Reviewed by Justin Dunton
Herman Melville, the famous author of Moby Dick, once wrote that “the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.” Against the backdrop of an American church that touts Pollyannish notions of love and positive thinking, Ecclesiastes strikes a jolting chord. It asks all the hard questions; it provides no easy answers. Its honesty is refreshingly brutal. And for these reasons, Ecclesiastes might just be the book for this current generation so wearied by endless streams of spin, buzz, and silver-tongued political doublespeak.
In Why Everything Matters: The Gospel in Ecclesiastes, Philip Ryken takes on the unwieldy task of guiding us through the difficult interpretation of Ecclesiastes, distilling its complex themes and questions into palatable, faith-building lessons useful for the scholar and the layperson alike. Ryken, of course, is aptly suited for this task, having practiced as Senior Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA, for ten years and currently serving as president of Wheaton College since 2010. He is equal parts pastor and scholar. For his part, Ryken wants to leaves us with the tools necessary to struggle with a book like Ecclesiastes continually as we journey in discipleship. To this end, Ecclesiastes is a useful work that leads us to worship by helping us “ask the biggest and hardest questions” and helping us “to be honest about the troubles of life” (pp. 3-4).
At the outset, Ryken rightly frames the examination of Ecclesiastes by focusing on three key interpretative elements: the meaning of the Hebrew word hevel, the recurrent phrase “under the sun,” and the book’s authorship. He spends the bulk of the first chapter unfolding the nuances of hevel – the “multipurpose metaphor that is central to the message of Ecclesiastes” (p. 5). The word – which Ryken translates as “vanity” – comes to stand not only as a useful concept for denoting the transience of life, but also demonstrating the futility of life’s struggle to create meaning. Its application to literally everything makes it an important concept to sort out early.
Everything “under the sun” is “vanity;” nothing escapes life’s futility. Ryken notes that the author’s consistent appeal to an “under the sun” view of the world is an interpretative key to Ecclesiastes. “Under the sun,” he notes, is “taking an earthly point of view and leaving God out of the picture” (p. 12). Ecclesiastes invites us to inspect life through a Godless lens, and this approach implicitly solicits us to find the need for a Savior that makes all things new. Without connection to God, Ryken presses, happiness is impossible.
After laying two pieces to Ecclesiastes interpretative foundation, Ryken takes on his final component: authorship. Christian tradition has long associated the author of the book with Solomon – the “Preacher” (Ryken’s translation of Qohelet) of Ecclesiastes. Recent scholarship, however, has challenged this assumption pointing out that Ecclesiastes appears to be written late, possibly even post-exilic. The author, whoever it may be, could have written the book with Solomon as a figurehead to solidify a greater-to-lesser argument. Though the case for an anonymous author is appealing, Ryken is not completely convinced. While he leaves the door open for its possibility, he wants to at least read Ecclesiastes from a “Solomonic perspective,” which he believes to be a proper framework for interpretation (p. 20).
Ryken spends the rest of his book selectively sketching the contours of the Preacher’s quixotic journey. In Chapter 3, he points to the Preacher’s failed quest to find meaning in life through the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure. In Chapter 4, the Preacher finds that attempting to build meaning through work is a fool’s errand. In Chapters 5 through 8, the Preacher takes on life’s weightier existential questions: man’s allotted time on earth, unreconciled injustice, economic injustice, the emptiness of prosperity, and the thorn of human suffering. The weight of each of these questions and problems is crushing, but Ryken finds a hope embedded within the fabric of Ecclesiastes that points to an ultimate hope in Jesus Christ. An example of Ryken’s approach to the text is his treatment of Ecclesiastes 5.18-20. Here, Ryken sees the Preacher breaking from his usual “under the sun” rubric and giving us a piercing glimpse of a “beyond the sun” viewpoint. Money and prosperity should be enjoyed, but it is vital that the power of enjoyment originates in God. We must, therefore, seek to have a deep, personal relationship with the Giver, rather than the gifts he gives. Ultimately, we find in the cross of Christ the ultimate gift where we will “find full satisfaction in Him, guaranteed” (p. 99).
Ryken’s book takes the same turn at each of the steps along the Preacher’s journey. He highlights the deficiencies in an “under the sun” view and demonstrates how a fully-orbed worldview with Christ at the center provides meaning for the apparent absurdity of life. In the end, he finds the weight of the book falls on the last exhortation by the Preacher to “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth” (Eccl. 12:1). The reason Ecclesiastes confronts us with the despair of our mortality is because “what happens then has implications for the way we live today” (p. 122). Our current existence is a testing ground that proves the integrity of our true character; a crucible to “reveal our true relationship with God” (p. 79). Ryken reminds us of the importance of maintaining an eschatological view that injects life with purpose and meaning.
Why Everything Matters is an enjoyable, readable primer for understanding both the book of Ecclesiastes and its canonical fittingness with scripture. Ryken’s work is no easy feat, for in a mere 141 pages of clear prose he has provided the reader insightful exposition of an ancient text and fruitful application for a modern context.
Ryken at times seems to move too quickly from explanation of the text to application. He does well to give us a basic understanding of the Preacher’s dilemma only to quickly show how God (and ultimately Jesus) are the true solutions to his (and our) dilemma. Ryken’s conclusions are profound and helpful, but his rapid tempo comes at a cost. The power of Ecclesiastes is to lead us into a place of honesty where we feel the crushing absurdity of life. Turning too quickly to the solution makes it sometimes difficult to feel the weight of the book’s onerousness – and ultimately the goodness of the solution.
For the space and scope of his work, Ryken fairly surveys the landscape of authorship questions. In tackling these difficult issues succinctly, it might also prove helpful to discuss the possibility of multiple “voices” or “characters” in the text. For example, who is the “voice” or “character” that declares, “says the Preacher” in Eccl. 1:2; 7:27; 12:8ff? Is this “The Preacher” or someone else? Is there a possibility that the book is written by one author but with at least two “characters” – The Preacher (who is Solomonic) and the “Narrator”? Introducing the possibility of one author utilizing multiple “characters” creates an interpretative framework that potentially opens up some new avenues for exploring the message and meaning of Ecclesiastes. Discussing this possibility might help the reader understand how to engage with real or apparent contradictions in the book with which Ryken wrestles (e.g., the “enjoyment passages”).
Overall, this book is a solid work of scholarly precision and pastoral wisdom. It should be read as a helpful guide navigating the scholar and layman alike through the treacherous waters of Ecclesiastes. In the end, Ryken proves an adept and trustworthy guide.
Justin Dunton is Executive Pastor at Green Hills Church of Nashville, TN.
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Why Everything Matters: The Gospel in Ecclesiastes