Expository Sermon on Ecclesiastes
Bellevue SDA Church 9/243/2017
©2017 by Maylan Schurch
To hear the audio for this sermon, delivered by Denise Childs, click the white “play” triangle on the line below.
Please open your Bibles to Ecclesiastes chapter 1.
If you’re following along in the Andrews Study Bible’s reading plan, this was the Old Testament book you read through this past week. If you didn’t read it, and aren’t even sure where it is, Ecclesiastes is right after the book of Proverbs. And it’s just before the book of Song of Solomon.
And if you don’t often read from Ecclesiastes, it’s really no wonder. It’s a strange book. It’s definitely not a book that a newcomer to the Bible should read first. It’s overwhelmingly obvious that the author is a cynical old man who has seen too much of life to be encouraged by it.
Even though the name “Solomon” isn’t mentioned in the book at all, we get some strong clues that Solomon was actually the author. Look at the first verse in the book.
Ecclesiastes 1:1 [NKJV]: The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
When you see the word “preacher,” don’t think of a Bible-thumping Baptist minister. The Hebrew word is probably better translated “teacher” or even “gatherer.”
But this verse gives us two clues about who this “teacher” is – he is a son of David, a son who became king. Solomon also wrote a good part of the book of Proverbs, and sure enough, here in Ecclesiastes you will see little clusters of proverbs – most of them bitterly discouraging. Also, several times this book’s author mentions his obsession with wisdom, and trying to use that wisdom to find things out.
But this book is really quite a “downer.” If this is Solomon, then what happened to the earnest young king who prayed such a wonderful prayer at the dedication of the Temple in Second Chronicles chapter 6?
Well, if you read Solomon’s biography in the first few chapters of First Kings, you’ll see that he didn’t stay true to God the way his father David implored him to. And from all we can tell, he wrote Ecclesiastes toward the end of his life, when he was old and bitter, but trying to find his way back to the God who had blessed him so abundantly in his youth.
But when it comes to including books in the Bible, why keep a slot for Ecclesiastes? I read through this book several times this week, and even read it aloud up to about chapter 8. It’s quite a dizzying read, because Solomon sometimes contradicts himself. In one chapter he’ll say that something is “vanity,” and in a later chapter he will say that it’s good.
Well, since Second Timothy 3:16 says that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” then Ecclesiastes must be useful in some way. And I’ve discovered a few reasons I think this book was allowed into the Bible. Let me tell you what they are, you can see if you agree with me.
Let’s just keep reading here in chapter 1.
Verses 1 – 3: The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” What profit has a man from all his labor In which he toils under the sun?
When I was a kid, my mom had a “vanity” parked against one wall of her and dad’s bedroom. That kind of vanity was, according to the dictionary, “a low table with a mirror at which one sits while applying makeup.” Since my mom was a conservative Wesleyan Methodist, I don’t ever remember her actually applying makeup, but there in her bedroom was her vanity table, which she could use if she had to.
Of course, the Ecclesiastes “vanity” isn’t a piece of furniture. If you’re following along in the Andrews Study Bible, the footnote says that the Hebrew word can probably just as well be translated “meaningless.” And if you’re using our black pew Bible, you’ll see that its footnote gives some other synonyms: “absurdity, frustration, futility, or nonsense.” The Andrews Study Bible footnote on verse two says that this word “vanity” shows up 35 times in Ecclesiastes, and only one time anywhere else in the Old Testament.
So, what side of the bed did Solomon get up on, the morning he wrote that? This is a man with an extremely gloomy mood. This is a guy who doesn’t seem to be able to find something positive to say about anything.
I mean, didn’t he ever learn his own father’s 23rd Psalm? Doesn’t he remember the first verse of Psalm 40 – “I waited patiently for the Lord, and he inclined to me and heard my cry”? Didn’t he read the last couple of verses of any of David’s “discouraged” Psalms? Because no matter how he began those Psalms, David pretty much always ended them on a positive note.
But even in these first two verses of Ecclesiastes, I can find our first sermon point. Why Ecclesiastes? What value can this Bible book have for us? If you’re taking sermon notes, here comes what you could call Sermon Point One:
Ecclesiastes reminds me that God can handle my bitterness.
