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Archive for Ecclesiastes

In the last post, the preacher spoke of the absurdity of one who pursues wealth for no other reason than to possess wealth. Having no beneficiary, he simply works hard in order to have more. The preacher then pushes pause and reflects on the value of meaningful relationships in life. Here’s what he recorded:

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NLT)

If you’re familiar with this text it’s probably because someone has referenced it in the context of marriage and family. I don’t think that understanding will get anyone labeled as a modern day heretic, but Qoheleth is not speaking of marriage in this text. He’s simply pointing to the necessity of meaningful relationships and how their value cannot be overlooked. He points to four advantages that come to one who prioritizes people over possessions.

  1. In business pursuits, two can help each other multiply their success because they are able to support and strengthen move toward greater accomplishments than one can achieve alone. When I was in high school, I worked for a farmer who had this kind of relationship with a neighboring farmer. By working together, they eliminated the duplication of equipment and multiplied their labor. It was resourceful behavior, and it helped them each earn more than if they would have worked independently. This principle was true then and continues to be true today. John Maxwell was the first I heard define the word “team” as “Together, Everyone Achieves More.”
  2. In times of trouble, a friend is important to help you get back on your feet. Everyone faces trouble in life. Whether your fall is literal or metaphorical, its important to have someone who can come to your aid and help you get back on your feet. To suffer alone is to suffer twice.
  3. Everyone needs encouragement. In ancient times, travelers who stopped for the night didn’t always have the luxury of pop up tents or fire pits. They would stop and sleep beneath the stars, and the desert nighttime air could become cold. So they would lie next to each other to take advantage of each other’s body heat. Qoheleth is not making a sexual allusion, but is rather reporting on the common practice of the day. Obviously, the presence of another during the night could serve as encouragement through those long, dark hours between sunset and daybreak.
  4. Everyone needs strength, and there is strength in numbers. A second or even a third person serve as deterrents to attacks from dangerous people or dangerous animals. To be alone is to be easily surrounded, but when someone has your back you can withstand and even prevail against attacks.

Qoheleth is not condemning wealth. He certainly had plenty of it and doesn’t appear to be too ready to just give it all away. But he’s pointing to the fact that wealth is not all there is to life. It takes more than money to be content. The challenges we face in life reveal two things. They reveal something about who we are. But they also reveal who is truly with us, through thick and thin, with a loyal love that exceeds toting casseroles. Today, let’s be grateful for the relationships that truly add value to our lives.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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“People lose their way when they lose their why.”

I don’t know if that statement is original with Michael Hyatt, but he’s the first one I heard say it. That turn of the phrase stuck in my memory and came to mind again this week as I worked on the next section of Ecclesiastes.

Then I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbors. But this, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. “Fools fold their idle hands,
    leading them to ruin.” And yet,

“Better to have one handful with quietness
    than two handfuls with hard work
    and chasing the wind.”

I observed yet another example of something meaningless under the sun. This is the case of a man who is all alone, without a child or a brother, yet who works hard to gain as much wealth as he can. But then he asks himself, “Who am I working for? Why am I giving up so much pleasure now?” It is all so meaningless and depressing. (Ecclesiastes 4:4-8, NLT)

The text discusses the motivations of several types of people. The first person is described as having a strong competitive drive. Having moved beyond the friendly rivalry, this person is constantly looking for ways to outshine and outclass all others. This form of competitive drive, pointed out by Derek Kidner, can even devolve into “resentments that are nursed and grievances that are enjoyed.” This unhealthy competitive drive is often fueled by the comparisons they make to others. It’s not enough to keep up with the Jones’. They insist on being the Jones’.

On the contrary extreme, Qoheleth describes the drop out. This is the person who carries utter disdain for driven competition, choosing to sit and wait for his ship to come in or for their lucky break. But there’s equal damage to this person as well as his idleness erodes not only what he has but what he is. Not only does this person face shrinking capital, he faces a shrinking capacity to care for himself and others.

The third person appears to be the happy balance between these two, who holds in one hand quietness and the other hand hard work. He has discovered the harmony of modest demands and inner peace.

