Bridging Exegesis and Theology: Ecclesiastes by Peter Enns

In this past fall semester and again in January, I had the opportunity to go through the book of Ecclesiastes. One of the benefits of my two recent excursions through this book was the opportunity to examine Enns’ 2011 commentary in the Eerdmans’ series, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. An objective of this series is to bridge the gap between exegesis and theology. This commentary is a significant model of this goal.

Enns’ work is divided into five sections: introduction (1-29), commentary (30-116), theological horizons of Ecclesiastes (117–35), the contribution of Ecclesiastes to biblical theology and vice versa (136-91), and the significance of Ecclesiastes for theology and praxis today (192-219). This is followed by a bibliography (220-27) and indexes of authors (228-30) and ancient literature (231-38).

In the introduction Enns discusses the normal introductory issues for writing Ecclesiastes, such as subject, reason for writing, authorship, date, 12:13-14 as a key for the book, important lexemes for the theology of the book, reading Ecclesiastes Christianly. In terms of authorship and date, the author of Ecclesiastes is a postexilic frame narrator, reflected in the third person of 1:1-11 and 12:8-14 (6, 16-22). The frame narrative encases the words of Qohelet (1:12-12:7). Qohelet is the author’s literary creation to represent his theological emphasis (6, 17). In keeping with a postexilic author, Enns maintains that Ecclesiastes has a postexilic setting (18–19). The issues treated in the introduction are the presuppositions that undergird his exegetical and theological discussion.

A summary for his discussion in the commentary per se is found in 1:2: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (ESV). As opposed to the translation of hebel as “vanity” with the ESV as well as many other translations, Enns follows Fox’s lead by translating it as “absurd” (Time to Tear Down, 133). As such, he maintains that 1:2 should be rendered, “Absolutely absurd,’ says Qohelet. ‘Absolutely absurd. Everything is absurd” (31). Ecclesiastes 1:2 in effect serves as a thesis around which the commentary develops (5, 31, 43, etc.). While I find his rendering of hebel as “absurd” and the way this understanding gives a negative perspective to Ecclesiastes as debatable, what I find profitable in his commentary is his interaction with the Hebrew text, rather than an English translation. In keeping with a pessimistic view of this book, Enns interprets the recurring carpe diem motifs (aka, enjoyment-of-life passages) as notes of “resignation” (26, 92), “despair” (73), and despondency (96). His understanding of the carpe diem motifs does not seriously consider the alternative that this is Qohelet’s positive recommendation to assist God’s people while living in an enigmatic world (for example, see Ogden, Qoheleth, 52–54).

In line with the objective of this series of commentaries, Enns bridges the gap between his exegesis of the text (30–116) and theology in the latter portion of his book (117–219). Much could be said about the final three chapters, but I will mention only one item. In the book’s introduction, Enns mentions that Ecclesiastes should have a “Christotelic reading. Rather than placing Christ ‘in’ the book of Ecclesiastes, a Christotelic reading sees Christ as the climactic end of Israel’s story, which is the vantage point from which we engage the book” (29). He fully develops this point in the final two parts of his work, “The Contribution of Ecclesiastes to Biblical Theology” (136–91) and “The Significance of Ecclesiastes for Theology and Praxis Today” (192–219). While I remain unconvinced of his Christotelic reading, the nature of Qohelet’s message can be used to show us our need for Christ.

While there are areas where I have reservations with Enns’ commentary, his lucid and graphic style, nevertheless, provides an engaging connection between the exegesis of Ecclesiastes and theology. This volume is a helpful addition to Qohelethine studies.

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7 thoughts on “Bridging Exegesis and Theology: Ecclesiastes by Peter Enns

  1. Dan Phillips says:

    If not Christotelic, then what? If not Enns (of whom I am no fan, in any way), then who?

    (c:

  2. Bob McCabe says:

    Dan,

    Thanks for your remarks.

    However, I am not clear what you mean by “if not Christotelic, then what?” Perhaps, you hold to an inaugurated eschatology but I do not.

