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Is Ecclesiastes Pessimistic?

Is Ecclesiastes Pessimistic?

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Ecclesiastes, Meaning in life, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Michael Eaton
Ecclesiastes, Meaning in life, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Michael Eaton

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Published by: Dave on Dec 06, 2009
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03/02/2011

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Critique of Eaton’s Interpretation of Ecclesiastes:
Based on your reading of Eaton’scommentary (pages 15-89), summarize Eaton’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes (do
not
include in your summary materials you read on pages 15-26). Then analyse and critiqueEaton’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes.
Focus
on the question of how Eaton deals with the problem of apparent pessimism in Ecclesiastes. You
must
quote him sufficiently tosupport your argument. (Length: 1000 words)The major hermeneutical difficulty of Ecclesiastes is to understand its apparentinternal contradictions. At times, Qoheleth seemed to be pessimistic or gloomy abouteverything in life (“All is vanity!”) while at other times, he admonished readers to enjoytheir labor, eat well, live joyfully with one’s wife and receive with gladness what God hasgiven. As a result, interpreters have conflicting descriptions of Qoheleth as a skeptic (R.B. Y. Scott) or an orthodox theist (Aalders, Leupold). Others have tried to resolve thetension by spiritualizing exegesis (Jewish Targum and medieval Christians), positing adialogue between two differing speakers (Yeard, Eichhorn) or by presenting the futilityof the world for evangelistic purposes so that readers will pursue the delights of heaven(the Puritans, Wesley). Eaton took issue with interpreters (Barton, McNeile andPodechard) who saw Ecclesiates as a basically skeptical work with glossatorial additionsat the hands of orthodox editor(s) as it would entail a clumsy redactor who addedconflicting comments to skeptical passages that could have been more easily amendedaltogether. But there is no textual support for such changes, the vocabulary of allegedinsertions is remarkably similar to undisputed passages and no methodological necessity1
 
exists for such theories if an alternative exposition could reconcile these sectionscoherently.Eaton attempted an approach that avoids the pitfalls of critical orthodoxy whichdownplayed the orthodox elements within Ecclesiastes and traditional orthodoxy which attimes has ignored or allegorized its pessimism. “What, then, is the purpose of Ecclesiastes? It is an essay in apologetics. It defends the life of faith in a generous God by pointing to the grimness of the alternative.”
1
He saw a heaven-earth dichotomy in which‘God is in heaven and you upon earth’ (5:2). The recurring expressions like ‘under thesun’, ‘under heaven’ and ‘on earth’ described the futility of a barren life withoutreference to faith in God.
2
Therefore, much of the book was blanketed by pessimism.When such terminologies fade away (2:24-26; 11:1-12:14), a more positive tone emergeswith references to the ‘hand of God’ (2:24), the joy of man (2:25, 3:12. 5:18, 20, 9:7,11:7-9), and the generosity of God (2:26, 3:13, 5:19). Qoheleth showed the inevitable bankruptcy of ‘secularism’ in order to drive us to God where life’s meaning can befulfilled. “It is only to one seeking satisfaction in disregard of God that the Preacher’smessage stops at ‘All is vanity’… When a perspective of faith is introduced ‘All isvanity’ is still true, but it is not the whole picture; ‘under the sun’ it is the whole truth.”
3
 But what does the phrase ‘under the sun’ mean? We can find it in other ancient workssuch as the Babylonian
Gilgamesh Epic
’s statement that: “Only the gods [live] forever 
1
Michael Eaton,
 Ecclesiastes
, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity,1983), page 45
2
 
This expression ("under the sun") seems to imply that the speaker thinks a distinction can be made between what happens in human experience ("under the sun") and what happens elsewhere.” Kathleen A.Farmer,
Who Knows What Is Good?
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), page 206
3
Michael Eaton,
 Ecclesiastes
, page 57
2
 
under the sun. As for mankind, numbered are their days; whatever they achieve is but thewind” (Pritchard1969: 79). Dr Leong explained that this phrase refers to “the realm of human life and activities in this world as opposed to the hereafter”. Qoheleth appears touse the phrase in the same sense when he describes the living as “those who move about
under the sun
” (4:15) and the dead as those who “will no longer have a share in all that isdone
under the sun
” (9:6).
4
Therefore, it appears that the phrase does not have anyconnotation about a faithless life without reference to God.Similarly, the theme ‘All is vanity” does not necessarily carry a pessimistic overtone(being more negative than what reality warrants). The Hebrew word “
hebel 
” has the basicmeaning of “breath” (Isa 57:13). Leong explained that Qoheleth is saying that everythingwe work for in this life is vaporous, fleeting and transitory. To say that life is transient isless pessimistic than saying that it is meaningless (as rendered in the New InternationalVersion). In other contexts such as 1:2-3, however, “all is vaporous” answers thequestion, “What profit does man have in all his labor?” Thus “all is vaporous” heremeans “all is profitless.” Qoheleth is thus saying that everything is ultimately profitless because all is transient. Although wisdom, wealth and pleasure have temporal benefits,we do not take any gain in life with us when we die. In the long run, there is no net profit.“Since death comes to us all as the final leveler, nothing that we do has any ultimatevalue, because nothing lasts. So, anything that we might perceive as being meaningful,Qohelet goes to great lengths to point out, is really absurd”.
5
This observation is realisticthough those who are unwilling to accept this fact may find it rather pessimistic. But for 
4
Leong Tien Fock,
Our Reason For Our Being,
5
"Ecclesiastes 1: Book of," Dictionary of the Old Testament, Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, Editors,Tremper Longman III & Peter Enns, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 200), page 129
3

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