But envy is not the worst evil, it is habit that turns into fixation, as pictured by the final figure, who purposes to create wealth for no other reason that to create wealth. In other words, pure and simple greed. There is no humanity when it comes to his motivation, for there is no human beneficiary with whom to share his wealth. Like a raging fire, his only motivation is for more, and for no other reason than the sake of more itself. His loneliness is by choice, preferring to be untethered and unhindered in his pursuits.

Qoheleth is not intending to diminish the importance of hard work and the subsequent benefits that hard work will yield. He is, however, challenging his readers to struggle with their motivations behind their hard work. I’ve seen this illustrated in several ways over the course of my life. One person I know viewed his work as an executive for financial planning institution say that he was motivated by his desire that every person have adequate life insurance. Another auto sales person said he was motivated by solving people’s transportation problems. Were they successful? Without question. But neither claimed their motivation was to destroy their competition or to become personally wealthy. As long as we know our “why,” we can be safeguarded against losing our way.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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I think the first complaint we may have uttered as children is “that’s not fair.” And the last complaint we very well may utter before death is “life’s not fair.” Those phrases are our attempts to articulate the irreconcilable injustices of life, particular to our comparisons with others. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes may have possessed staggering wisdom, but he was still human, and humans will compete, compare, and complain. This week’s text is interesting because it addresses some of those human tendencies.

I also noticed that under the sun there is evil in the courtroom. Yes, even the courts of law are corrupt! I said to myself, “In due season God will judge everyone, both good and bad, for all their deeds.” I also thought about the human condition—how God proves to people that they are like animals. For people and animals share the same fate—both breathe and both must die. So people have no real advantage over the animals. How meaningless! Both go to the same place—they came from dust and they return to dust. For who can prove that the human spirit goes up and the spirit of animals goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is our lot in life. And no one can bring us back to see what happens after we die. Again, I observed all the oppression that takes place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power, and their victims are helpless. So I concluded that the dead are better off than the living. But most fortunate of all are those who are not yet born. For they have not seen all the evil that is done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3, NLT)

This section of Ecclesiastes is tricky, but important. Here’s what I understand it to mean.

  1. In general, life is filled with injustice. In the preceding text the Teacher has pointed out life’s extremes and all that is between, so verses 16-17 serve as a cap on his prior observations.
  2. It is nearly impossible to find a non partisan source of arbitration that will advocate for those in need of justice. After all, those who have been tasked with providing justice are cut from the same human cloth as we are, and are not above providing favor to the powerful.
  3. Much of the oppression that occurs is at the hands of the powerful who are insensitive to the personal and physical needs of their victims.

Having made those obvious observations about injustice, he came to two conclusions. First, if justice cannot be administered by human hands, it will be found through divine hands, for God will judge all people according to their deeds. This conclusion is consistent with many similar statements in the New Testament by Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and in the Apostle John’s apocalyptic letter of Revelation. This hope tempers our demand for justice and vindication in this present life as we find comfort in the hope that God will ultimate level the playing field. If God doesn’t settle the score in this life, he certainly will in the next.

But the Teacher’s second observation is not as certain. While it sounds hopeful that God will administer justice, he makes the caveat that death is the only thing that really levels the playing field. To that point, humans are no different than animals, and the only one’s who have an advantage are those who haven’t been born.

While on one hand, it appears the the Teacher has become thoroughly cynical about justice and even the value of life itself. But on the other hand, he could be nudging his readers to acknowledge the reality of life’s injustices without becoming consumed with the demand for revenge. Injustice is a horrible thing in any society, whether it be in history or in the present moment. And justice is something worth pursuing, for sure. But at the same time the thirst for justice can become so all encompassing that we can miss the true meaning and value of life. We can become so fixed on what isn’t, that we can miss the what is that is before us each day. As with the extremes mentioned at the beginning of chapter 3, we can easily allow ourselves become defined by what isn’t fair and wear them as labels that limit us. And that may be worse than any injustice we face.

Categories : Ecclesiastes, Justice
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Football season is here, which means that many of us will spend our Saturdays and Sundays watching games either in person or on television. Each game begins the same. Two opposing teams take the field with the same score: 0-0. The game kicks off and concludes when time elapses and the scoreboard announces the final outcome. There is one winner and one loser.

