Ecclesiastes. Interpretation

By William P. Brown
Louisville, Ky : John Knox (2000). xiii + 143 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
18.2 (Fall 2007) : 242-243

William P. Brown is professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary/PSCE in Virginia. As the subtitle for the series (A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) indicates, the Interpretation commentaries seek to present a contemporary exposition integrating history and theology. Each commentary is based upon the RSV or (more recently) the NRSV.

The volume is a very readable exposition throughout, in which the author freely expresses his own thinking and feeling. In his preface he wonders whether any traditional commentary on Ecclesiastes could be considered a legitimate undertaking in light of the book’s mysteries, ambiguities, and contradictions (vii). Thus, Brown follows the model of a dialogical commentary exhibiting the simultaneous operation of “a hermeneutics of trust and a hermeneutics of suspicion” (viii).

At the outset, he compares Qoheleth with the Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh (1-7). He believes that the Gilgamesh epic was the source of the original Qoheleth’s reflections. Rejecting Solomonic authorship, Brown places the book’s composition in the fourth or even third century B.C. (8), even though he admits that Ecclesiastes itself claims to have been written by Solomon (10). Throughout the commentary, the reader is reminded that the commentator believes that a variety of editors were involved in the composition of Ecclesiastes (cf. vii, 116). Yet, Ecclesiastes is viewed as “an indispensable part of the canon” (33).

Brown correctly (and eloquently) highlights the various themes of Ecclesiastes. Some of those themes include the following: God-given enjoyment of life (37), reverence for God out of an awareness of our finitude (45), individual accountability for how one lives before God in the world (56), and the inevitable common experience of death (91). Illustrating his thoughts with writers like Gustave Flaubert (26), Mark Twain (69), and Barbara Kingsolver (102), Brown weaves them into the teachings of Ecclesiastes. Such citations provide material for the preacher in today’s pulpit. Exegetical problems receive short shrift since detailed treatment of the Hebrew text is outside the intent of a dialogical commentary. However, that does not mean that Brown totally ignores tough problems. For example, he dedicates over a page and a half (in other words, approximately one percent of his entire commentary) to the crux interpretum in 5:9 (Hebrew, 5:8), providing some excellent insight to its solution.

The commentary concludes with its own epilogue exploring “Qoheleth’s Place in Christian Faith and Life” (121-37). The bibliography includes recommendations for further study (139-40) and a list of the works cited in the body of the commentary (140-43).

Brown’s volume would not be the first choice (or even a second) for the expositor to add to his library if he is looking for a verse-by-verse, exegetical commentary. The commentaries by Michael Eaton (Tyndale OT Commentaries; IVP, 1983), Duane Garrett (New American Commentary; Broadman & Holman, 1993), and Tremper Longman III (New International Commentary on the OT; Eerdmans, 1998) serve that purpose better. For the expositor capable of mature theological discernment (able to separate the wheat from the chaff), this commentary can be a catalyst for illustration, preaching, and application.