Every preacher has to open the Scriptures and account for how we got from “In the beginning, God” (the Bible’s opening words) to “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (its closing words).
Otherwise, we are like those who read the title The Three Musketeers and dive headlong into the middle of the story. The fact that The Three Musketeers tells a story about four will confuse us unless we go back, read the beginning, and stay attentive until the end.
Ecclesiastes situates us long after the start and long before the end of the story. Taken by itself, it can seem an odd book. So how are we to preach it?
Hopefully, these six hints can get you started.
1. Ecclesiastes describes life after Eden and before heaven.
It’s as if a man who fled from home before an invasion, and years later returned to its ruins, is crying out to us. He knows what Eden was. And he now sees it as it is—the broken shell of its former glory.
Ecclesiastes shines like a lighthouse back into the Old Testament waters of broken patriarchs and sinful kings. It pulses forward into a first-century world that crucifies criminals on the street for anyone to view. “Life under the sun” reminds of what we fell from and why a Savior is needed.
2. Ecclesiastes reveals God to us.
Many want to reshape this book and our sermons from it to sound like Isaiah or Paul, to align with the language of systematic theology, to comb the hair and remember our manners while in the presence of good company. But Ecclesiastes will not allow it. Bend it to your comfort zone, and you will miss what this God-inspired text reveals about him.
There is more to God than what Isaiah and Paul alone can show you.
3. Ecclesiastes exalts the joy of mundane things.
Don’t lose sight of the joy. Many times Ecclesiastes tells us, “There is nothing better under the sun” than to experience God-intended pleasure from work, food, relationships, and sleep. If we use God’s gifts as mini-gods, we are like those who try to play soccer with a watermelon. The melon isn’t designed to withstand our kicking and will crumble. But if we enjoy God’s good gifts the way he intended, not as mini-gods but as kindnesses, then we grow wise in locating the feisty joy that refuses to quit under the sun.
4. Ecclesiastes offers the exceptions to the rules.
When any of us learns a language, we grow excited for a moment, eager with the satisfactory progress we made. Then the day comes when the teacher informs us there are exceptions to the rules we’ve memorized. “‘I’ before ‘E’—except after ‘C’ and sometimes ‘Y’ and with words that sound like ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh.’” Proverbs tell us, essentially, do good and good will follow, do bad and evil will follow. Then Ecclesiastes comes along (with Job) and says bad happens to those who do good, and good happens to those who do bad. Just in case we want to use Proverbs to turn discipleship into a formula, God gives us Ecclesiastes.
5. Recognize the value of Ecclesiastes for evangelism and apologetics in our generation.
Churchgoing persons may struggle at first with how foreign Ecclesiastes sounds compared to Jeremiah or Paul. But the thoughtful non-Christian is often stunned and drawn by its way of speaking about life and God. A preacher who has the honesty to say, “Life is meaningless!” or “I hated life” enables the listener to feel known and heard by those who speak for God. The preacher gives voice to the way things are rather than how we want them to be. The hope offered has grit. The God who speaks doesn’t sound like an old man who needs help using an iPad. He sounds like the God who created all this and sees its ruin, feels its loss, experiences it with us, and leads us home.
6. Expand your capacity to behold Jesus, not only as prophet, priest, and king but also as fulfillment of the Old Testament sage.
Jesus tells us this about himself: “One greater than Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42). Paul takes up what Jesus taught and passes it on to us. Jesus, he says, is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18–31). All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ (Col. 2:3). Seeing Jesus as our wisdom doesn’t invite you to search for him as if he is hiding encoded within every text in Ecclesiastes. The sage who wrote the book did not intend this. Our task is not to divine hints of Jesus where none is hiding. But recognizing Jesus as the one greater than Solomon means we can’t rightly read, interpret, or preach Ecclesiastes as if the wisdom it espouses finds its source and purpose somewhere outside of Jesus—as if the Father and the Spirit gave us wisdom with no reference to the Son.
So how do we proclaim Jesus from Ecclesiastes? Here are three suggestions.
1. Connect the language of Ecclesiastes with the language of Jesus.
You might say, “Now, as we walk through Ecclesiastes 10, the proverbs might disorient some of us. It can help us to remember Jesus often revealed God to us like this. Jesus would say, ‘If the blind leads the blind both will fall into a ditch,’ or ‘Foxes have dens, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ So when we hear the wise man say, ‘Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench,’ we recognize the kind of language Jesus often used.’”
2. Connect the teachings of Ecclesiastes to the teachings of Jesus.
Ecclesiastes teaches us about money, sex, power, ambition, and so on. Explain the text in Ecclesiastes and say something like, “Jesus takes up this theme, too, doesn’t he?” Or perhaps, “Let’s remind ourselves that centuries later those who followed Jesus spoke of this same issue.” Then quote or briefly refer to how what Jesus or his apostles taught on this theme informs or corroborates it.
3. Connect Ecclesiastes to Jesus’s person and work.
Alluding to the person of Christ can sound like this: “Ecclesiastes 10:10 tells us hard work requires strategic rest. Years later, the one greater than Solomon sat by a well at noon for a break, slept on a boat tired from the day, and kept the Sabbath day of rest.”
Declaring the work of Christ ultimately sounds like this: “This text exposes how folly wrecks us. It foreshadows why the God who gave this book and taught Israel this wisdom ultimately sent his Son, the fulfillment of all wisdom, to pay for folly and rescue us from it.” Or perhaps, “Ecclesiastes shows us that even wisdom can neither save us nor change the conditions of life under the sun. One greater than Solomon is needed.”
Don’t neglect this odd book. It’s full of wisdom that both the church and world desperately need to hear. Above all, it connects us with wisdom incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Editors’ note: Here are a few recommended resources for preaching Ecclesiastes:
- Recovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes (P&R) by Zack Eswine
- Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End (Crossway) by David Gibson
- Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes: Foundations for Expository Sermons (Eerdmans) by Sidney Greidanus (review | interview)
- Why Everything Matters: The Gospel in Ecclesiastes (Christian Focus) by Philip G. Ryken
- Everything Is Not Meaningless by Tremper Longman
- Laboring in Hopeless Hope: Encouragement for Christians from Ecclesiastes by Eric Ortlund
- Audio sermons from Ecclesiastes at TGC