A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Ron Lindo
Knut Martin Hiem is a Professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary. His “fascination with Ecclesiastes” began while he was a student under Richard L. Schultz (p. ix). After completing his PhD, Hiem began to present various lectures on Ecclesiastes that allowed him to engage with critical aspects of the book. As is discussed in most commentaries, Ecclesiastes has two main issues that must be addressed. (1) Why was Ecclesiastes included among the books of the Old Testament canon, and (2) Does it add any theological significance to the canon, particularly when viewed as Christian Scripture? Heim’s answer to these two questions is best understood when one zooms out and places Ecclesiastes stated purpose within the context of the whole Old Testament canon.
Ecclesiastes ends with an epilogue that explains its primary purpose: “The end of the matter: all has been heard. God you shall fear, and his commandments you shall keep…” (Eccl 12:13a; Hiem’s translation).
Readers familiar with the rest of the biblical canon will quickly recognize that this literary purpose is not unique to Ecclesiastes. Proverbs was written to teach the same message (see Prov 1:1–7). Furthermore, both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contain material related to King Solomon.
Proverbs 1:1 mentions that many of the sayings found in the book are from “Solomon, son of David, king of Israel.” Likewise, Ecclesiastes states that its author was the “son of David, king in Jerusalem… king over Israel in Jerusalem” (see Eccl 1:1, 12). As Hiem notes, Ecclesiastes can only be referencing Solomon since there “is only one historic person who fits the description of both son of David and king over all Israel: King Solomon” (italics original, p. 47). Given these connections, one might question why Solomon would have composed two separate books teaching his readers to fear God.
Modern scholars have answered this question by stating that Solomon did not compose Ecclesiastes. Hiem shares this view. Even so, Hiem’s distinctive approach to the provenance of Ecclesiastes presents an interesting case for why the Hebrew canon contains two books concerned with convincing people to fear God.
Hiem interprets Ecclesiastes on two levels. According to Hiem, on the surface, Ecclesiastes is designed to “present a theoretical debate on the purpose of life” (p. 9) such that it critiques those who have a “simplistic and naïve kind of faith” that “does not prove true in reality” (p. 4). Beneath the surface, Hiem identifies Ecclesiastes as “resistance literature” (p. 6) delivered initially as a speech given to “motivate his contemporaries to remain faithful to their God and traditional cultural values” (p. 8).
Though Hiem does not comment directly on why both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are written to argue for the same literary purpose, his particular reading of Ecclesiastes does provide a solution to this canonical problem. Proverbs was written before the exilic period to guide those in the kingdom of Israel to revere God. The author of Proverbs includes statements from Solomon to suggest that all Israel could be just as prosperous as Jerusalem was during Solomon’s reign. The people need only to follow in Solomon’s steps and observe his wisdom.
In contrast to this, Ecclesiastes was written while Israel lived in exile to remind them not to deter from their forefathers’ faith. The author of Ecclesiastes uses a veiled reference to Solomon—via the pseudonym Qoheleth—to argue that faithfulness is more important than status. In other words, the author argues that even outside of the Promised Land, God’s people will succeed (yitrôn, see Eccl 1:3) if they remain loyal to God. As Hiem’s comment on Eccl 2:26 explains, “They [the original audience] was given the prospect of reward for their continued faithfulness to traditional values, a potentially powerful incentive” (p. 64).
Given that even Hiem admits that the date and authorship of Ecclesiastes have traditionally been ascribed to the time and person of Solomon (see pp. 1, 38), one should consider the evidence for why Hiem interprets Ecclesiastes the way he does. First, Heim argues that the author was an orator who used the pseudonym Qoheleth to “ensure” his “anonymity, in case his manuscript fell into the wrong hands” (p. 38). Second, Hiem states that the Hebrew phrase “under the sun” (tahat haššemeš) is used within Ecclesiastes as a “cypher” for living under foreign Egyptian rule (p. 6). According to Hiem, this is possible for various reasons, with the most important being that all Ptolemic Kings viewed themselves as deities and were often referred to as “the Sun” (see pp 6–7). Third, Hiem identifies a progression within Ecclesiastes where the cypher “under the sun” becomes more explicitly about corrupt foreign leadership from “3:16–22 onward” (p. 39).
As mentioned above, reading Ecclesiastes as postexilic resistance literature is a helpful heuristic lens for understanding the canonical purpose of the book. However, one can read Ecclesiastes this way without seeking to reconstruct the exact historical circumstances to which the author might be referring. The author might have decided to be vague on these details so that future readers could insert whatever occasion they wanted. The author’s goal seems to have been to equip his audience to keep God’s commandments wherever they lived as foreigners, under Egyptian rule or otherwise.
Because of this reality, some of the particularities of Hiem’s interpretation are underdeveloped and unnecessary. For example, Hiem comments that Eccl 4:13–16 is probably referring to some “actual rulers known at the time” (p. 83). However, Hiem never identifies these rules and ultimately concludes that their exact identification does not matter because “Qoheleth’s reflection is universally and timelessly relevant” (p. 86). Similarly, Hiem does not provide any reason for why the cypher “under the sun” becomes a more apparent reference to foreign Egyptian rule after 3:16. Instead, Hiem notes that this cypher would have been evident to the original audience but that its meaning has been lost to later readers (p. 84). Finally, even Hiem argues that Ecclesiastes is filled with underdetermined language and various intentional ambiguities ( p. x). Thus, one can claim that even an ancient audience would have inserted different possibilities into many of the analogies presented within the book (see, for example, p. 117).
In all, Hiem’s commentary is worthy of reading. He presents many practical applications drawn from Qoheleth’s theology. His translation of the Hebrew text is very also insightful (see pp.17–36). Still, there are moments where his desire to read specific historical realities into Ecclesiastes is unhelpful and distracting. Therefore, readers should respect aspects of Hiem’s interpretational expertise but treat his historical reconstructions with much skepticism.
Ron Lindo (PhD, New Orleans Theological Seminary) serves as an adjunct professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Buy the books
ECCLESIASTES: AN INTRODUCTION AND COMMENTARY, by Knut Martin Heim