Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Vanity of vanities

Recently, a friend asked me about a view of Ecclesiastes that is making the rounds, according to which—aside from the first few verses and the last few—the rest of the book is said to be presenting error-ridden worldly wisdom.

Because this is a subject of general interest, I'll post my reply.

1. This view of Ecclesiastes goes back to Michael V. Fox. Cf. M. V. Fox, A Rereading of Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans 1999).

2. It was adopted by Dillard and Longman in their intro to the OT. Cf. R. Dillard & T. Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Zondervan 1994)

3. It receives further elaboration and defense in Longman's commentary on Ecclesiastes. Cf. T. Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans 1998).

4. This interpretation is Reformed only in the adventitious sense that Dillard and Longman taught at a Reformed seminary. That no more makes it Reformed than the brand of toothpaste that Longman happens to use.

5. For that matter, in his commentary on Daniel, Longman can't make up his mind on whether Daniel really wrote it or not.

6. In terms of inspiration, we could draw a distinction between 1st-order and 2nd-order inspiration. All of Scripture is inspired in the 2nd-order sense.
That is to say, every writer of Scripture is inspired. Scripture is an inspired record.

But in a 1st-order sense, Scripture is often a record of what someone else said. As such, Scripture is both an inspired record of inspired statements, and—at other times—an inspired record of uninspired statements. Every writer of Scripture is inspired, but every speaker within Scripture is not inspired.

7. For example, Luke quotes Gamaliel. Luke is inspired, but Gamaliel is not. So we must consider the speaker. If the speaker is a prophet or apostle, he is inspired.

I am using "prophet" in the broad sense of any divinely appointed spokesman, whether Isaiah, Daniel, the Chronicler, Mark, Luke or the author of Hebrews—to name a few.

8. But under the providence of God, inspiration can also pop up in unofficial channels. Who would have expected a godless man like Caiaphas to be a prophet of God? But in a least one instance, under the overruling providence of God, he was unwittingly prophetic (Jn 11:51).

Like, paradigm pagans such as Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar could be the recipients of divine dreams. So there is, in Scripture, a prima facie presumption of 1st-order inspiration, even for reprobates who are caught in the web of God's redemptive designs.

9. How does this distinction apply to Ecclesiastes? On the traditional view of authorship, it is inapplicable, and for a couple of reasons:

i) If Solomon is the author, then Solomon is inspired by virtue of his divine wisdom (1 Kg 3-4).

ii) There is (at least on the traditional analysis), no writer/speaker division in Ecclesiastes. It is a writing by and about the writer himself. It is a philosophical memoir. Hence, the narrative/editorial voice is identical with the author himself. There is only one voice, not two.

10. A necessary preliminary step in establishing the view of Longman is to deny Solomonic authorship. In fact, that is precisely what Longman does.

11. In terms of traditional orthodoxy, the self-witness of Scripture is authoritative. The Bible's self-referential claims are just as inspired as any of its other claims. Some books of the Bible are anonymous, but others either state or imply their authorship.

12. A favorite way around this is to claim that pseudonymity was an accepted and transparent literary device. This was understood by writer and reader alike. No one was taken in—or so the argument goes.

13. This is, of course, part of an old and ongoing liberal/conservative debate. By way of general reply:

i) Arguments for pseudonymity are either circular or equivocal. They are circular when the scholar appeals to another pseudoepigraphical book of Scripture as precedent, for that begs the question. A is pseudoepigraphical. How do you know that A is pseudoepigraphical? Because B is pseudoepigraphical? Okay, how do you know that B is pseudoepigraphical? So this line of argument only pushes the problem back a step by assuming what it needs to prove.

ii) They are equivocal when the scholar appeals to an extracanonical book as precedent. This is equivocal because it assumes the Biblical author was directly and uncritically indebted to that practice. But when the proposed parallels are trotted out, they have their share of dissimilarities as well as similarities. So this could just as well be taken as an argument from disanalogy rather than analogy.

iii) If this were an accepted and transparent literary convention, then how come Jewish tradition attributes the book to Solomon? Why is an ancient convention obvious to a modern commentator, but oblivious to an ancient commentator? Looks more like a modern convention that is being superimposed on an ancient genre.