Casual fans of the sport are concerned with one thing, that being who won the game. While pundits may give insights as to why one team won and the other team lost, the only thing that is memorable in the years to come is which team won the game. The individual efforts of the players and even the final score itself will fade into the sea of the forgotten.

This is the point of arguably the most famous verses in Ecclesiastes, found in chapter 3:

For everything there is a season,
    a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
    A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
    A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
    A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
    A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching.
    A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
    A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
    A time for war and a time for peace.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, NLT)

Qoheleth captured the essence of life’s extremes. But like yesterday’s football game, he doesn’t address the 60 minutes of struggle between kickoff and the final gun. Yes, there is a time to be born and a time to die, the most obvious of extremes. But he’s using a literary device called a merism that is inclusive of everything that lies between the extremes of birth and death. He assumes that the reader knows to include all that is in the middle.

Even though he cites several couplets in extremist language, it’s not the extremes that he’s necessarily concerned with. His point is that the monotony of the middle space provides no real profit. What is the value of time outs, replays, commercial breaks, and halftime? Life lived between birth and death has a lot of those time outs and commercial breaks, doesn’t it? And the same principle is applied to each successive couplet. Qoheleth provides his own interpretive commentary in the verses that follow.

What do people really get for all their hard work? I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God. And I know that whatever God does is final. Nothing can be added to it or taken from it. God’s purpose is that people should fear him. What is happening now has happened before, and what will happen in the future has happened before, because God makes the same things happen over and over again. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-15, NLT)

He cynically saw these events as the busy work that God has prescribed human kind and judged it to be pointless. If God had a purpose behind it all, he doesn’t see it. Our entrapment in time does nothing more than emphasize our mortality. So what does he recommend? First, Qoheleth suggests that we make the most of the time we live between the extremes. The ability to enjoy life and be happy is a gift that comes from God. To focus on the extremes is to waste the majority of the time we are granted on earth.

Second, don’t define your life by its extreme events. We are more than our birth date and our date of death, no matter how difficult they may be. The extremes he described cannot be minimized or avoided and should not become the thermostat of how we live our ordinary days. As the well known poem asks, “What are you doing with your dash?”

Finally, he challenges us to revere God. While we may not understand the absurdity of life’s extremes, God does have a purpose: that we will live in humble reverence of him. When he wrote that these things happen over and over again, I believe he is describing the entire human race. Therefore, we don’t have to take life’s extremes personally, for these are the things that everyone has faced or will face.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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I came to hate all my hard work here on earth, for I must leave to others everything I have earned. And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish? Yet they will control everything I have gained by my skill and hard work under the sun. How meaningless! So I gave up in despair, questioning the value of all my hard work in this world.

Some people work wisely with knowledge and skill, then must leave the fruit of their efforts to someone who hasn’t worked for it. This, too, is meaningless, a great tragedy. So what do people get in this life for all their hard work and anxiety? Their days of labor are filled with pain and grief; even at night their minds cannot rest. It is all meaningless.

So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him? God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him. But if a sinner becomes wealthy, God takes the wealth away and gives it to those who please him. This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26)

In the previous paragraph, Qoheleth had acknowledged that death is the great equalizer of life and levels the playing field. Death is indiscriminate and does not distinguish between the rich or the poor; the wise or the foolish; the young or the old. Everyone dies, and to add insult to injury, the memory of their lives quickly evaporates.

That being said, he then turned to the futility of the work he enjoys. Although he found work to be fulfilling, he simultaneously found it frustrating, for he realized his achievements and all he has acquired will outlast his physical existence. He has amassed generational wealth. So much wealth that his descendants will never want for anything. This creates worry and anxiety for him.

What happens if they waste it?

What happens if they lose it?

What happens if they don’t appreciate it or take it for granted?

What happens if they don’t learn the value of hard work and develop a strong work ethic?

What happens if they love their gifts more than they love and remember me?

These, and similar questions I’m sure, kept him awake at night. Qoheleth could not reconcile all that he knew about wisdom, wealth and mortality.

