kirk patston on ecclesiastes

A friend of mine who pastors a church asked my opinion of Kirk Patston’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes which he had promulgated in a series of talks at the Katoomba Easter Convention in 2009. I hadn’t heard them, but did find a copy of some talks he had given at SMBC which were based on his KEC talks, so I downloaded them and listened to them (available here). I’d guess that they’re truncated a little — the first one went for only about 20 minutes. As such it is probably a little unfair to offer too comprehensive a critique of his views (they’re fairly light on exegesis and heavy on anecdote and illustration which is fair for the genre of his talks but really doesn’t offer a comprehensive defence of his position with which I can engage). Nonetheless, since it is all I have to go on, here we go!

Patston argues that Qohelet was a wise and faithful teacher who basically had something positive to say. The book is about gift vs. gain: it begins with an examination of gain (Eccl 1:3), deduces that gain is pointless, and then concludes that life is a gift and ought to be enjoyed as such. Patston treats “gain” as primarily material gain, that which we strive for and accrue in life. (Although I’m sure he wouldn’t endorse them entirely, there are a few scholars who propose generally positive readings of Ecclesiastes such as Whybray and Ogden.)

It’s an appealing interpretation of the most difficult of biblical books. It is immediately relevant to people living in our modern materialistic culture. But is it right? Read on for more detailed evaluation…

I think there are a number of difficulties with Patston’s exegesis which render his interpretation improbable. First, Qohelet does not seem to agree that “gain” is bad and we should focus on “gift.” Instead, Qohelet says that it is the inability to enjoy gain that is evil (see Qoh 5:15 [E. 5:16]; 6:2). In other words, he has no problem with gain (in fact, he extols it in Eccl 5:18 [E. 5:19]), he has a problem with God who allows gain but then prevents one from enjoying or benefitting from it!

Second, while Patston is on safe ground seeing in Eccl 1:3 the programmatic question of the book (many scholars agree), his definition of “gain” is too narrow — he seems to focus primarily on material gain and productivity gains (or at least that’s the strong impression given by his illustrations). Jesus, after all, extolls gain (cf. Luke 12:33, “treasure in heaven”). Qohelet’s own use of יתרון seems broader than mere material wealth (cf. Eccl 2:13; 7:12; 10:10, 11). Yet Qohelet has no notion of sacrifice in the present for future benefit (unless that’s what Eccl 11:1ff is about, but that’s a difficult passage). Consequently, Qohelet’s “enjoy life” proclamations are less enthusiastically endorsed answers to his queries concerning advantage in life than they are concessions made in light of the incomprehensibility of life. “I can’t tell you what you can do to improve your life in the future, so all I can say is that you make the most of whatever you have now.” The touted enjoyment of life in the present is not guaranteed and remains contingent on God’s incomprehensible will (cf. Eccl 2:24–26; 5:18–6:2 [E 5:19–6:2]).

By way of contrast, Patston has to paraphrase such passages as Eccl 2:24ff as “a man can do nothing better than let God be his generous creator — to accept the gifts of God.” While this sounds good, it goes well beyond what Qohelet actually says and beyond what the context allows.

Beyond these general observations it’s worth making a few notes about the specific points he made about the text.

First, I think he’s largely correct in his interpretation of Qohelet’s key term הבל (NIV translates “meaningless” which he dislikes, preferring some idea like “difficult to grasp, elusive, hard to understand”). However, I think the term has more negative overtones than Patston admits. He claims inspiration for his understanding from James 4:14 (ἀτμὶς γάρ ἐστε ἡ πρὸς ὀλίγον φαινομένη, ἔπειτα καὶ ἀφανιζομένη) where ἀτμὶς ‘steam, vapour’ has a similar semantic range to the Hebrew הבל.

I think the connection to James is, however, a little misleading. הבל is almost always used negatively when used metaphorically (as it is in Eccles, and also in most other instances in biblical Hebrew where it is used, for example, in reference to idols). The LXX renders it not with ἀτμὶς but with ματαιότης which is itself usually negative (meaning “useless, futile, empty”) — the LXX nowhere uses ἀτμὶς to render הבל. Furthermore, while there are no direct quotations from Eccles in the NT, many see in Paul’s use of ματαιότης in Rom 8:20 (cf. Rom 1:21) an allusion to Qohelet’s words. Patston does betray something of the negativity inherent in הבל when connecting it to Abel and describing him as having been “senselessly murdered.” Consequently I think it is difficult to escape the negativity of the motto.

What I think the book is saying is that life is incomprehensible to the wisest sage, yet the task of the wise was to chart a course through life which would benefit those who heeded such wisdom. Qohelet, however, says that the wise cannot deliver on this promise — wisdom is not all it is cracked up to be. The sage cannot give you guidance on how to live life, all he can say is that you might as well make the most of what you have — enjoy life while you can (Eccl 11:9–10, although compare that with Num 15:39!). With this point made by Qohelet, the frame-narrator chimes in at the end to offer another way: fear God and keep his commands. This is something which cannot be derived from what Qohelet has said, it is something new. It points away from the way of the wise and to the way of the servant. In this the book agrees with the bulk of the remainder of the Bible: the wisdom of the wise does not lead to a better life, it does not lead to God.

