Topical Sermon on Ecclesiastes
by Maylan Schurch
Bellevue Seventh-day Adventist Church 7/30/2022
©2022 by Maylan Schurch
To watch this entire worship service, click this link:
Please open your Bibles to First Kings chapter 3.
Some of you might be blinking in surprise. “Hey, wait a minute,” you might be saying. “I thought we were going to be looking at Ecclesiastes.”
We definitely are. But since Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, and since Ecclesiastes is one of the Bible’s strangest and apparently most un-Bible-sounding books, we need to review a bit about the author.
(By the way, partly because I have a lot of sermon material, and partly because it’s a bit warm in here, I’m going to do Part 1 of this sermon right now, and save the other part for next Sabbath. So if you’re taking sermon notes, you’ll be writing down two sermon points today, and two more a week from today.)
I found Ecclesiastes quite a challenge over the last couple of weeks. I was reading it, of course, because it’s my job to bring a portion of the Bible to you each week and to preach about it, and try to draw courage and comfort and instruction from it.
But to me, this book was kind of frustrating. One of the things that jolted me was that more than once, Solomon would be talking along, expressing some positive virtue or worthwhile idea, and suddenly he would say “This also is striving after vanity and win.” It was like he was jerking the rug out from under the reader’s feet! So I learned to be cautious about putting my weight down on what he was saying until I could see where he was going with it.
I think I read through Ecclesiastes 3 times in the New King James, and once in the NIV, and looked up some Hebrew words. But for awhile. I was saying to myself, “How on earth am I going to bring anything sermonic out of this, which takes the whole book into account?”
And suddenly I found a way. Of course, Ecclesiastes can be approached in several different ways, and there are a lot of sermons which could be created from this book, and have been. But to lay the groundwork for the way I found, we need to briefly review Solomon’s life story. And we do that by starting in First Kings chapter 3.
Solomon is still a young king. Just after he was anointed to the position, he had to do a bit of cleanup, defeating traitors and saboteurs even within his own family. And now, watch what happens.
1 Kings 3:1 – 5 NKJV: Now Solomon made a treaty with Pharaoh king of Egypt, and married Pharaoh’s daughter; then he brought her to the City of David until he had finished building his own house, and the house of the LORD, and the wall all around Jerusalem. Meanwhile the people sacrificed at the high places, because there was no house built for the name of the LORD until those days. And Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David, except that he sacrificed and burned incense at the high places. Now the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place: Solomon offered a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask! What shall I give you?”
I don’t know if this story made it into the flannel boards and the children’s Sabbath school classes, but you probably know it well. And you know how Solomon answered. Play close attention to what Solomon says, because I think it is a major key which unlocks Ecclesiastes.
Verses 5 – 9: At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask! What shall I give you?” And Solomon said: “You have shown great mercy to Your servant David my father, because he walked before You in truth, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart with You; You have continued this great kindness for him, and You have given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day. Now, O LORD my God, You have made Your servant king instead of my father David, but I am a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And Your servant is in the midst of Your people whom You have chosen, a great people, too numerous to be numbered or counted. Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?
Did you catch Solomon’s main request of the Lord? “Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart . . . .”
And God likes Solomon’ answer. He likes this “heart” talk. Notice how He responds:
Verses 10 – 12: The speech pleased the LORD, that Solomon had asked this thing. Then God said to him: “Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked long life for yourself, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern justice, behold, I have done according to your words; see, I have given you a wise and understanding heart, so that there has not been anyone like you before you, nor shall any like you arise after you.”
You see what happened? Solomon asked for an understanding heart, and God said, “Good man! You’ve got it! I just gave it to you!”
And they all lived happily ever after, right? Not really. Sure, Solomon has some triumphs. He builds a glorious temple. He shrewdly and accurately decides a difficult child custody case. The Queen of Sheba visits him and gives him highest praise.
But notice what happened by the time we get to First Kings chapter 11.
1 Kings 11:1 – 4: But King Solomon loved many foreign women, as well as the daughter of Pharaoh: women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites—from the nations of whom the LORD had said to the children of Israel, “You shall not intermarry with them, nor they with you. Surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David.
Did you see that? God gave him an understanding heart, and all his intermarriages turned away his heart, and then he had a disloyal heart.
That’s why I’ve called this sermon “Heart Dialogue.” In fact, it fits perfectly with my general overall theme through the year – finding the heart of God. God gave Solomon a heart like his – as much as any human’s heart can reflect God’s heart. But Solomon allowed his heart to be turned away. (By the way, did you know that the word “heart” shows up in Ecclesiastes about as many times as the word “vanity”? Solomon is always saying, “I communed with my heart,” or “I thought in my heart.” Ecclesiastes is a “heart” book just as much as it is a “vanity” book.)
