The book of Ecclesiastes raises so many questions. Who is Qoheleth? Who wrote the book? Is life really meaningless? Are we supposed to just eat, drink, and be merry?
After putting it off for 40 years, Harry Reeder—TGC Council member and senior pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama—finally preached through Ecclesiastes. In our conversation, we talked about both the things that make the book challenging to teach and also how to organize teaching through the book. According to Reeder, Ecclesiastes has a lot to teach us about how to approach life and death, as well as the promise of life beyond death.
- Preacher’s Toolkit: How Should I Preach Ecclesiastes?
- Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters (Preaching the Word) by Philip Graham Ryken
- Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End by David Gibson
- Ecclesiastes: A 12-Week Study by Justin Holcomb
- Sermon Series on Ecclesiastes by Harry Reeder
- Sermon series on Ecclesiastes by Kevin DeYoung
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Harry Reeder: There’s three themes that you’ve gotta translate from Ecclesiastes and vanity into the Christian life, informed by the vitality of Christ. And that number one is this, you’re going to get sick. It’s not always a judgment. And by the way, it’s not always to the glory of God in that sense. We get all of those dynamics of a fallen world except this one: we don’t get the condemning judgments of God. That has been taken care of in Christ. And we get a promise, not that all things are good, but that he’s gonna work all things for good.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible,” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” is a production of the Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible Christian books and tracks. Learn more at crossway.org. It’s my great joy to be sitting in the office of Dr. Harry Reeder at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama today. Dr. Reeder, thank you for being willing to help us teach the Bible.
Reeder: Yes. Nancy, thank you. The occasion of course as you come in here to minister to our women, it is as you can see, our folks responded enthusiastically and looking forward to your ministry. And thank you in the context of this, the opportunity for us to talk through this and specifically a book that is less confessed other than another Solomonic book, the Song of Solomon, it’s the one that we avoid the most. It’s a little bit tough to tackle. Just tackled it recently. So I’m glad to talk about it with you.
Guthrie: That’s right. I’ll be posting along on the webpage with this episode a link to your, I wanna say 12 sermon series on the book of Ecclesiastes that you did last summer. But I wonder, Dr. Reeder, before we dive into Ecclesiastes, I wonder if you might tell us a little bit about how your own love for the scriptures, desire and ability to teach the scriptures, how did that develop in your life?
Reeder: So Nancy, I was raised in a Christian… I tell people I got saved out of a drug problem. My dad and mom drug me to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. But I developed a secret life in rebellion, although I had a significant witness. I grew up in the Christian Missionary Alliance Denomination with precious pastors. And then earlier I was in…my family was in Calvary Independent Presbyterian in Charlotte. So the Reeders and the Grahams were close. And that was a really a part of…my granddaddy was on the original Billy Graham team from ’48 to ’52. So I had the gospel lived and shared and that’s why in my love of the reformed faith I’ve tried to never lose the evangelical breath and heart that I was raised in. And that I was actually exposed to the Word all the time. You did not have a service without some kind of sermon. Now, I can’t tell you I loved it then, but that was laying some significant channel markers in my life.
And then after I became a Christian, all that stuff just started coming back. I was 21 years old. I was converted wonderfully in a Reformed Presbyterian church, Evangelical Synod Congregation, RPCES. The first thing that happened was I just got this hunger for God’s Word. I actually stayed up all night when I was converted and read the New Testament. It took me all night, but now…and then I woke up my wife the next morning, I said to her, I said, “You know, Sandy, I’ve already read the New Testament. What do you do?” She said, “Well honey, I think you need to read it again and you’ll be reading it a lot more.” And of course, she was right. But that was the hunger that developed.
I had good preaching where I was, but I would actually look around any good preachers coming. And then I went to Covenant College and I feel that was maybe the heyday of Covenant College and the early 1970s, and I found out that my head could be used for something besides a baseball cap and a golf visor. And I…just developing a Christian world in life view, the integrity, the infallibility, the inerrancy, the sufficiency, the perspicuity of the scriptures, I just I fell in love with it. Then I came under the influence. I actually was a bodyguard for Francis Schaffer during the American L’Abris that were held at Covenant College. There were two of them. And I got to spend time with him and his emphasis on worldview significantly affected me and then Westminster Seminary. I would never have traded that for anything in the world. To get the legacy benefits of Machen and Stonehouse and Young…
Guthrie: So who were your teachers at Westminster?
