Douglas B. Miller. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2010. 300 pages.
Miller’s book should be owned and pondered because of the masterful way in which he deals with the fundamental conundrum of Ecclesiastes. Does the narrator of the book approve or disapprove of this wisdom?
One of my most satisfying experiences as a professor was teaching wisdom to a mature class in a church that included a good number of non-academics without formal introduction to biblical literature. I began Ecclesiastes with an open question: What did the author mean to say about life? The first two responses were so animated I had to end discussion. The first asserted that this was a pessimistic book written with no understanding about a life of faith or joy in the Lord. The second was adamant that this book tells us exactly the way life is experienced, a nononsense realistic view of life.
Wisdom writings present truth in riddles and enigma; they tell us to “answer a fool according to his folly” and warn that we must “not answer a fool according to his folly” in juxtaposed verses (Prov. 26:4–5). Wisdom in Ecclesiastes excels in this technique; the writer repeatedly takes proverbial truths and turns them upside down, as is often done in our own use of wisdom. “Fools jump in where angels fear to tread” and “he who hesitates is lost.”
In Ecclesiastes this enigma comes to apply to the entire composition. The approach to Ecclesiastes (Miller summarizes these in five categories) has much to do with understanding the word unfortunately often translated as “vanity.” It is hardly possible to sustain this translation for the thirty-eight times the preacher uses this term, about half of the occurrences found in the entire corpus of Hebrew literature.
The Hebrew word hebel is in all probability onomatopoeic; it lacks a common Semitic primary verbal root. Relating to breath, it has a broad emotion-laden stratum with strong evocative possibilities, particularly suitable for reflection on the mysteries and pain of life. Miller draws on the depth of his doctoral research to point out that in addition to the usual connotations of being transitory or without substance, the preacher has added an additional sense of being disgusting (especially p. 263). This is a natural extension for the preacher, since idolatry is a common referent of the term in biblical usage. As carefully catalogued by Miller, the preacher has frequently extended the sense of transitory or meaningless to the frustrating manner in which these former elements compromise life. The closest consistent possible translation which can incorporate all three senses would be something like “smoke.” Miller has defended well and extensively the position that hebel in Ecclesiastes has become a symbol for the experiences of life that carries a nuance beyond the specific meaning it may have in any particular occurrence.
Miller regards Ecclesiastes as a kind of philosophical notebook (25) that has coherence within a rather fluid structure. “Qoheleth is best understood as a realistic counselor with an insightful strategy to guide those who are frustrated and discouraged about life” (31). The author uses vapor to describe a variety of experiences to enable the reader to come to terms with the hard realities of life and to show how certain ways of responding to them are foolish.
The narrator appears three times in the book referring to Qoheleth in the third person: in the introduction (1:2), the epilogue (12:8–10), and once in assessing the value of wisdom (7:27). The effect of the unexpected appearance of the narrator within the discourse is to “strengthen the emphasis on wisdom’s elusiveness” (134). Miller should have made more of this observation. He quite rightly discusses the likelihood of a double entendre in this section in the reference to woman. In Proverbs woman appears as a seductive person as well as a personification for Dame Folly (e.g., Prov. 9:13–18). The preacher has added another nuance to the seduction of Dame Folly; trying to use wisdom to demystify the enigmas of life is to be deceived by Folly and fall into her embrace. That which Qoheleth sought by wisdom he could not find (Eccl. 7:27–28a). Instead, warns the narrator, Qoheleth testifies to occasionally finding a good person, but not the woman he sought (28:b–c). As expressed in Job, wisdom has no answers for the hard and inevitable questions of life (Job 28:12–14; 20–22). To use wisdom to that end is to share in the folly of Job’s “miserable comforters.” The narrator similarly concludes with a warning on the proper use of books.
Miller has provided a very helpful resource in understanding Ecclesiastes as a guide to life rather than cynicism about it. The carpe diem passages (2:24–26, 3:10–15, etc.) express the voice of faith affirming the goodness of God where wisdom has no answers.