14. Longman rehearses several standard liberal objections to Solomonic authorship:

One reason is that the preface contains a couple of comments that don’t seem to fit the facts. The speaker's comparison with his predecessors (1:16) is considered odd when he had only one such predecessor. Again, why the past tense in v12? Solomon never abdicated the throne. Furthermore, the book depicts a background of decadence and disillusionment that ill-accords with the golden age of Solomon.

But on closer inspection these objections are not very impressive. At most, v16 would amount to hyperbole (cf. 1 Chron 29:25). Solomon is presenting himself as uniquely qualified to comment on the human condition. He's seen it all and done it all. This claim is entirely justifiable. And v16 is just a way of saying, 'I'm the greatest king who ever lived. Therefore I'm in a singular position to speak with authority on the affairs of men.' The fact that he couches the comparison in terms of Jerusalem is legitimate license. What other focal point would he assume? Jerusalem was his base of operations, and—under his reign—the cultural capital of the ANE. I would add that v12 is also consistent with this somewhat idealized projection. If he were writing towards the end of his reign, looking back on his life and achievements, what would be more natural than to employ the past tense? After all, an autobiography is ordinarily written at the end of life, and not in one's twenties. A true literary critic is supposed to exercise a modicum of sympathetic imagination.

The entire work is highly stylized. Its aim is to generalize from the author's own observations to the world at large. The literal and literary levels of abstraction are wonderfully consonant, for if Solomon is the actual author, he is supremely situated to draw some universal lessons from his personal experience. It was for that very purpose that God elevated him to such a paradigmatic role. If, moreover, the past tense is supposed to pose a problem for Solomonic authorship, postulating pseudo-Solomonic authorship merely relocates the alleged difficulty. Again, if the number of predecessors were really problematic for Solomonic authorship, attributing the claim to a forger only shifts the incongruity. So the pseudonymic alternative fails to solve any problems since it merely transfers all of the alleged difficulties of the traditional identification onto the back of the impostor. At the same time, the pseudonymic alternative is more complicated and conjectural than the traditional identification, without offering any explanatory value in return.

As to social conditions, surely it is a truism that cultural fluorescence and extravagant vice often go hand in hand, whether it's in the glory days of Alexandria, Assyria, Babylon, Baghdad, Constantinople, Egypt, Florence, Prague, Rome, St. Petersburg, Venice, Versailles, or Vienna. The ennui of the rich is proverbial. The realism and pessimism of this work is a mark of authenticity. For if the work were by a much later hand, feigning a Solomonic persona, we would expect him to wrap a gauzy glowing nostalgia around the good old days when Israel was at the apex of her outward reach and glory—in contrast to his own sorry times.

15. Another common objection is that Ecclesiastes reflects a mix of hedonism, pessimism, and fatalism which is at odds with the rest of Scripture. Longman calls it a foil or teaching device. By way of general reply:

The central conundrum of Ecclesiastes is the existential question of the meaning of life. From an empirical standpoint, the distribution of blessing and bane seems to be random (9:11-12). Good men prosper and bad men prosper, good men suffer and bad men suffer. Where's the justice?

To an observer, nature seems to support a cyclical rather than linear philosophy of history (1:2-11). Is life a means without an end? A broken clock? A decorative case that fails to tell the right time? What is the answer?

i) The Fall is a presupposition of Solomon's apparent pessimism. 1:13, 3:20, 7:29 & 12:7 allude to the account of the Fall in Gen 3. Hence, Solomon's gloomy outlook is not a reflection of the natural order as such, but of a fallen moral order.

ii) Solomon finds solace and hope in his theodicy of the right time (3:1-15). In the plan and providence of God, there is a right time for everything (1-8). God has granted man sufficient evidence to discern the existence of an eternal order and providential hand in history, but insufficient evidence to discern the purpose of providence (11,14). So there is just enough evidence to save us from the extremes of presumption and despair.

iii) Solomon's theodicy goes back to his doctrine of creation: just as God made all things good, he's made all things beautiful in their time. Just as God made man in his own image, he's planted an intimation of eternity in the human heart.

iv) But the ways of God are often inscrutable—seemingly random, inequitable, even perverse. And this astigmatism figures in the parallax of time and eternity. We are captive creatures of the moment, inching into the future. Our perspective is prospective rather than retrospective. But God's vantagepoint is timeless. And only with the benefit of inspired hindsight can we begin to discern how the pieces of the puzzle all fall into place. And so we live by faith rather than by sight, for now we see in a glass darkly, but then face-to-face (1 Cor 13:12).