Reeder: Well, my teachers were Edmund Clowney in homiletics, and I had Palmer Robertson for Old Testament, Robert Godfrey for church history. John Frame, who was kind of the rebirth of Van Til for me, Strimple in systematic theology. Sinclair Ferguson was just the baby professor and got exposed to him. Our own Dr. James Hurley, who went on to RTS and is just a walking brilliant encyclopedia of the Bible. So all of those just affected me. And then placed in my hand was Martin Lloyd-Jones Preaching and Preachers. And then placed in my hands was a two-volume biography of George Whitfield. And so I would just tell you that’s where my love for the Word that just pulsates in my life.
Guthrie: So you’ve been here at Briarwood how long?
Reeder: 20 years going on my 21st.
Guthrie: Have you preached through every book of the Bible?
Reeder: I have not. I can’t do that. Took me…my first book I preached, it was Acts and it took me five years. So…
Guthrie: That’s gonna put me behind.
Reeder: And now I’m starting Romans. I don’t know what I’m gonna do there. Took me about a year and a half with 1 Peter. I’ve done Zechariah, Haggai, Obadiah. I love the Minor Prophets. That was the influence of Palmer Robertson on me who moved me toward covenantal baptism and covenant theology was…just absorbed it from him. And one of the great blessings I had was him sitting in a class I taught at General Assembly this last year. And then getting to get my picture taken with him. And a little intimidating for me still at my age, even for him to be sitting there.
Guthrie: You mentioning O. Palmer Robertson, you know, I’m someone who didn’t grow up in the Reformed faith and…but was thoroughly immersed in just general evangelical Christianity. And, you know, I can think of, you know, there’s a handful of books that really helped me make some shift to grow in some understanding. And one of those for me was, O. Palmer Robertson’s The Israel of God to try to understand the place of Israel in the history and in the future. That book really helped me.
Reeder: Yeah. That the land of promise was only a down payment. I loved it when he put it in that context.
Guthrie: Yeah, yeah. Me too. And maybe he said to, you know, it’s not…the future is not simply about a, you know, a dusty patch of earth in the Middle East, but instead about the new heavens and the new earth encompassing the whole world.
All right, so you’ve preached a lot of books and as we mentioned, you preached this challenging book, Ecclesiastes. I remember about six or seven years ago listening to a panel of guys and Alistair Begg was on the panel and I think he said, “Ecclesiastes is the only book I haven’t preached through because I’m kind of afraid of it.” He has since then. But it is kind of a challenger, but maybe that’s a good place to start. What are some of the challenges a teacher has when you come to the book of Ecclesiastes that you’ve gotta work through?
Reeder: Well, I think there is a genuine challenge on a, you know, within orthodoxy of, how’s it dated? And while we realize that there is a movement that is I believe untrustworthy that basically tries to put the whole Old Testament post-Babylon captivity, post-exilic, Second Temple. I think there is a case that can be made within orthodox Christianity in terms of the dating of a later dating of Ecclesiastes instead of in the Solomonic era. So I think that’s a challenge for guys and they don’t want to come down wrong on it or be considered wrong on it. And then you’ve got then a lot related to the dating of course, is the authorship…
Guthrie: Who wrote it.
Reeder: …the direct authorship of it. That’s a challenge. Number three, the book defies, I’m just saying now, you may be so much more smarter than me than this, but this book I think defies an extended, coherent outline.
Guthrie: Very challenging outline.
Reeder: Because in my perspective is, he peels back the depravity of his world in life view that I believe he’s repenting of, and he’s wanting to build to the answer, there are times that he just can’t help himself. And the life over the sun and the life from a God-centered world in life, you just burst through and it defines outlining. And so I just told my people this, “Now I’m gonna try to do this pretty much chapter by chapter.” I said, “But as I’m preaching, I’ll give you some…I’ll be giving you some pegs and handles, but it defies the coherent outline that I’m usually able to give you before we jump into a book.” I mean, Paul is so easy to outline, but this one for me, it was very difficult.
Guthrie: Can I add another challenge?
Guthrie: You know, we think about parts of the Bible that people might be able to pluck out a verse and, you know, put it on a mug or on the wall kind of thing. Ecclesiastes would kind of defy that partly because there are certain parts that the Qoheleth, we’ll call him, or the preacher, whatever we wanna call him, this character who is speaking, he says some things that I don’t think we affirm as necessarily being the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And so that’s kind of challenging for us as teachers to deal with things he says that we can’t fully affirm. Is that a good way to put that challenge? Maybe you would describe it in some other terms to explain what I’m trying to get at.
