There are some parts of the Bible that are like Marmite, for my non-British readers Marmite is a yeast spread that some people love to have on their toast and other people hate it. If something is described as Marmite in the UK it means that some love it and some hate it. The book of Ecclesiastes is similar, some people love the book and some people really struggle with it.
This difficulty comes down to the apparent depressive nature of the book. Who wants to hear about everything in life being meaningless all the time?
Feeding into this is the problem that not many churches preach on or teach it well. That is probably, but not exclusively, because Ecclesiastes is a difficult book to understand and apply. This is evident from the variety of different views that exist on how to understand the book. There are plenty of commentaries written on this book, by a variety of authors, but there are different views which stand opposed to each other.
I was recently sent the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary on Ecclesiastes by Knut Heim. The TOTC is a helpful series that I have often referred to as I have prepared for sermon, bible studies and seminary assignments. So I was quite excited to receive this new addition to the series, it came out on the 19th of September 2019, on the book of Ecclesiastes. Also, In the church I serve we recently started a new sermon series preaching through it in our morning service and over the summer I wrote small group Bible studies on the book of Ecclesiastes. But I’ll confess that I don’t agree with the position that this book takes on the interpretation of Ecclesiastes.
“The book of Ecclesiastes is resistance literature”
He argues this based on the time he places the book in, saying that the book was written under Greek Ptolemaic kings in Egypt. Therefore, he describes it as political satire that mocks the rulers who are exercising their rule over the nation of Israel.
“Like the routines of many stand-up comedians, Qoheleth helps his audience to laugh about the foreign occupiers and about themselves”
He explains that his interpretation of the book solves the scholarly impasse. This impasse is the tension between differing view on how to interpret the book. Some scholars understand the writer of Ecclesiastes to be an orthodox teacher with a positive view on life. Whilst a large number of scholars understand the writer to be a disillusioned sceptic who is challenging orthodox beliefs. Heim says that his position solves this issue. However, I don’t think it does, rather it simply adds in another interpretation all together.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking ‘surely it doesn’t make that much of a difference, does it?’ I think it does.
Take for example the repeated phrase ‘under the sun‘ in Ecclesiastes. Heim argues that this is “a cypher for Egypt: it means ‘subject to the Egyptian foreign regime‘” This understanding of the phrase changes how you understand the book all together. It changes the way you teach the book and the way you apply it both to the people of Israel at their time and to the Lord’s people today.
Whilst the author’s intention seems to be to resolve the impasse of scholarly opinions, I think that he has rather complicated them by simply adding another understanding.
Personally, I would not recommend this book. I have read it and the author brings out many helpful insights from the verses themselves in his analysis. But because I disagree with the fundamental understanding of how to interpret the book, it would be dishonest of me to give it a gleaming review.
Ecclesiastes is a book that can spark many different conversations and I highly recommend that you read it, I think you’ll be encouraged and challenged to look to God in the difficulties of life.
I also highly recommend the TOTC series to you and would encourage you to use it as a helpful reference as you wrestle with Scripture.
Rating – I cannot rate this book as it would not be fair to the author, nor publisher, because we hold different positions on the book.