And now, let’s turn to Ecclesiastes chapter 1. I believe that this book begins with Solomon describing how he tried to reclaim the heart God started him off with.
I was just so delighted with all of your responses to my question about what you thought as you read through Ecclesiastes. If I’m counting correctly, nine people have responded (one this morning). I didn’t look at any of the comments until I did my own outline. I’m am going to quote something from everybody. (But not all of them today, because this is going to be a two-part sermon. I’ll do the second half next Sabbath. So if you sent me an Ecclesiastes response, if you’re not quoted this week, you will be next week.)
And I’m going to start with a paragraph from what Robert Howson has to say, that seems to fit right here.
ROBERT HOWSON WRITES: “I believe the writer, presumably Solomon, had gone through some encounter with reality that brought him face to face with his own humanity, and hence his own finite condition. No matter what abilities or qualifications he brought to the table he was reduced to the reality that like everyone else, he was finite. Simply put, he, just like a dog or cat, was subject to death. This apparently was a new awakening to one who had grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth, who had been blessed with super-intelligence and discernment. Now he was placed on a level playing field with everyone else on the human team. What a rude awakening.”
I think this is a great summary of where Solomon must have been at, as he was writing and compiling Ecclesiastes. I think what we’re about to read lets us know what he’s thinking right here at the start.
Ecclesiastes 1:1 – 11: 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? One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, And hastens to the place where it arose. The wind goes toward the south, And turns around to the north; The wind whirls about continually, And comes again on its circuit. All the rivers run into the sea, Yet the sea is not full; To the place from which the rivers come, There they return again. All things are full of labor; Man cannot express it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, “See, this is new”? It has already been in ancient times before us. There is no remembrance of former things, Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come By those who will come after.
One of the delights of your Ecclesiastes email responses was that sometimes they were different from my own perceptions. This has made me step back and take a second look at what I was assuming. I had taken the position that in this book, Solomon was sometimes a grumpy guy, like in this first chapter. Or at least cynical, if not grumpy.
However, couple of you didn’t see it that way. For example, Ritchie Hammen wrote the following:
“ . . . Ecclesiastes reduces all the overcomplicated micromanaging we do in life down to the minimalistic essentials. I used to believe that Ecclesiastes was a grumpy and negative book, but I recently read it again and had an in-depth conversation with one of my No Excuses Project instructors about it. We both agreed that Solomon is not being negative, but actually is being quite positive and is accurately defining what life is (both with and without God), and is describing a calm realization that we are not in control. [Ecclesiastes is] . . . an honest recognition that we can fight and try all we want, but at the end of the day (or life), there are only a few simple things that matter. These are ones we lost in Eden, and we’ve been clawing our way with systems and processes to get back there.”
Now let’s discover what “turned me on” to the “heart dialogue” theme. Remember, Solomon was given an understanding heart, but he allowed that heart to be turned away by the idolatry of those close to him, so that he developed a disloyal heart.
Verses 12 – 17: I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, And what is lacking cannot be numbered. I communed with my heart, saying, “Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge.” And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind.
So Solomon is beginning his “heart dialogue,” and I believe he is trying to reclaim the heart that he allowed to be turned away to idolatry.
In fact, if you’re taking sermon notes, let’s lay down Sermon Point One. As I say, Solomon’s heart had turned disloyal. Let’s look at a first problem with a disloyal heart.
A disloyal heart can turn hopelessly discouraged.
I believe that at this point Solomon is discouraged, or at least is writing about a time when he was discouraged. (My first title for this sermon was “Man Hits Wall.”) I mean, even Job wasn’t as down in the mouth and “all is utterly useless” is Solomon was here. Again, it could be that Solomon is writing this at a later time, when he got his courage and loyalty back, but he sure doesn’t sound as though he is sugar-coating his personal discouragement, whenever that happened. It’s just relentless.
Yet all through the Bible, courage rings out from the voices and the actions of those whose hearts are cast down. Even Jesus, in Gethsemane, dealt with His utter discouragement not by communing with His own heart, as Solomon describes here, but by calling out to His Father and submitting His will to Him.
So what should I do, now that I’ve been reminded that a disloyal heart can become hopelessly discouraged? I need to diagnose my own heart – which means asking the Holy Spirit to diagnose it — and say, like Solomon’s dad said in Psalm 139:23 – 24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.”
And I need to consider whether what happening to me is what happened to Solomon. Has my heart turned disloyal in some way? If that’s what has happened, hopeless discouragement might be a symptom. (Keep in mind, of course, that there is such a thing as clinical depression, which needs to be treated medically. So factor that in as well, and get that kind of help if you need it.)
As John Skiggn said in his Ecclesiastes response: “We need to keep our eyes on Jesus as we go through life, for He is the only reason that gives meaning to life.”