Reeder: No, and maybe I’m a little bit too simple on this. I just see him…there are statements that he makes in places that he makes them, that you don’t expect them to come there. And I’ve tried to find out why are they there? Some of them are very God-centered statements and some of them are look, this is just the way you live, this eat, drink and be merry, tomorrow you die. Yeah. So I see him giving us the life of vanity, of emptiness. And I see him as not being able to not be…not only laying that out in order to give you that what I would call a God-centered world in life view, ultimately saturated with the gospel and anticipating it. And it just…the way it’s and what he gives and when he says it is so difficult to determine because you’re expecting him to say something and all of a sudden he says something from what seems to be the other perspective from what he is developing. And so again, I think you have to make a determination of who is speaking, how are they speaking, which comes back to date and author. And then I also think you just have to work yourself through it. Here’s what I told our folks, we can take this thing in lumps and then let me and give me the freedom to run down these trails that he brings up or we can just get buried in verse by verse. And I think that’s going to become so overwhelming and so difficult. It’s better, let’s take it in these lumps subjects that he’s doing, but realize he’s gonna lead us off with statements that we have to look at on its own to understand what he’s saying and why he’s saying it and where he is saying it.
Guthrie: Yeah, I think that’s a good word to teachers. Well-trained teachers who love God’s Word, we want the whole message of it. So we’re very oriented in most parts of the Bible that we just work our way through a text and we don’t wanna leave little sections out. And what I hear you saying about Ecclesiastes is probably the approach where you just go from verse to verse to verse, you’re not necessarily going to get to the message of the whole book that the author is seeking to communicate.
Reeder: One of my illustrations was my wife who is so wonderfully orderly and, you know, everything in its place, everything has a place. And so we’ve got this deal. I carry the luggage, she packs it because she packs it a whole lot better than me. And hopefully, I can carry it better than her. And but when I’m on my own, as it’s packed, I leave, I come back, when I get back, it never looks like it did. And when I’m trying to get on the airline, I’m trying to get everything stuck back in, but there’s always something hanging out. And that’s what I tried to give them a view of this. It’s like me coming home from a trip, these…I’m gonna give you a section, here’s the suitcase, but there are things…there are jagged angles. They’re seemingly incoherent statements because they don’t fit in the coherency that we want to see in the text. It’s just stuff that’s hanging out, which is another reminder that our God, we can know Him accurately, but we can’t know Him exhaustively. And I think this is one of the books that points this out to us. I pretty well had determined I was gonna avoid Ecclesiastes until I saw the incoherence of what is happening in the overtaking of our culture with neo-paganism. And I think this…because I think that is exactly what happened to Solomon. When he started out with his plea for wisdom and he started well. And then for various reasons of that there’s three snares of Satan: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, boastful pride of life, I think he got off of track. He went to the far country. I think he played the prodigal, but in my conviction, I think he came to repentance and to some degree restoration and renewal in his life. I have that in my own life with my father who was this unbelievable witness for Christ and then went to a far country that I, on this program, I cannot describe to you the lifestyle he had. It would be so inappropriate. But maintained the contact, God brought him back. I’ll never forget him telling me after he came back to the Lord and I actually remarried him and my mother.
Guthrie: You’re kidding.
Reeder: No, that was quite the experience. And the incoherence of his life, it made no sense. And then of course, that’s when I came to something my people hear me say all the time, when you come to me, don’t ask me to make sense of sin. It doesn’t make sense. I can give you contributing reasons, occasions and influences, but I cannot make sense of sin. It doesn’t make sense. And I think that is part of the communication of the book of Ecclesiastes, emptiness, vanity. And yet it’s got this driving appeal that you are God and it’s all about you. And so, but Ecclesiastes…Solomon just intimidates me and the wisdom literature in general,
Guthrie: Well, let’s dip into the text a few places. We can’t really work our way through all 12 chapters, but we certainly have to start here at the beginning. And maybe the best way is for you to give us your thoughts on how this keyword is translated and used. I’m looking at the ESV and it says, “Vanity of vanities, says the preacher, vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” Other places will hear it translated as meaningless, meaningless. I wonder, how do you define what he’s talking about? And then the other thing I want you to answer is, is he telling us the truth?
