On The Interpretation of Ecclesiastes: The Value of the Old Testament in the Christian Church

This is the beginning of a series on my favorite book of the Bible: Ecclesiastes. I plan to write later about the reasons why Ecclesiastes is such a favorite of mine, and why I am writing about it. However, I would like to begin with some consideration on its interpretation that will put forth my assumptions that rule my undertaking. The following is a very brief summary; I intend to post a longer article later.

Any question on the interpretation of Ecclesiastes should start from the larger question of how should we interpret the Old Testament. Ecclesiastes is one of the Wisdom books, and as such has special requirements and characteristics, but it also shares some common traits with other Old Testament books.

This task is problematic because of the Church’s history of Old Testament interpretation. OT interpretation suffers from two vices, one scholarly and other popular.

1. The scholarly vice is that of reductionism. Some fellow decides that he would like to write a theology of the Old Testament, and then he feels that he must have a theme. He devises a theme that fits well or not so well with the whole corpus of the Old Testament, and then he goes on to shoehorn every piece of the Hebrew Bible into it at any price. The result is that we get a very distorted view of the Old Testament in general and Ecclesiastes in particular. Notorious culprits in this area are Eichrodt, who saw everything in terms of the covenant; Von Rad, who saw everything in terms of the different oral traditions; and we’d better not mention Noth and others.

2. The popular vice is that of silencing. The church leaders are not well trained to preach from the Old Testament, so they claim that the the Old Testament “is difficult”; and somehow, this view is transmitted to the pews. Thus, one can see people that is actually afraid (!) of reading whole portions of the Bible and, when they venture into it, they do so with the preconceived notion that they are dealing with some mysterious, esoteric book full of arcana that only the “illuminati” can understand. Related to this is the attitude seen in so many preachers when they approach an Old Testament text. They apologize for the text, as if it were a relic from more uncivilized times. They claim that they find it difficult to deal with all the blood, slaughter, sex and violence in it.

This “popular” vice is so outrageous that it should be picked up by the bollocks detector of anyone. First of all, Old Testament isn’t hard to understand at all. Despite all the literary style put forth by the different human authors, and the special peculiarities offered by Hebrew poetry, the language of the Old Testament is the language of the people, frank, straight, and to the point. There is usually no point of contact with weird,
elaborate cosmologies and (neo)-Platonic sophistry as you can see in the Pauline epistles, for example. The fact is that the Old Testament is, in many cases, very approachable, and it is an easier read than some Epistles.

This state of things calls for a whole re-examination of the role of the Old Testament in Christian worship, doctrine and life. The Apostle Paul said that the whole of the Old Testament (the “Scripture” of 2 Timothy 3:16) is not only inspired, but good. Why are we ignoring the apostolic advice? We need to divest ourselves of hypocrisy and political correctness, and for once start talking plainly about matters of life, death, violence, corruption, sex, politics, war, hatred, love, man, and God. If we do so, we will not only be better Christians; we will be able to address forcefully our culture and all its blemishes with God’s power.

And finally, we must remember: the occurrence and authority of special revelation demands the correct apprehension of every source of it. Sola Scriptura has Tota Scriptura as a presupposition. Ignoring the Old Testament falls short of it.

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