For many Ecclesiastes can seem like an off-putting book, full of gloomy prospects and a dour approach to life. “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2; 12:8). It’s hardly the book most would turn to for a pick-me-up.
But Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College and TGC Council member, believes Ecclesiastes offers an important word for us today. In his new book Why Everything Matters: The Gospel in Ecclesiastes (Focus), Ryken argues that studying Ecclesiastes helps us (1) ask the biggest and hardest questions people have today; (2) worship the one true God; (3) live for God and not only ourselves; and (4) be honest about our troubles. This is truly the stuff of life, and all the more reason to ponder what the ancient Preacher would say to us today.
I corresponded with Ryken about his interest in Ecclesiastes, how it’s served him more as a vitamin than a medicine, why everything matters in life, and more.
In the preface you write, “I have read and studied Ecclesiastes many times during my earthly pilgrimage, and each reading has repaid richly my efforts to understand its mysteries. . . . I hope to return to it again and again for as long as I’m wrestling with life’s many questions and waiting for the day my journey ends.” What first led you to Ecclesiastes and what’s kept you returning to it after these many years of life and ministry?
What draws me to Ecclesiastes is its unflinching commitment to asking and answering the hardest questions in the world and also—surprisingly enough—its ultimate optimism about living in a fallen world under the blessing of a faithful God.
In your 2013 Wheaton College fall convocation address (“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”) you shared about a serious struggle with depression earlier that year. You even questioned whether you had “the will to live.” What role (if any) did Ecclesiastes have during that season of life? And what word of hope would you offer others going through similar trials?
Ecclesiastes isn’t the first place I turn in seasons of discouragement. Usually I read the Psalms. When I’m in trouble I need simple reminders of God’s faithfulness and also words I can use to help me worship, which is what I find in the Psalms.
Ecclesiastes does something different for me: it helps me think through difficult issues without leaving God out of the picture. This helps me prepare for future trials more than it helps me walk through current challenges.
Ecclesiastes cured J. I. Packer of youthful cynicism. What did it cure you of?
I’m not sure that Ecclesiastes has cured me of any maladies, spiritual or otherwise. It’s been more like a vitamin than a medicine: it’s nourished my soul and given me a God-honoring perspective on work, money, relationships, and the brevity of life.
How is the gospel portrayed in Ecclesiastes?
I see the gospel on every page of Ecclesiastes. Often the good news about Jesus comes as the deeper answer to the questions Ecclesiastes only begins to answer. For example, Ecclesiastes is honest about the frustration and seeming futility of our earthly labors (Eccl. 2:22–23). Part of the answer is to see our work as a gift from God (Eccl. 2:24–25). But we understand that gift best when we know Jesus has finished the work of our salvation and calls us to work for the glory of his kingdom (1 Cor. 15:58).
You conclude, “The final message of Ecclesiastes is not that nothing matters . . . but that everything matters.” How so?
Ecclesiastes is brutally honest about life’s many frustrations—not just at work but also at home, in our neighborhoods, and wherever we worship. At times, the Solomon of Ecclesiastes comes very close to convincing us to give up. But just when we start to feel that way, he brings God back into view and consoles us with the assurance that there’s purpose and joy in living for him.
What we did, and how we did it, and why we did it will all have eternal significance. Everything in the universe is subject to the eternal verdict of a righteous God who knows every secret. The things we do (and do not do) today will all be seen in light of the final judgment.
We come to Ecclesiastes with the despairing thought that nothing really matters, but by the grace of God we leave with the hopeful realization that everything does.