Reeder: I think what he is telling us is that this lifestyle of rebellion, self-centeredness, rejecting what God has revealed in general revelation and what He has declared in special revelation in terms of who we are, where we are, and what the solution is to where we are. And because we’re not where we were made, I think that he picks this word and it’s…I think it’s a brilliant word. And I think so because of my personal life. If you don’t mind, I’m gonna step back just for a moment. I, as I told you, I had a secret life. Outside I did everything mother and daddy told me to do. There wasn’t another option. I can’t even imagine getting up on a Sunday morning and my daddy and mother saying, “Well, what are we gonna do today? Go to a game or go to church?” I knew where we were going. And I can’t imagine them ever getting up and saying to the kids, any of my…me and my three sisters, “Where do y’all think we ought to go to church?” I mean, that was just not a category. So that’s where I was raised, but I rejected it. And yet the gospel was doing its work and covenantal promise and bringing me to Himself. And one of the ways is I had this secret life and then went to college, and the secret life was no longer secret. It got very public very quick.
So by the second year of college, I tell people I made the dean’s list. Unfortunately, it was the wrong dean. The dean of students who was also my baseball coach said, “I’m sorry, baseball’s over and you’re outta here.” Pretty much if you could fog a mirror at East Carolina, you could graduate. But I’ve found a way to flunk out of it. I had a dissipated life. I had a life of rebellion. It was all about me. I mean, Nancy, this is…I always tell people, I’m gonna give you one sentence. I was immoral, violent, ungodly, blasphemous and profane. And, I mean, that’s where I was. And I’ve got in that period of my life, I’ve got weeks I don’t even remember. And I had nothing to do with drugs. It was all alcohol, it was all carousing. And then when I flunked out and I went home and I was headed to the Marine Corps, I was gonna volunteer for the recon. And I remember saying…that people said, well, you know, the casualty rate…who cares? This ain’t worth living anyway because sports, party, I tried everything. And nothing. It was all empty. The next day was terrible and it was just empty. There was a song out at that time by Peggy Lee. The song was “Is That All There Is?” That was my song.
And then I met Cindy and I just had to go to church to date her where I realized here is something with substance. And I just got on my knees one day and said, “Here I am. You ain’t got much, but you got me.” And just gave my life to the Lord. And if you had me to go to one word in the Bible, that was it. He’s got vanity. My word that I kept giving our people is this, it’s shrouded emptiness. It’s emptiness, but it’s shrouded. My illustration is when I was a kid, we didn’t have much. My dad was in minor league baseball, so there’s a lot of month at the end of the money, but I got to go to the county fair, and I’d saved my money for two things. One is the motorcycles that would go around the barrel. I just loved that. And the other was I would get one thing of…I had enough money for one thing of cotton candy. And I’ll never forget, you know, she would do it. I’d say, “Oh, just keep doing it.” She’d do it and do it, smile at me. And then she’d give me that little funnel with all that cotton candy and I’d bite into it. It’s nothing. And I said, that’s what he’s telling you. The life in rebellion against God is sugar coated air. You bite, there’s a moment of sweetness and then it’s nothing but empty. There’s nothing to it. It’s absolute emptiness. And I think that’s what he’s saying with that word. Then he goes on to define it further, striving after the wind, he gives a number of expositions of it.
Guthrie: So when he says life under the sun, it seems clear to me that you’re taking him to be saying life under the sun as opposed to life under God.
Reeder: That’s right.
Guthrie: Or life under the sun in which God is not involved.
Reeder: You have no reference to him at all. But I also think it includes life in a fallen world. It’s a fallen world with your personal fallenness worked out in rebellion.
Guthrie: It seems to me that as a teacher, that’s a very significant foundation stone for teaching the book of Ecclesiastes. Here is this book that God has given His covenant people so they will know how to live in a world that’s under a curse. Because this is you and I too. We’re still living in a world under a curse and there are some things we need to understand about this.
Reeder: And we have still that remnant that keeps wanting to come back and he’s giving you handles to understand what’s coming back, what’s trying to win that remnant of sin, that body of sin that, you know, you’re not…when you’re converted, you’re not living in sin, but you still got sin living in you. Well, he’s giving you some warning points constantly of how the world is appealing to that from the outside and it’s trying to get the attention of that enemy that’s within you.
Guthrie: One of the main topics of the writer of Ecclesiastes is death. Now, there’s a topic that most of our world really doesn’t wanna think about, but it seems to me the writer of Ecclesiastes just over and over again, it’s like he keeps almost taking our head in his hands. He’s saying, look at this, look at this. What is the message of the writer of Ecclesiastes to us in regard to death?
Reeder: When he speaks of death so many times, he works in the fact that those who were dying, even when they are dying, let’s eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you die, they know there’s something else. They know this is not the end. They know it. That’s why that famous texts that gave me one of my evangelistic methods.
