This coming Sunday, July 17, we are beginning a new sermon series on the book of Ecclesiastes. This week on the website, we’ll be posting 5 introductory articles, one each day, explaining some of the background issues surrounding the book that there isn’t time to cover on a Sunday morning. The schedule of what’s coming up:
Monday: Bibliography (a working list of the resources I’ll be using in my study of the book)
Tuesday: Author & Date (Who wrote the book and when?)
Wednesday: Genre (What type of book is it?)
Thursday: Provenance & Destination (From where & to whom was the book written?)
Friday: Purpose & Theme (Why was the book written?)
Several different genres appear within Ecclesiastes, with Craig Bartholomew identifying 10 distinct ones (pp. 63-64; cf. Longman, p. 20):
- Proverbs–pithy statements that express general truths about life, often through the use of literary techniques such as parallelism (e.g., Eccl. 1:15, 18; 2:13; 7:1-12)
- Autobiographical sections of first-person narration (e.g., Eccl. 1:12-2:26; 3:10-4:16; 5:13-6:12)
- Reflection–the statement of a particular truth or experience which is then considered and evaluated (e.g., Eccl. 1:13-15, 16-18; 2:1-11; 2:12-17)
- Poetry (e.g., Eccl. 1:4-11; 3:1-8; 11:7-12:8)
- Rhetorical questions (e.g., Eccl. 1:3; 2:2, 15, 19, 25; 3:9, 21, 22; 4:8, 11; 5:6, 11, 16; 6:8, 11; 7:13, 16; 8:1, 4, 7; 10:14)
- Quotations (it is assumed that some of the book’s proverbs and poetry might have been quotations of well-known proverbs and poetry of the time, but they are impossible to identify)
- Example stories or anecdotes–short stories told to illustrate a truth (e.g., Eccl. 2:21; 4:7-8, 13-16; 9:13-16)
- Woe oracles (e.g., Eccl. 4:10; 10:16)
- Blessings (e.g., Eccl. 10:17)
- Commands and prohibitions (e.g., Eccl. 5:1-7)
Nearly all commentators provide a list similar to this one, showing that there is pretty wide general agreement when it comes to the internal genres that can be found in Ecclesiastes. Furthermore, in addition to these genres, literary devices such as irony, repetition, juxtaposition, metaphors, and hyperbole are also used with some regularity.
When it comes to identifying the genre of the book as a whole, there is much less agreement. With no definitive author or date to go on, scholars have often looked to ancient Israel’s neighbors and compared Ecclesiastes to literature found among the nations, with less than satisfying results. While there are indeed similarities between Ecclesiastes and any number of literary genres from Israel’s neighbors, there are also enough differences to question any real connections between them. We might never know whether the book was written using a specific form of literature prevalent in Israel at the time of its writing, but it does appear that we can use two terms with some level of certainty in describing the genre of Ecclesiastes: Wisdom Autobiography
Wisdom–Biblical wisdom literature is focused on living a well-ordered life in light of God, his law, his word, and the history of his relationship with his people. The book of Proverbs provides general principles for how life should work. Job and Ecclesiastes remind us that life doesn’t always work the way it should and provide direction for living in this disconnect between expectation and reality. Both aspects are necessary (unfortunately, American Christians have long prioritized Proverbs over Ecclesiastes). Furthermore, while Christians have sometimes pitted wisdom literature against law, history, and the prophets, wisdom literature is actually intimately interconnected with the rest of the Old Testament canon. Ecclesiastes in particular shares so much similarity with the early chapters of Genesis that it has been suggested that it is an exposition of them, and especially of the Fall.
Autobiography–Ecclesiastes is not an autobiography in the modern sense of the word. Modern autobiographies focus on the self–the individual–and the facts and events that characterized one life. Ecclesiastes is an autobiography in that it uses first person and individual experience, but the focus is less on the facts and events of an individual life and more on general wisdom that is useful for anyone’s life. It’s an autobiography more in the line of Augustine’s Confessions than anything you’ll find in the autobiography section of your local bookstore.
Many commentators will also attach the word “fictional” to “wisdom autobiography”, and it may very well may be the case that the Teacher is either a partially or entirely made up character. However, due to the fact that our connotation of fiction is often negative, associated with either lies or trashy dimestore novels with little value, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a helpful term in this instance.
Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 61-82.
David M. Clemens, “The Law of Sin and Death: Ecclesiastes and Genesis 1-3,” Themelios 19, no. 3 (May 1994): 5–8.
Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes: Foundations for Expository Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 12-15.
Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 15-20.
Greg W. Parsons, “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Ecclesiastes, Part 2, Bibliotheca Sacra 160, no. 639 (July 2003): 283–304.