May 23, 2021
Y’all still feeling full of all that yummy food at the graduation parties? Wow. I think I’ve added a few pounds. You better not say amen to that. Thank you to all the parents who threw those parties. That was a lot of work, moms and dads. And there are more parties today. Graduating seniors, you need to appreciate your parents. They love you and do so much for you. If you haven’t already, make sure you thank them for throwing you a graduation party. Hug your parents. Kiss them. Tell them how much you appreciate them. They put in a lot of work. You should recognize them for that.
We’re jumping into a new series this morning. Last week we finished up our study on prayer. And we had our church-wide prayer meeting last week. I think moving forward we will try to have the prayer meeting at least every quarter. I think it’s very important that we come together as a church and pray. Lord willing, we will be doing more of that. I pray that the series on prayer was helpful. Thank you for the encouraging words you all have shared with me about that.
This week and for a large portion of the summer we will be studying together the book of Ecclesiastes. I plan on having this be the focus of our summer. I’m not sure how many weeks we will be in this book. It wont be any more than 15 weeks. Probably somewhere around the number of 10. I imagine this study will take us through August. After Ecclesiastes, for the Fall, I think we will study the book of Acts. Not completely sure. I welcome your input about that. Would love to hear what you think on the matter.
This morning’s sermon is going to be an overview of the book. We actually won’t start the exposition of the book this morning but will simply introduce the book. This morning we want to tackle three questions about this book. They are the Why? the Who? And the What? If you have a copy of God’s this morning, whether an electronic or physical copy, please go ahead and open up to Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes comes after Proverbs but before the Song of Solomon in the OT. It is on page 553 of your black chair Bible.
To begin this morning, I will begin by answering the Why? question. In other words, why am I choosing to exposit this book, as opposed to the other 65 books in the Bible, or instead of doing another sermon series on a topic? Why go through Ecclesiastes? That’s the question I’d like to address with this first point? There are several answers for this question.
At an elder’s meeting some weeks ago, I previewed with the elders what I was thinking about preaching on after the summer series. I mentioned to the elder’s that I wanted to to a thematic study on the book of Proverbs. Something like break the Proverbs down by themes and go through them like that. As we were discussing this question, Pastor Jesse made the recommendation that he thought we needed to get back to exposition—that is, going through one book, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, rather than doing a thematic study. What a wise comment that was! In pastoral ministry, I often times ask myself, WWJD? What would Jesse do in this situation? Jesse has tremendous wisdom. After that comment, I was sold on doing exposition.
Verse by verse, chapter by chapter preaching is very important. This type of preaching is contrasted with topical preaching. Think of topical preaching as something like: a series on prayer or justice or parenting or holiness or culture. Something like that. As I mentioned earlier, I just finished a series on prayer. I like topical preaching and think it is helpful for a pastor to do that. But it is important that there’s more to a church’s preaching than just topical preaching. Here’s why.
When a preacher engages in expositional preaching, the preacher doesn’t get to choose what he says. When a preacher commits himself to verse by verse, chapter by chapter preaching, not skipping any portions of Scripture but explaining and expounding all of it, it is God who determines what is preached because of what is in Scripture. There is a temptation for every preacher to preach only what he wants. To skip the difficult parts of Scripture and only address the parts of Scripture that he or his congregation likes. With expositional preaching, the preacher does not have the option of skipping Scripture because he goes verse by verse, chapter by chapter. That is key. Preachers must give their people the Word of God. That is the duty of the preaching. Demand that of your preacher. Whether you stay at CBC for the rest of your life or move onto another church, demand expositional preaching. Demand the Word of God from your pastor. That is what I want to give you with Ecclesiastes. I want to share with you God’s thoughts, not my wishes.
You will notice that Ecclesiastes is in the OT. That too was a factor in me deciding this book. I believe that it is the duty of the preacher to present to his congregation sermons that are delivered form both testaments. 2 Timothy 3:16 says,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
That statement Paul makes in 2 Tim refers to the Old Testament. The OT and the NT is inspired by God and is useful for building us for good works. We need a constant diet of the OT along with the NT. Most of my preaching so far has been in the NT, so I wanted to balance that with an exposition of an OT book.
The genre of Ecclesiastes is Wisdom. It along with the Proverbs and Song of Solomon form the Wisdom literature portion of the OT. In the NT, we might say that James is also wisdom literature. Since my time at CBC, we have yet to study a book of wisdom on Sunday morning’s. I began with a series on the marks and works of the church, exposited Ruth, then Philippians, an advent series, and a study on prayer. Also, Pastor Jesse led us through the book of Obadiah, a minor prophet. We haven’t spent any time in the wisdom literature, so I though it would be a good idea to do so.