I get on a plane and I pray for turbulence. Now, I don’t want a lot. I want just enough to shake the bins a little bit and when that turbulence comes, I’ll turn to the person next to me and I’ll say to them, “Hey, wow, let me ask you something. Do you think there’s a heaven?” I have never had anybody tell me no. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I have never had. I had what turned out to be on a six hour flight across the Atlantic, a young woman next to me who said to me, “Well, yeah, I imagine so.” Now later on she said, “Well, you know, not really. I’m a scientist. I’m a teacher at Oxford. And I don’t believe in that.” I said, “Well then why did you tell me yes? Why was your initial reaction yes?” “Well, I can’t believe in that be a scientist.” I said, “Well, I’ve got news for you. I don’t think you cannot believe in that and be a scientist.” And I said, “So let’s go to work on that,” about six hours, and I ended up giving her Tim Keller’s book Reason For God, and we continued correspondence and got her in touch with a good church there at Oxford. So but I mean, I’ve never had later I’ve had people deny that they said yes and try to convince me I don’t really believe it. But initially they all tell me yes. And then I ask my next question, which I think Ecclesiastes drives toward, well how do you get there? Now, how are you gonna get there? Well, number one, you’re gonna die. And then dare I say the “Heidelberg Catechism,” what is your only hope in life and death? And so I think Ecclesiastes is constantly coming back to this issue of death, dust you came from, dust you return. But yet there is something coming. And so…and that something coming is what ought to be affecting what you’re doing now. And that’s how vanity is brought to vitality.
Guthrie: One of the passages in Ecclesiastes, maybe many people who are familiar with it don’t know it’s from Ecclesiastes.
Reeder: No, they think it’s from Simon and Garfunkel.
Guthrie: Exactly. Is in chapter three, this for everything there is a…
Reeder: Peter, Paul and Mary.
Guthrie: …time and a season. For everything thing, thing, right? I just wondered how you handled that as a teacher. I’ve heard this passage handled a number of different ways. It can’t just be this comforting song because even the very first line, a time to be born, yeah, we like that, a time to die, well, that’s hard news. Nobody wants that time. And it continues on with those kinds of things. Maybe the song helps them a little bit because they’re at least familiar it. But how do we get to the divine author intended message of that passage?
Reeder: So Nancy, I think there’s two things. One is I think that text is there to give you the rhythms of life, that there are rhythms in life. I love a surprise and I love to do a surprise, but I live with regularity. I mean, that’s just me. I am so predictable. It’s like people that tell me, “Pastor, I don’t like liturgy and worship. I believe in free worship.” Well, you let me go to a church that does free worship, let me go three Sundays. On the fourth Sunday, I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen. We are people of rhythm. And I think that’s part of what he’s giving you are the biblical names for the rhythms of life. And so I think that’s number one, what he’s doing. But number two, he is giving you some of these rhythms that you are facing, you have faced and you will face in life. Now, how will you face them? Where will your wisdom come from? Are you gonna live under the sun? Are you going to live under God’s word? How are you going to deal under the light of God’s word or under the darkness that happens when you’ve only got the light of the sun? And I think that’s what he’s doing with that text.
Guthrie: All of the Old Testament, we don’t want to teach it just like they would at the temple down the street, especially the book of Ecclesiastes. Because there’s a sense in which, yeah, it can just…it can leave us hopeless.
Reeder: That’s exactly… I said to myself now, I’ll know all that Nancy’s going to ask me. But when we get there, I mean the preacher is Jesus and how is it that Jesus is communicating to this and how is he using this to bring you to him? So that’s exactly right.
Guthrie: Perhaps if we deal honestly with Ecclesiastes, we have to admit it comes to its limit of wisdom.
Reeder: That’s right. That’s right.
Guthrie: And in fact, he says that at the very end, you know, there is the writing of many books, but it’s like it comes to an end. It reminds me of something I heard Bryan Chapell say years ago that really helped me in understanding the Old Testament. We talked about how so many aspects of the Old Testament, you read through them and you go, not this, not this, not this, and it’s not till you get to the New Testament it’s finally, ah this. Here’s the King who will reign, here’s the prophet we can listen to. And with something like Ecclesiastes, it kind of gets to the end of wisdom and leaves us with a sense of, well, is that the best you got? What we really need is wisdom incarnate. This one who will come and say, “Something greater than Solomon is here.”
Reeder: Yeah, it’s not complete, but it does have the umbilical cord that takes you to Jesus.
