Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

21 Jun 2013

A Solid Exegetical Commentary: Ecclesiastes by James Bollhagen

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Ecclesiastes by Dr. James G. Bollhagen is a welcome addition to the growing number of commentaries on Ecclesiastes. He earned his M.Div., S.T.M., and Ph.D. from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. He has also served as a professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and is currently the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in St. Cloud, Florida. This commentary is part of The Concordia Commentary Series: A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture. This series is designed to cover every canonical book of both testaments. With each biblical book, a commentator works with the book in its original language as well as text critical, theological, and practical issues. This series is written from a conservative, confessional, Lutheran standpoint (xii–xiii). The target audience for this series is pastors and teachers. In keeping with the intent of this series, Bollhagen’s commentary provides a valuable tool for seminary trained pastors and students who desire to study Ecclesiastes with a basis in the Hebrew text.

After a brief bibliography (xxiii–xxvi), his introduction covers the title of the book (1–2), its place in the Canon (2–4), history of interpretations (4–6), the Hebrew texts (6), its authorship (6–14), theology (14–27), and outline (27–28). The commentary per se is divided into three sections: Solomon’s quest for wisdom, 1:1–2:26 (31–124), pearls of wisdom, 3:1–12:8 (127–421), and postscript, 12:9–14 (424–40). This is followed by two indices: subjects (441–56) and passages (457–75).

As far as the commentary proper is concerned, each of the three major sections is preceded by an outline (29, 125–26, 422). Following the outline for the three divisions, the commentary is further subdivided into subsections. Each subsection is split into three parts: translation, textual notes, and commentary. Bollhagen’s translation is based on the Hebrew text. His textual notes deal with grammatical issues of the Hebrew text and text critical notes. The commentary for each part explains its message as well as integrating theological and practical items.

Though I, like other Qohelethine interpreters, may disagree with Bollhagen on how to treat some specific texts and issues, these minor differences, from my perspective, do not detract from the overall value of his commentary. Here are a few positive features. Since he is working with the Hebrew text along with grammatical explanations (phonology, syntax, etc.) and text critical notes, this type of work is always valuable. In addition, because Bollhagen is committed to the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the Hebrew text, this is foundational for Bible believing Christians. Further, this is a conservative commentary. For example, his positive discussion of Solomonic authorship is welcome. Again, this commentary has a needed theological and pastoral perspective. Finally, while recognizing that there is a polarized thought between negative aspects of life (such as death) and positive part (such as the enjoyment-of-life), he affirms that the overall message is to “increase wisdom and strengthen the faith of readers” (15).

As far as Hebrew exegesis and theology of Ecclesiastes are concerned, I highly recommend James Bollhagen’s Ecclesiastes.

9 Responses

  1. That’s good to hear about, Prof. I love that series’ volume on Proverbs by Steinmann; really wish I’d had it in hand when I wrote my Proverbs book. But his journal-articles were very helpful.

    Back to Bollhagen: do you think he got the heart of Ecclesiastes right? I read Leupold years ago, and felt he didn’t. My own provisional “take” on Ecclesiastes is that it’s a takedown of human viewpoint; that “under the sun” and similar expressions signal human-viewpoint philosophy, which he contrasts with Yahwistic thinking, as culminating in the climactic 12:13-14.

    So where do Bollhagen and you stand in relation to that?

    Again, thanks!

  2. Bob McCabe

    I appreciate your clarifying comments, Dan, and agree with your assessment of the series. As you mention, Steinmann’s commentary on Proverbs is also a solid work.

    Bollhagen argues for a positive interpretation of the book in contrast to scholars like Longman and Enns who argue for an overall negative assessment of the book. I concur with Bollhagen’s overall positive position. He, as well as myself, see a theocentric emphasis which shows up most often in the recurring enjoyment-of-life texts.

    Bolllhagen in part agrees with your understanding of “under the sun.” As well as the view you advocate, he adds a second one with a general sense “encompassing the entirety of earthly existence throughout the world for all peoples” (43). I think this twofold approach is inconsistent. I agree with his latter sense of the prepositional phrase.