These frustrations led him to a decision. He decided to be fully present in each moment and enjoy life at face value. His decision was one that each of us needs to make if we’re going to fully enjoy life. Sometimes decisions are made in a moment of resignation, where we give up and settle. Other times decisions are rooted in a realization; an awakening of sorts.

For Qoheleth, the realization was that God is the giver of life’s gifts and blessings. But he also realized that God was also the one who gives the ability to enjoy those gifts and blessings. In and of themselves, the gifts and blessings are neutral. Any enjoyment we have comes from God and serves as reminders that no gift is greater than the giver of the gift.

I wonder if Jesus had this passage in the back of his mind when he famously asked, “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (Mark 8:36, NLT) The truth is that anyone who places more value on the gift than the giver is in danger of his warning.

Being fully aware of the present moment is to pay attention, in a particular way, to the present moment without passing judgment. It is in the present moment that we find clarity and become fully alive.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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So I decided to compare wisdom with foolishness and madness (for who can do this better than I, the king?). I thought, “Wisdom is better than foolishness, just as light is better than darkness. For the wise can see where they are going, but fools walk in the dark.” Yet I saw that the wise and the foolish share the same fate. Both will die. So I said to myself, “Since I will end up the same as the fool, what’s the value of all my wisdom? This is all so meaningless!” For the wise and the foolish both die. The wise will not be remembered any longer than the fool. In the days to come, both will be forgotten. So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless—like chasing the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:12-18, NLT)

Having announced his quest for the meaning of his life, Qoheleth conducted multiple experiments from every possible avenue, leaving no stone unturned. Starting with laughter, wine, women, and song; he then moved to architectural and engineering projects in order to have real estate to possess, followed by economic growth, amassing an enviable if not obnoxious wealth portfolio. His assessment of all of it was that it was meaningless, and as if to be clever, states that there is no profit in profit.

Qoheleth then decided to turn to his chief resource, his wisdom, and compared it with foolishness. He grants that in the end its better to live as a wise man versus a foolish man, the difference between being as obvious as night and day.

But just when we thing he’s turning a corner, he restates his chief complaint. At the end of it all is the end of it all. While wisdom may provide some satisfaction during life, the wise one is just as mortal as the fool. Everyone dies, and no one memorializes them. With particular angst in his voice, he states, “I came to hate life.” Judging by the ego-centric tone of the book, we could insert the pronoun “my.”

Wisdom may relieve a person from the evil business of living life, but it doesn’t solve the death problem. It’s as though life has played a trick on him, and even though he clings to wisdom, deep down he feels like a fool.

Lest we pull up a chair at Qoheleth’s table and become co-lamenters, we need to pause and remember the biblical principle of “othering.” It doesn’t take much to become jaded about life when it’s lived in the first person singular. We have been created for community, where we can know and be known. It’s easy to over value ourselves and our importance to the world. But our truest value comes from being made in the image and likeness of God, and that value is only fully understood in the context of relationships. God doesn’t love all of us, He loves each of us, for no other reason than we are his. And his love doesn’t diminish or heighten based on whether we are wise or foolish. The life we live may be forgotten, but that doesn’t mean we have to be forgettable.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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I also tried to find meaning by building huge homes for myself and by planting beautiful vineyards. I made gardens and parks, filling them with all kinds of fruit trees. I built reservoirs to collect the water to irrigate my many flourishing groves. I bought slaves, both men and women, and others were born into my household. I also owned large herds and flocks, more than any of the kings who had lived in Jerusalem before me. I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. I hired wonderful singers, both men and women, and had many beautiful concubines. I had everything a man could desire!

So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere. (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11, NLT)

Qoheleth did not find meaning through the temporary islands of relief of laughter and wine. Even then, he would have understood the law of diminishing returns–the fact that more and more produces less and less. Since the secret to lasting meaning was not found in earthly joys, he turned his attention to amassing possessions. It was not uncommon for kings of that time period to make testamentary statements that flaunted their accomplishments, so perhaps this passage has a bit of a competitive edge.

In reading these verses, the first person singular pronoun is clearly evident as well as the objectification of each one. Whether it was homes, gardens, water, animals, or people, they all betray Qoheleth’s thirst to acquire, amass, and own. One of the clearest examples is that he didn’t love music, he loved owning singers. Somehow he believed that by amassing things and people he could find significance, which would result in finding the meaning to it all, especially if he had the most and the biggest.