Guthrie: Well, let’s just talk about some of the ways we would do that appropriately. I’ll mention two or three passages and you can tell me if you went to these passages or maybe you had some other go-to ones. So certainly the one I just mentioned where Jesus himself says, “Something greater than Solomon.” In other words, there is a wisdom here that is now not just written on tablets, but wisdom incarnate in a person that would be somewhere to go. I would also think about going to 1 Corinthians 15 where it uses this word that’s so much throughout here, this…you use, what did you say? What kind of emptiness? Shrouded emptiness. When he promises that all the work that we do for the Lord is actually will not be in vain. That’d be one I would think about going to.
The other one I would think about going to would be in Romans 8, this passage where it talks about how all of creation was subjected to futility. And whenever I look at that verse, I just have…or use it, I have to look at the audience. When did this happen? And of course, the answer I’m looking for is Genesis 3, at the Fall. Everything was subjected to futility, but then he says in hope, so it was subjected to futility, but from the very beginning there was hope. They would hope that there would be freedom from that futility. So if we think about of Ecclesiastes is a book about futility, seems to me we’ve got one place we might go is Romans 8 to talk about the reality of life lived under a curse is going to be that way until that day. And Romans 8 tells us when that’s gonna happen. It is groaning, waiting for what day…
Reeder: There’s your king.
Guthrie: …for the revelation of the sons of God. In other words, it’s longing and waiting for Jesus’ return for resurrection day, the resurrection of the saints and in fact, the resurrection of all creation. The…finally the lifting of the curse that has made life so miserable, so full of emptiness. Those are kind of my passages where that I think, okay, I wanna bring these somewhere into my teaching Ecclesiastes. So I wonder if you have some thoughts on those and maybe some others.
Reeder: So I’ll start with confession. Two of them, I did, one of them I didn’t and I wished I had, 1 Corinthians 15. But that your work is not in vain and tying that back to Ecclesiastes, that that work is always in vain, but our work even in the vanity of this world is not in vain, but that was my overall emphasis. I just wished I’d have tied it to that text more. And that is that we go from vanity to vitality in Christ. Romans 8, let me start there. You picked word that I was gonna go to and that’s the word groan, it’s there three times. The groaning of the spirit, that’s his ministry right now. Not all of his ministry, but that’s a key part of his ministry. He is groaning for us. As he intercedes for us, he is groaning with words too deep to be uttered. And there is the groaning of your body and then there’s the groaning of creation. And then do exactly what you just said, when did that happen? When was that subjection to futility? Well, it was when God brought the consequences of our sin with the curse and that is subjected everything to futility.
Now, what does that mean? Well, that means, dare I just go ahead and use what Palmer Robertson drilled into me, now, but not yet. Yes, now, we have blessings. What we’re doing counts forever. And we are living in light of the blessings of forever. But by no means ever think this is it. This is not it. And I’m not sure this is exactly the way text should be quoted, but eye is not seen and ear is not heard. And of course, I remember sitting on my grandmother’s lap. Isn’t he wonderful? Isn’t he wonderful? Isn’t Jesus my Lord wonderful? Eye is not seen, ear is not heard what’s recorded in God’s Word. And so, you know, the Word of God is telling you, the Spirit of God within you is bearing witness in this groaning. And your body’s reminding you this… I mean, you can get all the cosmetic surgery you want to, you can nip, tuck, whatever you want to do. But listen, I’m telling you, gravity’s gonna win and the curse is gonna go. You’re going six feet under and you’re not gonna win that battle. And by the way, we don’t try to win that battle. What we try to do is win the battle against the sin that still resides in us and the majesty of what Christ has called us to be and to do. And we wanna kill sin and live into Christ. We wanna put off, we wanna put on. We wanna put off sinful desires, sinful thoughts, sinful words, sinful deeds. We wanna do that because we love our Savior, and we want to do it in anticipation. And dare I now build in the fact that we’re going to appear before a judgment seat. Praise God, my name is not in those books. My name is in the Book of Life. So I’m appearing not for that judgment because Jesus has already appeared for me at the cross, but I am getting another judgment in that day, it’s the judgment of stewardship. And what have I done with what he has given to me? Well, here’s what I know. I get so overwhelmed with this. What I’m doing now is I’m being faithful with 10 minas and then he says to me, I’m gonna you 10 cities. Would you mind telling me what 10 minas invested right, why in the world that would result in 10 cities? When you get to the new heavens and new earth you have no idea of what’s coming and that’s how we live in light of that, as we deal with the vanity and the groaning of this age.
