On Sunday at The Fellowship, we will begin a new sermon series on Ecclesiastes. We are using “If Only…” as the title of the series. It is a fascinating process to study any book of the Bible, and the Wisdom Literature holds its own unique characteristics. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are not like preaching from the teaching of the New Testament epistles or the Old Testament historical books. Instead, they are poetical, meandering, and mysterious. Here are a few things I’m keeping in mind as I study for preaching on Ecclesiastes.
It is hard. It is hard to outline; if not impossible. I’ve not yet found two commentaries that agree on how to exactly outline the book. Additionally, there are numerous words and phrases that are rarely used in the rest of scripture. We plan to preach it thematically, but it’s hard to land on the right number of defined themes. And then don’t even get me started on what to do about the Proverbs-like chapter seven. The book simply requires one to lean in, pick a sermonic direction, and plow.
It is an apologetic for our day. Looking around the world in which I live, it seems like we’re all still living in the book of Ecclesiastes. But then again, it has been an apologetic for every era. After all, nothing is new under the sun. People will relate to the Teacher’s journey in his search for meaning in the midst of a culture that deifies excess.
I need to stop saying that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. Speaking of the Teacher… The best research I’ve found has walked away from the idea that Solomon is the author of the book. Tradition has attributed to authorship to King Solomon. However, linguistic, historical context, and several other variables points to an anonymous author who looks at life through a Solomon-life-like lens.
Translating hebel is odd. In the second verse of the book, it says (according to the HCSB): “Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” The Hebrew word translated as “futility” is hebel. Of all of its appearances in the Old Testament, about half are found in Ecclesiastes. Various translations use words such as “meaningless” (NIV and NLT) and “vanity” (ESV, NASB, and KJV). The ever-fascinating paraphrase The Message reads, “Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.] There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.” It is an odd word that has a rich meaning (like many Hebrew words). At first I was frustrated with trying to nail down a literal translation I liked. Instead, I’ve embraced how the word dances around in one spot to help me feel its meaning.
Study and teach with eternity in mind. It is the whole point of the book. We live with the next moment in mind. God is drawing us into a life that sees with the lens of eternity. As you teach, lift the eyes and hearts of people off of the monotony of life and into the adventure of God’s grace.
Like many believers around the world, I am horrified at the persecution of Christians in Iraq. It is a sobering moment to realize that the type of persecution I’ve read about so many times in the Book of Acts is happening in our day. Even our Lord Jesus spoke of the reality and the blessing that He will give to those who suffer for the faith.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matthew 5:10–12
As I’ve pondered it all, here are five things that we can do about the persecution of the church in Iraq.
1. Be informed. There are a multitude of news agencies carrying the details of what is happening in Iraq and specifically in Mosul. My caution is to be careful as to what you read and watch. In our day of 24-hours news reporting, anyone with a computer can post information to the Internet. Stick to trustworthy news sources and stay informed. I am watching some of the traditional news sources: Open Doors, The Voice of the Martyrs, and the International Mission Board.
2. Use your influence. Many of us believe we have little influence when that is really not the case. You have influence with governmental leaders through a simple phone call. You have influence through your social media accounts of Facebook, Twitter, and all the like. You have influence with friends to make them aware and engage them into the work. Use what you have.
3. Give. There are many organizations that are mobilizing right now to get relief aid to believers under persecution. It will continue to be difficult (and dangerous) to get supplies to the believers in Iraq. Nevertheless, those of us with much must be ready to give to those in the church that have little.
4. If you are called, go. But only if you are called. We do not need anyone with a hero or martyr complex to run off to the border of Iraq thinking that they are going to sneak in and save the day. Instead, if you feel a sure and certain calling from the Lord, answer it. As we are witnessing a renewal of New Testament-era persecution, the Lord will call those from among His church to do His work to care for His people.
5. Pray. It is the most powerful thing we can do. Together we must cry out to our Heavenly Father. Ask Him to intervene on behalf of our brothers and sisters in the faith.
I am unable to fully communicate my horror at it all. It all drives me back to an understanding that this world is terribly broken and that people are horribly fallen. But I know that Christ is able to keep those who belong to Him and will deliver them into His eternal presence.
In our hectic world of go, Go, GO!… it seems difficult to simply find time to sit down and think. In my own life over the last few months, I have felt the pressure of three different jobs, being overrun with the need to produce content (which I have not), and not abandon my family in the process.
Oftentimes, I do not have time to sit and think simply because I overcommit. Being a publishing director for LifeWay is my full-time job. Being a teaching pastor and elder of The Fellowship is my bivocational ministry. This summer, teaching Christian Leadership as an adjunct professor for Union University has been an addition to it all. So, when you are busy… and we’re all busy… we need principles we hold to in order to simply think, dream, and strategize.