Wisdom literature is different than, say, a Pauline epistle. In a Pauline epistle, we might get quite a bit of doctrinal discussion, what we are to think about God, and exhortations, instructions as to how we are to live. In Wisdom literature, we get a different type of instruction from God. We might define biblical wisdom as,
Skill in the art of godly living.
Wisdom literature is less about right and wrong, black and white, and more about how to live in the grey areas. Wisdom literature is about how to follow Christ when it’s not exactly clear what we should do. Wisdom literature is very helpful with that.
Our Cultural Moment
And in our current cultural moment, the current political, cultural divides that are everywhere these days, we need this type of wisdom. We need to know how to navigate this tricky, confusing world. Life can be very confusing. I don’t know if life is more confusing now than it ever has been. It might not be. But it still might feel more confusing. Ecclesiastes, this ancient book, is for us in these confusing times. Ecclesiastes itself is a very confusing book. The confusion of it is part of its message. Through its clear message that is taught in a confusing way, we receive grace and mercy in our times of confusion and difficulty. Which we all feel right now.
Expositing this book is something of a personal pilgrimage for me as well. I’ve always loved Ecclesiastes. I always have. I’ve loved how it paints the world. It paints the world as a difficult and sometimes meaningless place. That probably is my number one struggle in life. I believe I have shared this with you. Meaninglessness is a struggle I have a lot. Depression and pessimism. Those are struggles I really have in my heart. God has made all of us different. I imagine your struggles are different than mine. You might struggle having joy or feeling glad or being thankful or feeling loved or having self-confidence or feeling accepted or something else. We all have different struggles. I struggle with feeling that life is meaningless. That I am just on this hamster wheel. That I just run and run and run, and I’m at the same place I began. There have been times and there are times, when I have been doing what I feel is most important and what I love the most, and the feeling that I have inside is, “This doesn’t satisfy me. This isn’t what I’m seeking.” Right now at the place of life I am at, I have everything that I thought I’ve wanted to have. I have a beautiful wife, children who I love. I have a good paying job. Kathryn and I used to have no money. I own a home. I’m serving the Lord, doing what I’ve wanted to do for the past 10 years. And yet, I’m still empty. I feel emptiness and despair, still. Even when pursuing my dreams and finding success in life, I have feelings of hollowness and emptiness in my heart. Meaninglessness. I feel that. Ecclesiastes address my problem. It directly tackles this problem. I love that. I need that. So expositing this book is as much for me as it is for you.
Now it’s not just for me. It’s for you, too. Recently, I had a conversation with a sister in Christ. A godly woman who has been through a lot in her life. She’s been very successful, has it all, and yet still feels deep despair and doubt and meaninglessness in her heart. When conversing with her, one comment she made is, “I don’t think anyone else feels the way I do. I feel awkward sharing these things because my thought is that I am alone in how I feel.” Do you feel like that? Do you, like me and like this sister in Christ, struggle with doubt? Do you sometimes feel numb? Do you doubt? Do you have bouts of believing that life has meaning and the struggle is worth it? If so, this book is for you.
So that’s the long answer to the question, “Why are we expositing this book?” Because exposition is important, because we need the OT, because we need wisdom, because this world is confusing, because I struggle with feeling hollow in my heart, and because you probably do, too. That’s the why.
Now the who? That is, “Who wrote Ecclesiastes?” At this point, you’re probably like, “Pastor, you say you do expositional preaching, but we haven’t even looked at the text yet.” Fair point. Let’s look at the text together. Look at Eccl 1:1. Let’s read what it says,
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king of Jerusalem.
This is the clearest indication we get regarding the identity of the author. Who is the author? He is a preacher, who is a son of David, and a king of Jerusalem. Now look with me at 1:16. It says,
I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”
This person is a son of David, a king, and someone who is very great in wisdom and knowledge. And, as chapter 2 explains, this was a king of consider wealth and influence as well.
Putting these pieces together, the vast majority of Christians have concluded that the author is Solomon, the King of Israel after David. That makes a lot of sense. However, it is important to remember that the book is actually anonymous. While Christian tradition maintains that the author is Solomon, the actual text of Scripture does not state that. Nevertheless, I will teach that Solomon is the author of the book. I don’t think it is wise to go against the large consensus in church history regarding who wrote this book. So for that reason, I will say it is Solomon. Although at times I might also say, the Preacher. I will use both the title preacher and the name Solomon.
