adam. Ecclesiastes is about the effort and results of the common vocations that believers share with unbelievers, which entail a real frustration.

On 2:24–26, where Qohelet first introduces the concept of enjoyment in cultural endeavors, Belcher perceives a resigned acceptance of random, unpredictable benefit that one cannot integrate with a Christian perspective of laboring with success to the glory of God. Rather, we should understand these verses to indicate that God gives the burden (or “business”) to all sinful humans of leaving the fruit of their efforts to others at death, yet gives some the wisdom to appropriately appreciate any divine benefits they enjoy.

On the central passage of the book about relating to God (5:1–7 [Hebrew 4:17–5:6]), Belcher perceives a fool who makes rash vows and is uncertain whether God will respond with wrath instead of the requested salvation from a desperate situation. But the passage is about the fact that God has responded favorably to a vow. The uncertainty is whether the person making the vow will pay or not pay the required promise made in case God responds favorably to the vow, not how God will respond after the vow is made.

Belcher presents Qohelet as holding that wisdom is ineffective because God’s providence is unpredictable, so humans cannot figure out what is good to do (7:1–14; 8:16–17) or the right time to do something (8:7–8). Since Qohelet cannot see how the negative aspects of life can fulfill God’s purposes, he resigns himself to a human wisdom that has limited value for engaging in life. Rather, though a believer’s wisdom may be limited by divine, inscrutable providence, it should rely on a vow-answering God’s grace in the face of life’s obstacles.

Structures

Belcher did a Westminster Seminary-Philadelphia dissertation on the idea of retribution in Ecclesiastes 8:12–14, so that concept is prominent in his commentary. How he deals with the passage indicates that the structure of texts is important. He believes that the facts that a traditional view of retribution in 8:12–13 is surrounded by counter observations of Qohelet (in 8:12a and 8:14) and that 8:14 ends the unit indicate Qohelet discredits traditional Israelite wisdom. Here Belcher works with a linear model in which conclusions or highlighted materials come at the end of a unit.

But the last word is not the final word when concentric patterns are utilized to construct the text. So, in actuality, Qohelet makes prominent the traditional wisdom ideas of retribution in 8:12–14. On Belcher’s view, there appears to be no interpretative issue, since Qohelet’s supposed unorthodox conclusions on retribution indicate his thinking is suspect and they fit the idea that Qohelet does not believe in an afterlife where divine justice would be demonstrated (3:17 “God will judge the righteous and the wicked,” then, cannot refer to an eschatological judgment). In contrast, an interpretation that accepts the tension Qohelet points out, namely, the tension between the hope that divine justice will be demonstrated and the legitimate observation that such is not evident under the sun before death, as well as recognizing that the center of a concentric pattern is emphasized, should understand that Qohelet implies there is a post-mortem accounting before the divine Judge. Belcher’s interpretation says Qohelet retains the lack of resolution to the problem he notices. However, if there is no ultimate retribution during or after life, then the tension really has been resolved negatively.

Even though Ecclesiastes has an overall concentric artistic configuration, the sequential arrangement of conceptual material does have a linear progression. What Belcher fails to appreciate is the parallel, two-track nature of the linear organization. He does not recognize the separation of the work and wisdom themes when it first appears in 1:12–18, since he focuses only on the wisdom topic. He also does not appreciate the significance of the programmatic questions in 3:9 and 6:8 for contributing to the work plus wisdom parallel structuring of Qohelet’s words.

Preaching

What difference does Belcher’s interpretation make when preaching from Ecclesiastes?

Do Qohelet’s statements that labor is vanity or useless indicate a view that is to be avoided in favor of work being purposeful and God glorifying? Or does Qohelet’s perspective refer to the common curse where death means that the cultural mandate of producing ever-living members of a human family is undermined, so that even though through God’s common blessing work can produce relative success, nevertheless, it does not eventuate in the glorification of the human race but in the earthly death of every human?

Is the joy that Qohelet refers to a resigned attempt to grasp whatever benefit can accrue to the exercise of mental and physical energy before you expire? Or is it a contentment with any benefit divine providence permits from human endeavor?

Is the fear of God in 5:7 the wrong outlook of a pagan who dreads the wrath of an unpredictable deity? Or is it the respectful reverence of a believer who thankfully obeys a covenant Lord despite having to deal with the common divine curse, the opposition of demonic forces, or the folly and hate of humans?

When preaching from Ecclesiastes is one always contrasting Qohelet’s view with a traditional, orthodox Old Testament wisdom perspective and with New Testament teaching? Or does one present Qohelet’s negative and positive as a realistic understanding of how to live with both the common curse and common blessing experienced during earthly existence, even if unpredictably in terms of human behavior, while simultaneously laboring for the honor of the Redeemer and patiently waiting for an eschatological vindication?

Does the teaching of Qohelet contrast with that of his editor, the rest of the Old Testament, and the New Testament? Or does it agree with the editor’s view and complement other Old Testament texts and New Testament teaching?

Belcher’s homiletical directions side with the former rather than the latter options on these questions.

For the preacher who understands Qohelet’s “under the sun” perspective as a presentation of deviant “speculative wisdom,” which is corrected in the epilogue (12:9–14), Belcher’s commentary is an excellent resource. For a pastor holding to the view that Qohelet is a believing realist, it becomes a question whether Belcher’s perspective on Ecclesiastes so pervades his commentary that it is counterproductive to wade through all his details in order to arrive at an appropriate expository sermon.

Meredith M. Kline is the director emeritus of the Goddard Library at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He has completed his PhD thesis on Ecclesiastes and is a member of First Presbyterian Church, North Shore (PCA) in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2019.