Harry Houdini is likely the most famous magician from history, or illusionist as they now prefer, and the father of the modern performance art of magic. He was a Hungarian Jew born in Budapest, who moved as a teen with his family to the United States. He began his professional career in 1894 and performed until his death in 1926. He is most well-known for his daring escapes but he did perform other illusions as well.
He had other pursuits and interests in life, and one was tied to his experience and knowledge of magic. Later in life he became adept at exposing and debunking psychics, mediums, spiritualists, and others who claimed to perform feats through paranormal power. He could reproduce their effects or identify the sleights and tricks they used. At one point, he worked with Scientific American and offered a cash prize to anyone who could fool him with their paranormal powers. Many tried but no one ever claimed the prize.
Houdini identified many tricks that people used to deceive others into thinking they had supernatural powers. Houdini I am not, but I have seen some preachers using tricks to make people think more highly of them and their preaching than they ought to. Sometimes they have the dubious skill of covering weak preaching with pulpit flourish. I am not talking here about “faith healers” or “prophets” or anyone like that. I’m talking about preachers who stand before a crowd of people and seem to preach the Bible to them. They’re not speaking prophecies or describing visions but just preaching.
Usually you have two kinds of fault. There are those who deliberately use tricks because they seek the attention or fame they can bring. Then you have those who unintentionally use some of these while they are endeavoring to preach well. I think the latter group is often the younger, inexperienced preachers. I’m not bashing young preachers. One of the difficulties young preachers face is that they don’t yet know what they don’t know. Unless they have been unusually blessed to come up under faithful expository preaching, they’ve probably heard a lot of pulpit flourish preaching. This type of preaching is popular and well-received in many places. Young preachers are trying to learn how to preach and end up following this style to try to preach well. It takes time to develop discernment but hopefully this post can be helpful. The following is a list of tricks I’ve seen preachers use to misdirect the congregation. I do want to qualify that just because a preacher may sometimes do some of these, that doesn’t mean they’re using a trick. It’s typically when you see a regular pattern that you can discern a greater desire to perform than to preach.
The Old Testament out of context
Beginning a topical sermon in the Old Testament is a way to give the sermon and the preacher the appearance of depth. When a preacher reads an Old Testament text, spends a scant few minutes talking about that text, and then launches into a topical sermon that has little or no connection to the context of Old Testament passage, he is misdirecting to give his preaching more weight.
No dictionary required
Using terms such as covenant, law, priesthood, sovereignty, etc. is a way to make the preacher look intellectual. When a preacher peppers his sermon with high-sounding terms but doesn’t explain nor even demonstrate that he understands them, he is misdirecting to assume intellectual superiority and authority for his sermon.
It happened on this wise
Using real-life experience stories is a way to make the preacher appear experienced and streetwise in the world. When a preacher tells stories of outlandish situations and especially if he tells a lot of stories of events that didn’t happen to him but someone he knows, he is misdirecting to appear more traveled and experienced than what he is.
Using props for “object lessons” or “illustrative sermons” is a way to compensate for lack of content and substance in a sermon. This is done today with objects brought in or even video clips and presentations during the sermon. Object lessons can be helpful when done sparingly and simply, but when preaching turns into a multimedia production it is no longer preaching in the biblical sense of the term. When a preacher relies on props or skits to convey his message, he is misdirecting from a weak sermon and entertaining more than exhorting.
Have you seen the wiggle worm?
Using movement is a way to keep people engaged, artificially inject energy, and make it appear that a lot is happening. This goes beyond hand gestures into theatrics like running, jumping, dancing, and a host of other things. Many consider this sort of thing to be anointed or Spirit-filled, but the work of the Holy Spirit within a man yields the fruit of self-control (2 Timothy 1:7). I’m not suggesting that a man has to stand flat-footed behind the pulpit with hands folded in front of him in order to preach. However, when a man starts behind the pulpit, reads a passage of Scripture, and then moves around all over the place for the next 30-40 minutes without ever returning to the Bible, he is not preaching the Bible. He is misdirecting to make an impression with his “passion.”
