Ecclesiastes. Baker commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms

By Craig G. Bartholomew
Grand Rapids : Baker (2009). 448 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
21.1 (Spring 2010) : 103-105

The commentary series of which this volume is a part targets primarily the needs of “scholars, ministers, seminary students, and Bible study leaders” with clergy and seminary students most in mind (9). It is confined to Song of Songs by Richard S. Hess (2005), Proverbs by Tremper Longman III (2006), Psalms (3 vols.) by John Goldingay (2006, 2007, 2008), Job (unpublished), and Ecclesiastes. Bartholomew is H. Evan Runner professor of philosophy and professor of religion and theology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario.

A lengthy general introduction (17-99) opens the volume, providing readers with discussions of Ecclesiastes’ canonicity (18-20), history of interpretation (21- 43), authorship and date (43-54), social setting (54-59), text (59-61), genre and literary style (61-82), structure (82-84), reading Ecclesiastes in relationship to Proverbs, Job, and the Torah (84-93), message (93-96), and its relationship to the NT (96-99). Each section’s commentary consists of three sections: “Translation” (Bartholomew’s own with technical footnotes providing detailed explanation regarding textual criticism, grammar, translation, and literary devices), “Interpretation” (supported by both bibliographical and technical footnotes), and “Theological Implications.”

As Bartholomew reminds his readers, “Very few scholars nowadays defend Solomonic authorship” (39), and he does not choose to depart from that modern view (47)—primarily due to what he views as Greek influence on Ecclesiastes (54). However, he admits that precision in dating the book “will depend on one’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes as a whole and of its social setting” (53). While psychoanalytic and sociological readings (41-42) of Ecclesiastes appear to dominate recent treatments of Ecclesiastes, this commentator avoids that approach—at least until his postscript in which he states that “Ecclesiastes cries out for a psychological reading” (377). Bartholomew also evades interpreting the book as pessimistic (67). Instead, he believes that ultimately “Qoheleth affirms joy, but not of course cheap joy” (95). In addition, he identifies the narrator and implied author as one and the same person (79). “Vanity” (KJV, hebel in Hebrew) stands as one of the key words in Ecclesiastes. Commentators and translators alike have struggled to express its meaning in English. Laying aside such options as “absurd,” “meaningless,” “useless,” and “a puff of breath,” Bartholomew settles on “enigmatic” (93-94, 105-7). His suggestion has real potential, since the same concept seems to be expressed by the image of grasping at the wind. It is not that life does not have meaning, it is just that its meaning too often cannot be comprehended or grasped (106).

In his discussion of “Ecclesiastes and the New Testament” (96-99), the author observes that one of the messages of the book is exactly “what the Reformed tradition means by total depravity: precisely not that everything is as bad as it can be, but that the fall affects every aspect of created life” (96). Such an approach to one of the theological themes of Ecclesiastes is intriguing to say the least. Unfortunately, Bartholomew does not make this one of the topics for discussion in any “Theological Implications” section.

Many commentators believe that the carpe diem passages (2:24-26; 3:10- 15, 16-22; 5:18-20 [17-19]; 8:10-15; 9:7-10; 11:7–12:7) represent a hedonistic response to Qohelet’s frustration and despair. Bartholomew, however, understands them to be far more positive in affirming a believer’s enjoyment of God’s good creation (80-81).

Bartholomew provides discussion for most of the major interpretive cruxes in Ecclesiastes. His detailed treatments of the cruxes furnish readers with well-crafted arguments leading to the author’s ultimate conclusion. Examples of such exegetical care occur in his treatments of 1:4-11 (109-12), 3:1-8 (160-65), 3:10-11 (166-67), 5:8-9 [7-8] (216-18), 9:7-10 (303-5), 11:1-2 (335-37), and 12:11 (366-69). However, sometimes the detail is absent and the treatment remains inconclusive and flat. An example would be the so-called moderation text in 7:16-18 (255-57). When the reader arrives at 12:1-7, he will find that Bartholomew rejects the traditional interpretation regarding a description of aging and death in favor of a metaphorical description of eschatological judgment in the day of Yahweh (348-53).

The sections presenting “Theological Implications” vary greatly. After 1:1- 11 Bartholomew deals with the relationship of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as well as the concepts of wisdom and hebel (112-17). Following 1:12-18, the topic becomes the autonomous viewpoint of Qohelet’s epistemology and a brief discussion of what the author terms “the legitimate role of suspicion” (125-27). The interpretation of 2:12-23 concludes with a discussion of the repetitiveness of history (145-48); a description of shalom (153-57) complements the interpretation of 2:24-26; time, creation order in time, and historicism wrap up the chapter on 3:1-15; and the issue of oppression (including a detailed statistical survey of the oppression of children in modern times, 192-93) occupies Bartholomew’s treatment of implications following 4:1-16 (192-200). The tone of most of these “Theological Implications” tends to be philosophical, doubtless due to the author’s vocation as a professor of philosophy and his own personal interests. For the reader with a commensurate interest, these sections will be enjoyable. This reviewer, however, found the section dealing with worship following 5:1-7 [4:17–5:6] to be far more appealing theologically (209-13).

The volume concludes with a postscript titled “Postmodernism, Psychology, Spiritual Formation, and Preaching” (375-89), an impressive bibliography (391- 420), and indexes for subjects (421-30), authors (431-38), and “Scripture and Other Ancient Writings” (439-48). In the postscript Bartholomew reveals that he has preached Ecclesiastes only in “a one-hour session as well as over a series of four one-and-a-half-hour sessions” (388)—quite unlike Michael Eaton (TOTC, IVP, 1983) who had preached through the entire book in a prolonged series. Bartholomew advises preparing congregations for Ecclesiastes by “a good working knowledge of Proverbs . . . as well as a robust doctrine of creation” (388).

The lengthy introduction, careful interpretive treatment of most cruxes, adherence to the Masoretic Text instead of suggesting numerous emendations (cp. 166, 217), moderately heavy discussions of theological implications, and healthy bibliography all commend this volume to students, teachers, and preachers alike. The majority of the text outside the cruxes receives little attention in the “Interpretation,” and the best attention occurs within the footnotes to the “Translation.” Taking all these things into consideration, the volume makes a significant contribution to the study of Ecclesiastes, but falls short of a more exhaustive exegetical commentary.