Randy Jaeggli, a professor of Old Testament studies at Bob Jones University, states that the book of Ecclesiastes presents “a divine philosophy for living in a fallen world” (p. 22). He arranges his work in six chapters, beginning the first with the contention that Qoheleth’s dissuasive words, “Of making many books there is no end” (Eccl 12:12), are not intended to discourage another book on Ecclesiastes. So he forges ahead with the goal of providing readers with “pure joy as the message of Ecclesiastes becomes dear to each believer’s heart” (p. 2). While we can appreciate his self-confidence, it would be peculiar if no one else had remedied the supposed paucity of books that instruct believers on how to “annunciate a biblical, coherent philosophy for how to live in a world that sin has so severely marred” (p. 23).
To accomplish that, in chapter 1 Jaeggli conducts his readers through a rather extended journey of the merits and demerits of Solomonic authorship, insisting that “it is crucial for correct interpretation of the book to identify Solomon as the author” (p. 2). His readers, of course, will need to decide for themselves if those who hold to non-Solomonic authorship (e.g., Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, NICOT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998]; and Michael V. Fox, A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999]) end up interpreting Ecclesiastes as possessing less power and persuasion, thus justifying his claim.
In chapter 2 Jaeggli introduces the attractive idea that Ecclesiastes is connected directly with God’s creation of humanity and his subsequent fall, citing Ecclesiastes 7:29. To support his thesis, he mentions two terms shared by this verse and Gen 2:18: the adverb “alone” (לְבַד) and the verb “to make” (עשׂה). While two common terms may be sufficient to establish similarities between two texts, interpreters must be careful not to take the comparison beyond similarity if such is not justified. This rule of intertextuality then brings into doubt the specificity of his conclusion: “This tie-in to the creation account sets up a comparison of two things that are not right. Just as it was not good for Adam to be alone, so it is lamentable that man has spoiled his originally upright condition that existed in the Garden of Eden before the Fall” (p. 31, emphasis added). But this does not seem to be the result of the comparison. While both occurrences of the verb “to make” relate to the creation of humanity (Eccl 7:29 to “mankind” generally; Gen 2:18 to the creation of “woman”), Qoheleth applies the term “alone” to his search (“Alone—note this!—I have found that . . .”), whereas Genesis applies it to the man’s unmatched condition in the world of living creatures that have mates (“It is not good for man to be alone”).
Underlying the entire book of Ecclesiastes, Jaeggli asserts, is Solomon’s teaching about who God is: “The only logical place to start in our exploration of the divinely revealed philosophy for living in a fallen world is Solomon’s teaching about who God is” (p. 25). This being the bedrock of the study, the upper strata therefore become: 1) God created mankind; 2) God has the right to control what he created; 3) God does not have to tell us what he is doing; 4) God judges all people; and 5) God deserves reverence.
The remaining chapters of the book are subthemes of the main theme of who God is. They proceed as follows: “Vanity Is the State of Life in a Fallen World” (ch. 3); “Enjoying Life Is a Gift from God in a Fallen World” (ch. 4); “The Fear of the Lord Is Essential to Life in a Fallen World” (ch. 5); and “Even Wisdom Has Limits in a Fallen World” (ch. 6). Using the Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes, Jaeggli describes these themes from various angles, giving many hypothetical and personal stories along the way. His anecdotes in particular are warm and invite the reader into his own mental and personal world (some readers, however, may find his images from deer hunting offensive, e.g., p. 83).
Around the same time Jaeggli’s work was published in 2015, another study on Ecclesiastes appeared from Philip G. Ryken, president of Wheaton College and former senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Like Jaeggli, Ryken has provided a study of Ecclesiastes for preachers and Sunday School teachers that is arranged in ten chapters of comparable length, packaging each chapter under a virtual hashtag that hints at the thrust of the chapter. Also like Jaeggli’s book, the author discusses Ecclesiastes by theme rather than text, although Ryken is less inclined to discuss textual matters than is Jaeggli. Ryken’s familiarity with contemporary language and cultural literature, however, helps readers feel they are connected with Qoheleth in a way that makes his words relevant, if not contemporary. Both books, quite appropriately, engage Ecclesiastes as a theological book with advice for living, especially since both are written for the church rather than college and seminary classrooms. Yet, at the same time, it is evident that both authors have some familiarity with critical issues surrounding the book, such as authorship and theological inconsistencies, even though they might not prefer the latter term. While Ryken is inclined toward Solomonic authorship, he does not, unlike Jaeggli, make it an essential tenet for interpreting the book properly. In fact, at times he drops a hint that the writer may not be Solomon (e.g., pp. 46, 130).
In Chapter 1 Ryken asks the question, “Why Bother?” and deals with the merits and demerits of studying Ecclesiastes. He then concludes that the message of the book is apocopated—it lacks the final word: “Almost every verse in Ecclesiastes shows us how much we need a Savior to make all things new” (p. 15). Another of Ryken’s angles on the book is that the author of Ecclesiastes asks the right questions, like that of 3:21, “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward?” And he sometimes supplies the right answer in the book itself, like 12:7, “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” But most often the ultimate answer is found only in Jesus Christ and his resurrection and promise of eternal life (p. 83).
In their emphasis on Christ as the theological endpoint of Ecclesiastes, the two books under review are in agreement. On the one hand, I certainly agree with this perspective, since Christians believe that Jesus Christ is God’s ultimate revelation of truth. However, a methodological word of caution is in order, since this viewpoint can sometimes hinder interpreters from giving due diligence to the message of an OT book itself when it seems so divergent from the NT. For example, some translations and commentators view Ecclesiastes 7:16–17 as commending a life that does not over-engage in righteousness. In fact, both of these writers seem to look for a more moderate way to understand this passage: Ryken interprets it as “self-righteousness” (pp. 108–10, following Norman Whybray) and Jaeggli as a manipulative righteousness to get some advantage from God (pp. 131–34).
Yet, even though the wider biblical perspective would lead us to believe that one should not be overly righteous, we ought to allow Qoheleth the latitude of taking the position that a moderate faith is preferable, particularly in light of his unorthodox leanings from time to time. This sort of moderation is precisely the way we need to interpret Job’s outlandish statements in the dialogues with his friends. While a moderate religious position may not have been Qoheleth’s final counsel to those struggling with life’s “vanities,” it certainly was a position he entertained at some point before he came to the ultimate conclusion that we should “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). Again, our model is Job’s experience, with his final conclusions in 40:3–5 and 42:2–6.
Both of these studies will lead the preacher and teacher through the major themes of Ecclesiastes, even though these themes are framed differently by these two commentators. In fact, it would be stimulating for the enterprising preacher and teacher to use these two works in tandem and allow them to feed into each other.