Summary: First of a a series from Ecclesiastes. This is an introduction to the book.
Several years ago, Donald Miller wrote a popular book titled Blue Like Jazz. I haven’t read the book, but I was intrigued by the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book:
I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way. I used to not like God because God doesn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.
Perhaps the author of Ecclesiastes could have written a similar introduction to his book. I’m not sure how many of us have the guts to admit that often God doesn’t resolve. Deep down inside I think we all sense that is true, but we really have a hard time figuring out how to deal with those feelings. Maybe that’s why the book of Ecclesiastes intrigues us so much, but also why we don’t know quite what to do with it.
When compared to the rest of the Bible, Ecclesiastes is difficult because it is so different. The language is difficult; the book is filled with word plays and complex arguments; there are no references to major Biblical characters like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Jesus; there is not even any mention of God’s dealings with Israel, His chosen people. And because it is different there is a tendency to just read through the book so we can say that we’ve read it, without really attempting to deal with all these difficulties.
But as Paul makes quite clear in his second letter to Timothy:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16, 17 (NIV)
Since Ecclesiastes is without a doubt part of “all Scripture”, then that means that God has allowed it to remain there because it is useful and profitable for us. So we’re going to spend some time digging in to these words to see what treasures that we can mine that will teach us rebuke us, correct us and train us in righteousness.
I’m absolutely convinced that this is exactly the right time to do this. We live in a world that is full of chaos, a world that often seems to make no sense. We have people who are committed to killing others that don’t believe like they do in the name of serving their God. The global economy is in crisis. We see increasing crime in our own streets. Just this week, the Arizona Daily Star reported that the number of murders in Tucson last year was at an all-time high. And in the midst of all this turmoil, it’s really easy for us to ask the same question that the writer of Ecclesiastes addressed. “Is there a God, and, if there is, where is He?” In other words, how do we view God when life just doesn’t make sense?
I’m not sure exactly how long this journey is going to take. I’m certainly not planning to go into quite the same degree of detail with which we tackled the book of Ephesians. Instead of taking a verse or two at a time, we’ll probably look at half of a chapter or so each week. But my commitment is that over these next several months we will take whatever time we need to deal with even the most difficult portions of this book in order to understand them and apply them to our lives the very best that we can. So I would really appreciate your consistent prayer because I’m only going to be able to accomplish that task with God’s insight and guidance. It’s certainly not something I can do on my own.
I want to begin this morning with an overall introduction to the book so that we can put the book in its proper context. We’ll use the first three verses to guide us through that process:
1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.2 "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher; "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."3 What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 1:1-3 (NKJV)
You probably noticed that I’m using the NKJV this morning, rather than the NIV, which I normally use, and I’m planning to continue to use that translation throughout this series. Although I generally like the NIV for its readability, the translators unfortunately chose to use the word “meaningless” to translate the Hebrew word that most other translations render “vanity”. We’ll discuss that particular word more in just a moment, but for now let me just say that this word is so significant to a proper understanding of the entire book that the use of the word “meaningless” results in a completely misleading idea about the main theme of the book. As we’ll see in our journey, the author is certainly not claiming that all life is meaningless. In fact, his purpose is actually to prove that our life here on this earth does have meaning and purpose, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense to us.