Author Interview


Ecclesiastes Offers Timeless Message For The Ages

Ancient Writer Encourages Readers To Cultivate Contentment, Embrace Community Enjoy God's Gifts Says Author Douglas B. Miller

In Ecclesiastes, the 23rd volume of the Believers Church Bible Commentary series, Douglas B. Miller, professor of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, finds that the book is useful for Christians today facing times of uncertainty and challenge to their faith. He took some time recently to reflect on his understanding of the book's message and how it applies today.

What is your approach to understanding the book of Ecclesiastes?

A number of interpretive approaches have been taken to the book of Ecclesiastes—hearing the author as a repentant confessor, as an ascetic, as a bitter skeptic, as a proponent of joy, or as a realistic adviser. I am among those who take the latter approach, understanding the sage-author to be giving realistic counsel in a world of uncertainty, paradox, tragedy, and stressful challenge to the possibilities of faith. I am convinced that this approach to the author and his message makes most sense of the themes, critiques, and advice found in the book.

What can you tell us about the writer of Ecclesiastes?

The author of Ecclesiastes was an Israelite sage who likely wrote this book in Palestine during the fifth century BC, a time of Persian control. The economic and political scene was quite volatile. Comments in the book suggest that the audience was hardworking and possibly harassed—roughly of the middle classes and thus not the poorest, but also not in positions of great advantage. Reflecting upon personal experience, as well as observation, the sage identified with his audience by recognizing the hardships and absurdities of life.

What is unique about your approach to the book?

A major issue in Ecclesiastes studies is the Hebrew word hebel. The interpretation of this word has a significant effect on how one understands the book. It is often translated as "vanity" or, more recently, "meaningless." My approach is different. I argue that its literal meaning of "breath" or "vapor" serves as a multi-layered symbol for the author's analysis of life in the human realm. As a result, the author isn't saying that life is vain or meaningless—so grab for whatever fun you can find, or shake your fist at the sky. Rather, he uses hebel to describe a world of tragedy and chance, in which good things are short-lived, and where treasured things turn out to be of little worth. Although this is certainly grim, the author has not given up hope. He advises his readers how to make the most of their lives in the midst of such realities.

What is the overall message of the book of Ecclesiastes?

The author's message has three elements: he urges his readers to acknowledge and accept the "vapor" nature of all human experience; he then challenges his readers to reject certain inadequate ways of responding to these realities, such as assuming that hard work and wisdom guarantee success, or that pleasure and material gain will bring satisfaction; and finally he offers some carefully-worded strategies for those who would take the risk to hopefully navigate their complex world. These include cultivating contentment, embracing community and generosity, advocacy for the oppressed, prudence toward those in power, the valuable, though limited, role of wisdom, and, especially, enjoying God's gifts of work and pleasure.

During our time of uncertainty and upheaval, why would readers benefit from reading the book of Ecclesiastes?

In varying degrees, all people, at all times, face the issues that are addressed by Ecclesiastes: lack of satisfaction or sense of purpose, financial catastrophe, personal tragedy, societal injustice, fear, frustration, chance, uncertainty, physical suffering, old age, and death. That's why this book has proved to be timeless, continually valuable for persons in different eras, locations, life situations, and cultures.

For those within the believing community, the author addresses the dark side of faith. He understands those who are disappointed with God, whether they are pondering in silence or crying out in their pain; whether covertly cynical or unafraid to vent their anger openly to God.

As well, his unrelenting questions, sometimes scathing criticisms, and refusal to accept simplistic or comfortable answers, have made the author a welcome traveling companion for those outside the faith or on the boundaries of faith. They respect his integrity.

Any final thoughts?

Although Ecclesiastes is a complex book, I believe it has an analysis of life, faith, and human experience that is especially relevant for our current situation. The value of this sage's message extends beyond his own time to those in similar circumstances today for, as it says in the book, "there is nothing new under the sun" (1:9).

The Believers Church Bible Commentary series is a cooperative project of Brethren in Christ Church, Brethren Church, Church of the Brethren, Mennonite Brethren Church, Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.

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