It was the best of preaching, it was the worst of preaching
Using clichés, platitudes, alliterated phrases, and clever turns is a way to immediately connect with people and make them think you’re actually saying something. If you can take a cliché and tweak it just a bit, you can appear very clever. The Christian world is not immune from bumper sticker sloganeering. Political speeches are full of applause lines that are meaningless—Hope and change, or, Make America great again. These are meaningless statements but they draw the cheers. When a preacher rattles off Christian clichés without any explanation or meaningful statements, he is misdirecting to get an emotional response and steering clear of offending anyone.
The padded sermon
Using jokes and stories is a way to interest the audience, make them laugh, or build emotional tension and they add filler to sermons, turning a devotional into a full-length sermon. Jokes and stories may be able to convey truth in a memorable way but there is a danger in making truth statements without authority. Jokes and stories are not authoritative. When a preacher relies on jokes and stories to make his points, he is misdirecting from a lack of study and preparation to preach the truth authoritatively from Scripture.
Did you hear?
Using news headlines is a way to connect with people because they have probably heard something about it and give off the appearance of being thoroughly informed and up to date on all things happening in the world and Bible prophecy. I have heard statements such as, “Did you hear about what’s happening in _____ (insert Russia, Syria, Iran, or some other place in the Middle East)? Jesus is getting ready to come back.” Such statements are seldom ever explained. What exactly is happening in that place? What specific prophecy is fulfilled by it? What is the connection to Jesus’ return that that specific event means it is closer? When a preacher makes random prophecy-related, current events statements without any explanation, he is misdirecting to appear at the pinnacle of Bible knowledge for understanding all prophecy.
Using personal stories where you always say and do the right things is a way to appear super-Christianly and a master of wit, knowledge, and personal conversation. When a preacher tells a lot of personal experience stories where he is always the hero, he is misdirecting to appear flawless and enable himself to “humbly” receive all the inevitable praise.
Using the sermons, stories, and work of others as your own is a way to appear more advanced than you are and to shield yourself from risk by using something that has already worked. Much could be said about plagiarism but that will have to be for another time. I’m talking here about straight copying something from someone else and passing it off as your own. Of course, in so doing you receive all the credit and praise that belongs to someone else. When a preacher steals from someone else to present it to others, he is misdirecting from a lack of study and preparation. If he can add in some of the other tricks we’ve considered, his purloined sermon can also appear fresh.
Many of the tricks I’ve listed can be used in a non-trick and legitimate way. However, when you see a pervasive and persistent presence of these things in a man’s ministry, you know he is pulling tricks. You probably also noticed that many of these tricks provide cover for a lack of study and preparation to preach. When a man studies as he ought to study (1 Timothy 4:6-16; 2 Timothy 2:15; 4:1-5), he has no need of tricks and won’t have time for them, because he will have too much Bible to preach to his people. I hope this will be a help to young preachers to take heed how they hear (Luke 8:18). Don’t assume that because something is well received by a group of people that it is of God or good Bible preaching (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Expository, or expositional preaching is a common phrase today. It’s trendy now to refer to oneself as an expository preacher, but what does it mean? I’ve seen numerous definitions and heard sermons that were called expository that didn’t seem to be expository at all. If a sermon is not expository it doesn’t mean it’s a bad sermon, but only that it is not expository. There are many different sermon types and all should involve at least some exposition.
What exposition meaneth, I wot not
Exposition is not a church-word. The word is not found in the Bible anywhere. It’s not a word we hear everyday outside of church but it enjoys much use in the world. Exposition is, “A comprehensive description and explanation of an idea or theory.” 1 The definition is general but it is commonly applied to a text, where exposition is a comprehensive explanation of the text under consideration, e.g. a work of literature, scientific text, etc. Whenever someone explains a policy, terms and conditions statement, or a contract to you, they have done an exposition of that document.
