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Commonplace themes in Ecclesiastes

March 29 2018
March 29 2018

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It has been a tremendous experience for me to preach through Ecclesiastes. I had never preached through this book and have been amazed at how intimate a book that it is. For the past three months I have been immersed in the life and writing of King Solomon and, before that, I had spent a year reading a couple of new-ish commentaries as a part of a Bible study. I miss Old King Solomon.

I wanted to summarize a few points that serve to illustrate that, despite some difficult passages, the book is overall one about joy in the Lord. Yes, life under the sun is challenging and, in light of the future consummation of the New Heavens and New Earth of our Lord (Isa 65.17; 2 Pet. 3.13; Rev. 21.1), temporary. But while the word for vanity or vain or vapor shows up 38 times, the word for good or pleasant shows up 45 times. The word for joy or jubilation or pleasure shows up eight times and the word for toil shows up 22 times, but this word sometimes means simply, labor (like Eccl. 2.19).

Have you ever heard of a Commonplace Book (Latin, locus communis)? A commonplace book is, essentially, a scrapbook. It's a book with hodepodge pieces of information (Italian, zibaldone). Basically, just think of Pinterest for printed material and you get the idea. In the late sixteenth century, commonplace books became a popular way for thoughtful people to organize the massive amount of information coming off the printing presses of Europe. Not meant to be published (unless you were famous), a commonplace book was a collection of quotes organized under various headings. In your voluminous reading, you would stop to write a quote under a heading in your commonplace book or, sometimes, add a new heading. After a while, you would have a neat collection of headings that interest you, along with supporting material from a variety of different books.

A Commonplace Book that is based solely on the Bible is what a systematic theology is. In this way, Scriptures are arranged under various headings (e.g. Doctrine of God, Doctrine of the Church, Doctrine of Man, etc.). This is why Reformer, Philipp Melanchthon, called his systematic theology, Loci Communes (i.e. common places). Also, in his book on preaching, the Puritan William Perkins suggested that every minister make his own commonplace book from Scripture (The Art of Prophesying, 24ff).

In my study of Ecclesiastes I recognized some recurring themes that, while they stood out to me, might not be noticed by the casual reader of Ecclesiastes. As I close out this sermon series, here are four of my commonplace headings collected in the margins of my notes.

  • Even amidst toil and vanity, wisdom still has its advantages: Eccl. 2.12-14; 4.13; 7.4-5; 7.12; 7.19; 9.15-18; 10.10; 1.11
  • Life under the sun is painful, but there is still a lot of joy to be had: Eccl. 2.24-26; 3.12-13; 3.22; 5.18-20; 7.14; 9.7-10; 10.18-19; 11.8-9
  • King Solomon, late in life, might want to hide from his controversial kingship, but there are several referene to a royal setting: Eccl. 4.13-14; 5.9; 7.19; 8.2-5; 9.14-18; 10.4-7; 10.16-17, 20
  • Finally, I found it interesting that there is a subtle defense of the life of private, and corporate, worship in Ecclesiastes: Eccl. 5.1; 8.12-13; 12.13-14


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