Second, Patston interprets the poem of Eccl 1:4ff as being positive — reflecting wonder and joy over God’s creation, connecting it with Gen 1. This reading is based on a number of points. He argues that the author has employed “vivid and active” words to describe the world and hence that this ought to be read positively. However, “vivid and active” words are not only used in positive contexts in the Bible. The prophets, for example, employ vivid imagery to describe judgment and its consequences. The prophets also did not conceive of the world in the terms expressed in Eccl 1:4ff — they awaited a day when things would change, when the cycles would be broken, when God would do something new!

Indeed, a closer examination of the terminology reveals just how indeterminate it is for establishing either a positive or negative feel to the passage. The sun rises (זרח), but this verb is also used of leprosy appearing (cf. 2Chr 26:19). The verb שאף used of the sun “panting” in verse 5 is frequently used negatively. This use of this language clearly doesn’t require that the passage be read positively.

Patston attempts to bolster his argument by appealing to an alternate view which takes the cycles as undesirable or a result of sin. This is a straw man argument, for the issue is not the desirability of the cycles but rather their immutability. Most scholars think the point is that the cycles are unaffected by human endeavour (hence linking the cycles to the preceding verse). Human beings have no ultimate bearing on the world in which they live, they are thus inconsequential, their efforts and labours achieve nothing (cf. Eccl 1:9–11).

The crux for the interpretation is verse 8. As Longman says, “[t]his verse is pivotal in establishing the pessimistic tone of this section of the text” (NICOT, p. 71). Patston seeks to establish a positive reading by suggesting that verse 8 turns the focus from God’s creation to human words. The basis of the argument is that the Hebrew דבר can mean both “word” and “thing” and the former seems to reflect the use of the term elsewhere in Eccles, particularly in verse 10.

However, there are a number of problems for this reading which I think seriously undermine its viability. First, the text reads כל הדברים יגעים (lit. “all the things/words are weary”). The presence of the article on the noun דבר is noteworthy — which words/things is Qohelet referring to when he says “the words/things”? Elsewhere such uses of the article with דבר employ a restrictive phrase (a relative clause such as “the words/things which…” or a construct “the words/things of…”) to define which words/things are on view. Without such a restrictive phrase it is most probable that this is an anaphoric use of the article and so the term here refers back to the list of cycles just completed. Hence “things” not “words.”

Furthermore, most translations get the adjective יגעים ‘weary’ wrong. It does not mean “wearisome” but “weary.”1 All the things don’t make us weary, they are themselves said to be weary. This makes best sense if it is the endless unchanging cycles which are (anthropomorphically) said to be weary rather than all words which are somehow themselves weary. (There are other ways to say something makes you weary such as using the hiphil of לאה.) It fits very well with the earlier anthropomorphic description of the Sun panting (שאף) to return from sunset to sunrise in verse 5.

It is also worth noting that דבר has a sufficiently broad semantic range and is so common a word that it can be used with quite different meanings within the space of only a couple of verses (e.g. Gen 15:1). Hence it should not be surprising that the meaning can be different in verse 8 and 10, particularly in the light of the syntactical clues noted above. Likewise, I think verses 9–11 are distinctly negative.

Finally, to the question of whether Qohelet is a believer or not, the answer is not simple. While it is clear that Qohelet is a theist with a strong sense of God’s sovereignty, most scholars believe that Qohelet’s God is distant and inaccessible (e.g. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 242–43). Qohelet never speaks of God’s love or compassion, he never appeals to God for an answer to the questions he poses, he never points to God as the answer to life’s incomprehensibility. He even makes claims which run counter to the remainder of the Bible. Furthermore, the association with Solomon is also double-edged, for while Solomon was the wisest man, he was deeply flawed (as 1Kings 11 reveals).

In conclusion, then, while the message of the talks is pleasing, I can’t agree that the message accurately represents the message of Ecclesiastes.

1. See Dominic Rudman, Determinism in the Book of Ecclesiastes (Continuum, 2001) 80–82 for discussion of this term.

3 thoughts on “kirk patston on ecclesiastes

  1. Interesting article. I’m currently doing an exegetical assignment on Ecclesiastes 1:1-11. My knowledge of the Hebrew language is nil and therefore the thrust of the paper won’t be in that direction. :(

    I have been looking at the possibility of ‘Hebel’ within this passage being tied to the story of Cain & Able and the Adamic curse…and therefore if this passage needs to be understood in that light.

    Your Tyndale article came up in a journal search; jogging my memory of your expertise on this book. What resources would you recommend to look at Ecc1:1-11 and how would you say it works as an introduction into the book as a whole?

  2. Hi Craig, nice to hear from you! Scholars do identify other places in Qohelet where he links to Gen 1–3, although I don’t recall anything much of the link to Abel except to illustrate a possible meaning of the term hebel. There’s an awful lot of stuff out there on Qohelet and it’s difficult to winnow it down because the views are so diverse. Longman’s commentary is quite accessible so might be worth checking out.

    As for the meaning of hebel, I have some discussion in my book most of which can be found on Google Books (see section beginning on page 112).

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