Exposition is a comprehensive explanation of some source material, which means it is tied to the material it is explaining and the purpose of the exposition is to make the meaning of the material clear and understandable. If you sought an agent to buy a life insurance policy, you would expect that agent to explain the policy to you so that you understood it and could make an intelligent decision whether to buy it or not. If the agent came to your home, took out the policy, and proceeded to talk about the weather, sports, politics, and his cute little yorkie at home, he would not be doing his job and you should find another agent.
Expository preaching is taking a text passage from the Bible and giving a comprehensive explanation of what the passage means. Expository preaching is not thinking up a sermon and then finding a text to preach it from. Expository preaching is not starting with a text and then stringing together a bunch of bumper sticker slogans. Expository preaching is not telling jokes and stories. Expository preaching is preaching that is tied to the Bible. Whatever else may be involved, an expository sermon should make clear the meaning of the text in its original intent.
What meaneth this bleating of the sheep?
When you listen to talks on preaching or read books and articles on preaching, you will notice that the most time is spent on illustrations and applications. This is true even of much material that is supposed to be about expository preaching. It seems in settings where Q&A is had about preaching, a lot of the questions tend to the issues of application and illustrations. It seems impossible to think or talk about preaching without getting back to these two.
If we are to “preach the word,” we can easily overdo application and illustration. My chief complaint with much of modern preaching is that it is way too focused on application and illustration and not concerned enough about explaining the meaning of the passage in front of them comprehensively. I once heard about a preacher who brought a live sheep on the platform to “illustrate” something about sheep from his sermon text. Of course, he laughed later about the giggles elicited from the crowd as the sheep did things that sheep tend to at that time, temperature, and barometric pressure. This sermon was not preached on a farm but in an urban setting. I grant that most of the people had probably never seen a sheep in person, but I question if it truly enriched their understanding of the Bible rather than distracting and entertaining their minds. If a preacher cannot use his words to explain what needs to be known about a sheep from the passage, I question if they have the gift of teaching necessary for a pastor (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24).
Illustration and application are parts of good preaching. However, they are places where caution must be exercised. They present easy opportunities to become untethered from the text. Once untethered from the text, we are no longer preaching the word. R. Kent Hughes addressed this issue succinctly in the video embedded below. Consider what he has to say.
- exposition. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/exposition (accessed July 26, 2016). ↩
I come from a family of natural-born storytellers. I am not aware of any of them having formal training; it is a talent. When I think back to family gatherings when I was young, I mostly remember the grownups sitting around the kitchen table or out on the porch telling stories. I’m sure my mother would rather some of us kids didn’t hear some of those stories but that was the chief entertainment.
Most of the stories were tales from childhood and were told to humorous effect. A good storyteller is able to hold your interest, build suspense, pique your curiosity, make you laugh, and deliver a satisfying payoff at the end. They accomplished this by their voice and gestures in the delivery, but also by arrangement of the story. They wouldn’t simply recite the facts in strict chronological order—this happened, then this happened, then that happened. They would arrange them to the effect they wanted and they would emphasize certain parts over others. A good storyteller can make a mundane occurrence interesting and a bad storyteller can make the most exciting incident unbearable.
Story in the Old Testament
A sizable portion of the Old Testament is historical narrative, or story. I don’t mean story in the sense that it is made up, but story refers to the narrative structure of the account. The stories in the Old Testament are there for a reason. They are intended to teach us (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11).
The structure of the account, what’s there, what’s not there, and the emphases made are all guides to the intended meaning. Our first concern with every passage of Scripture is to find out what it means in its original context. That is true regardless of whether it is historical, prophetic, poetic, or didactic.
Finding original intent can be very challenging in historical narratives of the Old Testament. Many preachers err at this point with Old Testament story. They use them for analogy or illustration without giving any attention to what the story means. I was at a conference many years ago and listened to a preacher take an obscure Old Testament passage and proceed from it to preach a message about the New Testament church. I remember after the message someone remarked that they never knew that [Old Testament story] was about the church. I could only respond that the Holy Spirit never knew it either.
