A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Donald Wang
Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary is Book 18 in the series Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. These volumes are complete revisions since the initial volumes which were released in the mid 1960s. The commentaries intend to explain the biblical text to a generation of readers confronting models of critical scholarship and new discoveries from the Ancient Near East while maintaining that the Old Testament is not simply another text form the ancient world but remains as the Word of God for us today. This updating reflects a key emphasis from linguistics, that texts communicate in larger blocks rather than in shorter segments such as individual verses.
Based on this conviction, the treatment of each commentary includes three parts. Part one is a short note on context, considering the passage in its literary unit within the book as well as noting any historical issues related with the interpretation. Part two is the comment, which follows the traditional structure of a commentary. Part three is meaning, which intends to clarify the content of the passage and its relevance to contemporary readers.
The volume under review, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, is authored by Knut Martin Heim, Professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary, who published Poetic Imagination in Proverbs in 2013. Heim has a keen interest in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible and is well-qualified to apply his knowledge to the book of Ecclesiastes. This volume consists of an introduction, analysis, the author’s English translation, and commentary.
Due to the concise format of the commentary, the Introduction lays out some foundations for readers in understanding Ecclesiastes in 11 pages. On the basis of the rhetorical and ironical features of the statements in 1:1 and 1:12-2:26, Heim holds to the increasingly common view that the authorship of Ecclesiastes does not belong to Solomon. He accepts that the book of Ecclesiastes is a political satire in agreement with an essay by John Jarick [“Ecclesiastes Among the Comedians,” in Dell and Kynes (eds.), Reading Ecclesiastes Intertextually, T&T Clark, 2014].
As to the date and historical context, Heim suggests in the introduction that the language of the book reflects Late Biblical Hebrew and Qoheleth’s use of the phrase “under the sun” is a cipher for foreign rule under Egypt under the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Greek rulers.
One important contribution of Heim in the introduction is his summary of three prominent phrases in Ecclesiastes, namely “under the sun,” “success,” and hebel, the latter which he translates “mirage,” in connection with the subversive nature of the book. Heim notices that the Hebrew word hebel occurs 73 times in the Hebrew Bible and 38 times in the Ecclesiastes. Normally, hebel is translated as “breath,” “vanity,” or “idols” – things that do not really exist. Heim attempts to refute all these translations and proposes that “mirage” is a better translation as it carries the meaning of bodies of warm air or mist and “mist appears to be more substantial than it is (ephemerality), soon disappears (transience) and hides objects behind it, obscuring reality from view (illusoriness). All of these aspects of mist are especially prominent in a metaphorical use of the word hebel: its usage to describe the optical phenomenon of ‘mirage’” .
In Analysis, Heim gives a brief structure of Ecclesiastes, dividing the book into 31 units.
The Translation pays attention to the semantic, syntax and grammar of the original Hebrew language and intends to present the feel of the Hebrew language as much as possible.
In the Commentary, the Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes is divided into 31 units on the basis of the 31 units in the Analysis. The commentary balances the focus from probing the original meaning of a single word to the level of the phrases in the book. Heim examines the “context,” “comment” and “meaning” on each unit and provides concise commentary.
Let us look at Heim’s discussion of Ecclesiastes 1:1-3 as an example. This is the first unit which is titled “introduction to a philosophical treatise on human limitations and happiness.” In the “context” section, Heim highlights that 1:1 to 3:15 forms a philosophical treatise, demonstrating the unsatisfactory nature of human endeavor. From 3:16, the passage covertly encourages the audience to remain faithful to their Jewish traditions confronting the temptations from the occupying power of Ptolemaic Egypt.
In the “comment” section, Heim then briefly discusses each verse. For verse 1, he argues that Qoheleth is not Solomon, and “the pseudonym ensured the speaker’s anonymity, in case his manuscript fell into the wrong hands” . He points out that “everything is a mirage” in verse 2 is the opening statement of the speech. For verse 3, Heim indicates that Qoheleth uses the phrase “under the sun” in two different ways.
First it refers to a generalization of human existence, which includes hard work, disappointment, and death due to the Fall (Gen. 3:14-19). Second, it is a cypher for the rule of Ptolemaic Egypt over Judea, “the word sun is a metonymy for Egypt. As Egypt’s most prominent deity it represents the whole country. It also refers metonymically to the Ptolemaic king, for his throne names included the epithet ‘son of the Sun.’” Through most of the first three chapters (1:1-3:15) this second meaning remains hidden, for latter readers at least. It becomes more prominent from 3:16-22 onwards” .
Heim also remarks on the Hebrew word yitron, which is translated as “profit,” epitomizing the aspirations of those who want to adopt the cultural values of the Ptolemies to gain economic and success in the pursuit of personal happiness without the need for God, and this profit/success is doomed to be a failure and a mirage. In the last section “meaning,” Heim argues that Qoheleth’s search for success carried out “under the sun” in a fallen world, has numerous allusions to Genesis 3. Underneath the surface, Qoheleth raises the questions about political and cultural independence under foreign occupation.
The translation of hebel as “mirage” is refreshing in understanding the key term of the book of Ecclesiastes and it helps the reader have a solid grasp of the message of the book. However, in my view, Heim’s argument that the phrase “under the sun” is a cypher for Egypt is not convincing. This interpretation appears throughout almost the whole book with the phrase “under the sun.” For example, Heim interprets the phrase “under the sun” in 9:13 that “this example of wisdom takes place under foreign rule, as the cypher under the sun indicates” .
This commentary is a good book for pastors and seminary students who want to have an updated knowledge of the interpretation of the book of Ecclesiastes. Likewise, readers who do not have any knowledge of the Hebrew language, can also enjoy this commentary given the concise format of the commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes.
Donald Wang is a PhD student of Theological Studies in Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
Buy the books
ECCLESIASTES: AN INTRODUCTION AND COMMENTARY, by Knut Martin Heim