I can almost hear some preachers saying: "Ecclesiastes is the most relevant book in the Bible? You must be joking or completely out of touch Dr. Wenig! If you've ever really read it, you'd know about the book's challenging format, inherent mystery, and even its pervasive cynicism. Aren't you aware of the historical concerns over the book's canonicity, the never-ending debates about its authorship (who was 'the Teacher'?), and its moody existential tone?"
Other church leaders might go further and point out that Ecclesiastes has never had a big fan base, even through much of the church's history. With the sheer amount of energy needed just for physical and ecclesiastical survival, medieval popes like Gregory the Great could not have identified with the Teacher's affluence and existential dilemmas. And while some early modern pastors such as Luther saw some value in the book's teaching on household management, most did not see much applicability to their own contexts and concerns.
Ecclesiastes is laden with manifestations of God's grace. In the midst of life's mystery and injustice, as well as the finality of death, he continually provides good food, fulfilling work, the love of a spouse, the promise of youth, and has set eternity in our hearts.
Finally, some pastors may question the wisdom of afflicting their congregations with a series of sermons from a book written by a person who supposedly has the same worldview found in any philosophy department at a major university. Why not just encourage them to read Camus, Sartre, or even Fifty Shades of Gray?
For all these and probably innumerable other reasons, many pastors avoid preaching from Ecclesiastes. While I've noticed an uptick in sermons from the book in recent years, it's still a homiletically neglected part of the Scripture. So let me point out some of the reasons why I believe a sermon series on this genuinely enigmatic but engaging book might be something you want to consider for this coming year or next.
Why Ecclesiastes is so relevant now.
First, the context of Ecclesiastes feels eerily similar to our own in early 21st century America. While many scholars doubt that the book was written by Solomon it was certainly composed with an eye to his reign. It portrays a seemingly decadent, materialistic, sensual society bordering on the hedonistic. Many in that culture, especially the Teacher, were intellectually curious—even academically adventurous (1:13: "I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven."). And yet with all their vast knowledge they were increasingly conflicted over the tensions, tangles, and obvious contradictions of life (10:5-6: "There is another evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler: Fools are put in high positions, while the wise occupy the low ones."). Sound familiar?
Second, Ecclesiastes addresses either directly, or indirectly, a number of themes that many contemporary Americans wrestle with and are concerned about: work, sex, money, power, possessions, relationships, time, significance, youth, aging, and death. Yet some 3,000 years ago the Teacher experimented with and then wrote about his own efforts to find meaning and joy in the accumulation of wealth and consummate sensuality (2:4-10), only to discover their inherent limitations (2:11). And in one of the book's more poetic sections (12:1-7) he lays out the process of aging with all the inherent physical and relational losses that entails. Relevant indeed!
Third, the book tells us the truth about how life works or perhaps of greater importance, how it doesn't. Positioned in the canon right after the book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes feels out of place. In many ways, Proverbs seems to teach that you can figure things out and get it all together. Just exercise discipline, avoid illicit entanglements, be prudent and you will live a long and prosperous life. But in many ways, Ecclesiastes functions as a foil to all that. From the perspective of the Teacher, much of life simply does not make sense (8:14: "There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve."). For many contemporary Americans, especially baby boomers like myself, this is a necessary reminder that life can't be controlled and that, at times, weird things happen. More than we probably care to admit, we're influenced by a scientific worldview where all the aspects of existence are explored and then logically explained. Ecclesiastes turns that on its head by observing that the world and our part in it is in many ways a cul-de-sac, going round and round with no clear purpose (1:3-11).
Fourth, and perhaps of greatest significance, Solomon—or the unknown Teacher—is the consummate evangelist. Time and again he confronts a big life issue, makes some germane observations about it, voices his emotional frustrations, and then returns his focus to the Sovereign God. This scheme seems to reflect his own experience as someone whose heart had turned to find satisfaction in temporal things only to be utterly frustrated by their inability to deliver (1 Kings 11:9-11; Ecclesiastes 1:16-2:23). Years ago, in a book that describes our ongoing secular attempts to find satisfaction, Donald Miller aptly titled it Searching for God Knows What. That neatly summarizes much of what Ecclesiastes is about. And like Miller, time and again Solomon comes back to the God of provision and mercy as our only ultimate source of satisfaction (2:24-26, 3:12-14, 5:18-20, 8:15).
Reading and interpretation
Before trying to preach this unusual book, I'd suggest that we first try to make sense of its literary genre. Ecclesiastes is part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and should be read as such but with some necessary qualifications. In my experience it's best to approach it conceptually and thematically, not sequentially or systematically. Solomon often bounces from subject to subject, even mood to mood, before coming to a conclusion and then moving on to a new topic. To impose a logical outline on the various sections of the book is, somewhat ironically, an exercise in futility. Instead it's better to enter into his journey and let the text take us to his places of concern and where he eventually ends up.
