The 2017-18 academic year in our ministry at Stanford University was a “Year of Wisdom.” In the fall quarter we studied Proverbs. The spring quarter was Job. But it was during the winter quarter that we quarried Ecclesiastes.
At first blush, the book of Ecclesiastes seems like a cynical rant; something you might find written by a disgruntled philosophy major at a large university (like Stanford!). Upon closer examination, Ecclesiastes is a book of profound wisdom, offered to all with arresting honesty and candor. A thorough study of this book will, I trust, bolster your contentment and deepen your appreciation for Christ and the gift of earthly life.
Although there are many other commentaries on Ecclesiastes (many of which reside on my shelf), below are the books I found most helpful in my teaching preparation. I believe they will serve you well as you trek through this great book.
Charles Bridges, Ecclesiastes, Geneva Series of Commentaries. This commentary is what you might call devotional, although that is not a very useful classification since many of us mistake devotional with exegetically thin and sentimental. Like other works by Charles Bridges (1794-1869), this one offers readers rich spiritual wisdom drawn from thoughtful engagement with the text. Nevertheless, there are places in my judgment where Bridges jumps too quickly from commenting on the text of Ecclesiastes to bringing in truth from other Scriptures to support and apply his point. While always deeply helpful, there were times when I was left with some unanswered exegetical questions and the actual meaning of the text was not made clear.
Michael Eaton, Ecclesiastes, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. I found Michael Eaton’s commentary to be a good blend of exegetical care and spiritual insight. Eaton deals with the Hebrew (though not overly technical) and offers interpretational options on tough passages. These Tyndale commentaries are concise, so you don’t have to wade through lots of technical discussion to get to some clear exegetical conclusions.
David Gibson, Living Life Backwards: How Ecclesiastes Teaches to Live in Light of the End. This is a book more than a commentary, but it was still very good. I read Gibson first in my study and it gave me a good “big picture” of the book of Ecclesiastes. Most memorable quote: “Life is gift, not gain.” Here are twenty-six more excellent quotes from Gibson’s work.
Philip Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters (Preaching the Word Series). This was a very helpful expositional commentary. Ryken provided insight into the text as well as helping me apply Solomon’s observations to my students. Quick note: this is not Ryken’s book on Ecclesiastes, Why Everything Matters. I have both, and I recommend the commentary.
William D. Barrick, Ecclesiastes: The Philippians of the Old Testament. This is a good blend between an exegetical and expositional commentary. It deals with difficult texts, but it is well written and accessible. It is probably my top pick for understanding some of the more difficult themes and passages in Ecclesiastes.
Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Ecclesiastes (Reformed Expository Commentary). This was another good commentary, along the same lines as Ryken’s commentary (expositional/applicational), but still very solid. O’Donnell clarified many things for me, wrote in a winsome, captivating style, and provided many illustrations from literature and history. I really enjoyed reading this book.
Craig G. Barthlolomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament, Wisdom, and Psalms). This work was the most thorough of all of the commentaries listed above, but it was a good blend of background information, exegetical insight, and expositional help.
Ecclesiastes is a tough book, but it rewards careful, diligent study. Although my initial engagement with the text was bewildering—even discouraging—due to the incredible difficulty of understanding Solomon’s argument, I was, in the end, greatly blessed by grappling with the Preacher’s difficult sayings. You will be, too. Just hang in there.
One more thing. After several weeks of studying and teaching Ecclesiastes to our college students, I preached in Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 to our congregation. This sermon narrowed in on one of Solomon’s dominant themes in the book: the enjoyment of earthly life. If you are interested what the Bible has to say on this topic, I would encourage you to listen to “Solomon’s Great Commission.” You might be surprised.