    Let me briefly explain. The twenty-nine uses of “under the sun” are parallel with two similar phrases “under heaven” and “on earth.” The first is used three times (1:13; 2:3; 3:1) and the later six times (5:2; 7:20; 8:14, 16; 11:2; 12:7). A parallel use of “on earth” and “under heaven” is found in 8:14–15 where Qohelet describes an event that occurs “on the earth” in v. 14, but in v. 15, he replaces it with “under the sun.” This same pattern is again found in 8:16–17. These prepositional phrases are used synonymously in Ecclesiastes. Consider another example where “under heaven” and “under the sun” are synonymous: “I applied my heart to study and explore by wisdom everything that is done under heaven. It is a grievous task God has given mankind to keep him busy. I have observed all the works that are done under the sun; and found that all is enigmatic, chasing after wind” (1:13–14). In short, I take “under the sun” as a reference to the sphere where Solomon observes the activities of life. This seems to be consistent with a positive (aka, realistic) approach to the book.

    Another area where I disagree with Bollhagen is taking hebel as “vanity.” Though I am in the minority, I believe a good case can be made for taking this word as “enigmatic. The understanding has been supported by Ogden, Bartholomew, and recently Jason DeRouchie in the fall 2011 issue of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.

    Again, thanks for your comments!

  3. Bob McCabe

    Thanks, Dan! I just completed a class on Ecclesiastes where I have developed this issue in my notes.

  4. Then to paraphrase the Q of S, “Happy are your men! Happy are your students, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!” (c:

    I wish it were available online!

    So, when you say that you favor a “positive” view, do you mean the view that Qoheleth wrote to say that life is good, just trust God and enjoy it? And are you calling the negative view the idea that he wrote to say life is meaningless?

    My view is that he wrote to expose the emptiness and futility of life lived apart from the fear of God — nothing is new, life is a cycle, you lose everything at death, etc. I see the final verses as the “punchline”: the only alternative to futility is to fear God and keep His commandments.

    So in that view, “under the sun” is a philosophical tag or clue, meaning “viewed apart from God; viewed sheerly horizontally, sheerly in terms of human viewpoint.”

    Are you saying (I ask to learn, not to challenge; I don’t feel “done” on Eccl) that you disagree with the view I set out, and think his purpose is more positive (life is good; trust God and enjoy it, but don’t be excessive)? And is that more or less Bollhagen’s view?

    Thanks for anything you have the time to share.

  5. BE

    Hey Dan,

    I know Dr. McCabe can answer better and more fully than I, but I’ll briefly respond to your question “about under the sun” while you wait for him. (I can’t speak to Bollhagen’s view, since I haven’t read it)

    The view of “under the sun” as code for “apart from God” is fairly common in evangelical circles (usually tied to the view of hebel as meaningless/vanity). It is often adopted because it softens some of the harsher and seemingly unorthodox statements of the book. If those statements are not truly what Qoheleth believes but only his conclusion of life without God, then the statements are no longer as problematic. The difficulty of this view is that many of the more negative conclusions include God in the equation. (e.g., Ecc 1:13-14; 5:18). Thus, “under the sun” can’t mean “apart from God.” Rather, it means “on the earth”, i.e., the fallen world where all humans live.

    Thus, I don’t think Ecclesiastes is saying something to the effect of “Without God nothing matters, with God everything matters.” My take on Ecclesiastes’ message is this: We liven in a fallen world, subjected to futility, and thus full of vexing mysteries. How do we respond? (1) Recognize truths revealed by God (God is in control, 3:14; 5:2; 7:14; 9:1; Justice will be done, 3:17; 8:12–13; 11:9; 12:14); (2) recognize your limitations (3:11, 22); (3) Fear God and keep His commandments (12:13-14); (4) Enjoy your God-given life (2:25; 3:12-14; 9:7-10, etc.)

    Though man will never discover how life fits all together, he believes that the life that God has given him is to be lived and enjoyed as God works out His plan in the world. Ecclesiastes offers the believing acceptance of a man, still seeking for purpose in a seemingly purposeless world, who finds joy in the life God has given by trusting that God is working out his purpose. It is a Christian response of faith despite the enigmatic nature of the world.


  6. BE

    I should note that my understanding of Ecclesiastes has been heavily shaped by the seminar on Ecclesiastes I took with Dr. McCabe and Dr. Compton. So, the positives should be credited to them, and the negatives fall on me.