A second important and necessary qualification revolves around the meaning of the word hebel which is used thirty-five times in the book and variously translated as "meaningless," "vanity," "breath," "absurd," or "enigmatic." While there is some rationale for the use of each of these, I believe that in the majority of cases hebel should be translated "fleeting" or "transient." There are a few situations where the author seems to mean "vain" or "absurd," but the overall flow of the book makes far more sense if we see it teaching that life is "transient" and "enigmatic," not "meaningless" or "vain."
Most commentators on Ecclesiastes will argue that there is something of a structure to the book although, unsurprisingly, they almost always describe it differently. Given all the necessary qualifications about its genre and circuitous approach to various topics, as well as admitting my own limitations as a reader and interpreter, I'd suggest that the book more or less follows the general scheme below:
The inherent limits of life (1:1-11) Some of the tried and failed responses to that reality (1:12 - 2:26) The nature of time, life and death (3:1-22) The problem of oppression and its foil in community (4:1-16) The way of worship (5:1-7) The limitations of wealth (5:8 - 6:12) Wisdom and its limitations (7:1 -29) Dilemmas, injustice and shrewd responses (8:1 - 10:20) The opportunity of youth (11:1 - 12:1) Aging and death (12:1 - 12:7) Summary and accountability (12:8 - 14)
Obviously, each preacher will need to engage in their own study and come to their own conclusions on the structure, nature, purpose, and flow of the book. I sincerely believe that once that is done, the challenge won't be should I preach Ecclesiastes but how to do so.
Some preaching suggestions
As a homiletics professor and practicing pastor, I'm a strong advocate of Big Idea Expository Preaching. Yet my experience with this book has taught me to be a little more methodologically flexible. As noted above, one of the key things to keep in mind is that the Teacher seems to be "processing out loud" on a number of things that in turn influences the way he writes. This means we need to let him talk, do our best to discern the essence of what he is trying to communicate and then frame it in a way that our congregations can digest. I've found that while most of my sermons on Ecclesiastes still revolve around one main idea, it is almost always a generalization of three or four more concrete sub-points rooted in the Teacher's observations.
One of the more exciting discoveries I've made when working through this book is how much theology it contains and communicates. In various places, it speaks of the Creator and his Creation (3:11-18, 12:1, 8), the onerous effects of the Fall (2:17, 4:1-4, 8:9-13), the hint of redemption (4:9-12, 5:7, 8:17, 12:6), aspects of sanctification (2:24-26, 3:12-13, 5:1-7, 5:18-20, 9:7-9) and a Final Judgment (11:9, 12:14). Perhaps of greatest value and relevance to the people to whom we preach, Ecclesiastes is laden with manifestations of God's grace. In the midst of life's mystery and injustice as well as the finality of death, he continually provides good food, fulfilling work, the love of a spouse, the promise of youth, and has set eternity in our hearts (3:11). I'd strongly suggest emphasizing this as much as possible.
How long should a series on this book be? Obviously that's a decision that each preacher will have to make in view of his or her own context. Clearly, one could preach on Ecclesiastes for three or four months or even longer, but my own experience suggests that somewhere between seven to twelve sermons might be best. This amount of time allows a pastor to hit on many of the big issues of life, teach the key theological themes, and proclaim the good news of the gospel week in and week out to contemporary Americans frustrated with the inherent limitations and mystery of human existence. Moreover, I've found that a series on Ecclesiastes contains some tremendous evangelistic potential because it forces us to confront our selfish and sinful responses to "life under the sun," and then redirect our hopes, passions, and efforts back towards God and his greater purposes for us in Christ.
Years ago Philip Yancey insightfully noted that Ecclesiastes was inspired by the Holy Spirit as a chronicle of the inherent tension between what St. Augustine called the City of man and the City of God. Composed in the shadow of Solomon's vast achievements of constructing the temple and his own palace, Ecclesiastes demonstrates that there is something inherently flawed in every human venture no matter how outwardly successful. Despite his good start and massive building program, Solomon himself violated God's law by his accumulation of horses, gold, wives, and concubines. It was the latter who turned his heart away from God (1 Kings 11) leading to idolatry and the practice of false religion throughout the realm. Within a generation after the great king's death Israel split into two separate nations and began a downward spiral that eventually culminated in the destruction of the ten northern tribes and the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians.
Ecclesiastes articulates that even at their best, the kingdoms we build, be they familial, economic, or ecclesiastical, cannot last or fulfill; they are hebel ("fleeting"). And that reality points to the need for another kingdom—and another King—One who is far greater than Solomon and who can meet the needs of every human heart. Given all that, I'd like to encourage my fellow pastors to preach it—or preach it again—in concerted effort to jolt Americans—and especially American Christians—into a deeper walk with our Savior, Christ Jesus.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.