According to Solomon, we should enjoy the good things of life in moderation, but as a happy windfall rather than a universal entitlement. We should steer a happy mean between the extremes of dissolute indulgence and monastic asceticism.

On the one hand, raw materialism is self-defeating. It is a paradox that those who live purely for pleasure are unhappy, for man has a soul as well as body. Indulgence and adventure become bland and routine, and make us dependent on things undependable.

On the other hand, raw monasticism is self-defeating. Man has a body as well as a soul. The Buddhist foregoes pleasure to forego pain. But the cure is as bad as the disease. He avoids a little misery some of the time by making himself a little miserable all of the time.

Finally, Longman adduces a piece of evidence which is actually another prooftext for Solomonic authorship:
"there is likely an intentional link between Solomon and the chosen acronym Qohelet. 1 Kings 8...uses the verbal root qhl quite often in reference to Solomon gathering people to hear his speech (cf. vv1-2,14,22,55). Thus, the 'Assembler' may be an intertextual reference to 1 Kings 8 and a subtle hint that Solomon is the referent," The Book of Ecclesiastes, 2.

16. A more specific objection is that the sceptical view of the afterlife presented in this book is at odds with the Biblical hope.

By way of reply:

i) According to the liberal, evolutionary view, belief in the afterlife was a late bloomer in the canon of Scripture.

But if we deny Solomonic authorship and date the book late, then it should be more affirming rather than disaffirming of the afterlife. So one liberal argument cancels out the other.

ii) When we read OT passages that present a stark contrast between life and death, we need to keep the following in mind:
a) Allowance must be made for hyperbole (e.g., Ps 86:13; Jonah 2:2).
b) When in despair, one speaks despairingly—but that doesn't tell the whole story. Just study the mood swings in the Book of Job, psalms of David, and oracles of Jeremiah.
c) The contrast often involves a reversal of fortunes, as the famous are forgotten, the potentates left impotent. In the just judgment and overruling providence of God, today's celebrity may be tomorrow's nobody (Eccl 9; Isa 14; Ezk 32). This carries over to the NT (e.g., Lk 16:19-31; 1 Cor 1-3; Rev 20:4-6).

17. Longman regards the prologue/epilogue as a framing device for the body of the text. But to reason from this unobjectionable analysis to two conflicting voices is a non-sequitur.

i) Many writers, whether inside or outside of Scripture, employ this framing device. But the same author is responsible for all the material. He writes the prologue, epilogue, and body of the text.

ii) Longman draws attention to what he dubs fictional Akkadian autobiographies, but he doesn't impute composite authorship to them. If he's going to invoke the principle of literary artifice, then we'd expect the literary artifice to be consistently maintained from start to finish. It would speak with one voice--the voice of a single author.

iii) Longman contends that the shift from 3rd to 1st person and back again indicates two different voices.

But why not treat that as a literary device?

iv) Longman draws attention to the 'intrusive' use of the 3rd person in 7:27. But this undercuts his own analysis, according to which what distinguishes the framing device from the body of the text is that the prologue/epilogue employ the 3rd person while the body of the text uses the 1st person.

If, however, the author is not uniform in his usage, but alternates at will, Longman's argument falls apart--for the putative evidence cuts both ways. What we have is stylistic variation.

18. Longman tries to draw an analogy with Job: "the body of both books contains dubious teaching when judged in the light of the rest of the canon," ibid. 37.

But this is a careless comparison:

i) There is, in Job, unlike Ecclesiastes, a clear writer/speaker(s) demarcation.

ii) In Job, the point of tension is not between the theology of Job and the rest of the canon. Rather, there is a dramatic tension between the prologue (1-2) and the rest of the book. The writer and his readers are privy to something that the figure of Job is not. Job doesn't know why he is suffering. He's out of the loop. That's key to his ordeal. But the reader/writer knows.

In sum, there is no good reason to deny the Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes, or use that as a harmonistic device to account for the so-called contradictions of Ecclesiastes. The book drops broad, unmistakable hints of its Solomonic authorship, and far from contradicting the general tenor of Scripture, Ecclesiastes is an extended, intertextual meditation on the creation and the Fall.

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