Thursday, May 12, 2016

Ecclesiastes: A Quest for Meaning? by John D. Currid

EP Books, 2015, 154pp

It is commonly acknowledged that Ecclesiastes is one of the most difficult books to understand in the whole Bible. Many a believer has puzzled over its meaning as they have grappled with the author’s seemingly bleak view of life where ‘all is vanity and grasping for the wind’. A commentary like that of John D. Currid’s which unfolds the message of Ecclesiastes in a plain and straightforward way is most welcome, then, as the book has some valuable lessons to teach us.

The commentator argues that Solomon is the author of Ecclesiastes. He rightly notes that defining the recurring word ‘vanity’ (Hebrew hebel) is key to understanding the book. Despite what the New International Version says, it does not mean ‘meaningless’, but ‘fleeting’, like a puff of wind. The Preacher brings us face-to-face with the brevity and uncertainty of ‘life under the sun’.

Some suggest that we should regard the book as a kind of pre-evangelistic tract that shows us the emptiness of life apart from God. That is certainly one of the Preacher’s main themes, but, as Currid shows, that is not all that there is to his message. Ecclesiastes encourages those who believe in God to enjoy life as a gift from him. Knowing that helps us to treasure this fleeting life and rejoice in God’s good gifts of work, family life, food and drink.

The Preacher certainly does not view life through rose-tinted spectacles. In this fallen world we witness suffering, injustice and the loss of loved ones. But we are assured in Chapter 3:1-8 that all events are subject to God’s sovereign control. Currid sees the material in Chapters 4-7 as a series responses to objections to God’s sovereignty, but that is to force the material into too rigid a grid. It is difficult to see how Chapter 5:1-5 fits into that scheme, for example.

Ecclesiastes isn’t simply about trying to make sense of ‘life under the sun’ with all its perplexing challenges. As Currid brings out, it is a deeply practical book. Wise counsel is offered concerning our attitude to fame and fortune, youth and old age, and how we should relate to those in power. The book helps to foster a godly attitude to life as summed up in the words of its conclusion, ‘Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man’. (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

The author writes with simplicity and hints at how the lessons of Ecclesiastes may be applied to our everyday lives. He relates the teaching of the book to the fuller revelation of the New Testament and shows how the Preacher points to Christ.

This is a useful addition to the Welwyn Commentary Series, which is aimed at the 'ordinary Christian reader', rather than pastors or biblical scholars. Currid's work is certainly better than its predecessor in the series by Stuart Olyott, Preachers will find some useful material here in getting to grips with the overall message of the book. But Currid sometimes skims over the text rather than digging deep. Preachers will need to look elsewhere for a thoroughgoing exegetical commentary. Michael Eaton's contribution to Tyndale series is quite good in that respect. Derek Kinder's Bible Speaks Today offering is full of insight. Tremper Longman's scholarly NICOT commentary is pretty dire. Completely misreads the book, making Qoheleth a Yahweh-skeptical cynic.  

'Of the making of many books there is no end' says the Preacher. But a finding a decent exegetical/theological/practical commentary on Ecclesiastes that traces the line from Qoheleth to Christ is like grasping for the wind. 

*Reviewed for Evangelical Times

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