As I read through Ecclesiastes this week, it struck me that no other Bible writer seemed to be so far away from God. It’s like Solomon is suspiciously watching God from a distance, not certain what God will do next. As you go through this book, it seems as though Solomon is a returning believer. Certainly he was a wholehearted follower of God in his younger days. His prayers back then showed him to be someone who could trust God. But now he seems cautious and cranky.
But God seems to be able to handle bitterness, because He allowed this book in the Bible. Other Bible stories show that God has broad shoulders when it comes to human depression and discouragement.
After a lifetime of trusting God and accomplishing great things for Him, the prophet Elijah went into a terrible depression in First Kings chapter 19. An angel from God shows up, and rather than lecturing Elijah, exhorting him to remember all the times God was good to him, instead, the angel simply fixes him a meal and lets him get some more sleep. And later, when Elijah is hiding in a cave, God speaks to him not in loud tones of rebuke but in a still, small voice. And then God puts the prophet to work doing a relatively simple task.
Why is it good to remember that God can handle bitterness? Because every Christian goes through times of gloom once in a while.
God longs to guide us into a happier mood, such as Paul’s, when he says “Rejoice,” and “in everything give thanks.” But God does not abandon the discouraged. He doesn’t try to argue us out of our discouragement, and He frowns on other human beings who try to do this. Remember how angry He was at the clumsy comfort Job’s clueless three friends tried to offer?
So the next time you are in a period of discouragement, remember – Ecclesiastes reminds us that God can handle bitterness, and stays with us all through the gloom.
Now let’s find what I believe is the next powerful truth Ecclesiastes can teach us.
Ecclesiastes 2:17 – 23: Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind. Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will rule over all my labor in which I toiled and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity. Therefore I turned my heart and despaired of all the labor in which I had toiled under the sun. For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; yet he must leave his heritage to a man who has not labored for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity.
This is one depressed monarch, isn’t it? However, I think he has just given us Sermon Point Two.
Not only does Ecclesiastes remind me that God can handle my bitterness, but Ecclesiastes also reminds me not to take myself or my possessions or my career too seriously.
Sure, careers are important, and even possessions are important. They give us enjoyment, and they help us be of service to other people. But my value does not come from what, or how much, I own. My value does not come from what I do as a career. I have a bachelors and masters degree in education, and I was planning to spend 45 years teaching English at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. But the Lord had other plans for me, and sent me off to seminary, and here I am.
And I suppose I could get all gloomy and morose, and grouse about how I wasted all that time learning to teach literature and composition. But I don’t. I grew up with a mother and father who didn’t obsess about what might have been. They just woke up every day and moved forward through the work they had to do, and left the future to the Lord.
Put some kind of a marker here in Ecclesiastes, because we’ll be back in a few seconds. Turn to Philippians chapter 4, where Paul will make this point in far more positive prose than Solomon did.
What’s happening here in Philippians 4 is that Paul is thanking the Christians at Philippi for an offering they have sent him to cover his expenses. Notice how he expresses his attitude.
Philippians 4:10 – 13: But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
And while we’re here in Philippians, turn back to Chapter 2. Paul is going to show us the truest example of how to not take yourself, or anything you do or have, too seriously:
Philippians 2:5 – 9: Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name . . . .
Time and time again during His own ministry, Jesus reminded His disciples to not jockey for the top spot, the highest position, the corner office. Let the Lord handle these things, was His advice. He urged His followers to be humble, and the Lord would exalt them when the time was right. And He also warned that the proud would be humbled.
So what do I do, now that I know this? Maybe we should do what I did, yesterday afternoon, as I was typing out this part of the sermon. I paused, and looked around me at all my books, my Bible reference works, my scuffed but beloved guitar, and I thought to myself, “Which of these would be hardest to give up? Which of these things, if they were taken from me, would get me depressed?”
I know I’ve told you the story about burglars who broke into our house in Mill Creek and stole several things from us, including the beautiful semi hollow body Gibson electric guitar that I’ve used in a singing group with my brother and two sisters during the 70s. When I bought another guitar to replace it – which is the guitar I have now – I kept it zipped up in its case, and carried it around in my car trunk for a couple of weeks. I was that paranoid. (This had been our second burglary.)
But finally I said to myself, “Wait a minute. This guitar is really nothing but wood and wire. Eventually, if there is still anything left of it at the end of the millennium, it’s going to be incinerated along with everything else.” So I hauled that guitar back into the house, and stopped being paranoid.