Guthrie: You bring in that now and not yet just made me think about something we would be good to do as teachers when we’re in an Ecclesiastes because I think you and I agree, we recognize this is wisdom for living in a world under a curse. We’re groaning now and that is not gonna be fully relieved until Christ comes and having taken the curse upon himself at the cross. The curse is as we sing about, joy to the world, that his blessing will now flow far as the curse is found. And that’s the day we’re longing for and that we can fully expect between now and then.
Disappointment is gonna be part of life and so many of the things he struggles with in Ecclesiastes, that sense of wow, I worked really hard on that and it didn’t seem to get ahead. It didn’t happen the way I thought it would. And this thing that I thought would bring me satisfaction and joy brought me a little, but, you know, it doesn’t last. Tomorrow I wake up and I want more. And yet we also know this, that for all who are in Christ, the new creation has come. So yes, we’re waiting for it to be fully redeemed and restored. It’s almost like now we can borrow on the future. That’s beginning to grow inside us. It’s taking root and beginning to flower. You and I, because we are in Christ, we have a sense of meaning.
We are being filled with Christ as we dwell in him. We’re discovering things that the preacher struggled with, that our lives are not in vain and that money is not gonna make us happy, but we discover when we invest it in the kingdom, it brings us joy. So it’s out there. We’re never going to be completely satisfied in this life until that day. But we can experience a measure of satisfaction because we are in Christ.
Reeder: Yeah, I’m not gonna be sinless, but I can sin less. And that’s the power of God. Not only I am forgiven of all the shame, but I don’t have to live in sin. I got sin living in me, but I don’t have to live in sin. And that goes to desires, that goes to thoughts, that goes to words, that goes to deeds. And I’ll never have complete victory. Although I think there are things that, I mean, you know, honestly when I got converted, there were certain things that were deeply embedded sins in my life and I was done with them the next day. I tell people there is microwave sanctification, but most of my sanctification has been a crockpot.
Guthrie: It’s a long haul.
Reeder: Yeah. And it’s up and down and up and down, up and down, but there is progress. And I can see it. My downs are not as far down as that used to be. And I always tell people I’m grieved because of what I am, but I rejoice that I’m not what I used to be. This ultimate victory that we have in Christ, we have the fruits of it now and we walk in the triumph of Christ, but we’re still in a broken world. So as I tell people, there’s three things that you gotta translate from Ecclesiastes and vanity into the Christian life informed by the vitality of Christ. And that number one is this, you’re going to get sick. And it’s not always a judgment. And by the way, it’s not always to the glory of God in that sense. You’re in a broken world. We get all of those dynamics of a fallen world except this one. We don’t get the condemning judgments of God that has been taken care of in Christ. And we get a promise. Not that all things are good, we’re in a broken world, but that He’s gonna work all things for good.
So at the death of a 39-year-old woman whose husband was a 40-year-old elder and her fingerprints were all over the children’s ministry at Faith Presbyterian Church and watching how her husband dealt with this, with confidence in the Lord and grief and formed by hope, I said, “I’m empty. They got it.” And I went in that room at knelt and gave my life to Jesus. And he’s the one that told me, “Listen, this isn’t good, but Harry, I wouldn’t bring her back. I wouldn’t bring her back.” Here it is. He said, “Do you know what she has? Why would I be that selfish to bring her back? Secondly, all things worked togeth…God never says all things are good, but all things work together for good. Thirdly, won’t be that much longer. I’ll be there and join it with her.”
And I said, “Man, I have no categories for this.” And I knew I had to get saved. I had to give my life to Jesus, but I just went in that room, knelt down and gave my life to Jesus. Well, I gave that testimony when we planted the church in Charlotte, that God greatly blessed from 38 people, Christ Covenant. My dear friend Kevin DeYoung pastors it now, I gave that testimony and there were four girls that were hiding from me while I was talking in the crowd of about 60 or 70. And so I went…I made a beeline for them afterwards and they all had tears running down their face, gave their life to Jesus. One of them looked at me and said, “I was so mad at God for taking my mom. Now, I see what He’s done in your life, what He’s done through your life. And I realize that’s repeated all over in other ways. And I see that now, I see something. She got a glimpse of the other side.” She said, “Now, I wanna get right with Jesus.” And so I can give you stories about those four wonderful girls. To me, that’s exactly what you were talking about and as a pastor I get to see it so many times. The victory is informing the vanity always and we get taste of it here. We get the downpayment of it here, but this is not it. It’s to come.