Without restraint or self denial, he had it all. His only limitation was his own imagination.

It is at this point we begin to see the underlying issue become more evident. As with laughter and wine, hard work in and of itself was rewarding. But at the end of it loomed death, which would nullify everything. Qoheleth doesn’t have a life problem. He has a death problem. The fact that his existence would someday terminate was something he could not wrap his mind around. After all, what’s the point of building, acquiring and collecting if he, like everyone else, will die? He’s no better off than the poor man at that point, because both face the same end result.

Our modern concept of eternity and life after death is more clearly fleshed out than it would have been in Old Testament times. In all likelihood, Qoheleth and his contemporaries did not foresee life after death, hence the existential angst he expressed in his writing. His worldview was directly tied to his earthly existence.

Living on this side of the cross provides us with an opportunity to come to terms with things like eternal significance and making eternal differences. But even then, we can become so tied to physical life that we enter the same state of mind. But bigger is not always better, sometimes it’s just more. Perhaps this is why Jesus was so adamant about teaching us to not lay up treasures here on earth in favor of laying up treasures in heaven. Our lives matter now and will matter through all eternity. What are you doing to balance the now and the not yet?

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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I said to myself, “Come on, let’s try pleasure. Let’s look for the ‘good things’ in life.” But I found that this, too, was meaningless. So I said, “Laughter is silly. What good does it do to seek pleasure?” After much thought, I decided to cheer myself with wine. And while still seeking wisdom, I clutched at foolishness. In this way, I tried to experience the only happiness most people find during their brief life in this world. (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3, NLT)

Qoheleth spent the entirety of chapter 1 describing the absurdity of life under the sun. Beginning in the second chapter, he outlined a series of experiments to verify his claim that he had left no stone unturned.

He began with his adventures in pleasure. Out of the gate we find two differing interpretations on what is actually taking place. There are some that read these verses and claim that Qoheleth has plunged headlong into a life of hedonistic behavior, while others take a more straightforward view that there was no real loss of self control. If we take the writer at his word, I see no need to enforce more on the text that is stated. He was conducting a series of experiments, beginning with laughter and then wine.

Test number one was simha, literally, “joy, gladness, or gaity.” There is nothing inherently wrong with joy and laughter. In fact, it is recommended throughout the remaining chapters of the book that people should enjoy the days of their lives spent under the sun. He discovered, however, that the pursuit of laughter and joy with the hope of profit is pointless.

As a part of his quest for pleasure he turned to the consumption of wine, which in the Old Testament is usually a symbol of joy. Qoheleth was not looking to numb his frustration with life’s absurdities. He was genuinely seeking joy and gladness. He claimed to process the use of wine while maintaining self control, and concluded that again, there is nothing to be gained from it.

It appears that Qoheleth looked around and wondered why people with less wisdom and fewer possessions were genuinely happy in life. How could they laugh when life is so ridiculous? Was it entertainment? Was it the wine? For those he observed, maybe so. But not for him. Those pathways were unsatisfactory, providing nothing more than small respites of relief.

Why is it that a child in a third world country who has nothing more than rocks and sticks to play with seem happier than a child in America with every toy at his or her disposal? That’s Qoheleth’s question.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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I have always identified with Paul’s honest self evaluation recorded at the end of Romans 7 (7:21-25). Like Qoheleth, Paul wrote in first person about his experience and struggle as he attempted to reconcile his inner world and outer world. There, he spoke of his search for meaning and his struggle with moral victory. As a well trained Rabbi, Paul would have been familiar with the words of Ecclesiastes, and I believe his confession is informed by the ancient text.

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18, serves as a second introduction to the book, as Qoheleth confirms his authority for the claims he will assert throughout the book. In verses 1:12 and 1:16, he uses the Solomonic persona to emphasize the depth and breadth of his pursuit of meaning in life (for more on the book’s authorship, read the Introduction).