With some of my team, I recently shared seven ways that I am trying to implement more brain time into my life. Here they are:
1. Make it part of your job. “Thinking is necessary for your job” seems like a silly statement, but it’s a necessary one. Otherwise, we simply complete tasks non-stop and never come up with a new idea.
2. First things first. Don’t allow the menial tasks of the day to take precedence over the opportunity to see ahead, hear what’s really going on, and think through priorities.
3. Reframe circumstances by asking “Why?” five times. Work is never done in a vacuum. When we experience success or failure, we need to know what contribute to either. Asking “why” at least five times will show you the context, circumstances, and contributing factors as to how you got to the end result.
4. Create a “thinking hour.” The concept comes from this article by Scott Young. He encourages one hour per week. It should be doable, but I try to do it every other week. You have to schedule it and keep it on your schedule.
5. Hibernate. Multitasking is one of the great enemies of thought. If you need to put in some brain time, close down email, power off your cell phone, and shut out the world for a time.
6. Get moving. Physical activity often provokes new thinking. Simply take a walk around the building or around the block. Give your physical vision, hearing, and other senses a workout so your brain can reframe what you need to dwell on.
7. Have loose & tight goals. If you set aside time to think, have an idea about what you’re thinking about. I encourage our team to know the difference between daydreaming and strategy. We need both. Go into your thinking time with a view of which you need at the moment.
During my last message of the “Real Questions People Ask” series, I ended it by teaching about the Bible itself. In the final moments of the message, I gave a quick tour of how God reveals Himself in every book of the Bible. Several have asked for it, so here you go.
Genesis – Creator & promised Redeemer
Exodus – the Passover Lamb
Leviticus – High Priest
Numbers – water in the desert
Deuteronomy – He becomes the curse for us
Joshua – Commander of the army of the Lord
Judges – delivers us from injustice
Ruth – our Kinsman-Redeemer
1 Samuel – all in one, He is the Prophet/Priest/King
2 Samuel – King of grace & love
1 Kings – a Ruler greater than Solomon
2 Kings – the powerful prophet
1 Chronicles – Son of David that is coming to rule
2 Chronicles – the King who reigns eternally
Ezra – Priest proclaiming freedom
Nehemiah – the One who restores what is broken down
Esther – Protector of his people
Job – Mediator between God and man
Psalms – our song in the morning and in the night
Proverbs – our wisdom
Ecclesiastes – our meaning for life
Song of Solomon – Author of faithful love
Isaiah – Suffering Servant
Jeremiah – the weeping Messiah
Lamentations – He assumes God’s wrath for us
Ezekiel – Son of Man
Daniel – the stranger in the fire with us
Hosea – faithful husband even when we run away
Joel – He is sending His Spirit to His people
Amos – delivers justice to the oppressed
Obadiah – Judge of those who do evil
Jonah – the greatest missionary
Micah – He casts our sin into the sea of forgetfulness
Nahum – proclaims future world peace we cannot even imagine
Habakkuk – crushes injustice
Zephaniah – the Warrior who saves
Haggai – restores our worship
Zechariah – prophesies a Messiah pierced for us
Malachi – sun of righteousness who brings healing
Matthew – the Messiah who is King
Mark – the Messiah who is a Servant
Luke – the Messiah who is a Deliverer
John – the Messiah who is a God in the flesh
Acts – the Spirit who dwells in His people
Romans – the righteousness of God
1 Corinthians – the power and love of God
2 Corinthians – He is the down payment of what’s to come
Galatians – He is our very life
Ephesians – the unity of our church
Philippians – the joy of our life
Colossians – holds the supreme position in all things
1 Thessalonians – our comfort in the last days
2 Thessalonians – our returning King
1 Timothy – Savior of the worst sinners
2 Timothy – leader of the leaders
Titus – foundation of truth
Philemon – our Mediator
Hebrews – our High Priest
James – He matures our faith
1 Peter – our hope in times of suffering
2 Peter – the One who guards us from false teaching
1 John – source of all fellowship
2 John – God in the flesh
3 John – source of all truth
Jude – protects us from stumbling
Revelation – King of Kings and Lord of Lords,
The Alpha and the Omega,
The Beginning and the End, and
He is coming again and the One who makes all things new.
Philip Nation is the adult ministry publishing director for LifeWay Christian Resources. He earned a master of divinity from Beeson Divinity School and a doctor of ministry from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as teaching pastor for the The Fellowship, a multisite church in Nashville, Tennessee.
His works include Compelled: Living the Mission of God and Transformational Discipleship: How People Really Grow. He is also the general editor of The Mission of God Study Bible. Along the way, he has written the small-group studies Compelled by Love: The Journey to Missional Living and Live in the Word, plus contributed to The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Lifetime.