October 22, 2017

The Neglected Stepchild of the Bible

Layton Talbert

FrontLine • May/June 2003

This column has previously addressed the neglected stepchild of the New Testament, the diminutive but beautiful Book of Philemon. But to another volume belongs the dubious distinction of being perhaps the most misunderstood (and often abused) stepchild of the sacred library as a whole, both Old and New Testaments. To make the case, however, it is essential to begin by revisiting the basics of our view of the Bible.

Starting Point: Inspiration

All Fundamentalists affirm the plenary, verbal inspiration of the whole Bible. By that we mean that though each of the sacred authors brought to the task of writing his own unique and individual reservoir of understanding, experience, and vocabulary, what each penned was simultaneously being breathed out by the direction of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, it was not the writers themselves who were “inspired” but the written product; the words themselves—the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax—were those breathed out by God through a variety of human authors and in a variety of literary expressions.

Liberals have for many decades cast aspersion on the divine origin and reliability of the Bible as a whole and of specific statements and books in particular. Many admit that the Bible contains much elevated thought and beautiful literature; but it is, after all, a purely human book. An ancient book of man’s reasoning can hardly be expected to be “inerrant” in areas of science or history, let alone authoritative and absolute in theology. Thanks largely to the New Evangelical experiment of a half-century ago, this mentality has trickled into previously conservative institutions and often laces the thinking of previously reliable men.

How, then, do we react to these kinds of statements about any particular book within the inspired record of God’s revelation to man?

  • “Inspiration sets down accurately what passes, but the conclusions and reasonings are, after all, just man’s.”
  • This book “contains many of man’s most serious reflections. These are not necessarily God’s truth, but they stimulate the minds and hearts of men.”
  • “The philosophy [this book] sets forth, which makes no claim to revelation but which inspiration records for our instruction, represents the [author’s] worldview.”
  • “No statement of this book should be considered the full truth of God unless it be confirmed by other Scripture.”

Such statements would be expected from those whose view of the Bible in general has been massaged by exposure to liberal thinking. Would we be shocked to discover, however, that these statements are made by indisputably orthodox sources? In this case, however, the cause is not capitulation to liberal thinking. Rather, it reflects a frustration with the book’s admittedly difficult passages, coupled with a serious misunderstanding of the nature and function of the book as a whole. Nevertheless, the end result is a viewpoint of an entire book of the Bible that is uncomfortably and incongruously— albeit unintentionally—close to the liberal viewpoint of the Bible as a whole.

Such statements about Romans, John, Genesis, or Isaiah would signify the death of a man’s orthodoxy and theological reliability. All of the above statements, however, were made by conservative, Bible-believing men regarding the Book of Ecclesiastes.[1] We would never tolerate any remotely similar comment about the Bible itself, or about any other Book in the Bible. Why Ecclesiastes? What is it about this one book that makes some people insist on treating it so differently from all other Scripture?

Major Objections

Here are the arguments most frequently marshaled against the inspired inerrancy, doctrinal authority, and theological reliability of Ecclesiastes.

Human Authorship

It is sometimes observed that Ecclesiastes itself claims to be only “the words of the Preacher” (1:1), not the words of God. This is a dangerous line of reasoning when you compare passages such as Proverbs 1:1 (“the proverbs of Solomon”), 30:1 (“the words of Agur”), or 31:1 (“the words of King Lemuel”). And surely no one would dismiss some of the remarkable statements by the third minor prophet simply because they are, after all, only “the words of Amos” (Amos 1:1).

Questionable Activities

How could Solomon be giving an inspired account of revealed truth when he talks about doing things that are sinful (e.g., 2:3, 8)? This objection overlooks the fact that this book contains no commendation, explicit or implicit, of any of Solomon’s activities. Solomon himself commends these activities to no one. In fact, his conclusions and observations urge exactly the opposite (e.g., 2:10).

Accurate Record of Error

Some argue that in the case of Ecclesiastes alone, inspiration guarantees only an accurate record of erroneous thinking. The Pilgrim Edition of the Bible notes that “often bad men, mistaken good men, or the devil are quoted accurately [in the Bible], but what they say may not be true.” There are several oversights in this argument as well. First, on what objective basis can we make this assertion only about Ecclesiastes, and not about any other book of the Bible that appears to pose theological or exegetical difficulties? Second, this argument takes a valid observation of what is true in isolated instances within a larger, inspired Biblical narrative and applies it to an entire book of the Bible. Third, in cases where inspiration guarantees an accurate record of error on the part of some person, it is invariably the error of a third party. In other words, God (1st party) inspires a Biblical author (2nd party) to record accurately someone else’s (3rd party) erroneous statement. (E.g., God inspired Moses to record Satan’s lie.) God does not inspire a man to record as part of Scripture his own erroneous thoughts.[2] This is what guarantees the reliability and trustworthiness of all that the Scripture writers affirm. The point is, in Ecclesiastes there is no third party—it is the inspired author himself who does all the talking.

