Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. So begins the book of Ecclesiastes, one of the more difficult books of Scripture to interpret and apply. The book deals with questions of despair, suffering, and folly—in other words, life in a fallen world. Ecclesiastes teaches us that life without God leads ultimately to futility. There are a number of helpful commentaries on this epistle, and the following are five of the best.
1. Craig Bartholomew — Ecclesiastes (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, 2009).
Craig Bartholomew’s commentary is now the first commentary I consult when studying Ecclesiastes. Unlike other commentators who see the book as either essentially pessimistic or essentially optimistic, Bartholomew sees Qohelet (the main speaker in the book) as deliberately contrasting two perspectives in order to vividly describe the tension we experience in this life. According to Bartholomew, Qohelet deliberately juxtaposes the pessimistic vanity that results from an autonomous observation of the world with the more optimistic passages in order that readers might consider how to resolve this tension through faith in God. A very thought-provoking commentary.
2. Derek Kidner — The Message of Ecclesiastes (The Bible Speaks Today, 1984).
Derek Kidner’s commentaries are always helpful, and since one of his areas of expertise is Old Testament Wisdom Literature, his commentary on Ecclesiastes is one of his best. It is a popular level work, accessible to any reader, yet it still contains profound insight and application. Highly recommended.
3. Michael A. Eaton — Ecclesiastes (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 1983).
Like all of the commentaries in the Tyndale series, Eaton’s work is clear and concise. Eaton views Ecclesiastes as an apologetic essay. It defends the life of faith in God by detailing how terrible the alternative is. Life without God, according to Ecclesiastes, is futile. With all of the different approaches to interpreting Ecclesiastes, I find Eaton’s particularly helpful.
4. Iain Provan — Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NIV Application Commentary, 2001).
With a book like Ecclesiastes, it is sometimes difficult to know how it should be applied. The very format of the NIVAC series demands reflection on application. Provan offers helpful insight into the meaning of the book and its relevance today. This work will prove especially helpful to preachers.
5. Tremper Longman — The Book of Ecclesiastes (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, 1997).
Longman’s approach to Ecclesiastes differs from that of Bartholomew and Eaton. Like many, Longman argues that the monologue by Qohelet is framed by the words of a narrator. According to Longman, however, Qohelet is a skeptic with no hope. Longman argues that the narrator uses Qohelet’s monologue to teach his son about the dangers of such skepticism. The positive teaching of the book, then, is found in the words of the narrator.
There are a number of other helpful commentaries on the book of Ecclesiastes. The commentary by Charles Bridges is a classic. David Hubbard’s commentary is very helpful in terms of pastoral application. Daniel and Jonathan Akin’s Exalting Jesus in Ecclesiastes is helpful. Richard Belcher’s work is also very good.
Helpful Related Works:
Sinclair Ferguson has written a very helpful little book on Ecclesiastes titled The Pundit’s Folly. Barry Webb’s Five Festal Garments contains a good chapter on Ecclesiastes. Philip Ryken’s Why Everything Matters: The Gospel in Ecclesiastes is also worth consulting.
This article is part of the Top 5 Commentaries collection.