Under the Sun

One classical assumption about Ecclesiastes is that it offers a negative view of life because Qoholet embarks on a thought experiment with certain constraints that will lead to a negative outcome. Specifically, he limits his observations to life “under the sun.” This is sometimes read as suggesting that he is only looking at life in natural terms, “under the sun” is treated as excluding “heaven” and God from the picture. Life within the bubble is “meaningless” or “empty.”

In this article, I want us to probe that assumption a little.  Here are a couple of things to consider.

First of all, there is the structure of the book. Commentators have noticed that it is framed by a prologue and epilogue which describe Qoholet and his work in the third person. This could be a literary device by Qoholet himself as he steps back and reflects on his work although it could also be that a second person, a narrator has edited and framed Qoholet’s writings.[1] The “frame narrator” provides evaluation of Qoholet’s sayings:

“Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.”

Notice that this is a positive evaluation. Qoholet is wise, a teacher, one who brings wisdom. He offers us “words of delight” reminding us that the one who mediates on God’s Word delights in the Lord. He is righteous and truthful. The conclusion affirms Qoholet’s findings. [2]  As Enns comments

“…it bears repeating that the frame narrator himself has provided a canonical evaluation in 12:8-14, which …has a demonstrably positive dimension to it. In other word, we should not rush to evaluation and judgement but be patient in allowing Qoholet to make his case in his own terms, however jumbled and belaboured it might appear at times and then bring the totality of Qoholet’s words into conversation with the frame narrator’s evaluation.”[3]

Thirdly, we have Qoholet’s identity. Bartholomew says:

“That we are to think of Qoholet as Solomon is made clear by the phrase ‘the son of David, king in Jerusalem.’ ‘King in Jerusalem’ could refer to David or Qoholet, but in the light of 1:12 it is best to refer to Qoholet. Only David and Solomon were kings over Israel in Jerusalem.”[4]

This has implications for his role:

“As king in Jerusalem we should also note that this is the leader of God’s people and someone familiar with the Israelite traditions as they have been embodied in the Sinai covenant and the Davidinc covenant. We would not therefore expect Qoholet to be an unbeliever but someone who knows the way of the Lord and whose responsibility it is to promote those ways among God’s people.”[5]

Finally, we have the literature’s genre. The conclusion tells us that Qoholet gives us proverbs. The introduction tells us that this is a collection of sayings. This is wisdom literature. [6] In other words, the King is mediating on God’s Law and teaching the fear of the Lord because that is the beginning of wisdom.

So, I want to suggest that in Biblical Theological terms we have:

–          God’s People (Israel)

–          Living under God’s rule (under the Davidic king in Jerusalem)

–          In God’s place (the land, under the sun).

This means that “’Under the sun’ does not mean ‘on earth, as opposed to heaven.’” [7] It’s not “to be dismissed as a faulty this-worldly perspective.” [8]

In other words, the book is written within the context of God’s covenant with his people. This is Scripture. Now, as Enns eludes to above, the nature of the literature may make it challenging. It’s wisdom literature, it is intended to provoke and cause reflection, it’s poetic, it’s likely to include irony. It suggests a conversation. It needs chewing over as we mediate on it.  Furthermore, we need to read the whole account to get a sense of what the author is saying.  However, as Enns and Bartholomew both agree, it is worth persevering with to hear what God is saying through the preacher.

I think those clues help us to think again about how to read and understand Ecclesiastes. There’s a bit of a challenge here. It’s not just that living under the sun and without heaven’s perspective that life is at times messy, an enigma, hard to pin down. It may also feel like that for the believer too.

Yet even this does not mean that life is without hope or meaningless. Chaotic, hard to pin down, like chasing the wind, an enigma, yes but futile and vain, no.  There is purpose because God has spoken into this messy world.

Christians can take things a step further, God has spoken and God’s Word himself has stepped down into this messy world.  We have a king, under the sun.

[1] See Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 82-83 and Enns, Ecclesiastes, (Kindle location 130-131).

[2] Enns, Ecclesiastes, (Kindle location 461).

[3] Enns, Ecclesiastes, (Kindle location 511).

[4] Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 102. Although Bartholomew doesn’t think it was literally Solomon, rathr treatin this as a literary/rhetorical device

[5] Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 103.

[6] Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 102.

[7] Enns, Ecclesiastes, (Kindle location 461).

[8] Enns, Ecclesiastes, (Kindle location 461).