It could just be me, but it seems like there’s an uptick in interest surrounding the Book of Ecclesiastes. I’ve been devoting a lot of study time to Ecclesiastes myself, and I recently described it to a friend as the perfect book to read when you’re having a mid-life crisis. (Perhaps that says something about me.) But I was genuinely excited when I saw John Goldingay’s new Ecclesiastes commentary coming out as the first volume in “The Bible in God’s World Commentary Series” from Cascade Books. Not only is this an excellent commentary, but it sets itself apart as distinct by endeavoring to showcase justice and mercy as they arise in the text because they’re central to both God’s character and the Christian life.
The Introduction provides everything you would expect under the major sections of historical background, composition and authorship, text, theology, contemporary relevance, and an outline. In line with the series theme, there’s a subsection on Qohelet’s socioeconomic background. And there’s another section on Qohelet’s language that has significant implications for the late date of around 200 BC. Goldingay considers the language to reflect Late Biblical Hebrew of the Second Temple Period and Mishnaic Hebrew. Occasionally, this has lexical implications such as for the word יָפֶה in Ecclesiastes 3:11, often translated as “beautiful” or “fitting.” Appealing to Mishnaic Hebrew, Goldingay opts for “appropriate” (131). Earlier in the chapter, Goldingay also seems to cite Mishnaic Hebrew for the more “watered-down meaning” of “matter” for חֵפֶץ, but this is also the preferred sense for this occurrence according to HALOT and DCH (119–120). Another point relating to the author’s view of language is that his view of date and language also precludes Solomonic authorship. According to Goldingay, Solomon is the author’s pen name and alter ego (34).
Each section begins with an original translation followed by extensive footnotes to discuss decisions of note. Next comes an overview, followed by verse-by-verse commentary. The author frequently notes and quotes other important works on Ecclesiastes, both ancient (e.g., Rashi, the Aramaic Targum, Gregory Thaumaturgus, and Didymus the Blind) and modern (e.g., Fox, Seow, Garrett, and Longman). The 24-page bibliography at the beginning of this commentary reveals the scope of Goldingay’s careful research.
For me, three fundamental considerations are (1.) how the commentary understands the purpose of Ecclesiastes, (2.) how it defines hebel, sometimes translated in English Bible versions as “vanity,” and (3.) how it understands the recurring phrase “under the sun.” Accordingly, as to purpose, Ecclesiastes is an unsettling although sometimes encouraging series of reflections that call us to be wise in a world of uncertainty. Life is full of problems, and even the good things don’t bring complete fulfillment. We need wisdom, but wisdom has its limits. Above all else, we must take God seriously (cf. 25, 31). As for the meaning of hebel, the author translates this word as “mere breath,” and contends that as a metaphor it communicates ephemerality and insubstantiality (64–65). On the topic of translation choices, Goldingay also translates qohelet, which often appears as “Preacher” in English versions, as “Congregationalist”—a person who “preaches what is appropriate to the church” (60). And on “under the sun”:
“It refers to every aspect of human life and thus to all that we do and our total perspective on our everyday life. It also indicates the constrains of the perspective with which Congregationalist himself works” (68).
I appreciate the author’s take on each of these issues. This book gives the strong impression that the author has immersed himself in the biblical text, and endeavored to live out the wisdom it advises in his own life.
While I would quibble over dismissing Solomonic authorship and an earlier date, this commentary safely ranks among my top four favorites (along with the NICOT, Mentor, and NAC volumes) among the ten I most regularly consult. Note that it avoids overly technical syntactical explanations, and transliterates Greek and Hebrew words. There is also frequent interaction with a broad array of Bible versions (e.g., KJV, NIV, NRSV, CEB, LXX, Vulgate, etc.) to point out different possibilities and preferred readings. Goldingay’s careful translation notes, thoughtful insights, and broad use of sources all make this a worthy commentary for pastors, students, scholars, and even laypeople to regularly consult as they study this important book.
Special thanks to Cascade Books/Wipf and Stock for a free review copy of this book. This did not affect my thoughts in any way so far as I’m aware.