I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done under heaven. I soon discovered that God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race. I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind. What is wrong cannot be made right. What is missing cannot be recovered. (1:13-15, NLT)

He began by saying he devoted himself to his search, connoting a sincere, heartfelt commitment to investigate everything under the sun, leaving no stone unturned. These words make me think of looking for a lost article that is valuable, like car keys or your wallet. When you recognize something of value is missing, you stop all other activity and search until you find them. There is a sense of panic mixed with frustration that is heightened each time you come up empty. When we find them, we are happy, and naturally want to share the story of how we lost the item and where we found it. Beginning in chapter two, Qoheleth will tell the reader where he looked for meaning. But before doing so, he reports that he never found it. His preoccupation with searching is, in his words, “a tragic existence,” for he feels as though every time he comes close to the discovery, God moves it. This heavy burden is not his alone. It is the burden felt by every human being.

So I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly. But I learned firsthand that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind. The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief. To increase knowledge only increases sorrow. (1:17-18, NLT)

Qoheleth searched everywhere, from the heights of wisdom to the depths of depravity. He would begin with what he knew from where he was, and continued his search, stooping lower and lower to levels beneath his dignity. This exhaustive search amplified his frustration, to lead him to the assessment that “the more you know, the worse off you are.”

When one of my kids would come to me and ask for help to searching for something they had lost, I often would tell them, “It’s not lost, because everything is somewhere.” Qoheleth would argue, “It never existed to begin with.”

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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Aug
08

Preaching from Ecclesiastes

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Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, featuring Tom Hanks as Captain Miller. In the movie, Captain Miller is charged with the responsibility of finding paratrooper Private James Ryan and returning him to his family who had already lost three sons during World War 2. The movie, which won seven Academy Awards, invests several minutes depicting the landing on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, as a part of the Normandy Invasion. The cinematography is graphic and uncomfortable. It is my understanding that its portrayal is authentic. But what if the movie stopped there, with no certain outcome?

That is the challenge that comes with preaching from the Book of Ecclesiastes. By nature, both preacher and congregations look for sermons that conclude with the certain outcome of hope. We can endure the challenges of unfortunate reality so long as we know that within twenty minutes we get to the “happily ever after.” But Ecclesiastes isn’t written in a series of undulations that ebb and flow. With the exception of two verses in chapter 12, the picture that Qoheleth paints is bleak and depressing. Perhaps the ultimate “vanity of vanities” is one’s attempt to preach a verse by verse exposition from Ecclesiastes.

How, then, does one responsibly and faithfully preach from Ecclesiastes? Having preached verse by verse through the book in four of the congregations I’ve served, I offer the following suggestions.

  1. Remember that Ecclesiastes is geared to mature audiences who have lived long enough to be on a first name basis with disappointment and adversity. While college students may enjoy the philosophical discussion of the book in small group studies, those who best relate to the book are those who have been kicked in the teeth a few times. If the dating of Ecclesiastes is post-exilic, the original audience would have be those who have returned from captivity and trying to make sense of it.
  2. Remember that Ecclesiastes is one unit of thought. To extract popular passages such as 3:1-12 or 12:1-7 as stand alone texts misses the deeper intent of the author. The context of each section and its relationship to the rest of the sections matters.
  3. Remember that Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature, so like the Book of Job, the preacher needs to be especially aware of literary devices such as hyperbole and cynicism. Much of Ecclesiastes is descriptive, not prescriptive.
  4. Remember to do your homework. The good news is that there are good resources available to help you in your sermon preparation. The bad news is that there aren’t a ton of them. Trempor Longman III, Pete Enns, Derek Kidner, Duane Garrett, and Iain Provan have each produced balanced works on Ecclesiastes that should grace your library, along with several reliable English translations. Faithful study will help you develop a balanced interpretation and add clarity to your communication as you preach.
  5. Remember to use the “whole counsel of God.” Ecclesiastes is in the Bible, but so are 65 other books. At the end of the day we have access to each of those as we help our listeners navigate life’s absurdities. I do think there is value, however, in letting the listeners have time to really grapple with the thoughts and emotions contained in the book. We are far more comfortable looking at the dangerous reptile behind glass than we are in the wild. But when in the wild, we are more alert and not as nonchalant. When we struggle with our uncertainties we become more open to being humble enough to actually have hope.

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Categories : Ecclesiastes, Preaching
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