3 Reasons You Should Preach through Ecclesiastes

Article
10.11.2018

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

These are the opening words of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, a wise man who had everything and found he had nothing. The rest of book is filled with brilliant, relentless, haunting, shocking, almost nihilistic variations on this theme.

Ecclesiastes surprises people. That’s partly because it says things you don’t expect to hear from the Bible. But I’ve found people are also surprised by how familiar the Preacher’s perspective sounds, how immediately it resonates, perhaps especially for those of us who live and pastor among the modern western middle class.

Preaching always means building bridges between the original context of the Bible and the context we’re speaking into now. But in my experience, some bridges are a lot easier to build than others. Some books require elaborate, carefully reinforced, Golden-Gate-style suspension bridges that stretch on for miles. Those challenges are energizing and productive in their own ways. But every now and then I appreciate the chance to simply toss a 2×4 over a creek-bed.

That’s the opportunity Ecclesiastes offers you. It’s been called the most contemporary book in the Bible, and I think that’s spot on.[1] I don’t mean to undersell the unique challenges this book poses. It’s not always easy to follow, and it’s often difficult to interpret. But so far, there’s not been a preaching series I’ve enjoyed more. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Ecclesiastes vividly describes an all-too-common symptom: dissatisfaction with life.

One of my favorite sections of the book is the opening of chapter 2, where the Preacher gives us a catalog of all that he tried in his search for pleasure and meaning in life. It’s a list meant to impress you with the uniqueness of his life. But what’s remarkable to me is how many of the luxuries that made his life exceptional then are now basic expectations of middle-class life.

Many of us could add to our list a host of opportunities he couldn’t have imagined. We have air conditioning. We have international travel. We have access to advanced medical care—not just life-saving treatment but drugs to take away discomforts previous generations took for granted for life. For entertainment, he had private singers. But we have iTunes and online streaming. We have televisions, tablets, and smartphones. He never went to Disney World or Las Vegas or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The opulence of the Preacher’s lifestyle is familiar in the American middle class I belong to. So is his experience of disappointment. In The Progress Paradox, social commentator Gregg Easterbrook describes the many ways in which average life in America has improved over the last 50 years or so. Most Americans enjoy a quality of life that would have been unimaginable for even the wealthiest Americans two hundred years ago. But in all this time, even with all this progress, happiness hasn’t risen in tandem. In fact, Easterbrook shows that clinical depression “has been rising in eerie synchronization with rising prosperity,” roughly 10 times the diagnosed cases of 50 years ago.[2]

When the Preacher looks back over all he’d done and all he’d experienced, he describes it all as “vanity and a striving after wind” (2:11). My people know what he means.

2. Ecclesiastes diagnoses the hidden force behind our symptoms: the problem of death.

The Preacher’s experience of futility sounds a lot like ours. But Ecclesiastes offers an explanation for futility that has mostly faded out of view. In short, everything is meaningless because everyone dies. It’s a message that comes through over and over throughout the book.

David Gibson describes death in Ecclesiastes as the pin that bursts every bubble we might use to shield ourselves from the truth.[3] Think of work or money or pleasure as balloons. We fill them with our time and our energy and our hope. For a while we watch them expand. From the outside they look to gain mass and you might even assume weight. But inside it’s only vapor. Death is the needle that shows the truth.

Without the sobering perspective of Ecclesiastes, our people might assume they’re dissatisfied because they haven’t arrived yet. They’ll believe the key to their happiness lies in reaching the goals they’ve set for themselves, whatever those might be. They’ll medicate their symptoms by doubling down on their work, their buying, their pleasure-seeking, or whatever else. In other words, they’ll keep blowing more and more air into the balloon. But the problem isn’t what we haven’t achieved. It isn’t that we haven’t arrived. The problem is where we’re going.

Like Proverbs, Job, and many of the Psalms, Ecclesiastes belongs among the Bible’s wisdom literature. This genre explores what it is to live a good life in the world as it is. It profiles and cultivates an instinct for living well, that is living based on careful observations about how the world works. But Ecclesiastes brings a darker shade to the vision of life Proverbs pictures for us. The Preacher was a wise man who enjoyed the benefits of wisdom Proverbs teaches us to expect, and then some.

But now that he’s had everything he wanted, he’s no longer wondering how to make the most out of life. He’s wondering what’s the point, where’s the gain, if you have all the benefits of wisdom but still end up dead? What does it even mean to live a good life if every life ends in the same place as a rat or cockroach or a common housefly (cf. 3:19–22)?

3. Ecclesiastes prepares us for the only suitable cure: a resurrected Savior.

One writer has called Ecclesiastes “the most striking messianic prophecy the Old Testament has to offer.”[4] I believe he’s exactly right.

Ecclesiastes is not messianic in the way of Isaiah. There are no promises of deliverance to come, no expectation that someone will one day break into the monotonous cycle of vanity and bring something new. But Ecclesiastes is messianic in its own way: It sets the context in which the resurrection of Jesus makes sense. It prepares us to see why everything is vain if Jesus is not alive. So, by contrast, it helps us see how everything matters if Jesus is alive.

Knowing Paul was a rigorous, well-trained scholar of the Hebrew Bible, it is not difficult to imagine that he has the message of Ecclesiastes in mind as he reflects on the nonnegotiable importance of Jesus’s resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (15:14). He’s telling the Corinthians that if Jesus is not alive again their faith is just as vain as everything else. It’s as vain as pleasure, as vain as money, as vain as work. It’s just another balloon full of vapor, waiting to burst in time.

We may find Jesus’s talk on loving one another inspiring or sentimental. We may find him a helpful guru for insight on making the most of the time we have. We may admire him as a model of a man who stood by his convictions to the end. But if he is reduced to a set of teachings to understand or an example to follow, our faith in him is vain. He is no deliverer, and we are left to face death on our own.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20). And therefore, since Christ has been raised, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (15:58).

NOTE ON COMMENTARIES:

There are a handful of insightful, concise, accessible resources on Ecclesiastes with plenty of material you can easily apply in your sermons. My personal favorite is David Gibson’s Living Life Backward (Crossway: IVP, 2018). Quite apart from its usefulness as a commentary this book is a delight to read. I love its style, its breakdown, its imagery, and its consistently plain relevance for those I’m preaching to.

Gibson’s book has a lot of the qualities you may have appreciated in the works of Derek Kidner, who also has two helpful books on Ecclesiastes. He wrote the volume in the Bible Speaks Today series (The Message of Ecclesiastes [IVP, 1976]). And in The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes (IVP, 1985) he condenses many of his insights on Ecclesiastes while putting that book in helpful comparison to the rest of the wisdom literature.

Phil Ryken’s Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters (Crossway, 2010) is one of the most helpful volumes I’ve used in the Preaching the Word series. Beyond its insights into the text and how break it down for useful sermons, this book is full of references to good sources for background reading and broader application or illustration.

Finally, Sidney Greidanus applies his preaching Christ from the Old Testament methodology in Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes. The flow of thought chapter to chapter is structured around the process he sets out in his book on preaching, which some readers will appreciate more than others. But the insights into the text and the thoughtful connections to Jesus were consistently worth my time.

Editor’s note: You can read the rest of the articles in this series here.

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FOOTNOTES

[1] See Sidney Greidanus, quoting Lelan Ryken, in Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 2.

[2] Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (New York: Random House, 2003), xvi.

[3] David Gibson, Destiny: Learning to Live by Preparing to Die (Leicester: IVP, 2016), 23.

[4] H. W. Hertzberg, Der Prediger, cited by Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, 114.