What You Need to Know for Preaching Through Ecclesiastes
By Timothy Raymond –
Last Sunday I finished my thirteenth and final sermon through the entire book of Ecclesiastes. I thought that while the experience was still fresh in my mind, I might chronicle a few reflections that our readers might find helpful if they’re ever preaching or teaching this book. Consider this one of those blog posts you print out and file away for future use. Lord willing, in my next post I’ll point our readers to some of the resources I found most helpful for making sense of the often perplexing message of Ecclesiastes. In the event you’re interested in how I worked my way through the book, all the sermons from this series are available on our church website here.
(1) Ecclesiastes proved to be the hardest book to interpret that I’ve ever preached.
In my preaching career I’ve preached through nearly a dozen books of the Bible in their entirety, yet none of those came even remotely close in difficulty to Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is so thoroughly cynical and pessimistic compared to most of the rest of the Bible, especially Paul’s epistles. Moreover, there are plenty of passages which I still have no clue as to what they mean (e.g., 7:25-29; 9:9-10; etc.). If you’re a pastor, I’d definitely encourage you to preach through Ecclesiastes, but prepare yourself to work hard, to pray incessantly for God’s illuminating Spirit, to scratch your head regularly in confusion, to pace around your study wringing your hands and mumbling to yourself, and yet to still go away bewildered.
(2) Ecclesiastes proved to be uniquely helpful to my congregation.
Probably due to its pessimistic tone, I was thoroughly surprised by how warmly and enthusiastically my congregation embraced the truths and lessons in Ecclesiastes. I guess I didn’t realize how many people (including myself) resonate with Solomon’s cry, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:1). This present evil age is a harsh, painful world, and sometimes you feel far more like cynical Solomon than the victorious Apostle Paul. Christians need to admit from time to time, that contrary to our songs, we’re really not “happy all the day.” Ecclesiastes can be a helpful vehicle for confronting and processing the raw, gritty realities we face in a sin-cursed world from a God-centered perspective.
(3) Understanding what Solomon is doing in Ecclesiastes is essential for rightly preaching and teaching it.
Rent from their context, there are plenty of passages in Ecclesiastes which seem odd, if not downright heretical (e.g., 7:16). To rightly make sense of this portion of God’s inspired, inerrant Word, you’ve got to look at the entire work together and understand what Solomon is doing. My contention is that Ecclesiastes is essentially an “idol-smasher.” One by one, Solomon sets up the idols we’re all tempted to worship: education (1:12-18), hedonism (2:3), accomplishments (2:4-8), sensual pleasure (2:8b), career (2:18-26), and so forth. And one by one, Solomon systematically demolishes them all, showing us how they are all stinking wells of putrid, poisonous water. While this process of smashing our cherished idols can be gut-wrenching, it also moves you to search for another source of fulfillment outside this world, a Source of living water which, if you drink it, you “will never be thirsty again” (John 4:14).
(4) Rightly interpreted, Ecclesiastes can be one of the most evangelistic books in the entire Bible.
Because of what Solomon is doing in Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiastes can be an incredible book for learning how to preach Christ from the Old Testament. Solomon’s vivid and existential descriptions of the vanities of life are so accurate and real that honest unbelievers will admit that he’s describing them to a “T”. Theologically we know that what he’s depicting are the wages of sin that so many feel on a daily basis. Moreover, as you begin to follow Solomon’s idol-smashing project, you can easily tie that into the New Testament’s teachings on Jesus as the true water of life (John 4) or Jesus as the true wisdom (Colossians 2) or Jesus as the true treasure (Matthew 13:44ff.). Ecclesiastes is tailored for pointing Prodigal Son-types to the fulfillment found only in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
At this point you might be thinking, “I think I’d like to give preaching or teaching Ecclesiastes a try. Can you direct me to any resources to help me do this?” Lord willing, next time I’ll point our readers to those resources I found most helpful for understanding and rightly preaching Ecclesiastes.
Timothy Raymond is an editor for Credo Magazine and has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. Tim grew up outside Syracuse, NY and previously served at Berean Baptist Church, Nicholson, PA (member and teacher during college and seminary) and Calvary Baptist Church, Sandusky, Ohio (seminary internship location). Tim met his wife Bethany at college, and they were married in May 2001. Tim enjoys reading, weight-lifting, wrestling with his three sons, and attempting to sleep.