What that preacher did was make an analogy between that story and the church. He said true things about the church but the problem was that he didn’t preach it as analogy but presented it as what that story meant. I would say to such preachers that they’re obviously clever and creative. They have been gifted by God, but they should always subject their creativity to the text and never subject the text to their creativity. It can be legitimate to make an analogy or illustration from an Old Testament story, but preach it as an analogy and not as what the passage means. And, by all means, know what the story means in its original context.
So I want to consider an Old Testament story for an example. I’m not going to do an exposition of the story but rather I want to point out some of the story structure aspects and maybe give you some help in asking the right questions and noticing the clues in the account.
Judges 19 is one of the most disturbing accounts in Scripture and it’s not familiar to us. One of the first clues to the significance of the story is the length of it. It takes a while to unfold and lead to the civil war in chapter 20. So it has our attention, how do we determine its meaning?
First, you want a big picture view. What’s the connection to the story before this one and after it? You need to know somethings about the book the story is in. What kind of book is it? What is the main theme of the whole book? What are the main divisions of the book? Where is this story in the book?
In this case, Judges is structured in three main sections.
- 1:1-3:6 is introductory and provides a quick summary of the failure of Israel to complete the conquest of Canaan after the death of Joshua.
- 3:7-16:31 is the main section of the book and gives the account of the judges, who were deliverers of the people from the pagan nations who were afflicting them.
- 17:1-21:25 is the final section of the book and these chapters differ significantly from the rest of the book. There are no judges and no threats from foreign nations. These accounts are all inside Israel.
When you dig into the chronology of Judges, it is not at all certain that the events of chapters 17-21 happen after the death of the last judge. So why are these chapters placed where they are and what does that tell us about their meaning? If we consider just this last section of Judges, we find it also divides into three main parts.
- Chapters 17-18 begin the section with religious sins in the form of idolatry and corrupt worship.
- Chapter 19 proceeds to narrate an account of the grossest immorality within Israel.
- Chapters 20-21 tell of the bloody civil war where the tribe of Benjamin was nearly wiped out and the unjust reconstruction they suffered at the hands of the other tribes.
This section reveals a connection and a progression. Chapter 19 gives a picture of moral failure down to the man-on-the-street in Israel. It’s not about leaders or international politics. It deals with marriage, hospitality, and uncommon lust.
The main nasty business of this story happens in Gibeah, but it takes a while to get there. From verse 3 to verse 10, we are stuck in Bethlehemjudah. This part of the story is so fascinating because it seems so un-fascinating. It seems monotonous and why does it take so long? The Levite has gone to Bethlehemjudah to recover his wife from her father’s house and day after day he tries to leave and his father-in-law convinces him to stay. It takes eight verses to say what could have been said in a couple of sentences. Why?
Well I’m not going to do all the heavy-lifting for you but hopefully this has been helpful to how to approach Old Testament stories. One other thing I would mention is to pay attention to what things are emphasized in the story. For instance, in Judges 19:1-20:6 the Levite’s wife is called a concubine ten times. Why is that emphasized? The fact they were married is emphasized also by reference to the Levite being a husband twice, the Levite’s father-in-law three times, and the Levite being a son-in-law once. It certainly seems there’s something significant being said. Happy studying.
Why does the preacher preach so long? There are several answers to that question, but what is long? Contemporary wisdom would have sermons to be 18-24 minutes long. Short attention spans, sound bites, and fast moving media today make even that length seem a little long for sermonizing.
