Critique of Eaton’s Interpretation of Ecclesiastes: Based on your reading of Eaton’s commentary (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 critique Eaton’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 to support your argument. (Length: 1000 words)

The major hermeneutical difficulty of Ecclesiastes is to understand its apparent internal contradictions. At times, Qoheleth seemed to be pessimistic or gloomy about everything in life (“All is vanity!”) while at other times, he admonished readers to enjoy their labor, eat well, live joyfully with one’s wife and receive with gladness what God has given. 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 the tension by spiritualizing exegesis (Jewish Targum and medieval Christians), positing a dialogue between two differing speakers (Yeard, Eichhorn) or by presenting the futility of the world for evangelistic purposes so that readers will pursue the delights of heaven (the Puritans, Wesley). Eaton took issue with interpreters (Barton, McNeile and Podechard) who saw Ecclesiates as a basically skeptical work with glossatorial additions at the hands of orthodox editor(s) as it would entail a clumsy redactor who added conflicting comments to skeptical passages that could have been more easily amended altogether. But there is no textual support for such changes, the vocabulary of alleged insertions is remarkably similar to undisputed passages and no methodological necessity


exists for such theories if an alternative exposition could reconcile these sections coherently.

Eaton attempted an approach that avoids the pitfalls of critical orthodoxy which downplayed the orthodox elements within Ecclesiastes and traditional orthodoxy which at times 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 the sun’, ‘under heaven’ and ‘on earth’ described the futility of a barren life without reference 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 emerges with 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 be fulfilled. “It is only to one seeking satisfaction in disregard of God that the Preacher’s message stops at ‘All is vanity’… When a perspective of faith is introduced ‘All is vanity’ 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 works such as the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic’s statement that: “Only the gods [live] forever

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


under the sun. As for mankind, numbered are their days; whatever they achieve is but the wind” (Pritchard 1969: 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 to use 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 is done under the sun” (9:6).4 Therefore, it appears that the phrase does not have any connotation 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 basic meaning of “breath” (Isa 57:13). Leong explained that Qoheleth is saying that everything we work for in this life is vaporous, fleeting and transitory. To say that life is transient is less pessimistic than saying that it is meaningless (as rendered in the New International Version). In other contexts such as 1:2-3, however, “all is vaporous” answers the question, “What profit does man have in all his labor?” Thus “all is vaporous” here means “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 ultimate value, 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 realistic though those who are unwilling to accept this fact may find it rather pessimistic. But for

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


those who seek the Kingdom and store up treasure in heaven, ‘all is vanity’ may be optimistic since death leads to the resurrection and eternal life.

Responding to Eaton’s view, Duanne Garrett commented, “If Ecclesiastes is an apologetic work, it is surely unlike any other defense of the faith we know. It raises more questions than it answers. It is also doubtful whether we can legitimately separate two viewpoints within Ecclesiastes – the one being the worldly, under-the-sun perspective and the other being the true, evangelistic heart of the Teacher… One would not expect in an apology such a frank carpe diem (“Seize the day”, a statement of the brevity of life) as in 11:10.”6 Although Qoheleth drives the reader to God, his words are not evangelistic in the conventional sense.

If we do not subscribe to Eaton’s apologetic approach to understanding Ecclesiastes, how shall we understand the apparent contradictions in the text? For example, Ecclesiastes 6:3-5 says a stillborn child is better off than a person who fathered many children and lived many years for not having seen the sun or known anything. It seems to contradict 11:7 that asserts, “Light is pleasant, and it is good for the eyes to see the sun. No matter how many years a man may live, let him rejoice in them all, and let him remember the days of darkness, which may be many. All that comes is vanity.” Instead of positing an ‘under the sun’ view for the former and a faith perspective for the latter, the discrepancy can be resolved by taking seriously the characteristics of Ecclesiastes as Wisdom literature that is application-centered and context-bound. In 6:3-5, Qoheleth is

Duanne Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The New American Commentary, (Broadman Press: Nashville, Tennessee, 1993), page 275


comparing a stillborn child who has more ‘rest’ than the rich man who toiled for many years but could not enjoy good things he accumulated. In death, both ended up in the same place. In such a context, there is no net gain for the covetous rich man so it is ultimately profitless. But in 11:7, there is a different application since it is good to be alive in the world (“see the sun”) provided that one is able to rejoice in all his years courtesy of a carefree and God-fearing heart. Therefore it is better not to see the sun if one’s wealth accumulation cannot be enjoyed but it is good to be alive if one avoids covetousness and enjoy life properly since all is transient. In conclusion, it is possible to resolve these apparent discrepancies without adopting Eaton’s views on pessimism in Ecclesiastes.


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