So that’s the Who? Who wrote Ecclesiastes? The book doesn’t say, but I am going to say Solomon. So we’ve covered the why? and the who? Now it’s time for our last point. The what? This question is this: “What is Ecclesiastes about?” With this point, we’re going to tackle the main themes of the book. I will highlight five themes.
The Vanity of Life
The first is the vanity of life. Look with me at 1:2. It says this,
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
So we have this statement, life is vanity; all is vanity, we have this statement at the beginning of the book. Now turn with me to 12:8. It says this there,
Vanity of vanities says the Preacher; all is vanity.
This is basically the same statement that was made at 1:2. This statement, life is vanity, all is vanity, serves as the bookends of the book. This is how the book begins. This is how the book ends. What this means is that this is one of the central themes of the book. Anytime you have a book begin and end with the same idea, you must take notice of that idea in order to understand the book. Ecclesiastes is no different.
Further, this word, “vanity,” which is the Hebrew word, hevel, is a very important word to understand to grasp the meaning of Ecclesiastes. It occurs throughout the book. It has several different translations. They include:
Temporary, transitory, meaningless, senseless, futile, ephemeral, contingent, incomprehensible, incongruous, absurd, empty, a striving after wind, a bubble, smoke, mist, breath.
And the word hevel is attached to the following topics:
Every effort, the fruit of our labors, pleasure, life, youth, success, wealth, desire, popularity, unjustice, all future events, everything.
Quite a lot of topics and quite a lot of different meanings. What this theme signifies is that in life there is inbuilt difficult. No matter how successful you become, no matter how beautiful you are, no matter how strong, athletic, intelligent, witty, young, wise, rich, or poor you are, the difficulties of this life are inescapable. There will be times in your life when you finally arrive at what you’ve been striving for—whether status, popularity, fame, wealth, or comfort—you finally achieve what you desire, and you go to close your hand on what it is you’ve desired, and your grasping is like trying to capture the wind. What you long for in this world is and will remain elusive.
Why is that the case? What answer does the book of Ecclesiastes give for why in life we all experience this vanity? The answer is death. Look with me at 2:12. I will read through 17. The passage says this,
So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
With this passage, what is the Preacher teaching us? The point is this: the wise man dies just like the fool does. They both have the same destination: death. Death robs the wise man of his wisdom, of his advantage over the fool. Death robs the wise man, too, of his reputation over the fool. In life, the wise man is regarded as superior to the fool, but when the wise man dies, no one will remember him. Neither the fool nor the wise man will be remembered.
The point is this: death makes life futile. Death robs us of what we spend our whole lives seeking to achieve and grasp after. When we die, even if we die very wise, no one will remember us. Our children will, our grandchildren will, our great grandchildren might remember us, but probably not our great, great grandchildren. Who of us knows whether our great, great grand parents were either wise or foolish? Maybe some of you. I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t even know my great, great grandparents names. Death robs us of significance. It makes much of life futile and meaningless. Death really is our greatest enemy.
I used to play a lot of video games as a kid. And in each of the video game, there are final bosses. The final boss is always the toughest. The whole game climaxes in this final boss. All the time you’ve spent playing the game reaches its climax in the final boss. If you’re good enough at the game, you can beat the final boss. Death is kind of like the final boss. Ecclesiastes, though, portrays death as the type of final boss that none of us can beat. Death looms large in this life and kills all of our hopes and dreams. It robs us of what we desire and want. It makes playing the game pointless. That’s how the book paints death.
Fear of God
While death is important to the book and important for us to consider, it is not the final word of the book. Even in one of the more difficult and darkest books of the Bible, the final point the author makes is one of hope. We always have hope in this world, dear friend. Yes, death is the final boss. And yes if our Lord Jesus tarries, death will be the final boss that we cannot beat. That is true. If our Lord tarries, we will all have a funeral. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot have hope. Dear friends, Jesus is risen from the dead. And that means that we can always have hope.
Turn with me to the end of Ecclesiastes, chapter 12:13. This is where we get our hope.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Here Solomon is bringing his book to a close. He’s saying to us, “Listen, if you haven’t listened to anything I’ve said, listen to this.” It’s kind of like how I sometimes conclude my sermon. This is the main point. Listen to this. Solomon simply says, in light of the final boss of death and how none of us can defeat him, in light of the meaninglessness that death places upon us as people, in light of insignificance our lives will have on this globe that turns and turns and turns, in light of all that, this is what we are to do. Fear God. Obey God. That means that we believe that he is even greater than death. Yes, death is the final boss. But that final boss answers to God. God is the ultimate final boss. And by obeying him, we are safe. We receive protection and grace from the vanity of life when we cling to God and follow his word.