How long a person thinks a sermon should be is probably going to coincide with what they think a sermon is. If a sermon is just a pep talk or a few nuggets of wisdom for life, then 20 minutes may even be a little bit long. Of course, that’s not a sermon in any biblical sense. A sermon is the opening up of God’s word, explaining it, and applying it. A sermon involves teaching and exhortation. Sermons are supposed to be a preaching of the Word (2 Timothy 4:2) and the food of God’s people (Acts 20:28; John 21:15-17). Just as our bodies require consistent nutrition to function and flourish, our souls require a steady and healthy diet of God’s Word. Just as it takes longer to eat an eight ounce steak than it does a handful of popcorn, it takes longer for a meaty sermon to be preached.
Reasons for long sermons
How long a sermon should be ideally will have to be a topic for another day. I want to give some reasons for long sermons for consideration. The following list is not in any particular order.
- Mistakes – Preaching is an all-consuming task and focusing on time is difficult. It could be that a long sermon is the result of losing track of time or even miscalculating. I have made mistakes calculating time during a sermon and ended up either unnecessarily rushing through or going over long. Of course, the over long mistakes get more complaints.
- Incompetence/Inexperience – Over time you learn the relation between the amount of material to be preached and the length of time it will take to preach it. Sometimes long sermons result from insufficient experience to gauge the time it will take to preach them.
- Insufficient outlining or notes – A good outline or notes helps the preacher to know where they are in the sermon at any time. They help keep the sermon on track and help you know where you can spend more time or if you need to trim down on the fly. Preachers that preach off-the-cuff have no such guide and time management is much more difficult for them. Sometimes they just go until a certain time on the clock and then stop. Sermons like that are not usually complete sermons but more a collection of thoughts.
- Skill – No two men are gifted exactly alike and some have a skill for being concise that cannot be matched by others. Experience can play a part here too, but some men are able to say more in thirty minutes than what others can in forty-five or fifty. With continual study and work, all preachers should be able to sharpen up over time but some will still never be able to match those with succinct gifts.
- Overload – Long sermons can be the result of overload where every sermon attempts to cover the whole Bible or whole scope of systematic theology. These sermons tend to lack a central focus and are more often found in younger, inexperienced preachers. Sermons should have a central theme or main point and not try to cover too much at one time. The old saying is that young preachers preach everything they know every time they get up to preach. Amen and ouch.
- Mismanagement – Long sermons can also result from mismanagement of time where too much time is spent on rambling, rabbit trails, jokes, and stories. If a preacher spends too much time on these, he has a choice of going long or shutting down a sermon without actually covering what he intended to cover.
- Preparation time – This is probably the reason that many people don’t realize is a reason. Preaching shorter sermons well actually requires more study and preparation time. So to preach a good thirty minute sermon will take more preparation time than to preach that same sermon in forty-five minutes. So long sermons could be the result of laziness to not put in the required work to sharpen them up or they could also be the result of a lack of time for the preacher. For instance, if a preacher works a full-time job in addition to pastoring, he’s probably not going to have enough time regularly to preach shorter sermons. There could be all kinds of time-restraints that could cause this. Blaise Pascal once wrote a response to a friend’s question and apologized for the letter being so long. He famously quipped at the end of the apology that he didn’t have time to write a shorter one.
These are a few reasons behind long sermons. Sometimes preachers are just what we call long-winded where they go on until they run out of things to say without any regard for time. I have also noticed that preachers that preach good sermons in shorter times, say 30-40 minutes, tend to be older preachers who have been at it a long time. The recommendation is to have patience and realize experience will play a big part in your preaching and time management and you can’t get experience over night. Believe me, I’m still working at it. I am probably classified as a long-winded preacher by many but I am a work-in-progress.
Is there a call to ministry? How do I know if I’m called?
Before a man can discern God’s calling on his life, he must discern whether there is any such calling at all. Does God call specific men and equip specific men for specific work? Many assume that He does, but not all assume this. I talked with a man who was a member of a Baptist church who told me he had never seen any such call in the Bible. He went on to say about preachers, “I can preach as good as anybody I’ve ever heard.”
