Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, featuring Tom Hanks as Captain Miller. In the movie, Captain Miller is charged with the responsibility of finding paratrooper Private James Ryan and returning him to his family who had already lost three sons during World War 2. The movie, which won seven Academy Awards, invests several minutes depicting the landing on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, as a part of the Normandy Invasion. The cinematography is graphic and uncomfortable. It is my understanding that its portrayal is authentic. But what if the movie stopped there, with no certain outcome?
That is the challenge that comes with preaching from the Book of Ecclesiastes. By nature, both preacher and congregations look for sermons that conclude with the certain outcome of hope. We can endure the challenges of unfortunate reality so long as we know that within twenty minutes we get to the “happily ever after.” But Ecclesiastes isn’t written in a series of undulations that ebb and flow. With the exception of two verses in chapter 12, the picture that Qoheleth paints is bleak and depressing. Perhaps the ultimate “vanity of vanities” is one’s attempt to preach a verse by verse exposition from Ecclesiastes.
How, then, does one responsibly and faithfully preach from Ecclesiastes? Having preached verse by verse through the book in four of the congregations I’ve served, I offer the following suggestions.
- Remember that Ecclesiastes is geared to mature audiences who have lived long enough to be on a first name basis with disappointment and adversity. While college students may enjoy the philosophical discussion of the book in small group studies, those who best relate to the book are those who have been kicked in the teeth a few times. If the dating of Ecclesiastes is post-exilic, the original audience would have be those who have returned from captivity and trying to make sense of it.
- Remember that Ecclesiastes is one unit of thought. To extract popular passages such as 3:1-12 or 12:1-7 as stand alone texts misses the deeper intent of the author. The context of each section and its relationship to the rest of the sections matters.
- Remember that Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature, so like the Book of Job, the preacher needs to be especially aware of literary devices such as hyperbole and cynicism. Much of Ecclesiastes is descriptive, not prescriptive.
- Remember to do your homework. The good news is that there are good resources available to help you in your sermon preparation. The bad news is that there aren’t a ton of them. Trempor Longman III, Pete Enns, Derek Kidner, Duane Garrett, and Iain Provan have each produced balanced works on Ecclesiastes that should grace your library, along with several reliable English translations. Faithful study will help you develop a balanced interpretation and add clarity to your communication as you preach.
- Remember to use the “whole counsel of God.” Ecclesiastes is in the Bible, but so are 65 other books. At the end of the day we have access to each of those as we help our listeners navigate life’s absurdities. I do think there is value, however, in letting the listeners have time to really grapple with the thoughts and emotions contained in the book. We are far more comfortable looking at the dangerous reptile behind glass than we are in the wild. But when in the wild, we are more alert and not as nonchalant. When we struggle with our uncertainties we become more open to being humble enough to actually have hope.
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