Greidanus opens Preaching Christ From Ecclesiastes with the observation, “Ecclesiastes may be the most difficult biblical book to interpret and teach (1).” He isn’t the first to observe that Ecclesiastes is tough going for students of Scripture. In How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth (243), Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart wrote:
Ecclesiastes is a very difficult book to read, with several passages that seem self-contradictory and others that seem contradictory to the whole of biblical revelation. This confusion has led to polar opposite interpretations, as can be seen from two of the recommended commentaries . . . (whose authors happen to be close friends of one another). Professor Longman (along with one of us) understands Ecclesiastes to be an expression of cynical wisdom, which serves as a kind of “foil” regarding an outlook on life that should be avoided; Professor Provan (along with one of us) understands the book more positively.
So two recommended evangelical commentaries disagree about the purpose of Ecclesiastes-not just a particular passage, you understand, but rather they are fundamentally at odds about the overall purpose of the book. And if Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart can’t agree about which of them is right, how are the rest of us to proceed with confidence?
In the face of this challenge, many have rightly looked forward to a book by Sidney Greidanus on preaching Ecclesiastes. Greidanus is a professor emeritus of preaching at Calvin College and with previous publications that include The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text and Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, he has long been respected as for his insights on expository, Christ-centered preaching.
Greidanus’s goal with Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes is “to encourage busy preachers and teachers to proclaim the message of Ecclesiastes” (xii). The author begins his task by surveying introductory matters. Given that his objective is not to write a commentary, he reaches conclusions about authorship, date, purpose, and original recipients without lengthy interaction with the literature. Still, Greidanus responsibly summarizes why he thinks that the author was not Solomon and that Ecclesiastes is a unified whole, and explaining his views on other foundational issues.
As for the big idea of Ecclesiastes, Greidanus contends that the Teacher’s goal is to encourage readers to, “Fear God in order to turn a vain, empty life into a meaningful life which will enjoy God’s gifts” (22).
From there, Greidanus’s method is to conduct a homiletics laboratory in which he models how to prepare expository, Christ-centered messages from Ecclesiastes. To that end, he identifies 15 units within Ecclesiastes and works through the process of exegesis and exposition in each one of these units.
Greidanus divides the process of moving from text to sermon into 10 steps:
- Select the preaching-text.
- Read the text in literary context.
- Outline the structure of the text.
- Interpret the text in its own historical setting.
- Formulate the text’s theme, goal, and need addressed.
- Understand the message in the contexts of canon and redemptive history.
- Formulate the sermon theme, goal, and need addressed.
- Select a suitable form.
- Prepare the sermon outline.
- Write the sermon in oral style.
Within step six, Greidanus teaches readers to explore seven different types of Christocentric interpretation:
- Redemptive-historical progression
- Longitudinal themes
- New Testament references
Those unfamiliar with these terms need not despair. Greidanus explains the process with each preaching unit so that readers quickly learn what he means. Indeed, the strength of the book is that it teaches homiletics by talking the reader through the process.
In Chapter 4, for example, Greidanus works through Ecclesiastes 3:1–15 and the familiar refrain, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted . . .” (Ecc. 3:1–2). Greidanus notes that the Revised Common Lectionary assigns this passage for New Year’s Eve and that it is often used as a basis for speaking about New Year’s Eve resolutions (75). This results in human-centered sermons that miss the author’s intention.
Rather, Greidanus argues that the central thought of Ecclesiastes 3:1–15 is, “The sovereign God set the times forever so that people will stand in awe of him” (76). The point is that God is in control of the times. God is in control!
Such compelling paragraphs are found throughout this wonderful book which leads to a mild caution. As one of my seminary professors warned, “Don’t let a favorite commentary put a ring in your ‘exegetical nose.’” Greidanus models the process of exegesis and homiletics so well that some may be tempted to blindly follow his conclusions rather than doing the hard work of exposition. Those who merely skim Greidanus conclusions off the top will give up a marvelous opportunity to have their expositional skills sharpened.
Even though it was the Teacher of Ecclesiastes who lamented, “Of making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc. 12:12), surely the Teacher would agree that there is no weariness in Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes. This book deserves a place on every preacher’s shelf. And it offers excellent collateral reading for homiletics courses or for those mentoring others in preaching.