A lot of the material that deals with the call to ministry assumes there is such a call and spends most of the time dealing with discerning that call in ourselves or others. I don’t want to start with that assumption. I want to examine that assumption. I believe God does call specific men for specific work, but is that actually found in Scripture?
Does God call certain men to ministry?
A study of Scripture yields at least five reasons to believe that God calls men to ministry. These are not necessarily in order of importance but are worth consideration.
- Generally speaking, we have examples in both the Old and New Testament that God calls men to certain tasks. Think of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, Peter, Matthew, and Paul. These men were called by God to specific tasks. Those tasks were different in each case, but nevertheless they all began by God calling and equipping them for their task.
This point by itself doesn’t go very far to prove that God has called this man or that man today, but it does show a precedent that God has called men to certain tasks and gives us a reasonable expectation that He has continued to do so. In other words, the Scriptures illustrate that in God’s normal administration of history He appoints men to specific works.
- Another reason is the objective existence of the Lord’s church. The church was established by Jesus during His earthly ministry. It wasn’t the invention of man, nor did it just happen to come into existence. He purposely established the church, equipped it, and charged it with carrying out His work in the world. The church is His design and He designed the offices of the church and that at least says there must be men to fill those offices. This at least requires men dedicated to that work, not to mention being qualified for it. This point of itself does not prove a call to preach but, when taken with the others, it does contribute.
- When considering the church body, chapters like Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 teach us there is a diversity of both gifts and offices. They also show that not all have the same gifts nor do all hold the same offices. There is a distinction between different members of the body. Along with the other gifts and offices, there are some who have the gift and office of preaching and teaching and some who do not.
- These same passages mentioned above make clear not only the distinction between different members but that the Holy Spirit makes that difference. He distributes the gifts and offices as He wills. So in Acts 13:2 the Spirit instructed the church to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work He had called them to. In Acts 20:28 Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders saying that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers (elders/pastors/preachers) in the church. Paul spoke of God putting him into ministry and committing the Gospel to him (1 Timothy 1:11-12; Colossians 1:25). Jesus said it is the Lord of the Harvest that sends forth laborers into the field.
- The fact that the New Testament gives qualifications for the office of elder (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-10) presupposes those who desire and/or claim to be called to the work. The church at Ephesus tried those who claimed to be apostles. So the church has a responsibility to judge those who claim to be called to preach.
These points are worth considering. The Bible teaches there is a call and that call comes from God. In the Old Testament, God complained of many who self-identified as prophets but He declared He never sent them. The author of Hebrews also pointed out the calling of Jesus that He was made a high priest and that calling was essential (Hebrews 5:4).
How do I discern God’s call?
This question is a little more subjective because people have different experiences. In other words, the way this call is manifested or discerned is often different between men. Think of the different experiences of Jonah and Saul of Tarsus. Should we look to their experience as a standard for testing the call of others? Certainly not, but the principle is the same that God called them. So let’s stick to things a little more objective in discerning God’s call. Once again, here are five observations to help in discerning God’s call.
- Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:1 of a “desire” for the office (the work) of a pastor. That primary office/work is defined as giving oneself continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Ac 6:4), feeding the sheep (Ac 20:28), watching for souls (He 13:17), taking the oversight (1 Pe 5:2), etc. The desire for this work is a very strong desire. The word can be used in a negative context to refer to coveting after. The point is that coveting is not a passing thought and neither is the desire to preach. It is a continual, lasting desire. It’s not a flash in the pan or a vapor over the pot. It sticks with you over time.
- The passages that speak directly to the work of preaching, teaching, and pastoring impose a weight upon you. You feel them as speaking directly to you and perhaps even feel some shame that you are not fulfilling them straightaway.
- If you believe you are being called then you probably have already had some opportunities to speak and/or teach the Word to others. Be careful not to make too much or too little of those times. However, you should consider how you were received and whether or not your words seemed to be a blessing or help to others.