Now we must remember that God will hold us accountable. Why should we fear God and keep his commandments? Because one day he will hold us accountable. Death will usher us into God’s presence, and God will hold us accountable for the way we’ve lied—even the things we have done in secret, both good and bad. All people will be judged by God. The NT specifies that both the Christian and the non-Christian will be judged. The Christian will be judged at the judgment seat of Christ, according to 2 Cor 5:10; non-Christians will be judged at the great White throne judgment, according to Rev 20.
Enjoy God’s Blessings
Now you might think that an increased sense of accountability to God at the end of time and an understanding that death is the final boss that robs us of meaning, you might think that that will lead us to an unencouraging pessimism. It doesn’t. It actually has the opposite effect. When we truly begin to understand that death robs us of what we want in life and we realize that God will judge us for the way we’ve live, it produces in us a sobriety of life that produces joy in the blessings that God has given us. Contemplations of death and accountability produce joy in the blessings of God, not despair.
Turn with me to Eccl 5:18. I want to show you this in this book that God wants us to have joy in his blessings that we experience in the here and now. This is what the passage says,
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment[h] in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
What is the point of this passage? It is this. Food, drink, family, work, pleasure, wealth, steaks, ribs, cookies, coffee, pets, hugs, kisses, fellowship, good drink, sugar—all of it is from God. God wants us to enjoy these things in this life. And by remembering that we will soon one day die and be judged by God, we actually come to enjoy God’s blessings more. Death and judgment remind us that this is not our home. You can’t keep the things of this world. We’re not supposed to. When we stop trying to hold onto God’s blessings as if they are ours and we start simply accepting them as God wants us to, we truly begin to enjoy the blessings that he gives us. Enjoy life while remembering that this world is not our home. As a result of our realization that death robs us and yet we still can honor and worship God in this life, our perspective on life shifts from trying to savor and store up earthly enjoyments, to expecting less in life.
To conclude, I’d like to share with you a story that I heard a pastor share on a recent podcast I listened to. I sound like a broken record. Last Sunday I shared a story from a podcast I listened to. So this particular pastor has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He’s not sure how long he has to live, but he’s pretty sure this cancer will kill him. And in this podcast he shared how this diagnosis has impacted his view of the world. He does so in a way that nails the point of Ecclesiastes. He says this.
This cancer thing has really shaken my wife and I. My wife tends to attach her heart and get deep rest from vacation spots places we’ve gone. We go to a place in SC on the beach, and we’ve gone to a place in England. And she just lives for going to those places. Partly because over the years, it was when I when we visited there that I wasn’t consumed with work. Also they’re beautiful places. I always found that I rested in ministry accomplishments, ministry goals. Hey I’ve done this. I’ve got this started. We realized that in many ways we were resting our hearts in these things. We really tried to turn this world into heaven. We were trying to make a heaven out of earth. As a result, we were always unhappy because you can’t stay in England because you have to come home. You can’t stay at the beach forever. You have to come back to normal life. Also, these places we went to would get sold and we couldn’t go back. Meanwhile I was never enjoying my day at these places because I was always thinking about tomorrow. And what has happened with the cancer is that we realized we can’t make a heaven out of this earth. Because it’s going to be taken away from us. It just has jolted us so much. We must make heaven our heaven and God our heaven. And here’s what’s really weird. When you make heaven into heaven as it should be and you don’t make earth into heaven, the joys of the earth are greater than they used to be. That’s what is so strange. We enjoy our day more than we ever did. We’re realizing that there is so much about our life that we never really enjoyed because we tried to make this world our eternal home. The more we make heaven into the real heaven the more this world because something we enjoy. We enjoy it for its own sake, instead of trying to make it give us something that it cannot give us. We’ve never been happier. We’ve never enjoyed our days more, our hugs more, food more, walks more. Why is this so? Our hearts are not set on these things so now we enjoy them more.
Life is hard. Like really, really, really hard. It is confusing. Living in this world is like trying to solve a tremendously hard puzzle. Life is a riddle. We all have feelings of emptiness, futility, and despair in our hearts. Death—our own death and the death of our loved ones—drives this point home. In this life, what are we to do? We are to fear God and keep his commandments. We are to remember that death will rob us of what we seek in this world. When we contemplate death and judgment, only then are we able to really enjoy life, the blessings that God gives us. When we realize this world is not our home, we can appreciate and enjoy this world and all the manifold blessings that God gives us even more.