Now let’s look at something else a disloyal heart might do to us, and how we can reverse this. Let’s start with verse 16:
Verses 1:16 – 2:11: I communed with my heart, saying, “Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge.” And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind. For in much wisdom is much grief, And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure”; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter—“Madness!”; and of mirth, “What does it accomplish?” I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives. I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove. I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds. So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, For my heart rejoiced in all my labor; And this was my reward from all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done And on the labor in which I had toiled; And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.
Here comes Sermon Point Two.
A disloyal heart can turn hopelessly discouraged, and a disloyal heart can turn pleasure-obsessed.
Again, we’re assuming Solomon is writing later, reflecting on what had happened to him.
But it’s strange to see what has happened to him. We know that God at first gave him an understanding heart, and then as time went along Solomon allowed his heart to be turned aside from God – to become a disloyal heart.
And if you look through the Bible, you will find that a lot of people who turn their hearts away from God seem to develop an obsession with living life to the full, with hungering after pleasure. It happened at Mount Sinai, in Exodus 32. Moses climbed that mountain to receive hard-copies of the commandments God had spoken with His own voice. Moses is gone a little over a month, so the people pressure Aaron to create a golden calf for them to worship.
And what do the people do then? Do they bow down thoughtfully and humbly to the golden calf, and then go back to their tents quietly reflecting on the deeper spiritual insights they have learned during their calf-worship?
No, they throw a party, a party which – since it probably reflected the idolatrous orgies they had seen back in Egypt – was a debauched and sensual one.
There seems to be something about a disloyal heart which becomes obsessed with pleasure. At least that’s what happened to Solomon.
Another example, this time in the New Testament. Paul wrote to young Pastor Timothy about the same problem. In 2 Timothy 3:1, he starts listing some of the qualities of the God-ignoring people of earth’s last days: “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God . . . .” (2 Timothy 3:1 – 5)
Solomon doesn’t seem to have plunged into disloyalty nearly this far, but he definitely admits to being a pleasure-lover.
MARTHA HAMMEN WRITES: “What I see when I read [Ecclesiastes], it’s a man, so wise, that he tried everything on this earth, and remember, a sinful and not even close to perfect world, and he being so rich and so wise and so powerful, tried IT ALL, tasted ALL, experienced ALL and because he had such wisdom, he realized that nothing he tried filled “the hole”, or made him fulfilled. He really saw how everything you could say was the best the world had to offer, meant nothing, did nothing for him. I think some day when we get to heaven we might see it like him.
“And I believe he is right (and I am not depressed or bitter) nothing we do on this earth will ever fulfill us or make us really whole, because this world as is, was not God’s dream for us. He, [Solomon] I think, in his wisdom and the things he learned as he tried it all, SAW, something really revealing, big, profound and very true. He, to me, had an amazing revelation of Truth, he saw the real reality of what this world has to offer us: NOTHING. We are here and we have to live and do and make… so someday we can see and experience the real reality because now we see in part.”
Martha makes some excellent points. What’s wrong with that obsession with pleasure? One thing is that this pleasure-obsession puts me first. I become the center and the ruler of my world. I focus on myself, and if that means using and misusing and defrauding and robbing other people to gratify my desires, so be it.
I think this is another area in which we need to diagnose ourselves. I think we need to take an inventory of what pleasures we are seeking, and what motives we are using to seek them. God gave us the ability to feel pleasure, but as a Christian matures, he or she will discover better pleasures than ever.
When I was a child in South Dakota, I craved chicken legs, beef liver, the occasional steak, Rocky Road ice cream, Eskimo pies, licorice, and all sorts of other things. But now, using seasonings my mother knew nothing about, Shelley prepares me breathtaking vegan meal after breathtaking vegan meal, and I realize that I didn’t know what food pleasure was, back in the day.
If I’m suspecting that if I have the same kind of pleasure-obsession that Solomon did (though maybe not all the money he had to make his dreams come true), I need to remember that (as Martha says) Solomon himself pronounced upon it the verdict of “vanity.”
And I need to ask the Lord to re-tune my heart to the pleasures of heaven, which will dazzle us with joy once we become accustomed to them.
As I say, next week we’re going to have one more sermon on Ecclesiastes, so if you haven’t read through the book yet, you have another chance.
But now we’re going to sing a hymn of praise to God. It’s going to describe Him in well-crafted poetry. I’m going to ask Carolyn to play it more slowly than it’s usually played, so we can savor the words.
And as we ponder the words, and then sing them, let’s open our hearts to a deepening dialogue with its Creator, so we can welcome Him more fully into our lives.
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great Name we praise.
Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, Thou rulest in might;
Thy justice, like mountains, high soaring above
Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.
To all, life Thou givest, to both great and small;
In all life Thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish – but naught changeth Thee.
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
All praise we would render; O help us to see
‘Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee!