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Preaching on Ecclesiastes

An overview of the historical background and theology of Ecclesiastes to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
Preaching on Ecclesiastes
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Historical Background

Traditionally, Ecclesiastes is understood to be authored by King Solomon (1010-931 BC). Taking 1:1 at face value, these are the words of the “Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Given the contents of the book, and the experiences of the “preacher,” Solomon seems the best candidate of all of David’s sons. His proverbial wisdom and life situations mirror the “Preacher.” The book would have been written toward the end of Solomon’s life.

Many modern scholars date Ecclesiastes hundreds of years after Solomon. This view is based on the use of Aramaic words and non-Hebraic expressions that could point to a writer during the Babylonian captivity and after the destruction of Jerusalem (586 BC). Jewish tradition maintains Solomonic authorship, with later editing done by the scribes of King Hezekiah, such as described in Proverbs 25:1.

Unlike most Old Testament books, there are no references to historical events. The focus is on the experiences of the “Preacher,” who demonstrates the “vanity” of life “under the sun.” That is, how the search for satisfaction comes up empty apart from God.

Sermon Series

Outlining Ecclesiastes is challenged by how the author repeats and overlaps themes. His case against pursuing things such as wealth, pleasure, and success, as a means of satisfaction is not neatly confined. A number of themes are mentioned in multiple places.

Neither is the solution precisely packaged at the end. There are several places throughout the book where the writer points to the supreme source of satisfaction being found in God and not “under the sun.”

Example A
Text: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
  • Title: Exploring the Emptiness
  • Big Idea: Since life is futile, how can it be worth living?
Text: Ecclesiastes 1:12-18
  • Title: The Emptiness of Wisdom
  • Big Idea: Searching after knowledge brings no ultimate meaning.
Text: Ecclesiastes 2:1-7
  • Title: The Emptiness of Pleasure
  • Big Idea: Searching after desire and achievement brings no ultimate meaning.
Text: Ecclesiastes 2:18-26
  • Title: The Emptiness of Hard Labor
  • Big Idea: Searching for significance through hard work brings no ultimate meaning.
Text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-22
  • Title: The Emptiness of Experiences
  • Big Idea: Searching for significance in life events does not satisfy a longing for the eternal.
Text: Ecclesiastes 4:1-16
  • Title: The Emptiness of Existence
  • Big Idea: Searching after comfort, partnership, or posterity brings no ultimate meaning.
Text: Ecclesiastes 5:1-7
  • Title: The Emptiness of Verbosity
  • Big Idea: Searching for significance through many words and promises is meaningless.
Text: Eccelsiastes 5:8-20
  • Title: The Emptiness of Wealth
  • Big Idea: Searching after money and power brings no ultimate meaning.
Text: Ecclesiastes 6:1-12
  • Title: The Emptiness of Everything
  • Big Idea: Searching after riches, family, or success brings no ultimate meaning.
Text: Ecclesiastes 7:1-8:9
  • Title: The Emptiness of Practical Wisdom
  • Big Idea: Searching after advice and explanations brings no ultimate meaning
Text: Ecclesiastes 8:10-9:9
  • Title: The Emptiness of Fate
  • Big Idea: Length of life brings no ultimate meaning.
Text: Ecclesiastes 9:10-18
  • Title: The Emptiness of Strength
  • Big Idea: Searching after power brings no ultimate meaning
Text: Ecclesiastes 10:1-20
  • Title: The Emptiness of Folly
  • Big Idea: Foolish behavior brings no ultimate meaning.
Text: Ecclesiastes 11:1-12:8
  • Title: The Emptiness of Enjoyment
  • Big Idea: The ability to appreciate the fleeting joys of life brings no ultimate meaning.
Text: Ecclesiastes 12:9-14
  • Title: Filling the Void
  • Big Idea: In the futility of life, only fearing and obeying God brings ultimate meaning.
Example B
Ecclesiastes 1:1-7:29 – Finding Frustration
Text: Ecclesiastes 1:1-18
  • Title: With Wisdom
  • Big Idea: The more you know, the more you hurt.
Text: Ecclesiastes 2:1-24
  • Title: With Pleasure
  • Big Idea: When you indulge in everything, you are left with nothing.
Text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-22
  • Title: With Discretion
  • Big Idea: Enjoy what you can, when you can, but the outcome is unknown.
Text: Ecclesiastes 4:1-16
  • Title: With Stoicism
  • Big Idea: Living in competition is meaningless and ends in loneliness
Text: Ecclesiastes 5:1-9
  • Title: With Ritualism
  • Big Idea: Pompous promises are no substitute for reverent awe.
Text: Ecclesiastes 5:10-6:12
  • Title: With Wealth
  • Big Idea: No amount of money brings security or satisfaction.
Text: Ecclesiastes 7:1-29
  • Title: With Reputation
  • Big Idea: A good name doesn’t rescue you from meaninglessness.
Ecclesiastes 8:1-12:14 – Finding Fulfillment
Text: Ecclesiastes 8:1-17
  • Title: Fear God
  • Big Idea: Life is unfair, so joy comes by living in reverence to God no matter what.
Text: Ecclesiastes 9:1-18
  • Title: Enjoy Life with God
  • Big Idea: Only by seeing God as the source of everything, can you appreciate what you have
Text: Ecclesiastes 10:1-11:10
  • Title: Live Wisely Before God
  • Big Idea: Since God’s ways are beyond your understanding, live within his boundaries.
Text: Ecclesiastes 12:1-14
  • Title: Seek God First
  • Big Idea: The sooner you embrace your Creator, the deeper your life satisfaction.
Example C
Text: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
  • Title: Illustrations of Life’s Meaninglessness
  • Big Idea: Nothing is ever enough in this life.
Text: Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26
  • Title: Experiencing Life’s Meaninglessness
  • Big Idea: No amount of human pleasure or accomplishment can satisfy.
Text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-6:12
  • Title: Observing Life’s Meaninglessness
  • Big Idea: Whether good or bad, short or long, wise or foolish, we see nothing satisfies.
Text: Ecclesiastes 7:1-9:18
  • Title: Managing Life’s Meaninglessness
  • Big Idea: Enjoy life wisely and in moderation while you can.
Text: Ecclesiastes 10:1-12:14
  • Title: Solving Life’s Meaninglessness
  • Big Idea: Fear God, for he alone is the source of satisfaction.
Chapter Big Ideas

Chapter 1—You can never know enough to bring true satisfaction, so trust the God who does.

Chapter 2— When you enjoy whatever God gives and within his guidelines, pleasure follows.

Chapter 3—God created us with an “everness” that cannot be satisfied with other things.

Chapter 4—God created us with a need for community.

Chapter 5-6—Enjoying whatever you have, little or much, is a gift only God can give.

Chapter 7-9—The secrets of a meaningful life are known only to God.

Chapter 10-12—You can enjoy life at every stage, when you know where you will spend eternity.


Along with Job and Proverbs, Ecclesiastes is Wisdom literature. The Psalms and Song of Solomon are considered poetic, but contain wisdom material as well. The purpose of wisdom literature is to instruct the reader in what pleases God. Care must be taken not to misuse such texts, and treat them like another genre. For example, Solomon’s 3,000 proverbs include Proverbs 11:22 “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.” This is neither an insult nor a farm report. It illustrates a principle of general wisdom.

Proverbs are not promises. John 3:16 is a promise; trust in God’s son and you will have everlasting life. Proverbs are not laws. "Thou shalt not steal," is a law, you break it and you pay the consequences. Proverbs are nuggets of wisdom that are generally true. They are guidelines for wise living. Proverbs are God-centered smarts and insights. Ignore them and you will be foolish, ineffective. Follow them and you will grow in practical wisdom, and learn to fear God.

Wisdom literature is created to be memorable and practical, rather than exacting and absolute. To use wisdom literature as the guide to manufacture a righteous life, is a fatal flaw. Its greater purpose is to demonstrate how desperately God’s grace and mercy is needed.

Ecclesiastes can be misappropriated to support a nihilistic world-view. Therefore, it is vital to provide context for all that the author describes in each sermon. Perspective is established by the phrase “under the sun,” which is used 28 times in the book. The life that is only lived “under the sun” and not in view of eternity, is a life devoid of ultimate meaning. The best human efforts, philosophies, achievements, experiences, and arguments will not bring satisfaction. Apart from God, life is full of weariness and disappointment.

Application of the timeless truths revealed in Ecclesiastes is enhanced by using contemporary examples. People whose celebrity or wealth or success has failed to bring them satisfaction will underscore the “Preacher’s” message. Some examples:

  • Russell Brand: “I’ve been on the other side of the looking glass … it’s worthless, it doesn’t feed your soul. I still feel empty inside.”
  • Cameron Diaz: “If you are looking for fame to define you, then you will never be happy. You will always be searching for happiness. You will never find it in fame.”
  • Jim Carey: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.”
  • Halle Barry: “Beauty? Let me tell you something, being thought of as ‘a beautiful woman’ has spared me nothing in life, no heartache, no trouble. Love has been difficult. Beauty is essentially meaningless, and it is always transitory. I can't believe what people do to themselves to make themselves look beautiful. … They still have that hole in their soul.”
  • Brad Pitt: “The emphasis now is on success and personal gain. I'm sitting in it, and I'm telling you, that's not it. I'm the guy who's got everything. I know. But I'm telling you, once you've got everything, then you're just left with yourself.”
  • Eric Clapton: “I was a millionaire. I had beautiful women in my life. I had cars, houses, and on a daily basis I wanted to commit suicide.”

Ecclesiastes emphasizes the human inability to find ultimate satisfaction and happiness in this world. Apart from Christ such fulfillment is impossible.

Theological Themes

Theology Proper

Although Ecclesiastes references “God” 36 times, he always uses the general name “Elohim” and not the covenant name “YHWH.” This God is the Creator (11:5, 12:1); active in human affairs (5:18, 6:2, 7:14); to be feared (3:14, 5:7, 7:18, 8:12, 12:13); the judge of the righteous and the wicked (3:17, 11:9); worthy of reverence (5:1-4); sovereign (7:13, 8:15, 9:1).


“Evil” is mentioned 19 times. Many of these references describe the sinful human condition: the evil deeds of men (4:3); how fools are ignorant of their evil works (5:1); sinful speech (5:6); the sinner who does evil (8:12). There is no call to confession or repentance in the book, but there is clear acknowledgement that evil will be judged by God (12:14). Duane Garrett suggests that the book presents God’s relationship with humanity after the Fall. That means, Ecclesiastes is descriptive of what became of Adam/humanity as a result of sin.


There is no clear reference or allusion to the Messiah. But the description of a world that is meaningless apart from God underscores the need of a Redeemer. Ecclesiastes presents an unparalleled glimpse into the hopelessness of the human condition. All of humanity lives under the curse, whether rich or poor, weak or powerful. To be able to look to the Savior who has “redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13) is indescribably wonderful. It is for this reason that the Puritans viewed the book as evangelistic.


I have never preached through the entirety of Ecclesiastes. Instead, I have utilized it in a more thematic series. The following is a five-part series that anchors each sermon to one chapter in Ecclesiastes. Even though the subject of each sermon is addressed in other places in the book, I limited myself to what was in that particular text. In each case, I appealed to the ultimate satisfaction found in Christ as the only solution for meaninglessness.

The series title was: Detour Signs - Side-streets to True Satisfaction.

Ecclesiastes 1—Education Avenue

The “Preacher” applied himself with focused, disciplined study to figure out the mysteries of life. He investigated from all sides. He concludes that God has dropped a staggering, heavy burden on humanity. What is it? Things are broken and we can’t fix them. No matter how much we learn or discover it won’t solve the problem. Things go wrong, people fail, life is imperfect. That which is “crooked” (v.15) cannot be straightened. Twistedness can’t be solved through education, street smarts, technology, knowledge, or intellect. No matter how many answers you come up with, you can’t fix what’s fundamentally wrong. Nor can you supply what is lacking, missing. There are mysteries and life issues beyond human reach. No degree, nor scientific advancement can solve it. Wisdom helps us understand the world, but doesn’t allow us to control it. You can never know enough to bring true satisfaction, so trust the God who does.

Ecclesiastes 2—Pleasure Drive

The “Preacher” had: projects and playmates; alcohol and arts; comedy and construction; trees and treasure; music and merriment; feasts and foolishness; water parks and wealth; slaves and sex. He tested the good life and determined that pleasure cannot provide lasting meaningful and ultimate satisfaction. With the ability to buy every single thing his heart desired, he denied himself nothing. There was some reward and pleasure that came from buildings, power, and wealth, but nothing was lasting. Life was still frustrating and incomplete. That road left an empty shell. Those efforts were like a wisp of smoke. In 2:26, he acknowledges the difference between seeking pleasure and seeking God as the source of pleasure. When you acknowledge and seek God as the source of pleasure, he gives you gifts that satisfy—wisdom, knowledge and joy. If you focus on accumulating and acquiring in this visible world, you will know God’s judgment—lack of satisfaction and joy. God-pleasers get it all in the end. Not in this life, but in the life to come. Seek God, and pleasure follows.

Ecclesiastes 3—Eternity Boulevard

Everything is beautiful in its time, but it passes, fades, and deteriorates. So we are stuck in time; frustrated with our inability to satisfy the eternity question. Unable to scratch what itches most. Incapable of enjoying everything we see to its fullest extent. There’s a hunger in our spirit for the ideal, the perfect, the absolute good. Even the best of things in their beauty don’t quite make it. The human response is to go off in search of other loves, other ways to scratch the itch, or fulfill the desire. We don’t realize that we were created with an “everness” which cannot be satisfied with other things. Satisfaction can only be found in Christ, and ultimately realized in the place he has gone to prepare for us. The best God has for us isn’t found on this planet. In heaven, God satisfies our “everness.”

Ecclesiastes 5—Material Lane

The “Preacher” lists four outcomes of loving money.

1) No Satisfaction, v.10. Your craving won’t be satisfied. Acquiring money is a never ending task. When that desire for wealth and love for goods is our goal it only adds to the meaninglessness of life.

2) Hangers-on, v.11. Money attracts a crowd. You can’t really enjoy it because too many others want a piece. At the other extreme you may learn to trust no one, fearful of their motives.

3) Sleeplessness, v.12. The guy who lives paycheck to paycheck has a better chance of relaxing. The rich man has less ability to relax. Abundance can rob you of peace.

4) Devastation When You Lose It, vv.13-17. Holding on to wealth is difficult in life and impossible in death—so you chase the wind. You can’t grasp the wind. The danger in your material possessions is that they can be obstacles to recognizing your absolute need for God. Enjoying whatever you have, little or much, is a gift only God can give.

Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:14—Youth Street

God will hold you accountable for how you spend your life. Don’t live in worry, grief, or irritation. You could easily be consumed with the problems of this world. You must care and take action as God leads, but to constantly dwell on all the negatives in this world would be debilitating. Get rid of what is bad for your body. Enjoy life without doing those things God says are wrong. Enjoy youth, but as great as youthfulness is, know that it will end. It doesn’t give meaning to life. Pursuing and prizing youth is a dead end, it won’t satisfy. Assurance of where you will spend eternity makes it possible to enjoy life at every age. Life is short, fear God.

My experience in editing/reviewing thousands of sermons from hundreds of preachers, reveals some common flaws. The two major flaws are: failure to point to Jesus; and failure to ground the sermon in the text. Ecclesiastes challenged my preaching in both ways. A sermon is disconnected from the text when the preacher brings in other texts as a means of understanding the sermon text. Before determining what God has said through that Scripture, to that people, in that time, other Scripture is utilized to interpret, explain, or expand. That fails to do justice to the sermon text.

In my series on Ecclesiastes, I had to constantly resist the urge to short-circuit my interpretation of the book by prematurely running to other Scripture. Ultimately, I must point to the Jesus who ultimately satisfies, but not before understanding the unique perspective of the “Preacher,” and properly analyzing the lessons offered in context.

One of the personal ways this series impacted me was about aging. After telling thousands of people in person, and more through radio and television, that I would never even color my grey hair, I was obligated to keep my word. In saying that, I was not making a moral judgment on those who might want to hide wrinkles or other signs of age. This was a public declaration that I was not going to desperately cling to my youth. It sprang from my study of Ecclesiastes. But honestly, it was only a couple of years later, when the temptation to look younger hit hard. The grey had gone from making me look distinguished, to being the predominate color of my hair. I needed the reminder of the “Preacher” that this was all vanity.

On a more positive side, I also became freer to enjoy the blessings of life. It is one thing not to look for ultimate satisfaction in creation, success, food, drink, pleasure, art, or technology. It is another thing to enjoy all those aspects of life, within God’s boundaries, as gifts from his hand. Ecclesiastes helped widen my once narrow perspective of how a Christian can appreciate life.

Overall, the series had the following impact on the congregation:

  • It called people toward “everness.” I believe this is a word I coined. It was useful to referring to the longing we all have for the eternal, which is satisfied only in heaven.
  • It urged people away from dependence on things and toward God. I have pastored in some wealthy, highly educated communities. “Affluenza” is very real. Ecclesiastes is a necessary counterbalance to that prevalent disease.
  • It invited people to enjoy life in a way that increased their enjoyment of God.
  • It illustrated the need for Jesus to satisfy all those longings we try to fill with other things. Pointing to the one who is the bread, water, and source of real life is every preacher’s main task.

Ray Stedman gives this conclusion to the book: “The record is plain for all to see. Life without God is dull, empty, vain. Life with him is full and satisfying. Even the tears and pain have meaning and value when we see they are chosen by Him. The purpose behind it all is the increase of joy.”


Duane Garrett, The New American Commentary: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Press, 2001).

Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: The Bible Speaks Today. J.A. Motyer, Series Editor (Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1976).

Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

John Henry Beukema is pastor of Cypress Bible Church in Cypress, Texas, and author of Stories from God's Heart (Moody). He served as associate editor of PreachingToday.com.

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