An essential qualification for this work is aptness to teach (2 Timothy 2:24). Aptness refers to the ability or competence to teach. While a preacher can and should grow in his ability to teach over time, he must have some ability to start with. There is simply no way to know this on your own without the evaluation of others.
- Look for confirmation through the church you’re a member of. God’s calling does not come to an individual apart from the church. Consider Acts 13:1-4 how the Spirit worked through the church and Barnabas and Saul. The church is particularly charged with discerning the gifts and callings in the body and should there be an ordination, the church is responsible to discern the candidate to meet the qualifications. The church should not be looked upon as a hindrance to discerning calling but rather as an indispensable part of it.
- The last one I would mention is that if you are being called, opportunities should be opening to you to minister the Word. These could come in a lot of ways but we do need to look at our lives in context and discern what the Lord is doing as best we can.
I want to add one thing as a sort of bonus help to those who are wrestling with this issue. If you’re wrestling with whether or not God is calling you to a greater service, let me ask this question: What service are you doing now? The Scripture principle is that when we have served faithfully in smaller things, God gives us greater things (Matthew 25:21-23). If you have not been faithfully serving in lesser, behind-the-scenes roles and you do not already have a heart for service regardless of recognition, then it is very unlikely you’re being called to ministry.
Ministry is service (Acts 6:1-4) and a lot of the hard work required in ministry is not done before an audience. The call to ministry is a call to pour yourself out to God for others and it garners little applause (2 Corinthians 12:15). Count the cost as fully as you can and it will help you discern if you are called.
Ecclesiastes has a way of working on you. I recently finished preaching through the book in our services. The book tends to make me think about everything much more. I think about life, death, youth, old age, working, living, laughing, a good steak, a good book, what has been, and what will be. I’ve generally been thinking about what it means to live all aspects of life while being subject to the vanity of the creation.
Many find the book pessimistic and cynical, but this is a case where rather than pessimistic, the book is realistic and rather than cynical, the book is honest. Solomon strikingly illustrates that life under the sun is subject to vanity and there are two main ways to navigate it—wisdom and folly. He also continually exhorts us to joy and strains all his might to teach us that true joy in this life can only be had through wisdom and it is a gift from God.
It doesn’t last
Solomon exposes the emptiness of the things we prize and pursue. They are empty because they cannot bring any lasting satisfaction to us. They cannot bring lasting satisfaction because they themselves do not last. Even if you achieve your most cherished dream, where do you go from there?
Solomon poured himself into every endeavor he could think of until they were all exhausted of enjoyment. He had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Were a few more going to make a difference? He feasted after a fashion the earth has not known. Was more wine or more steaks going to make a difference? He built the temple, palace, and houses for all his wives. Was it the next building project that was going to bring satisfaction? He had servants to cater to him and every need met lavishly. Were a few more servants or more clothes going to bring contentment?
So, as a preacher, don’t get caught up in thinking bigger and better about the church. Some preachers dream of pastoring that large church with great facilities. Some want to build from the ground up to outstrip all the other churches. Even if all your preaching dreams come true, it will not last and will probably be less than you hoped it would be.
The inimitable Mister Spurgeon
Charles Spurgeon is known as one of the most successful preachers of all time. He was so successful that just about every theological flavor out there tries to claim he was one of them. He died somewhat young while his mind was still sharp and his preaching still effective. Had he gone on to live long enough, his mind would have slipped and his preaching deteriorated along with health and body. Had he continued on pastoring, the church would eventually diminish.
Solomon identifies waning popularity as a vanity of this creation (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16). Even Jesus’s popularity died off (John 6:66). Some of John the Baptist’s disciples were upset when his ministry began to decline (John 3:26). John gave the best answer to this reality (John 3:27, 30).
A pastor is called to love and feed Christ’s sheep. That is what you should focus most on, whether those sheep be few or many. It is reported that a young preacher once lamented to Spurgeon that his church was so small. Spurgeon wisely told him he would think them plenty numerous when he had to give account for them before Christ’s judgment seat.