Ecclesiastes is one of the most fascinating—and hauntingly familiar—books of the Old Testament. The sentiments of the main speaker of the book, a person given the name Qohelet, sound incredibly modern. Expressing the uncertainty and anxieties of our own age, he is driven by the question, “Where can we find meaning in the world?”
But while Qohelet’s question resonates with readers today, his answer is shocking. “Meaningless,” says Qohelet, “everything is meaningless.” How does this pessimistic perspective fit into the rest of biblical revelation? In this commentary, Tremper Longman III addresses this question by taking a canonical-Christocentric approach to the meaning of Ecclesiastes.
Longman first provides an extensive introduction to Ecclesiastes, exploring such background matters as authorship, language, genre, structure, literary style, and the book’s theological message. He argues that the author of Ecclesiastes is not Solomon, as has been traditionally thought, but a writer who adopts a Solomonic persona. In the verse-by-verse commentary that follows, Longman helps clarify the confusing, sometimes contradictory message of Ecclesiastes by showing that the book should be divided into three sections—a prologue (1:1–11), Qohelet’s autobiographical speech (1:12–12:7), and an epilogue (12:8–14)—and that the frame narrative provided by prologue and epilogue is the key to understanding the message of the book as a whole.
“Nonetheless, the historical books inform us that, though Solomon reached the pinnacle, he ended his life an apostate. The person who calls himself Qohelet pretends to be Solomon in order to argue that if Solomon cannot find satisfaction and meaning in life in these areas, no one can. Solomon was the perfect literary foil for his argument. Once the search for meaning is over, the Solomonic persona is dropped, and that is when we see the distance between Qohelet and Solomon widen.” (Page 7)
“It is more in keeping with the book as a whole to understand these passages as they have been taken through much of the history of interpretation, that is, as a call to seize the day (carpe diem). In the darkness of a life that has no ultimate meaning, enjoy the temporal pleasures that lighten the burden (5:18–19 [English 5:19–20]).” (Page 35)
“Qohelet’s pessimistic theology is not the concluding voice in the book. A second voice is heard at the beginning of the book (1:1–11) and at the end (12:8–15), placing a frame around Qohelet’s speech and providing the perspective through which we should read his opinions.” (Page 37)
“The point of the image of the three-strand cord is rather that strength can be gained through human relationships.” (Pages 143–144)
“On the contrary, the most natural reading of the book, as argued under ‘Authorship,’ takes into account the presence of two speakers—Qohelet, who refers to himself in the first person in 1:12–12:7, and a second, unnamed wise person, who describes Qohelet to his son (12:12) in the third person (1:1–11 and 12:8–14).123 In effect, the speech of Qohelet is a quotation, which is framed by the words of the second speaker, who is the narrator/author. Thus, in keeping with the structure of the book, we must examine its theology in two parts. First, Qohelet’s theology, and then the theology of the frame narrator, which is the normative theology of the book as a whole.” (Pages 31–32)
An outstanding contribution to studies on Ecclesiastes.
Tremper Longman’s commentary on Ecclesiastes is a welcome addition to the NICOT series and a solid contribution to the elusive field of wisdom in ancient Israel. Longman exhibits his literary and theological sensitivities in a very accessible style.
—Journal of Biblical Literature
This commentary goes a long way in solving the riddle that is the book of Ecclesiastes. Will be highly treasured by those who have opportunity to teach and preach the message of Ecclesiastes.
—Daniel I. Block, Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Old Testament, Wheaton College
Longman offers a provocative genre—and structure-based explanation for the divergent perspectives expressed within the book of Ecclesiastes. His thorough exposition of Qohelet’s ‘meaningless’ search for meaning and of the canonical book’s final critique of skepticism ultimately points readers toward Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection have restored meaning to life ‘under the sun.’
—Richard Schultz, Carl Armerding and Hudson T. Armerding Professor of Biblical Studies, Wheaton College
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