Cultic Abuse

To invalidate the heretical doctrines of certain cults that claim Biblical authority for their beliefs (sometimes citing verses from Ecclesiastes), some bluntly insist that Solomon was just wrong in some of his musings. Try this argument with a misused statement by Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, or Paul (as many liberals, in fact, do). Cults often cite other Bible passages to justify their erroneous beliefs. The abuse of the truth must not frighten us away from an honest and accurate assessment and proper use of the truth. (Interestingly, Walter Martin’s Cults Reference Bible provides sound, substantive explanations of cult-abused Ecclesiastes passages without sacrificing the integrity of Ecclesiastes as a whole.)

Difficult Passages

Probably the single most bothersome feature of Ecclesiastes that drives some to dismiss its contents as flawed is its apparent discrepancy with other Scriptures. Perhaps the most frequently cited example of Ecclesiastes’ alleged doctrinal aberration is 9:10: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave whither thou goest”—a verse that seems to deny any conscious afterlife. Here are a few other potentially bothersome passages to consider:

  • “For in death there is no remembrance of thee [God]; in the grave who shall give thee thanks?”
  • “Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise thee?”
  • “The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence.”

Do you have any hesitation about affirming the truth of these statements? Hopefully not, since they are located in Psalm 6:5, 88:10, and 115:17, respectively. Yet a contextual reading indicates that these statements are affirming precisely the same truth as Ecclesiastes 9:10. Simply put, death ends all of this life’s opportunities, whether for labor, service, or praise to God. We would not hesitate to defend the revelatory truth of the trio of statements above. Why? Because they are in Psalms. Yet we want to throw out a verse like Ecclesiastes 9:10, which teaches precisely the same truth. Why? Because it is located a few pages later in Ecclesiastes—in the only book in our Bible presumed to be flawed throughout. Interchange the references and you would have people unwittingly accusing David of flawed human reasoning.

This is not to deny that there are genuinely difficult passages in Ecclesiastes. But it is to insist that there are better, more consistent, alternative ways of dealing with such problem passages without assigning them to human error. How? The same way we deal with difficult passages anywhere else in the Bible—exegete, dissect, compare, and contextualize. To surrender hard statements to erroneous human reasoning opens a Pandora’s box with serious ramifications for how we handle difficulties in any other book of the Bible.

Sound Warning?

“Don’t take your doctrine from Ecclesiastes.” But when we take this position regarding Ecclesiastes, we are applying the same reasoning that is behind the partial inspiration view of liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, and that has wormed its way into a defective evangelicalism. (“Don’t take your science from Genesis or your history from Joshua.”) The baby (doctrinal objectivity and theological certainty) is unceremoniously dumped out the window with the bathwater of “some things hard to be understood” (2 Peter 3:16; yet we don’t dismiss Paul’s statements when they are “hard to be understood.”)

As long as unbelieving liberals and cults hold this book of our Bible hostage—like squatters on our territory—we allow ourselves to be robbed of one of the richest rewards, by one of the wisest of men, in God’s revelatory treasury. Rather than, “Don’t take your doctrine from Ecclesiastes,” here’s a better, more consistently Biblical admonition: “Labor to understand the doctrinal context and function of Ecclesiastes.” That, after all, is how we treat all the rest of Scripture. And we have more theologically orthodox, exegetically sound resources at our disposal than ever to help us in that endeavor.

There is, however, one last best reason to approach Ecclesiastes with as much reverence for its revelation and as much conviction of its truthfulness as any other book of the Bible. That will be the subject of the next column. We will also explore its thorny problem passages as well as its themes (which are arrestingly modern and relevant), as we focus on this stunning book of the Bible over the next few columns.


Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. The sources of these statements are, respectively, The Scofield Reference Bible, R. W. DeHaan in The Art of Staying Off Dead End Streets, The New Scofield Reference Bible, and The Pilgrim Edition of the Bible. No one should misconstrue any of the comments in this column as an attack on any of these fine resources. As a Christian, I grew up on the NSRB and still use it almost daily. The point is, ironically, that “the conclusions and reasonings” of such resources “make no claim to inspiration” and “are, after all, just man’s.” []
  2. The only exception to this of which I am aware is Asaph’s mistaken thinking reflected in Psalm 73:13; however, he immediately identifies the error of his own thinking in the verses that follow. []

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