“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher. “All is vanity!”
It’s the well-known and joyless refrain from Ecclesiastes—the obscure book we’re setting out to study for the next 3 months. Why would anyone ever choose to preach through this gloomy book?
For one thing, this book is part of God’s revelation to us. Since God gave it, we can reasonably assume we need it. The only wise course in this case is to seek to understand what God knows we need. As Paul wrote: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
Second, Ecclesiastes gives voice to a very common human experience. In the last generation, Kansas lamented: “I close my eyes, only for a moment and the moment’s gone. All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity. Dust in the wind, All they are is dust in the wind.” These days, it’s Passenger with his forlorn elegy: “Staring at the bottom of your glass, Hoping one day you’ll make a dream last, But dreams come slow and they go so fast. You see her when you close your eyes, Maybe one day you’ll understand why Everything you touch surely dies. And you let her go…” Thousands of years before either, the Preacher summed it up: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!” Ecclesiastes is singing our culture’s song, and if nothing else, Christians need to understand and sympathize with this mindset if we are to bring the gospel to it effectively. In other words, it’s a great book for contextualizing our evangelism.
Finally, American Christianity needs the message of this book. As Eugene Peterson puts it: “Ecclesiastes is a John the Baptist kind of book. It functions not as a meal but as a bath. It is not nourishment; it is cleansing. It is repentance. It is purging” (Five Smooth Stones, p155). It’s not a gentle bath, but it is an effective one, specifically formulated to cleanse us of two mistaken attitudes toward life: overconfident piety and overanxious despair. Overconfident piety says, “I know exactly how God operates and I’m using that to guarantee myself a good life.” Overanxious despair says, “The sky is falling! The end is near! All is lost!” Ecclesiastes says instead, “Being on God’s side doesn’t solve all of life’s difficulties, but it does allow us to have real joy in God’s good blessings right now.”