A biblical scholar, writer, and teacher, Peter Enns is author of the soon-to-be-released Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary volume on Ecclesiastes. In this excerpt from his introduction to that book, he discusses what it means to read Ecclesiastes from a Christian perspective.
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Proper interpretation of any biblical book must commence by paying close attention to the words in front of us understood in their historical context, at least as best as it can be determined. . . . And where no specific historical setting can be clearly affirmed, one is still bound to handle the book in such a way that each part interacts with the whole, so as to come away satisfied that one has grappled with the contents of the book, not simply privileged certain favorite passages to the exclusion of others.
But we do not read Scripture simply for the sake of reading. We read Scripture as members of Christ’s church, as a book for Christ’s church. We are asking questions of significance, the nexus between “what it meant” and “what it means,” or, if you will, the overused word “application.” How one gets from then to now has in my experience proved to be a complex interpenetration of factors both obvious and subtle. But to speak of the significance of a biblical book is to say that the setting of the interpreter (whether individual or community, however defined) presents itself as an influential factor in interpretation.
The Bible does not have contemporary “significance” for anyone apart from a conceptual framework within which one makes sense of anything. This certainly entails one’s individual time and place in world history. For Christians, however, that conceptual framework is centered first and foremost not on our particular or personal life settings, but on the gospel, on what God has done for his people and the world in and through the person and work of Christ. I am not attempting to mount an argument here for a so-called Christological or Christocentric reading of Ecclesiastes. I have no real objection to these terms, other than they have sometimes come to represent an approach to Christian hermeneutics that can hold a book like Ecclesiastes at a safe distance rather than engage it. For the gospel to form our grid for understanding Ecclesiastes is not a call to “see Christ” in every verse, or even every passage of the book. This is not what it means to see Christ as the “center” of Ecclesiastes. Rather, the gospel forms our basic hermeneutical posture, that point of view from which we read and to which the meaning of Ecclesiastes will be applied. It is to acknowledge that the very questions we raise, the very way in which we interact with Ecclesiastes, is profoundly shaped by our having been raised and united with the crucified and risen Christ. It is, in my view, precisely a failure to recognize this vital hermeneutical posture that has fostered the notion that a faithful, Christian reading of Ecclesiastes is demonstrated by deriving some immediate moral lesson from the book — an approach that can drive one to ignore, brush aside, or actually mishandle portions of the book. Our outlook must rather be shaped by the knowledge that, on the one hand, Ecclesiastes has something to say, and on the other hand, how we hear it will be shaped in a most fundamental way by our living in the privileged setting of the post-resurrection cosmos.
All this is to say that any Christian interpreter of any OT book, including Ecclesiastes, must purposefully endeavor to allow the two horizons of then and now to be in conversation with each other. And they must be in conversation. I do not think that the cross and resurrection mean that the challenging peaks and valleys of Ecclesiastes can now be made level. But it is still a conversation that embraces the powerful and liberating realization that we are living in the age of the inaugurated eschaton. It is from this final, climactic stage in the drama of redemption that we now look back and say, “Now that we know where Israel’s story ends up, what difference does that knowledge make in how we understand previous stages in the story?” In other words, the “now” with which the “then” must be in conversation is not primarily the private now of my personal experiences (although the personal dimension is certainly in play), but the eschatological now of the new age (2 Cor 6:2) that dawned when Christ, the climax of God’s covenant with Israel, was crucified and raised from the dead. Only after this eschatological posture is allowed to exert its proper force do we as Christians bring Ecclesiastes to bear on the particular circumstances of our individual and corporate lives.
This attitude toward reading Ecclesiastes (and the OT as a whole) is what can be referred to as a Christotelic reading. Rather than placing Christ “in” the book of Ecclesiastes, a Christotelic reading sees Christ as the climactic end (Greek telos) of Israel’s story, which is the vantage point from which we today engage the book. This is analogous, perhaps, to how one engages a well-told tale in a good novel. The first time through you let the story hit you as the plot unfolds and the characters develop. Then when you get to the climax of the story, the various peaks and valleys of the previous chapters begin to be seen in light of the whole. The end of the story does not render those chapters null and void, merely a prop to bring you to the end. But now, having read the story once and seen where it winds up, you go back and read it again. It is precisely because you know where the story is going that you can have a deeper connection with the various parts: “Oh, now I know how that part fits. . . . I didn’t see that before, and now that I do, it seems pretty important. How could I have missed it before? . . . That part isn’t nearly as straightforward as I once thought it was. Maybe I need to pay more careful attention to it this time.”
For this reason a theological reading of Ecclesiastes for the church is ultimately a synthesis of the first and second readings. We must allow its own prominent peaks and valleys to define our hermeneutical landscape, while at the same time bearing in mind that there is another, grander landscape beyond the immediate horizon, against which Ecclesiastes can be seen in a different light. Interestingly, an analogy with the book of Ecclesiastes itself may illustrate the point. Just as reading the epilogue brings us to say to Qohelet, “Yes, you are right, but there is something more,” so too does our postresurrection vantage point bring us to look at Ecclesiastes as a whole and say, “Yes, you are right, but there is something more.” The difference, of course, is that the “something more” of the epilogue is a reiteration of Israel’s traditional categories of fear and obedience. For us, the “something more” is the complex realization that, however bound we are to traditional categories, they are now reconfigured in the crucified and risen Christ, who paradoxically embodies and transforms Israel’s story.