This is what is so wonderful about God’s promises to give us a happy heavenly home. In one of Solomon’s non-depressed moments, he wrote a very significant verse here in Ecclesiastes. Let’s take a look at it.
Ecclesiastes 3:11: He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts . . . .
The first part of what I’ve just read is nice. But I am especially intrigued by the second sentence: “He has put eternity in their hearts.”
What makes this so interesting to me is that you and I were designed to live forever. Our minds were designed to be perfectly comfortable staying alive for centuries and centuries. Our minds have the capacity to enjoy being alive, and to retain memories. If I were to lead you in one of the little choruses you sang ‘way back in your Sabbath school cradle roll or kindergarten classes, you would probably be able to sing right along with me even though it’s been years since you last sang that song.
So what’s my point? God has created us for eternity. If we will humble ourselves and turn our hearts fully toward Him, we will make Him deliriously happy, and He will prepare us for that time when time will essentially evaporate.
I can imagine, in heaven after a few centuries, asking each other how old we are.
“How old are you?” I will ask somebody from Ellen White’s time.
“What do you mean, how old am I?” he will respond. “Do you mean how old I was when I died?”
“Right, but then add those years to the years since then,” I ask.
He will concentrate for a bit, and maybe get a piece of paper to do the adding, and he’ll tell me.
But after a while, you see, that will really be a silly little exercise to go through. True, Isaiah tells us that from week to week we will celebrate the Sabbath in God’s presence, but otherwise, who needs calendars, or watches? Gradually we will all relax, and learn to savor each moment, and each bird, and each butterfly.
Yesterday morning on a walk, Shelley and I saw a pileated woodpecker with his beautiful red crown. And then we saw a little white butterfly, bucking a headwind as it was looking for a flower to land on. Both of these beautiful little creations hurried away as we came close, but it won’t be like that in heaven. The pileated woodpeckers will land on our fingers, and the butterflies will land on our noses.
Won’t that be a joyful soul-healing time?
I know there are probably many, many other things which the unusual book of Ecclesiastes can teach us, but let’s look at just one more.
Ecclesiastes 4:7 – 12: Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun: There is one alone, without companion: He has neither son nor brother. Yet there is no end to all his labors, Nor is his eye satisfied with riches. But he never asks, “For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?” This also is vanity and a grave misfortune. Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; But how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Solomon does not seem to be talking about marriage here. In fact, from some of the things he says about women in this book, you get the strong impression that he had pretty much “had it up to here” with marriage.
Instead, he seems to be talking about people who are trying to survive while living a solitary life. Here’s our last sermon point.
Not only does Ecclesiastes remind me that God can handle my bitterness, and not to take myself or my possessions or my career too seriously, but Ecclesiastes reminds me not to try to “go it alone.”
We all have different personalities. Several years ago the conference invited any pastor who wanted to, to come up to a two day prayer retreat at Sunset Lake Camp. They told us there would be times of group gathering, and times when we be by ourselves to meditate or pray.
So I went up there, and I had a wonderful time. I liked being with the other pastors, but I liked better the opportunity of just wondering up and down the hills and being by myself. At one point I walked up to the old restroom in the old section of cabins, and there I found another pastor. “Isn’t this great?” I asked him. “All this quiet time and wandering around the hills?”
“I hate it!” he said passionately. “It’s too quiet! There’s nobody to talk to!” And he held me there in conversation for as long as he could. He wanted to talk, and I wanted to get back to wandering the hills!
So we all have different personality types. But we all need people. Some of us need people for longer periods of time than others of us. But we all need people.
That’s why you made the right choice today to gather with people. And if you came to one of our Sabbath school classes, even better. I was reading recently about the amazing success of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. The person who was writing the article about them tended to have a cynical attitude about most things – something like the older Solomon whose words we’ve been reading – but that writer insisted that the Alcoholics Anonymous plan worked wonderfully. And it was because people were expected to come, and gather in the circle, and encourage each other, and learn from each other, and support each other.
Because in God’s eyes, we are all family. And He is our Father. Jesus called Him nothing else but “Father” in the four gospels. Sometimes He would call God “Father,” and sometimes “your Father.” And when He prayed, He began with “Our Father.”
It was God the Father who made us a wonderful world, and who at the right time will give us a wonderful “new heavens and a new earth.” And even though our closing song was written about this world, imagine how fun it will be to sing it in the earth made new!
Let’s stand and sing it together – “This is My Father’s World,” number 92.