And by the way, can I just say, Nancy, I believe what you’re talking about trying to hook this and connect this to Ecclesiastes is so important because I find missing today the preaching of the second coming. I think there’s such a reaction to the prophecy conferences of the old ’60s and ’70s, I think we… A guy had said to me one time, “Well, I don’t wanna be so heavenly minded and I’m no earthly good.” I said, “Listen, till you get heavenly minded, you’re not going to be earthly good.”
Guthrie: The biblical authors, when they are offering us hope, they’re never pointing our eyes in the direction of the here and now. Biblical hope is always centered on resurrection. That is our ultimate great hope.
Reeder: And Ecclesiastes gives you opportunity to…
Guthrie: Oh, so many opportunities.
Reeder: …do that with an honest look at where we are now.
Guthrie: A sober look at life in this world. Not necessarily pessimistic, very realistic. Nobody can read Ecclesiastes and say, “Oh, he’s just being negative.” We all go, “No, that’s the world I live in.”
Reeder: Yeah, there’s so many multifaceted nature of the Christian life, but one of those is we’re in a battle. Now, praise God, we actually fight a battle that the war’s been won. But the picture that the Bible is constantly giving us is I call it D-Day. There’s two great days. D-Day is when Jesus came. And, I tell you, when Jesus went to that cross, Satan’s done. When those boys got up on top of those hills in Normandy, Hitler was done. Now, but it would take another two years hedge row to hedge row, village to village with all kinds of casualties, and that’s where we are. We’ve had D-Day, Jesus has won. We got the victory. Now, we’re going hedge row by hedge row. And here’s a question I would ask your listeners. It’s one… There’s a movie out called “Lone Survivors.” Now, recon guys always take a look to see were their tactics right. Did the Navy SEALs do their tactics right? But I’ll skip that. Here’s the moments I love, the incoming hits them. And they get hit. There’s two questions that they ask and there’s one answer. The question is this, are you hit? Yeah, you’re going to get hit here. Ecclesiastes will remind you there’s incoming and you’re in a broken world. You’re going to get hit. Then comes the next question. Are you still in the fight? And here was their answer. I’m never leaving the fight until I leave. And that’s the way the Christian lives, in the victory of Christ. And we’re gonna get some wonderful victories here, but you got to stay in the fight.
Guthrie: Dr. Reeder, our time is up. I wonder if you would speak directly to those who are listening today. Perhaps they’re preparing to teach the book of Ecclesiastes. They’ve read a number of different sources, they’re thinking, which way am I gonna go? What am I going to do with this? I wonder if you would offer to them a word of challenge and encouragement, speaking directly to them.
Reeder: Wow. Well, first of all, praise the Lord you’re willing to take it on. It just took me almost 40 years to get there. So praise the Lord for you. You’ve got more courage than I had. Secondly, learn from various masters. And let me just speak to you as a pastor. Go do your work with the text, go to the critical commentaries, go to the devotional and you’re good solid commentaries that help you. And then go listen to some good preachers and teachers such as Nancy who have handled the text and see what you can learn from it. Don’t go to those first. If you do, you’re gonna start chewing up their sermons and spitting it out. So go through that process. Bathe all of it with prayer. I think you gotta deal with date and author, not because… I do believe there are two possible statements that you can make within orthodoxy. It’s either Ezra doing a first person sermon of Solomonic material and therefore a later date or it’s Solomon himself. Now, you work on that. Don’t dodge it. Leave room for orthodox discussion on it, but then give your reasons why. And when you do set up a good introductory sermon that people understand where you’re going. This is not Ephesians. This is not Acts. This is wisdom literature and it’s wisdom literature from a man who started great, faltered and I believe repented and came back to the Lord and it’s his material. So stay in it. Deal honestly with the text and then see how it is tethered not only by quotes and recognition in the New Testament, but how it finds its fulfillment in Christ. And he is the preacher, the word incarnate, to bring us to glory and give us spiritual and ultimate vitality in the midst of vanity.
Guthrie: Thank you so much Dr. Reeder.
Reeder: Nancy, not only do I wanna thank you for being here at Briarwood, but I wanna thank you for your ministry. It’s beneficial particularly to our women’s ministry, but way beyond that. And I wanna thank Crossway for giving a venue as well.
Guthrie: You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of the Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible Christian books and tracks, including the Preaching the Word commentary on Ecclesiastes, which I heard Dr. Reeder say in one of his messages that he used by Phillip Ryken, a book that I recently read and really appreciated called “Living Life Backward” by David Gibson. The subtitle is “How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End.” And if you’re leading a small group through the book of Ecclesiastes, you might take a look at the “12-Week Knowing the Bible” study guide written by Justin Holcomb. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.