    Further, I did not say that I was a fan of Enns! It is clear that he denies inerrancy in Inspiration and Incarnation. In his commentary under review, I do not see how he could hold to inerrancy and argue for a postexilic author, the frame narrator, and a postexilic date, etc. Again, I do not agree with his interpretation of hebel as “absurd.” I argued in 1996 that hebel is best taken as “enigmatic.” He holds to a pessimistic view of Ecclesiastes, while I hold to a positive, better realistic, view of the book. In my review I point out that I had reservations with his commentary. My goal was not to go through each area where I disagree with Enns since it is only a blog post. The point of my review was to say that he has made a contribution to Qohelethine literature.

  3. Dan Phillips says:

    Oh dear, I managed somehow totally NOT to connect with you. Sorry, please let me try again, w/out being verbose:

    1. No, I really don’t hold to inaugurated eschatology. I’m pretty much of a dinosaur dispensationalist on that. But I think there’s something to be said for a Christotelic reading of the OT, as one of the ways in which it points to Christ (cf. Moo’s take on Rom. 10:4).

    My question was what you found as a better way of reading Ecclesiastes as a Christian, if you wholly reject the Christotelic way.

    2. I’m sorry, I wasn’t at all suggesting you were a fan, just clarifying that I am not. I’m asking tersely, if you don’t like Enns’ commentary, whose would you recommend as better?

    Hope that solves all existing misunderstandings without creating new ones.

  4. Bob McCabe says:

    Thanks, Dan!

    Looking past an inaugurated eschatology, I basically agree with Enns’ Christotelic reading. This issue makes his commentary a valuable read. Where I do not agree with him is his understanding of the basic message of Ecclesiastes: “everything is absurd.” I understand the basic message of Ecclesiastes, based on 1:2 as Enns also does, “everything is frustratingly enigmatic.”

    I do not know that I can point to one commentary that I prefer. I think it is better to think in terms of multiple commentaries that take a positive view of the message of Ecclesiastes. While I am not in full agreement with Greidanus’ seven different types of Christocentric interpretation, this does not affect his work for preachers. He does an excellent job in laying out a recommended big idea for Ecclesiastes and for the various sections in the text. He further highlights the exegetical flow of thought for each unit. I am teaching Ecclesiastes this summer and his is one of my required texts.
    1. Barrick, The Phillipians of the Old Testament
    2. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes
    3. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs
    4. Glenn,“Ecclesiastes,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament
    5. Greidanus, Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes
    6. Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters

    Hope this helps

  5. Dan Phillips says:

    He wants taller posts.

    (c;

  6. Dan Phillips says:

    My last comment applies to a comment that was removed.

    Thanks for the list. I’ve used it already, passing it to a gent in our church who’s contemplating teaching on Ecclesiastes.

  7. Bob McCabe says:

    Thanks for getting back with me.

    My apologies if I removed a comment. If a comment was removed, it was accidental.

    With my citation of six commentaries, I forgot to include a seventh one by Graham Ogden, Qoheleth (2nd ed., 2007). He also argues for a positive message in Ecclesiastes. I would rate Ogden’s commentary as one of the best. My understanding of hebel was influenced by an article he wrote, “‘Vanity’ It Certainly Is Not.” The Bible Translator 38 (July 1987): 301–7.

    I would also like to qualify what I stated in my first response since I may be misunderstood. When I said, “I do not see how he could hold to inerrancy and argue for a postexilic author, the frame narrator, and a postexilic date, etc.,” I overstated the issue about the postexilic author and date suggesting that Enns does not hold to inerrancy. The truth is that E. J. Young held to a late date and setting for Ecclesiastes.

    What I should have said is that Enns’ denial of inerrancy is consistent with a “postexilic author, the frame narrator, and a postexilic date.” An evangelical could agree with Enns position and hold to inerrancy. However, in my opinion, I believe that this type of view is inconsistent with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. But this is my opinion and I realize that wisdom will not die with me.