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Overview of Ecclesiastes: Finding Joy in the 'Shadowlands' Part 1

Greetings friend and grace to you. This Sunday we will begin a new series on the book of Ecclesiastes, one of the wisdom books of the Bible. In the next few days I will offer some introductory material to assist you in both reading and delighting in this book that someone has described as possibly the ‘strangest’ book in the Bible.

But first, a brief note on wisdom literature in general. We should recognize that most of us generally read wisdom literature anticipating concrete, functional advice. Ask an American, for example, what wisdom is and you are likely to get an answer that has to do with practical know-how. You will be told that a wise man knows more than theory; he knows how to do things. A wise man, therefore, will be able to figure things out. More than that, he’ll be able to fix things. So wisdom is the ability to figure things out and the practical skill to get things done – to control one’s life and circumstances. But when we turn to the wisdom books, we may be a bit surprised. ‘Royal wisdom cannot be equated with the nitty-gritty details of how to manage one’s [life]. Wisdom literature does not communicate that kind of practical knowledge.’ Now to Ecclesiastes.

The book of Ecclesiastes determines to show us how to find our way amid the broken sacred of the world. One person likened it to a large map inside the door of a shopping mall. ‘You are here,’ it shows you. By such a mark you locate yourself in relation to every hallway or store in the building. Another person used the analogy of a park ranger. When you go to a park to hike a trail, you talk to a park ranger, or perhaps, you download an app giving showing the layout and dimensions of the trail. These details help you to know where you’re supposed to be by sunset as well as where danger lies if you attempt an after-sunset walkabout. You need the park ranger or other tools in order to navigate the park trails. Our ranger is ‘the Preacher.’

Indeed, ‘the Preacher’s’ method will likely surprise us; it is unexpected; hence, it is helpful to get a lay of the land before we begin our journey. Zack Eswine, is quite a helpful guide in his book, ‘Recovering Eden.’ For instance, he notes that

“In the beginning, to call something ‘Eden’ was to identify it with everything pure, beautiful, and noble. God, people, animals, plants, space, and time all held hands and companioned together in true peace. All things inhabited the unharassed being of crimeless days beneath the glad provision of God. Because of this, every leaf, every piece of crumbled dirt, and every shining star that surrounded Eden shared this purposed and serene condition. To dwell ‘under the sun’ was always and everywhere ‘Edenic.’ So, if any spokesperson for God would walk outside and have a look about, he would use two words to orient us guests to its geography. Life under the sun with all its creatures and relations was ‘very good’ (Gen. 1). Benediction (good words) saturated the place.

“But that was the beginning of all things and a very long time ago. To enter the book of Eccles. is to take a sobering tenth-century tour of what once-Eden has now become. The ‘son of David’ uses this book of Ecclesiastes to record what he sees for us when he steps outside ‘under the sun’ and has a look at it all. He knows what it once was. He sees what it now is, and only one word in repetition will do. ‘Vanity! Vanity!’ is his cry. To him, the place that was once called ‘very good’ has disheveled into vanity. For him to give us the tour, he must show us the now petalless rose…”

In our next post, we will explore additional unexpected characteristics of the book of Ecclesiastes.

Grace and Peace,